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Best Soul Songs: 30 Transcendental Tracks That Define The Genre
List & Guides

Best Soul Songs: 30 Transcendental Tracks That Define The Genre

Moving the feet as well as the heart, the best soul songs continue to inspire respect for everyone from Otis Redding to Aretha Franklin.

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In 1967, in a classic song, Ben E King asked the question “What is soul?” “It’s deep within us,” he answered. “It doesn’t show.” As one of the pioneers of soul music, both as a solo artist and as part of The Drifters, King knew what he was talking about. He had been there at the beginning: as gospel, doo-wop and R&B tangled into the recognisable genre of soul. But, as the best soul songs make clear, this is not a musical genre that stands still.

For decades, soul music has kept us on the dancefloor with songs that could make us cry while shaking our stuff. It’s been the subject of movies, been sampled in hip-hop; it’s been incurably romantic and defiantly political. The best soul songs are but the tip of an emotional genre that can overtake lives and enrich every mood…

Listen to the best soul music here, and check out the best soul songs, below.

30: Jaibi: You Got Me (standalone single, 1967)

Obscure soul singer Jaibi (Joan Banks) recorded just a handful of songs, but her work, particularly You Got Me, has become emblematic of the subgenre known as “deep soul”. Coined by the soul music expert Dave Godin (who also gave Northern soul its name), the tag is reserved for soul of “almost indescribable beauty and poignancy”, as Godin put it. Among the best soul songs, You Got Me fits that description perfectly, this understated yet devastating track burrowing deeply into your heart.

29: Chaka Khan: Move Me No Mountain (from ‘Naughty’, 1980)

More known for funk behemoths than a sweet soulful touch, Chaka Kahn proved just how versatile she really was when she released Moved Me No Mountain, in 1980. From her second album, Naughty, the song creates a blueprint for 80s soul: groovy and smooth, with the independently minded lyrics stressing mutual respect. Singing background during the Naughty sessions was another 80s soul legend, one teenaged Whitney Houston, perhaps taking notes that would shape her own career as one of the best female soul singers of the era.

28: Wilson Pickett: In The Midnight Hour (from ‘In The Midnight Hour’, 1965)

A passionate delivery and charismatic stage presence were Wilson Pickett hallmarks, all over the album The Exciting Wilson Pickett and Pickett’s signature song, Mustang Sally. Pickett was part of the mid-60s Atlantic Records stable of artists that was so pivotal in the development of soul music, and In The Midnight Hour was both his biggest hit and greatest achievement.

Co-written by Pickett, In The Midnight Hour, finds Pickett’s gospel heritage made plain in the lyrics as well as in the song’s delivery. While the phrase “midnight hour” was sometimes heard in gospel songs, it was rarer in secular music, leading some listeners to assume the song was solely about sex. Pickett found this interpretation frustratingly narrow-minded. Asked what the “midnight hour” meant, Pickett replied, “All sorts of things. You have to get up and take the dog out. I mean anything can happen.”

27: The Staple Singers: If You’re Ready (Come Go With Me) (from ‘Be What You Are’, 1973)

Family group The Staple Singers produced many contenders for a place among the best soul songs, and their burst of creativity in the early 70s, when they were at Stax Records, was undoubtedly the peak of their exceptionally long career. Respect Yourself, I’ll Take You There, Touch A Hand, Make A Friend… all were powerful fusions of funk, soul and sanctified music, but 1973’s If You’re Ready (Come Go With Me) was the standout. A reggae-influenced mellow groove, a featherlight acoustic feel underpinned by a rock-solid bassline and, out front, Mavis Staple’s soul-stirring voice calling you to a better place. We’re ready to go…

26: Arthur Conley: Sweet Soul Music (from ‘Sweet Soul Music’, 1967)

Both Sam Cooke and Otis Redding spotted the talents of Arthur Conley, and Sweet Soul Music – soon to become the title track of the album of the same name – is equal parts the three of them. Cooke, even though he had passed away in 1964, is spiritually present, as his track Yeah Man is used as a basis for the song; Redding co-wrote, produced and played guitar; and Conley co-wrote and provided the blistering vocals. One of the best soul songs to celebrate the music as a genre, Sweet Soul Music namechecks its pioneers, and Redding was immensely proud of this record and his young protégé. “He’s dynamic and he’s a great showman,” Redding wrote in 1967. “That’s why he’s become so strong at the box office in such a short period of time.”

