by Jeff Fiedler
Discog Fever is a regular feature on thegreatalbums.com, rating and reviewing a band's entire catalogue of studio albums.
Spirit (1976, Columbia)
Ever-so slightly inferior to That’s the Way of the World, Spirit still finds the group near the peak of its creative powers, retaining its newfound gift for radio-friendly hooks while doing just enough experimenting to keep the band interesting and moving forward. The stutter step of “On Your Face” is deliriously fun, while “Imagination” is yet another winning Philip Bailey ballad. The band also turns out two more excellent hit singles in the soulful groove of “Saturday Nite” (arguably the most underrated of all of the band’s singles) and the heated funk of “Getaway.” [Note to purchasers of the original vinyl edition: be aware that the earliest pressings of the disc have the sequencing for both sides entirely out of order on the back cover, so just go by the information on the record label itself.]
All ‘n All (1977, Columbia)
The band’s winning streak continues on All ‘n All, which yielded two more Top 40 hits for the group in the vibrant stomp of “Serpentine Fire” (one of the group’s more rhythmically inventive and musically intriguing singles) and the mystical “Fantasy.” The album cuts may even outshine the singles this time out, especially on the ballads “Love’s Holiday” and the Philip Bailey tour de force “I’ll Write a Song for You,” which nearly rivals “Reasons” as his best-ever performance with the band. The band also works up a real sweat on the impressive funk workout “Jupiter.” The vinyl edition is a particularly fun purchase, since original pressings came packaged with a gigantic fold-out poster. Nearly every bit as much of a masterpiece as That’s the Way of the World, this one is not to be missed.
I Am (1979, Columbia)
The band’s first outing following its first greatest-hits package, I Am finds the band extensively collaborating with the then-little-known songwriter/producer David Foster, a pop craftsman with a bad reputation among music critics for softening the edges of rock bands like Chicago and The Tubes. (Some of that criticism is warranted, Chicago truly ceasing to sound anything like its old self under Foster’s watch, its trademark horn section being more or less benched most of the time.) Don’t let Foster’s involvement in this album scare you off, though. The band hasn’t done any significant tinkering to its sound here. They haven’t shed the funk (as the incredible leadoff track “In the Stone” and “Let Your Feelings Show” both prove), and they haven’t lost their gift for great ballads, either, as can be seen in the instant classic “After the Love Has Gone,” which stopped just one spot shy of becoming the band’s second Number One hit. “Boogie Wonderland” was similarly a Top Ten hit and remains a dancefloor favorite to this day. The light shuffle of “Wait” definitely bears Foster’s pop influence and sounds like it nearly could have been an outtake from his collaborations with Hall and Oates, but the band gives it enough of an R&B/soul flavor that it fits them surprisingly well and proves to be a real highlight. The band is a little less experimental here than normal, so this doesn’t feel like quite as much of an album piece conceptually as any of its predecessors, but that’s a minor complaint, and taken on a song-by-song basis, this album still delivers the goods.
Faces (1980, Columbia)
The band’s first-ever double album of all studio material, Faces shockingly ended up being the band’s first album since Head to the Sky to fail to yield a single Top 40 hit, and the album became its first in years to not go platinum. The band still sounds fantastic, but Maurice White has all but ceased experimenting at this point, and the album seems just a tad too calculated for its own good. It’s not quite the sound of a band on autopilot, but it’s missing the otherworldliness and that extra spark of inspiration that made albums like That’s the Way of the World and All ’n All such masterpieces. Like most double albums, it probably could have been pared back to a single disc without losing anything critical, and the overall set of songs isn’t quite as solid as that on I Am. Still, the best songs here (particularly the addictive funk jam “Let Me Talk,” “Win or Lose,” and the Brenda-Russell-co-writes “And Love Goes On” and “You”) are truly excellent, and it’s pretty shocking that “Let Me Talk” and “You” could have both failed to reach the Top 40. It may not be as magical as their run of albums from Head to the Sky to I Am, but there’s still enough worthy material on here to make this a worthwhile purchase.
Raise! (1981, Columbia)
Maybe it was the departure of longtime rhythm guitarist Al McKay that did it, but the band seems more uninspired here than they have on any album since The Need of Love. Mind you, this is still thankfully at least a much more accessible and commercial album than The Need of Love, so the album still has some decent pop hooks (“Lady Sun,” “Wanna Be with You”) to redeem it. The album would yield a Top Five smash in the enduring dancefloor favorite “Let’s Groove,” but even that song, fine and catchy though it is, still sounds like a slightly neutered version of the band and it lacks the spark of a “September” or “Boogie Wonderland” or “Singasong.” It’s still a perfectly fine R&B album, but most of the album’s best moments sound like they could just as easily be by, say, The Whispers, so it’s definitely not the album to go to in order to experience the true Earth, Wind & Fire sound and magic.
Powerlight (1983, Columbia)
Easily the band’s best album since I Am, the band sounds completely recharged here and that old Earth, Wind & Fire magic is back. The set of songs is first-rate, highlighted by the leadoff single “Fall in Love with Me” (easily the band’s best uptempo single since 1978’s “September.”) “Spread Your Love,” “Side By Side,” “The Speed of Love,” and “Something Special” are all quite strong as well. The album falters just a little bit towards the end of the second side, but it’s a minor flaw in what’s truly an excellent comeback record, every bit the equal of the band’s ‘70s output.
Electric Universe (1983, Columbia)
The question most people are likely to ask upon listening to this record immediately after listening to Powerlight is “What the heck happened?” The band’s second album in the span of less than a year, Electric Universe is easily the band’s worst album of the ‘70s and ‘80s. Whereas Powerlight found the group bringing the sound of its best ‘70s albums into the ‘80s with only a minor amount of tinkering to make it sound contemporary, Electric Universe goes the complete opposite direction. Inexplicably, Maurice White has opted this time around to do a complete sonic overhaul of the band, complete with synthesizers and drum machines, in an apparent attempt to make the band sound more futuristic. Basically, the band now sounds like Rockwell. The end result is unbelievably embarrassing, especially the leadoff single “Magnetic,” which may have sounded contemporary at the time but is unintentionally hilarious today, sounding exactly like the kind of track a TV series like South Park might throw together in order to parody ‘80s music. If the melodies and hooks were stronger, maybe the change in sound might not be so awful, but the songwriting is wildly inferior for the most part to that on Powerlight, though the album is saved – just barely – by the ballad “Touch.” “Touch” doesn’t sound much like Earth, Wind & Fire, either, but it’s still a fine song with an appealing melody and a chorus that instantly clicks. With less dated production, the song would have sounded right at home on Powerlight.
Touch the World (1987, Columbia)
The band still doesn’t sound all that much instrumentally like its ‘70s self on this comeback effort after a four-year break, but Touch the World is a much more successful attempt by the band to update its sound for the Eighties than Electric Universe. The album hasn’t aged as well as the much more organic and smooth Powerlight, but it’s also not as nakedly desperate as Electric Universe, either. There were no Top 40 hits this time around (though “System of Survival” went to Number One on the R&B charts,) but the overall set of songs is stronger than those on Universe, highlighted by “Thinking of You,” “You and I,” and “Money Talks.” It’s not nearly as worthy a purchase as Powerlight or even Faces, but it’s an admirable bounce-back from its predecessor.