Polished commercial perfection and deeply expressed emotion don’t often come together, but when they do, as they do here, it is a gem. The Motown rhythm section chugs along with Southern-school marching band precision and the Supremes are given a readymade dance move, with gloved hand extended at every “Stop!” But then, before each verse, the background chords go minor and Diana Ross, at her very best, tells her sad tale, and you can hear her heart breaking: “Is her sweet expression/ Worth more than my loving affection?” The approximate rhymes, a la Smoky Robinson, – “patient” with “infatuation” – add somehow to the sincerity of Diana’s plea. And there is one more important balance: the sad plight of the jilted lover leads not to tears, but to the forceful demand, “Stop! in the name of love.”
Sidebar: Girl Groups
Notably absent on the list to this point is any female representation. This in no way reflects my current taste, which runs heavily to Dar Williams, Nancy Griffith, Mary-Chapin Carpenter; and Joni Mitchell’s Blue and Patti Smith’s Horses are among my alltime favorite albums. Rather, it reflects the far smaller role women have always played in rock: even when there are great female lead vocalists, like Chrissie Hynde or Debbie Harry, say, the rest of the group is male. Worse, in early rock, girl songs were often fawning: I Want to Be Bobby’s Girl; Johnny Get Angry; Kookie, Kookie, Lend Me Your Comb. Still, at any one time there was usually at least one signature girl group that could stand with the best, the Chantels, the Shirelles and the Ronnettes chief among them. For general recognition, though, the Supremes were just that. At the peak of Motown glory, they matched the Temptations hit-for-hit. But rock was very much a man’s world, and it is fitting and symbolic that they appear on this list 17 places down.