The Good: Great vocals, instrumentals, lyrics, mix, production. Everything!
The Bad: One essential song missing.
The Basics: A perfect collection, Stevie Wonder's The Definitive Collection lives up to its name with all of the most recognizable songs by Stevie Wonder!
The beautiful thing about being new to the music of Stevie Wonder is that I approach his compilations with a strong perspective of someone who has authority based pretty much only on what I have heard on his few albums I have listened to so far and what I have heard from him on the radio over the years. Yes, quite simply, I am able to declare that Stevie Wonder's album The Definitive Collection truly lives up to its name because every song I have ever heard of Wonder's (before he became my Artist Of The Month) was on this album. Except one.
The sole detraction of this album is that "Happy Birthday," Wonder's tribute to the life of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. is not on The Definitive Collection. That's it. Otherwise, every hit and song that is still played on the radio by Stevie Wonder is on this one. The thing is, in the UK, there is a two-disc version that has "Happy Birthday," as well as significant collaborations like "Ebony And Ivory" and "That's What Friends Are For," but they also have a number of songs I have not heard before. This might have the net effect of making the perfect album more perfect, if that is possible, given that the best "best of" albums I have encountered are two-disc albums that feature all of the greatest hits and then a disc that improves the listener's appreciation of the artist.
With twenty-one tracks, clocking in at 79:46, The Definitive Collection truly is the greatest works of musical artist Stevie Wonder. All of the songs are written or co-written by Wonder (save "Fingertips (Part 2)" and "For Once In My Life") and he provides the lead vocals on all of the tracks. He is credited with producing the majority of the tracks and he plays a slew of musical instruments on the album. This is his truly great, complete collection, even with the one missing song!
And for those unfamiliar with Stevie Wonder, this is a great way to get into him and his work. Wonder is a master of r&b and funk and this album captures his journey from a more gospel-based r&b sound to a more pop-based and funky sound. He captures or defines the sounds of the various time periods, with "Fingertips (Part 2)" illustrating a soul, falsetto performance which evolves to "Living In The City's" background that has synths reminiscent of the Bee Gees and ultimately to the feel-good mid-80's anthems like "I Just Called To Say I Love You." Stevie Wonder is both a definer of trends and a survivor in the changing musical world and this album reflects an impressive musical diversity and range.
Part of that comes from Wonder's vocals. Stevie Wonder has an impressive vocal range, starting high and almost uncomfortable to listen to with his earliest works, like "Uptight (Everything's Alright)." Wonder evolves, then, into more mid-range vocals with songs like "Signed, Sealed, Delivered I'm Yours" and even going lower on songs like "Do I Do" and "Overjoyed." The Definitive Collection explores the full range and depth of Wonder's vocal abilities and he is clear in his articulations, regardless of which register he is performing in!
But one of the key aspects to any artist enduring long enough to release a collection like this is the lyrics. Stevie Wonder can (and does!) write well and this is perfectly illustrated on The Definitive Collection. Even when he is co-writing some of his early tracks, like "Signed, Sealed, Delivered I'm Yours," Wonder has a statement that he is able to make funky and clear, interesting and new. There are plenty of love songs and even a good number of songs where the musical protagonist essentially begs for love and attention, but Wonder makes it seem new again with his lines "I've done a lot of foolish things / That I really didn't mean, didn't I? / Seen a lot of things in this old world / When I touch them, they mean nothing, girl / Oo, baby, here I am, signed, sealed, delivered, I'm yours! / Oowee baby, you set my soul on fire / That's why I know you're my heart's only desire" ("Signed, Sealed, Delivered I'm Yours"). He makes his lines dancable and clear and that combination works for him, even when his lyrics have a somewhat predictable rhyme scheme.
And while I frequently criticize singer-songwriters for obvious rhymes, Stevie Wonder forces reviewers like me to acknowledged that predictability is not synonymous with lack of diction. Indeed, on songs like "You Haven't Done Nothin'," Wonder illustrates a strong level of vocabulary even while presenting the unsurprising rhymes "But we are sick and tired of hearing your song / Telling how you are gonna change right from wrong / 'Cause if you really want to hear our views / 'You haven't done nothing!' / It's not too cool to be ridiculed / But you brought this upon yourself / The world is tired of pacifiers / We want the truth and nothing else." Wonder has a social conscious and he clearly expresses that in his lyrics, often demanding of his listeners that they stand up and become involved with causes. This is a wonderful thing for an artist of his caliber to do.
Wonder also has a strong romantic and passionate side. A great number of his songs are love songs and it is hard to imagine Stevie Wonder's music not being used as mood music for getting down. He is easily one of the greatest artists who is presenting such a mellow, classy sound that he is the background music for many people for dancing and making love. He also has a very realistic sense to him with the differences between love and sex. Nowhere is this more clear than on the song that caps off the album, "Part-Time Lover." For that song, Wonder wrote "If she isn't with me I'll blink the lights / To let you know tonight's the night / For me and you my part-time lover / We are undercover passion on the run / Chasing love up against the sun / We are strangers by day, lovers by night / Knowing it's so wrong, but feeling so right / If I'm with friends and we should meet / Just pass me by, don't even speak / Know the word's 'discreet' with part-time lovers" ("Part-Time Lover"). It is hardly romantic, but it does have realism to it!
The Definitive Collection is a perfect album (even missing "Happy Birthday") and fans of the music of Stevie Wonder will want to get this one for their collections. Moreover, anyone considering getting into Stevie Wonder or looking to explore the history of funk and r&b-based pop needs to get this album; after all, a huge selection of the best of it is right here!
I am foregoing my usual "best" and "worst" tracks for this review: there are no bad tracks and I shall not ignite the firefight that would surely come from trying to name Stevie Wonder's best song.
(But it's "Sir Duke").
For other works by Stevie Wonder, please be sure to visit my reviews of:
Stevie Wonder’s Original Musiquarium I
A Time To Love
For other music reviews, please visit my index page by clicking here!
© 2011, 2009 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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