Stevie Wonder is back. After frittering away much of the '80s on enjoyable but inconsequential valentines and mood pieces, Wonder is once again creating music that matters. His new album, "Characters" (Motown, MOTC6248), is his best since 1980's "Hotter Than July" and ranks with the four or five best of his career.

Not coincidentally, "Characters" is also Wonder's most danceable record since 1980, crackling with the powerful precision of the new MIDI technology and the inspired flourishes learned from the old Motown house band. Just as these combustible rhythms focus the attention of the listener, they seem to have focused Wonder's attention as well. When he's working with a strong dance track, Wonder's melodies snap into sharper relief and his lyrics come down to earth. There's no antidote for mushy sentimentality quite like the dance floor.

Though a few of the songs deal with apartheid, drugs and public hypocrisy, most are love songs. On topical and romantic numbers alike, though, Wonder's long-lost wit and toughness have returned. No longer does he imply that dreamy good vibes will make everything okay -- and his perennial optimism is all the more convincing now that he acknowledges the obstacles.

The first single, "Skeletons," sounds like a slower, funkier version of Wonder's 1972 hit "Superstition," with a similar series of accusations. Few singers sound more intimidating than Wonder when he starts pointing fingers. Here he goes after hypocrites who try to keep their sins and lies locked up in closets, and although he never mentions politicians, it's clear that the recent political environment inspired this song. It opens with a blistering attack of Wonder's shouts and a firecracker drum program, but then turns surprisingly humorous on the extended tag, as Wonder mocks his targets by dreaming up all the ways they're going to get found out.

The next single should be "Dark 'N' Lovely," an ostensible protest against apartheid that becomes a joyful celebration of the South African people. Gary Byrd's lyrics about mbaqana dancers facing police raids leap to one of the most complex and compelling rhythm tracks Wonder has ever assembled. A sharply syncopated bass figure, a tom-tom roll, a seething synth riff and high percussion accents all pursue separate paths that miraculously cross whenever the bass drum kicks in. These dizzying rhythms fuel one of Wonder's best-ever vocals, full of heartfelt admiration for South Africa's persevering majority.

The biggest surprise is "In Your Corner," an old-fashioned soul song about a midnight party where there are "fine women, lots of liquor and stuff for your mind." It's a welcome break to hear the often sanctimonious singer revel in such pleasures. The beat recalls Rockin' Sidney's Louisiana zydeco, but the contagious melodic hook is classic '60s Motown. The party atmosphere is established by a blustery sax solo, answering R&B vocals and Wonder's own bad-boy attitude.

"Get It" is a high-octane duet with Michael Jackson that comes a lot closer to Jackson's "Beat It" than anything on his "Bad" album. "Galaxy Paradise" offers another welcome dose of humor by asking a too-good-to-be-true lover, "What flying saucer did you come here on?" "Crying Through the Night" is one of those epic Wonder productions like "Isn't She Lovely" or "As." It builds atop an infectious melodic/rhythmic theme until the call-and-response vocals, horns, layered keyboards and extra percussion have created a towering wall of sound. The album's best love ballad is "With Each Beat of My Heart," which uses whispers and a sampled heartbeat to create an eerie late-night atmosphere for Wonder's intimacies.

The LP version of "Characters" contains 10 songs, but the cassette and CD contain 12. It would have made more sense if the LP had included "Come Let Me Make Your Love Come Down" (with its B.B. King guitar solo) instead of the wimpy "You Will Know," the collection's only real clinker.

Earth, Wind & Fire: 'Touch the World'

Like Wonder, Earth, Wind & Fire was one of the most consistently satisfying pop music acts of the '70s. And like Wonder, lead singers Maurice White and Philip Bailey got sidetracked by mushy sentimentality and vacuous spirituality in the '80s. Now Earth, Wind & Fire is attempting a similar comeback with its own dance-oriented album, "Touch the World" (Columbia, FC 40596), the band's first in four years.

Only the band doesn't exist anymore. Gone is the spectacular EWF horn section; gone is the old rhythm section, one of the finest funk units of the '70s. In their place are a bunch of hired guns who mostly work with synthesizers and drum machines. So this isn't really an Earth, Wind & Fire album -- it's a White-Bailey duo album.

Bailey is a dazzling high tenor/falsetto singer, White is an ingenious producer, and the duo draws on the best talents of the West Coast pop-soul scene. The album bursts with good melodies well sung and solid dance grooves well played, and it's certainly more enjoyable than any of the solo albums released by White and Bailey. It falls far short of the great EWF albums, though, because it lacks any real passion or identity.

Seventeen songwriters and six producers worked on the album's 10 songs, which betray a committee's sensibility. The best two are encounters with other notable groups of the '70s. Oliver Wells' title song is a modern, funky hymn that swells with the Hawkins Family's trademark gospel vocals. Members of the Emotions, the Chicago gospel-turned-soul female trio, contribute vocals and writing to "Thinking of You," a midtempo love song that boasts the album's catchiest melodic-rhythmic hook.

"System of Survival" tries to provide some social commentary (complete with audio clips from the Iran/contra hearings), but the only memorable thing about the song is its irresistible rhythm arrangements. The lyrics throughout the album are uniformly forgettable, though the highly polished production values compensate somewhat with industrial-strength dance beats and lush, seamless harmonies. The most serious miscalculation occurs on the instrumental "New Horizons": White edits in some brief snatches of the biggest EWF hits from the '70s and thus invites damaging comparisons with the rest of this record.