Motown: The Complete #1s

The opening salvo to Universal's celebration of Motown's 50th anniversary, the ten-disc Motown: The Complete No. 1's wisely takes the broadest possible reading of "number one," interpreting that phrase to mean any single that topped the R&B or pop charts or any international chart, or even songs that topped the charts in a cover version by another non-Motown artist...or in the case of Stevie Wonder's "Pastime Paradise," was even sampled by another artist. In other words, this 202-track set -- 192 hit singles, plus those ten "bonus" hits that were either covered or sample sources -- means to feature every Motown song that everybody knows and it pretty much does, although it also contains a lot of singles that most Motown fans don't know and there are a lot of well-known songs that aren't here, because using the top of the charts as a definitive yardstick for measuring popularity is problematic. Not every huge hit reaches the pole position, nor is every chart-topper an enduring piece of pop art, and if the competition for the top was tough, as it certainly was during Motown's heyday of the '60s, there might be a lot of songs left behind, as there are here. Nevertheless, it's still pretty shocking to realize that by the time disc three on this gargantuan set starts, Motown has already left Detroit for Los Angeles, leaving behind their period of greatest creativity and iconic power, as well as that house on West Grand Boulevard that serves as the model for the creative packaging on this deluxe set. That means that most of this set doesn't sound like Motown, at least according to the classic definition of the Motown sound, which may make it of considerably less interest to the kind of listener who would be drawn to a replica of the Motown museum, but the range of the set is nevertheless impressive. There is certainly a drop-off in quality as the label enters the '80s on disc seven, but there's not only plenty of terrific music between Smokey Robinson & the Miracles' "Shop Around" and Erykah Badu's "Bag Lady," it's possible to hear the big picture of modern soul and R&B between these two extremes, which is pretty impressive indeed. ~ Stephen Thomas Erlewine

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