All-Time Classics #1: Songs in the Key of Life by Stevie Wonder (1976)

Songs in the Key of Life, Stevie Wonder

For the first entry in my All-Time Greats series of album reviews, we’re going to talk about what I personally consider to be one of the greatest albums ever recorded: Stevie Wonder’s legendary 1976 double-plus-EP album Songs in the Key of Life. At just over 100 minutes in length, there is no shortage of material to discuss, let alone highlight favorites from, but I believe that this masterpiece deserves to have every last minute discussed, praised, criticized, and immortalized. Consisting of two LPs and a bonus “A Little Somethings Extra” EP, this record takes the listener on an unparalleled musical odyssey encompassing a cornucopia of musical styles, moods, and ideas. You’ll always discover something entirely new to love about this album almost every time you hear it all the way through, and there is simply so much artistic genius on display here that multiple listens are practically required. This record deserves every single bit of praise and adoration it has received over the years, and no matter how much I write about it, I’ll never really be able to do the music justice. But I might as well try!

The album opens with a slow-burning, soulful peace ballad, “Love’s in Need of Love Today.” It’s one of the album’s longer cuts, but every second is pure ear-candy. Beautiful vocal harmonies, subdued percussion, and gorgeous synthesizers populate this track’s patient but powerful runtime, gently easing the audience into the following experience in, dare I say it, wonderful fashion. Alright, I apologize, that was pretty terrible. I will refrain from any name-based puns for the remainder of this review. Anyways, the boundaries between organic and synthetic instrumentation is blurred constantly throughout this album’s runtime, with electronic instruments creating breathtaking, warm and organic-feeling soundscapes on the following tracks, “Have a Talk With God” and “Village Ghetto Land.” The former puts lyrics of faith and inspiration over an incredibly cool, hypnotic, gurgling keyboard track with the usual incredible backup singing, while the second sees Wonder singing solo about life in a poverty-stricken ghetto, calling for action regarding inner-city living conditions and lawmaker’s indifference towards the plights of marginalized populations facing such dire situations. What truly makes the track, however, is the fabulous synthetic string-section providing the track’s instrumentation. Miraculously, Wonder somehow manages to make fake strings work even better than real ones would have, and the result is an unforgettable slice of ear-pleasing and politically charged songwriting that would be the clear standout track on any other album. However, this is Stevie Wonder we’re talking about, so of course this is followed by yet another near-perfect track, the dizzying instrumental “Contusion.” Mike Sembello’s guitar playing on this track is just pure technical perfection, playing complex yet captivating solos and riffs throughout. The wordless vocals that come in about halfway through are also a great touch, making what would have been a nice instrumental interlude into an outstanding piece in its own right. The album then segues into “Sir Duke.” Dear. God. This freakin’ song. I can’t even begin to get across how stupidly happy this song makes me. Hell, it might just be my favorite out of all 21 of this album’s tracks. There are very, very few songs ever written that I would consider perfect, and “Sir Duke” is up there near the top of even that selective group. The lyrics are about Duke Ellington, but honestly I don’t really even care what the lyrics are about; they could be about anything and this song would still be absolute perfection. This is in that rare league of songs that are so damn happy they actually make me cry. I’m not ashamed to admit that this song gets me all choked up nearly every time I hear it. I seriously don’t think any other song I’ve ever heard has actually made me cry real tears of joy before. Maybe I’m just a mess, but this song just gets to me in the best possible way.

Side 2 kicks off with “I Wish,” a cool, groovy ode to childhood with a bassline to kill for. Stevie’s singing is flawless here, but then again, isn’t it always? After this is the calm, subdued ballad “Knocks Me Off My Feet.” We all know this by now, but I just need to say it again: Stevie Wonder’s chorus and hook-writing skills are almost completely unparalleled in the entire world of music. It may seem like I’m hyping his talents up a bit too much, but in all honesty I believe this guy to be one of the greatest songwriters of all time. I simply can’t stress enough how good he is at writing a moving, captivating, unforgettable song. “Pastime Paradise” is a trance-like rhythmic jam that makes you feel a bit disoriented, but definitely in a good way. I find this album somewhat exhausting to listen to sometimes for the simple fact that every single song is so damn good that there just isn’t any cooldown time. You don’t get a break, because the very next song is just as good, and then the next one after that, and so on. There are just too many incredible songs here. How he managed to write so many songs that are good enough to be any other artist’s defining song of their entire career, and put them all on the same album is just boggling to the mind. “Summer Soft” is one of the defining examples of how exhaustingly enjoyable this album can be to listen to sometimes. This album has a bit of a habit to create an awesome, goosebump-raising moment and then just hold you there, for an extended period of time. For example, in “Summer Soft,” we have the choruses, where he creates this incredible musical moment, and then escalates it, repeatedly, to an almost self-parodic degree, and the result is a song that’s so awesome it’s actually difficult to get through. And finally, the first LP is closed off with “Ordinary Pain,” a calmly depressing number with an energy-filled extended coda delivered by the incredibly vocally talented Shirley Brewer. After getting through these first 10 tracks, you may think to yourself “if I’m just under halfway through this thing, how could it possibly follow this up with anything even remotely up to the standard of quality this first group of tracks has set?” Well… let’s just say the second LP is more than up to that standard of quality. Oh boy, is it. You’re just too much, Stevie. Gimme a break with all this incredible music, man.

