Stevie Wonder Albums From Worst To Best


Stevie Wonder Albums From Worst To Best


Steveland “Stevie Wonder” Morris is an indisputable icon of American music, but in many ways is best understood as a part of a separate tradition — that of the musical prodigy. Like Mozart, Mendelssohn, Earl Scruggs, and Alex Chilton before him, Wonder composed and performed songs as a young child that inextricably transformed the contemporary landscape. For those of us vested with a more normative skill set, the surpassing strangeness of this state of affairs can be difficult to grasp. By the time he was 12 years old, Wonder was an ascendant star and popular live draw. By 18 he had already experienced a full career’s worth of professional and creative triumphs and setbacks. By the 1970s, a decade he dominated with a masterful run of classic albums, Wonder had fully wed his extraordinary intuitive genius with the hard-won lessons of a calloused music business veteran. By age 30 he was largely spent as a creative force.

Arriving under hardscrabble circumstances in 1950, Wonder was born several weeks premature and blind from birth. Nevertheless, by the time his mother relocated the family to Detroit when he was 4, Wonder had already begun to develop his uncanny musical gifts for piano, harmonica, and drums. A natural showman and sonorous vocalist, Wonder gained sufficient notoriety as a street performer that he quickly attracted the attention of executives from the local Motown juggernaut. What followed was a series of events resembling nothing so much as Harry Potter arriving at Hogwarts — the gifted wunderkind encountered skeptically by veteran wizards including Mary Wells, Smokey Robinson, and Marvin Gaye. Label head Berry Gordy was the Dumbledore figure — sufficiently intrigued to take a chance, but worried what complications might follow.

Complications indeed ensued. Labor laws constrained Wonder’s ability to write and record as a minor, and within Motown, arguments raged over how best to market the prodigy. The consequences of this confusion yielded results both ridiculous and sublime. Wonder’s first charting single was 1963’s antic, live-recorded “Fingertips Part 1 & 2,” an infectious piece of harmonica-driven R&B pitched someplace between Booker G’s “Green Onions” and the Isley Brothers’ “Shout.” The single made Little Stevie, as he was then billed, a minted commodity but also created a paradox. How to sell a teenaged genius whose voice and style were certain to mature?

Still unsure of his youthful charge, Gordy shipped Little Stevie out to Motown West in Los Angeles, where he was conscripted into ludicrous fare such as Stevie At The Beach, a transparent and cynical attempt to capitalize on the popularity of Jan & Dean and the Beach Boys. Provided an untenable creative context, Wonder did his level best to breathe life into these product records, but his frustration was growing acute. Only 1966’s undeniable “Up-Tight Everything’s Alright” hinted at a solution, or at least a détente between a rapidly growing artist and a label bent on maximizing every last dollar.

In an era where success and failure in the industry revolved around the relative ephemera of the 7″ rather then the overarching statements of the LP, tensions between labels and artists became a constant. At Motown, highly tenured Marvin Gaye had already adopted a dissident attitude — releasing the bracing, topical LP What’s Going On over the objection of Gordy, who allegedly referred to the future classic as “The worst thing I ever heard.” That record’s immediate critical and commercial success chastened, or at least reoriented Gordy, who subsequently got religion on Wonder’s more auteur impulses. What followed was his golden period — a collection of timeless records beginning with 1971’s unsubtly titled Where I’m Coming From and running through 1976’s double-LP masterpiece Songs In The Key Of Life.

Equal parts innovative and back-to-basics, these records found Wonder picking and choosing his favorite elements of the soul, funk, folk, and psychedelic music of the period, and repurposing them into a wholly unique and profoundly gratifying vision. The highlights from this era read like a veritable songbook of American standards: the sultry come-on of “Love Having You Around,” the demolition guitar funk of “Superstition,” and the verité nightmare of “Living In The City” all resound as deeply in the public consciousness today as they did upon their initial release. By the time Wonder was opening for the Rolling Stones on their infamous 1972 tour, he had arguably eclipsed that band as avatars of post-racial popular song. Between enormous AM radio hits like “You Are The Sunshine Of My Life” and the validation of P-Funk hero George Clinton naming Stevie “Secretary Of Fine Arts” on Parliament’s indispensable 1975 track “Chocolate City,” Wonder had successfully navigated Berry Gordy’s long-dreamed-of middle path between African-American pride and mainstream acceptance.

