Few years in American history were as turbulent as 1968, so it's only appropriate that Motown -- the record label that arguably defined American pop culture in the '60s -- also had a tumultuous, historic year. To a certain extent in Motown's case, they were dealing from the aftershocks of 1967, coping with the year-end departure of Holland-Dozier-Holland, the production/writing team responsible for much of the classic Motown sound, handling upheavals in the Supremes (Flo Ballard left, Diana Ross moved to top billing) and the Temptations (Jimmy Ruffin left, Dennis Edwards was brought in) and coping with the aftermath of the Detroit riots. Smokey Robinson wrote and recorded a love letter to the city called "I Care About Detroit" that sees a rare reissue on The Complete Motown Singles, Vol. 8: 1968, a six-disc, 144-track set that documents every A- and B-side, plus alternate mixes and promos, from that turbulent year. Robinson's explicit attempt to calm the storm isn't the only time that the outside world comes crashing into Motown: 1968 is the year that the sonic and conceptual world of the label is forever broadened, as Bobby Taylor's "Does Your Mama Know About Me" touches on a previously unheard carnality and "Cloud Nine" pushes the Temptations into psychedelic soul, while Diana Ross & the Supremes tackle unwed mothers on "Love Child." Motown starts pushing into rock & roll again, releasing singles both psychdelicized and tough from Mitch Ryder's Detroit Wheels and longstanding second-thought R. Dean Taylor gets a dense bit of AM pop on "Gotta See Jane," while the Four Tops sing the Left Banke's "Walk Away Renee." But perhaps the quintessential single of the year is Marvin Gaye's finally released version of his own "I Heard It Through the Grapevine," an ominous, dramatic take that contrasts greatly with Gladys Knight's exuberant version, released in 1967 before Gaye's, even if it was cut afterward. Gladys' high energy suited 1967, but Gaye's paranoid, cinematic single suited 1968, as it brought tensions to the surface and had a broader, richer musicality.
Much of Motown's 1968 had a similar range -- there are certainly a lot of dance tunes here, as wonderful as they always are, but they aren't the rule the way they had been in the last several years. Shorty Long recycles Pigmeat Markham's "Here Comes the Judge," Jr. Walker keeps the groove going with "Hip City," Marvin & Tammi's "You're All I Need to Get By" is positively sensual in its softness, Smokey's "If You Can Want" has an urgency, and Stevie Wonder begins his startling growth spurt, including with "For Once in My Life" and a marvelous reimagined "My Girl." If the stars were themselves stretching into new territory, the new signings also illustrate that the label was looking beyond the traditional Motown sound, partially out of the necessity as Holland-Dozier-Holland no longer was around, but also because they were reflecting the shifting sounds of the time, whether it's through Abdullah's fledgling worldbeat or Edwin Starr's gutsy soul. Some of this stuff weathers better than others, but hearing fuzz tones and polyrhythms sneak alongside the uptown grooves and strings of Motown's pop-soul is exhilarating even when it doesn't always work. It also is high indication that Motown was no longer the scrappy upstart soul label from Detroit -- they had grown far from their roots, almost always in satisfying ways, but the ambition that drove Berry Gordy to make Motown the biggest sound in the Motor City also drove him out of the city, as he uprooted for Los Angeles at the end of the year, thereby making the glory days depicted on this box both the beginning of a brave new world and an end of an era.