Every now and then I like to recommend an old album. This one was never obscure, but my wife and I both commented on how much we both love one of these songs and it made me want to write it up. If even one person who never heard this album before goes out and gets a copy, it will be totally worth dedicating a post to this classic.
The album I’m referring to is Stevie Wonder’s 1976 masterpiece, “Songs in the Key of Life.” The album went to #1 in the U.S. (between “Frampton Comes Alive!” and “Hotel California”), charted in 5 other countries, and spawned a handful of hits. No fewer than 130 musicians and engineers worked on the album, including George Benson, Herbie Hancock, Deniece Williams, Minnie Ripperton, Michael Sembello, and many more.
This double album has 21 songs on it. He probably could have squeezed these songs onto a single album – or at least most of them – but a bunch of the songs have an extra minute or three of soloing. He really takes his time with all of the songs. The music is joyous and/or moving and almost every song is a winner. 16 of the 21 have a permanent home on my iPod. I won’t say much more about it except go buy it. Or at least listen to some of these.
- Love’s in Need of Love Today – This song aged well and the message never gets old. Joan Osborne does a pretty good cover of this song, but the original is still much better and I’m sure Miss Osborne would agree with me.
- Have a Talk with God – This is one of my enduring favorites on this album. I love the positive message, though I’m not much of a religious man myself. I didn’t learn until today that Stevie plays every single instrument on this song. It’s all Stevie.
- Contusion – A crazy, instrumental Jazz piece. Are you freaking kidding me? It’s hot, too, with the full compliment of musicians on this one.
- I Wish – Good Lord this song is funky. The guitar and bass work are irresistible and the horns will knock you back on your heels. I defy you to not get up and dance when this comes on. It can’t be done. I still dance in my living room when this comes on, swear to God.
- Knocks Me Off My Feet – This may not have aged particularly well, but it is still a laid back, beautiful love song.
- Pastime Paradise – Coolio famously sampled this song, but he made it neither deeper nor cooler than Stevie’s brilliant original version.
- Summer Soft – The warm piano riff is a great background for Stevie’s honeyed alto voice. The verses are sweet but the chorus gets really big.
- Ordinary Pain – It’s 1976 again whenever this song comes on. Very much a product of the musical times. It’s a pretty and timeless Pop melody, though.
- Isn’t She Lovely – This was the one I remember hearing on the radio when I was a kid. Stevie’s done singing 3 minutes into this song, but apparently loved the groove so much he added 3 ½ minutes of harmonica solo at the end. The crying baby is his daughter Aisha Wonder (counted among the 130 who contributed to the album).
- Joy Inside My Tears – The lyrics are so heavy and the melody is gorgeous. He presents the whole musical idea within the first 3 minutes, but then hits it over and over, making bigger and funkier for 3 more minutes.
- Black Man – OK, the 2 minutes of shouting at the end gets tiresome, but the groove on which this song is built is so busy and funky I had to have it on my iPod.
- Ngiculela – Es Una Historia – I Am Singing – I wish I could sing along to this song, but between the Swahili, Spanish, and incredibly high parts, I just can’t. What a joyful song. Listen to the overwhelming buoyancy of the third chorus 2 minutes in. You just want to raise your hands to the sky.
- As – This was the song that inspired me to post on this album today. It is my wife’s favorite Stevie Wonder song and it is a powerhouse that comes in at over 7 minutes. The vocal performance Stevie puts in on this is positively awe inspiring. He growls, he croons, he wails, and it’s all perfect.
- Another Star – Again the full complement of musicians joins him on this 8 ½ minute epic. Horns, flute, broad backing vocals, lots of percussion and they have to fade it out at the end. It sounds like they may have just continued for another half hour but they cut it off.
- All Day Sucker – This groove is just nasty. The dirty keyboards and dripping guitar wallow around in this oozy love song. Fantastic.
- Easy Goin’ Evening (My Mama’s Call) – I think of lazing around in a grassy field on a sunny day when I hear this. Stevie was apparently thinking of evening, but it sounds sunny to me.
‘If It’s Magic’ is another great song, with just Stevie’s voice and a harp. I removed it from my iPod, but now I’m not sure why. ‘Sir Duke’ is on this album too, but I’ve heard it so many times and it was never my favorite track anyway.
“Songs in the Key of Life” is a masterpiece by a brilliant artist at the height of his powers. If you’ve never heard it, do yourself a favor and pick it up. It will live in your CD player for weeks. If you haven’t listened to it in a while, dig it out again. You’ll find a lot of the music still sounds fresh (I believe ‘I Wish’ would climb the charts if it were released today for the first time) and even the dated songs are great.
UPDATE: Stevie is headlining at Bonnaroo 2010 and I could not be more excited. I figured this was a guy I was just never going to get a chance to see. Instead, I already have my ticket. Woo hoo!