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Stevie Wonder

Reviewed on this page:
The Jazz Soul Of Little Stevie - Uptight - Down To Earth - I Was Made To Love Her - Someday At Christmas - For Once In My Life - Eivets Rednow - My Cherie Amour - Signed, Sealed & Delivered - Live - Where I'm Coming From - Music Of My Mind - Syreeta - Talking Book - Innervisions - Stevie Wonder Presents Syreeta - Fulfillingness' First Finale - Songs In The Key Of Life - Journey Through The Secret Life Of Plants - Hotter Than July - Original Musiquarium Vol. 1 - The Woman In Red Soundtrack - In Square Circle - Characters - Jungle Fever Soundtrack - Conversation Peace - Natural Wonder - A Time 2 Love

Not much to add to what's already been said about Stevie, master of all things melodic, voted "Vocalist Most Likely To Make You Smile Against Your Will." (DBW)

I just want to point out that of all his contemporaries, only Joni Mitchell was as daring when it came to odd riffs, incessant modulation, and unpredictable melodies that made full use of a three-plus-octave vocal range. But Stevie's melodic and harmonic sense were (are?) so outstanding that he could get away with it consistently, whereas Joni often loses the listener. The man is right up there with the Beatles and Hendrix, making every other 60s rocker look like a clumsy child (and I should know!). The only problem, then, is that it's almost impossible for a critic to choose among all the riches. Start with any 70s record and you won't be sorry. (JA)

We've reviewed a Stevie bio/discography on our Book reviews Page.

Other than this one, the best Stevie site I've seen is Vaid Bharath's World of Wonder. (JA)

Or try this Japanese fan site. (DBW)

Besides the two records he produced for Syreeta, reviewed on this page, Wonder has written, produced and/or performed on a pile of other records reviewed at this site. Here's a guide to some of Stevie's side projects and guest appearances:

Little Stevie

Gordy apparently had a lot of faith in the young prodigy, following up several flop singles with two equally unsuccessful albums. Third time was the charm, though, as Little Stevie gave Motown its first #1 album. After only another year, Wonder dropped the "Little" and moved into his next phase.

A Tribute To Uncle Ray (1963)
At this age, Wonder certainly didn't have the voice to do justice to Ray Charles' hits, but he recorded a whole album's worth anyway. Be very afraid. (DBW)

The Jazz Soul Of Little Stevie (1963)
Producer Clarence Paul's next move was to display Wonder's instrumental precocity on an entirely instrumental big band jazz album. Wonder's harmonica playing is already distinctive ("Some Other Time"), and his drumming is pretty good ("Manhattan At Six"), but his piano and organ playing give no hint of his later accomplishments. The tunes are nothing remarkable, including two co-written by Little Stevie himself ("Wondering," "Session Number 112"), and the arrangements aren't brilliant although they're noteworthy for featuring much more prominent flute than was customary during this period ("Fingertips"). The record is harmless, but it's not going to be on anybody's list of all-time favorites. (DBW)

Recorded Live - The Twelve Year Old Genius (1963)
Yes, this contains the massive hit "Fingertips Pt. 2," which showcased Wonder's lively stage personality and sense of humor, if it barely hinted at any of his other talents. Side two of the album is live versions of several numbers from Uncle Ray, and side one includes a version of Jazz Soul's "Soul Bongo." (DBW)

With A Song In My Heart (1963)
A whole album of show tunes (title track, "When You Wish Upon A Star") recorded with full orchestral backing. (DBW)

Stevie At The Beach (1964)
The first record after dropping the "Little," but the tracks are the same combination of Broadway kitsch and harmonica solos of his earlier records. Three singles, of which only "Hey Harmonica Man" charted: the others were "Castles In The Sand" (no, not the Hendrix tune) and "Happy Street." (DBW)

Minor Miracle

Stevie's career took a sharp swing upwards when he scored a major hit with his own composition "Uptight" in 1965. Still, until age 21 he didn't have much creative control, since singers were near the bottom of Motown's hierarchy (barely above musicians). But things improved as he proved he could write, and later produce, his own songs. There were a lot of advantages to being in the teenage musician's position: he could learn from many of the most successful musicians, singers, songwriters and producers in the business. But clearly he felt confined by the studio system, because as soon as he turned 21 (and got the back royalties that had been held from him) he threatened to leave the company and went off in a radically different musical direction. We'll get to that in a minute. First, the 60s records. (DBW)