As the great Sly Stone receded further and further into a haze of drugs and disillusion, Wonder increasingly stood alone in the mid-’70s as a serious ambassador of African-American anxieties to both black and white audiences. Sly’s 1971 masterpiece There’s A Riot Going On is one greatest records ever made — a crushingly cynical and all too true account of poverty’s despair and the bleak future of urban communities going forward. But crucially, it failed to speak to a diverse audience and ultimately has been relegated to the province of a devoted cult. Meanwhile, Wonder’s more panoramic and approachable vision continues to attract a new and diverse fan base, one that seems to expand with each passing year. Without Stevie, it could be stipulated, there is no Prince, no De La Soul, no Neptunes, no Kanye, and no Kendrick Lamar.

Genius knows no expiration date, so it is entirely possible that we might not have heard the last master blast from the great man himself. In the meantime, there is also the truth that a man’s legacy is his truest testament. Arguably no living artist has left a legacy greater than Stevie Wonder.


The Woman In Red Soundtrack (1984)

By 1984, a largely taxed and tasked Wonder suggested to Berry Gordy that he fulfill his contractual obligation of giving Motown a record annually with the soundtrack to The Woman In Red. Initially, Gordy blanched at the suggestion that Stevie "Songs In the Key Of Life" Wonder do another soundtrack after the commercial failure of The Secret Life Of Plants. Then Stevie played "I Just Called To Say I Love You" and Gordy realized he had a huge hit on his hands and consented. Prescient insight, indeed -- "I Just Called" skyrocketed to the top of the charts and was a massive commercial success. The rest of the record is mostly disposable and largely forgettable songs, with Dionne Warwick doing a lot of the heavy lifting, vocally. Album closer "Don't Drive Drunk" is pretty fun though, and Wonder sounds energized delivering the sundry vignettes of bad judgment followed with the exhortation as a chorus: "Don't drive drunk/ Mothers Against Drunk Driving are mad." God, the '80s were strange.


A Tribute To Uncle Ray (1962)

Eleven-year-old Little Stevie's second Motown outing is mostly evidence of the massive young talent they had on their hands and the extent to which they had no idea what to do with him. In this instance, Berry Gordy's calculated decision to have Wonder record a tribute record to the minted American legend Ray Charles feels both cynical and somehow inevitable. The unsubtle attempt to situate Wonder in the public consciousness as Charles' successor ignores their inherent musical and regional differences while seeming to place a premium on more superficial similarities. Predictably, the results are pretty weird. Listening to an eleven-year-old boy sing the hardscrabble standards from the Charles repertoire is off-putting, a dissonance made only stronger by the pure, elasticity of Wonder's remarkable young voice. Singing the savage murder-based traditional "Frankie & Johnny," Little Stevie might as well be going out for milkshakes. Still and even, the band and singer throws their shoulder into a difficult concept and render some gems. Opener "Hallelujah I Love Her So" swings with agreeable infectious energy and the Wonder co-write "Sunset" hints at the roiling genius lurking in this budding writer and arranger. Overall, clearly minor but interesting.


Conversation Peace (1995)

After a considerable lull and an inspiring visit to Ghana, Wonder returned to the studio after the relative failure of the Jungle Fever soundtrack. Electing to dispense with his usual band personnel, all of the instrumentation on the album is largely played by Wonder himself and the result is a more immediate record that at least sounds different than that which preceded it. His preoccupations still seem more or less the same -- love, sex, love, god, love lost, and some larger social concerns -- guns, violence, equality, and he makes reference to the Holocaust. The best effort here, bar-none, is Stevie's near 7-minute meditation on getting played by a lady "Cold Chill," which despite its rousing outtro describing in detail how cold things got -- "like standing in the deep freeze/ like when the snow's above your knees/ like a winter Chicago night/ buried beneath ten feet of ice" -- the track shines with the brilliance of a hundred suns. Maybe it's just because it's refreshing to hear that even Stevie can get dissed, or maybe it's merely great to know that stripped down, he still can bring the heat.


