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Motown No. 1's sound and look good in new boxed set

Brian McCollum
Detroit Free Press (MCT)

Fans of Motown have certainly had plenty of compilations, reissues and other treats to sink their ears into over the years. But they've never had one quite like this.

"Motown: The Complete No. 1's" is a handsome, festive boxed set that will look as good on living room shelves as it sounds in stereo systems.

As a centerpiece of the Motown 50th anniversary campaign, the set arrived in stores Tuesday, just in time for holiday gift-buying - a perfect present for Detroit ex-pats and music fans across generations. The set has a list price of $169.98, but is available at retailers such as Amazon.com for about $125.

The real allure is the packaging. Rivaling the snazziest sets from specialty labels such as Rhino, "Complete No. 1's" comes in a display-worthy mockup of the Hitsville house, the West Grand Boulevard headquarters where so many of these songs were created. Inside are 10 discs featuring 191 chart-topping tunes, from the Miracles' zippy 1961 hit "Shop Around" through Erykah Badu's slinky 2000 smash "Bag Lady."

For hard-core collectors, there are more comprehensive Motown collections out there, most notably the "Complete Motown Singles" set, a 12-box series that amasses nearly every release from the Detroit-born label, from the obscure on up.

But for most folks, the new box will offer a satisfying survey of Motown music. Producers kept the criteria expansive: Yes, all these songs were chart-toppers, but the definition of "chart" is deliberately broad - if a single hit No. 1 in Norway, it's here. (Some of the discs even include bonus tracks: If a song reached No. 1 when covered by a non-Motown act, the original Motown version is included.) That allows the inclusion of worthy chestnuts that aren't necessarily regulars on oldies radio, and keeps the set from languishing as just another greatest-hits collection.

The set bears the tasteful, informed touch of Universal Music's Harry Weinger, the Motown archivist who has done more than anyone to keep the label's legacy thriving in the new millennium. The vast majority of these tracks are remastered stereo mixes, drawn from Universal's ongoing digital restoration project.

The collection's four-decade scope could be the one drawback for some listeners. Those who are enamored of Motown's classic period, with songs by such touchstone acts as the Supremes and Temptations, aren't necessarily clamoring for the modern acts who populate several of these discs, such as the Boys and the already forgotten Profyle.

But if too much stuff is the only problem, then it's not a bad problem to have. "The Complete No. 1's" is custom-made for musical memories - and a timely reminder why Motown matters so much, especially in its hometown.

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