Wow, if you want the very definition of successful business venture, just take a look at Berry Gordy and his company. He opportunely founded Tamla Records, according to Wikipedia, in 1959, seeing it then incorporate as “Motown,” a mashup of “motor” and “town.” His music publishing company would then go on to not only spawn a nickname for the city of Detroit, but also one of a style of music itself, which according to the website goes as the official name of “Motown Sound,” then pinioned in most cases into just “Motown.”
I am ranking my favorite Motown songs here, then, in the latter sense of the term — they have not to be on Gordy’s roster but only to fit into that style which according to Wikipedia is pinpointed as “soul music with a distinct pop influence” (although I’d like to officially describe it as “pop music that actually has soul”) .
25 Mary Wells – “My Guy”
There’s a lot I like about this song, such as the jaunty, playful melody and despite the fact that it’s so simple that the verse and chorus actually blend together, there’s still a certain jazzy tension about it rendered by the quick structure as well as the circumspect timbre in Wells’ still buttery voice.
24 Smokey Robinson & the Miracles – “Tears of a Clown”
Life moves so fast and, well, sometimes I think these songs get thrown into the cement mixer of radio play without getting their true opportunity to shine and be deeply heard. One thing I like about “Tears of a Clown” is the fact that at the end of the day, smiling is really what you have to do in order to have a good encounter in this world, no matter what you’re feeling on the inside. In this way, it plays as a soundtrack to life at large, but to me it’s interesting how he actually enlists the image of a clown and associates his own behavior with it, right down to the fact that clowns actually wear fake smiles. I always found that circus-y riff a little annoying (played on some woodwind instrument which I think might be a recorder, like George Martin used on the Beatles’ “Penny Lane”), but now I hear how it melds the song’s dark message together. Ultimately, then, this is a song to be consumed in peace and meditative attention, as playable as it is within radio formats as well.
23 Diana Ross & the Supremes – “Where Did Our Love Go”
It doesn’t get much more canonical than this, a near-perfect recording of a pliable and absolutely adorable little tune which, much to my surprise, I just learned the group was a little luke warm on, upon recording. You would never know it from Diana Ross’ vocal here — she sounds fully into it, her voice undulating and gravitating like an iridescent ignition valve of American spirit. I’ve always been partial to that chord progression too, which delicately frames in a minor tone midway through the verses’ respective stanzas.
22 Bobby Womack – “California Dreamin’”
I’m actually having a hard time locating just when this Bobby Womack version of this song originally issued, a tune originally penned by songwriting team of John and Michelle Phillips, made famous sublimely by The Mamas & the Papas (the Phillips’ grow) as is certainly their cachet and YES performed by The Beach Boys at one point as well, just to clarify that. My selection of this session over the Mamas & the Papas one isn’t only skin deep, although that certainly doesn’t hurt: the heavy acoustic guitar, the brief kick drum escalation and the overall opaque thickness of the mix designate that rendition more within “early rock and roll” territory. In this Womack take, the dominant players cloaking the mix are a funky bass, beautiful brass horns, and of course Womack’s inimitable vocal croon. Nothing goes unnoticed: every little vibration becomes meaningful and allegorical, spotlighting Womack’s entrancing vocal performance to where if he would have dropped a harmonica on the floor in the studio, you’d probably hear it.
21 The Miracles – “Shop around”
One thing that’s nice here is that, like with a handful of other instances but it seems not many, we get a take on relationships other than just “You are Athena” or “I really miss you”… it’s a little nugget of self-esteem from one of these charming, urban mythical mothers in these singers’ young lives, giving the much needed advice that, “You are valuable, be sure the person loves you,” which then gets reflected I guess in Neil Young’s “Only Love Can Break Your Heart.” Weirdly, Smokey Robinson actually wrote this song but isn’t credited with his name in the group’s moniker.
20 Smokey Robinson & the Miracles – “You’ve Really Got a Hold on Me”
After Mr. Robinson wrote this song himself, a feat rather uncommon in pop music in general even back then, and sent it to the top of the pops in 1962, you probably could have renamed the label Motown/Robinson without too much astray thinking. The commercial success is every bit deserved, too, as with this number, deviating into a six-eight time signature and galloping along with those impossibly lithe, steady piano eighth notes, we hear Motown’s instrumental craft coming alive perhaps more than it ever would again.
19 Ben E. King – “Spanish Harlem”
Of course, here’s another Motown hit covered by The Mamas & the Papas which wasn’t originally written by the singer I cite on this list, but god da** is it good, with its metaphorical or ambiguous subject matter (you’re never actually sure if he’s pining for an actual “rose” flower or a lady of his liking), the instruments themselves even uncannily reflecting the actual atmospheric elements rendered within the song’s visual scope: that deep bass drum like the busy traffic of Manhattan and that palpably exotic xylophone (where’s the xylophone been at in pop music) like the transcendence we feel before an enamoring subject.
