There is no question that the glory days of Motown Records were during the Sixties. Most entities’ glory days are during the years when they are young and hungry and initially successful. No one knew the sort of juggernaut that Berry Gordy was building when he founded Motown in 1958. By the mid-Sixties, the record label founded for less than $1,000 had blossomed into the Sound of Young America, minting superstars out of Mary Wells, Smokey Robinson, The Temptations and The Supremes. With a crack house band called The Funk Brothers and some sort of mystical musical voodoo embedded in the walls of their studios in Detroit, Motown (and a bunch of sister labels including Tamla and Gordy) created a sound that vied with the British Explosion (led by the Beatles and the Stones) as the signature musical sound of the decade…and I bet ya most of the living Beatles and Stones will say their sound was influenced by Motown.
Plenty of casual observers will say that Motown’s run of genius began to dwindle in the early ’70s, as the company’s base of operations shifted from Detroit to Los Angeles. However, several of the artists incubated during the ’60s exploded as musical savants the following decade; namely Stevie Wonder and Marvin Gaye. The assembly line of songwriters and producers still turned out hits for Diana Ross and new discoveries The Jackson 5, and The Commodores & Rick James brought Motown formally into the funk era.
But then the hits really stopped…right? Wrong. From an album sales perspective, the ’80s was probably Motown’s most prosperous decade (although the fact that the label closed their books to the RIAA prior to the mid Seventies throws that into debate.) Creatively, the label wasn’t at the forefront of black music, although the decade’s biggest star was a Motown alum. They were late to hip-hop, and didn’t fully capitalize on the video age, either.
That said, there were plenty of great jams released under Berry Gordy’s stable of labels in the ’80s, and they came from a variety of artists. A conversation on Twitter about Motown’s lasting influence led me to compile this list-based solely on my opinion-of Motown’s 50 best singles of the ’80s.
You’ll find a diverse array of music here–smooth L.A. pop/soul, a few boogie classics, some new jack swing, supple balladry and a goofy tune or two. All of these songs are Grade A Material and hang with the best of Holland-Dozier-Holland and Ashford & Simpson’s classics.
And the choice for #1 will probably throw you for a loop…just putting that out there in the early going.
Now, let’s begin…
50. Jermaine Jackson “You Like Me, Don’t You?” (#50 pop/#13 R&B, 1980)
Here’s some featherweight Jermaine for you. On the heels of the monster smash “Let’s Get Serious,” the one Jackson still at Motown floated this wispy midtempo song to the top 20 on the R&B charts. The mellow groove is great for picnics, barbecues and relaxing summer days, as DJ Quik noted when he sampled “You Like Me…” for his song “Summer Breeze.” Yes, Jermaine…we like you. We do.
49. The Commodores “Lady (You Bring Me Up)” (#8 pop/#5 R&B, 1981)
By 1981, The Commodores were starting to become known as a ballad juggernaut, with a series of Lionel Richie-penned slow jams obscuring the band’s hard funk roots. “Lady (You Bring Me Up)” (not to be confused with “Lady,” which Richie wrote for Kenny Rogers the year before) is definitely not to be confused with hard funk, but it is a pleasant slice of uptempo L.A. pop given extra juice by a super-silly video. The short-shorts action here is ridiculous, and you’ve gotta give props to any video featuring Soul Train’s legendary dancer Cheryl Hong.
48. Bunny DeBarge “Save The Best For Me (Best Of Your Lovin’)” (#18 R&B, 1987)
Eldest DeBarge sibling Bunny was the second member of the family group to go solo, and she launched her career with this peppy dance/funk jam. Co-penned by Jerry Knight (of Raydio and Ollie & Jerry fame) it bore more than a passing resemblance to The Jets’ “Crush On You,” which was composed by the same team. Bunny’s vocal is filled with attitude and the song is well-constructed. Alas, pop success was elusive and this was Bunny’s only major soul chart success.
47. Michael Jackson “One Day In Your Life” (#55 pop, 1981)
Michael had already been gone from Motown for half a decade when this 1975 recording was released to capitalize on the success the young King of Pop was enjoying with Off the Wall. It was a moderate hit in the U.S., but somewhat improbably outperformed all of Off The Wall’s singles in the UK, shooting to the top of the charts. It’s a fine easy listening ballad with a soaring vocal by MJ.
46. Stacy Lattisaw “Nail It To The Wall” (#48 pop/#4 R&B, 1986)
After almost a decade with Cotillion Records, Stacy Lattisaw made the jump to Motown in 1986. Initially, it seemed like a good fit for the young singer, as the aggressive dance tune “Nail It To The Wall’ sped into the top 5. It’s more of a production than a song, but it would be pretty hard to find a song in this vein that I’m not at least a little fond of. And Stacy sells it. It was quite a change from the moon-eyed love songs that had been her calling card up to that point.
45. Stevie Wonder “Skeletons” (#19 pop/#1 R&B, 1987)
This song marked the beginning of Stevie’s commercial fall from grace. It was the first lead song from a Stevie album to not make the pop top ten since the early Seventies, but that might be due to changing commercial tastes more than quality. “Skeletons” is a playfully funky jam with a pointed sociopolitical message. Man, remember when music could be danceable and still drop science?
44. Lionel Richie “Running With The Night” (#7 pop/#6 R&B 1983)
“Running With The Night” might be the quintessential L.A. pop/soul song. Michael Jackson’s best ’80s material (“Billie Jean” and “Beat It” in particular) had an edge to it that belied the studio perfection. This song features keyboards by famed Jackson/Stevie sideman Greg Phillinganes, a guitar solo from Toto’s Steve Lukather and background vocals by Richard Marx. Spread some Lionel on the top and you’ve got the ’80est ’80s song ever. Complete with borderline nonsensical Bob Giraldi video (at the time when he was on fire-this, Benatar’s “Love Is A Battlefield” and McCartney’s “Say Say Say” all came on the heels of one another.)
43. Bobby Nunn “She’s Just A Groupie” (#15 R&B, 1982)
For all the bellyaching that goes on these days about music’s woman-baiting, this funk jam is proof that an admittedly more musical form of it was in existence even thirty years ago. Nunn’s only hit of note, this track added a little Prince-ly oomph to Motown’s typical studio perfectionism. And despite the fact that “Groupie” is a jam and a half, it’s not the best song Nunn wrote, either. He was behind the boards for The Jets’ masterful “Rocket 2 U,” perhaps the only top ten hit to ever feature the sound of a shower drain.
42. Teena Marie “Portuguese Love” (#54 R&B, 1981)
Teena Marie’s material was quite diverse, encompassing genres from funk to hard rock. Many of Lady T’s jams had a Latin flair to them, and 1981’s “Portuguese Love” was the finest of those Latin-influenced songs. A seductive, sweeping ballad allegedly inspired by an encounter between Teena and her mentor/benefactor Rick James (about a night in Pittsburgh, of all places,) this song is the steamiest of Motown slow jams. Rick himself appears towards the end of the song in a spoken segment.
41. El DeBarge “Love Always” (#43 pop/#7 R&B, 1986)
In the next installment…a song from “The Last Dragon,” a separate song from one of the stars of “The Last Dragon,” and…how do you pronounce Finis?
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