On a dig last summer through the 12-inch soul bins at Dusty Groove, where I browse on at least a biweekly basis, I snagged a radio playlist promo of some of Motown’s greatest hits. The A-Side is Smokey Robinson & the Miracles’ “The Tracks of My Tears,” a song I had always loved but hadn’t heard in some time. A few weeks later, DJing at a neighborhood bar with a superlative sound system, I played the record and was blown away hearing it at that volume with sound quality that pristine. The few patrons seemed to enjoy it too, as I spotted smiles, head nods, and waved arms as the song streamed through the worn lacquer of the bar.
Since then, I’ve come to think of “The Tracks of My Tears” as an enduring standard, a song I can play for just about anyone without an annoyed or wounded reaction. And sure enough, many artists feel the same way: “The Tracks of My Tears” has been covered numerous times by a variety of musical acts. Unsurprisingly, many renditions are precisely imitative of the original, taking great care not to fuss with the song’s central melody or even its instrumentation. But after listening to nearly three dozen renditions, I’ve been able to narrow down the five best covers of a song so good it makes velociraptors go gaga.
5. Billy Bragg
The British folk-punker might have missed the list if all he had was his spare, impassioned solo performance—included on the second disc of the 2006 reissue of the 1986 album Talking With the Taxman About Poetry—which nonetheless would have a shot. But Bragg makes it because I’m going to cheat a little and include “Tears of My Tracks,” which closes his 2002 album England, Half-English. The song inverts the music, melody, and concept of “The Tracks of My Tears,” building off a similar structure and melodic progression, underpinned by a Motown shuffle played on folk instruments. On a narrative level, Bragg’s protagonist has just sold off his record collection, and in this case the vinyl library stands in for the lost love in Robinson’s version. If not for the glossy surface of both tracks, Bragg may have been in the running for the top spot.
4. Pat Kelly
This sunny, bouncy track by rocksteady singer Pat Kelly is the one in the top five that messes with the original music the most. While Kelly’s vocal melody by and large stays true to the original, the music’s increased speed to a rocksteady rhythm and the addition of spacey keyboards places the song in another realm, roughly 1717 miles south-southwest. And Kelly sings it beautifully, blurring the boundaries between Sam Cooke and Desmond Dekker with his twirling, whistle-imitating falsetto. Originally released on Pama, the track was ironically reissued on a box set of Trojan Records singles, once Pama’s archrival.
3. (tie) Martha & the Vandellas and Gladys Knight & the Pips
The two songs that are the most respectful of the source, straying from the musical template the least, and they’re all the better for it. It makes sense that the Motown factory would want to crank out different versions of its hit songs with such an enormously talented roster—and since both of these have tremendous vocalists, why do anything differently? Martha & the Vandellas’ version is raw, with chicken-wire guitar and bongos placed up front in the mix, coarsening the mellifluous singing. Gladys Knight & the Pips’ version is dreamier and more elegant, the shimmering twinkle of glockenspiel taps hopscotching through sea-surface strings and harps that make your eyes melt. If these songs don’t move you, then there is no hope for your cold, bloodless heart.
2. Susan Cadogan
An early-80s cover that rightly attributes “The Tracks of My Tears” to lovers rock, flashing a mechanical strut and knob-spinning effects over Cadogan’s alien voice. The only potentially menacing version I’ve heard yet, which, for this song, is a revelation. If you didn’t think that “The Tracks of My Tears” could be recorded on a UFO, think again.
1. Linda Ronstadt
It doesn’t differ that much from the original, and might even be tackier, with Fender Rhodes and slide guitars pushing the music into lachrymose terrain. So why is this the best version? Because Ronstadt sings it beautifully, with a quiver in her voice that is totally country. And because the song, about a young man in a blue phase, is more explicitly presented as what it’s really about, which is the knotted strain of an intense and torturous breakup, which almost every great song is about anyways. When Fleetwood Mac heard this, do you think they realized that Ronstadt beat them to the punch? This is what it sounds like when baby boomers cry.
Honorable Mention: Half Japanese
For caring so little about the song’s beauty in the first place. On a conceptual level, the winner bar none—for listening purposes, the equivalent of a knock-knock joke in a clown car.