Stevie Wonder turned 70 in 2020, which is an excellent excuse to listen to a lot of Stevie Wonder songs. If you're a casual Wonder fan looking to expand your horizons, not to worry. We've assembled a (chronological) playlist of vintage Stevie that covers most of the hits, but also hips you to some deep tracks that may very well turn you into a Wonder fanatic. So break out your phones, and get ready to program the ultimate Stevie Wonder playlist!
“Right about now we’d like to continue with our show by introducing to you a young man that’s only twelve years old, and he is considered as being a genius of our time.” There’s only one way to kick off an “ultimate” Stevie Wonder playlist, and that’s with the live version of the song that put him on the musical map. “Fingertips” rocketed to the top of the Billboard Hot 100 and R&B charts, and still gets the party hopping today.
Barry Gordy badly mishandled Wonder’s career in the early ‘60s, saddling him with covers of Motown hits or, worse, moldy standards like “When You Wish Upon a Star”. Fortunately, Motown great Sylvia Moy sat down with the Stevie and found the seeds of this R&B classic knocking around the young man’s head. With the Funk Brothers going full throttle, Wonder had found his place at Hitsville, U.S.A.
Wonder, Morris Broadnax and Clarence Paul captured the sweetness of a young person’s first crush with this light and fluffy love song in which Stevie tells the girl he’s into that he’s been dreaming day and night of being her guy. It was the b-side to “Travelin’ Man”, and cracked the Billboard R&B top ten. Decades later, De La Soul revived it with “Talkin’ Bout Hey Love” off their stellar LP, “De La Soul Is Dead”.
Wonder’s had just about settled into his tenor voice by the time he recorded this urgent profession of amour. No more of these “Hey Love” half-measures; this is a song about childhood love that “blossomed tenderly” into a romance that “just won’t end”. Of course, we’re just getting Stevie’s side of the story. Maybe the woman’s answer would be “Yeah, I dig you, but, goddamn, give me some room!”
The clavinet opening was a warning shot over Barry Gordy’s bow: your prized pupil is exploring new sounds and instrumentation, and that way lays creative independence. This exquisitely arranged single kicks off Wonder’s “Greatest Hits, Vol. 2”, and strikes a noble note via its narrator, who pledges to swing in and do right by a woman being done dreadfully wrong by her man. “I’m gonna patch up every single little dream you tore apart, understand me.” So shoo-be-doo-be-do-da-day that, motherf***er!
This often gets placed in the cover-version-that-transcends-the-original category, but that’s not fair to The Beatles or Stevie. There’s something quaintly fatalistic about Lennon-McCartney’s pump organ version, while Stevie blows it out into an overwhelming plea for positivity. It’s a difference of perspective: Stevie’s gonna work it out; The Beatles, not so much.
Barack and Michelle Obama made the Clintons’ “Don’t Stop” look like the calculated, heavily-focus-grouped campaign song it so clearly was. Surely, some poindexter took the time to read the lyrics to Stevie Wonder’s explosion of joy and noted that the song is actually about a loser who presents himself as a new man. Whatever. It’s the vibe that matter, and it’s three minutes of unfettered joy.
This is a bleak song lyrically, but, compositionally, Wonder frames it as a major key, “We Shall Overcome” anthem. Recorded in 1970, everything is on Stevie’s mind: Vietnam, police brutality, nuclear war… and all he can do is look heavenward and ask for God’s intervention. It’s a strangely uplifting tune about the big man upstairs pulling us out of the fire, but Stevie makes you believe it’s possible.
The most gutting song about the end of an affair ever written. It’s pretty simple: things were going great, promises were made and then the girl ghosted. Wonder goes with a simple, yet lush arrangement of piano and strings, and, in less than three minutes, locates the pain of the most catastrophic romantic tragedy you’ve ever experienced. Using this song in a movie is emotional dirty pool, but the late John Singleton got away with it in his deeply underrated “Poetic Justice”.
The best song on “Music on My Mind” sounds innocent until you hit those interludes where Wonder drops into that sinister spoken delivery and tries to get into his girl’s pants. He tells her he loves her more than his clavinet (!), and proposes to take her to see Melvin Van Peebles’s “Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song” (which ain’t exactly “Love Story”). It’s a nasty song about wanting to do the nasty. You a freak, Stevie!
