Top Stevie Wonder Songs of the '80s

Although chart-topping singles "I Just Called to Say I Love You" and "Part-Time Lover" clearly define the '80s output of Motown and R&B legend Stevie Wonder, I don't believe either accurately reflects the typical depth or quality of his songwriting. Therefore, I omit both schmaltzy pop tunes from my top songs list from this, one of Wonder's most commercially if not always critically successful phases of his career. That said, here's a look at this consummate artist's finest efforts from the '80s, an era that saw Wonder embrace synthesizers and drum machines but never obscured the organic brilliance of his best work.

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"I Ain't Gonna Stand for It"

Stevie Wonder
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In my opinion, this is one of Wonder's finest all-time tracks - even taking into consideration the massive appeal and quality of '70s classics like "Superstition" and "Sir Duke." It's a fun and inspiring cross-genre romp that deftly layers funk beats, synthesizer arrangements and even a bit of a country sound. The lyrics explore a troubled romantic relationship in a sassy, suggestive manner by employing clear but tasteful double entendre. Even better, Wonder's low-pitched, jazzy-soulful vocals during the verse make for an utterly unique pop music experience. Musically inventive as usual for Wonder's songwriting, this tune turns downright celebratory in the chorus even as the lyrics seem bitter and accusatively angry. A major gem from 1980.

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Wonder has always demonstrated a deft hand with emotional ballads, but that form may have become most common for the artist during his '80s period. While that wasn't always a good thing, this track from 1980's proves that Wonder's voice accompanied only by piano will always be one of pop music's most evocative instruments. The song was a major hit on the U.K. charts but somehow made nary a dent on Billboard's charts in America. This is a bit puzzling, as the melody skillfully blends compositional complexity with Wonder's typically classic accessibility. Lyrically heartfelt and authentically passionate, this is a tune you may not have heard lately. But that can be easily rectified.

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"That Girl"

Anyone thinking that Wonder had lost his touch with pure soul music by the '80s should listen closely to this single from the end of 1981. A densely produced arrangement results in a highly satisfying effort from Wonder, who quickly began to see the possibilities of the newly popular synthesizer for his next phase. But the main success here lies in the song's flawless, bouncing groove, which combines remarkably well with some of the singer's best lyrics and vocals of his career: "She doesn't use her love to make him weak, she uses love to keep him strong." The impending, soaring chorus undoubtedly helped this tune reach an impressive No. 3 on the Billboard pop charts, not to mention a nine-week run at the top of Billboard's R&B charts.

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"Do I Do"

This delightful track, one of four brand new songs featured on 1982's career retrospective, strikes a thoroughly joyous throwback vibe. Invoking plenty of funk and old school soul influences through its generous use of horns and rhythmic guitars, the song turns out to serve as yet another breathtaking showcase for Wonder's gift for melody and one-of-a-kind vocal expression. Of course, your best bet is to sample the track in its sprawling 10-minute album version, but the released single manages many of the same pleasures in half that running time. Always on the cutting edge, Wonder delves into the emerging hip-hop vocal style while at the same time featuring the legendary Dizzy Gillespie on trumpet.

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"Love Light in Flight"

Wonder's soundtrack album for the 1984 film may not have been his finest moment musically. OK, it definitely wasn't. Still, commercial success alone fails to tell the entire story of this set of tunes. This track certainly feels far more electronic than organic, but Wonder's songwriting and vocals again cut through all the layers of production to strike the listener square in the heart. If you're interested in tapping into vintage Wonder emotion and passion, then you may well have to rummage through his mid-'80s offerings to find the really good stuff. But the effort here is worth it, as much because of the artist's uncanny ability to integrate conflicting styles and impulses as the quality of the composition itself.

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"Go Home"

This 1985 track unabashedly embraces a middle-of-the-road dance-pop sound but also manages to incorporate the organic, soulful genius that has always been a Wonder trademark. Eminently danceable in its arrangement, the tune also settles on unforgettable keyboard riffs and central melodies. To me, Wonder the songwriter is at his best not when he takes on-the-nose topical approaches but when he sings passionately about the constantly challenging state of human relationships. That's one reason why his noble and socially conscious efforts "Happy Birthday" and "It's Wrong (Apartheid)" fail to make this list. The other reason, of course, is that they don't flow effortlessly as pop songs, a problem from which "Go Home" never suffers.

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While this lovely but overly sentimental ballad certainly verges into the same kind of sunny romantic idealism that dooms a song like "I Just Called to Say I Love You," its melody and spirited vocal performance help keep it from revealing too much in the cheese. Perhaps the constant sound of birds chirping goes a bit over the top, but Wonder's exuberance does an appropriate job of meeting the theme of his composition. This artist would enjoy considerably less commercial success from this point of his career on, as "Overjoyed" still stands as Wonder's last American Top 10 pop hit to date. Still, with a record like this, Wonder has long been well beyond making a case for himself as an all-around music marvel.