25: Betty Wright: Clean Up Woman (from ‘I Love The Way You Love’, 1972)

There are plenty of soul tunes where one woman speaks to another in an intimate, frank way: the careers of Millie Jackson and Shirley Brown were built on such songs. Here’s another, with Betty Wright, 17 at the time of recording, in 1971, sounding far more worldly wise than her age. Woman, that girl is gonna steal your man, you better wise up. In the background, a stew of brilliant Florida funk churns and bubbles, sliding straight out of the Everglades and into sunny city streets. Thanks for the heads up, Betty – and for this fabulous tune.

24: Doris Troy: Just One Look (from ‘Just One Look’, 1963)

The first big hit for the lady known as “Mama Soul” wasn’t even meant to be released. “You wanna know about Just One Look?” Troy said in 1974. “Well, baby, that was a demo!” She cut it with Atlantic Records, who didn’t plan to release it – until Troy went on a successful tour. “I called up Atlantic and told them I was going on tour with Chuck [Jackson], so put the record out in the places we were going,” she remembered. “Sure enough, they did and every town we hit, the record was beginning to break!” Troy is known as one of soul music’s most barrier-stretching performers, with a 1970 self-titled album on Apple Records that incorporates rock elements, and later 70s releases that experiment with reggae. But Just One Look will always be her greatest achievement, and a touchstone of the best soul songs of the early 60s.

23: Clyde McPhatter: A Lover’s Question (single A-side, 1958)

Who invented soul music? Ray Charles had a strong claim to kickstarting the genre, but “The Genius” was not the only pioneer. Clyde McPhatter was the original lead singer of The Drifters, and launched their hitmaking career in 1953. Two years later, he struck out as a solo artist, and the light-stepping A Lover’s Question became his biggest hit, making No.6 in the US chart in 1958. One of the best soul songs from the genre’s formative years, its approach may be very different from the Stax, Motown or Philly sounds, but the soul in McPhatter’s voice shines through. Clyde died in 1972, prompting some veteran soul fans to declare him the greatest singer of their lifetimes – even though his hitmaking run had petered out in 1965, just as soul music was hitting its peak popularity.

22: Barbara Lewis: Hello Stranger (from ‘Hello Stranger’, 1963)

Though 60s soul has a reputation for being either sock-it-to-’em dancefloor stuff or weeping ballads, there was a third way, and Barbara Lewis walks it perfectly on this 1963 story of a lover coming home to her arms. Cushioned by gently popping organ and a floating almost-bossa-nova rhythm, plus a touch of doo-wop harmonies, Lewis’ vocal is the epitome of warmth and longing: she is so glad to see her lover again. So elegant, but don’t be fooled into thinking it is trivial. The US watched its young men head to Vietnam throughout the 60s: who knew if they’d return?

21: Syl Johnson: Is It Because I’m Black (from ‘Is It Because I’m Black’, 1970)

As the 70s dawned, soul music was becoming longer, more conceptual, and definitely more political. Syl Johnson was a music industry veteran by 1970, having been a session musician, songwriter and artist during the late 50s and 60s; his early-career songs Come On Sock It To Me and Different Strokes had proved a gritty take on good-time soul. But it was with the murder of Dr Martin Luther King, Jr, that he was inspired to write what would be one of the best soul songs of the era. “I didn’t want to make a radical or militant statement, you know,” Johnson said in 2010, discussing Is It Because I’m Black. “So I just said, ‘Here’s the mirror.’”

20: Dusty Springfield: A Brand New Me (from ‘A Brand New Me’, 1970)

Though best known these days by the British artist Dusty Springfield, the first version of A Brand New Me was actually by Jerry Butler, co-composer with Philly soul backroom heroes Thom Bell and Kenny Gamble. Butler delivers its tale of redemption through love in a world-weary way; Dusty adds sparkle and glamour, as if this love has produced fireworks – or maybe sequins! There are many other versions, not least Tinga Stewart’s elegantly regretful reggae interpretation from 1972. All are good; that’s why this is one of the best soul songs of all time.

