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Best Soul Albums Of All Time: 20 Immortal Classics You Need To Hear
List & Guides

Best Soul Albums Of All Time: 20 Immortal Classics You Need To Hear

From creative detours to political outrage and straight-up floor-fillers, the best soul albums answer the eternal question: What is soul?


Nobody quite knows where soul music started or where its borders lie. But it’s been touching hearts, minds and feet for decades. Looking to define the best soul albums of all time, we’ve settled on 20 fabulous, highly varied records any soul fan should own.

Listen to our Soul playlist here, and check out our best soul albums, below.

20: Leroy Hutson: ‘Hutson’ (1975)

The third album from Leroy Hutson was not a hit. But those who know it, adore it. Hutson was a college roommate of Donny Hathaway, and was soon so well regarded on the early 70s Chicago scene that he replaced Curtis Mayfield in The Impressions. His production work for Voices Of East Harlem, Linda Clifford and Natural Four was acclaimed but did not make anybody rich. Best of all is his solo material: it’s elegant, melodic, full of heartfelt songs, wonderful vocals and an effortlessly kicking bottom end for dancefloor utility. Hutson’s opening cut, All Because Of You, the delicious groove of Lucky Fellow, the shimmering It’s Different, the silken So Much Love – this record is bliss. The instrumental Cool Out is the definition of mellow fusion, built for summer evenings. A generation of discerning British youth grew up trying to find this album after dancing to its treasures at rare-groove nights. They have good taste. Turn off your stress, turn up the volume and soak up Hutson.

Must hear: Lucky Fellow

19: Sam & Dave: ‘Hold On, I’m Comin’’ (1966)

While Sam & Dave’s second album, Double Dynamite, offered the perfect description of their style, the duo’s debut, Hold On, I’m Comin’, was better – good enough, in fact, to earn a spot among the best soul albums of all time. Sam Moore and Dave Prater’s greatest records were made on Stax, a label which perfectly understood their powerful yet sensitive approach, and captured it just as perfectly. If you think the hit title track is a soul cliché, you’ve forgotten how good it is. Elsewhere, I Take What I Want drives like an express train and I Got Everything I Need is a stunning ballad, uniting soul power and tenderness. By the time you’ve reached the closing songs, the celebratory You Don’t Know What I Know and the achingly apologetic Blame Me (Don’t Blame My Heart), you know you’ve been souled. Other singers may have been more lauded, and more fortunate, but Hold On, I’m Comin’ presents a soul act of the first water. Sam & Dave are comin’ at ya from first to last.

Must hear: You Don’t Know Like I Know

18: Eugene McDaniels: ‘Headless Heroes Of The Apocalypse’ (1971)

Soul singers took many routes in the 70s, but none took as wide a diversion as Gene McDaniels, who became a mainstream star in the first half of the 60s thanks to the sentimental hit Hundred Pounds Of Clay. But McDaniels grew disillusioned with being a pop artist. He went travelling, contemplating what life in the US meant after the assassination of Dr Martin Luther King, Jr, and wrote new songs that confronted the chaos of modern life, racism and other evils. Signed to Atlantic, he cut two albums that were radically different from his – and, indeed, anyone’s – earlier work. The second was the funky, jazzy, contemporary soul-styled Headless Heroes Of The Apocalypse, in which he promises us a vengeful God, has a stab at Mick Jagger, explores conspiracy theories and expresses horror at what the Pilgrim Fathers brought to North America. Yes, Headless Heroes Of The Apocalypse makes What’s Going On sound like a Christmas carol. McDaniels was not done with success (he wrote Roberta Flack’s 1974 No.1, Feel Like Makin’ Love), but this is a wild album from a singer who shifted from mainstream to extreme.

Must hear: Freedom Death Dance

17: Joe Tex: ‘Live And Lively’ (1968)

Joe Tex was one of the few singers who could credibly challenge James Brown in the 60s. His stage show was dynamite, full of banter, killer dance moves and microphone play, holding audiences rapt. So it’s weird that Live And Lively is as close as we could get to a proper Joe Tex live album: the singer with his band plus overdubbed crowd noise. It’s certainly lively, though. There’s Skinny Legs And All, one of Joe’s street ditties, featuring him chatting to a singer he influenced, Bobby Womack. A version of Do Right Woman, Do Right Man is touching, and Tex adds grit to Lou Rawls’ Love Is A Hurtin’ Thing. His calling card, Show Me, is also here, but the tour de force is the confessional Papa Was Too, with a break that launched numerous hip-hop samples. He made more tender albums, but Live And Lively is the nearest its gets to the authentic Joe Tex experience.

