20. The Fearless Flyers ft. Blake Mills & Sandra Crouch – Signed Sealed Delivered
Stevie Wonder in turbo mode. Newly-minted funk supergroup The Fearless Flyers bring the heat on this unbelievable instrumental cover of “Signed, Sealed, Delivered.” At the helm are the core Flyers quartet—guitarist/bandleader Cory Wong, bassist Joe Dart, guitarist Mark Lettieri, and jazz drummer Nate Smith, deploying their signature streamlined sound (and donning matching stealth pit-crew jumpsuits). But what really sends this take into see-it-to-believe-it territory is the brew that results from its two special guests, each bringing virtuosity from wildly different ends of the musical spectrum. Guitarist Blake Mills turns Stevie’s vocal line into a fiery slide-guitar hootenanny, and, most thrillingly, gospel legend Sandra Crouch comes by the garage studio to drop some truly incendiary work on the tambourine. (It should be noted also that The Flyers are a side-project of the dada-funk ensemble Vulfpeck; that group’s resident Berry Gordy/lead musical prankster Jack Stratton is in the producing chair here as well.) It’s a thrill to have the camera get up in the grill of all of these musicians, watching them work in their own lanes, but collectively driving a souped-up car, full-speed, at the top of their game. – Ben Easton
19. James Blake – Never Dreamed You’d Leave In Summer
English singer/songwriter James Blake first released his cover of Stevie Wonder’s “Never Dreamed You’d Leave in Summer” as an online video in 2020, then followed it with a studio version later that year. Blake strips away the orchestrations from Stevie Wonder’s original and plays it as a solo piano ballad. He sings the already sad song as a tearjerker more fit for a cold winter’s day. – Curtis Zimmermann
18. Paul Johnson – Heaven Is 10 Zillion Light Years Away
If the pop world were fair, British singer Paul Johnson would have been a superstar. His mind-blowing falsetto is right up there with the greats like The Stylistics’ Russell Thompkins Jr. and The Temptations’ Eddie Kendricks. He released two albums of fine, of-its-time soul-pop in the late ’80s, and though neither broke the top 50, both featured some head-shakingly fabulous vocal performances. Johnson’s delivery on his 1987 cover of “Heaven Is Ten Zillion Light Years Away” is the very definition of scenery-chewing – which is a polite way of saying it is absolutely nuts. While the song features some cheap ’80s production, Johnson ultimately renders it invisible with his raucous, majestic, and steamrolling voice. Okay, that is another understatement. The fact is Johnson’s “Heaven” is over-the-top ridiculous from beginning to end. If those hilariously wonderful post “feel it” growls don’t make you smile a little, you may possibly be made of stone. Feel it. – Hope Silverman
17. Red Hot Chili Peppers – Higher Ground
Like a lot of Gen-Xers, the first time I heard “Higher Ground,” I heard the Red Hot Chili Peppers’ version. When it comes to covers, the first version you hear is often the one you prefer; still, with clearer eyes and a little more perspective, I’ll stand here and say the Peppers’ version is an improvement. Flea’s bass replaces Wonder’s clavinet and really makes the song pop; the way the rest of the band throw themselves after him gives the song a headlong rush that makes the original seem stately. Now if I can only get my head around the fact that the original is nearly a half century old and the cover has been around for nearly a third of a century. – Patrick Robbins
16. Shannon McNally – I Ain’t Gonna Stand for It
This song doesn’t get a lot of love in the Wonderverse. That has to do with Stevie’s decision to inhabit a certain character in this song. Maybe it works for some listeners, but for most it doesn’t, because what we mostly want from a Stevie Wonder record is his voice and style. The equation changes when Shannon McNally takes hold of the song. You don’t sense you are being messed with in her version, you don’t feel deprived of some better thing. McNally always takes a no-nonsense, straight-shooting path, whether she’s singing her own material or covering someone else. In this case, she’s taking on the character in a way that it doesn’t seem like an act. Her translation from Stevie’s brand of R&B into her flavor of Americana works seamlessly. – Tom McDonald
15. Jeff Beck – Cause We’ve Ended As Lovers
The original version of “Cause We’ve Ended As Lovers” appears not on a straight-up Stevie Wonder record, but on the Syreeta album from 1974. It’s an elegant and moving composition, and Wonder’s creative partner Syreeta Wright is pitch perfect on the vocals. But the performance feels clinical, just a little bloodless. Especially if those ears knew the song through Jeff Beck’s version on his Blow By Blow album. The guitarist plays the melody with deep bends and sharp twists, and it feels more aching, embodies more turmoil than the original. It’s a great ensemble performance, too, more than just a showcase for the guitarist (although it is a showcase for the guitarist). Beck dedicated the song to another guitar star, Roy Buchanan, and you can hear Roy’s influence on the sound. But if Beck was infatuated by another artist in this period it was absolutely Stevie Wonder. Blow by Blow includes another Wonder composition, “Thelonius” (with Wonder himself on clavinet). And when the band toured Blow By Blow, they often played “Superstition” right before “Cause We’ve Ended as Lovers.” – Tom McDonald
14. Boyz II Men – Ribbon in the Sky
In 2007, Boyz II Men released an album of Motown covers, taking on songs by the likes of the Temptations, the Four Tops, Marvin Gaye and the Commodores. Naturally, they covered Stevie too, delivering renditions of “I Was Made to Love Her” and “Ribbon in the Sky.” For the latter, they reworked the track into an a cappella tune. Snapping their fingers to their air-tight, multi-part harmonies, it was an ideal showcase for the power of their voices. – Curtis Zimmermann
13. Amanda Hyrns – Superstition
Hyrns brings an A-level spookiness to this song whose original sounds more “I ain’t afraid of no ghost” than particularly worried about breaking the looking glass. The song starts out with whispered vocals interspersed with the wail of a faint siren, or maybe it’s just the wind, accompanied by an eerie music-box-style piano. Then an electric guitar kicks in, first announcing its presence only with one prolonged strum, a subtle creak of a floorboard, and then with the persistent footsteps of syncopated rhythms. The whole sound of the reimagined song is dark and mysterious, restrained but leaving the listener waiting for something to jump out and spook them. – Sara Stoudt
12. George Michael – They Won’t Go When I Go
George Michael was a true, unabashed soul boy who regularly paid homage to his idols, with Stevie being a particular fave. Over the course of his career, he covered no less than six Wonder songs, the most striking of which was his 1990 take of the classically infused “They Won’t Go When I Go.” It is a stunningly somber, skeletally-arranged affair, both regal and eerie, and features a typically magnificent Michael vocal. Extra points for that absolutely righteous power-wailing on the bridge. Legend. – Hope Silverman
11. Texas – Living for the City
It is sometimes hard to remember Texas started off as a guitar band, all bluesy riffing and raunchy vocals, ahead of resdiscovering and rewriting the Motown songbook with their own Caledonian slant. This live recording stems from that first iteration and reminds me why I so took to the band at the time. Stevie has never sounded so white, and Lord knows what he thought of it. I often wonder what would have happened if they continued in this vein, although I doubt history would grant them as big a footnote. (And did you spot Sharleen Spiteri’s burst of “Gimme Shelter” towards the end?) – Seuras Og
Excellent list! I got some new ones here to buy.
I would add Art Garfunkel’s version of “I Believe When I Fall In Love” too – it’s lush, over the top, and awesome.
The Brand New Heavies 2006 cover of “I Don’t Know Why (I Love You)” should be on this list!
How could you miss O’bryan’s version of You and I?