Tag Archives: stevie wonder

Acclaimed Albums – Songs In The Key of Life by Stevie Wonder

List item: Listen to the 250 greatest albums
Progress: 198/250Title: Songs In The Key of Life
Artist: Stevie Wonder
Year: 1976
Position: #43

I thought that listening to ‘Sir Duke’ as part of the 1001 songs list would have done a better job at jolting me into ticking off this album earlier. Well, two months have passed since that post and I have only just gotten around to doing so. There’s no real excuse for this other than my continued on-loading of podcasts into the weekly rotation, but I’ve gotten there now and that’s what counts.

Songs In The Key of Life is the third and final Stevie Wonder album on this Top 250. It is also the longest, latest and the highest placed of the three. Now that I have heard it, I can see why this might be the most acclaimed of the three. Whilst it is a bit long, there is no denying the scope of this album. It really is his treatise on soul and funk music with a number of instantly recognisable tracks – to the point where every few songs I was exclaiming to myself, ‘wow, that’s on here too?’.

This is the album that gave us ‘Isn’t She Lovely’ (which, thanks to the longer album version, I only just learned was a sweet track about his new daughter), ‘Sir Duke’, ‘As’ (which I know better as the George Michael and Mary J. Blige version) and ‘Pastime Paradise’. That final in the list probably had the biggest impact on me, because the moment those iconic strings started (that were sampled in Coolio’s ‘Gangsta’s Paradise’) I rather loudly went “no way” in the middle of the office. Luckily, they’re used to me being a bit eccentric so I think it went unnoticed.

Outside of the famous tracks, the hit-to-miss ratio is impressive – however there are some tracks that could be edited out (one example being ‘Black Man’, mainly because of how he references Chinese people as ‘yellow’ and Native Americans as ‘red). In some ways, with this being so long, Songs In The Key of Life is a bit of a grab-bag where for the most part you get something delicious, but every now and then you get an apple instead of some candy. Apples are fine, but they’re no gummy sweets.

I’m so glad that I finally got around to listening to this album and I’m hoping (now that the busy period at work is over) I’m going to be able to get more of these albums down so I can hit the target I set back when I listened to Court and Spark to finish this list off by the time I conclude writing posts for July 2020.

1001 Songs – 1976: Part One

List Item:  Listen to the 1001 Songs You Must Hear Before You Die

(Don’t Fear) The Reaper – Blue Öyster Cult

Starting the year off with one of the most recognisable riffs in rock history. Given the harder (and punk) rock that I’m going to be hearing in the coming years of the 1001 songs list, it is so gratifying to know that the spirit of late 1960s psychedelic rock is alive. Not just alive but, like a Pokémon, has managed to evolve with the harder rock to produce something so brilliant as this.

I know that the rest of the parent album is not like this and is, in fact, a lot harder – but sometimes it’s good to reach back to the past and get in touch with your roots. Man, I really liked this song.

More Than a Feeling – Boston

Time for some old-school dad rock that’s a favourite at many a karaoke bar when the Dutch courage has set in. It’s really one of those archetypal examples of classic 1970s hard rock. It’s an overly dramatic rock power-ballad with a great chorus to sing-a-long to with accompanying air guitar. The ordering of the book to have this after ‘Don’t Fear The Reaper’ makes for an interesting contrast in the paths rock has taken and the audiences they satisfy.

This is very much mass appeal, but it works for the song and it is easy to understand how it became so popular.

Sir Duke – Stevie Wonder

So many songs are written to honour those who inspired us once they have passed on, ‘Sir Duke’ by Stevie Wonder is probably one of the best examples out there. ‘Sir Duke’, written in memory of jazz musician Duke Ellington is a brilliant bop where Stevie Wonder pays tribute not just to Ellington but other people like Count Basie who inspired Stevie Wonder along his musical journey.

It’s songs like this where I really find it difficult to get an angle on whether it’s funk or soul. At this point, an artist like Stevie Wonder can just bring the together and make something brilliant like this. I really need to listen to Songs in the Key of Life.

