Stevie Wonder stopped by the Toyota Center in Houston for his “Songs in the Key of Life” performance tour on March 20, 2015 (Photo Credit: Regal Media Group/Todd A. Smith).
Some of the best things that happen to entrepreneurs and visionaries happens when they let loose of their control and listen to the genius of others.
Motown Record Corp., and its subsidiary labels, made a name for itself in the 1960s with love songs that resonated with audiences across racial lines and political ideologies.
But sometimes artists get tired playing it safe, and they want to use their art to make a difference in the world.
When Marvin Gaye convinced Berry Gordy to release his magnum opus “What’s Going On,” Gordy’s fear of getting too political subsided a bit and new era of Motown started.
Once the 1970s began, artists like Stevie Wonder and Rick James began interjecting socially conscious lyrics into their music, and a company that many children of the 1970s viewed as corny found the legs to last for decades to come.
RegalMag.com looks back at the Motown Records catalog, ranking the top 10 socially conscious albums of all time from the “sound of young America.”
- “War and Peace” by Edwin Starr (1970)—Who doesn’t know the lyrics to “War?” Even Jackie Chan listened to “War” in “Rush Hour.” But jokes aside, “War” spoke to a young generation disenchanted with the deadly consequences of the Vietnam War. The song gave them an anthem of protest. While most of the songs on this album deal with relationships, songs like “Time” talk about how long it will take for the world to get into better shape and find peace.
- “In Our Lifetime” by Marvin Gaye (1981)—Marvin Gaye’s final studio album for Motown Records dealt with issues of God, Satan, lust, good and evil. The cover art depicted Gaye as an angel and him as a demon. But no matter how heavy the album got, the central theme for Gaye always revolved love in its many forms.
- “Black Reign” by Queen Latifah (1993)—When rapper Queen Latifah signed with Motown Records, executives made it clear that Motown did not release many negative records. By the early 1990s, hip-hop had received an excessive amount of criticism for promoting violence and misogyny. Latifah answered everyone with odes like “U.N.I.T.Y.” that demanded that men stop calling women B’s and H’s. Additionally, “Just Another Day” gave listeners a glimpse of everyday life in the hood.
- “Street Songs” by Rick James (1981)—When music fans think about “Street Songs,” they probably think about club bangers like “Super Freak” and “Give it to Me Baby” or love songs like “Fire and Desire” featuring Teena Marie. But for better or worse, James often dropped timeless songs about police brutality and ghetto life with “Mr. Policeman” and “Ghetto Life,” respectively. Unfortunately, current ghetto life is still plagued by the same issues like police brutality and discrimination.
- “Fulfillingness’ First Finale” by Stevie Wonder (1974)—On his 1974 album, Stevie Wonder dealt with religious skepticism in “Heaven is 10 Zillion Light Years Away,” political apathy in “You Haven’t Done Nothin’” featuring his cousins the Jackson 5 on background vocals and how believers deal with death in “They Won’t Go When I Go.” The latter was performed with “Never Dreamed You’d Leave in Summer” at Michael Jackson’s memorial service.
- “Innervisions” by Stevie Wonder (1973)—This list could be exclusively Stevie Wonder material. But to be fair, Regal will just stick with his classic period of the early to late 1970s. The second release of his classic era “Innervisions,” contained tracks like “Living for the City,” which depicted life for African-Americans trying to make it despite poor and discriminatory conditions. “Innervisions” also included classics like “Higher Ground,” “Don’t You Worry ‘Bout a Thing” and “Jesus Children of America.”
- “Talking Book” by Stevie Wonder (1972)—Although some consider his 1971 album “Music of My Mind” as the first of his classic era, Stevie Wonder’s career truly took off as an adult performer with “Talking Book,” which contained classics like “Superstition” that talked about various superstitions and their negative effects. “Big Brother” dealt with his complaints about politicians and his response to people who had a problem with him protesting the issues of the day. The song played on the George Orwell novel 1984 and was inspired by the unpopular Vietnam War and suggests that he would make a better leader than those in power at the time.
- “Songs in the Key of Life” by Stevie Wonder (1976)—In 1976, Stevie Wonder dropped one of the most anticipated albums of all time. At the time, Wonder often would drop one album per year. This one took two, but fans got more than twice the material with the double album, plus a few additional songs. Songs like “Love’s In Need of Love Today,” “Have a Talk with God,” “Pastime Paradise” and “Black Man” still resonate today with so much hatred and racism adversely affecting society.
- “…Free at Last” by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. (1968)—Yes, Gordy released Martin Luther King, Jr. speeches on wax. And yes, there is still a Motown Records album that RegalMag.com thinks is more significant than “Free at Last,” which included excerpts from speeches like “I Have a Dream,” “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop” and his famed sermon, “Drum Major Instinct.”
- “What’s Going On” by Marvin Gaye (1971)—Thank God Gordy got over his initial apprehension about releasing a protest album and let Gaye drop one of the best albums of all time with “What’s Going On.” The title track criticized the Vietnam War because Gaye’s brother fought in the war and told him some horrifying stories about the conflict in southeast Asia. “Inner City Blues (Make Me Wanna Holler)” dealt with the struggles of trying to overcome poverty in the inner city. “Mercy Mercy Me (The Ecology)” dealt with man’s mistreatment of the environment. “Wholy Holy” touched on unity and turning to God and the Bible to deal with the problems confronting the world. And “Save the Children” deals with saving the world for the next generation.