A trip through the paranoid mind of a man whose girl has almost certainly left him, which is causing him to spiral out of control (“My dreams turnin’ to ashes right in front of my face”). How long has she been gone? Did he do anything to drive her away? Immaterial. The voices inside his head (represented by the background singers) have him all wound up. And Wonder drives home with a funky, syncopated chord progression that goes haywire when Ray Parker, Jr. kicks in with a wild guitar solo.
The Hohner clavinet had been popping up in Wonder’s music for a while since the late ‘60s, but he immortalized the instrument with its usage in this all-timer about the perniciousness of believing in nonsense curses and the like. Jeff Beck collaborated with Wonder on the writing and recording of the song, which might be why it has a more straightforward (in a good way) sizzle than his other hits.
Stevie’s gift to every desolate soul on this planet. When it ends, when you fall so far out of love that you believe you no longer deserve it and go years lacking companionship… there’s nourishment for your empty soul out there. This is the last track on “Talking Book”, and it has one of the great fake fadeouts you’ll ever hear. Right as it seems to be winding down, Wonder calls out, “Come on, let’s fall in love!” He’s speaking to all of us. No artist has wanted for his listener’s happiness more than Stevie.
Wonder was getting angrier album-by-album starting with “Signed, Sealed, Delivered”, and it all boiled over on 1973’s “Innervisions”. “Living for the City” is his most furious indictment of institutionalized racism, and he blasts it out over a tight beat with modest instrumentation. Stevie’s the whole band here: synths, drums, that fretless-sounding Moog bass and, most importantly, no strings or horns. It’s a hard-driving song that culminates with Wonder affecting the gravelly voice of a man beaten down by the system.
The only song on “Innervisions” that doesn’t slug you in the gut is this playful tune about a man promising a bored young woman that he’ll be around when she gets tired of hanging with players and grifters (i.e. when she gets “off her trip”). The consequences are nowhere as severe as those evinced elsewhere on the LP, so you giddily bop along with it. Get you some friends that can harmonize, and you’ll have a high time singing along with this Stevie classic.
Some of Wonder’s angriest songs are bathed in ironically lush arrangements. This dismissal of the newly reelected President Richard R. Nixon is both knowing and resigned; we know this guy’s full of it, but the majority of the country – not our people – keep placing corrupt bigots in power. This is what it feels like to live under a president who doesn’t need or care about you. The title of the song is derisive. All of it is derisive. But it’s comforting in that we all sense the same vibe.
Not actually a reggae song! It’s just a stone funk-soul groove with some of Wonder’s sexiest come-ons (e.g. “I’d like to see you in the raw under the stars above”). Little Stevie grew up and got himself a throbbing libido. He’s all over the piano, Moog bass and Fender Rhodes with carnal intent, but there’s still something adorably chaste about his sexuality.
A drowsy ditty that seems to be going nowhere, but once you hear it a few times you can’t stop it from creepin’ into your dreams. Wonder slathers on the synths over a sluggish beat, but once that chorus hits with Minnie Riperton’s harmonizing, you’re spellbound. Make sure you hang around for the bridge, in which Stevie wonders if the object of his desire is pleasuring herself to his image.
More Nixon vitriol, but it’s 1974 and the gloves are off. Wonder calls in the cavalry. Reggie McBride mans the electric bass, the Jackson 5 blast out the background vocals (“Doo-da-wop!”) and the horns, while apparently synthesized, certainly sound real and ticked off. This was a number one hit on both the Billboard 100 and RB charts, which reflected the public’s opinion of its soon-to-resign president.
A peppy eulogy for Duke Ellington that turns into a tribute to a number of other jazz greats like Count Basie, Louis Armstrong and Ella Fitzgerald. This is one of those Stevie Wonder songs that defies categorization: it’s not funk, it’s not soul, it’s not R&B, it’s not rock-and-roll… it’s just Stevie. Of his contemporaries, only Prince (who emulated Stevie) had the talent to chart with unconventional songs like this. Everyone one else sounded like someone else.
