Berry Gordy moved Motown from Detroit to Los Angeles at the end of 1968 but, like an earthquake, not all of the aftershocks were felt after the initial shift. It took a while for all the dust to settle, for Motown to start feeling like it belonged to Hollywood instead of the Motor City, for the label to get to the point where the showbiz began to eclipse the soul, and that year was 1971. That year, Gordy slowly started to recede from the day-to-day operations of the label, choosing to pursue interests in film and television, but Motown hardly shut down in his absence: they churned out more 45s than ever, releasing so many singles in the course of a single year that when it came time for Hip-O Select to cover 1971 in their comprehensive The Complete Motown Singles series, they had to split the year into two multi-disc box sets. This, Vol. 11A, covers the first six months of 1971, six months that had enough activity for a year -- a full six discs of material, to be precise. The entirety of Motown's 1970 singles output fit onto a six-disc set for Vol. 10, so it stands to reason that 1971 either was an embarrassment of riches or found the label stretching itself a little thin.
The Complete Motown Singles, Vol. 11A: 1971 proves the latter to be true, containing moments of blinding genius surrounded by cinematic schmaltz and funky filler. Genius is none too strong a word for the best music Motown produced in the first half of 1971, especially the album that defined the year for the label and much of pop music in general, Marvin Gaye's What's Going On. This was the first Motown LP to be an artist-driven concept album, a seismic shift within the label that is just as palpable when it's sampled here by its two hit singles, "What's Going On" and "Mercy Mercy Me (The Ecology)," as they sit respectively next to R. Dean Taylor's AM pop and Hearts of Stone's bubblegum soul, two pieces of agreeable fluff that have more to do with the label at large than Marvin's two masterworks. Gaye was hardly the only artist working at a peak during these six months: Stevie Wonder began to enter his mature phase, rearranging the Beatles' "We Can Work It Out," which was backed with the extraordinary "Never Dreamed You'd Leave in Summer"; Smokey Robinson had the great "I Don't Blame You at All"; the Jackson 5 had "Never Can Say Goodbye" and "Mama's Pearl"; Gladys Knight & the Pips had the slow-burner "I Don't Want to Do Wrong"; the Temptations hit a high watermark with "Just My Imagination (Running Away with Me)" while David Ruffin had a few great singles that didn't quite take off; Rare Earth's "I Just Want to Celebrate" was the peak of Motown's hippie rock; and the Undisputed Truth's "Smiling Faces Sometimes" proved that it wasn't just Motown's legacy acts that were turning out great music.
Nevertheless, it's those Marvin Gaye singles that point out the gap between what Motown's artists were capable of achieving and the product that the label was cranking out. Blinded by the stars of Tinsel Town, the label signed up Sammy Davis, Jr. to cut a single of show tunes, granted Bobby Darin the permission to indulge in his soulman fantasies, and had Bill Cosby mug with Diana Ross on Randy Newman's "Love Story" for Ross' TV variety show -- and this splashy, schmaltzy sound isn't just heard here, but throughout the lesser-known sides. Often, these justly neglected 45s don't sound like singles buried in the back of some dusty record store but rather incidental soundtrack music for a forgotten television show. There are naturally exceptions to the rule -- the great Chuck Jackson gamely struggles with the novelty "Pet Names," Eddie Kendricks' melodramatic "This Used to Be the Home of Johnnie Mae" has some symphonic force, Stoney & Meatloaf's "What You See Is What You Get" is a terrific hippie blues-rock number, and Arthur Adams' scrapped slow blues "Uncle Tom" has a terrific flip, the insistent dance number "Morning Train" -- but for the most part the lesser-known singles here are cornball cultural artifacts, interesting for collectors and soul fanatics, but they pale too easily next to the unadulterated brilliance of the best music here.