024: Stevie Wonder – Innervisions (1973)
Now we’ve come to Stevie’s peak spot on this list. It’s an amazing album I had heard many, many times prior to this week.
When I was recording my last album, 15 years ago–back in my Berklee days, people kept saying that Stevie must have been a huge inspiration for me. I had heard his later career radio hits at that point, but had never heard any of his 70’s records. So, I relented and picked them up. I think I mentioned last time that I then had an enduring love for these albums for many years–though Fulfillingness’ First Finale is still my favorite of the whole lot.
Songs In The Key of Life is a masterwork for its scope and breadth.
This album is so impactful because it is succinct–not even 10 songs. It’s drenched in religious references, social commentary, visual metaphors–and brilliant music.
It is mixed and mastered in a way that encourages ingesting it as an album–not a collection of singles. Notice how one song bleeds into the next, or even how the transition from Living For The City has the beautiful, untitled piano interlude that joins it to Golden Lady.
Hearing Jesus Children Of America back in 1998 was the first time I had ever heard of Transcendental Meditation. It left such an impression on me that I went through the rather expensive training to learn how to do it. [As a side note, I can't recommend meditation highly enough at this point. I have trouble keeping up the practice and discipline now. But if you're looking for something to help with anxiety, I can say that nothing worked better for me during some supremely stressful times.]
Another thing that left a strong impression on me about this record is how Stevie blends a very powerful artistic expression throughout the record with a clear sense of his humor–see the intro to Don’t You Worry ‘Bout A Thing. Who could resist this goofball? You see it again with his gruff vocal line that comes in at 3:00 of He’s Misstra Know-It-All. But he just as soon comes back and sings his butt off with some of the most beautiful and untouchable vocal add-libs.
023: John Lennon – Plastic Ono Band (1970)
This album is very similar in ways to Innervisions. Maybe it was just what the 70’s were like…but both of these guys are doing some serious personal work in order to arrive at the content of these albums.
For Lennon, it was through his famous Primal Scream therapy that yielded the most incredible rock vocal I’ve ever heard.
I had heard this record before, probably 15 years ago or so. I didn’t go back to it in the intervening years, and I can see why now.
It is difficult.
John Lennon is putting it ALL out here. Listen to the back half of the song Mother, starting at about 3:24. I watched the Classic Albums episode (of course). The engineer talks about how John would come in at the end of each session for the album and lay down these vocal takes. He would sing them so hard that he would go hoarse by the end. You can actually hear it in the recording–it’s almost too much for me to listen to.
It was an interesting choice to put that song as the opener–but I guess if being a Beatle doesn’t give you confidence to take some risks, you’re doing something wrong. On the next song comes Lennon’s goofball moment, where he gruffly says “cookie” for no apparent reason during Hold On (around 1:07). Working Class Hero and Isolation–such universal and timeless songs. He really mixes in his beautiful ballads with some aggressive romps–Hold On vs I Found Out; Remember vs Love; or Well Well Well vs Look At Me. It’s another interesting choice to keep interchanging between the softer ballads and the more harsh songs–perhaps that’s what keeps the listener a little off-balance. Maybe it’s just me. Anger is a difficult emotion for me…and he is very clearly working through some deep anger here. Maybe he was trying to temper the harshness by blending in the softer side? There’s so much to say about his song God. That first line is an interesting one: “God is a concept by which we measure our pain.” He then goes on to list things he values from magic to the Beatles–but now he “don’t believe in”. I get that he’s working through ideas that were forced onto him–and choosing individuality instead. Especially because this was the final statement of his first solo album–which came as a shock to Beatles devotees. I don’t really understand why he chooses to list Jesus beside Hitler–or why Hitler is even in the list. Perhaps he was just trying to provoke–the primary job of an artist. He certainly achieves provocation by ending the song with “the dream is over”.
Both of these albums are amazing. Stevie’s Innervisions is one that I will continue to go back to for as long as I’m lucky enough to have life or the sense of hearing. It’s an album that just has it all, for me. It’s funny that Plastic Ono Band has it all too…but leaves me feeling differently. To me, listening to this album is a lot like going to couple’s therapy–evoking that feeling you get when you leave a really heavy session. You’re glad you went, and you see the benefits–but that shit ain’t easy.
022: Robert Johnson – The Complete Recordings 021: Chuck Berry – The Great Twenty-Eight Want to listen ahead, or see some posts you may have missed? Check out the full list of the 100 Greatest Albums here.