19: Ann Peebles: I’m Gonna Tear Your Playhouse Down (from ‘I Can’t Stand The Rain’, 1974)

Spanning the years 1969 to 1978, the Hi Records discography of Ann Peebles is seven albums of soul perfection. The fourth of those, 1974’s I Can’t Stand The Rain, contained Peebles’ biggest hit (the title track) and also her finest song, I’m Gonna Tear Your Playhouse Down. One of the best soul songs of the mid-70s, this record is cold lyrical revenge, but with Peebles’ tender warm vocals delivering it, the song becomes truly relatable. In 2021, Peebles confirmed that she remained extremely proud of her work and truly believed in every record she cut. “I love everything equally,” she said, “because every song has so much of yourself in it.”

18: Jenny Burton: Bad Habits (from ‘Jenny Burton’, 1985)

A 1985 electro-dance disco hit created by Fred McFarlane and Allen George, whose Somebody Else’s Guy, produced in a similar style for Jocelyn Brown, receives much more attention. This superb put-down of a toxic lover must have rocked the bad boy to his boots while it made us dance in our Manolos. A fine groove, impeccable singing, and a tune that gets the point all the way home while filling floors. The 80s had soul, too.

17: Roberta Flack: Killing Me Softly With His Song (from ‘Killing Me Softly’, 1973)

One of the most recognisable songs in the world, Killing Me Softly With His Song has had many lives, yet its finest incarnation rests with the graceful, profound soul of Roberta Flack. Although the song was not written by Flack, she completely transformed it using her heavyweight musical chops. “My classical background made it possible for me to try a number of things with [the song’s arrangement],” Flack said in 2005. “I changed parts of the chord structure and chose to end on a major chord. [The song] wasn’t written that way.” Flack’s version was an immediate and enormous success that seemed destined to sit among the best soul songs, but its soulful sound was merely one expression of Flack’s art. “I didn’t try to be a soul singer, a jazz singer, a blues singer – no category,” she said. “My music is my expression of what I feel and believe in a moment.”

16: The Drifters: On Broadway (from ‘Under The Boardwalk’, 1964)

Highly produced, glossy uptown soul from 1963 – the title even mentions a very swanky thoroughfare. But On Broadway is not the celebration of New York City’s showbiz street it first appears to be. The protagonist musing in the shadow cast by the theatre lights is actually on his uppers, having arrived in town with little more than dreams in his pocket and hopes in his empty belly. But he ain’t beat: he’s got his guitar and determination, and one day his name will be in lights. Brilliantly delivered by lead singer Rudy Lewis, and a big US hit.

15: Marvin Gaye: Inner City Blues (Make Me Wanna Holler) (from ‘What’s Going On’, 1971)

“The material is social commentary but there’s nothing extreme on it,” Marvin Gaye said at the time of his landmark album, What’s Going On. “I did it not only to help humanity but to help me as well, and I think it has. It’s given me a certain amount of peace.” It’s hard to overstate the importance of Gaye’s 1971 album – and Inner City Blues – in the development of 70s Black music. Written in collaboration with James Nyx, Jr, the song expressed Detroit’s daily reality, amplifying voices of the Black community who felt abandoned by a government that was ignoring them, criminalising them, or using them as cannon fodder in the Vietnam War. What’s Going On was the album that proved the best soul songs could be explicitly political without risking commercial or artistic success.

14: Sam Cooke: Chain Gang (standalone single, 1960)

Early soul music is commonly characterised as apolitical, but this track by Sam Cooke – the “King Of Soul” – belies that stereotype. By the late 50s the practice of chain-gangs was seen as inhuman and racist (the prisoners were disproportionately African American), but it still did not completely die out for another decade. Cooke had been struck by meeting a group of chain-gang prisoners while he was on tour, and his treatment of the prisoners in his song Chain Gang, accompanied by evocative rattles and clunks, is sympathetic to their plight. It returns the men’s humanity to them, respecting their hard work, as Cooke yearns alongside them for their day of freedom.

