From MC5 to Jeff Mills: the greatest Detroit tracks ever – ranked!

From Motown psychedelia to dystopian rap and orchestral techno, the Motor City is more than just a garage rock paradise

10. MC5 – Skunk (Sonicly Speaking), 1971

Wayne Kramer, co-founder of garage rock titans MC5, has assembled an all-star line up to tour later this year, marking the 50th anniversary of the band’s energetic classic Kick Out the Jams. But their third album, High Time, features the best five-and-a-half minutes they ever recorded, with one of their greatest riffs, percussion like a series of rifle shots to the spine, and brass that floats in and out. It is a hallucination of what heavy music could have been.

9. Danny Brown – Downward Spiral, 2016

Garage rock is just one part of the city’s heritage – Brown’s unearthly, disjointed hip-hop sounds like modern Detroit looks: half-deserted, half-haunted, a spectral city.

8. Suzi Quatro – Can the Can, 1973

This is what happens when Detroit rock meets English production-line glam. In Detroit, Quatro and her sister Patti had formed an all-female garage band; when she moved to England, she kept the hardness of Detroit and married it to Mickie Most’s pop smarts. Can the Can is the perfect glam single: tough, melodic and unrelenting.

7. Inner City – Good Life, 1988

Detroit techno was just for clubbers and music heads until Kevin Saunderson brought in Paris Grey to sing on top of his riffs. The result was Paradise, a big UK hit album, full of fabulous singles. At the time, they sounded like nothing else on the chart: cold and aloof, yet also welcoming and exuberant.

6. The Velvelettes – Needle in a Haystack, 1964

There is no more blissful expression of the early Motown sound than Needle in a Haystack, sung by three young Detroit women who won musical immortality in two-and-a-half minutes of stomping rhythm, handclaps, choppy guitar and sunny cynicism: “Finding a good man, girls, is like finding a needle in a haystack.”

5. Mitch Ryder and the Detroit Wheels – Jenny Take a Ride, 1966

Before MC5, the Stooges, Alice Cooper and the rest, the sound of Detroit rock was frantic, frenetic R&B, played with proto-punk energy and speed by the likes of the Rationals and, especially, Ryder. Jenny Take a Ride is the midpoint between Motown and MC5.

4. The White Stripes – Fell In Love With a Girl, 2001

Listening to the White Blood Cells album all these years on, it’s so easy to understand why the White Stripes were like a twister through rock music, tearing down all in their way. Fell In Love With a Girl sounds less like a song than something that has erupted out of thin air, a wild and exhilarating force.

3. Jeff Mills – The Bells, 1996

A Detroit emigré perhaps, but Mills keeps the spirit of Kevin Saunderson, Derrick May and Juan Atkins alive. The Bells is claustrophobic and unnerving, but so expansive it has been converted into orchestral versions far removed from the hard techno of the original mix.

2. The Stooges – I Wanna Be Your Dog, 1969

After 49 years, I Wanna Be Your Dog still sounds like the filthiest, most transgressive record ever. Ron Asheton’s guitar riff is despair amplified, meaning that even if Iggy Pop had the slightest intention of sounding sexy, he wouldn’t be able to.

1. The Temptations – Papa Was a Rolling Stone, 1972

Perhaps Motown’s greatest achievement, Papa Was a Rolling Stone was the highpoint of Norman Whitfield and Barrett Strong’s psychedelic soul songwriting period, and a peerless production from Whitfield. It is an audacious track – more than 12 minutes on album and still nearly seven when cut down for single release – not least because it is built around a single B-flat minor chord. The Temptations themselves were unhappy with Whitfield’s treatment of them in the studio, and the way his daring with instrumentation was pushing their voices to the periphery of their own releases. But from tension came greatness, a song and performance that hits home as hard today as it did then.


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