The Killing of Georgie (Parts 1 & 2) – Rod Stewart

Okay, so this song hits hard. I’ve never heard of ‘The Killing of Georgie’, but it feels like something really important that the LGBT community of my generation should have heard of. I mean, a 6 minute long song about the life of a gay man who was kicked out by his homophobic father, moves to New York, finds love and it then stabbed to death by a street gang (which is also based on someone he knew)? This is brutal and I am so ashamed to be a gay man and not have heard of this song.

Writing and releasing a song like this in 1976 as a single feels like such a risk for Rod Stewart to make… and somehow it reached number two in the UK singles chart. I have to say, that I’ve gained a bunch of respect for Rod Stewart thanks to these lists. I may not think this was the best song, but at least I know it exists now.

Dancing Queen – Abba

Now for a perfect palate cleanser with a song that actually has been widely brought into the gay culture. I mean, what is there to say about ‘Dancing Queen’ that hasn’t been said millions of times before? I love ABBA to the point of visiting their museum in Stockholm and no matter how much I hear their music, ‘Dancing Queen’ included, I never get tired of it.

This is the beginnings of pop as we now know it, rather than ‘popular music’ like The Beatles. There are extreme disco influences here blended with Euro-pop to make an anthem for the love of dancing and having a good time. Sure it’s wholesome and very feel good, but this is a perfectly crafted pop song. End of.

Blitzkrieg Bop – The Ramones

I don’t know how many times I have referenced the Ramones debut album in other posts about proto-punk, punk or post-punk albums. For years this has been my favourite album of the punk genre and finally I have reached the iconic ‘Blitzkrieg Bop’ as part of the songs list.

Listening to this again in isolation from the rest of the album, and having recently listened to Raw Power and Entertainment! I realize the reason I love this song so much – it’s feel good pop-punk in a time where pop-punk wasn’t yet a thing. Probably explains why I like this the most, given my pop leanings.

Love Hangover – Diana Ross

So, this feels like a structured traditional Diana Ross ballad in the beginning half only to shift into an elongated disco break full of her improvising. I was really hoping this song was set for disco lift off and foreshadow Donna Summer’s epic 1977 song ‘I Feel Love’. But no, instead it’s just a lot of the same and I cannot imagine what it would be like to listen to the 12 minute version.

Cokane in My Brain – Dillinger

No. Just no. I don’t know if a song is meant to inspire fits of giggles, but I’m not entirely sure how else to approach this. It feels like someone transcribed the ramblings of a patient in a mental hospital as he talked to himself and then put it to music and sang it with as flat an affect as possible. No wonder I never listened to the reggae music station in Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas. Christ.

Police and Thieves – Junior Murvin

And here we have another reggae song in a row. The topic of turf wars in Jamaica is interesting, but the music was so distorted and the falsetto vocals so unsettling that it was difficult to discern what the song was about. At this point I don’t know what to say about reggae that I haven’t said before – the constant repetition of all the musical elements just makes it boring.

Still though – why oh why couldn’t this be the cover that The Clash did for their debut album instead of this.

(I’m) Stranded – The Saints

Wow, I hadn’t quite realised how far-reaching the punk movement was in the beginning. Here we are with the Australian band The Saints releasing their first punk single before the likes of The Sex Pistols and The Clash. To be fair, it only pre-dates ‘Anarchy in the UK’ by just over a month but it’s interesting to note.

Unlike ‘Blitzkrieg Bop’, this song does have some anger running through it. Interestingly though it’s an anger about being isolated rather than anger at the establishment, which will coming up a lot in future punk songs on this list. As the 1976 songs draw to a close, all the key pure punk players will have emerged with 1977 marking the beginning of post-punk. Makes a bit of a mockery of the whole genre thing, doesn’t it.

Progress: 434/1021

Acclaimed Albums – Innervisions by Stevie Wonder

List item: Listen to the 250 greatest albums
Progress: 180/250Title: Innervisions
Artist: Stevie Wonder
Year: 1973
Position: #46

Four and a half years. That is how long it has been since I did the last Stevie Wonder (Talking Book) album for this blog. Hell, I said two months ago in a 1001 songs post that Innervisions was high on my listening list and it has still taken me a while to get to this. Yet I managed to find time to listen and feel a bit meh about two classical pieces in the last week.