stevie wonder rockhalldotcom

Image source:

The second LP is where Stevie really breaks out the big guns. Of the seven tracks on the LP, only two are under six minutes: that being “Ngiculela – Es Una Historia – I Am Singing,” a tri-lingual synthetic keyboard ballad, and “If It’s Magic,” a brief and haunting piece featuring only vocals and harp, played by Dorothy Ashby.  The LP starts with “Isn’t She Lovely,” a tear-jerking, ultra-heartwarming ode to his newly-born baby daughter. The song features an iconic harmonica line and some of the most impassioned vocals on the entire record, with the second half being occupied by homemade tape recordings of his daughter cooing, struggling to form words, refusing to get in the bath, and generally just being absolutely adorable. The following track, “Joy Inside My Tears,” is both one of the album’s most repetitive and moving cuts. The verse-to-chorus ratio on this one is definitely skewed, with a majority of the track consisting of a seemingly endless chant of the main chorus. On paper this may seem like it would get incredibly tiresome pretty quickly, but in execution, it only gets more profound and emotional with each repetition. Every time the chorus begins again, it seems to get more emotionally intense, which results in all six minutes of this track being some of the most deeply riveting you can find on this record. This is directly followed up with the longest track of the album, “Black Man,” at over eight minutes in length. This track features some of the record’s most potent and rousing political lyrics, consisting mainly of a list of scientific, historical and cultural achievements by people of color that have been largely swept under the rug and forgotten by your typical history class. This track somehow manages to make the listener happy and angry simultaneously, with the lyrics feeling like an incredible celebration of these people’s contributions to the world, but also demonstrating that a good number of these people’s names have been for the most part forgotten by the general population. Names such as Daniel Hale Williams, first person to perform a successful heart surgery, Garrett Morgan, inventor of the gas mask, and Crispus Attucks, first known person to die for the American flag, are listed off in succession, all with an accompanying unspoken question of why these are not names we are all familiar with. This song is truly a highlight on a record of highlights, standing out even next to the other excellent tracks on display.

Next up are the two sub-six-minute tracks mentioned earlier. While these two are great in their own right, they do still feel somewhat like interludes: simple warmups for the two slices of pure bliss to follow. “As” and “Another Star” are somewhat similar to each other, but by virtue of being back to back to each other, they serve as a sort of combined epic finale to the record. I tend to talk about the two as if they were one long song, because in my opinion they just beg to be listened to together. Both songs are over 7 minutes, and combined they are the ultimate fifteen-minute funky freakout to end the album proper. Don’t even start listening unless you plan on hearing the whole thing, because once you start, the driving, repetitive backup vocals and jamming instrumentals make it utterly impossible to pause. Truly, Stevie couldn’t have ended this journey in a better fashion. There are, however, four additional tracks found on the “A Little Somethings Extra” EP that was included with the album. Overall these tracks are of a high quality, with “Saturn” giving us a cinematic and dramatic ballad, “Ebony Eyes” providing a goofy romp of a love song that doesn’t take itself too seriously, “All Day Sucker” creating an incredible, groovy rhythm that begs to be danced to, and “Easy Goin’ Evening (My Mama’s Call)” ending the selection of bonus content with a relaxing, chilled-out instrumental that evokes a night spent with family, watching fireflies from the front porch. These songs are all great, but I wouldn’t consider them part of the album proper. They’re intended more as a little extra treat after the main course, and I think they serve that purpose beautifully.

A 100-minute album with no filler whatsoever is a rare thing indeed, but Stevie Wonder accomplished that feat and so much more with this masterpiece of a record. I’ve said just about all I have to say about this utter classic, so I’ll end this debut All-Time Greats review with this: yes, this album is long as hell, and yes, sitting down and listening to the whole thing is an undertaking, but I truly believe that every fan of music should take the time to accept this album into their listening repertoire. It’s a multi-faceted, emotional and joyous ride from start to finish, and Songs in the Key of Life gets the highest recommendation I can give.

What do you think of this album? I’d love to know, so please, leave your thoughts in the comments!