18 Stevie Wonder – “My Cherie Amour”
Wonder here is another case of the singer actually writing the song, the fact of that man on the mike just sounding so destined and born to do this one of life’s divine coincidences, I guess.
17 The Temptations – “My Girl”
As a ‘90s kid, I can’t help but remember that movie with Macauley Culkin My Girl which actually features the Temptations version of this song, and which I don’t really remember being bad although it didn’t leave much impression. What strikes me about this song is its directness and simplicity, like The Temptations felt zero need to adorn it with any unnecessary frills — they just rolled out the satin texture of their muse, as-is.
16 Barrett Strong – “Money (That’s What I Want)”
Released by Berry Gordy before Motown was even officially founded, in 1959, this classic of American snarkiness covered nicely by The Doors on Live in New York could very well play as the ongoing mantra of Gordy himself, who was so capitalistic and mainstream-minded that he named his studio “Hitsville, U.S.A.”
15 Smokey Robinson & the Miracles – “I Second That Emotion”
I remember at least a portion of this song getting passed down to Sublime for one particular cut of theirs (at least the “A taste of honey is worse than none at all”), although is it just me or does this come off as not a true statement but a shameless plug by a silver-tongued “mack”? Eh, it’s a great song anyway, possibly Smokey’s most well known.
14 Gladys Knight & the Pips – “Midnight Train to Georgia”
Sorry I’m kind of on a ubiquity kick here, plus I’m white so I’m at a handicap anyway, but now I can’t help but race back to that Dismemberment Plan moment in “The Ice of Boston” in which… eh I won’t give it away. I’ll just let you discover it, if you haven’t already. For the record, I firmly classify the Pips’ work as the superior song, even if it is probably pestered by a certain optimistic and “storybook” quality.
13 Jackie Wilson – “(Your Love Keeps Lifting Me) Higher and Higher”
My dad used to like this song “Tighten up” which was a radio hit in the late ’60s but instead of having a verse and chorus, just featured every member of the band showing off (or “tightening up,” to use the epochal parlance) on his or her instrument, but I’d always found the guitar installment dumb ‘cause he basically just plays some funky chords sort of like Jerry Harrison in Talking Heads might. Well Jackie Wilson’s guitarist on this cut basically does just that, giving the track almost like a post-punk appeal, but da** is it just a beautiful cut with a well-crafted, patient chord progression and most importantly this celestial, gospel-like quality about it.
12 Stevie Wonder – “Signed, Sealed, Delivered I’m Yours”
I think I speak for all when I say that this song is like etched into my psyche as being the work of this otherworldly singing phenom who, at least again if I’m any indication, a lot of people pegged as just a ’70s soul harbinger, unaware of his Motown work. This is his most important cut therein, arguably.
11 Edwin Starr – “War”
Ah, the ubiquity again, although this time hopefully a little less white: Chris Tucker in Rush Hour doing a dance to this song I didn’t even find commendable so much as just so hilariously confident and weird and, I guess, inherently BLACK. This you might say is the “black”-est Motown song of them all: it defiantly rejects riff and chord, finagles powerful trumpet and a beastly vocal which seemed only capable of doing one thing, which would be taking over American music. It’s but a consolation that he really sold it, though, since the purpose of the song is to denounce the Vietnam War, a losing effort bemoaning a losing effort.
10 The Temptations – “Just My Imagination (Running away with Me)”
1971 is when this particular number finally graced the world, a point at which it seems Motown singles would definitely have to have a certain purposefulness and a certain special beauty to justify their own existences. It was a time of a tired America, gone through mind-bending changes from the birth of rock and roll to the propagation of psychedelic drugs to the genesis of a catastrophically deadly war, so this particular number plays not so much as informant of the times as permanent in its undeniably meaningful majesty.
9 Smokey Robinson & the Miracles – “Ooo Baby Baby”
To me, even with the extremely common romantic Motown theme and colloquial chorus, this song was still very much ahead of its time, sounding every bit like a swatch of what would become the authoritative Philadelphia Soul, a la The Delfonics who crash the Jackie Brown soundtrack party. It’s way smoother than most radio joints of around this time and it’s got that ‘70s-soul jazzy aspect about it, when the two styles ceased being separate camps and conjoined in unison with one another.
