Uptight (Everything’s Alright) 45 by Stevie Wonder

May 30, 2012

Stevie Wonder hit number one with his “Fingertips” release during the summer of 1963. At the time he was the youngest artist to ever top the BILLBOARD MAGAZINE Pop Singles Chart. While he would have a number of chart singles following his first big hit, it would be two and a-half hears before he would reach the top ten again.

Stevie Wonder was all of 15 when he released “Uptight (Everything’s Alright)” during late 1965. It marked the beginning of a new phase of his career. The music was now much more sophisticated as an upfront guitar sound, thundering drums, pulsating bass, and a big brass sound all provided the foundation for his vocal.

“Uptight” reached number one on the BILLBOARD Rhythm & Blues Chart and crossed over to the Pop Chart where it peaked at number three. It was also his first chart single in the U.K. where it reached number 14.

Dozens of hits would soon follow as he would become one of the dominant artists on the singles chart during the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s.

A Place In The Sun 45 by Stevie Wonder

November 12, 2011

Stevie Wonder is recognized as a superstar and musical icon. His series of albums released during the 1970s, and the singles they produced, were some of the best in American music history.

The 1960s apso produced a number of hit singles. They may not have had the sophistication of his latwr work but they were excellent and straight forward rhythm & blues.

“A Place In The Sun” was released November 12, 1966 and reached number nine on the BILLBOARD MAGAZINE Pop Singles Chart. His vocal strained against the music track in one of the better performances of his career.

#1’s by Stevie Wonder

September 5, 2011

I was going to end my series of Stevie Wonder reviews with his last studio album to date, A Time To Love. However, since I own #1’s and it was staring at me forlornly as the last Stevie Wonder album in the box, I decided to include it and finish the series at an even 20 releases.

#1’s was a part of a Motown/Universal series of releases by some of the label’s leading artists. I also own The Temptations disc, and all are released under the title #1’s. They all come in what is proudly proclaimed eco-friendly packaging, which in this case means cheap. Of course if I ever want to throw the CD away, it will have a minimal impact upon the environment.

The title refers to songs that topped Billboard’s Pop, Rhythm & Blues, and Adult Contemporary Charts. As such, the twenty tracks are not necessarily the best of his career, although a number would fall into that category. The material is limited by the theme, and to meet the requirements, the songs had to be released as singles. That left out a lot of superior album tracks. It adds up to a nice overview of his career from a singles perspective.

The tracks are taken from all periods of his career. Naturally the most memorable songs derive from the 1970s. The six song run of “Superstition,” “You Are The Sunshine Of My Life,” “Higher Ground,” “Living For The City,” “Boogie On Reggae Woman,” and “You Haven’t Done Nothin’” are about 25 minutes of the finest music you can find in one place.

The early material sounds a bit primitive compared to what was to follow and it is very apparent on an album of this nature. On the other hand, “Uptight (Everything’s Alright),” “I Was Made To Love Her,” and “Signed, Sealed, Delivered (I’m Yours)” are all uptempo, raucous delights.

The album tends to slow down a bit during the second half but that is mainly due to the placement of the songs, as some just do not fit together well.

#1’sis a flawed yet very good album. While there are better Stevie Wonder compilation albums, this one is a nice introduction to his music. If you decide to upgrade in the future at least you can discard it with a clear conscience.

Article first published as Music Review: Stevie Wonder – #1’s on Blogcritics.

A Time To Love by Stevie Wonder

August 31, 2011

Stevie Wonder released Conversation Peace March 21, 1995. It would be 10 years until he released his next studio album, A Time To Love, which remains his last to date.

It is an album that should be taken on its own merits. Stevie Wonder was not the same artist as during his classic 1970s period, just as he was far removed from his early 1960s material. It represented the modern Stevie Wonder and that will do very nicely.

A Time To Love was a strong and solid album. It may not have had an outstanding or truly memorable song, but everything merged together into a pleasant and cohesive whole. There were love songs and lyrics of social awareness. There were ballads and mid-tempo soul tunes. Through it all his musicianship and production expertise helped to form a slick and polished release.

He continued to play many of the instruments and compose all the material. He co-opted a number of guest stars to provide support including Prince, Paul McCartney, En Vogue, Bonnie Raitt, Kim Burrell, Kirk Franklin, and Hubert Laws.

The best song, and certainly the most poignant, was “How Will I Know,” which featured his daughter Aisha Morris. This jazzy love ballad brought the affection for his daughter full circle. It began with the 1976 song, “Isn’t She Lovely,” which celebrated her birth from the year before (1975). Close behind was another Aisha collaboration, “Positivity,” which was a fun-filled, feel-good romp.

