Graded on a Curve:
Stevie Wonder,
Original Musiquarium I

Like many justifiably horrified Homo sapiens, I have long allowed the icky likes of “Ebony and Ivory” and “I Just Called to Say I Love You” to (dis)color my appreciation of the undeniable genius of Stevie Wonder. Sure, the greatest blind black soul singer this side of Ray Charles has the unfortunate tendency of coming across like a singing Hallmark card. But he also has his ferocious side; “You Haven’t Done Nothin’” is perhaps the most snarling musical putdown to come along since Bob Dylan’s “Like a Rolling Stone.”

And on the 1982 Tamla Records compilation Original Musiquarium I you can hear Wonder in all his funky glory. A collection of singles, album takes, and previously unreleased songs from 1972-1982, Original Musiquarium I doesn’t spare us Stevie’s softer side, but it largely (there are some frightening exceptions) spares us the worst of Stevie’s easy-listening side. And more importantly it showcases Wonder’s meanest and funkiest songs. In short it’s a far from ideal portrait of Wonder at his best, but it may just be the best we’re going to get until somebody wakes up and releases a comp with a title like The Electrifying Sound of Stevie Wonder!

Perhaps the best thing about Original Musiquarium I is the way it’s laid out. Wonder has been kind enough to separate his kickass tracks from his treacle tracks on separate sides, allowing this guy to avoid the latter. I play Side One over and over again because it’s is a précis of Wonder at his most hard hitting—the positively evil “Superstition” is followed by “You Haven’t Done Nothin’” which is followed by the fantastically grim “Livin’ in the City” which is followed by 1982’s previously unreleased “Front Line,” an anti-war song for the ages featuring some truly nasty guitar by Benjamin Bridges. I’d have swapped the brilliant “Higher Ground” (which appears on Side Three) for “Front Line,” but otherwise it’s as good an album side as you’ll ever dip your ears into.

If Side One showcases the lean and mean Wonder, Side Two highlights Wonder the panderer in all things sentimental. And because Wonder has seen fit to put these songs onto one album side that can best be described as a ghetto for schmaltz, I can exercise my right to never put the thing on my turntable. How very considerate of him! 1979’s “Send One Your Love” is the kind of song that sends me fleeing from the room; the previously unreleased “Ribbon in the Sky” is every bit as cotton-candy gagging as its title. “You Are the Sunshine of My Life” is the best piece of treacle he’s ever put his hand to, but I still prefer to skip it, while 1972’s “Superwoman (Where Were You When I Needed You)” is almost okay until you realize that Stevie’s, well, a sexist pig. He’s telling his woman to give up her dreams and giving her the old heave-ho because she’s trying “to boss the bull around” and we can’t have that now, can we?

Like Side One, Side Three is a blockbuster. The percolating “Higher Ground” leads straight into 1976’s positively ebullient “Sir Duke,” a horn-driven jumper and one of the best songs Wonder has ever written. 1974’s syncopated “Boogie on Reggae Woman” ain’t boogie and it ain’t reggae but it sure is great; Wonder’s bubbling Moog bassline is every bit as funky as his turn on the A-Flat blues harp, and if you can’t get down to this baby you’re a cripple. 1980’s “Master Blaster (Jammin’)” is reggae, a paean to Bob Marley in fact, and just may cause you to break out in dreadlocks. Meanwhile, the previously unreleased “That Girl” is a big-bottomed medium tempo dance track that brings Michael Jackson to mind.

Side Four almost feels like an afterthought, which isn’t to say it’s filler. How could it be when it includes the great ode to childhood “I Wish,” on which Wonder’s keyboards duel for supremacy with lots of great percussion until the song practically bubbles over like a pot on the stovetop? And it’s followed by the lovely “Isn’t She Lovely?”, which is sappy for sure but you’d have to be an even bigger curmudgeon and crank than I am to resist. Almost makes me rethink my aversion to human birth, it does. And Wonder takes the album out with the long and previously unreleased “Do I Do,” a happy feet dance funk extravaganza that features Dizzy Gillespie (you know it’s Dizzy because Wonder announces, “Ladies and gentlemen, I have the pleasure to present on my album Mr. Dizzy Gillespie—blow!”) on trumpet.

In short Wonder hits three out of four of these album sides out of the ballpark, and that’s a great batting average for anybody. It’s certainly enough to put him in the Hall of Fame and I’m talking the baseball Hall of Fame because I’m assuming he’s already in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. So far as I’m concerned Wonder deserves canonization for Side One alone. And I can’t thank Big Stevie—you’ll have to find another comp to hear Little Stevie—enough for relegating the greeting cards to Side Two where I can avoid them. Shows he has a big heart, male chauvinist notwithstanding. I don’t think Stevie’s Jewish—I never thought to ask—but he is most definitely a mensch.

GRADED ON A CURVE:
A-

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