The R&B legend's game-changing masterpiece turns 40 Sept. 28

By Chuck Arnold
September 28, 2016 at 04:24 PM EDT
Allan Tannenbaum/Getty Images

Stevie Wonder had a run of classic albums in the ’70s — 1972’s Talking Book, 1973’s Innervisions and 1974’s Fulfillingness’ First Finale — but 40 years ago Wednesday, he released his crown jewel, 1976’s Songs in the Key of Life. That life-changing double LP would go on to become the Sgt. Pepper of R&B, a Grammy-winning work that other soul brothers and sisters are still chasing to this day. In honor of its anniversary, EW is celebrating that album by ranking all 21 songs.

21. “Easy Goin’ Evening (My Mama’s Call)”

One of four songs on the bonus EP A Something’s Extra — which came as a 45 in the original vinyl version — this harmonica-blown breeze is one of two instrumentals on the sprawling set (the other being the dizzying “Confusion”). It’s a mellow stroll of a victory lap.

20. “Ebony Eyes”

19. “Saturn”

18. “All Day Sucker”

17. “Confusion”

16. “Ngiculela—Es Una Historia—I Am Singing”

15. “Have a Talk with God”

14. “Isn’t She Lovely”

Although it was never officially released as a single, this jazz-kissed ode to then-infant daughter Aisha still became one of the most beloved tracks from the album. Beginning with a crying cameo from baby Aisha, it also features a precious father-daughter exchange toward the end.

13. “Black Man”

12. “Summer Soft”

11. “Village Ghetto Land”

10. “If It’s Magic”

9. “Knocks Me Off My Feet”

8. “Joy Inside My Tears”

7. “Pastime Paradise”

To ’90s hip-hop heads, this song is probably best remembered for being reworked by Coolio into his 1995 smash “Gangsta’s Paradise.” (Which, to Stevie disciples, is a travesty.) With its synth strings, the track boasts the same baroque soulfulness —and social consciousness — as “Village Ghetto Land.”

6. “Ordinary Pain”

5. “Sir Duke”

This tribute to jazz legend Duke Ellington — who died in 1974, as Wonder was writing Songs — also shouts out Count Basie, Glenn Miller, Louis Armstrong, and Ella Fitzgerald. A swinging, horn-blasting groove, this exuberant celebration of music (“A world within itself, with a language we all understand”) makes you feel it all over.

4. “Another Star”

3. “I Wish”

As a fierce funk workout, this is right up there with Talking Book’s “Superstition,” Innervisions’ “Higher Ground,” and Fulfillingness’ First Finale’s “You Haven’t Done Nothin’.” But it’s the childhood reflection — “Then my only worry / Was for Christmas what would be my toy” — that is the real heart of this jam.

2. “As”

When Stevie sings about loving someone “until dear Mother Nature says her work is through,” it is the truth. Listening to this master get caught up in a melismatic rapture as he riffs on the single word “always” is an everlasting joy.

1. “Love’s in Need of Love Today”

The first track of Wonder’s magnum opus is a message song that is maybe even more relevant in today’s troubled times than it was 40 years ago. From its opening gospel-blues strains, this seven-minute PSA is an urgent call from “your friendly announcer” for a better tomorrow. It’s a big bear hug of a record that wraps its arms around the world.