A Time To Love (2005)

As a long delayed, and conspicuously (desperately?) "star studded" outing, 2005's A Time For Love seemed by all appearances an unpromising gambit from the outset. Following two decades of Wonder engaging only sporadically with his extraordinary gifts, it had become increasingly difficult to imagine him delivering a persuasive album of serious musical and thematic content. Happily, A Time To Love is a good and occasionally exceptional release -- certainly no classic, but by no means an embarrassment. The tense, skittering opener 'If You're Love Cannot Be Moved' unfolds as a kind of romantic and existential debate between Stevie and Kim Burrell, while the insouciant funk of "Sweetest Somebody I Know" is the resigned middle aged response to Music Of My Mind's endlessly horny "Sweet Little Girl." Other highlights include the aggressive groove and topical funk of "What The Fuss" and "Positivity," which represents perhaps Wonder's best ever flirtations with modern rock and R&B. Relative to the best of his work, the production feels overly safe and the content slightly milquetoast -- but at least the blood is boiling.


Stevie At The Beach (1964)

On the heels of Wonder's initial brush with mainstream success with "Fingertips Part 2," Gordy looked to capitalize on his young phenom's rising stardom in manners ranging from the ridiculous to the sublime. By 1964 and Stevie On The Beach, rock's California Gold Rush was already in full effect and Motown hit on the idea of sending Wonder out to the newly minted Hitsville West studios in California, to record a collection of songs about sun, surfing and general chillaxing. The inherent silliness of the Detroit raised Stevie enthusing about his love of all things Left Coast inherently consigns the project to baffling time capsule status, but to their credit, Stevie and the band do everything in their power to wrestle the material to the ground and on tracks like the romantic soul opener "Castles In The Sand" and the effervescent swagger of "Hey Harmonica Man" they deliver an exciting listen with the surgical precision which typified the unstoppable machine of '60s Motown. Still, this is the sound of a very young artist executing marching orders, biding his time, and standing on the precipice of finding his true voice.


Stevie Wonder's Journey Through The Secret Life Of Plants (1979)

After the critical and financial success of Songs In The Key Of Life, it seemed as if there was nothing that could stop the genius auteur hitmaker. So by all means the commensurate gesture would be to release a near 90-minute, mostly instrumental soundtrack to accompany the trippy documentary Journey Through The Secret Life Of Plants as a follow up. This isn't to say it was a bad idea, just an odd one. When experienced alongside the film, the soundtrack works like gangbusters, but as a standalone sensation, it mostly feels like Stevie indulging his most experimental notions, which involves a lot of synths, and sounds a lot like new-age music. There are so many good ideas here though, that it's hard to just cast aside as worthless. The funky, harmonica-driven "The First Garden" actually feels like it's going somewhere interesting (in the film it is accompanied by some amusing time-lapse photography of primordial ooze getting relatively antic) until it descends into lysergic weirdness. Ditto that "Race Babbling" which has a lot of the DNA for a floor-filling club banger. Wonder's vocal performances on tracks like "Same Old Story" and "Black Orchid" are uniformly excellent, even if the lyrical content is mostly stuff along the lines of "For most felt it was mad to conceive/ That plants thought, felt and moved like we/ But with instruments Bose would devise/ Would take science itself by surprise, so." Okay, so, yeah, if you're not watching the movie, it's definitely peculiar. If you're watching the movie, it's still peculiar, but makes a little more sense. Still and even, it speaks more to the genius of Wonder to elect to explore the possibilities of sound and composition outside of the context of a typical LP of the sort he had been making for nearly twenty years.


The Jazz Soul Of Little Stevie (1962)

Little Stevie's completely instrumental Motown debut is a formidable presentation of the precocious young artist's myriad talents. His abilities on bongos, drums, organ, piano and harmonica are all on display here, like a Chinese menu of freakish musical competency. He adds "composer" to the list as well, offering up two original songs -- the upbeat organ showcase "Wondering" and the laid back "Session Number 112." The album has more chops than a butcher shop and it's an easy listen to be sure, but lives on as evidence of the greatness to come -- an early take of "Fingertips" serves as the lead track and feels mostly inert compared to the future live version. And probably early listeners were left wondering, "Sure, but can he SING?" Yeah, we'll get to that soon.


