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Marvin Gaye Songs, Ranked: 18 Top Tracks That’ll Have You Grooving Along

You’ve got to give it up for these classics that are bursting with heart and soul

He remains one of the most revered artists of all time and Marvin Gaye songs, passions and talents still live on today in the rich collection of music he left behind after his tragic death 40 years ago. Last year, he was celebrated again at Washington, D.C.’s Kennedy Center with What’s Going On NOW, a live show featuring tributes and performances from artists such as Michelle Williams of Destiny’s Child, Joshua Henry and more, as well as young poets and writers who have been influenced by Gaye’s iconic song, which Rolling Stone describes as “an exquisite plea for peace on Earth, sung by a man at the height of crisis.”

“What’s Going On” is just one of countless Marvin Gaye songs that have thrilled, entertained, and inspired listeners since he burst onto the scene in 1961. The D.C.-born singer-songwriter-drummer fell in love with music as a boy in his father, Marvin Sr.’s, church. “I loved my father’s singing voice. I loved his preaching voice. I loved everything about his church,” Gaye once recalled, but when he didn’t follow in his dad’s footsteps, it “ruined our relationship. I rebelled against his authority. I rebelled against all authority.”

man singing
Marvin Gaye (1983)Getty

After a brief stint in the Air Force, Gaye landed back in D.C. and he “decided that, come hell or high water, I was going to make it as a pop singer.” With his love of doo-wop and stars like Ray Charles, Rudy West, and James Brown as his guides, he set off to chase his dreams, and he soon began working with the likes of Bo Diddley, Harvey Fuqua, and Motown’s Berry Gordy. After years of paying his dues, Gaye’s success began with the release of his 1963 R&B hit, “Stubborn Kind of Fellow.”

Collaborating in those days with Gaye was a dream, insists Smokey Robinson. “Marvin was one of my favorite people ever to work with,” the Motown legend told Mojo magazine. “When I was producing him we’d be together all day, every day. He’d always be late, but he’d come in and I’d show him a song and he would ‘Marvinise’ it. I couldn’t ask for more than that.”

Marvin Gaye performs live on stage at the Royal Albert Hall in London on 27th September 1976
Marvin Gaye performs live on stage at the Royal Albert Hall in London on 27th September 1976 David Redfern/Redferns

From love songs to material that tackled such weighty subjects as war, peace, racism, violence, addictions and the environment, Gaye continuously grew and pushed boundaries throughout his remarkable career. “Repeating yourself is boring,” he once explained in an interview. “But being a bit, let’s say, ‘far out,’ I do tend to shock people with my albums and singles. It’s been that way since I became my own man, when I recorded ‘What’s Going On.’”

man playing; marvin gaye songs
Marvin Gaye (1974)Getty

His own demons — which included battles with drugs, depression, and debts — started to catch up to him by the 80s, however, and an ill-fated 1984 verbal dispute with his father that turned physical left the singer dead after he was shot multiple times. Gaye’s fans and contemporaries were devastated by the shocking loss. “Marvin was the person who encouraged me that the music I had within me, I must feel free to let come out,” noted Stevie Wonder, who penned “Lighting Up the Candles” for a tribute at the time.

Earlier this year, the family of Belgian musician Charles Dumolin announced they have a collection of never-before-heard music from Gaye, who lived in Europe with Dumolin for a period during the 80s. The family’s lawyer revealed there are 30 tapes that contain “66 demos of new songs. A few of them are complete and a few of them are as good as ‘Sexual Healing,’ because it was made in the same time.”

Marvin Gaye holds court at a press conference at Heathrow Airport in circa 1964 as he arrives in London
Marvin Gaye holds court at a press conference at Heathrow Airport in circa 1964 as he arrives in London Getty

Whether fans will ever hear those “new” tracks depends on how the legal rights to them shake out in the coming months — or years. In the meantime, Marvin Gaye songs — the ones everybody know and love already — are still streamed and downloaded around 20 million times a month, according to the BBC. Below, is just a partial list of some of the most inspiring and timeless Marvin Gaye songs that the musical genius created. Be sure to add your favorites to the mix.

18. “Trouble Man” (1972): Marvin Gaye songs

Oooh, come up hard, baby, I had to fight, took care my business with all my might.” Gaye often noted that this was one of the most honest songs he’d ever written, and it appeared as the title theme to Ivan Dixon’s 1972 film starring Robert Hooks as Mister T and Paul Winfield as Chalky. It sure made quite the impression on none other than folk legend Joni Mitchell. “I kept the needle on this track — playing it over and over,” she revealed in 2006, adding, “It was so influential to my music and my singing. It excites me from the downbeat – the way the drums roll in – the suspense – the approaching storm of it.”

