Discog Fever - Rating and Reviewing Every Stevie Wonder Album (Part 3)

by Jeff Fiedler

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

Journey through the Secret Life of Plants (1979, Tamla)

A –

Much like Chris Gaines’ Greatest Hits, Stevie’s last album of the Seventies is a greatly misunderstood album. It’s actually a soundtrack for the little-seen documentary The Secret Life of Plants, but that fact somehow got obscured, and a lot of listeners consequently wondered why on earth Stevie would follow up his greatest album yet with a largely-instrumental disc with a botanical theme. But if you approach the disc with this in mind in lieu of approaching it as a run-of-the-mill Stevie studio album, it not only makes a lot more sense, but it actually is a very strong and cohesive album piece. Sure, there are a quite a few instrumentals here, but it’s all stunningly beautiful music, and the vocal cuts are all very underrated indeed, be it the frequently-overlooked Top Ten hit “Send One Your Love” (easily one of Stevie’s finest post-Key of Life ballads), the Michael Sembello co-write “Power Flower,” “Black Orchid,” “Outside My Window,” “Same Old Story,” or the title cut. Even “Come Back as a Flower,” the vocals of which are sung not by Stevie but his former co-writer (and ex-wife) Syreeta Wright, is a lost gem. If you’re expecting this to be as traditional an album as Talking Book, yes, you’ll be disappointed. But those listeners willing to go along with Stevie for this detour should find it to be one of the most criminally underrated albums in his catalog.

Hotter than July (1980, Tamla)

A

Stevie’s first album of the Eighties – and his first non-soundtrack release since Songs in the Key of Life – is – perhaps inevitably – a tad disappointing when you compare it to just about any of his albums from Talking Book through the end of the Seventies, but by any other standard, this is still a truly fantastic and quite underrated album. The biggest hits here don’t get nearly as much radio play as his earlier material, but they’re actually quite delightful, be it the reggae sounds of the Bob Marley tribute “Master Blaster (Jammin’)” or the clever country-soul hybrid “I Ain’t Gonna Stand for It.” The festive “Happy Birthday” – a tribute to the late Martin Luther King, Jr. – is also here, as is one of Stevie’s all-time most underrated ballads, the achingly pretty “Lately,” which R&B vocal group Jodeci would later cover and score a major Top Five hit with in the ‘90s. The disc also sports such underrated album cuts as “Did I Hear You Say You Love Me,” “Rocket Love,” and “All I Do,” the last of which features background vocals from former Motown label-mate Michael Jackson, fresh off his massive success with Off the Wall

The Woman in Red (1984, Tamla)

B +

It’s hard not to sympathize to some extent with the management at Motown when you consider just how incredibly non-prolific Stevie became in the years following Fullfillingness’ First Finale. It took Stevie four years to deliver a proper (that is, non-soundtrack or compilation) follow-up to Songs in the Key of Life, and another four years would elapse between the release of Hotter Than July and its follow-up, which would turn out to be another soundtrack, this time featuring just eight songs, one of which is a non-Stevie-penned instrumental and another three of which are either sung by or sung as a duet with Dionne Warwick. Fortunately, the Stevie-penned material here is generally – with the exception of “Don’t Drive Drunk” – very good. The Warwick-sung “Moments Aren’t Moments” is quite lovely, and the sadly-forgotten Top 40 hit “Love Light in Flight” is easily one of Stevie’s most underrated 45s. Most memorably, though, the album contains Stevie’s biggest non-duet hit of the ‘80s, the Number One smash “I Just Called to Say I Love You,” which boasts one of the prettiest melodies Stevie’s ever written. 

In Square Circle (1985, Tamla)

B +

It’s telling just how long it took Stevie to complete albums in his post-Songs in the Key of Life years that two of the best songs here were actually premiered on Saturday Night Live nearly two-and-a-half years before they finally made their first appearance on record. While it’s true that this album isn’t appealing as Stevie’s last proper studio album, Hotter than July, that actually has less to do with the quality of the material than it does that the album suffers from dated production and never feels as organic or as warm as Hotter Than July or any of the albums that preceded it. But the songs themselves are mostly appealing, save the awkward “Land of La La” and the preachy “It’s Wrong (Apartheid),” and there are actually quite a few really underrated album cuts here, including “Never in Your Sun,” “Whereabouts,” and “Stranger on the Shore of Love.”  But the album’s three Top 40 hit singles steal the show, be it the synth-funk of the Top Ten hit of “Go Home,” the soulful Number One hit “Part Time Lover” (featuring the great, late Luther Vandross on scat vocals), or, best of all, the lush and hypnotic ballad “Overjoyed,” one of the most devastatingly lovely ballads in all of Stevie’s catalog.