A nostalgia trip that resonates regardless of where or how you grew up. That running bass line provides a flexible backbone for Wonder’s reminiscences about being a “nappy-headed” kid encountering the usual childhood indignities, which, twenty-six years on, seem downright heavenly. It’s an interesting song in that Stevie didn’t have much of a childhood; he was recording Ray Charles tunes at age eleven, and dealt with physical deficiencies well beyond most people’s understanding. But we all feel the yearning of this track.
A real sucker-punch of a song. For the first-half of the track, Stevie plays the nice guy who timidly reaches out to the woman who’s stopped talking to him; in time, he realizes this is just the “ordinary pain” of a breakup. Then Shirley Brewer takes up the mic and shreds this poor fool’s mind. “I knew our love would have to end/The day I made it with your friend.” Egad. That doesn’t come out of nowhere, and Stevie is hardly a misogynist, but he’d get destroyed if he released this song today. In any event, this is a classic two-in-one track.
No bitterness here. This is a song about everlasting love, from the corporeal to the spiritual. Stevie’s love is undying, and as this track dives into its repeating chorus (which blows past seven minutes), you begin to believe in a hereafter powered by the intensity of mutual adoration. Herbie Hancock doubles Wonder on the Fender Rhodes, which is reason enough to believe in the almighty.
This mutt of a track, one of the four songs relegated to the bonus 45 included with the original release of “Songs in the Key of Life”, deserves much more love. The lyrics are silly sci-fi (“People live to be 205”), but the yearning to return to an alien planet unspoiled by human conflict is pure and profoundly moving. Wonder wrote this with Michael “Maniac” Sembello, and it’s unlike anything in his discography.
Forty-four years later, it’s inexplicable that this isn’t one of Wonder’s most beloved songs. It kicks off with some girls double-dutching, and bursts into a gospel-tinged hymn of praise to the most beautiful black girl to ever skip rope. “She’s a girl that can’t be beat/Born and raised on ghetto streets/She’s a devastatin’ beauty/A pretty girl with ebony eyes.” This is a song that makes life worth living.
Stevie Wonder finally cuts a legit reggae track, and his love for Bob Marley – who’d opened for him on his previous tour – shines through. You can feel the blistering heat of a hot July day via Wonder’s words and music. The sidewalk sizzles, and everyone’s dressed for comfort. The girls and guys look fine, and, for survival’s sake, everyone’s trying to keep it in their pants until sundown.
This impassioned plea for a holiday dedicated to Martin Luther King, Jr.’s birthday has a Giorgio Moroder feel to it. It’s a one-man-show for Wonder, and there’s nothing but reverence and joy in his voice. For all the anger and cynicism of his ‘70s albums, Stevie still believes in Dr. King’s gospel of peace and equality. This has also unavoidably become a birthday standard for people who didn’t give their life fighting for Civil Rights, and that’s fine. It’s joyous stuff.
It’s not Stevie Wonder’s fault that this song played twice every hour on MTV during the summer and autumn of 1984. There’s no disputing that it’s a perfect pop song (even with its cha-cha-cha outro; it just happened to be epitome of ‘80s pop blandness at a time when kids were freaking out over Prince, Michael Jackson, David Bowie and, uh, Don Henley. Stevie doesn’t deserve an ounce of grief for the prefab sins of the ‘80s. He’s Stevie Wonder. Throw that grief on the Three River Band or something.
One of the most beautiful ballads ever written, even with the stock aquarium sound effects that Wonder insists on every time he plays it – but his ears hear better than ours, so deal with it. The live version on “Natural Wonder” is less cloying, but Stevie’s still committed to the walking-on-a-beach aesthetic. One day he’ll record a version that’s just him at a piano, and all will be right with the world.
Wonder’s last front-to-back triumph provides a sexy, sizzling accompaniment to Spike Lee’s incendiary take on interracial romance. No more color-inside-the-lines adult contemporary jams; Stevie essentially hopped back to “Hotter Than July”, and gave us an LP we could bop to throughout the summer. “Gotta Have You” and “Fun Day” are great songs, but nothing pops like the title track, which has endured long beyond the film.
Jeremy Smith is a freelance entertainment writer and the author of "George Clooney: Anatomy of an Actor". His second book, "When It Was Cool", is due out in 2021.