Well I’m here now and I think Innervisions is brilliant. Listening to the full album length version of ‘Living for the City’, rather than the single version which removes a lot of the ending, was a harrowing listen that showcases the political side of this album. It’s not the only time that he does it on this album. His songs deal with the topics of drug addiction and then, in his final track ‘He’s Misstra Know-It-All’, takes aim at then-president Nixon – who would soon be ceremoniously cast out of office.

Then, on the other end of the soul extreme, are some really optimistic songs with some positive messages. The most known of these is the Latin-influenced ‘Don’t You Worry ’bout a Thing’, which I am really sure that I’ve heard on the radio at some point. It’s one of those great songs that instantly make wish that you knew how to dance. You also have the love song ‘Golden Lady’ which helps to keep the album feeling positive in the first half.

One more Stevie Wonder album left in this cut of the Acclaimed Albums list, which is higher in the rankings than Innervisions. Then again the album I’m talking about is Songs in the Key of Life – which is long and ridiculously famous. I doubt it’ll be another four and a half years before I get to that.

1001 Songs – 1974: Part Two

List Item:  Listen to the 1001 Songs You Must Hear Before You Die

Evie – Stevie Wright

At just over 11 minutes long, ‘Evie’ is one of the longest songs on this list. But, to call this one song is deceptive because it is formed of three very distinct parts. The first a bluesy Rolling Stones style rock song wooing Evie, the second a more piano-driven soft rock depicting the comfort of the relationship with Evie and the concluding third part a more disco-driven rock (think Santa Esmeralda’s version of ‘Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood’) about his emotions having lost her.

This song is epic in all the right ways. The roller-coaster of emotions at the birth, life and death of a relationship with such contrasting musical styles. All three parts would work separately, but together the three parts put most album length rock operas to shame. Bravo.

Free Man in Paris – Joni Mitchell

To think that Joni Mitchell wrote this song about her friend on holiday in Paris. A friend who happens to be David Geffen, the founder of the music label Geffen Records who released one of my albums of 2018.

I love this era of Joni Mitchell and how she fuses folk and jazz music to make something so earnest and so enjoyable. Listening to this had also reminded me that I really need to get around to writing up Court and Spark. I listened to it ages ago and never got around to writing it up. It’s things like this that is making the completion of the albums list drag on a bit.

I Will Always Love You – Dolly Parton

Right, so I know I’m in the minority here but I really do prefer Dolly Parton’s original version of this song to the 1991 Whitney Houston version. There’s no denying the power of the vocals in Houston’s version, I mean come on it’s astonishing, but you can not beat the raw unfettered emotions in Parton’s original. Although, to be fair, Houston’s version suffers a lot from the arrangement… and by that I mean the saxophone solo.

The spoken-word section leading into the final chorus, leaves me misty eyed pretty much every time and goes to show that a beautiful voice showing weakness can do more than a powerful voicing showing strength. I still love the Whitney Houston version though, even if the arrangement is dated.

The Grand Tour – George Jones

Another country song about a parting. However, where Dolly Parton’s song is from the point of view of the leaver – ‘The Grand Tour’ sees George Jones cast as the man left behind. Where Parton’s song left me misty eyed, Jones’ tipped me over the edge. The titular grand tour is Jones taking us around the house to show all the places he and his wife used to find enjoyment before they had to part (most sources say because of a divorce, but some think it’s referencing her dying in childbirth).

To put these two songs next to each other is a genius move by the editors of the book as it helps to provide such an amazing contrast between the two viewpoints of leaver and left behind within the world of country music. Sure, Parton was singing about a musical partner, but the emotion was there just the same.

With the exception of ‘Free Man in Paris’ this has been such a sad run of songs… and by the looks of the next one it won’t be getting cheerier any time soon.

Withered and Died – Richard and Linda Thompson

Was there a shortage of mood stabilisers in 1974 or something? This half of 1974’s songs is so much of a downer that I’ve had to wrap a blanket around me.

‘Withered and Died’ is such a haunting and sombre song about, what I am assuming, depression. It’s a song about being left behind physically and emotionally and giving in to the dark part of the soul. As someone who has been through depression there’s a lot of this song I can identify with and so listening to it just once has left me feeling, for lack of a better word, hurt.

Beautifully sung and arranged, but still. Ouch.

