Order Is Everything: Collecting…Stevie Wonder
Good morn’ or evening, friends. Well-Dressed Headphone Addict has added a brand new installment: Order is Everything. This new venture is a how-to-guide for music lovers looking to invest in the catalogs of prolific artists. These articles will instruct – better yet suggest – the would-be consumer on not only which albums to buy, but also in which order to collect them. You might think to buy them in chronological order, but for a great artist with 10 or more albums, there’s a science to collecting the records. First of all, not every record is essential to own; secondly, the first purchase is crucial to the listening experience of the consumer. The first album you buy must be a microcosm of their entire career, and/or, at the very least, must be equally creative and accessible. Basically, if you like the first CD you buy, the very next one in line is an expansion of what you’ve heard, making it more likely that you’ll purchase it. As you go on, you’ll develop a genuine admiration of the artists’ music. Our first artist is Stevie Wonder.
The Rock & Roll Hall of Fame singer has been a revolution unto himself. He’s considered a genius of the highest order by fans and peers alike, not only as a songwriter, producer and multi-instrumentalist, but an innovator of technology in the R&B community, embracing the use of synthesizers in a manner never conceived before. Blind since birth, Wonder used his lack of visual sight as a means to gain a prodigious vision of the human spirit. It’s that vision that’s allowed him to use the platform of pop music to expose fans to various genres and styles, making him an invaluable artist to the world at large. Since 1963, Wonder has released 26 studio albums. The Well-Dressed Headphone Addict has narrowed down nine essential recordings for the music lover to own. Here’s the order in which to collect them:
1. Songs In The Key Of Life, 1976
As Stevie’s biggest selling album – over 10 million copies sold – Songs in the Key of Life is a logical choice for the first purchase of a Wonder Lover-in-training. The double album covers every single aspect of Stevie’s adult musical output, both creatively and thematically: There are songs in which he plays all the instruments himself (“Have A Talk With God,” “Village Ghetto Land,”) and songs with famous musicians (“Another Star,” featuring George Benson and Bobby Humphrey; “If It’s Magic,” featuring Dorothy Ashby on Harp). A concept album on life itself, there are songs that deal with everything from heartbreak (“Ordinary Pain”), childhood innocence (“I Wish”), to birth (“Isn’t She Lovely”) and transcendental love (“As). With music ranging from classic symphony to heavy metal, a listener would be hard pressed to find something they didn’t like among these 21 classics.
2. Innervisions, 1973
Among Stevie connoisseurs, it is argued that Innervisions is indeed a better record than Songs in the Key of Life. Be that as it may, it stands alone as one of the single greatest statements in soul music history. Inspired by label mate Marvin Gaye’s epic What’s Going On LP, Wonder wrote politically charged records that were much more biting and confrontational than that of Gaye’s sage observational approach. The jazzy “Too High” exposes the deadly consequences of the flower power drug movement, the funky blues of “Living For The City” tells a sad story of a man destined only to get by but never through, and “He’s Misstra Know-it-all” is a harsh, gospel-tinged, criticism of former President Nixon. Stevie does, however, sprinkle some beauty in, with love ballad “Golden Lady” and the latin-tinged anthem of support, “Don’t You Worry ‘Bout A Thing.” Innervisions is an album no one should be without.
3. Talking Book, 1972
With the monster pop success of number 1 singles “Superstition” and “You Are the Sunshine of My Life,” it’s easy to overlook that Talking Book is the one of the more melancholy albums in Stevie’s catalog, made so by his dissolving relationship with his first wife, Syreeta Wright. With Wright writing lyrics to some of the songs, tracks like “Blame It On the Sun” and “Looking For Another Pure Love” were comments about Stevie neglectful ways – to which Stevie interpreted sublimely with his voice and his production – while “You’ve Got it Bad, Girl” would go on to be one of the most covered songs by jazz artists in the 1970s (Quincy Jones, Hank Crawford, Herbie Hancock). If for nothing else, Talking Book is worth having for its superb song craft and Stevie’s dynamic singing.
4. Fulfillingness’ First Finale, 1974
If you found the painful tone of Talking Book intriguing, then Fulfillingness’ First Finale is right up your alley, as it’s even more of an emotionally solemn experience. This album was written and recorded in the aftermath of a near-fatal accident Stevie suffered in 1973. On Fulfillingness’ First Finale, his voice is much more subdued than any of his recordings before or since. He focused on God quite a bit here, whether it be obviously (“Heaven is Ten Zillion Light Years Away”) or abstractly (“They Won’t Go When I Go”). ” An LP much more brooding than Talking Book, even the love ballads like “Too Shy to Say” and “Creepin'” sound incredibly somber. He turned his political angst for President Nixon up 10 notches with the funky, Jackson 5 assited, assault of “You Haven’t Done Nothing.” Surprisingly, Stevie’s ominous state of mind is ultimately what makes this album so compelling, and indirectly revealing to his personality. Fulfillingness’ is as close as we’ll ever get to Stevie being autobiographical.
