Discog Fever - Rating and Reviewing Every Stevie Wonder Album (Part 2)

by Jeff Fiedler

Discog Fever is a regular feature on thegreatalbums.com, rating and reviewing a band's entire catalogue of studio albums.

My Cherie Amour (1969, Tamla)

C

Very much akin to I Was Made to Love Her, this covers-heavy album feels like yet another attempt to quickly capitalize on a hit single. The breathtakingly pretty album-opening title track – a Top Five hit – remains one of Stevie’s loveliest melodies, but the album takes a real dive immediately after that, the first side being loaded with inessential covers ranging from The Doors’ “Light My Fire” and Etta James’ “At Last” to, much more inexplicably, “The Shadow of Your Smile” and The King & I’s “Hello, Young Lovers.” The nearly-all-originals second side is substantially better and also contains a second Top Ten hit in “Yester-Me, Yester-You, Yesterday.” It’s a real shame that Motown felt compelled to issue such a glut of product during the ‘60s, because if you take the first side of For Once in My Life and combine it with “My Cherie Amour” and the last five songs on the second side of this album, you have a great idea of just how much better Stevie’s late-‘60s albums could have been had he simply not had to put out so much music.

Signed, Sealed & Delivered (1970, Tamla)

B +  

It’s a bit too front-loaded for its own good, but Stevie’s first album of the ‘70s – also the first album he would co-produce – is a huge step forward. There are no embarrassing cuts here – the covers of old standards and the latest Top 40 fare have been banished, thank goodness – and the first side is magnificent, opening with four consecutive hit singles: “Never Had a Dream Come True,” a funky reworking of the Beatles’ “We Can Work It Out,” the incredibly infectious Top Three hit “Signed, Sealed, Delivered (I’m Yours),” arguably Stevie’s best up-tempo single yet, and the Top Ten hit “Heaven Help Us All.” With a batch of songs like that, the second side simply can’t compete, but it’s still quite good – especially compared to his previous albums – and it has its overlooked gems, especially “I Can’t Let My Heaven Walk Away.”

Where I’m Coming From (1971, Tamla)

B +

Where I’m Coming From has the distinction of being the first album that Motown allowed Stevie to produce entirely on his own (while the songs are all penned by Stevie along with his then-wife Syreeta Wright), and while it certainly marks a big creative leap forward, it’s too spotty and undisciplined to actually surpass its predecessor in overall quality. Still, the best moments here are just as good as anything off of Signed, Sealed & Delivered, and while there’s technically only one hit here, it’s a great one: the Top Ten hit “If You Really Love Me,” which alternates wildly between ballad-styled verses and horn-laden up-tempo choruses to surprisingly great success. There are also quite a few hidden gems to be discovered on this album, particularly the funk workout “Do Yourself a Favor,” the album-closing “Sunshine in Their Eyes,” and, best of all, the devastatingly lovely piano ballad “Never Dreamed You’d Leave in Summer.”

Music of My Mind (1972, Tamla)

A –

Having won the right to produce himself and write his own songs for Where I’m Coming From, Wonder goes a step even further on this appealingly synthesizer-heavy affair and actually plays nearly every last instrument here, too, barring a trombone on the opening cut and a guitar on the second. It’s a bit more self-indulgent-sounding than the albums that would follow it, if only because it doesn’t have as many hooks as Talking Book or Innervisions and the songs are often a bit too needlessly long (even the album’s lone Top 40 single – the delightful “Superwoman (Where Were You When I Needed You)” – clocks in at over eight minutes), but it’s no less intriguing or intoxicating, and though the album isn’t nearly as famous as most of his other albums of the ‘70s, it certainly has its gems, namely “Love Having You Around,” “Happier than the Morning Sun,” “Keep on Running,” and, of course, “Superwoman.”

Talking Book (1972, Tamla)

A +

In a lot of ways, Talking Book really isn’t all that terribly different from Music of My Mind – Stevie’s still making heavy use of synthesizers, even playing most of the bass lines on his Moog, to layer alongside his usual piano, clavinet, and Fender Rhodes, and he’s also still playing all the drums, too – but the songwriting is substantially sharper. The songs are a bit shorter and tighter, and the hooks are much more immediate. The result is that there is not a single bad cut here. There are two Number One hits contained within: the joyful near-gospel of “You Are the Sunshine of My Life” and the nasty funk of the clavinet-heavy “Superstition.” But it’s the high quality of the album cuts that make this easily Stevie’s best album yet, be it the lovely piano ballad “You and I,” the mellow grooves of “You’ve Got It Bad Girl” and “Tuesday Heartbreak,” the Sly & the Family Stone-like funk of “Maybe Your Baby” (featuring a very young Ray Parker Jr. on guitar), the harmonica-driven pop of “Big Brother,” or, best of all, the sheer passion of the breathtakingly lovely album closer, “I Believe (When I Fall in Love It Will Be Forever),” easily one of the finest – and catchiest – non-singles in the entire Stevie Wonder catalog.