Uptight (1966)
An enjoyable mess. The title song became a hit (the first hit song he wrote) and Motown rushed out this LP, which includes some more hits (his moving cover of Dylan's "Blowin' In The Wind," "Ain't That Asking For Trouble"), plus filler extraordinaire: an "Uptight" rerun ("Nothing's Too Good For My Baby" complete with the signature "hah hah yeah"), the three year old flop single "Contract On Love," the annoying "Pretty Little Angel"... the list goes on. (DBW)

Down To Earth (1966)
Big problems here, as even the hits aren't very good ("Place In The Sun" is 30's kitsch, "Hey Love" is so insubstantial it's barely a song at all), the arrangements are corny, and the worst stuff is incredibly bad (Sonny and Cher's "Bang Bang"). I guess even Stevie Wonder had to put in some time learning his craft. (DBW)

I Was Made To Love Her (1967)
- The first Stevie Wonder album that's enjoyable all the way through; he seemed to be on a mission to cover songs by all the major black male vocalists of the period: Otis Redding's "Respect," the Temptations' "My Girl," James Brown's "Please Please Please," Charles' "I Pity The Fool," even Little Richard's "Send Me Some Lovin'"... seems like he overlooked Jackie Wilson. But as filler goes, I'll take a good cover over a crummy original any day. And the good tunes are real good - "I'd Cry," "Everybody Needs Somebody" and the rockin' title track (check out James Jamerson's bass playing on that one!). (DBW)
- Although Stevie's singing is remarkably mature at this point, the Motown house band's work on the cover songs is indistinguishable from any other Motown product of the era. But that's a compliment - unless you can't stand Motown, you'll go back to this record over and over. The title track is a masterpiece, as are the handful of other originals like "Everytime I See [sic] You I Go Wild." (JA)

Someday At Christmas (1967)
If you have to have a Christmas album, you might as well have one by Stevie, right? Not necessarily. There are a few renditions of Christmas standards ("The Little Drummer Boy," "Silver Bells"), but most of the songs are Motown originals, and you end up with the worst of both worlds: the subject matter is hackneyed and the orchestral arrangements are saccharine and stale, yet the tunes lack cozy-up-by-the-fire familiarity. Nothing was written by Wonder (though he did come up with a couple of Christmas numbers for the Miracles a few years later), with Ron Miller doing most of the dirty work. Almost everything is in the same sluggish tempo; the one tune that's standard Motown pop, the single "That's What Christmas Means To Me," sounds amazingly like "Ain't That Asking For Trouble" - it's the best tune on the record, for what that's worth, and does feature a fine harmonica solo. Otherwise, what saves the disc from complete disaster is the singing: Stevie doesn't give his all here, but half-assed Stevie vocals still beats the hell out of full-assed most other people vocals. Produced by Cosby. (DBW)

For Once In My Life (1968)
- Another big step forward, with Stevie's first co-productions (including the tortured soul classic "Don't Know Why I Love Her" AKA "I Don't Know Why") and Stevie taking a larger role as an instrumentalist throughout (the clavinet debuts here, on "Shoo-Be-Doo-Be-Doo-Da-Day," "You Met Your Match" and more). Catchy uptempo pop (title song), lowdown funk ("I Wanna Make Her Love Me"), sweet lively ballads ("Do I Love Her")... only a couple of covers here, and the older track "House On The Hill" is a jarring finish: stop the record before it comes on. (DBW)
- Motown had finally gotten wise to the fact that the best material on a Stevie Wonder record had always been the original Stevie Wonder songs, and let him write more than half the selections here. The first three tracks all hit the Top 40, with the title track doing particularly well. In a weird twist of fate, "I Don't Know Why" was put out as the A-side of the album's fourth single in early 1969, and it flopped, barely cracking the Top 40 for just a week - but the B-side, "My Cherie Amour," unexpectedly took off and zoomed to #4. That led to the cash-in album released a few months later. (JA)

