Motown Unreleased

Dancing in the Street: Our 25 Favorite Motown Songs

Detroit’s Motown Records will forever be important as a hit factory and an African American-owned label that achieved massive mainstream success and influence.

Talk about an embarrassment of riches: the list of Motown Record’s commercially released singles since the 1960s (number ones, top tens, and non-charting efforts alike) is, quite simply, extraordinary. Surely, it’s impossible to proclaim a mere 25 of them as “the greatest” for whatever reason(s), be they historical, cultural, musical, or otherwise. So, then, our list of 25 Motown singles is not meant to be interpreted as critical gospel but more humbly as a list of our particular favorites, ranked in reverse alphabetical order.

25. Stevie Wonder – “Uptight (Everything’s Alright) (1965)

Written by Hank Cosby, Sylvia Moy, and Stevie Wonder
Produced by Clarence Paul
Reached #3 on pop charts

Fans of Talking Book, Innervisions, and Songs in the Key of Life, take heed: without 1965’s “Uptight (Everything’s Alright)”, Stevie Wonder’s most groundbreaking works may have never come to pass. In “Uptight”, Wonder joyfully tells the tale of a boy from the wrong side of the tracks who best rich-kid Goliaths and gets the girl because, although he doesn’t have money, his “heart is true.” But the song was just as pivotal a victory for Wonder. The popularity of “Uptight” was a declaration of then-15-year-old Wonder’s maturation — and his viability as an artist.

Signed to Motown as a preteen, the artist was initially introduced to the world as “Little”. Stevie Wonder had a major hit in his early teens with “Fingertips (Pt. 2)”. For the next few years, however, the label didn’t seem to know what to do with him. Wonder had a few singles hit modest positions on the Top 40 but appeared to be in danger of being washed up before he grew up. “Uptight”, which hit number three on the pop charts and number one on the R&B charts, was the perfect song to declare that Wonder was here to stay. Motown songs are almost unparalleled in their opening hooks. “Uptight” has one of the label’s best, full of snappy drums, an ear-catching guitar line, and a horn section that all but declares victory for the song’s scrappy hero. It doesn’t matter if you’ve heard “Uptight” over and over or are listening for the first time — as soon as those drums kick in, there’s nothing else to do but turn up the volume, roll down the car windows, and sing along at the top of your lungs. “Uptight” is the perfect pick-me-up, even if you’re not a poor guy trying to get the girl (trust me).

Back when “Uptight” was brand new, the single may have been the first time many listeners heard Wonder’s grown-up gravely tenor. He sounds ecstatic here, so much so that any cover attempts (including a duet by the Supremes and Temptations) seem positively bland. “Uptight” was the first Wonder single co-written by the artist. A half dozen years after its release, Wonder wrangled a deal with Motown that gave him complete creative control over his work and thus spent almost the entire next decade churning out classics. There’s just one unfortunate problem here. If music lovers can thank “Uptight” for subsequent note-perfect singles like “Higher Ground” and “Superstition”, by consequence, the single must also be partially blamed for Wonder’s missteps, including the dreadful “I Just Called to Say I Love You”. But that’s a small price to pay for “Uptight” — two minutes and 55 seconds of pure, genuine bliss. – Rachel Kipp

24. Stevie Wonder – “Superstition” (1972)

Written and produced by Stevie Wonder
Reached #1 on pop charts

The 1970s were a crucial time for Motown’s blind musical genius, “Little” Stevie Wonder. All throughout the 1960s, the pop prodigy had buoyed Berry Gordy’s coffers with a collection of finger-snapping confections that any singer-songwriter would be envious of. Turning 21 in 1971, Wonder wanted more control over his career, his output, and his material. Finding it impossible to deny such an important member of the Hitsville heavies (and with label-mate Marvin Gaye leading the way), Gordy granted his request. Wonder soon became a virtual one-man band, bringing synthesizers into his hot mix and expanding the message of his music. While love ballads and good times were not necessarily gone, they were replaced by a simmering social consciousness that would result in six of the most stunning albums in any musician’s career: Where I’m Coming From (1971), Music of My Mind, Talking Book (both 1972), Innervisions (1973), Fulfillingness’ First Finale (1974), and the multi-mega hit Songs in the Key of Life (1976).

