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Stevie Wonder: Album Guide

Ranking the pop-soul genius’ albums – from Motown pop to visionary funk and beyond

Stevie Wonder performing at Madison Square Garden in New York City on March 25, 1974.

Waring Abbott/Getty

One of the greatest writers and performers that American music ever produced, Stevie Wonder has had a stunningly vital career. Beating the Beatles to the punch, he first topped the U.S. pop charts in 1963 with the live instrumental “Fingertips Pt. 1 &
2,” recorded when he was 12. He was a giant of the Motown era until his vision and ambition outgrew it, expanding the borders of r&b, soul, funk, rock, and pop while steadily producing hits. And he just recently turned up in a spotlit cameo on one of 2018’s best LPs, Dirty Computer, by Janelle Monáe, one of his many acolytes.

Wonder’s output over a half-century has been copious and, in the decades since his ridiculously brilliant 1970s run, uneven. So here’s our cheat sheet to the man’s best, near-best, and otherwise notable. It’s a yardstick few artists can hope to measure up to. But we all need something to aspire to.

Must-Haves: ‘Innervisions’ (1973)

The peak of his Seventies apotheosis. It opens on the jazz funk of “Too High,” an indictment of a curdled drug culture, and “Don’t You Worry ‘Bout a Thing” taps the ascendant sound of New York salsa. The defining moment is the seven-minute “Living for the City,” a ghetto tale about a family struggling in a rigged system, as chillingly resonant as ever.

Must-Haves: ‘Talking Book’ (1972)

This watershed is Wonder’s Revolver, where he transcends his hit-machine youth and moves to higher ground-creatively, politically and spiritually. “You Are the Sunshine of My Life” is the user-friendly opener, “Superstition” the next-level funk anthem. He’s playing nearly every instrument himself (including drums and Moog synthesizer). But his antennae are up: “Maybe Your Baby” gets full-on Funkadelic, with sky-kissing guitar by a teenage Ray Parker Jr.,and”Lookin’ for Another Pure Love” features a blissful contribution from Jeff Beck. “Big Brother,” meanwhile, addresses government surveillance (“You’ve killed all our leaders…You’ll cause your own country to fail”) with a carefree musical countenance. A portrait of the artist as a young genius, woke and fully formed.

Must-Haves: ‘Songs in the Key of Life’ (1976)

His most ambitious set-a double LP (with a four-song overflow EP). The hit “Sir Duke” calls out Ella, Satchmo, and Ellington amid spectacular horns, and “As” describes a love supreme with Herbie Hancock on Fender Rhodes. There’s memoir (“I Wish”) and some of Wonder’s most unsparing political art, like “Black Man,” an epic shout-out to global game-changers–a group in which, starting here, Wonder became a member.

Must-Haves: ‘Looking Back’ (1977)

The definitive triple-LP compilation of Wonder’s early Motown hits–from rave-ups (“Uptight [Everything’s Alright]”) to ballads (“My Cherie Amour”), many written by the prodigy himself.

Further Listening: ‘Signed, Sealed and Delivered’ (1970)

His first studio album of the Seventies is also his first in the (co-) producer’s chair. The difference is mainly in the magnificent vocals, which are off the leash in a new way. The instrumental palette, too, is growing, along with Wonder’s taste for hard funk (“You Can’t Judge a Book by Its Cover”). The hits, foremost, the title track, shine bright. And his euphoric reading of “We Can Work It Out” ranks with the greatest Beatles covers ever recorded.

Further Listening: ‘Music of My Mind’ (1972)

A brilliant transitional LP that begins his golden-era collaboration with co-producers/electronic-music pioneers Bob Margouleff and Malcolm Cecil (of Tonto’s Expanding Head Band). It advances talk-box synth-funk (“Love Having You Around), new signature sounds on Fender Rhodes (quite-storm blueprint “Superwoman”) and clavinet (the six-minute boogie fever-ish “Keep on Running”), and a new vocal intimacy “Evil”). In terms of pop vision, it’s Wonder picking up where the disbanded Beatles left off.

Further Listening: ‘Fulfillingness’ First Finale’ (1974)

The follow-up to Innervisions was an experimental mural. The ping-ponging vocal weave of “Heaven is 10 Zillion Light Years Away” showcases Wonder’s expansive range against a backing choir, and the stuttering Moog synthesizer of “Boogie on Reggae Woman” remains some of the nastiest electronic noise ever to crack the Top 10.

Further Listening: ‘Stevie Wonder’s Journey Through the Secret Life of Plants’ (1979)

A double LP of vinelike instrumentals, with a few eccentric vocal cuts thrown in. Conceived as the soundtrack to the documentary The Secret Life of Plants, a time-lapse exploration of plant biology, it’s a sonic roulette wheel. Wonder uses the first sampling synthesizer, the Melodian, to weave bird and insect sounds and other vérité material through Indian and Asian motifs, classical gestures and jazz vamps. As Wonder’s weirdest record, it’s a marvelous trip.

Further Listening: ‘Hotter Than July’ (1980)

With club music ascendant, Wonder brings new sounds for a new decade: glossy pop R&B (“Did I Hear You Say You Love Me”), top-shelf disco (“All I Do”) and reggae (“Master Blaster [Jammin’]”). But he can still kill it on a simple piano ballad (“Lately”).

Going Deeper: ‘Recorded Live: The 12 Year Old Genius’ (1963)

“Little Stevie Wonder” making his mark. It includes the harmonica blowout “Fingertips Pt. 1 & 2,” recorded onstage in Chicago in 1962, which became the first live single to top the pop charts. He’s already got the crowd in the palm of his hand.

Going Deeper: ‘My Cherie Amour’ (1969)

Wonder broadening his reach, with the Francophile title track and “Yester-Me, Yester-You, Yesterday,” also released in Italian and Spanish versions. The rangy covers include “Light My Fire” and a soulful infusion of the easy-listening staple “The Shadow of Your Smile.”

Going Deeper: ‘Where I’m Coming From’ (1971)

“Into space we go to change our ways,” sings Wonder on “Look Around,” opening the LP that marked the 20-year old’s transition into self-producing auteur. Afro-futurism, clavinet funk (“Do Yourself a Favor”) and multi-tracked vocal experiments rub shoulders with the straight-up pop and the string-draped soul.

Going Deeper: ‘Music from the Movie ‘Jungle Fever” (1991)

Less harsh than the Spike Lee interracial-love film it soundtracks, this album shows an invigorated Wonder after a patchy mid-to-late Eighties. The title track and “Each Other’s Throat” echo Prince’s purple funk, and “These Three Words” clearly mark how Wonder can turn even the most sentimental verses into emotional connections.

Going Deeper: ‘A Time To Love’ (2005)

His supreme latter-day effort opens on “If Your Love Cannot Be Moved,” a mighty duet with gospel singer Kim Burrell (having just appeared as R. Kelly’s spiritual coach on “3-Way Phone Call”). It moves through carious flavors of soul jazz (flutist Hubert Laws takes flight on “My Love Is on Fire”) and slow jams, peaking on the single “So What the Fuss,” a funky-conscious summit with Prince’s guitar and En Vogue’s backing vocals that’s Wonder’s greatest return to Seventies form in 25 years.