Try It Baby, 1964
Featuring backing tracks from The Temptations, this blues ballad employs the classic trope of a woman leaving her spiteful man. The groovy tunes are a Motown classic, but the song didn’t receive real commercial acclaim until years later. While the track, coming early in his career as a Motown artist, is often seen as too conventional, the notes are an obvious precursor to Gaye’s later epochal, colorful beats of a generation. The song was written and produced by Motown legend Berry Gordy, who happened to be Gaye’s brother-in-law.
Calypso Blues, 1965
This iconic track, featured on Marvin Gaye’s sixth studio album A Tribute To Nat King Cole, is a rhythmic dream. The tribute album was dedicated to Gaye’s idol and musical inspiration, jazz star Nat King Cole. Gaye’s melodic voice chants over rampant bongo drums for a distinctive, eclectic edge that both soothes the audience and makes them want to sway their hips.
I Heard It Through The Grapevine, 1968
I Heard It Through The Grapevine was Gaye’s long-awaited commercial breakthrough. While previously receiving modest to impressive success on R&B charts, Gaye had yet to expand his reach – until releasing this now classic track. Gordy produced the song with the idea to ‘out-funk Aretha Franklin’s Respect.’ The soulful, female background vocals mix well with Gaye’s tone, which was becoming raspier.
What’s Going On, 1971
The title track of the What’s Going On album is still Gaye’s most famed song. Receiving over 50 awards, and topping lists like ‘Best Album of the Century,’ What’s Going On goes down in history as one of the best pieces of music. Ever. The concept album revolves around issues of social justice, and it became an anthem for Black America. But it’s catchy, soulful tunes earned appeal from a wide audience. Here, Gaye began to incorporate smooth and soulful jazz, which would become a staple of his later records, but is absent from his previous releases.
Mercy Mercy Me (The Ecology), 1971
As the name suggests, this is Gaye’s sorrowful, soulful anthem dedicated to the environment. The second single on What’s Going On employs Gaye on piano, with a distinctive percussion backing track and a saxophone solo. Keeping with the album’s activist theme, Gaye expresses his love for the planet, and dismay at its current state. The song won a Grammy Hall of Fame award in 2002, and was his third track to receive the honor.
Inner City Blues, 1971
The concluding poignant track of What’s Going On is often considered a precursor to modern rap and hip-hop. The bongo-driven tune discusses the struggles of working class America. While more soulful, and lacking any speaking parts, the song’s rhythm and message pave the way for musical outlets, and the concept of taking solace in relatable lyrics. The sublime melodies are also unparalleled.
Let’s Get It On, 1973
This mature tune solidified Marvin Gaye’s status as a musical sex icon and accelerated his mainstream appeal. The rhythmic, soulful beats are ideal to match with the thrusting of hips, and the explicit lyrics don’t exactly leave much for the imagination. The mix of funk instruments, producing a smooth, sexy noise, were contributed by The Funk Brothers.
You’re A Special Part Of Me, 1973
This song was featured on a duet release album with Diana Ross. Despite their different styles, the pair were considered the top soul artists of their generation. The iconic album’s cover depicts Gaye and Ross back to back, with both their afros proudly on display. The duo of classy bad-asses delight with more drum symbols than expected, and a lighter flow; snap along to Ross’s high pitched, yet melodious voice.
Sexual Healing, 1982
One of his greatest hits, this track was featured on Gaye’s final album before his death, Midnight Love. Gaye released three studio albums between Let’s Get It On and Midnight Love, but all pale in comparison to his iconic hits, as he struggled with a cocaine addiction, the fall-out of a divorce, and disputes with his record company. Here, a more mature and reenergized Gaye, fresh out of rehab and with a much raspier voice, makes you want to jump right into bed with him. It’s a catchier tune that’s an intentional step away from Motown and full embracement of R&B.
Sanctified Lady, 1985
Released after Gaye’s senseless murder, Sanctified Lady was the only one of his 30 posthumous tracks to garner critical attention. Gaye intended the title to be Sanctified Pussy, which he can be heard mumbling on the track, but clearly his wishes were not respected.
By Kate McMahon