Eivets Rednow Featuring Alfie (Eivets Rednow: 1968)
An album of harmonica instrumentals, released under the see-through pseudonym "Eivets Rednow." Overproduced fluff, mostly, although "How Can You Believe" (one of Wonder's first compositions listed with no co-writer) almost makes it as jazz-blues. The unsuccessful single was his harmonica version of "Alfie." (DBW)

My Cherie Amour (1969)
- Stevie goes Broadway, recording show tunes ("Hello Young Lovers"), imitating Jose Feliciano covering Jim Morrison ("Light My Fire"), and singing some weak original material ("Yester-Me, Yester-You, Yester-etc."). The title track (recorded in 1966 but held back by Motown's famous quality control department) is the only great piece of music here. (DBW)
- The track selection is pretty miserable, but at least the performances are crisp and professional, with loads of harmonica solos. In Stevie's defense, he didn't write "Yester-whatever," and some of his own orchestrated love songs do lift the second side: the treacly but interesting "Angie Girl," and the gimmicky but joyful "I've Got You." On the other hand, he does embarass himself with big-time bathos on "Give Your Love." (JA)

Signed, Sealed & Delivered (1970)
- There's a lot to like here, from the kinetic, sitar-laden near-title track "Signed, Sealed, Delivered I'm Yours" (cowritten with his mom and his future wife Syreeta Wright) to the classic Motown sound of "Sugar," from the slow protest song "Heaven Help Us All" to the well-named "Joy (Takes Over Me)." Plus his inventive, manic cover of the Beatles' "We Can Work It Out." Stevie was listed as producer, though in fact he only produced two cuts and co-produced three more. (DBW)
- This shows Stevie starting to ditch the house rules, ditch the fads, and do his own thing - he often prevailed over the half-dozen producers who handled half the tracks (Leonard Caston does unfortunately get his way on the tacky "Don't Wonder Why"). Even "Sugar" has a huge drum kick that only Stevie could've engineered. A mature album loaded with ideas, don't ignore it just because of the tacky cover art and the lousy outing that preceded it. And after getting pushed out of the way on the last album, Stevie helped write seven of the 12 songs - but not "Joy" and the infectious Top 10 single "Heaven Help Us All." Also an amazing commercial effort, with four Top 40 hits. (JA)

Live (1970)
In line with other Motown releases like the Temptations' Live At The Copa, this set relies heavily on lounge fodder like "I've Gotta Be Me" and "Love Theme From Romeo And Juliet"; the few Stevie hits featured - "Cherie Amour," "For Once In My Life" - are among his sappiest. Combine that with the well-known late 60s live sound quality, and most of Stevie's awesome talents are painfully obscured. The good news is, Stevie does get to show off some of his musical versatility, playing a drum solo on "Ca' Purange," whatever that is, and stretching out on clavinet during "Shoo-Be-Doo-Be-Doo-Dah-Day." Also, the LP is about an hour long, so - as Voltaire or somebody once said - it makes up in length what it lacks in depth. (DBW)

The Big Time

Where I'm Coming From (1971)
- His first solely self-produced album, he's trying to assimilate all his past influences, from show tunes to 60s pop to R&B to blues, with mixed success. There are powerful songs (the stately almost classical "Look Around," the hit ballad "Never Dreamed You'd Leave In Summer") next to some of the weakest compositions he's ever released ("Think Of Me As Your Soldier"). All the songs are co-written by Stevie and Syreeta Wright (see below).(DBW)
- It is a mixed bag and much more dated-sounding than the following albums, but still enjoyable and a step up from the previous discs - except possibly Signed, Sealed. There really are some great tracks here like "If You Really Love Me," despite Stevie's tentativeness. (JA)