Must hear: Papa Was Too

16: Jill Scott: ‘The Light Of The Sun’ (2011)

“What is soul?” is a question that has echoed down the decades ever since Ben E King asked it in 1966. We don’t know the definitive answer, but Jill Scott has it by the truckload. The singer-actress-poet-philanthropist has been thrilling ears since the start of this century, and her fourth album has everything soul music should be. Mellow, sensuous, teasing, honest, heartfelt and subtle, full of grooves and memorable tunes, The Light Of The Sun is an utterly contemporary classic among the best soul albums, yet it marked Scott’s move towards “natural” instruments. As a result, horn blasts ice your spine, strings carry you skyward, and you almost believe Dorothy Ashby is reincarnated when her harp is sampled sympathetically on the opening song, Blessed. Try the delicious flowing duet with Anthony Hamilton, So In Love, or the nine minutes of heaven that are Le BOOM Vent Suite. Wear shades: The Light Of The Sun is dazzling.

Must hear: So In Love

15: Archie Bell & The Drells: ‘There’s Gonna Be A Showdown’ (1969)

Mainstream music fans may recall Archie Bell’s early disco smash Soul City Walk, but the singer enjoyed a decade of fame. He knows how to sell a song and, given great material – as he was on There’s Gonna Be A Showdown (released as Here I Go Again in the UK), he delivers. Thanks to short, punchy tunes mostly penned by future Philadelphia soul legends Kenny Gamble, Leon Huff and Thom Bell (no relation), the album is packed with believable scenarios which cast Archie as an ordinary guy who refuses to be beat. The tempo is mostly as upbeat as Archie’s attitude, and on tunes such as Green Power (way ahead of its time), My Balloon’s Going Up and the delightfully stop-start opener, I Love My Baby, he’s the embodiment of ebullience. There’s a challenge thrown down in There’s Gonna Be A Showdown (covered by proto-punk outfit New York Dolls, though here it plants its flag among the best soul songs[]), and the Northern soul beat of Here I Go Again remains alluring. Ask not for whom Archie Bell souls: he souls for thee.

Must hear: There’s Gonna Be A Showdown

14: Allen Toussaint: ‘Life, Love & Faith’ (1972)

Better known as producer-songwriter for Labelle, Lee Dorsey and more, then as an elder statesman of New Orleans music championed by Elvis Costello and Paul McCartney, in the early 70s it looked like Allen Toussaint might find stardom: singer-songwriters were in fashion and Toussaint was as good as any. His third album, Life, Love & Faith, is packed with soulful joys. Supported by The Meters, Toussaint delivers magically wise and thoughtful tunes, and lavishes them with the care he gave to the records he produced for others. There are gems aplenty: the subtly funky Fingers And Toes; the dangerous streets of Victims Of The Darkness; Soul Sister, the 70s anthem the 70s didn’t notice; and She Once Belonged To Me, which unfurls with unexpected drama. Each song has its own atmosphere and message, yet the album hangs together perfectly. Soul with a brain and a heart, Life, Love & Faith sits among the best soul albums of the era and deserves the star status its creator never found.

Must hear: Soul Sister

13: Stevie Wonder: ‘Where I’m Coming From’ (1971)

1971 was a watershed year for many Motown artists, including Stevie Wonder. He’d fulfilled Motown’s dream of making music to please middle America, thanks to the likes of My Cherie Amour, but had more interesting ambitions. Where I’m Coming From presents nine missives from his mind, co-composed with Syreeta Wright. A lot of the elements of his later 70s albums are here, and the great man, then just 20, grabs your attention from the arresting psychedelic harpsichord that opens Look Around. The beautiful If You Really Love Me, with its almost Tijuana brass and halting structure, finds Stevie freer than ever, turning jazzy chords into pure soul. Do Yourself A Favor is a premature Superstition, followed by the truly tender Think Of Me As Your Soldier. Its vibe is matched by Never Dreamed You’d Leave In Summer and the song of faith Something Out Of The Blue. The only misstep is the overcooked sunshine of Take Up A Course In Happiness. He made more acclaimed 70s albums, but you know them. Do yourself a favour: try this Wonder.

