Various Artists: The Best of Motown 1980s, Volumes 1 & 2 (20th Century Masters: The Millennium Coll
You don't have to be a professional music critic to know that Motown's decade of greatest glory was the 1960s.
They had the Temptations, the Four Tops, Diana Ross and the Supremes, Smokey Robinson and the Miracles, Marvin Gaye, and Stevie Wonder all regularly scaling significant chart heights and, just to finish the decade off right, the first hit by the Jackson Five, "I Want You Back", made its top 40 debut in December of 1969 and went on to hit #1.
The '70s were no slouch for the label, either. Sure, maybe they might've been in comparison to the successes of the previous decade, but Wonder and Gaye were arguably hitting their creative stride, the Tops and the Temptations still kept pumping out hits for a few years, and Diana Ross was carving a nice solo career for herself. And, of course, let's not forget the Commodores, who were all but ruling the charts in the mid-to-late '70s.
Once you get to the '80s, however . . . well, somehow, naming off Motown's biggest hits goes from being something the average person on the street could probably do into something that might well stump a panelist on Beat the Geeks.
Thankfully, Universal Chronicles' 20th Century Masters series has finally released a disc (two discs, actually) that aren't simply reproducing a previously existing best-of collection in an inferior fashion: The Best of Motown 1980s, Volumes 1 & 2.
As you start investigating the track listing, while it's undeniable that this pair of releases contains a party in convenient two-disc form, it also becomes apparent why Motown's '80s glories aren't instantly memorable: a lot of them were one-hit wonders.
Keep your cool, Mr. Gordy; I'm not saying they were all one-hit wonders.
But if you can cite more than one song by the Mary Jane Girls, the Dazz Band, or Charlene, then it's probably because you owned the 45s of "In My House", "Let It Whip", or "I've Never Been to Me", respectively, and flipped the singles over enough to remember the titles of the B-sides, because none of those three artists ever troubled the top 40 a second time. (I'd love to be able to cite Rockwell, whose "Somebody's Watching Me" appears on Volume 1, in this category as well, but surely I'm not the only one who remembers "Obscene Phone Caller".)
And try as you might to forget its existence, let alone its label of origin, Bruce Willis's lone top-10 hit, "Respect Yourself", was a Motown release as well.
Rick James and DeBarge scored multiple hits for the label during the '80s as well. "Rhythm of the Night" might not maintain the reputation of "all-time classic" that "Super Freak" does, but they're both songs that get stuck in your head and won't let go. "Give It to Me Baby" and "All This Love" (by James and DeBarge, respectively) might not match up, but they're still instantly recognizable when you hear them, even if you might not be able to identify who sang "All This Love" right off the bat. That's certainly the case with "With You I'm Born Again", by Billy Preston & Syreeta, which, though neither title nor artist may ring a bell, will immediately be familiar as a staple of those quiet storm radio shows. There were occasional cases where the label's old guard made brief chart comebacks; the Temptations scored a few more hits on the R&B charts with "Treat Her Like a Lady" and "Lady Soul", and Smokey Robinson's "Being with You" and "Just to See Her" both went top 10. In a blatant attempt to capitalize on the platinum-selling success of one of their former artists, Motown also released a decade-old track by Michael Jackson, "Farewell My Summer Love", which barely stumbled into the top 40 and probably only did so because Epic had finally finished releasing singles from Thriller by that point. Another Jackson (Jermaine) appears on Volume 1 with "Let's Get Serious".
If you're enough of an aficionado of Motown to know who was among the label's stable of artists during the '80s, however, there's one particularly notable omission from this collection that, frankly, seems virtually unforgivable.
In fact, given that his familiar mug is all over VH-1's I Love The '80s series, certainly, his absence from a collection spotlighting his label's biggest successes during that particular decade is downright outrageous.
Yes, that's right: there's no Lionel Richie.
No "Truly". No "All Night Long". No "Dancing on the Ceiling".
Not even so much as a "Hello".
There's also no sign of "Endless Love" Richie's duet with Diana Ross that spent nine weeks in Billboard's top spot back in '81. And, sure, instinctually, you'd like to take the easier of the two targets and say, "Oh, well, Diana Ross is always pulling crap like this; she's got such an ego that she probably wouldn't let Motown put the song on there for less than, like, a billion dollars or something."
But, then, you remember that Ross's "I'm Coming Out" leads off Volume 1, with "It's My turn" popping up on Volume 2 (though "Upside Down" is a glaring omission from both volumes), and you suddenly realize, hold on, what is up here? Shouldn't there at least be a token Lionel Richie song?
And don't hand me a line about how there is a token Lionel Richie song, since there's a Commodores song on there where Lionel's singing lead ("Lady [You Bring Me Up]"), because I can guarantee you that it's no coincidence that the song in question wasn't written by Richie; if it was, then you can bet that it would've appeared on Richie's own best-of collection, Back to Front, but it doesn't.
You could argue that a collection of Motown's greatest '80s hits would be a wealth of Richies* that would overshadow the other artists, but that doesn't explain the absence of every single track he wrote for the label during the decade. Something's up, and you have to figure the blame probably lies with Richie.
(Thankfully, however, the post-Richie Commodores hit, "Nightshift", does appear, in 12-inch club mix form, no less.)
As the '80s wound to a close, Motown found itself scoring fewer and fewer hits, with the latest track on here being a top-20 hit from the Boys ("Dial My Heart"), really only notable for having been co-written by L.A. Reid and Babyface. The label's fortunes would change in a year or two, courtesy of Boys II Men, but that, of course, is a story for another decade. The Best of Motown 1980s, Volumes 1 & 2 are, like the other entries in the Millennium Collection series, far from comprehensive. The title is certainly a misnomer. In addition to Richie's absence, there's also no sign of Stevie Wonder, who, with the soundtrack to The Woman in Red, kicked serious chart ass for the label.
The collections do, however, succeed in rounding up the Motown hits by artists who don't warrant a best-of collection in their own right for their '80s work for the label; that's a coup of some sort, and one that makes for enjoyable listening and plenty of pleasant flashbacks.
*No, I will not apologize for that pun; I'm damned proud of it, thank you very much!