8 The Jackson 5 – “I’ll Be There”
A song so good that Mariah Carey’s COVER of it basically dominated the radio until Nirvana and Kris Kross showed up (actually her version shows up first on Wikipedia, on an album called The Adventures of Mimi which is also not about her apparently), this is another late-era Motown classic, coming in 1970 and then having that psychedelic soul aspect somewhat akin to the Five Stairsteps’ “O-o-h Child” of the same year.
7 Ben E. King – “Stand by Me”
The second song on this list to have a movie named after it, “Stand by Me” is an obvious classic covered I believe to commercial acclaim by the one and only John Lennon (presumably about Yoko which probably pi**ed a lot of people off), co-written by King (who had no hand in “Spanish Harlem”), simple, direct and full of the most beautiful sort of solidarity, to take nothing away from the great Bill Withers’ rhythmic and festive “Lean on Me” which would come later.
6 The Soul Brothers Six – “Some Kind of Wonderful”
Again… wow… noticing a recurring theme here would certainly be appropriate, this being the third consecutive black song on this list to be covered by a white person (there’s more to come too)… the Soul Brothers Six version blows GFR’s off the “tracks.” There’s no other way to put it. It’s an absolute masterpiece which must be heard by any and all alleged “American fans of music.”
5 The Isley Brothers – “Twist and Shout”
Again, I don’t really know why the Beatles had to mess with this Isleys classic, a group cited stylishly by Blackalicious in one of his songs as I can remember… they have prettier faces for the Ed Sullivan show, I suppose. It literally would be a perfect entity in my mind if not for that cracker cover of it (by the way I’m white, for any readers who might have forgotten or not known). Hey, at least I didn’t but “Ain’t Too Proud to Beg” on here.
4 The Temptations – “The Way You Do the Things You Do”
As far as I can recollect, this is one of the few Motown songs if not the only to actually feature a key change, a flare which is somewhat commendable but dwarfed by just the coy easiness of the goofy statements being proffered here, these gold-mouthed blokes praising a person’s all around attributes from kindness to intelligence and back, all over an entrancing six-eight time signature and sublime, enrapturing background vocals in the chorus. In general, Dolby Disaster leans heavily toward bands or artists which successfully orchestrate backing vox, even in the case of the curiously crisp Weezer (2001).
3 Diana Ross & the Supremes – “You Can’t Hurry Love”
I think Phil Collins did some gay cover of this or something (“He’s not gay… he’s BRITISH” ), but the important thing is that the bassline gave way to Iggy’s “Lust for Life,” The Strokes’ “Last Nite,” Velveeta Cheese, the Ford Probe and, I believe, triple bypass surgery. Ahem. Sorry. It’s the perfect fu**in’ song. That’s all there is to it.
2 Smokey Robinson & the Miracles – “The Tracks of My Tears”
I sort of like this song and name it as in a way the crowning Motown statement because it is very poppy and it is very mournful in a simple sort of way, the climax of the song coming earnestly in that very statement of mourning. Poor Smokey… he “shopped around” and all he got was a bunch of heartache and… maybe some clutch spliffies out of the deal?
1 Wilson Pickett – “Everybody Needs Somebody to Love”
Ironically, Wilson Pickett’s hometown is Detroit, but he wasn’t on the Motown label, rather selecting Atlantic Records (I have a feeling from the Wiki blurb on him that he’d just thought Motown would be too competitive). To me this awesome stomper has definitely got every bit of that busy urban Midwestern feel and then some — that slugging piano run laying out the chord progression incessantly and invariably, like something that would cement itself in the psyches of American music listeners [especially once the #20 single showed up in The Blues Brothers (1980)], but amazing and infectious in its simplicity. Also, you’ve gotta love Wicked Pickett’s class in doling that bona fide shout out to the co-writer and original singer Solomon Burke in the song’s intro. And to think, it all snowballed to he** at the hands of that juvenile cokehead  John Belushi, much credit given though to Elwood’s quip welcoming “the fine folks at the Illinois Fraternal Order of Police” (who were actually looking for the blues duo, mind you).
 The Great GZA would corroborate this classification, as in his ingenious song “Labels” he chants “So duck ‘cause I struck with the soul of Motown”. “Labels” is a song in which the emcee incorporates copious record company names into the action of the song’s plot correspondent the company names’ actual word definitions (like “I was out on the ‘Island’ / Bombin’ emcees all day”). For what it’s worth, Island happens to be a pretty artistically steadfast Jamaican division of Universal, housing PJ Harvey and the underrated Jessie J.
 According to Wikipedia, “As a result of his late nights and drug and alcohol use, Belushi would often miss unit calls (the beginning of a production day) or go to his trailer after them and sleep, wasting hours of production time.”
 I saw that on the trailer of some parody movie about a superhero whose trading cards and costumes these verbose frat boy types were collecting.