Stevie Wonder At the Close of a Century (Motown)

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Stevie Wonder

At the Close of a Century (Motown)

A picture on cover of this 4-CD box set depicts the artist early in his career, when he was "'Little' Stevie Wonder, the 12-year-old genius," and it tells you everything you need to know about this soul and pop pioneer. His face is lit by the broadest of grins -- a real kid's grin, the kind that radiates the pure joy of youth, when the world is still fresh and full of miracles, and discovering them is a giddy thrill. When you listen to the set's very first cut, "Fingertips, Pts 1 & 2," the sounds coming from that teen matches the image to a tee. In his breathy, high-pitched "yeahs!" and sensual, virtuoso harmonica riffs, there's that same exhilaration, that youthful electricity, that sense of a kid at play having a blissful blast. That's Stevie Wonder, and that pure joy of youth is evident in every one of the 70 tracks on this compilation. Through all the beat-happy Motown hits in the Sixties, through the rhythmically explosive songs from his groundbreaking series of albums in the Seventies, even through the easygoing efforts in the Eighties and Nineties, that same excitement, that same youthful thrill, beams from the speakers. With just four discs to cover Wonder's prodigious 37-year career, this isn't the sort of boxed set packed with released gems and alternate takes. At the Close of a Century works hard just to pack in all the the obligatory highlights in the Wonder record book. What surprises there are tend toward the inclusion of slightly less familiar numbers (e.g., "Until You Come Back to Me (That's What I'm Gonna Do)," an early Motown track that's hard to find elsewhere, and organization (Disc 2 featuring all but one track of the still-amazing Innervisions). Still, even without a dozen discs or wealth of bonus tracks, Century offers an overview of Wonder's musical output that is astonishing. Here's Wonder, still a teen, effortlessly sliding from the driving bouncy soul of "Nothing's Too Good for My Baby" to the creamy balladry of "My Cherie Amour" to the righteous gospel shout of "Heaven Help Us All." Here he is in his 20s, dishing out the peppy pop of "You Are the Sunshine of My Life" side-by-side with the brooding urban thump of "Living for the City." He leaps from politics -- the searing outrage of "You Haven't Done Nothin'" (addressed to then-President Richard Nixon) -- to sex (the luscious funk of "Boogie on Reggae Woman") back to politics (the exuberant anthem "Happy Birthday," addressed to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.). The breadth of Wonder's talent is surpassed only by that unquenchable joy. Listening to him on Disc 4's final track, singing alongside Babyface, and as is fitting, playing the harmonica, it's clear that this visionary composer and vocalist has never lost the elation and enthusiasm he enjoyed as "Little" Stevie. To him, the world is still a wonder. Rarely has an artist's last name suited him so well.

****.5

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