Music From The Movie Jungle Fever (1991)

There was a perception surrounding Stevie Wonder by the late '80s that he was incapable of doing anything resembling his previous achievements. So when he penned the soundtrack for Spike Lee's provocative 1991 film Jungle Fever, expectations were understandably managed. And while it's mostly dispensable absent the context of the film, the Jungle Fever soundtrack still has highlights that at a minimum suggest that Wonder isn't just mailing it in. Quite the contrary -- energetic opener "Fun Day" is classic Stevie, working at his absolute hardest. Sure, the lyrics are positive to the point of verging on Christian rock, but Stevie sounds totally committed to the sentiments and it's completely rewarding, especially when he is driven so beyond himself that he exhorts the band repeatedly to please let him solo -- "Let me solo, let me solo, let me solo, SOLO!." Production gloss aside, this remains a largely listenable and enjoyable outing. And the brilliant, infectious title track really forgives all sins -- it could easily be mistaken for a lost Prince outtake -- an awesome one at that.


My Cherie Amour (1969)

My Cherie Amour is yet another in a long line of terrifically listenable but mainly disposable Stevie Wonder records that include a constellation of covers -- ranging from standards to contemporary hits -- that orbit around a great single. This time the singles are the infinitely hummable title track, which is a modern standard in its own right to this day, bookended by the moving "I've Got You." In between, the cover of "Hello Young Lovers," is an awesome upbeat Motown re-imagining of Rogers and Hammerstein's original sentiments. Wonder's version of "At Last" hews toward a more traditional reading, and more like this would be welcome. But the decision to cover the Doors' "Light My Fire" is just a head scratcher that mostly seems like a cynical attempt to latch onto the zeitgeist, but who really cares when Stevie Wonder is singing, really?


I Was Made To Love Her (1967)

Following the chart-topping success of the original song "I Was Made To Love Her" -- very ostensibly co-written with Wonder's mother -- Motown commissioned Stevie's seventh album to keep the momentum around the single going. Unfortunately, the rest of the record lacks the floor-filling, goosebump-raising excitement and heft of the title track. Competent but faithful covers of "My Girl," "Respect" and "Please Please Please" feel so perfunctory and bore hours into the album's 33-minute runtime. Still, it's worth the price of admission for the lead track, which reaffirms to the world that 17-year-old Stevie has a lot to add to the conversation as a writer, and Motown is on the precipice of letting him do just that. Watch out, world.


Down To Earth (1966)

Wonder's second album of 1966 is frequently accomplished and yet clearly transitional, often times a more fascinating listen then a strictly successful one. As a document of the 16-year-old wrestling with his changing voice, his deepening thematic complexity, and Motown's evolving and occasionally confused approach to deploying their in-residence genius it is a priceless historical document. As an album, it's a mixed bag -- juxtaposing genuinely thrilling moments like the Wonder co-write "Be Cool, Be Calm (And Keep Yourself Together)" with relatively staid and bloodless covers of songs by Bob Dylan and Sonny Bono. The evolving social consciousness represented by his reading of the union anthem "Sixteen Tons" hints at his future role as a crucial voice of the underclass, but Wonder has yet to sufficiently embroider his own vision onto the Motown sound to make it his own. Politics are coming down the line, and soon, but the sublime, Smokey-style soul ballad closer "Hey Love" is probably the highlight here. This is Wonder's Beatles For Sale: slight and inspired, vaguely fatigued and utterly pregnant with impending greatness.


In Square Circle (1985)

1985's In Square Circle sometimes gets a bad rap alongside most of Stevie Wonder's '80s output, because it's too formulaic and polished. Fair critiques, as it is both of these things. But it has the added advantage of being a fantastic collection of mostly up-tempo love songs ranging from the swingingly kinky ("Part Time Lovers") to the effervescently sexy ("I Love You Too Much") to the depressively longing ("Go Home") to the depressively lonely ("Stranger On The Shore Of Love") with liberal dashes of the socially curious ("Spiritual Walkers") and the socially conscious (It's Wrong [Apartheid])" and padded by some more than serviceably agreeable filler. Seriously, it's a lot of fun to listen to, and clearly emblematic of Wonder's capacity to bring more to the dance even when he might be ostensibly mailing it in.