Louisiana 1927 – Randy Newman

And the depression keeps on coming with Randy Newman’s lament about hundreds of thousands of people left homeless in Louisiana after the floods of 1927. He talks of the the lack of help they received from President Coolidge and has the repeated refrain of ‘they’re trying to wash us away’. Sounds oddly familiar doesn’t it? It’s little wonder that this song gained further notice after Hurricane Katrina hit which lead to Newman re-recording it as part of a benefit album.

I still cannot fathom that this is the man that wrote the Toy Story soundtrack. I mean, he used to write music that felt so important and so political in his youth and now we all know him for ‘You Got A Friend In Me’.

You Haven’t Done Nothin’ – Stevie Wonder

Finally a break in the clouds of depressive music, even if it is an angry protest song at the presidency of Richard Nixon (seriously, between this and ‘Louisiana 1927, it goes to show just how little has changed since the 1970s). It feels good to have some good funk music with a heavy clavinet track and the first appearance on the list of the Jackson family (the Jackson 5 provided the backing vocals, which is more a footnote than them making this song extra special).

I like how this is the good side of funk. There’s repetition but, unlike James Brown, there’s enough variation to keep you interesting and the repetition isn’t done ad nauseum.

This Town Ain’t Big Enough for the Both of Us – Sparks

I don’t know if it’s because this is the ultimate antidote for the rest of the songs in this post, but I absolutely adored this song. Another glam rock song that I am loving, if you had told me this a few months ago I would not have believed you.

Why do I like this? I cannot tell you other than that it’s a bit nuts with it being completely sung in falsetto with fake gun shots and the use of the film cliches. This song feels like the moment where glam rock has started to mutate into power pop – and I really love good power pop. What a great way to finish off 1974!

Progress: 404/1021

1001 Songs – 1973: Part Two

Child’s Christmas in Wales – John Cale

Whilst sharing the name with a work by Welsh poet Dylan Thomas, John Cale’s song was inspired by it rather than set it to music. I guess like ‘Wuthering Heights’, but not as inspiring. Seriously though, having not done anything for this list in over three months.

It’s interesting to note that this is someone who worked for some serious big hitters back in the day and his album is on the 1001 Albums list… and that this appears to have been picked for the list as it is an accessible work. Honestly it was pretty milquetoast and is a bit of an odd choice for a list like this.

Solid Air – John Martyn

Whilst this is technically a folk song ‘Solid Air’ feels like a real oddball compared to a lot of the other folk out at the time. This is such a hodge-podge of different styles – some jazzy instrumentation, a bit of dreamy rock and such a chilled out feeling that it feels like this should be playing in the background of a cinematic sequence of people taking drugs and getting super mellow.

Not that all this is necessarily a bad thing, although I do wish I could understand what he was saying more of the time. Also worth noting that this song was dedicated to Nick Drake – who would die 18 months after this song was released. So sad.

I Know What I Like (in Your Wardrobe) – Genesis

Right, so I was disappointed that this song wasn’t about a man coming out to his wife about being a cross-dresser.

From the get-go this is a weird song in the tradition of psychedelic rock with the addition of spoken word elements. The topic is someone who is a lawnmower and is perfectly happy with this as a job despite what others say. Not entirely sure where the wardrobe comes into it – but I’m not going to press that too much.

It’s a very odd song as it combines the elements of psychedelia with more modern studio effects and an incredibly down-to-earth message. Did I like it? Honestly, I don’t really know.

Cum on Feel the Noize – Slade

I don’t think I’ve ever heard this song other than the choral chant – which I’ve never really liked. So imagine how weird it was to start on this song, realise how little of this I’ve actually heard and then end up really liking it.

In context this chorus is brilliant and works so well with the rest of the song as the high energy points, on it’s own it just feels a bit like something you’d hear chanted in a football stadium. This is the second time I’ve been pleasantly surprised by this style of rock – could this mean I may end up liking it.

Living for the City – Stevie Wonder

Why have I not listened to this song’s parent album yet. Innervisions is so high on my album list and this song is a reason why I should make that one of the next things I listen to and blog about. Stevie Wonder in this era was funk-soul magic and something I need to educate myself more in.

