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Best Aretha Franklin Albums: 10 Must-Hear “Queen Of Soul” Classics
Philippe Gras / Alamy Stock Photo
List & Guides

Best Aretha Franklin Albums: 10 Must-Hear “Queen Of Soul” Classics

The best Aretha Franklin albums prove that the “Queen Of Soul” had a profound understanding of the pain and the joy found in true soul music.

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Though Aretha Franklin is lauded for her barnstorming singles – the first released in 1956, when she was just 14 – she was fierce in her full-length releases, too. The best Aretha Franklin albums incorporate Black pride, heart-wrenching emotion and pop bliss, all delivered in that voice.

But however many genres the versatile Franklin travelled through, it is soul music that she will always be the monarch of. “I take this business of soul music seriously,” Franklin wrote in 1999, in her memoir, From These Roots. “A song, like a person, must have a soul.” Crowned with her “Queen Of Soul” title in 1968, Franklin had a profound understanding of the deep pain and transcendent joy found in the best soul songs. She may be singing pure gospel she may be purring carnalities over a funk groove, she may be decrying North America’s racial injustices: yet it is always soul that ties the best Aretha Franklin albums together.

“Be your own artist, and always be confident in what you’re doing,” Franklin once said. “If you’re not going to be confident, you might as well not be doing it.”

Listen to the best of Aretha Franklin here, and check out the best Aretha Franklin albums, below.

10: ‘Who’s Zoomin’ Who?’ (1985)

“The title was mine,” Aretha Franklin said of Who’s Zoomin’ Who?, explaining that to “zoom” someone was to con them or try to pull the wool over their eyes. “At the time I was dating a gentleman who was actually convinced he was zooming me… The truth was that boyfriend wasn’t zooming anyone, and certainly not me. So the question became, who’s zoomin’ who?” The album returned Franklin to enormous international fame, with the singles Freeway Of Love, the title track and the duet with Eurythmics, Sisters Are Doin’ It For Themselves, becoming the biggest smashes she’d had in over a decade and cementing her place among the best female singers of all time. Franklin’s vocal performance on Who’s Zoomin’ Who? is absolutely dynamic, proving that the best Aretha Franklin albums could be built on 80s synths as much as they could her own strident piano.

Must hear: Freeway Of Love

9: ‘Aretha Arrives’ (1967)

The phenomenal success of the I Never Loved A Man The Way I Love You album meant radio, fans and Franklin’s then label, Atlantic Records, wanted more – and quickly – from an artist who had established herself seemingly overnight as one of the best 60s female singers. Even though it was issued a mere five months after her breakthrough record, Aretha Arrives was still, unbelievably, a delayed release; Franklin had shattered her elbow on tour, putting recording back and forcing her to play piano one-handed. Comprised mainly of cover versions, the album finds Franklin reinterpreting rock, delivering brilliant takes on The Rolling Stones’ (I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction and ? And The Mysterians’ garage classic 96 Tears. Aretha Arrives may have been recorded in an attempt to maintain momentum, but it still stands proudly as a showcase for the extraordinary breadth of Franklin’s talent.

Must hear: 96 Tears 

8: ‘Soul ’69’ (1969)

Even though it’s got the word “soul” right there in the title, Soul ’69 is in essence an eclectic jazz album, with splashes of blues, folk and even country in the mix. Franklin felt it to be one of her strongest musical statements, showcasing her flexibility and wide musical knowledge. Always an exceptional interpreter of others’ songs, as well as a formidable writer herself, Franklin here delivers two of her most underrated cover versions: her takes on Smokey Robinson’s The Tracks Of My Tears and a song made famous by Glen Campbell, Gentle On My Mind.

Must hear: Gentle On My Mind

7: ‘Sparkle’ (1976)

Franklin called Sparkle one of her favourite albums; it was the soundtrack to the movie of the same name, which starred Irene Cara and charted the rise and fall of a fictional girl group. Produced by Curtis Mayfield, whom Franklin called “the Black Bach”, Sparkle was nearly derailed as Mayfield asked both Aretha and her sister Carolyn to work on the songs, without each other’s knowledge. It took the Franklin sisters’ father to sort out the mess, and it was Aretha who went ahead with the project. Even though Sparkle was released in the year of disco’s ascendance (and it looks like a very disco album from the cover), it is instead gorgeous, laidback R&B. Cementing its place among the best Aretha Franklin albums, Sparkle was a profound influence on the 90s girl-group sound, En Vogue even covering two of its tracks on their enormous 1992 album, Funky Divas.