Characters (1987, Motown)

C  

Easily Stevie’s least satisfying album since the ‘60s, Characters suffers from two main problems. First of all, like In Square Circle, it’s just not as warm-sounding as a Stevie Wonder disc ought to be and suffers from some dated production. Much more problematically, though, the material’s just not as strong as normal, and it says a lot about the lack of strong hooks on the disc that even “Get It,” a duet with the biggest ‘80s superstar of all, Michael Jackson, lacked any real magic and could only get to #80 on the Hot 100. [The album – which missed the Top Ten, his first studio disc to do so since Music of My Mind – isn’t entirely devoid of hits, though, and the synth-pop of “Skeletons” did reach the Top 40.]  But it’s not all bad, either – merely spotty – and there are some good cuts here and there that manage to redeem the album, especially the beautiful opening ballad, “You Will Know.”

Jungle Fever (1991, Motown)

C +

This soundtrack to the Spike Lee film of the same name, like Stevie’s soundtrack for The Woman in Red, came out a full four years after his last studio disc and isn’t entirely sung by Stevie – “If She Breaks Your Heart” is sung by Kimberly Brewer. Where this disc pales in comparison to The Woman in Red is that the hooks aren’t quite as strong, and, perhaps as a result, there are no Top 40 hits here. [Even the highest-charting cut here, “Gotta Have You,” could climb no higher than #92.] But it’s still a cohesive album piece and never feels quite as undercooked as the brief, eight-cuts-long The Woman in Red, either – it’s also better than Characters, actually – and there are some minor gems here, particularly “These Three Words,” “Chemical Love,” “Gotta Have You,” and “Fun Day.”

Conversation Peace (1995, Motown)

B –

Like the Jungle Fever soundtrack, there are no Top 40 hits here and more casual fans are not likely to recognize any of the tunes here upon first listen. But Stevie’s clearly making more of an effort here than on either of his last proper studio albums (In Square Circle or Characters) to recapture the feel and ambition of his ‘70s albums, and he does succeed to some extent in that regard. Still, while this disc is a significant improvement on Characters and does boast its share of winners, namely “For Your Love” and the title cut, it still falls well short of equaling the appeal of a disc like Hotter than July, which had harder-hitting singles.

A Time to Love (2005, Motown)

A –

Stevie’s first studio album of new material in an astounding ten full years actually surprisingly turns out to be worth the wait, relatively speaking. It gets off to a discouraging start with the Kim Burrell duet “If Your Love Cannot Be Moved,” which prominently features beat-boxing from Doug E. Fresh, but it thankfully immediately rebounds with the appealing Fulfillingness’ First Finale-recalling “Sweetest Somebody I Know” and manages to stay on course for most of the rest of the disc, the highlights of which include the absolutely delightful single “From the Bottom of My Heart,” which sounds like it could have been a lost Songs in the Key of Life song, the jazzy ballad “True Love” (featuring some fine drum work from Ricky Lawson), the ballad “Can’t Imagine Life without You,” and the gospel-tinged “Shelter in the Rain.” Stevie’s daughter Aisha even shares lead vocals on two cuts, most memorably on “Positivity.” This is also quite a star-studded disc, boasting appearances from Bonnie Raitt (on “Tell Your Heart I Love You”), Prince and En Vogue (on the funky “So What the Fuss”), and India.Arie and Paul McCartney (on the epic, album-closing title cut.) 

Compilations:

There are quite a few Stevie compilations to pick from, all of which have their bright spots. 1977’s triple-disc Looking Back, which remains unreleased on CD, covers only his 1963-1971 period but contains quite a few unavailable-elsewhere items, including Stevie’s own version of “Until You Come Back to Me (That’s What I’m Gonna Do),” which was later given away to – and made a Top Ten hit by – Aretha Franklin. 1982’s double-disc Original Musicquarium 1 only covers his 1971-1982 period but does it quite well and also features four new cuts, including the hits “That Girl,” “Do I Do” (featuring a trumpet solo from jazz great Dizzy Gillespie), and “Ribbon in the Sky.” 2002’s The Definitive Collection attempts to cover Stevie’s full career as a hit-maker on a single disc, which naturally means a lot of lesser hits get left out, but it’s an easy way of obtaining most of his biggest hits for a bargain-basement price (though why “If You Really Love Me” and “Send One Your Love” are both absent while the #90-peaking “Hey Love” is here, I haven’t the faintest clue.) If you want to spring for a double-disc, the 1996 double-disc Song Review: A Greatest Hits Collection is not a bad way to go, even if it arguably includes a bit too much post-In Square Circle material and still inexplicably includes “Hey Love.” The four-CD 1999 boxed set At the Close of a Century might seem a little too pricey for some listeners and doesn’t include any previously unreleased material but is a phenomenally well-compiled anthology that manages to incorporate nearly all of Stevie’s forty-five Top 40 hits (save for a few early, inessential, lesser-charting cuts and the Paul McCartney duet “Ebony and Ivory”) and expertly picks all the best album cuts along the way.   

Live Albums:

Stevie’s officially only released a tiny handful of live albums, most of which pre-date Talking Book, so by default, the live disc you’d most likely want to get is the more career-encompassing 1995 package Natural Wonder, but it’s just good, not great, and Stevie being the quintessential studio artist that he is, his live discs just don’t have the same magic as his well-labored-over studio concoctions and can easily be bypassed without missing anything terribly critical.