The Story: Stevie Wonder

Stevie Wonder keyboardI know quite well that musical tastes are subjective — but here’s the bottom line: if you don’t like Stevie Wonder, you have no soul.

From his infectious smile to the exuberance apparent in every groove, Stevie radiates joy. Listen to “Boogie On Reggae Woman” and try not to boogie. You can’t. (Unless you hate puppies. Do you? Do you hate puppies?)

Beginning his recording career as an insanely precocious 12-year old, Wonder became the youngest person ever to have a #1 song with “Fingertips, Part 2.” At this age, he was already a virtuoso on harmonica and could play piano and drums as well as any adult. In the 70s, he would put these skills to use and record whole albums as a virtual one-man band.

Stevie Wonder 1973At the Grammy Awards for 1975, Paul Simon — only half-joking during his acceptance speech for Album of the Year — thanked Stevie for not releasing anything that year. (Wonder received Album of the Year honors the previous two years and would win again the following year — just a few of the 22 Grammys he has won, the most of any male artist.) Both artistically and commercially, Stevie Wonder dominated in the 70s and 80s, the rare musician who could craft music at the same time challenging and popular.

So don’t get uptight. Everything’s alright. And sho’nuff outtasight. Here’s the least you need to know:

Stevie Wonder youngAt The Close Of A Century (1962-1996) Here’s the problem: the best compilation by far is this 4-CD box. The available single CDs of greatest hits leave out too many necessary tracks and there are no decent 2-disc sets spanning Stevie’s whole career. And you do need a compilation. In the 60s, Motown focused exclusively on singles, which means—unlike artists on other labels during that decade—there aren’t many cohesive albums for Motown acts. (Nobody released a Sgt. Pepper or Blonde On Blonde. It took Stevie Wonder and Marvin Gaye to craft masterpieces like that at the dawn of the 70s, despite Motown’s resistance.) But there are tons of fantastic singles and you should definitely hear those in order to appreciate Stevie’s development. After giving you all you need to know about the 60s, this box spotlights the 70s—as it should—but also culls the best of the 80s and 90s. So look for the box. As in life, you can’t have too much Wonder. Check: For Once In My Life & I Just Called To Say I Love You

Talking Book (1972) Wonder’s second album under his new deal with Motown allowing complete creative control. Result? Grammys, #1 songs, worldwide acclaim. Stevie transforms from teenage pop star to full-blown superstar. Check: You Are The Sunshine Of My Life & Superstition

Innervisions (1973) Consolidating power. Futurizing funk and R & B. A slightly darker record than its predecessor as Stevie tackles social issues along with his introspective love songs. Check: Living For The City & Higher Ground

Stevie Wonder songs in the keySongs In The Key Of Life (1976) Arguably the peak of Stevie Wonder’s artistry as he takes everything he knows how to do—from ballads, to pop, to dance grooves, to extended workouts, to what might be termed “chamber-funk”—and pours it into this double record. In doing so, he challenges not only himself, but his audience. The most political, personal, experimental and spiritual album he ever made. Check: I Wish & Pastime Paradise

The above albums will get you started but the rest of Wonder’s output—especially in the 70s—is almost as good. So there you go. If you love puppies, then it’s time to get your groove on.

Signed, sealed, delivered. Stevie’s yours.

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