The Doobie Brothers. The Steve Miller Band. James Taylor. Simon and Garufnkel. Lynyrd Skynyrd. John Denver. Elton John.
These are among the artists who I loved before I loved music. Their songs I heard at home and on the radio, their greatest hits albums I played in my first CD player. They’re musicians who laid the groundwork for my taste in music — but who I’ve never really encountered out of that context.
Listen, I love these artists. I’ll broadly call them “Dad’s Classic Rock” — the type of canon you basically take for granted. There have been a handful of musicians and bands who have risen out of this group to become true favorites. A few have really connected with me on a personal, profound, perspective-altering level — two in the top ten of this list, in fact.
But mostly, I’ve listened to Dad’s Classic Rock standards a thousand times and never really thought much about it. I’ll spin an album of theirs here, make a playlist of my favorite tracks there, but never really dig deep or obsess.
Two artists that I consider stuck squarely in this group have made the top 100. You’ve already read about one of them — Queen . Here’s the other. (Some other artists I admire and enjoy, but who didn’t make the list: Led Zeppelin, The Rolling Stones, Bob Dylan, Bob Marley, The Eagles, The Beach Boys, Elvis, Jimi Hendrix, Aretha Franklin, and a bunch of others.)
So, if I listen to his music through the lens of Dad’s Classic Rock, how did Stevie Wonder make it so high up the list? A few reasons: While I’ve grown bored with with even the best songs of some of the aforementioned bands after 10000 spins, there’s a certain energy in Stevie’s music that never grows old. I dig the weirdness in his music, the feeling that you’re seeing music through some previously unknown lens.
But it really comes down how emotional Stevie’s music is. Whether he’s directly addressing what’s on his heart (all-time best version of “For Once In My Life”) or he’s telling a story (“Living for the City”), his best music oozes with feeling.
Stevie’s towering, untouchable voice is right there with Freddie Mercury’s and Janis Joplin’s as my favorite ever. His songwriting is prolific and inspired. I love turning on the 70-track retrospective At the Close of a Century and hitting shuffle. Stevie’s so multi-talented and versatile — no two songs sound the same.
So many of his tracks from Motown are classic, but here are fifteen songs (in no particular order) I find myself repeatedly revisiting.
The definitive Stevie song, as much as there could be one. It’s off of Talking Book and features one of his best grooves. It also has some of his best pop hooks, peaking at #1 on Billboard. The lyrics are Halloween fun on the surface, but seem to reflect Stevie’s doubts about his faith.
-Living for the City
My personal favorite Stevie song. I actually prefer the 3:48 single cut to the seven-minute album cut. The groove is straight out of nightmares (in a good way), and the lyrics about a family growing up in “Hard Times, Mississippi” are perfectly. The long version of the song explains the title with a skit of the son of the family going to the city and getting into trouble.
-For Once in My Life
This is earlier Stevie than some of the song on this list. (Stevie’s recognized creative peak was the ‘70s; “For Once in My Life” launched 1968.) This is also the only song here not written by Stevie, but it’s no less his song than “Respect” is Aretha’s. It’s an upbeat, romantic song with one of Stevie’s hallmark harmonica parts.
This was probably the first Stevie Wonder song I loved, and it remains a favorite. As a tribute to Duke Ellington, “Sir Duke” is spirited, but the song is as much a testament to the power of music as it is a specific performer. “You can feel it all over” indeed.
-Knocks Me Off My Feet
This is not usually one of the songs mentioned in the first breath of his best songs, but it’s always been one of my favorites. It’s a lights-out romantic ballad about the swooning feeling of love (“There’s something about your love that makes me weak and knocks me off my feet”).
-Isn’t She Lovely
Stevie wrote this as a tribute to the birth of his daughter Aisha, and you can hear the sounds of her crying on the album version. Just a great, warm announcement of new life.
-Signed, Sealed, Delievered (I’m Yours)
Early-ish Stevie. Just a great, simple love song. Like “For Once In My Life” it effervesces romance and infatuation. Fantastic track to throw on a party playlist.
-Uptight (Everything’s Alright)
This was Stevie’s second #1 hit (after “Fingertips,” which he recorded at age 13 — I couldn’t make room for it on this list). Go listen to this track and remember… Stevie was the age of a high school sophomore when he wrote and recorded this song.
Definitely one of his funkiest tracks, and maybe his funniest too. Stevie recounts stories from his days as a little kid, and backs it with a bass groove that’s disarmingly complex for a Billboard hit..
-I Just Called To Say I Love You
The only song on this list from Stevie’s post-peak years. He released this in 1984, and it sounds like a seasoned pop professional still on top of his game. Dat key change just before the 3:00 mark… perfect. Great ballad.
Stevie wrote and released a lot of long, rambly, beautiful tracks, but “As” is his true epic. He professes his eternal love, backed by some fantastic keyboard work. This is the centerpiece from the second disc of double-album masterpiece Songs in the Key of Life.
This has endured as one of Stevie’s most popular tracks. Part of this has to do with Red Hot Chili Peppers’ excellent cover (which debuted on the great soundtrack from The Mighty Morphin’ Power Rangers Movie). But most of it has to do with the fact that this is some of his hardest-hitting, most melodic funk.
-You Are the Sunshine of My Life
Few musicians could hit the emotional intensity of Stevie Wonder, yet he could also be delightfully easygoing. “You Are the Sunshine of My Life” is the best example of that: warm, upbeat, and romantic.
-He’s Misstra Know It All
As my dad put it: “it’s a sweet song about a not-so-sweet guy.” It’s true: this is a portrait of a sleazy con-man from Innervisions (which I’ve somehow gone this whole article without praising — it’s easily my favorite Stevie album; every track is gold). Yet Wonder gives it a tender sheen, with great vocal harmonies. And it works — it’s a perfect example of Stevie’s strangeness paying off.
Yeah, okay, I prefer Coolio’s re-write of this (doesn’t everyone love “Gangsta’s Paradise”?). Still, it’s not hard to see why Coolio was drawn to it — Stevie implants urgency into every second of this standout off Songs in the Key of Life.