13: Aretha Franklin: (You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman (from ‘Lady Soul’, 1968)

The fifth hit of Aretha Franklin’s extraordinary 1967, the year this long-established recording artist set her soul free to find true greatness. Written by Carole King and Jerry Goffin from an idea by the record’s producer, Jerry Wexler, and built at American Sound studio in Memphis, (You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman stands as one of the best Aretha Franklin songs and finds the singer demonstrating her natural soul as well as declaring her naturally strong female state. It was also a highlight of her Lady Soul album, released the following year.

12: Archie Bell And The Drells: (There’s Gonna Be A) Showdown (from ‘There’s Gonna Be A Showdown’, 1969)

Curiously, New York Dolls’ cover of (There’s Gonna Be A) Showdown is now better known than the original by Archie Bell And The Drells. Who do you think is going to be a more authentic street dancer, Archie Lee Bell, who’d been entertaining the people in Houston from the age of ten, or those prancing street punks? Hilarious though the Dolls’ Stonesy makeover was, you can’t lick the original, as Archie declares his steppin’ superiority over his rivals while a glorious Philly groove gives him two minutes and 35 seconds’ worth of reasons to dance. Soul was built for steppin’, and this 1968 thriller is just one superior example among hundreds of songs that celebrate it.

11: The Dramatics: In The Rain (from ‘Whatcha See Is Whatcha Get’, 1971)

When Stax struck a deal with Don Davis’ Detroit-based Groovesville label, Davis brought several acts south to Memphis with him, the best of which was The Dramatics, who were produced by his ally Tony Hester. The group’s biggest hit was the million-selling In The Rain, an atmospheric ballad that was somehow simultaneously sad and uplifting. The song has steadily become appreciated as a classic, and has been much sampled. The second you hear the sound effects at the start, you know tears will fall…

10: Brook Benton: Rainy Night In Georgia (from ‘Brook Benton Today’, 1970)

Talking of rain… Some of the best soul songs conjure a particular feeling – maybe an entire lifetime. Tony Joe White’s Rainy Night In Georgia is one; you can almost hear the raindrops beating on the tin roof of the railway box car and smell it hitting the dust, while Brook Benton, that consummate purveyor of smoky storytelling ballads, explains how he feels about his life at that moment. His is the definitive rendition, though we are also partial to Randy Crawford’s delightfully lush yet poignant 1981 version.

9: Betty LaVette: Let Me Down Easy (standalone single, 1965)

Betty LaVette found the hairline crack where the blues met soul, and she sang the hell out of it. Let Me Down Easy is pure pain on vinyl – one of the best soul songs about that sinking feeling at the end of a relationship. “I press so hard when I get into a song,” LaVette said in 2023. “That’s the sound of my real voice.” LaVette continues to record today, and credits Let Me Down Easy as one of the reasons she has such a devoted audience, particularly in Britain. “They’ve kept me alive since Let Me Down Easy,” she has said. “Whenever I’m on stage [in Britain], I say: ‘Really, you guys literally kept me alive!’ They would not let that recording die – thereby not letting me die!”

8: Spinners: Ghetto Child (from ‘Spinners’, 1973)

The best soul songs have a remarkable ability to tackle difficult subjects in an appealingly confessional manner. Hence Ghetto Child, the story of growing up dirt poor in the city, told from the perspective of a young man coming to an understanding of the circumstances that created the pain he felt. Produced by Philadelphia magician Thom Bell and co-written by Linda Creed, it’s one of many gems from Spinners’ dazzling debut album for Atlantic. Real-life orphanage boy Philippe Wynne’s vocal is perfectly measured: you feel his pain without any sign of him overselling the poignant tale. But he’s not the only one handling the lead: credit is due, too, to Bobby Smith on the bridge, and Henry Fambrough, who sings the first two lines of the verses. The ghetto was everybody’s personal story.

7: The Royalettes: It’s Gonna Take A Miracle (single A-side, 1965)

The Royalettes, a four-piece Baltimore female vocal group, struck it lucky when their biggest hit came their way. It’s Gonna Take A Miracle was originally intended for another great soul act, Little Anthony And The Imperials, but that group was in dispute with their record label, so the song was passed to The Royalettes. A stately and emotional affair, it made No.41 in the US in 1965, and the hit triggered enough interest for the record label, MGM, to release two albums by the group. The song has seen several great covers, notably by Laura Nyro, Deniece Williams and Alton Ellis, but the original retains a special magic.

