Recently, a colleague who shall remain nameless matter-of-factly outed himself as not being a Stevie Wonder fan. While such an admission is obviously blasphemous, it was the way in which he explained this revelation that truly caught me off guard. “I’ve never heard a Stevie Wonder song,” he wrote in Slate’s Slack channel for discussing music. “Is he good?”
It took a perturbed back-and-forth before the rest of us could confirm that this colleague was not, in fact, being facetious. He really hadn’t heard one—or at least, not to his knowledge. (I still believe it’s statistically impossible for him to have never been in the presence of a Stevie Wonder song, whether it was in a commercial or a movie, or on the radio.)
I admit, I judged him—hard—but we all have our blind spots, and when you stumble upon someone who is unfamiliar with the work of one of our all-time greatest musicians, you must graciously educate them. And so I dedicate this post to my colleague and the others like him. Here are my picks for the 10 best songs to kick off what will surely be a gloriously long and obsessive trip down the rabbit hole to Wonderland.
The Boy Wonder
“Fingertips, Parts 1 & 2,” Recorded Live: The 12-Year-Old Genius
“Fingertips,” written by Clarence Paul and Henry Cosby, was originally featured on Stevie Wonder’s debut studio album, The Jazz Soul of Little Stevie, as a laid-back swinging instrumental—but it’s the extended, more exuberant live version, featuring call and response from a rousing audience, that most people know and love. Stevie shows off both his incredible musical skills (particularly on the harmonica) as well as his unique talent for working a crowd—in the final minute, you can hear the show’s host ask everyone to give him a hand, but the boy wonder suddenly changes his mind and gives the folks an encore, catching the band—which included Marvin Gaye on drums—off guard. The audience couldn’t be more pleased, and a half-century later, neither can we.
“Uptight (Everything’s Alright),” Up-Tight
Those horns, tho. Quite simply, this is a perfect pop song, with a driving beat, a blaring horn section, and an earworm of a chorus, featuring some quintessential ’60s vernacular: “Baby, everything is alright, uptight—outta sight!” The song, in which a teenage Stevie sings joyfully about being a poor kid in love with a rich girl, marked what could have been an awkward transition from child prodigy to young adult pop star, revealing that he could be more than just Little Stevie.
“Hey Love,” Down to Earth
This is probably the least well-known of the songs on this list, but it’ll give you a taste of Wonder’s ability to craft (alongside co-writers Clarence Paul and Morris Broadnax) a soulful love song during the Motown era’s peak. A down-and-dirty bass hook and a light drum backbeat lead the way on this one, as Stevie and an angelic female chorus sing sweetly about the woman of his dreams. (See also: “Until You Come Back to Me” and “For Once in My Life.”)
Stevie in Transition
“Superwoman (Where Were You When I Needed You),” Music of My Mind
Right before Music of My Mind was released in 1972, Stevie, no longer a teen, sought to have more creative control of his music and managed to renegotiate his contract with Motown. This album, which is less single-focused and more cohesive, is a milestone in his transition into his more ambitious “classic period.” (Here, Stevie also played every instrument with the exception of guitar and trombone.) The standout track is “Superwoman,” an ethereal two-part song whose lyrics about a lover seeking stardom at the expense of being with the singer can admittedly border on needy and jealous. Still, the music is gorgeous, particularly when Wonder’s layered vocals become urgent as the song gains momentum. The song then effortlessly melts into Part 2, a lush ballad tinged with regret, pain, and loss. (See also: “Never Dreamed You’d Leave in Summer.”)
“You Are the Sunshine of My Life,” Talking Book
There’s no getting around it: Stevie loves schmaltz, sometimes to a fault. “I Just Called to Say I Love You,” with its pedestrian synth line and mushy lyrics about it not being Halloween, New Year’s Day, or a wedding day in June, is a catchy sing-a-long that—if I’m making the call—is also pretty insufferable. Ditto “Ebony and Ivory,” his sappy duet with Paul McCartney about racial harmony. But schmaltz isn’t inherently a bad thing, and “You Are the Sunshine of My Life” is a perfect example of sentimentality done right—particularly in its rousing second half, which kicks the song up a notch from smooth hypnotic soul into a rousing groove. (Those ad-libbed chants!)
“Superstition,” Talking Book
It’s hard to imagine that there’s a person alive that hasn’t heard the innovative, uber funky clavinet riff played by Stevie on this, one of the most heralded songs in his catalog. The song, which was Wonder’s first No. 1 hit since “Fingertips,” has since figured prominently in movies, commercials, and, unfortunately, many meh American Idol performances. This will get in your head, and it won’t leave—but you won’t mind.
“Sir Duke,” Songs in the Key of Life
Stevie Wonder wrote too many memorable hooks to count, and this has one of his greatest. The blaring horn riff kicks the song off instantly, and from there, you’re taken into a joyous tribute to his many influences and idols. The way in which he blends the jazzy, big-band sensibilities of Duke Ellington, Count Basie, Ella Fitzgerald, and other pioneers name-checked here, with a very of-the-moment ’70s funk is pure bliss.
“Master Blaster (Jammin’),” Hotter Than July
Another musical homage that Wonder perfectly infuses with the sensibilities of its inspiration, this time the incomparable Bob Marley. (The two performed together in a 1975 concert, and this came out the year before Marley’s death in 1981.) A reggae pastiche that’s perfect for the BBQ playlist, this track’s lyrics and energy bustle with Stevie’s signature optimism in the face of rough times.
Socially Conscious Stevie
“Living for the City,” Innervisions
As early as 1971’s Where I’m Coming From, Stevie began writing songs with a deeply political bent. These are two of his best efforts in this vein, and among his most popular. “Living for the City” weaves the narrative of a poor black Mississippi family and their struggles to get by against an insistent, driving beat and the singer’s particularly aggressive vocal style.
“Pastime Paradise,” Songs in the Key of Life
And on “Pastime Paradise,” he latches onto and perfectly executes a feeling of dread about “race relations,” “exploitation,” and “evils of the world.” Those foreboding synthesizers (designed to emulate strings), the haunting choir—it still seemed all too appropriate when Coolio sampled the song for “Gangsta’s Paradise,” and it still seems all too appropriate even 40 years later, in our present day: “They’ve been wasting most their time/ Glorifying days long gone behind.”
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