Listening to The Complete Motown Singles, Vol. 6: 1966 was a virtual party -- but there's nothing virtual about The Complete Motown Singles, Vol. 7: 1967 at all; it's a nonstop, high-octane party, with barely a bad track to be heard among its 120 songs spread across five CDs. Just like in 1966, almost every single that Motown released in 1967 made the charts, an amazing feat that's a testament to the sharpness of the label's machine and the astonishing quality of the music. And there is truly a dearth of misfires here -- both a reflection of Motown's abandonment of pursuing other markets and how even the newer acts were cutting songs worthy of the superstars (indeed, they were sometimes covers of the superstars, sometimes singing over the Funk Brothers backing tracks as the label was searching for the best match to bring the biggest hit). This, as it often is, is a result of serendipitous timing, as the label's enduring stars almost all had banner years, with the longtime producer/writer powerhouse of Holland-Dozier-Holland having another great year, Norman Whitfield beginning to rise, and Ashford & Simpson joining the team, penning songs for Marvin Gaye & Tammi Terrell, highlighted by "Ain't No Mountain High Enough." Marvin & Tammi's hit is one of many major, major hits here: the duo also had "Your Precious Love," Smokey Robinson & the Miracles (now officially billed that way) had "I Second That Emotion" and "The Love I Saw in You Was Just a Mirage," the Supremes (now called Diana Ross & the Supremes) had "Love Is Here and Now You're Gone" and "Reflections," the Four Tops had "Bernadette" and "Jimmy Mack," Stevie Wonder had "I Was Made to Love Her," and Gladys Knight & the Pips entered the first ranks of stars with "I Heard It Through the Grapevine," a Marvin Gaye song that he didn't get released that year.
As always, the story of the year is only partially told in the big hits -- true, it's a significant portion of the story, but how the smaller hits and unheard gems fill out the spaces around the anthems is always fascinating and revelatory on these boxes, and in this case, it's tremendously entertaining. Signs of the time begin to creep in -- that spacy echo that begins "Reflections" is a mild acknowledgement of psychedelia also heard on "7 Rooms of Gloom," but this is overshadowed by the increasing sophistication of the productions and arrangements, giving this a richness that is revealed with close listening -- something that needs to be done, as the initial listens of these singles, from the As to the Bs, is often just intoxicating in their excitement. And this doesn't just apply to the hits -- it also applies to the singles from Chris Clark (whose "From Head to Toe" is giddy fun), the Marvelettes ("My Baby Must Be a Magician"), Barbara McNair, and the wealth of great, underappreciated sides from the Isley Brothers and the Spinners. All of this is so good that it seems like everything was running smoothly at Motown, but behind the scenes there was tension, reflected in how Diana and Smokey now have their name above the title, but more significantly in how Holland-Dozier-Holland left the label at the end of the year. Listening to The Complete Motown Singles, Vol. 7, all this strife is never apparent: there is nothing but joy in these grooves, joy that is eternal, exuberant, and permanent.