Berry Gordy, Jr., started arguably the most famous record label in the history of music because he felt cheated.
The Motown family of record labels that dominated the soul landscape for nearly two decades began as a way for Gordy to receive a larger share of song proceeds than he was getting as a songwriter.
Gordy brought an assembly-line quality to the record business and — using a team of songwriters and acts like The Temptations, Marvin Gaye, The Jackson 5 and The Supremes — his label landed a virtually unprecedented number of hits with a pop-soul style that came to be known as the “Motown Sound.”
Jumping into the discography of a family of labels that had 110 top 10 hits from 1961-71 alone can be daunting. That’s why we’ve gathered the top 20 essential Motown tracks to get you started.
20. “Money (That’s What I Want),” Barrett Strong
This track is probably the most likely Motown hit to be credited to other people by accident. Though he scored the first hit for the Motown label, Strong didn’t stick with the general public the way later acts would.
19. “War,” Edwin Starr
Strong spent most of his post-“Money” career writing songs for other artists on the Motown roster. Case in point, this ever-popular protest song from Edwin Starr. There’s something to be said for a Vietnam protest track that even your average toddler knows by heart.
18. “I’ve Got A Need For You,” David Ruffin
This excellent solo cut from the de facto leader of The Temptations was recorded right in the middle of the label’s wild, two-decade run of hits, but it didn’t see the light of day until 2004. “Need” and the shelved album that spawned it are excellent examples of one of Motown’s greatest performers at the top of his game.
17. “Inner City Blues,” Marvin Gaye
Though it isn’t what people are talking about when they say “Motown sound,” few artists spawned by the label are as iconic as Marvin Gaye.
Gaye did take part in the label’s preferred schtick in the first half of his career, releasing albums full of carefully crafted pop-soul like “That Stubborn Kinda Fellow” and “How Sweet It Is To Be Loved By You” before moving on to his more soulful and haunted ’70s work. “Inner City Blues” is a great example of this period off the near-perfect album What’s Going On.
16. “What Becomes of the Broken-Hearted?,” Jimmy Ruffin
Trust us, The Temptations are coming. But not before a Ruffin gets one more shot in.
“What Becomes” traffics in melodramatic shlock. But Jimmy Ruffin’s plaintive delivery is a wail that brings the downright corny lyrics to heights they have no right reaching.
15. “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough,” Marvin Gaye & Tammi Terrell
Tammi Terrell never achieved solo success in her tragically short lifetime — a fact that is made even more tragic by the indisputable greatness of “I Can’t Believe You Love Me” — but she did manage a string of duet mega-hits with labelmate Marvin Gaye.
Gaye and Terrell collaborated on tracks like “Ain’t Nothing Like The Real Thing,” “You’re All I Need To Get By,” and perhaps their most well-known duet “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough.”
14. “You Really Got A Hold On Me,” The Supremes
With all due respect to Smokey Robinson, The Supremes owned this song.
Robinson wrote it and the Miracles took it to the top of the charts, but this song (which won a Grammy for its legacy alone) will forever belong to Diana Ross.
13. “Please Mr. Postman,” The Marvelettes
The Marvelettes were the origin of Motown’s affinity for girl groups. They were one of the first consistently successful acts on the roster and the reasons why all are apparent on their first hit single.
Tight vocal harmonies and perfectly timed ad-libs propelled “Please Mr. Postman” to No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100, a first for the label.
By the way, holding down the drums for the recording of “Postman?” None other than Marvin Gaye.
12. “Reach Out (I’ll Be There),” The Four Tops
This Four Tops song roughs up some of the smooth edges of the Motown sound with Levi Stubbs barking out many of the lyrics in a style reminiscent of a blues shouter.
11. “Ain’t Too Proud To Beg,” The Temptations
When you say “Motown” to most people, they picture the matching suits of the Temptations. While many of their tracks reflect the smoother, softer production style of Smokey Robinson, they were at their best when you could hear the strain in lead singer David Ruffin’s voice like in this 1966 track.
10. “Superstition,” Stevie Wonder
The artist who began his life with the label as “Little Stevie Wonder” became the label’s premier artist as R&B radio’s tastes shifted from the pop-soul sounds of the label’s early days to something a bit grittier and funkier.
Stevie’s high-energy performance and one of the most famous riffs in music history help make “Superstition” Wonder’s most popular song.
9. “Let’s Get It On,” Marvin Gaye
Is it Marvin Gaye for laymen? Absolutely.
Has it been overused by television, movies and commercials? No doubt.
Is it still a stone-cold classic? You better believe it.
8. “Baby Love,” The Supremes
A perfect example of the confectionery pop that earned the label enough trust to get weird in the ‘70s. If you love Here, My Dear and Stevie’s spacier takes, give it up for Diana Ross and The Supremes.
7. “Tears of A Clown,” Smokey Robinson and The Miracles
The most famous falsetto in existence (sorry, Barry Gibb) at the height of its powers. If the crashing circus sound sounds familiar, it’s because Stevie Wonder composed the track, but handed lyrical duties off to Robinson.
So strong was the songs appeal, that it became a hit single three years after it was released. The track was essentially plucked at random from the Miracles’ back catalog and became a number-one hit in the U.S. and the UK.
6. “Heatwave,” Martha and The Vandellas
Motown was dance music and this is the prime example. Need proof? Look for a 45s dance night in your town — even money it’s called “Heatwave.”
5. “This Old Heart Of Mine,” The Isley Brothers
The Isley Brothers only had one real hit while under Motown, but it just so happened to be one of their best songs.
4. “As,” Stevie Wonder
The greatest song Stevie Wonder has ever written. Fight me.
3. “I Want You Back,” Jackson 5
This was the first major hit for a group that spawned one of the greatest pop artists of all time. And the song still manages to hold up to that legacy.
2. “Papa Was A Rolling Stone,” The Temptations
Anyone who thought of the Temptations as the band behind “My Girl” got their head readjusted with this 12-minute psychedelic funk magnum opus released in 1972. It’s one of the few non-skippable 10-minute-plus songs in existence.
1. “What’s Going On?,” Marvin Gaye
Y’all knew it was coming. This is the title track from one of the greatest albums of all time, Motown or otherwise, and a clear signifier of the political and musical direction Motown would take as it left the ’60s vocal groups and pop songs in the past.