Must hear: Do Yourself A Favor

12: “Prince” Phillip Mitchell: ‘Make It Good’ (1978)

A top tunesmith and occasional recording artist, “Prince” Phillip Mitchell had been writing hits for years (Millie Jackson’s Hurt So Good, Humble Pie’s Oh La De Da) before he cut an album of his own. It arrived on Atlantic, confirming what serious soul fans knew: this guy could sing. Make It Good was superb. It kicked off with the Mitchell-penned Ben E King hit, Star In The Ghetto, but this version is all the more authentic and ironic on Mitchell’s lips, his papa telling him: “You couldn’t carry a tune in a bucket.” Yeah, he’s witty, too. There’s a sultry slow jam, You’re All I Got In The World; One In The World is lush funky disco with a great bassline, yet Mitchell’s vulnerable tones stop it getting too slick; and the jealousy song You’ll Throw Bricks At Him has a Soul II Soul groove 12 years early. Mitchell is a man fighting the odds throughout. It’s an appealing approach: even a voice as good as this bears doubts. One of the best soul albums you’ve never heard, this magnificent work somehow remains comparatively obscure. It’s time that changed. Mitchell really did make it good, even if he didn’t make it big.

Must hear: You’ll Throw Bricks At Him

11: Curtis Mayfield: ‘Roots’ (1971)

Picking one Curtis Mayfield album from his glittering catalogue is not easy – most of them jostle for space among the best soul albums of all time – but for a satisfying listen from first to last, full of the thoughtful songs, incendiary funk and the tenderness only Mayfield can deliver, Roots cannot be licked. Created in his Chicago heartland, Mayfield’s second solo studio album is glorious. There’s the floor-filling Get Down, with skanky fuzz bass and a vibe between a chain-gang chant and a party. Keep On Keeping On is a song of encouragement to file alongside Keep On Pushing. Underground finds Curtis telling us the environment is wrecked and wondering how this will play out in a brutally unequal society. We’ve Got To Have Peace provides intimate advice as well as being anthemic. Beautiful Brother Of Mine is a panorama of strings, brass and congas, celebrating Black resilience and unity. The album ends with two love songs: all of Curtis is here. Doubtless months in preparation, Roots sounds like it was laid in one day. Mayfield never sounded better, and these messages remain pertinent missives from one of the key architects of 70s Black music.

Must hear: Underground

10: Wilson Pickett: ‘The Exciting Wilson Pickett’ (1966)

Calling Wilson Pickett “The Exciting” is like calling Usain Bolt “a guy who does parkrun”. Yet despite a title that took a nanosecond to think up, his third album is gobsmackingly brilliant. There’s a slew of hits which would make the album wicked even if the rest of it was Pickett reading a Starbucks menu. And no matter that Atlantic opted to boost it by adding the title hit of his last album, In The Midnight Hour: it’s another great track among many, such as his explosive, relentless version of Chris Kenner’s Land Of 1,000 Dances, the chunky stomp of 634-5789 and the brooding Ninety-Nine And A Half (Won’t Do), which surely influenced Deep Purple’s Smoke On The Water. There’s also a chicken-peckin’ makeover of Kenner’s Something You Got; a casually classy take of You’re So Fine, a tune by The Falcons, his former group; Danger Zone, a cautionary tale he wrote with Stax’s house guitarist Steve Cropper; and She’s So Good To Me, one of 17 Bobby Womack songs Pickett sang. The sole ballad, It’s All Over, reminds us he wasn’t all bust-down-your-door passion. The Exciting Wilson Pickett represents the best of mid-60s Southern soul – exciting with a capital X.

Must hear: Ninety-Nine And A Half (Won’t Do)

9: Al Green: ‘Al Green Gets Next To You’ (1971)

Al Green is an album artist, not someone who cobbled together an album after a hit single, and Al Green Gets Next To You is a powerful, moving, atmospheric record which catches the brilliant vocalist just before Al-mania got a grip. There are five singles here: You Say It, a repetitive funky thang; Right Now Right Now, with wah-wah guitar; a chunky, bluesy version of The Temptations’ I Can’t Get Next To You; and Driving Wheel, which settles into a slippery Memphis groove. The fifth single, Tired Of Being Alone, blew it all open for Al, establishing the yearning style most fans associate with him. But Gets Next To You holds more magic, including Green’s beautiful interpretation of Johnnie Taylor’s God Is Standing By and Bert Berns’ Are You Lonely For Me Baby. The latter had previously been covered by earlier Memphis legends Otis Redding and Carla Thomas, on their King & Queen album, but Green was more than a match for that powerhouse duo. He even tries on The Doors’ Light My Fire and finds it fits. Al Green Gets Next To You presents a relaxed artist just before the pressure of fame began to weigh on him. It still sounds great, right now right now.