The version I listened to was the single edit, which cuts out the story element of the song whereby a black man escapes to New York City to try and leave behind his life of racial discrimination – only to be racially profiled by the police and sent to jail. I wish this message was ‘of the time’, but we really aren’t there yet.

I Can’t Stand the Rain – Ann Peebles

When this song started I thought I had a modern sampled version of it because of those electric timbales doing a distorted mimicry of raindrops. That must have been really weird and futuristic to hear back in 1973. That electronic riff really makes this song, and I love the sentiment of someone singing to bemoan the rain. It appeals to the British majority of my being.

Goodbye Yellow Brick Road – Elton John

Back when I listened to the Goodbye Yellow Brick Road album this was a song that struck a chord. It’s one of those songs that I have come back to again and again in the four years since. The rest of the album not so much, even though I did grow to love a lot of the songs on it.

I can’t quite pinpoint what makes this song so magical for me, but it’s something a lot of other people seem to feel as well.

Future Days – Can

For a krautrock band this is not what I expected. ‘Future Days’ is basically a precursor to ambient music and really feels like the grandfather of tracks from Air’s Moon Safari released some 35 years later (especially ‘Ce Matin La’).

I’ve been putting off Can’s entry from my album list (their earlier album Tago Mago) because I was expecting some heavier rock, but if it’s like this… then I think I’ll love it.

Progress: 389/1021

1001 Songs – 1972: Part One

Papa Was a Rollin’ Stone – The Temptations

Well, that was a long introduction. I believe that ‘Papa Was a Rollin’ Stone’ is the first entry (or at least one of the first entires) in the 1001 songs list that could be classified as psychadelic soul – a genre that still stays alive thanks to the likes of Janelle Monae.

For the list I listened to the 7 minute single edit – which did just feel like they removed a segment from the main mix and faded it out towards the end. At the beginning it was hard to not liken a lot of the instrumentation to ‘Theme From Shaft’. The lyrical content is interesting as rather than being joyful or political it focuses a tone of anger towards a deadbeat father.

However this psychedelic soul song suffers from the same issue that I have with most funk songs – it just goes nowhere and keeps riffing on the same thing time and time again. Still, interesting.

I’ll Take You There – The Staple Singers

Another song in the camp of ‘oh so that’s what that song is called’. Similarly, I never knew that Mavis Staples started out in a family band. The more you know, right?

So ‘I’ll Take You There’ is another song in the funk/soul genre that rotates around the same idea for 3 minutes. It’s another call and response song that camps out in the chorus until it’s time to fade out. I can see how this works in a live setting, but it loses something when recorded.

Soul Makossa – Manu Dibangu

Holy crap disco has started. Something has shifted and we’re heading off on the starship disco and it’s going to be here for a good few years.

I guess technology has caught up to the point where sampling and layering is at the point where the lush effects and echoes are able to be created in studio. It’s also interesting to see how this still has one foot in funk, but is also being in jazz and other genres from Africa.

Also, this song is the origin of the “Mama-say mama-sah ma-ma-coo-sah” that we all know from ‘Wanna Be Startin’ Something‘ and ‘Don’t Stop The Music’.

It’s going to be interesting to see how disco develops from here on out.

Superstition – Stevie Wonder

‘Superstition’ is a classic for a reason, it’s one of those timeless songs that could be released now and still have been successful.

Sure this is still very much a soul song, the drums, horns and style of singing show that. However this song is elevated by its use of a rock guitar and a better verse-chorus structure. Yes, there is still that repetition but it doesn’t matter as there is enough deviation in content to keep it interesting.

This is the first of a few Stevie Wonder songs on the list and it’s really hard to believe that it took him 15 albums to get to this point… then again he was 22 when this song was released and who on Earth has 15 albums under their belt by the time they hit their twenties.

Elected – Alice Cooper

It’s been too long since I’ve listened to a song from this list that could be given the label of “satirical”. There’s a wit to this song which really works for the song.

By most other artists this would be an angry song protesting the dirty dealings required to be a politian. With ‘Elected’ there’s more of an anarchic wink to the listener which ends up with an almost fanfare at the end (reminiscent of election parties).

I mean how perfect a song is this to release at the time of Watergate!

