Trying to distill one of music’s greatest eras into a five item list is no simple task. And the truth is, the results — the five definitive tracks that made it onto this list — are hardly a surprise. You’ve heard these songs a thousand times, be it from the backseat of your parents’ station wagon, in the background of films and advertisements, and some unfortunate number of you have likely heard them surgically dissected in a karaoke lounge. But these songs aren’t just ingrained into your memory through repetition. They’ve earned their spot due to timeless invincibility, monuments not just to a single genre or time period, but to the artistic medium at large. You’ve heard them before and — most justifiably — will hear them many times again. These are the greatest R&B and soul tracks ever recorded — or at least five of the countless many.
“I Want You Back”
[Diana Ross Presents the Jackson 5; 1969]
Michael Jackson’s life story has been told and dissected more times than any other music superstar, but one of the most startling facts remains this: for an artist with such a lengthy reign of success, one of his greatest hits came when he was just 11 years old. Sure, it’s a little strange hearing what amounts to five children singing about wanting to rekindle a relationship, but everything about this track is so undeniable that it renders all plausibility arguments obsolete. For proof of just how universally saccharine this track is, try playing it at your next family party, then take a generational survey of the dance floor. It’s a wonder “I Want You Back” hasn’t been commissioned as an international harbinger for world peace.
[Where Did Our Love Go; 1964]
It’s an interesting phenomenon that, as our collective attention spans have grown shorter — we can hardly be bothered to communicate anymore if it takes greater than 140 characters — our hit singles have ballooned. That could just be a case of flawed perception, but this much is definite: The Supremes’ “Baby Love” packs more poignancy in its two minutes and 36-seconds than any number of today’s considerably gaudier chart-toppers. Written by Lamont Dozier, Brian Holland, and brother Edward Holland, Jr., the song’s lyric sheet may not read like a sprawling narrative, but it does manage to cut right to the heart of matters. Backed by one of the most unmistakable melodies in the history of pop music, “Baby Love” marks not only a crowning achievement in the canon of Diana Ross and her mates, but asserts that oftentimes the best things do indeed come in small packages.
“A Change Is Gonna Come”
[Ain’t That Good News; 1964]
From start to finish, the performance turned in by Sam Cooke on this landmark track — which has gone on to become something of a cult theme song for Barack Obama’s 2008 presidential campaign — is one of music lore. The conviction with which he sings, the impact and necessity of each and every flawlessly placed word, and the way the instrumental allows itself to garnish the narrative rather than direct it make “A Change is Gonna Come” one of the single most seminal tracks in soul and R&B history. While the other four songs that make up this list are indebted to deep, heartfelt emotion, they all lack the earnestness of Cooke’s classic. This isn’t a song to ignite dance floors, it’s a story of revival about a man who has neared his bottom and the gut-deep desperation that asserts he will most certainly rise again.
“I Heard It Through the Grapevine”
[In the Groove; 1968]
“I Heard it Through the Grapevine” cuts deep to the root of the male psyche, delving beyond even the most simplest of competitive levels. In most of our lifetimes, we’re bound to find ourselves in the type of situation that Marvin Gaye so poetically describes in this song: in love with a girl who may just love you back — but who also has eyes for someone else. The natural instinct in these situations is to clench a fist or lash a tongue; at first, we just want to do whatever we can to defeat that other man, as if that’s what it’s about at all. But this song is about something more. Gaye’s words express a man fighting for something far greater than a victory over another man: he’s fighting for love and adulation, and he’s willing to do so with every fiber of his earthly being.
“Ain’t Too Proud to Beg”
[Gettin’ Ready; 1966]
Equal parts heartbreaking, uplifting, and life-affirming, “Ain’t Too Proud to Beg” ranks not just among the Motown elite, but as one of the greatest pop tracks of all-time. Impossible to hear just once in a sitting, the song juxtaposes remarkable desperation — David Ruffin’s embattled “if I have to sleep on your doorstep all night and day…” is as succinctly powerful a line as there ever was — with horns, keys, and drums that exude hope and confidence. Perhaps no better anthem for a grown man brought to his knees has ever been written — and likely never will. In every tangible way, this is the perfect pop song.