Must hear: God Is Standing By

8: Betty Wright: ‘I Love The Way You Love’ (1972)

They do it different down in Florida. The groove is loose and sunny, the vibe open and warm, and an easy-going attitude blows in from the Caribbean. But that doesn’t mean they will let you take them for a fool. Just ask Betty Wright, whose I Love The Way You Love is full of the homespun nous of a woman far older than her 19 years. The super-tender title track has Wright easing back her power to raise the romantic quotient, and All Your Kissin’ Sho’ Don’t Make No Lovin’ is bubbling-then-boiling funk. There’s another reality check in I’m Gettin’ Tired Baby, where Ann Peebles meets The Sweet Inspirations via Little Beaver, present as Wright’s musical arranger. When Wright takes on a common or garden cover tune, Bill Withers’ Ain’t No Sunshine, she pulls it into a shape that suits her. A triumph from first to last, I Love The Way You Love finds producers Clarence Reid and Willie Clarke giving the singer everything her talent demands. The precursor of the stuff Lady Wray delivers today, this album should beat in every soul lover’s heart.

Must hear: I’m Gettin’ Tired Baby

7: Solomon Burke: ‘Rock ’N Soul’ (1964)

Solomon Burke was crowned “The King Of Rock And Soul” on a Baltimore stage in 1964 by a radio DJ, hence this album’s title. He was in his prime in the first half of the 60s, but Burke remained a figure to watch deep into his own 60s – a man mountain with a Southerner’s singing voice and a North Easterner’s eye for a buck. A mortician, caterer, preacher and father of 21, Burke had the energy to cut numerous great records, including the magical Rock ’N Soul, which contains seven hit singles – more than enough to place it among the best soul albums of the 60s. He delivered ’em slow, slick, country and city, from the ballad Goodbye Baby (Baby Goodbye) – audaciously slow for an album opener – to the closing He’ll Have To Go, which plumbed a despair which Jim Reeves’ original version never hinted at. We also get the legendary Cry To Me, the disarmingly simple If You Need Me and Woody Guthrie’s Hard, Ain’t It Hard, with a mildly Latin dressing. A master of his art, Burke serves the ideal portions of restraint and emotion throughout. Numerous British R&B artists trawled the record for material, but the King ruled. This is his most regal proclamation.

Must hear: Cry To Me

6: Sam Dees: ‘The Show Must Go On’ (1975)

Sam who? The soul business doesn’t need to ask. An unsung hero among the world’s best soul singers, Sam Dees is also a legendary songwriter, with credits ranging from Jean Battle’s deep soul gem Unsatisfied Woman (1971) to Larry Graham’s US smash One In A Million You (1980), taking in material for Whitney Houston, Gladys Knight and KC And The Sunshine Band along the way. But while he’s never been a star, his first album, The Show Must Go On, reveals him to be a unique, soul-stirring, remarkable artist in his own right. It delivers heartbreak ballads (the title track), street angst (Troubled Child), bluesy grit (Claim Jumpin’), cool conscious strollers (What’s It Gonna Be) and reaches all the soul touchstones of its era without resorting to cliché or pandering to the fast-rising disco craze. Dees’ singing is committed without over-selling the material he crafted so well. True soul fans have spent decades fight for The Show Must Go On’s place among the best soul albums. They have been right to do so.

Must hear: What’s It Gonna Be

5: (Detroit) Spinners: ‘Spinners’ (1973)

It can be harder for a group to be remembered than a solo artist: it’s sometimes difficult hard to pin an image on four or five diverse characters. Hence it’s rarely remembered that Spinners (aka Detroit Spinners in the UK) were one of the 70s’ most popular soul acts. Having struggled to garner attention at Motown, they moved to Atlantic in 1973, armed with two brilliant lead singers in Bobbie Smith and Philippe Wynne, and were sent to Philadelphia to work with writer-producer Thom Bell. The result was this wonderful album, the first half of which commenced with the relaxed Just Can’t Get You Out Of My Mind, passed through a big band, sumptuous swing version of Wilson Pickett’s Don’t Let The Green Grass Fool You, and closed with the gloriously cool hit I’ll Be Around. The second half brought two more charting singles, the crisply delivered tale of poverty and bullying that is Ghetto Child and the highly composed Could It Be I’m Falling In Love. In between, Spinners display their mastery of Black soul harmony from first to last. Hear it. And do check out Mighty Love – the superb follow-up that also deserves a nod among the best soul albums.