Innervisions (1973, Tamla)

A +

There’s a bit more of a sociopolitical bent to the lyrics here than there was on Talking Book, which makes this a bit heavier of an album to listen to than its more playful predecessor, but otherwise, Stevie thankfully hasn’t departed much here from his winning formula of the last few discs and this is every bit as good as Talking Book, if not possibly even better. The album boasts two highly critically-acclaimed Top Ten hits in the social commentary of “Living for the City” and the gospel-laden clavinet workout “Higher Ground,” but, as famous and beloved though those songs are, their melodies aren’t nearly as interesting as that of Wonder’s other singles from the ‘70s like “You Are the Sunshine of My Life” or “Sir Duke” and Stevie’s compositional chops are put to even greater use on the lesser-known cuts like the the Latin-tinged Top 40 hit “Don’t You Worry ‘Bout a Thing,” the clavinet-driven funk of “Jesus Children of America,” the lovely piano ballad “All in Love Is Fair,” “Too High,” a deceptively catchy opener that isn’t the most commercial of album-openers at first glance but has a killer Moog riff that more than makes up for the lack of a more traditional hook, or the piano-and-conga-laced grooves of “Golden Lady” and “He’s Misstra Know-It-All.”

Fulfillingness’ First Finale (1974, Tamla)

A

It won the 1975 Grammy for Album of the Year (one of three Wonder albums to win the most coveted Grammy of all), but strangely, this disc doesn’t get nearly as much love from critics as Innervisions or Songs in the Key of Life or even Talking Book (which didn’t even get nominated in that category) and actually remains relatively less well-known. It may be just a tad spottier than those discs, but not by very much, and Wonder is still at the peak of his powers here and continues his hot streak. The album sports the strangely-little-heard-today Number One hit “You Haven’t Done Nothin’,” a wisely-subtle anti-Nixon lyric (he is never actually specifically referred to either by name or by office) that’s aged much better than many other protest songs of the era and also sports background vocals from the Jackson 5, as well as the wormy synth-funk of the Top Ten hit “Boogie on Reggae Woman.” The surrounding album cuts aren’t nearly as well-known as those on the two previous albums, but they’re still of very high quality, which means that there a lot of obscure gems to be found here, particularly “They Won’t Go When I Go” (later covered by George Michael on his second solo album), “Too Shy to Say” (later recorded by Diana Ross), “Heaven Is 10 Zillion Light Years Away” (sporting background vocals from Paul Anka, surprisingly enough), and, best of all, the slippery soul of “Creepin’,” prominently featuring the late, great Minnie Riperton (of “Lovin’ You” fame) on vocals and one of Stevie’s all-time most underrated album cuts.

Songs in the Key of Life (1976, Tamla)

A +

Stevie’s tour de force, this is a double disc (and then some!) with almost no filler whatsoever. Originally released as a 2-LP set with a bonus 4-song, 7-inch EP, this expertly-sequenced album is best appreciated in its original vinyl incarnation, if only since each album side is a piece of art in and of itself. The Number One hits “I Wish” (which would return to Number One decades later as a prominent sample in Will Smith’s “Wild Wild West”) and the jubilant Duke Ellington tribute “Sir Duke” are both here, as are the minor Top 40 hits and album-closing epics “As” and “Another Star,” featuring, respectively, jazz legends Herbie Hancock and George Benson as special guests. “Isn’t She Lovely,” inspired by the birth of his daughter Aisha and surprisingly not released as a single on these shores, is here as well, along with such other fine album cuts as “Pastime Paradise,” which was later prominently sampled in rapper Coolio’s biggest hit, “Gangsta’s Paradise”; the album-opening wake-up call “Love’s in Need of Love Today”; and the tender love ballad “Knocks Me Off My Feet.” Even the songs on the bonus EP have strong hooks to recommend them, especially the funk of “All Day Sucker” and the beautiful spacey ballad “Saturn,” co-written with future ‘80s star Michael Sembello (“Maniac.”)