Tuesday, October 27, 2009

October 27: Stevie Wonder, "Songs In The Key Of Life"

Artist: Stevie Wonder
Album: Songs In The Key Of Life
Year: 1976
Label: Motown

Regardless of the artistic endeavor, an overwhelming majority of "child stars" have extreme difficulty finding similar success later in life. Whether due to loss of a particular image, or the passing of a certain style, it is rare that these performers have long-standing careers. Having scored a massive hit single at only thirteen years old with the classic, "Fingertips (Part 2)," Stevie Wonder was poised to fall into this group of "child stars." However, following the success of the single, he went on to score nearly twenty more top five singles, as well as create some of the most influential and stunning recordings in the history of music. Truly an icon of epic proportions, Stevie Wonder helped shape music for decades, from his Motown roots, to the rise of funk and soul, as well as forays into pop and rock music. Creating some of the most vibrant and original sounds, Stevie Wonder continually pushed music forward, fusing together elements that had previously been thought to be too diverse to combine. With this brilliant experimentation, Stevie Wonder has released countless albums that are considered "classic," and it is therefore exceptionally difficult to single out his "greatest" work. However, there is one record, that due do both content and size, stands apart from the rest of his recorded catalog. Defining the word "ambitious" in every way, Stevie Wonder's 1976 album, Songs In The Key Of Life, is nothing short of a landmark record, and remains today one of the most treasured and unrivaled efforts in the entire history of music.

Songs In The Key Of Life represents in many ways the end of an era, and the apex of musical achievement for Stevie Wonder. As the final of his five "classic" albums, Songs In The Key Of Life perfectly sums up everything he had been playing for much of the previous decade. While his 1971 album, Talking Book, was the beginning of his foray into more experimental sounds, it is on Songs In The Key Of Life where his vision comes to fruition. Presenting a massively diverse group of musical approaches, the album, which was initially released as a double LP combined with an additional EP, is easily one of the most ambitious musical efforts in history. From the ironic Baroque backing of "Village Ghetto Land" to the classic funk of "I Wish," there is truly something for everyone on Songs In The Key Of Life. There is also a bit of a musically odd moment, where on the song, "Contusion," there are many melodies and progressions that are exceptionally similar to those found on Rush's 1975 masterpiece, 2112. However, it is impossible to overstate the importance and impact of Songs In The Key Of Life, and the songs found therein have been covered and manipulated countless times over the years. Perhaps the most famous re-working of one of the songs was when in 1995, rapper Coolio took the hook to "Pastime Paradise" for his chart-topping single, "Gangsta's Paradise." This massive diversity in sound and style represents everything that made Stevie Wonder so great, as he never found a sound he couldn't, in some way, make his own. Though somewhat imposing due tot the sheer amount of music within, Songs In The Key Of Life was a massive success, spawning a number of hit singles, as well as earning Stevie Wonder his third "Album Of The Year" Grammy Award in four years. This commercial success serves as a testament to the amazing sound within the record, as well as to the flawless performance of the musicians therein.

Truth be told, there are well over one hundred and twenty individuals who contribute instrumentation or vocals of Songs In The Key Of Life, and this alone makes the album beyond unique. However, amongst this massive group of contributors, there is a small group that truly make the album the amazing musical experience that it remains to this day. Though throughout Songs In The Key Of Life, Stevie himself plays a majority of the instruments, ranging from piano and harmonica to a wide assortment of percussive instruments, it is often the magic that occurs with the others in the studio that makes the songs go from "good" to "great." Handling guitar throughout the album is Michael Sembello, who is perhaps best known for his 1983 hit single, "Maniac." Co-writing song with Stevie Wonder, as well as assisting with a great deal of the musical arrangements, Sembello's contributions to Songs In The Key Of Life are absolutely essential to the albums' success. Bassist Nathan Watts proves to be another vital asset to the album, as the moods and textures he creates, from smooth R&B to deep, funky grooves enable Stevie Wonder to achieve his musical vision on every song. Also appearing on Songs In The Key Of Life is flute and saxophone master, Jim Horn. Having played on Pet Sounds as well as alongside the likes of Elvis Presley and George Harrison among many others, there are few musicians who can boast as stunning a musical resumé as Horn. Though Stevie Wonder himself handles an overwhelming majority of the instrumentation throughout Songs In The Key Of Life, it is the contributions of his co-musicians that truly make the songs so fantastic.

Representing the true musical "triple threat," along with being an unrivaled musician, Stevie Wonder is also one of the greatest lyricists in history, as well as possessing one of the finest voices the world has ever heard. Whether he is singing a smooth, timeless love ballad like "Isn't She Lovely," an almost spoken poem like "If It's Magic," or a more upbeat piece like "Sir Duke," the voice of Stevie Wonder is never anything less than superb. Filled with emotion and soul, his voice is capable of simultaneously being calming and invigorating. Furthermore, the way in which he expresses his frustration and pain with the struggle of the inner city on "Village Ghetto Land" is easily one of the most moving and stunning musical works in history. It is this ability to beautifully convey his messages that enabled Songs In The Key Of Life to spawn a pair of number one singles with "I Wish" and "Sir Duke." Containing one of the most famous basslines in history, "I Wish" recounts Wonder's childhood, and it has been covered and reworked countless times over the years. In what is unquestionably one of the greatest musical "send-ups" ever written, "Sir Duke" is primarily a tribute to Duke Ellington, who had passed away in 1974. Though the song also references Ella Fitzgerald and Louis Armstrong among others, the song is simply Stevie thanking The Duke for his influence, and the song was a massive success on both sides of the Atlantic. Whether he was writing, singing, or simply creating the perfect musical mood, there are very few artists who can come remotely close to the vast creative talent that lives within Stevie Wonder, and each song on Songs In The Key Of Life serves as a testament to his ability.

To call Stevie Wonder a musical "legend" in many ways does not due justice to the tremendous amount that he has contributed to the world of music. Influencing nearly every genre of music imaginable, his vision and creativity surpass that of nearly any other musician in history. From his days of "wow'ing" audiences as a teenager of the Motown era, to his later works of personal and social criticism, Stevie Wonder possesses one of the most stunning and diverse musical catalogs of any artist ever. Throughout the 1970's, Wonder fearlessly explored every possible permutation of his musical visions, from psychedelic soul to politically charged pop songs to the funkiest grooves ever written, and even early signs of what would become the hip-hop genre. His ability to write equally brilliant songs in each of these styles is a testament to his unrivaled level of talent, and scores of his songs remain "classics" and are just as moving and relevant today as they were when they were first released. In what still stands today as one of the most awe-inspiring musical feats ever, Songs In The Key Of Life, with four LP sides and two EP sides is by far one of the largest "single" releases of any artist ever. The fact that, with more than twenty songs, and nearly two hours of music, there is not a dull moment to be found, is what makes this accomplishment so extraordinary. Though there is not a bad song or album anywhere in Stevie Wonder's massive recorded catalog, it is his 1976 record, Songs In The Key Of Life, that perfectly captures everything that makes him a music icon, and the album remains one of the most pivotal and influential records ever made.

Standout tracks: "Village Ghetto Land," "Sir Duke," and "I Wish."

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