There comes a time in the life of an artist when he or she is poised to do something truly great, if only the whims of circumstance would allow it. In 1975, the planets had aligned for Stevie Wonder, who was riding high on the success of recent top ten singles such as "Superstition," "You Are the Sunshine of My Life," "Higher Ground" and "Living for the City." His contract with Motown Records gave him full creative control, and a combination of critical acclaim (eight Grammy Awards up to that point) and commercial success allowed him the luxury of stretching his legs on his next project. Songs in the Key of Life eventually hit the record racks in the fall of 1976, a year after its originally anticipated release. What must have seemed an interminable delay at the time is now a mere moment in music history. A rare album like Songs in the Key of Life is worth whatever amount of time its creator deems necessary.
The legendary result is a flawlessly executed work of genius. 21 songs written by Stevie Wonder (only four of them with the help of co-writers) with a total running time of more than 100 minutes. An embarrassment of riches that could not fit within the vinyl confines of a double album, and so four of the songs were pressed onto a bonus EP. A richly produced work that featured contributions from Herbie Hancock, George Benson and Minnie Riperton, among others, yet three of the tracks were performed exclusively by multi-instrumentalist Wonder. A stunning range of musical styles written, arranged, produced and performed with the confidence of an industry veteran. Astonishingly, though Stevie Wonder was a seasoned talent by the time of the album's release, he was nevertheless only twenty-six years old.
An iconic cover and a menacing overture filled my young mind with fear.
If I were to choose a favorite decade of recorded music, I would pick the incredibly fertile ten years from 1965 through 1974. It was the golden era of unrestrained, long-form, innovative rock music, when an unprecedented tolerance for experimentation allowed talented artists to create some remarkable records that took full advantage of the latest advances in electronic instruments and multitrack recording. The new technology enabled a production style that reproduced each instrument clearly and distinctly, offering discriminating listeners the opportunity to focus their attention on any one of many different elements every time a platter was spun. I love the sound of the albums that were made during those years.
One of the best of the bunch was Jesus Christ Superstar, which was released by Decca Records in October of 1970. For me, it represents the closest thing to perfection in each of the three areas that contribute to a great album: writing, production, and performance. Unsurpassed by its subsequent incarnations as well as the later work of its creators, it has transcended the label of "rock opera" to become one of the defining recordings of its time.