Music Of My Mind (1972)
- As far as I'm concerned, this record and his next four are all indispensable: it's hard to recommend one over another when they're all so good. Each one covers a wide range of styles, shows off his talented drumming (in the mold of his mentor Benny Benjamin), piano and keyboard playing (working with Robert Margouleff & Malcolm Cecil, Wonder pioneered the emotionally expressive use of synthesizers), and nonstop melodic, harmonic and even lyric invention. Plus all those great harmonica solos, and I haven't even mentioned his singing, which has been the primary influence on generations of R&B/soul/Quiet Storm vocalists. Music Of is a bit more tentative and unfocused than the following albums, but packed with priceless moments nonetheless: "Love Having You Around" is an enjoyably loose funk jam; "I Love Every Little Thing About You" is gentle and affectionate, with masterful vocal percussion; "Happier Than The Morning Sun" blends advanced harmonies, a soothing melody, and a kickin' clavinet part. (DBW)
- Indeed, all five records are classics, and it is hard to chose among them. Music Of is brilliant, but it's slightly less coherent than the records that followed, and it sometimes indulges in the flashy, over-produced Motown sound that Stevie was raised on ("Evil," with enough modulation to kill an army). Stevie was just figuring out what to do with his new-found synthesizer toys, and the results are fascinating if sometimes odd ("Seems So Long"). Still, it's full of high-powered funk ("I Love Every Little Thing About You"; "Keep On Running"); superb balladry ("Superwoman (Where Were You When I Needed You)"); and simply brilliant songwriting ("Happier Than The Morning Sun"). (JA)

Syreeta (1972)
I've never seen this album on CD, but I'm listing it just in case anyone's lucky enough to find it. Like Stevie Wonder Presents Syreeta, the record is produced and mostly co-written by Stevie, who also plays most of the instruments. The key track here is "To Know You Is To Love You" (no, it's not the Phil Spector tune), which features Stevie singing the first verse and chorus, and builds to an amazing finish led by strings and a stinging guitar solo by Buzzy Feiten. Syreeta's version of "I Love Every Little Thing About You" is an interesting contrast - chunky synths rather than mostly acoustic - although her version isn't as moving. The other Stevie compositions range from pretty good ("Black Maybe," an attack on opportunistic blacks) to real good ("Baby Don't You Let Me Lose This" has a so-so chorus but marvelous verses, "How Many Days" is a ballad in the "You And I" mold, although of course her voice doesn't have the same voltage). There are also a couple of covers - including a fun version of the Beatles' "She's Leaving Home" with Stevie doing synth-distorted backing vocals - and one Syreeta original, "Happiness," that doesn't do anything for me. But if you're a Stevie fan, this is worth looking for. (DBW)

Talking Book (1972)
- I read somewhere that Stevie was asked to compare this record and Innervisions, and he said that this was a collection of better songs but Innervisions was a better overall statement, more thematically coherent and flowing. I tend to agree: the best songs here are tremendous - from clavinet-driven hard funk on "Superstition" to as sweet a ballad as you'll ever hear ("You Are The Sunshine Of My Life"), and that's just the #1 singles. Also worthy of mention are the deeply funky "Maybe Your Baby" and the wistful/angry political ballad "Big Brother." A lot of people swear by the love songs "You And I" and "Blame It On The Sun," although I find a lot of his other ballads more moving. And the album closer, "I Believe," is as relevatory an experience as you could ask for. Incredibly enough, I think Innervisions is even better. (DBW)
- A masterpiece. Amazingly, there isn't one weak track on the listing. The highlights are the funk classic "Superstition"; the ballad "You Are The Sunshine Of My Life"; and Jeff Beck's marvelously understated guest appearance on the unforgettable "Looking For Another Pure Love." "Blame It On The Sun" is one of my all-time favorite ballads, although Stevie seemingly could pump this kind of thing out in his sleep; just look at the multi-part vocal harmony on "I Believe." Guests include singer Jim Gilstrap (lead-in vocal on "You Are The Sunshine..."). (JA)

Innervisions (1973)
- Nothing I can say will do justice to this record. Just buy it. You won't be disappointed. (The hits were "Higher Ground" and "Living For The City," and "Golden Lady" and "Jesus Children Of America" are also among the best songs Stevie or anybody else ever recorded.) (DBW)
- We agree, for once. Stop reading this drivel, run out to the nearest store, and buy yourself a copy. Perhaps better than anything else than Stevie did, but who's counting? Just for the record, "Doncha Worry Bout A Thing" is the most mind-blowing expression of joy every recorded; "Jesus Children Of America" and "Higher Ground" rank similarly among spiritual statements; and the ballads here, including "Golden Lady" and "All In Love Is Fair," are among Stevie's best - which is saying a lot. Omnipresent session player Willie Weeks plays bass on "He's Misstra Know-it-all." (JA)