Hotter Than July (1980)

Stevie Wonder's post-Secret Life Of Plants offering is a welcome return to relative form, replete with unstoppable hooks and luxurious arrangements. The A side is occupied principally by amusing, upbeat love songs that range from the horny, to the yearning, to the horny and yearning. The second side is a bit more varied, starting with "Master Blaster (Jammin')" -- a tribute to Bob Marley and his music, both of which had a profound effect on Wonder. The next track, "Do Like You" tells the story of a young boy that aspires to be a dancer -- and goes on to become a great one -- bringing to mind nothing so much as "I Can Do That" from A Chorus Line. The biting "Cash In Your Face" that follows deals with the subject of racial segregation in the housing market, and would be a great companion piece to The Clash's "Up In Heaven (Not Only Here)." And the album closes with the jubilant "Happy Birthday," which was written explicitly to advocate for making Martin Luther King Jr.'s birthday a national holiday. It's a rousing, triumphant anthem that excites and inspires -- and by 1983, the job had been done.


With A Song In My Heart (1963)

In 1963 Motown was still in play-it-safe mode with Wonder, unsure of where to take the young savant, and understandably unaware of the extraordinary songwriter gestating in their midst. Hence With A Song In My Heart, a lush and perhaps overly tasteful take on the Great American Songbook, featuring Stevie's interpretations of classics by Rodgers and Hart, Johnny Mercer, Harold Arlen and other giants of 20th century composition. It's a good news/bad news proposition, showcasing the brilliant range and empathy of Wonder's peerless vocals, while also accomplishing the almost impossible task of making a 13-year-old boy sound borderline geriatric. Nevertheless, this is an involving and enjoyable listen, and clearly establishes the boy genius as a vocal interpreter worthy of the company of Johnny Hartman, Ella Fitzgerald and, in his darker moments, Nina Simone. Powerful tracks include an indelible version of the feel-bad life coaching of "Make Someone Happy" and the swinging closer "Without A Song," which would have passed grandstand muster at the old Sands Casino. Now lets get some funk into this thing.


Recorded Live: The 12-Year-Old Genius (1963)

Mainstream America's first exposure to the phenomenon of Little Stevie Wonder came on the strength of the epochal live single "Fingertips Part 1&2," a number one on both the pop and R&B charts in May 1963. This subsequent album of concert recordings demonstrates Wonder's already electric acumen as a live performer, one who on Motown Revues regularly stole the show from stalwarts like Marvin Gaye and Martha Reeves and The Vandellas. The opening "Fingertips" is worth the price of admission alone, seven minutes of harmonica driven hard funk and vocal exhortation in the manner of James Brown at the peak of his powers. Elsewhere this is largely a demonstration of Little Stevie's insanely polygamous abilities with drums, vocals and harp, at times seeming almost more athletic than musical. Still, it is hard not to be stunned into admiring silence on Wonder's mesmerizing reading of Henry Glover's devastating "Drown In My Own Tears." In total, a muscular display of budding greatness, gradually putting the crucial elements of his future masterworks in place.


Characters (1987)

You might think Characters is a bummer listen if you judged it on its ponderous lead track "You Will Know," a ballad of the most pious order that basically says everyone on the margins (well, actually in this case just drug addicts and lonely single parents) can find some solace through prayer. But once that smoke is cleared, Characters is actually a pretty satisfying workout with a relatively exercised Stevie, who seems ready to take on everything from apartheid to Ronald Reagan and Oliver North. Then Michael Jackson shows up for a ferocious duet and you're reminded anew why Stevie Wonder working at even half-speed is still better than almost everything else.


Where I'm Coming From (1971)

From the proto-prog opener "Look Around" to the vaguely psychedelic "Something Out Of The Blue" to the crushing break-up ballad "Never Dreamed You'd Leave Me In Summer" it is abundantly clear that Wonder is not kidding around with the title Where I'm Coming From. Indeed, this is the first of his records that feels completely the product of his own vision, utilizing little of the classic Motown sound and drawing from a large and unwieldy spectrum of influences. That assertion of talent and authority is a bit of a mixed bag here -- the ersatz Broadway of "Take Up A Course In Happiness" mostly grates -- but in the main this is final witness and testimony of a child star set free. No betting man or woman could have imagined what would happen next.


