Ranking Stevie Wonder albums is almost as pointless as it is difficult, but thanks to my guilty pleasure of neurotically enumerating my favorite things and the ever-rising popularity of listicles (thanks a lot, Buzzfeed), here we are.
He’s a bona fide icon, one of the most influential artists of all time and certainly above having his albums ranked by someone like me. That said, here are my top seven favorite Stevie Wonder albums.
- Talking Book (1972)
With the commercial success of “Superstition,” “Talking Book” was something of an introduction for Wonder. His previous effort, “Where I’m Coming From” was widely panned by critics and didn’t sell well; this became the public’s first glance into the mind of a still young genius completely separating himself from the assembly line songwriting process of Motown.
Wonder was left to his own prodigal devices for this album, recording most of the instruments, including drums, himself. Engineers Malcolm Cecil and Robert Margouleff learned early on that when Stevie was in the studio the room mics needed to be on at all times to capture any ideas that he had during the creative process.
Favorite track – “Big Brother”
- Fulfillingness’ First Finale (1974)
As a major factor of his musical reign in the ‘70s, “Fulfillingness” has more in common with the hits that would highlight his ‘80s career than any of his most iconic albums. This 1974 follow-up to “Innervisions” shows Wonder in full command of his songwriting powers, focusing more on crafting beautifully textured ballads than biting socio-political critiques, aside from the scathing “You Haven’t Done Nothin’.”
“Smile Please,” “Boogie On Reggae Woman,” and “Please Don’t Go” in particular act as earthy precursors to the rest of his career; a respite from his crusade for all things just and an introspective look for Wonder’s “classic” period.
Favorite track – “Please Don’t Go”
- For Once In My Life (1968)
The chill-inducing vocal performance of “I Don’t Know Why” is reason enough for this album to be on the list but as a whole it showcases an 18-year-old Stevie Wonder stretching out the confines of Motown’s wheelhouse.
Favorite track – “I’m More Than Happy (I’m Satisfied)”
- Songs In The Key Of Life (1976)
“Songs In The Key Of Life” isn’t so much an album as it is an experience. Like “Electric Ladyland” or “The White Album,” “Songs” ebbs and flows into various genres and sonic experiments daring the listener to look away.
There’s not a clunker on the album and I’ll put “Knocks Me Off My Feet” up against anything for greatest love song of all time but songs such as “Village Ghetto Land,” “Love’s In Need Of Love Today” and “Saturn” push my admittedly short attention span to the brink.
Favorite track – “As”
- Hotter Than July (1980)
If this were a fantasy draft, “Hotter Than July” would be my sleeper pick. More than any other Stevie album, I find myself listening to this one two or three times in a row. The tunes are warm and dense; the result of an artist overflowing with genre-pushing inspiration and determined to make up for the commercial failure of “The Secret Life Of Plants.”
Production-wise, this album lacks the a lot of the ‘vibe’ of his ‘70s classics but great songwriting is great songwriting and “Hotter Than July” could be the most balanced, cohesive effort in his extensive catalogue.
Favorite track – “As If You Read My Mind”
- Signed, Sealed, & Delivered (1970)
This is arguably the truest straight-ahead soul album Wonder ever did. Musically, these arrangements are the same ones Sam Cooke, Otis Redding and Aretha Franklin thrived over in the years leading up “Signed, Sealed & Delivered’s” release in 1970.
Right in that sweet spot between the crooning early years of “Down To Earth” and the creative free-for-all of “Songs In The Key Of Life” Stevie wailed over hard hitting drums, Motown’s signature strings, and the occasional fuzzed-out guitar. He simultaneously ushered in a new decade while taking the perfect snapshot of what ’60s soul was; pop sensibility, political awareness and, above all, groove.
Favorite track – “Heaven Help Us All”
- Innervisions (1973)
From “Too High” — the greatest Sly & The Family Stone song that Sly never wrote — to the one-two punch of “Don’t You Worry ‘Bout A Thing” and “He’s Misstra Know-It-All,” “Innervisions” is a 45-minute exhibition of damn-near perfect songwriting. He builds on his classic Motown foundation with a wider sonic palette and a worldview that is more in line with the protests of the ‘60s and ‘70s than the fanbase of American Bandstand.
Favorite track – Jesus Children Of America
Related story: The author sneaks into his first Stevie Wonder concert. LINK