Now, if Marvin Gaye had released “Sexual Healing” on Motown, that song would’ve been #1 on this entire countdown. Hell, maybe I should do a list of 50 best songs by former Motown artists in the ’80s. Although that might be a little more Michael Jackson than you guys are comfortable dealing with right now.
At any rate, 1981’s In Our Lifetime was Marvin’s Motown swan song. While not a bad album by any means, it isn’t up to the standard of Marvin’s ’70s material. That might be because Motown released the unfinished album without Marvin’s approval, leading to a dissatisfied Mr. Gaye exiting his Motown contract. It did result in one shimmering single, though, and before we get back into our list, here’s “Praise.”
Now, let’s keep movin’.
30. Stevie Wonder “Ribbon In The Sky” (#54 pop/#10 R&B, 1982)
No one writes love songs like Stevie Wonder. No. Bot. Tee.
Pound for pound, his 1982 hits collection Original Musicquarium Vol. 1 might have the best “new” tracks of any “best of” album ever recorded. Three of them are included on this list!
I wonder how many weddings during the mid ’80s were scored to this tune.
29. Diana Ross & Lionel Richie “Endless Love” (#1 pop & R&B, 1981)
Speaking of wedding songs, this historic duet was probably the song that preceded “Ribbon In The Sky” as far as designated “let’s get married” joint for folks with soul. When I was a kid, I thought this ballad was banal and overwrought. Now, I just think it’s a perfectly written (even if a little goopy) love song. “Endless” ruled the Hot 100 for 9 weeks, giving Ross her last Motown hit before she moved over to RCA Records. It also was Richie’s first solo chart single and heralded his departure from the Commodores (which happened the following year.)
28. The Boys “Dial My Heart” (#13 pop/#1 R&B, 1988)
Four precocious kids from Southern California, the Abdulsamad brothers were writing, producing, singing and dancing prodigies. Before they took the reins on their own joints, though, they scored with this L.A. & Babyface-produced jam. Hakeem, Khiry, Taj and Bilal strike the right mix of cute and a little edgy on this #1 R&B smash. One of La’Face’s all-time best.
27. The Commodores “Nightshift” (#3 pop/#1 R&B, 1985)
I can’t imagine too many folks thought The Commodores had a chance at recapturing their success after Lionel Richie broke south. However, they scored one final smash more than two years after Richie’s departure-thanks to a lyric that paid tribute to fallen legends Jackie Wilson & Marvin Gaye. Ironically, “Nightshift” won the Commodores their one and only Grammy Award (a year after Richie took home the Big Cheese prize for Album of the Year.) Lead vocals were provided by veteran Commodore Walter Orange (the same guy who delivers the lead on “Brick House”) and new recruit J.D. Nicholas, who a) was British!, b) toured as the lead vocalist for Heatwave (after Johnnie Wilder became paralyzed and thus unable to tour) and c) was a dead ringer for Lionel.
26. Georgio “Sexappeal” (#58 pop/#16 R&B, 1987)
Georgio Allentini was one of the cats who brought Motown into the modern era with his debut album Sexappeal and its title track. It sped to the top of the dance charts while showing decently on the pop and R&B lists. Georgio owed more than a little bit of debt to Prince, and the fact that both men were brought up in Minneapolis made it easy to compare them. This naughty jam is a club classic-I can’t believe no one’s sampled or remade it yet.
25. Teena Marie “Behind The Groove” (#21 R&B, 1980)
This was the first song by Lady T that I was aware of. The intro is silly (was Xanadu a big thing in the early ’80s) but Teena more than makes up for it when the bass and the brass come in. Playful and oh-so-funky, I can’t believe this wasn’t a Top Ten hit.
Bonus note: Lady T, which featured this song, was the first project embarked on by producer Richard Rudolph after the passing of his wife, Minnie Riperton.
24. Rockwell “Somebody’s Watching Me” (#2 pop/#1 R&B, 1984)
Come on. Don’t tell me you don’t love this song.
Berry Gordy’s son, rapping in a British accent, with Michael Jackson singing the hook (and Jermaine allegedly elsewhere on the song.)
Anything with Michael’s voice on it was a guaranteed hit around this time, and piggybacking on the “Thriller” song and video (the two marched up the charts together) was a pretty savvy move. Hell, the Halloween royalties from this song alone should be enough to keep Rockwell’s coffers filled.
23. Rick James “Give It To Me Baby” (#40 pop/#1 R&B, 1981)
“Give It To Me Baby” was the lead single from Slick Rick’s magnum opus, Street Songs. It’s also a song about being too drunk to fuck, essentially. The bass groove on this is magnificent (and was later borrowed liberally for Michael Jackson’s “Thriller.”)
And here’s yet another example of an ’80s video so awful it’s awesome.
22. Today “Girl I Got My Eyes On You” (#1 R&B, 1989)
Surprised there are two Today songs on this list? Blame the production prowess of Teddy Riley, who gifted the New Jersey foursome with some of his best work. “Girl I Got My Eyes On You” didn’t even have a video (sup with that?) but cruised to the top of the R&B chart with an addictive groove and a killer hook. While Lee “Big Bub” Drakeford was Today’s primary vocalist, he plays the background role on this new jack gem.
21. Chico DeBarge “Talk To Me” (#21 pop/#7 R&B, 1986)
Jonathan DeBarge, AKA Chico, was signed to Motown in the wake of his siblings’ success with the Rhythm Of The Night album and the single “You Wear It Well,” which Chico co-wrote. The solo debuts from brother El, sister Bunny and Chico were all released during the same period, and Chico’s first single “Talk To Me” got some major ink on the charts. It’s a tasty slab of pop-funk that owes more than a little to Janet Jackson’s “What Have You Done For Me Lately.” Chico’s career got interrupted not long after it started by a jail term on drug charges, but he successfully reinvented himself as a D’Angelo-esque ne0-soul crooner the following decade with Long Time No See, after which he re-signed to…Motown Records.
The top 20’s up next. Has your favorite song made it yet?
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