20 ESSENTIAL ALBUMS
Who: Stevie Wonder.
What: The superstar’s most ambitious and most successful album, originally released on vinyl as a two-LP set, plus a seven-inch, four-track disc. Every one of the 21 songs was produced, arranged, written and composed by Wonder. The package debuted at Number One on the Billboard charts, remaining there for 14 weeks – longer than any other Motown album before or since.
When: Songs In The Key of Life was released October 8, 1976, while its first 45, “I Wish,” came out a few weeks later and made its chart debut December 4. The following month, the single topped theBillboard Hot 100. “I Wish” was among the last songs recorded for the project; Wonder said he wrote it during a Motown picnic during the summer of ’76. The earliest track is thought to be the instrumental, “Contusion,” first put onto tape in December 1973. (For more about Wonder’s career, read here)
Where: Recording of the masterwork was spread over four studios: three in California (Hollywood’s Crystal Industries, Record Plant sites in Los Angeles and Sausalito) and at New York’s Hit Factory. Much of the music was created on the Yamaha Electrone Polyphonic Synthesizer GX10, reflecting Stevie’s lifelong fascination with new technology. He also recruited blue-chip musicians, including such Wonder regulars as Nathan Watts (bass), Michael Sembello (guitar), Steve Madaio (trumpet) and Trevor Lawrence (tenor sax), and guest stars like Bobbi Humphrey and Herbie Hancock. The album’s media launch took place September 7, 1976, at Long View Farm, North Brookfield in Massachusetts.
Why: Songs In The Key of Life was such a monumental piece of work “because I had those songs and I felt that all of those were…snapshots of a time and a place and an emotion that all fit together very well,” Wonder later told British music writer Barney Hoskyns. “I’m very conscious of the flow of the music on an album and that whole deal, because I’m listening objectively as a person. And I’m pretty critical.” He also noted that a variety of studios played their part in his ’70s work. “You think of it as being a canvas on which I was able to draw and paint pictures.”
What else: Wonder has played material from Songs In The Key of Life in concert consistently during the past 40-plus years, but began performing the album in its entirety from 2013 onwards. That year, he made it the centerpiece of his annual “House Full of Toys” benefit concert in Los Angeles. “Truly, I wanted to do this for years,” he told the Nokia Theater audience, “but it felt like it was meant to be right now.” In 2014, Wonder took the show on the road to various U.S. cities, and more recently to Canada and the U.K., with fans getting to spend around three hours in his musical company, as if traveling in a time machine back to 1976.
What are the 20 most essential Motown albums? It’s a difficult choice, but this is ours, picked and presented through the course of this 60th anniversary year. Each album is featured with its background story, keyed to a relevant date in its history. This is not a countdown, leading to a “winner.” It’s just a way to showcase some of the finest music ever made. After all, isn’t that why you’re here?