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Stevie Wonder needs no introduction as arguably one of the most creative soul performers of all time. Having said that, he's one of those artists whom I admire greatly while not being over-keen on a certain amount of his music. At his best he is superb, but all too often he has gone down the rather bland, easy listening path - or perhaps let the record company push him down that direction.
This selection reflects that situation. There are some goodies here, but I'm afraid there is some dross as well. But at least they are arranged in chronological order, which is the way I much prefer these compilations.
The first four offerings come from the 1960s, when he was still the teenage prodigy billed as 'Little Stevie Wonder'. 'Fingertips Pt 2' was recorded live, or certainly sounds like it, and it is as if the tape operator was caught napping and forgot to hit the Record button in time. Nice groove, and although not a great song it captures plenty of atmosphere. Things look up further with 'Uptight (Everything's Alright)', his first UK Top 20 hit. For me this was the way he was meant to sound - happy, bouncy dance music, with a good hook.
Nearly everybody at the time recorded a Bob Dylan song at one time or another, and 'Blowin' In The Wind' was Stevie's contribution. His version is pleasant singalong stuff, and while not startling it's likeable enough.
'I Was Made To Love Her', his first UK top five hit, is definitely the goods. Good tune, sharp guitar, sturdy bass guitar, massed drums and tambourine and an impassioned vocal meant this one could hardly go wrong.
From there, this compilation becomes a rather haphazard selection, perhaps more notable for what is left out than for what is included. From the early 1970s, 'Signed, Sealed, Delivered I'm Yours' is another joyous number. And he rarely did better than on 'Superstition', which with its simple but forceful drum intro and funky clavinet riff, enhanced by saxophone and trumpet, is one of the soul greats, and arguably his best single ever. No wonder several rock acts have covered it as well, and no wonder it still regularly re-enters the lower reaches of the UK singles chart on download sales alone. (Surprisingly, it fell just short of the Top 10 in Britain at the time).
Then Stevie started playing to the all-round family entertainer gallery. 'You Are The Sunshine Of My Life' is pleasant, and I won't knock the song. But sometimes music like this gets devalued by an excess of chicken-in-the-basket type performers (Bob Seger's 'We've Got Tonight' is another good example), which makes it a little hard to enjoy so much these days.
'Higher Ground' is an underrated near-classic, showing again what can be done with a strong funky riff. Allied to an optimistic lyric, this again is one of his best numbers in my book. It's followed by 'Living For The City', a gritty lyric about a youngster growing up in 'hard time Mississippi' amid poverty and racism, with some striking synth work. (You may remember a pretty neat version in 1981 by Gillan, which is probably just as good).
'You Haven't Done Nothing', on the other hand, is a wasted opportunity. Musically it's a lame retread of the 'Superstition riff, and the lyrics start off well - 'But we are sick and tired of hearing your song - Telling how you are gonna change right from wrong.' It was a diatribe against the recently impeached President Nixon, but what could have been a really fierce number then gets diverted into a lame 'Doo doo wop - co co co' chorus. (As Jeremy Paxman might say, 'Come on!').
The next three singles are good to great. 'I Wish' and 'Sir Duke', the latter a tribute to jazz giant Duke Ellington, are vibrant funk with a touch of jazz, and the reggaeish Bob Marley-influenced 'Master Blaster (Jammin)' show that his touch was as sure as ever. Little short of wonderful.
But the remaining seven tracks, with one exception, find him going downhill in my opinion at least. 'That Girl', and 'Overjoyed' are little short of plain dull. 'So What The Fuss' may have Prince on guitar, but that can't save a mediocre song (or studio jam?). What the fuss indeed - that title is ironically so appropriate. The Northern soul groove of 'Part Time Lover' is enjoyable, but in my view it is the last really good moment here.
'That's What Friends Are For' may have been released in aid of a good cause (all royalties towards fighting AIDS), but one look at the superstar line-up - with Elton John, Gladys Knight and Dionne Warwick - suggests it's going to be an utterly forgettable cosy MOR dirge. Which it is, quite frankly. Great names and a boring song do not a great record make.
Finally, Stevie's two No. 1's. Step forward Paul McCartney, with the duet 'Ebony And Ivory'. Anti-racism, peace, love and harmony, are fine noble sentiments - but I have to agree with the NME reviewer who commented, 'Listen closely and you can hear the sound of someone choking on his own halo.' And finally, we present the biggest-selling single ever in the history of Motown Records (the customer is always right - OK, it's our fault for buying it) - the karaoke fave 'I Just Called To Say I Love You'. It might have been a pleasant song if it hadn't been so over-exposed, but dare I say that not many people under the age of 60 admit they REALLY like it.
Somebody designed it with a quick deadline to meet, probably for the Christmas market. Four pages, one of which is taken up with the full track listing. The titles are printed in black, the info underneath (writers, date, other musicians etc. as relevant) in minute white type on yellow, and personally I find it a nightmare to read. Most of page 2 invites you to 'get the official Stevie Wonder Ringtones for your mobile for only £2 each'. Oh, please - go away!
Apart from the last two, most of these songs were No. 1 in the US chart, hence the title. But that's a poor excuse for this rather lame selection, which excludes worthy stuff like 'Yester-Me, Yester-You, Yester-Day', 'Never Had A Dream Come True', 'He's Misstra Know It All', and 'Happy Birthday'. At the time of writing, Stevie's 'Definitive Collection', a 2-CD 38-track collection, is available for about the same price brand new (£5 or so). That means you get more of the forgettable fare, but more of the goodies as well. Can I suggest that instead?
Not surprisingly, this release was relegated to budget price range fairly quickly. It's not totally disposable, but definitely a case of 'could do better' as far as the record company was concerned.