The biggest production was “So What’s The Fuss,” with Prince on guitar and backing vocals by En Vogue. The other major star-turn was the guitar work by Paul McCartney on the title song.

There were a number of other tracks that added quality to the album. “Sweetest Somebody I Know,” “Tell Your Heart I Love You” with Bonnie Raitt’s slide guitar, and “My Love Is On Fire” with Hubert Laws on flute are all typical Stevie Wonder love songs that fit together well. He brought out his old harmonica for “From The Bottom Of My Heart.”

Stevie Wonder has aged well and continues to make it look all so easy. As his career moves on toward the 50-year mark, his music remains accomplished, relevant, and enjoyable. A Time To Love is a fine representation of his 21st century mind and music.

Article first published as Music Review: Stevie Wonder – A Time To Love on Blogcritics.

Conversation Peace by Stevie Wonder

August 24, 2011

Conversation Peaceis an album that is often overlooked in the vastness of the Stevie Wonder catalogue. Released March 21, 1995, it was his first new studio album in eight years at the time. It was a moderate commercial and chart success, receiving a Gold Record Award for sales. “For Your Love” was the best known song as it won a Grammy Award for Best R&B Male Vocal Performance.

It was an album of solid material. The lack of a few outstanding songs prevented the album from reaching the status of his classic releases. The material was also a return to a longer format as 10 of the 13 songs exceeded five minutes and five topped the six minute mark. The punchy and short single type track was replaced by music that returned him to the sprawling and improvisational feel of the past.

The music travels in a number of directions in terms of style and content. There is jazz, rhythm & blues, reggae, funk, and gospel. There are love songs, spiritual pieces, and lyrics that promote social awareness. There are pop ballads, funky rhythms, smooth strings, and some tasty mid-1990s electronic sounds. It may not have added up to a cohesive release, but the individual parts are very good in their own right.

The best track was “I’m New.” Just about every Stevie Wonder album contained at least one song that can be classified as beautiful. Good percussion and guitar lines propel the song along.

Many of the other tracks have something good going for them. “Sensuous Whisper” was nearly six minutes of smooth danceablity. “Cold Chill” is a long exploration of the funk style of music. Wonder had consistently been using outside guitarists for his past several albums and here, Ben Bridges shines with his riffing.

“Take The Time Out” found him preaching that love can heal anything. That may not have happened but it was the presentation of the one consistent theme of the lyrics. “The Edge Of Eternity” was another funky, R&B song that was built with the help of a horn section. “Tomorrow Robins Will Sing” was a fusion of reggae and electronics.

Conversation Peace remains a nice stop in the exploration of the music of Stevie Wonder. It may not be as essential as his classic 1970s releases but there is some cool music to be heard here.

Article first published as Music Review: Stevie Wonder – Conversation Peace on Blogcritics.

Characters by Stevie Wonder

August 20, 2011

Stevie Wonder released Characters on November 6, 1987. It would be eight years before he issued another studio album. His commercial decline had begun, as it was his lowest charting album since 1972’s Music Of My Mind.

The album was primarily aimed at a black urban audience, as many of the songs dealt with the social issues of the day. This focus no doubt hurt its sales across the broad spectrum of music fans but it proved popular with his target audience, as it topped the Billboard Magazine Rhythm & Blues Album Chart for seven weeks and produced two number one R&B singles. All in all, it may have been too worldly for many of his pop fans.

It was by no means a bad release and compares well with other music of the late 1980s. It’s just that the highs were not as high as in the past and while there were some very good songs, none are essential to his legacy.

There are three tracks that stand above the rest. “You Will Know” was both a sad and hopeful ballad at the same time. “Skeletons” was a smooth up-tempo tune that settled into a danceable groove. It was his last Top 40 pop hit to date. The best and most creative of the lot was the ballad “With Each Beat Of My Heart.” It had a nice melody and a tasty harmonica solo. The song was built around an actual heartbeat.

“Get It,” with guest artist Michael Jackson, occupies the middle ground in terms of quality, as it never really takes off. “Dark ‘N’ Lovely” may not be perfect but at least it got a little funky in places.

At the other end of the scale were songs such as “Cryin’ Through The Night,” “Galaxy Paradise,” “One of A Kind,” and particularly “In Your Corner,” which have all deservedly disappeared into the depths of his large catalogue of music.

