Apple Music 100 Best Albums

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What’s Going On

Marvin Gaye


Proof that soul music can still be both confrontational and soothing.

When Marvin Gaye brought the title track of 1971’s What’s Going On to Motown founder Berry Gordy, Gordy reportedly said it was the worst thing he’d ever heard. The music was too loose, the lyrics too political. But even Elvis was singing protest songs (1969’s “In the Ghetto”)—why couldn’t Marvin Gaye?

“He had his finger on the pulse politically of what was happening in America.”

Elton John

The album’s genius is in its lightness. Songs drift and breathe; performances feel natural, even offhand—Eli Fontaine’s saxophone part on the title track, for example, was recorded when Fontaine thought he was just warming up. As Sly & The Family Stone channeled their anger into bitter funk (1971’s There’s a Riot Goin’ On), Gaye sublimated his in lush string sections and Latin percussion—signals not just of gentleness, but sophistication. Even in the face of bleakness (the addiction portrait of “Flyin’ High [In the Friendly Sky],” “Inner City Blues [Make Me Wanna Holler]”), he floats. The revelation was that political music doesn’t have to be confrontational—it can also be warm and inviting.