Sam Stone – John Prine

Okay so when this started I immediately turned off because of the vocal delivery… and then the goosebumps started. This song is rough to the point that it actually made me cry around the halfway mark.

‘Sam Stone’ is a song about a decorated soldier coming back home after a conflict having become addicted to morphine. The song is calm and yet it relentless in piling on how this addiction escalates to the point where the titular Sam Stone is eventually killed by his habit.

Many songs have been written about drug addition, but this has to be up there as one of the most affecting. Really feels like the absolute antithesis to ‘Heroin’ by The Velvet Underground.

Willin’- Little Feat

From a folk song detailing the downward spiral of drug addition to a Southern rock song that has become an anthem for truckers. Proof if proof were needed that this book is not one to be played in order.

This is an enchanting song (which might be the first Southern rock song that I’ve encountered) reflecting positively on a life lived on the road. Weird to think that this band was started by a member of Frank Zappa’s group as the style couldn’t by any more different.

I think I might need to Spotify this album later as it feels like perfect music for this warm May Bank Holiday weekend.

It’s a Rainy Day, Sunshine Girl – Faust

Another genre first here, the first krautrock song on this list which came from the album that would popularize this genre outside of Germany (where it was known as cosmic music).

I guess that this is what happens when progressive rock is filtered through an organised German lens. I mean this song is so German, I’m not even sure why but it just is. The book says that this is about as bubblegum pop as krautrock gets. I don’t know why, but the jaunty saxophone at the end just made me giggle.

It’s odd. In a good way, but still very odd.

Sail Away – Randy Newman

Oh. My. God. Like with ‘Sam Stone’ this song completely took me by surprise, but for a very different reason. The Randy Newman that I have come to know is the one that writes upbeat songs for Pixar movies and won his first Oscar for a pretty blank track from the Monsters, Inc. soundtrack.

And then, wow, there’s ‘Sail Away’ which is a song from the point of view of a slaver trying to convince Africans to get on his boat and travel with him to America. He promises them the American dream knowing full well what awful fate awaits them.

Honestly this came out of left field for me, I never realised just how canny a songwriter Randy Newman is. I may need to re-evaluate…

Progress: 353/1021

Music Monday: Talking Book by Stevie Wonder

List item: Listen to the 250 greatest albums
Progress: 43/250Talking_BookTitle: Talking Book
Artist: Stevie Wonder
Year: 1972
Position: #129

After listening to Talking Book for the first time the only thing I wanted to do was listen to ‘Ghetto Woman’ by Janelle Monae on her recent album The Electric Lady. In fact, so great is the funk influence that I could feel from Stevie Wonder on Talking Book that I did listen to her for the next hour before circling back to this album.

It’s one of those weird musical things where a name (and a look) becomes so recognisable but you may have never listened to a song by that person. I know I have heard covers of Stevie Wonder songs. I know I have heard that awful duet he did with Blue back in 2003 (holy crap, 12 years ago).

Anyway, Talking Book is chronologically the first of three albums to appear in this list of 250. An album that is marked by musical historians as the start of his ‘classic’ period and as a crossover landmark record for funk and soul. It boasts a large number of songs that are well known to most people. I remember my mum singing ‘You Are The Sunshine Of My Life’ to me when I was really young, so no matter how sweet the song is (which walks the tightrope of being really good without toppling over into being saccharin) it was able to bring a smile to my face…even when I was lodging complaints with Royal Mail over an undelivered Christmas present.

The with this album is that is pretty much all about love (even if the synths on ‘You and I get a little bit distracting). He spends the whole album veering between being besotted and being heartbroken without breaking a sweat. Most people will know the lead single ‘Superstition’, it is one of his best known songs. It illustrates, in a nutshell, that how the quality of his songs that deal with the darker side of love is higher that the fluffier ones… or am I just a cynic?

My main issue with the album is with a song that many people on the internet seem to love: the closer I Believe ‘(When I Fall In Love It Will Be Forever)’. I have had that moment when I have fallen in love and everything is sunshine and puppies. In fact Nellie McKay’s cover of ‘Wonderful Guy‘ served as the theme music to that. However, it feels to me like a fairly middling Eurovision-style song. Which is a pity, especially since the whole album leading up to that point is so good.