Stevie Wonder Presents Syreeta (1974)
- Oh right. And I've got a nice bridge in Brooklyn I'd like to sell you. Although he sings only in a couple of places, there's no question that this is an unofficial Stevie Wonder record. All the tunes are his, as are a good chunk of the lyrics, the numerous keyboard and synth tracks, the backing band - it's basically Wonderlove - and, of course, the incredible arrangements. Syreeta Wright, however, deserved the favor: her voice is excellent even though she fades on the very highest notes, and her lyrics are entertaining. It's no coincidence that Stevie collaborated with her on his earlier records. "Cause We've Ended As Lovers" was soon remade by Jeff Beck and sounds half-finished by comparison, but there's lots of other great material here - "Heavy Day"; "Come And Get This Stuff"; "I Wanna Be By Your Side"; and even a number that out-Chicagoes Chicago ("Universal Sound of the World"). Some of it's lighter and, well, more feminine than what you'd find on a "real" Stevie record ("Spinnin' And Spinnin'"), but it's all damn good. (JA)
- A remarkable record. I just want to add that "Just A Little Piece Of You" is a wonderful love song that's also very pointedly about the relationship between Syreeta and Stevie, and "When Your Daddy's Not Around" is an extraordinary (though brief) double-edged statement on traditional sex roles. "Your Kiss Is Sweet" is a light, reggae-flavored tune with interesting changes on the verse. "I'm Going Left" joins a head-banging synth groove with a muddled look at politics, including a marvelous line on socialism. After this album, Syreeta released one more Stevie composition ("Harmour Love"), spent a few years out of the limelight, then came back with a huge hit duet with Billy Preston, "(With You I'm) Born Again." Lately, her singing career has been limited to backup appearances, including a few Stevie albums. (DBW)

Fulfillingness' First Finale (1974)
- This is amazingly focused in tone, plaintive and downbeat. Even the raucous, racy (for Stevie) "Boogie On Reggae Woman" has an undertone of sadness. The funk-dripping "You Haven't Done Nothing" is a monster groove showing him at his angriest. Sad love songs abound: "Please Don't Go," "Too Shy To Say," "It Ain't No Use" - as do meditations on death and afterlife, apparently prompted by a serious auto accident in 1973: "Heaven Is 10 Zillion Light Years Away," "They Won't Go When I Go." For those of you keeping score at home, the record also contains three of his best harmonica solos: "Boogie On," "Creepin'" and "Please Don't Go." (DBW)
- Man, this is awful good. Supposedly a let-down for Stevie fans, every track is excellent anyway - "Boogie On Reggae Woman" and "You Haven't Done Nothing" are only the most obvious examples. (JA)

Songs In The Key Of Life (1976)
- Quite good, but over-rated. The lyrics are often preachy ("Have a Talk with God"; "Black Man") or just shallow ("I Am Singing"; "If It's Magic"); the hits are great but form a distinct minority ("Isn't She Lovely"; "Sir Duke"; "I Wish"); and Stevie loses all control as a producer, allowing himself to drag three- minute pop songs into seven-minute repeat-a-thons ("Love's in Need of Love Today"; the aptly titled "Ordinary Pain"). For my money, I'd rather have a solid single LP like any of the preceding five records (including Stevie Wonder Presents Syreeta). The many guests here include saxophonist Jim Horn. (JA)
- Sure, the minor material here is weaker than anything on Innervisions, say. But there's more first-rate music here than on any other album I can think of. Many of the longer compositions fully justify their playing time, either by radically transforming themselves ("Ordinary Pain"), featuring solos from a galaxy of guest stars ("Another Star") or both ("As"). You've probably heard Stevie's solo on "Isn't She Lovely," but you may not be familiar with my favorite Wonder composition of all, "Knocks Me Off My Feet," which combines a simple theme with flights of incredibly harmonic sophistication, firmly anchored on Earth by a solid drum hook on the chorus. "Summersoft" is perhaps the best in a long line of gentle, mostly acoustic numbers with deceptively complex changes (like "Golden Lady" and "With Each Beat Of My Heart"). Not to mention "Ebony Eyes," "Pasttime Paradise", "Village Ghettoland," "Joy Inside My Tears." Possibly the single most influential album of the entire decade. (DBW)