Forgotten Gems #1: Cell-Scape by Melt-Banana (2003)

Cell-Scape, Melt-Banana

Here on Forgotten Gems, we’re starting out with a strange one. Japanese noise-rock band Melt-Banana is truly the musical incarnation of Douglas Adams’ Pan-Galactic Gargle-Blaster, and will, by their very nature, likely never achieve any conventional kind of popularity or success. Since the day they formed in 1992, they have set out to make music that will disorient, bewilder, and possibly even terrify the listener with simply ludicrous volumes, harsh and screeching guitar/electronic effects, and a vocal style delivered by frontwoman Yasuko Onuki that I can only describe as a hyperactive cartoon character on at least three different kinds of stimulants. Their 2003 album Cell-Scape, while admittedly “tamer” (if that’s a word that can even be applied to this band) than their frankly horrifying 90’s output, it is still an entire sonic universe away from what the average listener would consider easy-listening, and for that, I just love it.

“Phantasmagoria” starts off the album with a relatively calm and slow ambient intro, but do not let them fool you. Immediately the listener is pummeled in the face by the opening roar of “Shield Your Eyes, a Beast in the Well of Your Hand.” I believe the first couple seconds of this song is a good gauge of whether or not you’ll enjoy the ensuing 30 minutes of barely controlled chaos. If you hate it and it makes your ears bleed, maybe don’t proceed. If you love it and it makes your ears bleed, then boy are you in for a treat. I would be remiss not to bring up frankly how ridiculously awesome Ichirou Agata’s guitar-work is, on this album especially. He gets otherworldly sounds out of his guitar that that defy verbal explanation and practically require hearing firsthand. Seriously, he’s one of my all-time favorite guitarists for a very good reason. The song builds with a hypnotic bassline, hard and robotic drum machine loop, and Agata’s incredible noise-glissandos.

And then the vocals kick in.

Yasuko Onuki’s vocals are the stuff of myth. It is absolutely a “love-it or hate-it” style that takes some getting used to, and are completely different from almost every other vocalist in all of music. I’ve already described her vocals as sounding like a cartoon character on stimulants, but if you haven’t heard it before, you really don’t know what you’re getting into. But I believe that it is her voice that transforms Melt-Banana from a pretty-good but not-so-memorable noise band into the playful, exhilarating and mind-destroying entity we all know and love them as. Her energetic style permeates through the bizarre whirlwinds of songs that are “Chain-Shot to Have Some Fun” and my personal favorite “A Dreamer Who is Too Weak to Face Up.” Every explosion of guitar and drums is accentuated by Onuki’s weirdly cheery-sounding yelps and squawks. Melt-Banana wouldn’t be half of the amazingness that it is without Yasuko Onuki at the helm, and every single song she takes part in is simply a joy to listen to.

melt banana, wwwdotorlandoweeklydotcom

Left: Yasuko Onuki. Right: Ichirou Agata. Image source:

This whole album in general is just that: a pure joy. Sure, it’s unyielding, ridiculously loud and harsh, and almost completely inacessible to any mainstream audience. But if you can get used to the noise elements and the unorthodox approach to vocals, you’ll find that this album is a thrill ride unlike most you’ll ever be able to find. And hey, after 30 minutes of exhaustion, they were even kind enough to give the listener a nice instrumental ambient outro to cool back down to. This album is absolutely not for everyone, but if you can acquire that taste, you’ll uncover an experience that you won’t forget. Now get this album the love and attention that it deserves.

Favorite Tracks: “A Dreamer Who is Too Weak to Face Up,” “If it is the Deep Sea, I Can See You There,” “Chain-Shot to Have Some Fun,” “Shield Your Eyes, a Beast in the Well of Your Hand”

We’re Back! (but DIFFERENT)

Time sure flies when you have a serious procrastination problem and your most recent blog post was in August of last year. Yeah, sorry about that.

I’ve been thinking about the album reviews, and the whole “review the entire 1001 book” idea, and I’ve come to a realization. Personally, the idea of being stuck with reviewing the albums in a certain book for what would end up being well over 20 years isn’t exactly the most appealing prospect in the world. So I’ve made the decision to simply scrap the 1001 series entirely and review music that I’m personally passionate about.

I will have several ongoing series of album reviews, which I will dub “Forgotten Gems,” “All-Time Greats,” and “New Stuff” for now. The first will be musical masterpieces that have been tragically forgotten by the public at large. The second will, fairly obviously, be famous records that deserve to be remembered as generation-defining classics. Finally, “New Stuff” will simply be reviews of fresh and recently released albums.

I’ll still keep the old reviews up for everyone to read as they please, but I think that this new direction will be much more enjoyable not only for myself, but for my readers. Thanks for sticking with me, and here’s hoping this goes well!.