Pazz and Jop 1971 – Potential Sin of Omission

Marvin Gaye – What’s Going On

Rolling Stone voters last year ranked this as the best album ever made. So, WTF was going on with (most) music critics in 1971 that it couldn’t even crack the Pazz and Jop top 20? It’s not like this was an unappreciated gem at the time: the album sold two million copies, spent over a year on the charts, and spawned three Top 10 singles. I don’t have any perspective on this: by the time I noticed the album’s existence, it was because I was being told it was great, so I have no way of judging 1971 listeners. But I don’t disagree with them.

Side one is a blur, and I’m only now realizing how much similarity there is between “Mercy Mercy Me” and the title track. It’s a soul record, but loaded down with so many strings that it has a jarring sweetness that feels years out of date and undermines the lyrical content. Songs flow smoothly into each other, echoing themes from the previous track, but this is an unfortunate sameness that limits how much any individual song can stand out. (If you can distinguish tracks 2 to 4 from each other, you’re much better at this than me.) Side two starts out cooking, but two-thirds through “Right On”, those damned strings are back, before coming back to life in the last 40 seconds or so, then reverting to form on the next track.

No, this isn’t the best album ever made. That’s just silly. I wanted to love this record, but I just can’t see it ever happening. It’s 3 or 4 good songs joined to background music for a boring dinner party. I’m going to give the 1971 critics a W for this one over the 2020 critics.

(Originally posted on Facebook, March 21, 2021)

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