Characters was his last release of the 1980s and while he retained his sense of social consciousness, in some ways it seems he was just coasting. It was a release that contained some good moments but it is not a place to linger given the quality of his previous work.

Article first published as Music Review: Stevie Wonder – Characters on Blogcritics.

In Square Circle by Stevie Wonder

August 18, 2011

The early 1980s found Stevie Wonder producing a soundtrack album, a greatest hits release, touring constantly, and even producing a chart topping duet single with Paul McCartney. What he did not do was release a true studio album. In Square Circle was issued September 13, 1985, and was his first new studio album since 1980’s Hotter Than July. It would prove to be the last of his huge commercially successful albums and formed a bridge to his modern releases.

He continued his practice of playing a number of the instruments himself as well as writing all of the tracks. He does use several guitarists and a vast number of backing vocalists. I miss his drumming which was due to his extensive use of programmable drum machines. He has always been a noted keyboardist but an underappreciated drummer, but it was the 1980s and time marched onrward.

As with many of his albums, the parts were better than the whole. It was not a cohesive effort but when each track was taken on its own, there were some very good individual pieces.

It was also his last album to produce multiple hit singles, including his final solo number one. “Part-Time Lover” was his last huge single hit to date and was a deserved number one. It was a smooth song, both melodically and vocally, plus told a great story. The top ten hit, “Go Home,” was a keyboardist’s delight and had a funky beauty about it. The last of the three hits was the gentle ballad, “Overjoyed.”

There are a number of lesser known songs that hold up well. “I Love You So Much” had impeccable production with its layered keyboards. “Never In Your Sun” was one of those songs, where every once in a while, he would cut loose on the harmonica. There were several social commentary songs but the best was “It’s Wrong (Apartheid),” the title of which explains the lyrics.

In Square Circlemay not have the overall creativity of his classic album period but there are some well written and performed songs that rank near his best. Even the second tier of Stevie Wonder albums are worth a visit now and then.

Article first published as Music Review: Stevie Wonder – In Square Circle on Blogcritics.

The Woman In Red by Stevie Wonder

August 16, 2011

Stevie Wonder’s first foray into the world of soundtracks was for the film, The Secret Life of Plants. The film disappeared so fast that many fans assumed the release was a studio album. The music was different from his normal fare but remains extremely interesting.

His second soundtrack was for the film, The Woman In Red and it proved to be a more traditional affair. The movie starred Gene Wilder, Kelly LeBrock, and Gilder Radner, and enjoyed some commercial success. Wonder wrote the music and produced the resulting album. There was some other music in the film but only his material made it onto the official soundtrack.

The album may not have been his finest hour, but when it was good, it was very good, as two of the songs rank among his best.

“I Just Called To Say I Love You” won an Oscar and Golden Globe for Best Original Song. An edited version was released as a single and became the biggest solo hit of his career. It featured one of his smoothest vocals. The six-minute album version is more interesting than its shorter counterpart as it keeps the instrumental connectors intact.

The other well-known track also became a hit single in an edited form. “Love Light In Flight” clocked in at just shy of seven minutes as an album track. There is a classic melody that helps the song to soar, plus his use of a digital percussion machine was extremely creative at the time.

“Don’t Drive Drunk” was an odd tempo song with an important message. It was another six-minute-plus track that contained some good ideas but it was the quirky chorus that made the song a difficult listen.

All was not completely well with the album. The title song really never takes off and while the instrumental, “It’s More Than You,” may have had its place in the movie, on an album it is just filler.

He was not alone on the album as Dionne Warwick was a guest vocalist on three of the tracks, two duets and one solo. While some may remember her as the spokesperson for the Psychic Friends Network, during the 1960s, ’70s, and ’80s, she was one of the most commercially successful solo female artists in music history. This album catches her when her voice was still a formidable instrument. If Stevie Wonder had to have a female guest vocalist, she was a good choice at the time.

The best of her three appearances was the duet, “It’s You,” as they fit together perfectly. Her solo outing, “Moments Aren’t Moments,” is only a cut below. “Weakness” was appropriately named as it was the weakest of her three tracks.

All in all, The Women In Redis an average Stevie Wonderrelease. While it’s nice to hear the two singles at their original length, it’s not an album that is an essential Stevie Wonder listening experience, as he has released so many better albums down through the years that should be required listens for any music fan.

Article first published as Music Review: Stevie Wonder – The Woman In Red [Soundtrack] on Blogcritics.

