If it’s sweet soul music you’re after, then Motown is king. Founded in 1959 as Tamla by Detroit songwriter Berry Gordy Jr, the label that soon came to be known as Motown – named after the city’s motor industry, quickly made its mark as one of the greatest record labels of all time. Putting out hit after hit, the label’s output in the 1960s and 1970s cannot be underestimated. It’s fair to say that pretty much all Motown songs are great, so narrowing it down to a Top 20 is a tough call indeed. But somebody’s got to do it. So we did. And here they are, the greatest Motown songs of all time. Dancing at your desk is allowed.
1. ‘Heard It Through The Grapevine’ – Marvin Gaye (1968)
Gladys Knight and the Pips and The Miracles both released versions of this ultimate Motown song before Marvin, but this is undoubtedly the finest version, if not the finest song ever laid to tape. A soul classic, it’s emotive, iconic and damn, has it got some serious groove to it. A stone cold stunner.
2. ‘Dancing In The Street’ – Martha and the Vandellas (1964)
Written by Marvin Gaye, ‘Dancing In The Street’ came out on the Gordy Records division of Motown. Though the label wasn’t outwardly political it was by its very nature as a successful, African-American run business. Thanks to its rousing lyrics, the song fast took on a life of it’s own and became a civil rights anthem.
3. ‘Get Ready’ – The Temptations (1966)
Penned and produced by Smokey Robinson, ‘Get Ready’ features one of the most officially banging choruses in the entire Motown catalogue. It also features on the greatest compilation album ever – ‘Motown Chartbusters Vol 3’.
4. ‘Tracks of My Tears’ – Smokey Robinson and the Miracles (1965)
Yep, more Smokey. His heart-string tugging falsetto sits front and centre in this slowburning beauty. Motown knew what being in love felt like, but, even better, knew what falling out of love was like. This was pop as poetry and ‘Tracks of My Tears’ is basically a Shakespearian sonnet.
5. ‘Needle In A Haystack’ – The Velvelettes (1964)
“Finding a good man girls/Is like finding a needle in a haystack,” sang criminally underrated girl group The Velvelettes, sassy as can be, telling a tale as old as time. Girls, we feel you.
6. ‘Do You Love Me’ – The Contours
With a spoken word intro, ‘Do You Love Me’ is basically beat poetry. “You broke my heart/’Cause I couldn’t dance/You didn’t even want me around/And now I’m back/To let you know/ I can really shake ’em down,” goes the opening, before three minutes of high octane R&B and heady harmonies. Flawless.
7. ‘Please Mr Postman’ – The Marvelettes (1961)
The first ever Motown single to hit Number 1 in the Billboard 200 pop chart, this doo-wop ditty features Marvin Gaye on drums. The modern answer to this sublime track would be all about waiting for a text message from your crush.
8. ‘You Can’t Hurry Love’ – The Supremes (1966)
Diana Ross was Motown’s golden girl and her coy vocal bounces across this gospel-inspired classic with grace, sass and style. Over in the States it became the Supremes’ seventh Number 1. Pure class.
9. ‘My Girl’ – The Temptations (1964)
Yet another Smokey Robinson penned tune, ‘My Girl’ is a three minute miracle with lead vocals from the late, great David Ruffin, who boasted one of the finest, most tender voices in Motown.
10. ‘Super Freak’ – Rick James (1981)
Without a doubt Motown’s raunchiest song, the drugs-and-shagging-loving Rick James added a certain flamboyance to this synthy, saucy hit. It was of course sampled in 1990 by MC Hammer on ‘U Can’t Touch This’.
11. ‘War’ – Edwin Starr (1970)
Motown’s most outwardly political track, this anti-Vietnam War protest song was originally recorded by The Temptations but wasn’t released as a single as the band and label were concerned about aligning the act with the track’s content. Step forward Edwin Starr, who owned the song – and its powerful message – with attitude and dignity.
12. ‘Superstition’ – Stevie Wonder (1972)
With a drumbeat conjured up by British guitarist Jeff Beck, clavinet and Moog synths, ‘Superstition’ was an impossibly funky proposition.
13. ‘Ain’t Too Proud To Beg’ – The Temptations (1966)
Written by dream team Norman Whitfield and Eddie Holland, ‘Ain’t Too Proud To Beg’ saw David Ruffin straining to hit the high notes, and in doing so delivering one of the most passionate vocals of his career.
14. ‘My Guy’ – Mary Wells (1964)
Butter wouldn’t melt when it comes to ‘My Guy’. One of the sweetest songs in Motown’s history, this is nothing but nice. An early cutester classic.
15. ‘(I Know) I’m Losing You’ – Rare Earth (1970)
Signed to Motown’s Rare Earth imprint – which was named after the band – Rare Earth were one of the labels rock bands, whose biggest hits saw them covering Motown classics. This version of The Temptations’ ‘(I Know) I’m Losing You’ was more successful than the original and is a psychedelic, 10-minute masterpiece.
16. ‘Nightshift’ – The Commodores (1985)
Complete with shoutouts to Marvin Gaye and Jackie Wilson, ‘Nightshift’ is pretty meta. A slow-burning, lights-down-low kind of a song, it was the first Commodores tune to be released after Lionel Ritchie left the band. It turned out to be the ultimate kiss off, as it scooped the Grammy that year for the Best Vocal R&B Performance by a Duo/Group.
17. ‘Money (That’s What I Want)’ – Barrett Strong (1959)
The label’s first ever hit, ‘Money (That’s What I Want)’, was written by Motown’s founder Berry Gordy, back when the label was still called Tamla. The Beatles covered it as well as the Flying Lizards, who turned it into a cult late 1970s post-punk influenced banger.
18. ‘I Want You Back’ – The Jackson 5 (1969)
With Michael Jackson taking lead vocals, this pained love song was rendered slightly bizarre by the fact it was being delivered by an 11-year-old boy. Still, massive tune.
19. ‘Fingertips’ – Little Stevie Wonder (1963)
Branded as “Little Stevie Wonder, the 12 Year Old Genius’, Wonder’s first single was a tour de force, recorded live and showing off his harmonica and bongo skills.
20. ‘The Onion Song’ – Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell (1970)
Marvin and Tammi were Motown’s greatest singing duo, but sadly their joint career was cut short when Tammi passed away aged 24, just ahead of ‘The Onion Song’’s US release.