21 Best Motown Songs of All Time – Time Out New York Kids

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Legends such as Marvin Gaye, Temptations and the Supremes are all represented on our list of the best Motown songs
Few record companies can boast as deep an impact on the last century of music as Motown—what other label coined the name of an entire genre? Motown’s singular melange of pop-infused soul laid groundwork for the future of funk, rock, the best pop songs and just about every R&B love song to come—and that influence continues to be heard today. If you ca catchy choruses of “What’s Going On” and “My Girl” make for excellent karaoke songs.
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It’s hard to resist the tune’s first line—“I don’t like you, but I love you”—which perhaps explains why this song is perhaps one of the most covered in music history. Influenced by Sam Cooke’s “Bring It on Home to Me,” Smokey Robinson spun the source material into more gold.

Written in 1971, and sadly still resonant today, this song was written as a reaction to police brutality against peaceful protesters. Originally penned by Renaldo Benson of the Four Tops, who witnessed violence at Berkeley’s People’s Park along with Motown songwriter Al Cleveland, the song was eventually picked up and tweaked by Marvin Gaye after the Four Tops decided the song was too political for their group. Gaye produced the song himself and released it without the approval of the label’s head executive Berry Gordy. After the song became one of Motown’s fastest selling hits, its success gave Gaye the freedom to branch out further.

The Temptations were undisputed royalty during the ‘60s, and their amazing harmonies produced hit after hit. Just try to keep still and the smile off your face when you hear the number—it’s impossible.

Sure, Michael Jackson might have only been 11 years old when he took the lead on this song, relegating his four older brothers to singing back-up, but Little Michael knew how to steal America’s heart with this funky pop hit pleading for love to return. This single’s perfect bassline continues to live on, sampled in hip-hop songs by everyone from Kriss Kross to Jay Z.

A Billboard chart-topper and one of the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame’s “500 Songs That Shaped Rock & Roll,” this 1965 tune is remembered both for its catchy lyrics and iconic choreography.

Not only was “Please Mr. Postman” a number one hit for the Marvelettes in 1961, it was also Motown’s first single to take the coveted top spot. Just a few years later the Beatles would reignite the song’s popularity with their cover, and, in 1975, it became a number one song once more with the Carpenters rendition.

To try to choose the best song to include by Stevie Wonder, who signed on to Motown when he was just 11 years old in 1961, is seemingly an impossible feat. Still, this soul song is consummate Motown, and its irrepressible energy is undeniable.

Happiness isn’t just an illusion when the song plays. The Four Tops were one of Motown’s biggest groups, and “Reach Out I’ll Be There” was their undisputed most popular song.
One of the Miracles biggest hits, written by frontman Smokey Robinson, this song became a success for Smokey and, a few years later, for Diana Ross and the Supremes and the Temptations, who performed it as a group duet. Talk about some Motown star power.
This single was a Top 20 hit for the well matched duet partners Gaye and Terrell, who despite harmonizing together to create an iconic song actually recorded their parts separately. After their success in ’67, the song became a number one hit for Diana Ross in 1970 while the Supremes singer was starting her solo career. Her spoken-word version even earned her a Grammy nod.
Though you might recognize the song from one of its many covers, this tune actually marks a crucial moment in Motown history. Cowritten by Motown founder Berry Gordy, the song would become the record label’s first hit when it climbed the R&B charts and found its way to Number 28 on Billboard’s Hot 100 in 1960.
Cowritten by one of Motown’s greatest performers and songwriters, Smokey Robinson, and performed by one of the most influential groups of the 20th century, the Temptations, “My Girl” is the perfect example of a sweet, innocent romantic love song executed flawlessly.
Long before David Bowie and Mick Jagger made this a duet—ridiculous dance moves included—folks were doing their own shimmy to the tune whenever it blasted from a home or car onto the streets in 1964.
War, what is it good for? Absolutely nothing, but giving us this song. Originally recorded by the Temptations, in a much gentler version, this protest hit was given to the less famous Starr after fears were raised that the strong message might hurt the former group’s mega-star power. With the force of a young James Brown in the “huhs” and a biting energy, Starr’s 1970 version became one of the quintessential records of the era, despite the Temptations releasing theirs the same year.
A hit on Billboard’s Hot 100 and R&B charts, this 1963 song was one of the first to really set the tone for the Motown “sound” with its blends of soul and pop sounds, tight harmonies and upbeat point of view.
Inspired by the ‘50s gospel number “(You Can’t Hurry God) He’s Right on Time,” this song not only sold plenty of records, it also became one of Diana Ross and the Supremes’ signature numbers.
While it might be hard to believe now, when “Uptight” came out Stevie Wonder was still just 15 years old and had already been with Motown Records for four years. Though his changing voice and only so-so record sales were putting him at risk of fading into oblivion, this top 10 hit, which was also the first Wonder cowrote, put the artist back on his legendary trajectory.
While far more pop-influenced than most Gaye songs, the 1964 song, which is certainty one of his sweetest, helped make Gaye a household name and would influence love songs for years to come.
Despite calling the titular Bernadette “the soul to me” and placing her high above, this is far from a love song—and more like a dramatic look into the psyche of a very jealous guy who thinks everyone, including his friends, is out to steal his girl. Boy, does frontman Levi Stubb’s impassioned voice sell it.
Today it’s hard to find a song that quite reflects the same kind of sincerity that Ruffin has as he admits just how much breaking up and looking for someone else sucks, which might explain why this song made it big in America, Canada, England and France, and has been covered by dozens of artists since.
Notable for being co-written by the inimatable Stevie Wonder—it was also the first that the legend produced for another artist—this song was the biggest hit for Detroit fivesome the Spinners. Two years later, the group would take the advice of Aretha Franklin and transfer over to Atlantic Records, but nonetheless, the spirit of Motown never left the band’s soulful tunes.

Are you ready to fall head over heels with the best love songs of all time? Cupid has you in his sights, people.
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