Journey Through The Secret Life Of Plants (1979)
- Slammed on its original release, now revered by critics looking for an argument (as someone once said about Dylan's 1970 Self Portrait). This double album about plants (the soundtrack to a never-released film) is Stevie's attempt at a pop symphony. It doesn't quite come off, but there's great music here, from "Send One Your Love" to "Power Flower" to "Come Back As A Flower" to "Venus Fly-Trap And The Bug." (DBW)
- When this record's good, it's mind-blowingly good. Still, it's loaded with ethereal experiments, many of them sound-effect laden instrumentals and dull intercultural experiments ("Voyage To India"). It's all so gently arranged that it might put you to sleep. Plus "Send One Your Love" and other tunes get recycled all over the place, and there's a nine-minute disco number that really gets on my nerves ("Race Babbling"). So the album's a tough nut to crack, but well worth the effort.(JA)

Hotter Than July (1980)
- Rushed out to reassure a public confused by Plants, this album is full of huge hooks and gorgeous melodies ("Did I Hear You Say You Love Me," the ballad "Lately," "As If You Read My Mind" with Syreeta), but the breathtaking innovation we'd come to expect from Stevie is missing. Charles and Ronnie Wilson add backing vocals on "I Ain't Gonna Stand For It." (DBW)
- I like this one too, and it's got some rapturous tunes ("All I Do"). But I can't see rating it up with Stevie's classic 70s work; it's just too light, ridden with love song lyrics and 70s pop/light funk motifs. Even when Stevie goes political on the irresistable reggae number "Master Blaster (Jammin')" and the sugary Martin Luther King holiday booster "Happy Birthday," the arrangements are so bouncy and cheerful they defeat his pedagogical intent. And there are too many musically lazy singalongs ("Do Like You"), something Stevie avoided on his best albums. The record's a good buy, but don't expect too much. (JA)

Original Musiquarium Vol. 1 (1982)
Greatest hits from the past seven albums, two of them remixed ("Boogie On Reggae Woman" and "You Are The Sunshine Of My Life"), but who needs a greatest hits when all the original albums are so good? There are also four new songs, and they're all brilliant: "Front Line," an antiwar song from the perspective of a Vietnam vet; the ballad "Ribbon In The Sky"; the sinuous hit "That Girl"; and the big band stomp "Do I Do," with marvelous bass playing by Nathan Watts and joyous harmonica from Stevie that puts Dizzy Gillespie's tentative trumpet solo into perspective. (DBW)

In 1983, Stevie produced and wrote the Chic-derived music for Gary Byrd's black consciousness single "The Crown."

Still Stevie... Sort Of

I like Wonder's 80s and 90s records a lot, but even I can't claim they're anywhere near as significant as what he'd achieved during his twenties. (DBW)

The Woman In Red Soundtrack (1984)
Rushed out while Wonder worked on In Square Circle, this shouldn't be judged as a real Stevie album, but it has its pleasures. Yes, here's where you find "I Just Called To Say" - a smash #1 hit that's now underrated, with sneaky keyboard counterpoint and vocoder that's quite weird for an AM love song - and total fluff like the instrumental "It's More Than You," by guitarist Ben Bridges. But fans shouldn't miss the brilliant "Love Light In Flight" and the admirably silly PSA "Don't Drive Drunk" (listen to how many different vocal interpretations he brings to the same three words during the fade). Then there are two duets with Dionne Warwick - the saccharine "It's You" and the clever "Weakness" - while she's left to grapple with "Moments Aren't Moments" by herself. (DBW)