17. “Come Get to This” (1973)

The Funk Brothers and the Detroit Symphony Orchestra back Gaye on this soothing pop-soul offering that was the second release off of 1973’s Let’s Get It On album. Rolling Stone has praised its “loose sensuality” and the “dazzling arrangement” that helped the song reach No. 3 on Billboard’s soul charts.

16. “I Want You” (1976): Marvin Gaye songs

“The time when we did [the] I Want You [LP] had to be the most happy time in Marvin’s life, because he was freshly in love, and the album exhibits that atmosphere,” Leon Ware, who co-produced the album and co-wrote this single, told Pitchfork. “When I’m told by different people all over the world how many babies that album has made—the record stands so high in my life. I could not be a prouder man.” The track hit No. 1 on the R&B charts and earned Gaye a Grammy nomination for Best R&B Male Vocal Performance.

15. “Distant Lover” (1973)

The screams from the audience on the 1974 live version of this smoldering, plaintive gem say it all. Not surprisingly, it became a popular staple of Gaye’s concerts. “The high point of the set was an extended reading of…‘Distant Lover,’ during which [Gaye] feigned tears, pounded on a piano he had been playing, threw himself across it, and delivered the last half of the lyrics on his knees,” The New York Times wrote after one 1977 performance. “It was a masterful, superbly paced exhibition, recalling the combination of abandon and elegance that was characteristic of the late Sam Cooke and Clyde McPhatter.”

14. “How Sweet It Is to Be Loved by You” (1964): Marvin Gaye songs

The title of this classic Holland/Dozier/Holland Motown hit originates from the “How sweet it is!” catchphrase made popular by The Honeymooners star Jackie Gleason. Songwriter Lamont Dozier, who was a huge fan of Gleason’s hit sitcom, also revealed that he and co-writers Brian and Eddie Holland wrote this Top Ten smash for Gaye in a higher key than the artist was used to singing. “If it was too easy, he’d get lazy,” Dozier shared.

13. “Ain’t Nothing Like the Real Thing” (1968)

Tammi Terrell, Gaye’s popular duet partner on 11 hit songs and three album, joins him here on this magical No. 1 R&B single. Their success and admiration for one another truly was, as the song goes, the real thing. “I had such emotional experiences with Tammi and her subsequent death that I don’t imagine I’ll ever work with a girl again,” Gaye insisted in 1971. Terrell had collapsed in his arms during a 1967 performance and was diagnosed with a brain tumor. Her death in 1970 at the tender age of 24 left Gaye heartbroken, and the loss contributed to his depression and reclusiveness.

12. “Ain’t That Peculiar” (1965) 1 R&B: Marvin Gaye songs

Co-written and produced by Smokey Robinson, this upbeat track features Gaye backed by The Andantes, who’d also appear on other huge hits for the singer. At the time, it became Gaye’s second million-seller single. “We were on tour and [Miracles guitarist Marv Tarplin] came to me because he had that guitar riff, which I thought was awesome. And we wrote the song right there. It was specifically for [Marvin],” Robinson told Mojo.

11. “I’ll Be Doggone” (1965)

This was Gaye’s first million-selling song, thanks to some help from producer and co-writer Smokey Robinson, who penned it with Marv Tarplin and Warren Moore. “If I ever caught you running around, blowing my money all over this town, then I wouldn’t be doggone, hey, hey, I’d be long gone,” Gaye winkingly sings on this tune that, as noted in Andrew Grant Jackson’s 1965: The Most Revolutionary Year in Music, “builds on a riff used in the Searchers’ ‘Needles and Pins.’”

10. “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough” (19TK): Marvin Gaye songs

“We played [this] song for [Dusty Springfield] but wouldn’t give it to her, because we wanted to hold that back. We felt like that could be our entry to Motown. Nick called it the ‘golden egg,’” songwriter Valerie Simpson has shared, referring to her and her Ashford & Simpson partner Nickolas Ashford’s confidence in this song being a hit. Gaye and Tammy Terrell sure didn’t let them down here, and the dynamic duo recorded several other tunes penned by the husband-wife team, including “Your Precious Love,” “Ain’t Nothing Like the Real Thing,” and “You’re All I Need to Get By.”

9. “Too Busy Thinking About My Baby” (1969)

Gaye successfully put his own spin on this 1966 song by The Temptations, and it went on to become his second-biggest hit in the 60s, reaching No. 4 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart. It was also the top-selling R&B hit of the year. Several other artists have covered it since, including Phil Collins, who drummed up his own version for his 2010 album, Going Back.

8. “You’re All I Need to Get By” (19TK): Marvin Gaye songs

The singer performed this during his eulogy for duet partner Tammi Terrell after she died in 1970, driving home the power of their bond — and the message of this brilliant Ashford & Simpson-penned tune. That message was strengthened in the Oscar-winning film CODA, in which Ruby, the daughter of deaf parents, sings the song as her father places his hands on her throat. When he signs to her, asking her what the song’s about, she simply replies, “It was about what it is to need another person.”

