Rolling Stone magazine recently updated its list of the 500 greatest albums ever created. The list initially began in 2003, saw its first update in 2012, and we're now in its third revision. I understand that music is subjective, and there is no definitive list of the "greatest" albums. However, I wanted to see what the consensus was going to be. My first reaction to hearing "Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band" was no longer ranked number one was pure bliss. I always believed "Revolver" was the better album. My next inquiry was to see who now owns the top spot. There was a huge part of me that hoped it would be either my favorite album of all time, Stevie Wonder's magnificent "Songs in The Key of Life," or Aretha Franklin's fantastic "Amazing Grace." However, upon learning the top spot belonged to Marvin Gaye's "What's Going On?" I had to revisit the album, and not only is it the clear choice as the greatest album, but it's also the album that captures the turbulence of 2020 the most.
The road to the creation of this album was a difficult one for Gaye. His singing partner, Tammi Terrell, had died of a brain tumor. His marriage to Anna Gordy, sister to Motown Boss Berry Gordy, was in jeopardy. He also attempted suicide on multiple occasions. Gaye was a reflection of America at the height of the unrest of the 1970s, confused and in desperate need of hope. The chaotic world around him led Gaye into years of seclusion and deep introspection of his responsibility as an artist. He could no longer continue to sing love songs in the backdrop of racial tension, police brutality and environmental unease. Gone was the clean-cut image expected of him from his management at Motown, and like a phoenix being reborn, Gaye became his full, realized self and gave us the masterpiece that is "What's Going On?"
The central theme of "What's Going On?" is inspired by the life of Gaye's brother, Frankie, a soldier returning from the war in Vietnam. Gaye put himself in his brother's shoes and created an album from the perspective of a soldier returning from war to a country in chaos. The title track arrived when Renaldo Benson, member of the Four Tops, documented acts of police brutality used as a measure to control anti-war protestors. Unfortunately, this image still resonates in 2020, a year highlighted by protests, social unrest, systemic racism, police brutality and existential fear due to the pandemic. Gaye's goal with this album was to make sense of what was going on and relay the often-forgotten message of hope.
As much as we like to pat ourselves on the back because of how progressive we appear to be as a society, the problems Gaye was singing about in the 1970s still ring true today. The track "Mercy Mercy Me (The Ecology)" was a heartbreaking plea for our dying planet as Gaye warned of pollution and overpopulation. "Flyin' High (In the Friendly Sky)" dives into our country's prevalent problems that occur due to drug abuse. Many citizens turning to drugs to get away from the pain of everyday life should be an indictment of the nation rather than its citizens. My favorite track on the album, "Save the Children," is Gaye at his most vulnerable and urgent state. He mournfully begs the nation to think about its future by asking us not to forget about the disadvantaged children, repeatedly echoing the words, "Save the babies, save the babies." The ingrained obstacles Gaye's generation faced remain unresolved and only goes to show that our so-called progressive society is not as advanced as we like to tell ourselves.
"Mother, mother, There's too many of you crying. Brother, brother, brother, There's far too many of you dying."
"What's Going On?" is an album written as a response to the times in which Gaye was living. However, the lyrics have never felt more poignant than this current moment, 50 years from its initial release. To be clear, this isn't an album of hard-to-listen-to protest songs. It takes much inspiration from the jazz genre but is as groovy as anything else released in the era. If you play "Inner City Blues (Make Me Wanna Holler)" at a party, I assure you that I will be grooving in some corner. The fact that Gaye's album is still resonating after all these years has given me the confidence to say beyond a doubt that the best album of 2020 was released in 1971.
Ozioma Mgbahurike is an electrical engineering sophomore and opinion writer for The Battalion.