In Square Circle (1985)
- A disappointment after a long wait (fans had been hearing about the album since 1981), Stevie here is relying on synthesizers rather than using them for novel effects, and the songs, while effective, are mostly missing that touch of crazy genius we've come to associate with him. The big hit "Part-Time Lover" isn't terribly interesting; the best tracks are the catchy funk numbers "I Love You Too Much" and "Spiritual Walkers" (about Jehovah's Witnesses, no less), the ballad "Overjoyed," and the retro "Go Home" punctuated with horn riffs. The same year, Stevie donated "Upset Stomach" to The Last Dragon's soundtrack, and contributed vocals to "We Are The World," providing the most memorable chorus. (DBW)
- "Overjoyed" ranks with Stevie's better ballads, but it's sappy; the peppy "Part-Time Lover" really is classic Stevie, but it's so commercially oriented it's off-putting. And the rest is thin; all of the tunes grow on you, but too often they're tangled in a web of fast-paced, sequenced synths. The running times all push up dangerously close to five minutes, and the lyrics are embarassing ("Spiritual Walkers," with tons of grating synth; "Land Of La La"; "It's Wrong (Apartheid)," complete with South African vocal chorus). Still, there's some 70s magic in here somewhere ("Never In Your Sun"), so it's worth buying once you have his other records. (JA)

Characters (1987)
- A rebound, with classic tunes in his usual styles: political funk ("Skeletons"), ballads ("With Each Beat of My Heart"), wacky mysticism ("Free," an outtake from 1973) and pure fun ("My Eyes Don't Cry," with a crowd of backup singers playing kazoos). Unfortunately, he seems content not to push beyond the formulas he's already developed, and some songs miss the mark completely ("In Your Corner," the Michael Jackson duet "Get It"). (DBW)
- "Get It" is kind of fun, actually. The record is too long and Stevie is still indulging himself in tedious jams, plus he's gone overboard with 80s electronic kitsch such as drum machines (why would one of the hottest drummers on the planet have to resort to such a gimmick?). It's a damn shame, because it makes what would have been a complex masterpiece a tedious bore; you'll have to listen to it repeatedly to catch all the clever ideas, but by the time you do you'll be tired of it. The good news is that it can be had at cut-out prices. (JA)

Music From The Movie "Jungle Fever" (1991)
- The best songs on this album, once again rushed out while he continued to fine-tune his followup LP, are terrific: the electro-eloquent "Queen In The Black"; the masterful call-to-emotional-arms "These Three Words"; the simple beauty of "If She Breaks Your Heart" (sung by Kimberly Brewer). But there's a lot of so-so filler here ("Sailing," "Each Others Throat," the title cut). (DBW)
- Whatever the weak points, this is very much a Stevie Wonder record: he wrote everything except the lyrics on one song, and performed everything except a few bit parts. Stevie goes easy listening on "Make Sure You're Sure," hip-hop on "Each Other's Throat," and techno-pop on "Chemical Love"; and (horrors!) gives away the lead vocal as on "If She Breaks Your Heart." But despite all this - or perhaps because of it - the record is full of freshness and enthusiasm, lifting it above Stevie's contemporaneous, over-crafted "real" albums. And the title track is a blast, although I've got to admit that the riff is a throw-away even I wouldn't be proud of. Syreeta is one of approximately 34 zillion backup singers on the record. (JA)

Conversation Peace (1995)
- Eight years in the making, it had better be good - and it is, bringing contemporary production touches to excellent material, either focused on social issues ("Rain Your Love Down," "My Love Is With You") or romance ("Edge of Eternity," "I'm New," "For Your Love"). Dragged down by some throwaway numbers ("Treat Myself," "Sorry") and unconvincing Pangloss-style optimism (the Caribbean-inflected "Tomorrow Robins Will Sing"), but he never loses his sense of humor (or melody). (DBW)
- Sure it's good, and there are even some encouraging signs of stylistic exploration, like the jazzy hip hop of "Sensuous Whisper." But Stevie falls into the overproduction trap again here; the tunes average six minutes, and the "contemporary" gloss consists of superfluous sound effects and voiceovers ("My Love Is With You") that are just distracting. There's no question that he's still got all of his immense talent, but he just can't seem to reign himself in. I'm also offended by Stevie's trivialization of the Holocaust on the title track. Tons of guests here like Branford Marsalis, Ladysmith Black Mambazo, Nathan Watts, "Wah Wah" Ragin, and Stevie's daughter Aisha; and Kimberly Brewer handles a lot of backup vocals again. But as usual Stevie played most of the tracks, and wrote everything save one lyric. (JA)

