I’ve been looking for an excuse to post a bunch of Motown covers, but I’ve struggled with finding a story. Then I saw that Popmatters posted it’s 25 favorites. I agree with some of their choices, but “Bernadette” as #1?
I agree with some of their choices, but “Bernadette”? That wouldn’t even make my top 20. Plus, the list seems flawed because it includes songs from the label’s Los Angeles period (1972 and on), when everyone knows the true meaning of Motown is “Motor City.” Once the label left Detroit, it’s sound changed dramatically. There’s a world of difference between the Stevie Wonder who sang “Uptight” and the one who sang “Superstitious.” It’s unfair to compare the two, even.
My list, is limited to the label’s prime period, when songwriters and producers like Berry Gordy, Smokey Robinson, Brian Holland, Lamont Dozier, and Norman Whitfield sat around and made hit after hit after hit. During this period, from about 1961 to 1971, Motown had over 100 Top Ten hits. Surely that’s enough to choose from for a mere top 25? And unlike Popmatters, my list is in order, with #1 being my all-time favorite.
Check the end for a zip file of all the savefile songs, and songs that aren’t posted in the body of this post.
25. Mr. Postman-The Marvelettes (1961). Stylistically similar to “Stop! In the Name of Love,” this song is so vivid, it’s practically a cartoon. I also have no covers of it. So I’m posting this cover instead, just ’cause I dig the Lips, baby:
Lightning Strikes the Postman (Flaming Lips cover)-MarsupiaL.
24. How Sweet It Is (To Be Loved by You)-Marvin Gaye (1964). This is also here because the versions Jerry Garcia’s Band would do live were transcendent.
How Sweet It Is-Jerry Garcia Band. From JGB’s 1980 Calderone show, one of my favorite Jerry solo bootlegs. Because the Dead did this song pretty often, all the Jam Bands do it today. It’s like they don’t even know Marvin did it before Jerry. To exemplify my point, here’s a version by the oddest-named Dead-cover band around . . .
How Sweet It Is-The Thugz. And it’s pretty good, too.
23. Come See About Me-Diana Ross & the Supremes (1969). I do really dig this song, but I absolutely love the Whigs cover version.
Come See About Me-Afghan Whigs.
22. I Second That Emotion-Smokey Robinson and the Miracles (1967). Popmatters picked, too. I can’t argue with them. Such a classic tune. It’s elegant, and easy to overlook how marvelous it is.
I Second That Emotion-The Grateful Dead. From the 1971 Fillmore show, but this is a boot version, not the pristine CD release version. (I’d recommend buying that, by the way.)
21. Where Did Our Love Go-The Supremes (1964). Word of advice: If you’re in High School and you get dumped by your first real girlfriend, don’t go home and listen to this song. Seriously. I could have sworn I had an Afghan Whigs cover of this, but I can’t find it anywhere. Sigh.
20. I Want You Back-The Jackson 5 (1970). Yeah, I dig it more than ABC. What’s your problem with that? I’m even more partial to Mama’s Pearl (see #14). There’s lots of covers of this song, but probably my absolute favorite is the KT version.
19. War-Edwin Starr(1970). The most aggressively socially conscious Motown record to date, made more famous by Bruce Springsteen at his killer live shows. His version is ubiquitous, and in my view it is the best (and only) cover of this tune that comes close to the original. Go find it for yourself.
18. Money (That’s What I Want)-Barrett Strong (1960). Released on the Tamla imprint, this is still part of the Motown family. It gets a place on my list on the strength of the songwriting more than this particular version.
$-The Secret Machines. From their covers EP, “The Road Leads Where It’s Lead,” which is personally my favorite release of theirs.
$-Pearl Jam with Robert Plant.
17. Smiling Faces Sometimes-The Temptations (1971). No, that’s not a typo. Although Undisputed Truth re-recorded the song in 1971, the Temptations did it first. The two versions are pretty different, and both kick ass. It was hard for me to pick this instead of some other Temptations tunes I love. Like 1972’s Papa Was a Rollin’ Stone-The Temptations. Although it borders on the corny, it was another attempt by the band to break out from under the love song yoke and speak to its audience at a deeper level. Other noteworthy attempts included Ball of Confusion and my personal favorite, Cloud 9, which the band in interviews denied was about drug use but rather they said it was about anything that you use to escape from reality. Yeah, right.