5. Original Musiquarium I, 1982
Compilation albums, or greatest hit releases, are ordinarily off limits for this series, but in this case, there is an unavoidable exception. A 16 song double LP, most of the songs you’ve already heard on the four previous records, like “Superstition,” “Higher Ground” and “Sir Duke.” Original Musiquarium I will also introduce you to other Stevie tracks on albums you’ve yet to hear, like the sentimental “Send One Your Love.” However, among the 12 hit singles are four new songs recorded specifically for this release, and three of those tracks would go on to be classics in their own rights, perfectly blending in with Stevie smashes. “Ribbon in the Sky” is one of those timeless ballads that gives you goosebumps after the first four notes. The jazz/soul coolness of “That Girl” seeps into your skin thanks to Stevie’s killer drumming. Lastly, the 10 minute workout of “Do I Do” is not a second too long, full of infectious double guitar work, eye-popping horns and a memorable trumpet solo from the legendary Dizzy Gillespie.
6. Music of My Mind, 1972
Ok, by this point you may be emotionally drained from deepness of Stevie’s material, so the next album should offer a much welcomed air of relaxation. Released six months before the melancholy Talking Book, Music of My Mind is a collection of songs that embrace love and denounce evil. His first time writing his own lyrics, Stevie’s mood ranges from carefree (“Happier Than the Morning Sun”), to resentful (“Superwoman (Where Were You When I Needed You)), and he shows a glimpse of his, now-famous, sense of humor (“Sweet Little Girl”). Although he’d been composing his own music for a few years and playing keyboard sporadically on record, Music of My Mind was Stevie’s true coming out party. With the exception of guitar on one song and trombone on another, Stevie played every instrument on the album, personifying his legendary reputation as a one mand band. The real beauty of this album is the innovative use of synthesizers. Before Music of My Mind, it was an invention for imitating acoustic instruments, but Stevie used them to create new colors and sonic atmospheres.
7. Hotter Than July, 1980
Stevie was not as prolific with his music output in the 1980’s as he was in the 1960’s and 1970’s. In all, he released three full length studio albums (not including The Woman in Red Sountrack), compared to eight in the previous decade (two of those were double albums)! However, if there’s one Wonder album from the “Me” decade to own, it’s Hotter Than July. Appropriately enough, July has a similar tone as Music of My Mind, a compilation of numerous themes and dispositions, be it the political disbelief of “Cash in Your Face,” crippling heartbreak of “Rocket Love” or “Do Like You’s” youthful exuberance. The highlight is the reggae dance hit “Master Blaster (Jammin’),” a tribute to Bob Marley (before he passed). Once again, Stevie goes out of his way to educate the masses on new sounds and experiences.
8. Signed Sealed Delivered, 1970
Now, you may already know that Stevie Wonder was a star at age 12, with many hits during his teenage years. While none of his albums from the 1960’s appear on this list, Signed Sealed Delivered is a conduit between Little Stevie Wonder and Stevie Wonder, the grown man. Stevie’s asserted himself as producer of the title track and his funky, clavinet driven Beatles cover, “We Can Work It Out,” but the majority of the record was written, produced by played by Motown staffers, much like his preceeding LPs. Stevie’s voice is masculine and sure on songs like the hopeful “Heaven Help Us All,” but he allows his adolescent spirit to run wild on the drum happy “Sugar.” You’ll be accustomed enough to Stevie by this time to embrace his younger aura, but you’ll still hear the maturity that’s gotten you this far.
9. Where I’m Coming From, 1971
Now, we’ve reached the end of our run. This is the last of the essential albums of Stevie’s, Where I’m Coming From. Motown records awarded Wonder full creative freedom at age 21. Even though he’d been allowed to compose music for himself and others, he was still under the restraints of Motown’s pop assembly line. Eager to go beyond the box he was trapped in, this would be the first time he could produce the entire album on his own, playing drums, keyboard, clavinet and harmonica on all tunes, with Funk Brothers like bassist James Jamerson filling in the blanks. He wrote the music to all nine tracks and his future wife, Syreeta Wright, contributed every lyric. The political leanings you’ve heard on Innervisions first come through here on the hard rocking “Do Yourself A Favor” and “I Wanna Talk To You.” Still not quite finding his footing like he would on Music of My Mind the following year, “If You Really Love Me” and “Never Dreamed You’d Leave In Summer” were previews to Stevie’s signature themes of love and heartbreak, respectively.
There you have it. The nine Stevie Wonder albums you must own. For you completists out there, here are the remaining Stevie Wonder albums:
* Recommended, but not essential
The Jazz Soul of Little Stevie, 1962
Tribute To Uncle Ray, 1963
With a Song In My Heart, 1963
Stevie at the Beach, 1964
*Down To Earth, 1966
I Was Made to Love Her, 1967
*Someday at Christmas, 1967
Eivets Rednow, 1968
*For Once in My Life, 1968
My Cherie Amour, 1969
Journey Through the Secret Life of Plants, 1979
The Woman in Red Soundtrack, 1984
In Square Circle, 1985
*Jungle Fever, 1991
Conversation Peace, 1995
*A Time 2 Love, 2005
Thank you for listening. I hope this proves helpful to you. Please report back to keep us posted on your progress. And remember: Black Americans may only be one tenth of the population, but that tenth is talented.