Must hear: Something He Can Feel

6: ‘Spirit In The Dark’ (1970)

Made when Aretha Franklin was leaving one relationship and beginning another, she put the swirl of feelings in her head into the songs on 1970’s Spirit In The Dark, which, as one of the best Atlantic Records soul albums, saw both singer and label confidently entering a new decade. On this record, Franklin explores her own history of love. It evolves from Try Matty’s, which looks back at teenage years of burgeoning sexuality, all the way to the very adult and deeply sensual title track (which, as she said when asked about it at the time, was “very, very personal and I don’t want to get into it”). Heightening the sense that this is an exploration of womanhood and female experience of relationships, Spirit In The Dark makes glorious and extensive use of other female voices, including renowned girl group The Sweet Inspirations.

Must hear: Spirit In The Dark

5: ‘Lady Soul’ (1968)

One of the best Aretha Franklin songs of all time, Chain Of Fools opens the Lady Soul album and contains many layers of meaning. It can be heard as a straightforward relationship tussle, the singer refusing to be walked over anymore; yet with its conscious use of “breaking the chains” imagery, it can also be read as a comment on the necessity of Black pride, to refuse subjugation and prejudice from white society. It was even taken up by African Americans fighting in Vietnam, in reference to the military chain of command. Lady Soul, too, contains other songs Franklin would forever be associated with, including (You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman and the self-penned Since You’ve Been Gone (Sweet Sweet Baby). It’s a pioneering entry among the best Aretha Franklin albums, made by a singer who could channel a variety of emotions in just one note, and it shows one of the best female soul singers in history at the absolute peak of her powers.

Must hear: Chain Of Fools

4: ‘Young, Gifted And Black’ (1972)

Aretha Franklin considered the Young, Gifted And Black album to be her “most personal – and most romantic” work. She has described feeling incredibly happy when making the record, in love with her new partner, Ken “Wolf” Cunningham, and being in “a period of strong and steady growth, both as a woman and a musician”. One of the best Aretha Franklin albums of the 70s, Young, Gifted And Black wears its pride in every musical stitch, and includes several of Franklin’s greatest achievements as a songwriter as well as a singer. Rock Steady, All The King’s Horses, Day Dreaming and First Snow In Kokomo (which was adapted from a poem she had written) are Franklin-penned, and all classics. And it contains arguably the greatest Beatles cover of all time: Franklin’s take on The Long And Winding Road.

Must hear: Rock Steady

3: ‘Aretha Now’ (1968)

Made when the US, and Aretha personally, was reeling from the assassination of Dr Martin Luther King, Jr, Aretha Now is a layered record. While many songs are calls-to-action, perfect for the revolutionary year of 1968, Franklin is also searching for personal meaning in this troubled world. The opener, Think, and the subtle Vietnam protest song I Say A Little Prayer fuse romantic relationships with cries for wider political freedom. Franklin has never feared interpreting others’ signature songs, and her cover of Sam Cooke’s You Send Me is beautiful: a gentle tribute to the man who shaped so much of the soul genre that Franklin was crowned queen of. If all that wasn’t enough, Aretha Now also contains A Change: a funk monster several years ahead of its time.

Must hear: A Change

2: ‘Amazing Grace’ (1972)

Aretha Franklin released a good few live albums throughout her career, including Aretha In Paris (1968) and Live At Fillmore West (1971), the document of her very successful show to a psychedelic rock audience. Yet none of them can touch Amazing Grace, her transcendent gospel album recorded live in the New Temple Baptist Church in Los Angeles. Franklin channels her enormous vocal control into mediation on the spirit, seeking truth and wisdom through the gospel while also drawing musical influence from the experimental, lengthy soul suites that were at their creative peak during the 70s. Amazing Grace is also the first album on which Franklin received a co-producer’s credit, something that – given her technical input into most of her previous records on Atlantic – was something she felt had been long overdue.

Must hear: Amazing Grace

1: ‘I Never Loved A Man The Way I Love You’ (1967)

“Soul was the key,” Aretha Franklin has said about the songs on this record, which not only tops our list of the best Aretha Franklin albums, but also ranks among the best soul albums of all time. “There was no compromising, no deliberate decision to go pop.”

I Never Loved A Man The Way I Love You was Franklin’s tenth album but, as her debut release for Atlantic Records, it felt like it was the first time she had really expressed herself on vinyl. Her previous tenure at Columbia had seen the future “Queen Of Soul” squished into a “respectable” box: classy and sophisticated, yet without the raw passion, political fire or musical expressiveness that was to mark her releases for Atlantic. That all began here.

There are no flaws on this record: there is, of course, the astounding title track, I Never Loved A Man (The Way I Love You), and Franklin’s radical take on Respect, two of her most famous songs, but there’s also the depth of Save Me, the hope of A Change Is Gonna Come and the mighty Dr Feelgood. The whole album is an expression of the profound humanity and deep wells of emotion that make Franklin one of the best-loved and most influential musicians of all time, with I Never Loved A Man The Way I Love You standing as her greatest achievement.

Must hear: I Never Loved A Man (The Way I Love You)

Find out where Aretha Franklin ranks among the best soul singers of all time.

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