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Best Aretha Franklin Songs: 20 Tracks From The Queen Of Soul’s Reign
Tom Hanley
List & Guides

Best Aretha Franklin Songs: 20 Tracks From The Queen Of Soul’s Reign

From soaring cries for freedom to clear-eyed dissections of troubled romance, the best Aretha Franklin songs continue to define soul music.

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Selecting the 20 best Aretha Franklin songs is no easy task. Many highlights inevitably miss out, and there isn’t enough room to cover her later years, which contain fan favourites and chart successes alike. But it’s what Franklin managed in just a 12-year space, between 1961 and 1973, that forms the crux of this list, showing just what a talent she was. Whether its ballads, gospel, R&B or down and dirty soul, Aretha takes on each song like she’d been singing it since before it was written – claiming the Queen Of Soul crown in the process.

Listen to the best of Aretha Franklin here, and check out our 20 best Aretha Franklin songs, below.

20: Are You Sure (1960)

Released when Franklin was just 18, her debut album, Aretha With The Ray Bryant Combo, may not show off her full capabilities as a vocalist but it does show how she could manage a wealth of genres, including standards (Rock-A-Bye Your Baby With A Dixie Melody) and R&B (Won’t Be Long). However, it’s Are You Sure, a number from the 1960 musical The Unsinkable Molly Brown, that best represents the formative singer’s talents. Completely reworked from the Broadway version, it sits somewhere between a gospel number (“Are you sure your prayers haven’t been answered?/… Don’t you dare/Say the good lord/Didn’t stop to hear you”) and a jazzy little dancer, with tenor sax and tambourine, and the most brilliant percussive intro. The earliest recording in our list of the best Aretha Franklin songs, it demonstrates the kind of confident characters Aretha could embody – as she would on later songs such as Think or Respect.

19: Angel (1973)

Don’t be put off by Hey Now Hey (The Other Side Of The Sky)’s sketchy (in both senses of the word) artwork; the 1973 album contains a few gems, including Angel. Written by Aretha’s younger sister, Carolyn Franklin, the jazzy cut features a spoken-word intro that perfectly sets up Aretha’s swooping vocals. Featuring both her sisters, Carolyn and Erma Franklin, on backing vocals, both the song and album were produced by Aretha and Quincy Jones. The production is perhaps a little stifling, but Aretha cuts through the layers like a knife through hot butter.

18: The Dark End Of The Street (1970)

Who knew a song about infidelity could be so beautiful? Originally recorded by James Carr in 1967, Franklin covered The Dark End Of The Street for her brilliant 16th studio album, This Girl’s In Love With You. While Carr’s original is a lovely, pure soul recording, Aretha’s version adds an additional two minutes to the song, which lets her really bring depth and drama to the story of two lovers “hiding in shadows where we don’t belong” and then parting as strangers. The phenomenal Sweet Inspirations and Dee Dee Warwick are on backing vocal duties; Cissy Houston (mother of Whitney), in particular, elevates this among the best Aretha Franklin songs, with her crystal-clear soprano voice. Slide guitar comes courtesy of The Allman Brothers’ Duane Allman.

17: Spanish Harlem (1971)

Aretha takes on another cover version here, Ben E King’s Spanish Harlem Originally released in 1961, King’s version was a sweet rumba tune, but Aretha electrifies it, adding a rubbery bassline and piano courtesy of The Night Tripper himself, Dr John. Issued as a single in 1971, Franklin’s recording went to the top of the soul charts and hit No.2 on the Billboard pop chart. Aretha also changes the lyrics from “A red rose up in Spanish Harlem” to “There’s a rose in Black in Spanish Harlem”, altering it to reflect her own focus on civil rights, and the socio-political direction 70s soul music was taking.

16: The House That Jack Built (1968)

“This is a house that Jack built, y’all!”, Aretha cries as the song kicks off, injecting a bit of Southern soul right from the start. It’s a brilliant little groover with decidedly poignant lyrics: “I got the house/I got the car/I got the rack/But I ain’t got Jack” she sings of a house that is empty of love. Aretha’s own personal life was in turmoil at the time of recording, but that doesn’t stop her soaring. As she sings: what’s the use in crying?

15: Oh Me Oh My (I’m A Fool For You Baby) (1972)

The opening track from 1972’s brilliant Young, Gifted And Black album feels like a template for much of the smooth R&B that would arrive in the 80s and 90s. It’s all soft strings and piano, but Aretha, as ever, brings such vocal dexterity that she raises it higher than anyone else could. The song was originally released by Lulu, for her 1970 record, New Routes, recorded in Muscle Shoals with Tom Dowd, Arif Mardin and Jerry Wexler, who then reworked it with Aretha, removing the pop sheen and upping the romance.