Signed, Sealed & Delivered (1970)

Reasonable people can disagree as to where Wonder's genius auteur period truly begins, but one interpretation of his emancipation from Motown's restrictive protocols can plausibly be centered around 1970's Signed, Sealed & Delivered, which both deepens his love of soul and electric funk and also makes plain his fascination with diverse outside influences signified by his wildly effervescent take on The Beatles "We Can Work It Out." The stunning title track is the obvious first attraction here- a masterful piece of effervescent soul-witnessing that one only wishes Otis Redding had lived long enough to cover. Elsewhere, the soaring "Heaven Help Us" testifies on behalf of those amongst us who have the least, and the considerably less spiritually minded "You Can't Judge A Book By Its Cover" addresses Wonder's more lascivious impulses. Throughout, Signed, Sealed & Delivered is a hard-headed, frequently gorgeous deep dive into the metaphysical, sexual and religious. This is musical terrain familiar to a very few others -- only Prince, Madonna and Van Morrison come immediately to mind. Regardless, this is exhilarating stuff, and astonishingly, the real excitement is yet to come.


Fulfillingness' First Finale (1974)

To characterize 1974's Fulfillingness' First Finale as the least of Wonder's albums during his magical run between 1972 and 1976 is to damn it with the strongest possible praise. For just about any artist in the R&B field and otherwise, this would constitute a landmark achievement. For Wonder, operating at the peak of his powers, it is merely a collection of affecting ballads and appealing soul workouts that fails to push boundaries and challenge assumptions like the contemporaneous Talking Book or Innervisions. Opener "Smile Please" is an appealingly stoned sounding love letter to hippie ideals, while "Boogie On A Reggae Woman" sets a soul groove to island concerns, anticipating the commercial prominence of Bob Marley, Peter Tosh and other Jamaican stars on the rise. Later, the inescapable, horn flecked anti-Nixon exercise "You Ain't Done Nothing" is impactful both in its intensity and the sadness of its naiveté. Few could have anticipated that the humiliated Nixon would be replaced by far more damaging and conservative alternatives. Ironically, Fulfillingness' First Finale is likewise Wonder's first, subtle gesture towards the musical conservatism which would come to compromise too much of his later output.


Up-Tight (1966)

1966's Up-Tight represents an important advancement in Stevie Wonder's evolution from "Little Stevie" to the major one-stop auteur who would soon dominate the 1970's. Driven principally by the propulsive original "Uptight (Everything's Alright)" but featuring a handful of hard bitten and inescapably tuneful soul workouts, this is the early Motown sound pushed to its logical limits of frenetic excitement. The feral energy of the Whitfield/Kendricks composition "I Want My Baby Back" exchanges the artist's previous approachability with something more manic -- for the first time in a love song Wonder doesn't seem like he is asking for a woman's (or an audience's) approval. He seems to be demanding it by fiat. You might feel put off by the angry adolescent pose, but you'll stay for the awesome talent on display. The relentless and crushingly cynical pre-nup preview "Contract On Love" is the Elvis Costello song Costello always dreamed of writing and never quite did. Big things lay ahead.


Music Of My Mind (1972)

1972's Music Of My Mind represents the full flowering of the man who would come to dominate the 1970s, and provides a blueprint for Michael Jackson, Beck, Outkast, Kanye and literally too many other future crucial artists to mention. Having thoroughly mastered an utterly idiosyncratic moog-driven sound and veering with casual ease from hard funk to soul-tinged psychedelia, Wonder brings the entirety of his gifts to bear on his first full-fledged masterpiece. The superb, unapologetically horny opener "Love Having You Around" sets the table, while the gleefully raunchy "Sweet Little Thing" -- featuring a spoken word digression which might make Prince himself blush -- serves the meal. In between we have the crushing breakup ballads "Superwoman (Where Were You When I Needed You)" and the doubting "Seems So Long," songs notable not so much for their anger as their hard earned bitterness. Here we have Stevie Wonder, sophisticated beyond his age, offering up scorn in response to his loss of innocence. What follows from here would blow the music industry wide open.