Original Musiquarium I by Stevie Wonder

August 12, 2011

Stevie Wonder issued his Original Musiquarium I, May 4, 1982, which effectively brought the classic, and most commercially successful, period of his career to a close. It contained 12 well-known and arguably the best tracks from his albums issued 1972-1980, although there was so much superior material from that period of his career, a number of other tracks could have been substituted without the loss of much quality.

He also released four new songs which ended each side of the original double vinyl album. He did not miss a beat as three of the four became successful singles and all fit in nicely with his best material which surrounded them.

The highlight of the new material was the 10 minute “Do I Do,” which brought the album to a close. It was a jazz classic and featured bebop great Dizzy Gillespie on trumpet, who complimented the creative bass lines of Nathan Watts. A much shorter version became a top 20 single but, to hear the track in all its glory, you need to explore the unedited version.

The other new songs were almost as good. “That Girl” was a successful top five single and proved that Stevie Wonder could still play the harmonica. “Ribbon In The Sky” was one of those gentle songs that he was so good at creating. The least effective of the four new songs was “Front Line,” which was another scathing commentary about war. It may have been the weakest track, but it was still above average, which says a great deal about the overall quality of the album.

The album began with “Superstition,” “Living In The City” and “You Haven’t Done Nothin’” and music doesn’t get much better then that. The second side was one of beauty with “Superwoman (Where Were You When I Needed You),” “Send One Your Love,” and “You Are The Sunshine of My Life” (single version with horns) fronting the new “Ribbon In The Sky.”

The third side was a potpourri of funky joy. “Higher Ground,” “Sir Duke,” “Master Blaster (Jammin’)” and “Boogie On Reggae Woman,” with their odd rhythms and tempo changes, were the 1970s and early 1980s at their funky best.

The last three songs were longer, especially the uncut version of “Isn’t She Lovely” and the aforementioned, “Do I Do.” When combined with “I Wish,” they gave off a jam like, spontaneous vibe.

Stevie Wonder’s Original Musiquarium I was very different from his studio releases. While compilation albums have the inherent weakness of removing songs from their original context, this release remains essential due to the quality of the material, the perfect placement and ordering of the songs, plus the new material.

Stevie Wonder would continue to produce quality material but not of the quantity as during his classic period. If you want a quick introduction to his career, while exploring some of the best music of the era, this is an album for you.

Article first published as Music Review: Stevie Wonder – Stevie Wonder’s Original Musiquarium I on Blogcritics.

Stevie Wonder’s Journey Through The Secret Life of Plants by Stevie Wonder

August 6, 2011

The Secret Life Of Plants was a documentary film based on the book of the same name. It was cutting-edge and experimental at the time of its release with the use of time-lapsed photography. Unfortunately very few people saw the movie when it was released.

Enter Stevie Wonder, who created the soundtrack. It was a double album of 20 tracks. The initial problem was the quick commercial failure of the film, which meant very few people realized the release was a soundtrack. Most fans and record buyers considered it to be the follow-up studio release to his Songs In The Key Of Life. Many people bought the album expecting typical Stevie Wonder music but were quickly surprised.

Stevie Wonder’s Journey Through The Secret Life Of Plants is a unique album in his catalogue of work. It was written for a specific purpose. Plus, it contained seven instrumentals, including the first three tracks. He also had more freedom when composing the music, as he was not thinking commercial success. This led to some unique and experimental material, especially with the synthesizer sounds.

The music is gentler than his other work. While there is one funk piece and one social commentary song, for the most part the music has a lush quality to it. In addition, there are a number of classic melodies. In some ways, it has a Duke Ellington quality to it.

The album did produce one big hit single. “Send One Your Love” was a laid-back ballad in the Stevie Wonder tradition and was the most conventional track.

The experimental tracks formed the heart and soul of the album. “Ecclesiastes” contained a number of minor keys and odd tempos. “Kesse Ye Lolo De Ye” makes use of African chants. “Venus Flytrap and The Bug” was a unique jazz composition.

The instrumental tracks were written for specific scenes in the movie, but as album tracks, they make up some of the more imaginative music of his career. They span about 36 minutes and when listened to back-to-back, they form a body of work whose style and sound cannot be found on any other of his releases.

The movie is long gone and so the album stands on its own today. It has aged well as it presents a very different journey from the mind of Stevie Wonder. It is expressive, creative, emotional, and futuristic. It remains an album that needs to be listened to with an open mind.

Article first published as Music Review: Stevie Wonder – Stevie Wonder’s Journey Through The Secret Life Of Plants on Blogcritics.