Sitting at the center of said third LP is the astonishing funk workout “Superstition”. Wonder was, at the time, branching out into more mainstream rock arenas, having toured with the Rolling Stones in 1972. He had hoped to go even further by penning material for other similarly styled artists. In fact, “Superstition” was originally offered to Jeff Beck (of Yardbirds fame) to record. Naturally, Gordy and the gang balked, and with good reason. Wonder had concocted an undeniably infectious groove reinforced by a memorable clavinet riff and propelled by a chorus of lazy, loveable brass blasts. Playing every instrument himself (save for the horns), Wonder worked out the complicated arrangement incrementally, building layers of sound to surround his ideas with an undeniable attention-getting grandeur.

Lyrically, Wonder went for what he does best — symbolism via simplicity. While the main verse offers up the classic stanza, “Thirteen-month-old baby / Broke the lookin’ glass/ Seven years of bad luck / The good things in your past,” there is more to the song than the standard black cat fallacies. Indeed, when he gets to the chorus, Wonder makes his point loud and clear: “When you believe in things that you don’t understand / Then you suffer / Superstition ain’t the way.”

At the time, many considered this a statement against intolerance and prejudice. After all, the Civil Rights movement was still bubbling away all across the US. Others saw it as an admonishment right back toward his fellow African-Americans, asking them to seek answers to social ills beyond the standard ‘white man = evil’ paradigm. Baked within the slinking, soulful strut of the song itself, the words worked for either dancing or marching. While “Superstition” would go on to be his first number-one single in several years, it also marked the beginning of Wonder’s astonishing maturation into a pop legend. He was no longer “little”. From this moment onward, everything he touched would be big. Really big. – Bill Gibron

23. Stevie Wonder – “Living for the City” (1973)

Written and produced by Stevie Wonder
Reached #8 on pop charts

Stevie Wonder is a popular culture archetype that comes to life. Beginning his career as a child prodigy, he grew into a songwriter and performer of depth and substance. His music is groundbreaking and widely popular, socially and politically significant while retaining an air of optimism, making Wonder something of a Motown Beatle. He has been blind his entire career, a major hindrance for any artist that nonetheless lends him the air of an insular musical genius (an impression he propagates with album titles like Music of My Mind (1972) and Innervisions (1973)).

Wonder wrote some of the greatest love songs of the 20th century, and the cultural importance of those pieces is undeniable. But with Wonder’s coming of age, he also emerged as a writer of great protest songs. His commentary had a wide scope; for instance, he gave fallen President Nixon a one-two punch with “He’s Misstra Know It All” and “You Haven’t Done Nothin'”, he challenged drug use with “Too High”, and he addressed the struggles of African-Americans in “Village Ghetto Land” and “Black Man”.

Most of Wonder’s protest pieces could be listed as great Motown songs. However, as a piece that works exceedingly well both as social protest and as pop music, few compare it with “Living for the City”. The lyrics of this song concern an African-American family living with the specter of Jim Crow in Mississippi. Mom and Dad both have jobs, but they barely make enough money to keep the family going. The children remain optimistic despite the obvious difficulty of their circumstances. The beautiful daughter is stuck wearing the same old clothes over and over, but she never lets those clothes get dirty. Her brother continues to search for work even though, where he lives, “they don’t use colored people”. The song’s bridge is a mini-drama that Wonder acts out using several different voices, wherein the young man of the family takes a bus to New York City only to find that life on the East Coast is even harder than it was in the Deep South.

Wonder’s keyboards are rich and ominous, and his bass and drums are solid and funky. All combine to form a danceable groove that packs a rock punch. At seven and a half minutes, the song is epic — indeed, the lyrics take us from Mississippi to New York to prison and back — but the music is dance-ready and catchy, worming its way into the head despite the song’s length and the gloomy lyrical content. As usual for Wonder, “Living for the City” is essentially a one-man show; he performs most of the instruments and vocals. Indeed, Wonder strongly suggests here that the image of him as an insular genius is probably more than just an image. With its combination of pop sensibility, socially charged lyrics, and studio mastery, “Living for the City” suggests that, in the 1970s, Stevie Wonder was more than a Motown Beatle. He was the Motown Beatles. – David Camak Pratt

22. The Velvelettes – “Needle in a Haystack” (1964)

Written by William “Mickey” Stevenson and Norman Whitfield
Produced by Norman Whitfield
Reached #45 on pop charts