Smiling Faces Sometimes-The Radiators.
16. You Keep Me Hangin’ On-The Supremes (1966). Almost psychedelic, this song is. And there must be some decent indie covers, but I don’t have ’em.
15. Do You Love Me-The Contours (1962). I’m not aware of any good covers of this song, but I love how raw it is compared to most Motown songs.
14. Mama’s Pearl-The Jackson 5 (1972). My absolute favorite J5 tune, and one of the best R&B cuts I’ve ever heard in my life, period. It never hit number one. Know why? The Osmonds. A band I dug in college used to do a cover of it, but I’ve never heard anyone else try it. Weird, ’cause it’s a pretty simply song–seems like it would be easy to play with it.
13. I Can’t Get Next To You-The Temptations (1969). Girl! You’re blowin’ my mind!
I Can’t Get Next To You-Thee More Shallows.
12. Dancing in the Street-Martha & the Vandellas (1964). Maybe the closest thing to agreement between me and Popmatters, who picked this as their #10. But they put “Jimmy Mack” above it! I think this is clearly an example of musicnerditis, trying to prove that they can pick something esoteric rather than going for clear winners. Plus, come on, two Martha and the Vandellas songs in the top 25? I just can’t get behind that. Mainstream covers include Van Halen (yeeeaah!) and Bowie/Jagger (yecchhh!)
Dancing In The Street-Phil Lesh Band. Yeah, I could post about a dozen Dead versions, but here’s a 2001 version by Phil alone.
11. It’s the Same Old Song-The Four Tops (1965). Released in response to an attempt by Columbia (The 4 Tops’ old label) to re-release older material, Gordy rushed this song through in 24 hours.
10. You’ve Really Got A Hold On me-Smokey Robinson & The Miracles (1962). I actually have a Beatles cover of this, but I’m not risking a post of it. Yoko is waaaay too litigious.
You Really Got a Hold On Me-Thao. Extraordinary.
9. I Heard it Through the Grapevine-Marvin Gaye (1968). The Pips version was great, too, as was CCR’s original. But Marvin, this is clearly your song.
8. Shotgun-Junior Walker (1965). Beginning with a shotgun blast, this song incorporated weaponry into essentially a grinding dance song. The precursor to gangsta rap?
7. I Can’t Help Myself (Sugar Pie Honey Bunch)-The Four Tops (1965). Popmatters picked this as their #2 tune, and I can’t argue that it’s brilliant pop. It’s my favorite 4 Tops song.
6. My Girl-The Temptations (1965). The Temptations are by far my favorite Motown band. They put so much into each song. This one, an answer to the Mary Wells hit of the prior year, is simple and sweet.
5. Signed, Sealed, Delivered (I’m Yours)-Stevie Wonder (1970). I’m sure I’ll get shit for having only Stevie song this list, and not making it “Fingertips” or “Uptight,” but ever since the first time I heard this song, it just makes my heart swell and burn. I’m not aware of any good indie covers it, by the way, so if you got ‘em, let me know!
4. Just My Imagination (Running Away with Me)-The Temptations (1971). Eddie Kendricks’ best vocal work. The Rolling Stones did a cover of it, too. I really dig this cover by a band with a great name because it sounds like Blondie.
3. This Old Heart of Mine (Is Weak For You)-The Isley Brothers (1966). I’m a huge fan of the Isley’s uptempo tunes—they’re kinda rock, kinda R&B, and incredibly inspirational. I can’t tell you how many times I did the underwear dance with this crankin’. Not a pretty picture.
2. You Can’t Hurry Love-The Supremes (1966). While they may not have been the most courageous or even the most consistently interesting band on Motown’s roster, The Supremes are my favorite when it comes to singles. It is virtually impossible for me to pick a favorite between them all, but this one gets my top pick because it’s just so cool.
1. What’s Going On?-Marvin Gaye (1971).
There was no record that did more to prove that the easy, fun sound of Motown could be used to make something even more important, and few artists as influential as Marvin in bridging the gap between the protest music of the ‘60s and the sweet love of the 1970s. There’s a great Los Lobos version of this song, but I don’t have any good indie covers of it.
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