6: The Persuaders: Thin Line Between Love And Hate (from ‘Thin Line Between Love And Hate’, 1979)

A curiously touching story about domestic abuse. Soul music has never flinched from the subject, with songs such as Mable John’s Don’t Hit Me No More and Macy Gray’s Still spanning sad decades of relationship violence. The Persuaders’ original version of Thin Line Between Love And Hate, from 1972, is presented as a warning to men not to take their partners’ love for granted. The victim is a fella who has pushed his loved-one’s tolerance to the limit; when she finally flips, he is in hospital, having endured a brush with death. All this is delivered in a gentle, harmonious way, with Douglas “Smokey” Scott sounding like the epitome of the everyday guy, making the storyline all the more shocking. A slice of life from brutal 70s New York City.

5: Sam & Dave: When Something Is Wrong With My Baby (from ‘Double Dynamite’, 1966)

Originally tucked away on Sam & Dave’s 1966 album, Double Dynamite, When Something Is Wrong With My Baby was much more than album fodder, asserting itself among the best soul songs when it became a No.2 R&B hit in 1967. It reveals the sensitive side of the duo often portrayed as a hard-dancing good-time soul act. They were so much more than that: both Dave Prater and Sam Moore could have been solo singing stars in their own right, as this hymn to empathy, penned by Isaac Hayes and David Porter, makes clear. The perfect Stax ballad from one of the greatest – sadly underappreciated, these days – soul acts of all time.

4: The Impressions: People Get Ready (from ‘People Get Ready’, 1965)

Soul’s roots are in gospel music, and nobody melded the two more effectively than Curtis Mayfield, whose vocal group, The Impressions, effortlessly traversed borders between dance grooves, uptown love ballads and demands for freedom. Here, they’re in sanctified civil-rights mode, calling the listener to join the righteous train, and the song became an instant anthem on release in 1965. There were cover versions by Bob Dylan, Bob Marley and a famed remake by The Chambers Brothers, but the direct and unfussy original remains a deeply touching entry among the best soul songs.

3: Otis Redding: My Girl (from ‘Otis Blue: Otis Redding Sings Soul’, 1965)

Written by Smokey Robinson as a male riposte to My Guy, the hit he wrote for Mary Wells, My Girl was an apparently unimprovable track in 1965 for The Temptations, Motown’s impeccably talented vocal group. However, Otis Reddingdecided this elegantly soulful confection could do with a nugget of Southern grit, and delivered a deliciously earthy yet tender take of the song that same year for his Otis Blue: Otis Redding Sings Soul album. Not issued as a US single, it made No.11 in the UK chart. There have been numerous other versions from artists as diverse as Glen Campbell and Il Divo, but when it comes to soul, who could beat Otis?

2: The Supremes: You Keep Me Hangin’ On (from ‘The Supremes Sing Holland-Dozier-Holland’, 1967)

The Holland-Dozier-Holland songbook and The Supremes’ exceptional performance skills bring us this urgent, energetic slice of mid-60s soul. A US No.1, You Keep Me Hangin’ On has a slightly rocky feel in the morse-code guitars and doom-laden organ. Did this make it attractive to heavy-metal originators Vanilla Fudge, who turned it into a thunderous symphony the following year? Wilson Pickett’s superb 1970 version walked a line between the two, like gospel-rock, and there have been many other cuts – a sure sign of an irresistible song. Rocked out or not, You Keep Me Hangin’ On has soul by the truckload.

1: Aretha Franklin: Respect (from ‘I Never Loved A Man The Way I Love You’, 1967)

Otis Redding had a habit of bringing an extra dimension to other people’s hits, but Aretha Franklin did it to him with Respect. Redding scored with the song in 1965, and it appeared perfect in itself, the singer promising everything to his woman, who could pretty much get away with anything she wished so long as she respected him in his presence. Two years on, Franklin took Respect for her own when she recorded it for her I Never Loved A Man The Way I Love You album. Moving it beyond a domestic setting and making it a feminist and civil-rights anthem that tops our list of the best soul songs, she wasn’t asking for respect, she was demanding it. Totally thrilling.

Check out the best soul singers of all time.

Original article: 6 September 2021

Updated: 26 February 2024. Words: Jeanette Leech

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