For Once In My Life (1968)

The visceral, hard-charging proto-Parliament funk of 1968's brilliant For Once In My Life is indicative of the extent to which Wonder himself, and not his influential minders, is now fully in charge of his music. The sound here is purely Stevie and only occasionally classic Motown -- he may be a team player, but he is also an iconoclastic eighteen-year-old eager to pursue his own agenda. The unstoppable hit single "Shoo-Be-Doo-Be-Doo-Da-Day" may have been the main catalyst for a full length, but the net result is a dry run for his '70s era classics- the world destroying anxiety of the lovelorn "I Don't Know Why" and the complicated, longing appeal to a paramour's family "Do I Love You" which anticipates Outkast's "Sorry Ms. Jackson" by three decades. For Once In My Life is that peculiar unicorn in popular music -- a record that lays bare the genius of its auteur without fully realizing it, similar in that respect to Public Enemy's Yo! Bum Rush The Show or The Replacements' Hootenanny. While the discreet pleasures here are palpable, the sense of something momentous looming on the horizon is the real attraction.


Songs In The Key Of Life (1976)

Songs In The Key Of Life is not Stevie Wonder's best album, but it might be his most celebrated, and with good reason. The hugely ambitious double disc opus represents the culmination of a fifteen year personal and professional journey, bringing together the varied jazz, blues, soul and rock elements of his work, which taken together represent nothing less than a new musical vernacular. Any doubt that Wonder is feeling the full extent of his commercial and creative powers are immediately out the window, with the lovely but essentially hookless seven minute opener "Love's In Need Of Love Today," fundamentally a free form exercise akin to other overtly shrugging openers to classic albums like Tonight's The Night Pt. 1 or We Dance. Side one partner "Village Ghetto Life" is similarly strange and beautiful -- an orchestral noir enumerating the miseries of urban life, set to an arrangement that recalls Stravinsky far more than Sly Stone. This is an artist who doesn't need hits and isn't angling for them. Having made his auteur point, Wonder indulges our id as well as our intellect on side two, which begins with the stunning Ellington tribute "Sir Duke," an effervescent, horn-driven paean to jazz, lust and the transformative powers of music which ranks as one of the most exciting tracks ever recorded. The following track "I Wish" backs it up with an inescapable groove and vaguely salacious portrait of adolescent inner city delinquency. Meanwhile "Pastime Paradise" castigates nostalgia and those not busy being born, and the gentle touch of "Summer Soft" conjures a musically and emotionally complicated romantic tangle closer to Steely Dan than Smokey Robinson. Like Exile On Main Street and The White Album, Songs In The Key Of Life is an immersive experience, one rife with gutbucket emotion, stylistic shifts and a general sense of high emotional and artistic stakes. By the time of the whimsical exhalation of side four's Band-like "Ebony Eyes" and the brilliant proto-Prince come-on of "All Day Sucker" you can sense a man both fully engaged and gleefully spent. Wonder would never work again at this high a level -- but then again, what else did he owe us?


Talking Book (1972)

That Wonder's toughest and most ostentatious album to date begins with the soft touch of the MOR standard "You Are The Sunshine Of My Life" is indicative of just how little the artist gave a fuck by the time of 1972's Talking Book. Don't like the sentimental stuff? Have a taste of the hard funk of "Maybe Your Baby." Not hearing the hits? How about the terrifyingly insinuating riff and groove of "Superstition" to set you straight? At this juncture, Wonder is playing a different and higher game than his peers -- synthesizing soul, pop and funk into a wholly unique vernacular which would go on to inspire geniuses ranging from MJ to Prince to Kanye to Kendrick Lamar. A stunning album that examines the spectrum of the political, spiritual and carnal in a manner not heard since Van Morrison's masterpiece Astral Weeks. In every way Talking Book is indispensable.


Innervisions (1973)

Even within the context of the adventurous albums that preceded it, Innervisions is an audacious and challenging display of Wonder's stunning talent- a forty-five minute tour de force encapsulating his mastery of soul balladry, funk attack and social conscience. Like Miles Davis' Bitches Brew, this is a hard and compelling record so unique it inspires awe and anxiety in equal measures. From the half in-half-out anti-drug anthem "Too High" to the astounding noir of "Living In The City" to the devastating Nixon broadside "He's Misstra Know It All," Innervisions is a master class combining Motown influences with a percolating new consciousness. By the time the existential eruption "Higher Ground" gives way to the tense and ponderous title track, it is clear we are being swept away in the wake of a driven genius. Perhaps the strongest argument for Innervisions lays in its influential legacy: without Innervisons it is nearly impossible to imagine Sign O' The Times, The Love Below, Midnite Vultures, 808s & Heartbreaks and countless other classics. Wonder's Innervisions were future visions as well.

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