Of all the artists to pass thrown the Motown star-making machine, Marvin Gaye was one of the most versatile, and unquestionably one of the most talented. From songs infused with carnal desire to ones that demanded social justice, his ability to connect with his audience was peerless. It’s impossible to know what would have come next had his life not been cut tragically short, but based on precedent, it would have been great. Here’s our pick of the ten best Marvin Gaye songs of all time
10. I Want You
As The Guardian writes, Gaye’s 1976 album I Want You heralded his return to his comfort zone of sexually charged R&B. Its titular track is a delicately crafted song that manages to keep its rampant carnality in check with a sprinkling of spirituality.
9. How Sweet It Is (To Be Loved By You)
Ranked as one of the best Marvin Gaye songs of all time by smoothradio.com, How Sweet It Is (To Be Loved By You) was written by the legendary Motown songwriting team of Holland–Dozier–Holland and inspired by Jackie Gleason’s signature catchphrase “How Sweet It Is!” Everyone from James Taylor to the Grateful Dead has taken a bash at it, but it’s Gaye’s heartwarming, deeply sensual version that has the edge. Released in November 1964, it became his biggest hit until that point, peaking at No. 6 on the Billboard Hot 100 and No. 3 on the Billboard Hot R&B Singles chart.
8. Mercy, Mercy Me (The Ecology)
On Mercy, Mercy Me (The Ecology), Gaye laments mankind’s mistreatment of the environment before tackling the chemical warfare being used to devastate the rice paddies in Vietnam. Released in June 1970, it peaked at No. 4 on Billboard’s Pop Singles chart and spent two weeks at No 1 on the R&B Singles charts. Its popularity continued unabated after his death, and in 2002, it became his third single to win a Grammy Award Hall of Fame Award.
7. Sexual Healing
After several years of tensions with Motown, Gaye left the label in 1982 for Colombia. His first (and as it transpired, last) album with the label was Midnight Love. It ultimately proved to be the most successful LP of his career, selling over 6 million copies and certifying triple platinum. Its highlight is Sexual Healing, a forthright expression of sexual desire carried on a wave of funk and reggae rhythms. It became one of his biggest-selling singles, spending 10 weeks atop Billboard’s Hot R&B Singles chart and peaking at No. 3 on the Hot 100.
6. Let’s Get It On
After What’s Going On broke into the top 10, Motown offered Gaye a $1 million contract and free license to do whatever he wanted with his next album. The problem was, he didn’t really know. Struck by writer’s block, he sought out his former Motown labelmate Ed Townsend. Townsend gifted him Let’s Get It On, a religious song he’d written after seeking help for alcohol addiction. Gaye replaced religion with love and, in the process, created one of the most sexually charged songs ever committed to tape. Released in September 1973, it topped the Billboard Pop Singles chart for two weeks and the Billboard Soul Singles chart for eight. Nearly 50 years on, it still ranks as one of his most popular and best-known songs.
5. I Heard It Through The Grapevine
Gladys Knight & the Pips may have achieved great things with I Heard It Through The Grapevine but Gaye’s ominous, brooding version might well have the edge. Motown initially rejected the idea of releasing it as a single but eventually relented after it started picking up airplay. It was lucky for them they did – released in October 1968, it soared to the top of the Billboard Pop Singles chart and stayed there for a full seven weeks, overtaking Gladys Knight & the Pips’ version to become the biggest hit single in Motown history.
4. What’s Going On
1971s What’s Going On was the first album Gaye produced himself. It’s also the first to highlight his social consciousness, which blazes through the titular track like a bush fire. It was originally conceived by Motown songwriter Al Cleveland about police brutality in Berkeley, California. When the Four Tops rejected it, Cleveland offered it to Gaye, who reworked the lyrics to incorporate his brother Frankie’s experiences of returning home from Vietnam to a country that was just as torn and conflicted as the one he’d left.
3. Ain’t That Peculiar
As Stereogum writes, try as you might, there’s no way to avoid getting swept up in Ain’t That Peculiar. Why Smokey Robinson decided to hand it over to Gaye is anyone’s guess, but he did, and the result is dynamite. From the insistent melody to the earthy vocals and penetrating beat, it’s exquisite.
2. Ain’t No Mountain High Enough
In 1967, Gaye teamed up with Tammi Terrell on Ain’t No Mountain High Enough. He’d already scored hits with both Mary Wells and Kim Weston, so the expectations were running high. It doesn’t disappoint. Written by husband-and-wife songwriting team Nickolas Ashford and Valerie Simpson, Ain’t No Mountain High is that rarest of things – a love song you can actually groove to. The success of the single inspired Gaye and Terrell to collaborate on three albums and a slew of further singles, but the partnership ended in tragedy when Tarrel died of a brain tumor at the age of just 24.
1. Inner City Blues (Makes Me Wanna Holler)
What’s Going On opens with the scorching title track and closes with Inner City Blues (Makes Me Wanna Holler), a bluesy, atmospheric sizzler that expresses Gaye’s frustrations with the state of America’s inner cities. In a less capable artist’s hands, it would have sounded angry. In Gaye’s, it doesn’t even sound indignant. He could holler if he wanted, but he knows it’d do no good. So he sticks to reflective, world-weary cynicism. The result is epic, with each line breaking your heart just that little bit more. A masterful way to close an album.