7. “Got to Give It Up (Pt. 1)” (1977)

This disco dazzler not only topped the Billboard Hot 100, but both the soul and disco charts as well. “It’s a strange groove, but it’s still a groove, and Gaye catches it beautifully,” Stereogum says of the infectious track that “take[s] you on a journey.” The site goes on to applaud the singer’s “ghostly, unearthly falsetto” throughout. A needle scratch on all the fun came years later, however, when Robin Thicke and Pharrell Williams’ 2013 hit “Blurred Lines” was found to have infringed on the 1977 song’s copyright in a suit brought by Gaye’s estate.

6. “Mercy, Mercy Me (The Ecology)” (1971): Marvin Gaye songs

“I don’t feel I have to conform to any particular expectations. But I would like for my music to raise people’s consciousness, rather than lower it,” Gaye once shared, and this song — which is in the Grammy Hall of Fame — challenged listeners’ minds and hearts as he sang about “oil wasted on the ocean and upon our seas, fish full of mercury,” among other ecological concerns. Songs like his and Bunny Wailer’s “aren’t written for nothing,” he noted to Sounds, adding that wisdom and freedom lie in “obeying the laws of nature.…That’s why I talk about it. If only we would adhere to certain laws [of] Mother Nature…that’s the key.”

5. “Sexual Healing” (1982)

“Our society is rather closed, slightly hypocritical,” Gaye told Indianapolis’ WRTV-TV in 1983, after his time living in Belgium. “We’re full of censorship. I noticed in Europe, there are explicit sexual scenes being shown on television.… Europeans are much more healthy from a sexual point of view than the Americans and their fear. They’re healed, so that’s what gave me the idea [for the song.]” The response to his sensual, musical release was as hot as anything he saw on European TV: “Sexual Healing” won a Grammy for Best R&B Vocal Performance, as well as one for its instrumental version, surprisingly the artist’s only two Grammy wins out of 12 career nominations. It also was a No. 1 R&B hit, reaching No. 3 on the Billboard Hot 100.

4. “Inner City Blues (Make Me Wanna Holler)” (1971): Marvin Gaye songs

One of the reasons Gaye’s music resonated with listeners so much was its brutal honesty, according to John Legend. It required “a bit of boldness,” he noted in 2012 of songs like this one, adding that in “music right now … no one really wants to talk about poverty.” But, as Youth Radio’s Brandon McFarland has stated, songs like “Inner City Blues” deftly place a spotlight “on problems in America’s ghettos — problems that still ‘make me wanna holler’ decades after [its] release.”

3. “I Heard It Through the Grapevine” (1968)

The Miracles, Gladys Knight & the Pips, and other Motown artists also recorded this classic tune, but it was Gaye’s version that went on to be the biggest seller in the iconic label’s history. “Reflecting the turbulence in his marriage to Anna [Gordy], the song turned the singer into a superstar,” according to the artist’s website. The tune, which is also in the Grammy Hall of Fame, has since been used in countless TV shows and films, including the iconic opening scene of 1983’s The Big Chill.

2. “Let’s Get It On” (1973): Marvin Gaye songs

The opening few notes alone from this sultry No. 1 smash scream “put the kids to bed!” “Oh, I think my approach to sensuality and sexuality is that of a subtle exhibitionist,” Gaye once told writer Nelson George. “I can’t deal with the raw fact. I’d rather be teased by a woman before I get it.” And this single surely tantalized everyone who heard it, as it went on to light up both the Billboard Hot 100 and soul charts, landing in the No. 1 position on both. Some unwanted heat resulted for Ed Sheerhan, however, who was accused of plagiarizing the song for his 2014 hit “Thinking Out Loud,” though those claims were ultimately rejected.

1. “What’s Going On” (1971)

When Motown head Berry Gordy feared this song would be too political and alienating for general audiences and refused to release it, Gaye stood his ground and went silent until Gordy changed his mind. “What’s Going On” has continued to change countless other minds ever since. The lyrics, Gaye’s website notes, “confronted the issues of the day: the futility of war, the eroding of the ecology, the dangers of drug addiction, the brutality of law enforcement — all seen through the prism of Christian love.”

Rolling Stone calls it “Gaye’s finest studio achievement, a timeless gift of healing.” Although he contributed lyrics to others penned by Al Cleveland and Renaldo Benson, Gaye remained humble about his success with the musical masterpiece. “I feel very good about it.…but I don’t feel good for myself,” he told Disc and Music Echo. “I didn’t have much to do with the song; I feel it all came from God. He drew me into it.”

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