14: Lean On Me (1971)

The B-side to Spanish Harlem, this song digs deep for a truly uplifting ballad. Aretha does what she does best, taking it to the church with the cry, “Lean on me/I ain’t gonna let you fall,” while Cissy Houston again brings a soprano that further propels the song skyward. Lean On Me was also released on the 2007 compilation Rare & Unreleased Recordings From The Golden Reign Of The Queen Of Soul.

13: Spirit In The Dark (1970)

The title track of her 19th studio album found Aretha marrying gospel, the music that started her singing career, with gloriously heady soul. Franklin comes on like a preacher – “Are you getting the spirit? Are you getting it in the dark?” – while The Sweet Inspirations yell back in the affirmative. The song also lifts lyrics from Little Sally Walker, an R&B stormer by Rufus Thomas which fuses religion and rock’n’roll to incredible effect.

12: You’re All I Need To Get By (1971)

Made famous by Tammi Terrell and Marvin Gaye for Motown, Aretha claims this duet all for herself – to tremendous effect. Who else could have enough confidence in their singing abilities to do that? Written by Ashford & Simpson, this soulful number is almost gospel in its sound and allows Aretha to flex those musical muscles, shifting between quick vocal runs and heavenly cries at a second’s notice. Amazingly, it was only issued as a single (most singers with such a stormer on their hands would have included it in an album), but in 1971 Aretha was on fire, recording one excellent song after another.

11: (You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman (1968)

The lead single from Lady Soul, this Carole King-penned number sees Aretha singing a mellow, loving tribute to romantic relationships that bring the best out of you. Those unfamiliar with her 2015 tribute performance to Carole King at the Kennedy Honors Center should watch it immediately. It shows that once Aretha inhabits a song, she does so for life.

10: I Say A Little Prayer (1968)

Speaking of making a song her own… it was a bit daring to take on this Bacharach & David number just ten months after Dionne Warwick had put out her original. The story goes that Aretha and The Sweet Inspirations sang it as a studio warm-up, before realising they had something worthy of recording. Aretha’s version is different enough: arranged in a different key, Clayton Ivey adds some stunning piano work that sets it apart and, dare we say it, improves the song. While its breakneck pace is something Burt Bacharach struggled to make peace with, Aretha sounds so engrossed in love that it works perfectly. One of the best Aretha Franklin songs of the 60s, this would be her biggest UK hit (it reached No.4), excluding her duet with George Michael, I Knew You Were Waiting (For Me) which went to No.1 in 1987.

9: Rock Steady (1972)

If you want an Aretha number to dance to, you could do much worse than Rock Steady, from Young, Gifted And Black. Franklin wrote it herself, and the song truly has the “funky and low-down feeling” she sings of. Donny Hathaway came up with the sensational organ line that kicks off the track, while the inclusion of a güiro is a subtle but brilliant addition to the percussion. This time backing vocals are brought by The Sweethearts Of Soul: Brenda Bryant, Margaret Branch and Pat Smith. There’s a distinctive reggae influence here – which you can also glean from the title – that really certifies this as a groover.

8: Hands Off (1966)

When Aretha wants to go off, she can go off. This killer soul number starts off with her belting out “Girl!” before snarling, “You better keep your hands off/He don’t belong to you.” While this single may have slipped under some radars, for soul fans and club dancers it more than earns its place among the best Aretha franklin songs. It’s rare to hear Aretha tearing up a woman, rather than disapproving of a man, but here she bares those teeth and gets ready to fight. And those lyrics! “Keep your potato peelers off him” is a line to put anyone in their place.

7: The Weight (1969)

Aretha brings lashings of Southern funk to one The Band’s most famous songs, originally released on their 1968 album, Music From Big Pink. The Queen Of Soul gives it some real guts, perfectly matched by horns and slinking guitar. The Staple Singers also recorded a gorgeous rendition that’s more straight soul, but if you want grit and grooves, this is an absolute triumph.

6: Young, Gifted And Black (1972)

It’s a brave soul who takes on a Nina Simone song, but if we’ve learned anything about Aretha Franklin it’s that she can turn her voice to whatever she pleases. The addition of a beautiful intro section gives the song a distinct gospel feel that sets it apart from Nina Simone’s version; when Billy Preston introduces the organ, signifying the song is changing direction, it’s a gorgeous sound. Aretha gives the tune song a full-bodied makeover, turning it into a rallying cry that calls on people to recognise black excellence.