Must hear: I’ll Be Around

4: Marvin Gaye: ‘What’s Going On’ (1971)

What’s Going On was Marvin Gaye’s bid for freedom – musical, emotional and political. A major chart act in the mid-60s, he was singing other people’s material despite his proven authorial skills. At the end of the decade he faced several reversals: his musical foil Tammi Terrell fought a losing battle with a brain tumour, collapsing into Marvin’s arms on stage; his marriage hit difficulties; and his beloved brother was drafted for the Vietnam War. Having retreated into drug use – Flyin’ High (In The Friendly Sky) – he pulled himself together to deliver the funkily advanced What’s Going On. Though it was populated with Motown folk (Four Tops’ Obie Benson co-wrote the title song, Save The Children and Wholy Holy), the attitude was more confrontational and the music looser and jazzier than the company’s regular fare. Motown had doubts, but Gaye’s Inner City Blues met the needs of his generation’s soul people. Since then, the album has risen in status to the point where it routinely stars in “best ever album” lists, soul or otherwise.

Must hear: Mercy Mercy Me (The Ecology)

3: James Brown: ‘Live At The Apollo’ (1963)

In the early 60s, James Brown was tearing up venues night after night, becoming the biggest star in Black America. But his record company, King, did not assemble albums worthy of his status, putting one or two hits on them and filling the rest with a heap of chaff. James Brown knew how good he was and asked King to release a live album. They refused: live albums were hardly a big deal in pop or soul in 1962. But Brown knew the format would put across what he could do like nothing else, and he agreed to finance it himself. King had nothing to lose. So on 24 October 1962, Brown, his vocal group, The Famous Flames, and his 12-strong orchestra played Harlem’s famed Apollo Theater while his audience went berserk. Recording engineer Tom Nola captured the pandemonium. The atmosphere is electric and utterly vital; it’s a miracle the record doesn’t sweat when you play it. Each song is greeted with screams, and Brown gives the crowd everything it needs. Exhausting, exhilarating, ecstatic, it’s the soul experience. Brown was proved right: the album spent more than a year in the Billboard pop charts and remains one of the best soul albums of all time. No record ever sounded move live; no singer was ever more alive.

Must hear: I’ll Go Crazy

2: Aretha Franklin: ‘I Never Loved A Man The Way I Love You’ (1967)

One of the best female soul singers[link to best female soul singers when live] in history, Aretha Franklin got it utterly right first time out… Well, more like tenth. However, I Never Loved A Man The Way I Love You was her first album for Atlantic, and the first that picked you up, threw around your heart and left you breathless with (lady) soul. Effectively a one-stop shop for the best Aretha Franklin songs, the premise was simple: strip away the lushness that marred her records thus far, send her to join the musicians shaking up soul in Muscle Shoals, Alabama, and ask her to sing. After all, she had it all in that golden larynx, you just had to let it shine. The result was magical, but not without problems: Atlantic moved her and the band to New York City to complete the record because of fights between the musicians and the singer’s then husband, Ted White. But the soul is here: I Never Loved A Man (The Way I Love You), Dr Feelgood, a version of King Curtis’ Soul Serenade, the heaven that is Do Right Woman, Do Right Man, and a soul classic somehow made even stronger in Otis Redding’s Respect. Not feeling it? You’ve got heart problems.

Must hear: Do Right Woman, Do Right Man

1: Otis Redding: ‘Otis Blue/Otis Redding Sings Soul’ (1965)

Otis Redding made other great albums, Sings Soul Ballads and Dictionary Of Soul among them, but Otis Blue/Otis Redding Sings Soul surpasses them all and tops our list of the best soul albums of all time. Housing many of the best Otis Redding songs in one place, it rocks, it souls. It makes you dance while it tears at your heart. It’s over half a century old, yet sounds like it was made yesterday. It starts with a snail-slow ballad, Ole Man Trouble: Redding is in torment, yet when he feels bad, you feel better – a characteristic of the album. In Respect, he couldn’t care less what his lover is doing while he’s not around, he just wants to be appreciated. We get three Sam Cooke songs: the uptempo rattler Shake, the chirpy Wonderful World (written by Cooke’s widow, Barbara) and a heartfelt Change Gonna Come, a cry for an inevitable – however eventual – justice. He transforms The Temptations’ hit My Girl and sings The Rolling Stones’ (I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction like it was a soul tune: when he did it, it was. The album closes with William Bell’s You Don’t Miss Your Water – an invitation to make you play it again. Within a couple of years, we’d be missing Otis, too. Thank God he left Otis Blue to remember him by.

Must hear: Change Gonna Come

His work has topped our list of the best soul albums of all time, now find out where Otis Redding ranks among our best soul singers.

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