The Velvelettes’ 1964 single “Needle in a Haystack” was, according to the group, a song they were less than enthused to record. Co-written and produced by Motown’s own Norman Whitfield, the song would ironically go on to become one of their biggest hits. Caldin “Carolyn” Gill, Bertha Barbee, Norma Barbee, and Mildred “Millie” Gill were discovered at Western Michigan University and soon after signed to Motown. Often overshadowed by some of Motown’s more popular girl groups, such as the Supremes and Martha and the Vandellas, the Velvelettes, like many other Motown artists, are not as recognizable today. “Needle in a Haystack” contains all the elements that make a Motown song so immediately accessible and familiar: the perfect blend of lead and backing vocals, punctuated by piano and handclaps, and that hard-driving, undeniable beat. Clocking in at just two minutes and 32 seconds, “Needle in a Haystack” delivers more energy and style than most songs released today, and there is not a wasted moment in the entire thing.

Gill’s lead vocal is filled with power and her playful, lively delivery is especially satisfying during the tail end of the song. For all the precise placement of backing vocals and instrumentation, Gill’s vocal is strong and decidedly in the forefront as the song begins, but as it progresses, the song becomes more loose and Gill’s vocal represents the shift well. There’s a reason why “Needle in a Haystack” was chosen as the first song on Rhino’s wonderful box set, One Kiss Can Lead to Another: Girl Group Sounds Lost and Found. It’s a song that not only speaks to what makes girl groups as important musically as any other pop style, but it also represents what Motown has contributed to our musical landscape. Not least of which is the Velvelettes singing, “Findin’ a good man, girls / Is like findin’ a needle in a haystack” — a statement that eschews much of the romanticism and longing associated with girl group pop songs.

There are lyrics that speak to an early feminist sensibility (“Girls, those fellas are sly, slick, and shy / So don’t you ever let `em get you starry-eyed”), along with moments that undermine these very words (“You’d better play hard to get / Or you’re gonna regret / The day you were born, girl / When he leaves you alone, girl”). However, despite these mixed messages, the Velvelettes were able to deliver in a way that never felt less than powerful. There is a real strength in their interpretation of the lyrics and it serves to elevate the song. It’s the matter-of-fact lyrics, along with the Velvelettes’ strong, straight-ahead delivery of the material and the unmistakable Motown sound, that make the song as immediate and enjoyable as it is. “Needle in a Haystack” stands as one of the great Motown songs of the 1960s era, and it remains an excellent example of the Velvelettes’ unique place in that history. – Jessica Suarez

21. The Temptations – “I Can’t Get Next to You” (1969)

Written by Norman Whitfield and Barrett Strong
Produced by Norman Whitfield
Reached #1 on pop charts

In the pantheon of songs that use super-human feats of strength/endurance as a measuring stick for capacity to love (see “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough”), this one’s the daddy of ’em all, a gospel-funk space-blues jam in which the Temptations boast about being able to do the following: turn the grey sky blue, make it rain whenever build a castle from a single grain of sand, make a ship sail on dry land, turn back the hands of time, fly like a bird – even live forever, y’all! It is also, however, the saddest of this particular subset because the Tempts’ incredible abilities cannot make up for the fact that they don’t get the girl: “The thing I want to do the most / I’m unable to do.” This song is the heartbreak of the gods.

“I Can’t Get Next to You” was one of the first singles released by the newly David Ruffin-less Temptations. Ruffin, who had been with the group since 1964, was fired in the middle of 1968 after his erratic behavior had begun to cause tension among the group’s members. His replacement was Dennis Edwards, formerly of the Contours, who brought a raw, gritty voice to the Temptations’ otherwise smooth constitution.

The Temptations’ new sound was compounded further by their new association with writer-producer Norman Whitfield and his foray into “psychedelic soul”, which ushered in newfound freedom of composition and performance to the rigid Motown aesthetic. (If you do not own this, do yourself a favor and pick it up immediately.) Many of the unedited psychedelic soul-era tracks would extend well into the six-, nine-, or even 12-minute runtime, but “I Can’t Get Next to You” modestly clocks in just under three minutes — an example of pop-minded brevity in an age of expanding consciousness. Zeth Lundy