The Ultimate Collection (Motown ’97) Rating: A
Unlike most Motown artists, The Four Tops made some very good albums as well as great singles, such as Four Tops Second Album and Reach Out. However, given that most of their best songs followed a familiar formula, this collection, which covers their 1963-1972 stay at Motown (and is therefore missing later Dunhill hits such as "Keeper Of The Castle" and "Ain't No Woman (Like The One I've Got)"), will suffice for most fans. It’s probably the best of the many compilations available, as it contains a generous 25 tracks distilled onto a single cd. Wrapped within a classy package, all the major Motown hits are included, including gritty classics such as “Reach Out (I’ll Be There),” “Standing In The Shadows Of Love,” and “Bernadette,” all of which feature the desperate vocals of Levi Stubbs, who sings in a feverish pitch akin to a spirited preacher holding court in church. The music has a lush, haunting, echoed quality that’s unforgettable, and memorable lines like “it may come today, it may come tomorrow, but it's for sure, I ain't got nothin' but sorrow” are additional tributes to the craft and quality of these intense songs. The group’s irresistibly infectious pop side is also well represented by standards such as “Baby I Need Your Loving,” “It’s The Same Old Song,” and “I Can’t Help Myself (Sugar Pie, Honey),” all of which are among the most easily likeable songs ever, while the baroque pop of “Ask The Lonely” provides another impeccable all-time classic. These songs are essential to any comprehensive soul library, but this collection also compiles quite a few lesser known gems (many of which were also hits back in the day), such as the sweetly singable “Loving You Is Sweeter Than Ever” (later covered by The Band), the joyously upbeat “I Got A Feeling,” the fiery “I’m In A Different World,” a classy cover of The Left Banke’s “Walk Away Renee” that in my opinion actually improves upon the original, the light, liquid-like "Still Water (Love)," the delectable soft soul of “(It’s The Way) Nature Planned It),” the soaring “You Keep Running Away,” the ridiculously catchy sing along “I'll Turn To Stone,” the also absurdly catchy if not quite as good "Shake Me, Wake Me, When It's Over," as well as “A Simple Game” and “7 Rooms Of Gloom,” both of which see The Four Tops at their toughest and most intense. Still, though this collection covers a productive ten year period, it was their timeless ‘64-’67 peak that made these guys legends, as the group never completely recovered from the 1968 Motown departure of Holland-Dozier-Holland, who wrote, produced, and arranged all the band’s best songs and who really had them down cold. Unlike many other Motown acts, the Four Tops’ lineup has remained consistent throughout the years, as the group rose above the petty ego clashes that destroyed many of their peers. However, though the flawless, hauntingly evocative backing harmonies of Renaldo “Obie” Benson, Lawrence Payton, and Abdul “Duke” Fakir played a major role in making the Four Tops tick, it was the brilliantly intense soul voice of Levi Stubbs that will forever define this great group. Perhaps there was some truth to the lyrics of “It’s The Same Old Song” ("it's the same old song but with a different beat"), sometimes Holland-Dozier-Holland could go overboard with the string arrangements, and Stubbs certainly could be a bit over-the-top with his histrionics. However, at their best the vocal group (with help from the peerless Motown house band the Funk Brothers) made some of the best soul pop songs ever.