5: Think (1968)

On first listen, it would be simple to assume Think is simply aimed at a man who is tormenting his partner, with Aretha demanding he takes a look at himself. But, recorded in the wake of Martin Luther King, Jr’s death (Aretha had performed Precious Lord at his funeral, and was in the studio working on this a mere six days later), the cries of “Freedom!”, which she and The Sweet Inspirations sing repeatedly until they are bellowing the word, sound far more like an anthem hollered in the face of racial inequality – and also, possibly, the Vietnam War – calling on those in power to reassess their decisions. It’s an incredibly powerful whirlwind of a song that, with its calls of “Let your mind go, let yourself be free” continues to speak to us all.

4: Respect (1967)

Can we be so bold as to say no one does assertion quite like Aretha? Sure, Respect was Otis Redding’s song first, but it’s more often remembered as one of the best Aretha Franklin songs. Another sensational civil-rights number, it’s sung from a female point of view and sounds like a feminist call to action. Aretha had been performing it before she signed to Atlantic, and – fun fact – The Sweet Inspirations’ call of “Re-re-re-re-respect” is a nod to Ms Franklin, who they nicknamed “Ree”, adding a brilliant personal layer to the recording. And who doesn’t love that “R-E-S-P-E-C-T” hook?

3: I Never Loved A Man (The Way I Love You) (1967)

Recorded for her 1967 album of the same name, Aretha brings all the tumult of her personal life to this one, as she endured an abusive relationship with her then husband and manager, Ted White. The pair would separate in 1968, a year after the I Never Loved A Man The Way I Love You album was issued. You could choose nearly all of it for this list of the best Aretha Franklin songs, but the title track is special for a number of reasons. For one, it was the first song that Aretha recorded at Muscle Shoals, during sessions which – thanks to Ted White – were cut short after a fight broke out (the rest of the record was cut in in New York). Secondly, it was no easy number. In 6/8 time, I Never Loved A Man… set Muscle Shoals’ house band, The Swampers, to work trying to decide how they could bring it to life. Spooner Oldham cracked it with the electric piano opening, which in turn set session musician Roger Hawkins off on the drums, while Aretha began to sing. To think they had all just met is madness, given the ease with which they all gel. Finally, the song kick-started a new direction for Aretha. It was her first R&B No.1 and the beginning of a brilliant future.

2: Chain Of Fools (1967)

This is a phenomenal song, not least for its sheer audacity in sticking to one groove and keeping it going for the whole duration – but what a groove! The biggest single from Aretha’s iconic Lady Soul album, Chain Of Fools is bolstered by backing vocals and glorious “shoop-shoop”s by The Sweet Inspirations and 60s songwriter extraordinaire Ellie Greenwich. But it’s the fury she brings to being tricked on Chain Of Fools that is sensational: “Sooner or later, your chain is gonna break.” Written by Don Covay, the man behind a number of excellent soul songs, such as Long Tall Shorty and See Saw – which Aretha also covered, on her Aretha Now album – this was originally intended for the great Otis Redding, but we can’t say we’re not thrilled that Jerry Wexler nabbed it for The Queen Of Soul.

1: Ain’t No Way (1968)

The Lady Soul album closes with Ain’t No Way – one of Aretha’s most beautiful songs, penned by someone who does not get the credit they deserve: her younger sister, Carolyn Franklin. Carolyn wrote no shortage of contenders for a place among the best Aretha Franklin songs, including Baby, Baby, Baby, Save Me, Ain’t Nobody (Gonna Turn Me Around) and Pullin’. This deeply romantic, heartfelt number comes on almost like a slow ballad, with jazzy piano and languid saxophone. Cissy Houston provides the utterly magical soprano throughout – her voice as clear and pure as a bell, and a reminder that she also deserved to be a much bigger star in her own right. Here Aretha sings from the bottom of her shoes: these are words that twist and roll their way out into the air and onto record. Cissy’s perfect high note might ring out like an easy soar to freedom, but Aretha’s rumble, deep and tired and imploring – “And if you need me like you say you do/Then baby don’t you know that I need you” – remains the song’s defining moment. The slowest, sultriest thing on Lady Soul, Ain’t No Way is easily one of the most beautiful songs in a catalogue full of incredible gems, and a perfect finisher to a brilliant album.

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