Natural Wonder (1995)
A double live CD, mostly greatest hits with a few more obscure tracks ("Village Ghetto Land," "Stay Gold" from the film The Outsiders) thrown in, and three new songs: the somber social comment "Ms. & Mr. Little One," the amusing but slight instrumental "Stevie Ray Vaughan Blues," and the uplifting though overlong "Dancing To The Rhythm Of Your Love." He's a fantastic live performer, the arrangements are fresh (including a symphony orchestra that adds depth but isn't too intrusive), and the band is in great form; you don't need this, but you'll be glad you have it. (DBW)
His only live record as a mature artist, but unfortunately it's way too late to be either fresh or historically relevant. And then there's the track listing: too many selections are from Songs In, the new and rare material is forgettable, and Stevie dutifully covers some of his more popular, but lightweight hits. The huge band usually recreates the original arrangements, which is impressive but unenlightening; and the few new ideas are often bad ones. A better buy than a greatest hits, but that's not saying much. (JA)

Song Review (1996)
Another greatest hits, intended to replace rather than complement Musiquarium. No new material this time, though the compilation does collect some otherwise rare tracks, like two tunes from the Pinnochio soundtrack and a cover of Bob Marley's "Redemption Song." (DBW)

In 1998, Stevie contributed his version of "If Ever" (a song he'd previously given to John Denver) to the Down In The Delta soundtrack.

In 2000, Stevie contributed two new songs to the Bamboozled soundtrack.

In 2001, Stevie contributed two songs to A Very Special Christmas 5.

In 2002, Stevie collaborated on a version of Mel Torme's "Christmas Song" with India.Arie for a TV commercial. Like nearly everything he does, it was nominated for a Grammy.

In 2003, Stevie dueted with Gloria Estefan on "Into You" (which he didn't write), from her album Into You.

A Time 2 Love (2005)
I wish Stevie had taken his time with this one instead of rushing it out after a mere ten years. As staunch a Wonder defender as I am, I really have to reach to find anything good to say about this record... "Sweetest Somebody I Know" is a pleasant, lilting love song recalling "Bird Of Beauty"; "Please Don't Hurt My Baby" is enjoyable funk with the same role-reversing take on infidelity as "Ordinary Pain"; "Tell Your Heart I Love You" has harmonica licks like a lesser "Big Brother." If you hated all the electronic percussion on the 80s and 90s releases (I didn't) you'll find some respite here ("My Love Is On Fire" has fine walking bass from Nathan Watts). Wait, those are the high points?! Holy steep decline, Batman!! There's a high concentration of sappy ballads ("From The Bottom Of My Heart"; "Passionate Raindrops"). The few uptempo numbers are boring: leadoff single "So What The Fuss" - with En Vogue on backing vocals and Prince on guitar - is a ripoff of Funkadelic's "(Not Just) Knee Deep." The message tunes are longwinded and obvious (title track featuring India.Arie; "Shelter In The Rain"). Everything is way too long (the atmospheric "Moon Blue"). He's too lazy to even sing all the leads, bringing such duet partners as his modestly talented daughter Aisha Morrison (twice) and Kim Burrell ("If Your Love Cannot Be Moved"), and when he is singing, he gets carried away with cramming zillions of syllables into each line at the expense of melody. Tons of guests, but most - including Paul McCartney and Bonnie Raitt - are buried under so many overdubs you can't hear them. (DBW)

Sketches Of A Life (2011)
I'm listing this piano-and-harmonica concerto here, though it wasn't released in any traditional manner, because it's a substantial work. Written between 1976 and 1994, it was premiered at the Library of Congress to coincide with Wonder receiving the Gershwin Prize for Popular Song. The Library put the performance on YouTube - give it a listen and let me know what you think. (DBW)

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