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Aretha Franklin’s 20 greatest songs


Aretha Franklin was dubbed the ‘Queen of Soul’ for good reason—she earned the moniker the hard way and shed her struggles as hymns that the rest of us could bask in. And boy oh boy did we bask; the Detroit native sold over 75 million records worldwide throughout her 62-year career. Those records importantly not only brought the pinnacle of soul music into homes the world over but also ushered in an important message of equality and progression. 

She seemed unwaveringly destined to do this from the get-go. Soon after she turned 18, she revealed to her father that she wanted to bridge the gap from Gospel to follow in the footsteps of Sam Cooke and make pop music. It didn’t take long before she signed to Columbia Records and in 1960 a star was born in earnest—one who proved so glowing that she was even buried in a golden coffin.

Capturing the essence of the vocalist at her funeral, Rev. Al Sharpton remembered: “Aretha never took orders from nobody but God. She stood for something, she never shamed us, she never disgraced us… she represented the best in our community, and she fought for our community until the end.”

This was typified by her unerring performance of ‘Respect’. Soul and necessary sentiments soared alongside each other. As she recalled in her autobiography: “It (reflected) the need of a nation, the need of the average man and woman in the street, the businessman, the mother, the fireman, the teacher—everyone wanted respect.” She characterised the song as “one of the battle cries of the civil rights movement,” she said, before adding: “The song took on monumental significance.”

This air of amazing grace is something that shone throughout her back catalogue that she continued to perform right up until her death in 2018. Thus, below we have waded through the crock of gold she transfigured into existence below to bring you 20 of the most gleaming nuggets on display. Please enjoy the 20 greatest songs from the ‘Queen of Soul’ herself, Aretha Franklin. And it’s all wrapped up in a playlist to boot.

Aretha Franklin’s 20 greatest songs:

20. ‘Angel’

The beautiful ballad ‘Angel’ was originally released on Franklin’s 1973 album Hey Now Hey (The Other Side of the Sky). She co-wrote the stirring song alongside her sister Carolyn and Sonny Sanders. 

The lyrics tell of an exchange between Aretha and Carolyn. Carolyn asks Aretha to come by so they can have a deep chat. When they meet, Carolyn explains that she feels lonely without a partner, “My heart is without a home / I don’t want to be alone / I gotta find me an angel / In my life, in my life”. In response, Aretha shows her sisterly support toad the end of the song, “You’ll meet him, now don’t you worry”.

19. ‘Do Right Woman, Do Right Man’

The single released just before ‘Respect’ in February 1967 was the lesser-known feminist anthem ‘Do Right Woman, Do Right Man’. The song was written by Chips Moman and Dan Penn and is a gospel-infused demand for men to respect their female partners. Along the same lines as ‘Respect’, if the man treats his partner respectfully and not as “a plaything”, she won’t be tempted to leave him.

Despite the single perhaps having been overshadowed by the success of ‘Respect’ with its release just a couple of months later, the track has clearly had a lasting impact. The influential ballad has since been covered by esteemed artists including Cher, Joan Baez, Etta James, Willie Nelson, Joe Cocker and Whitney Houston.

18. ‘Day Dreaming’

In 1972, Franklin released her eighteenth studio album Young, Gifted and Black. The album contains a well-balanced collection of soul covers and original songs. One of the better Franklin originals on the record was the single ‘Day Dreaming’. The lively and seductive track reached number five on the Billboard Hot 100 chart in the US.

Franklin wrote the song about her love affair with her then-boyfriend Dennis Edwards from The Temptations. It had often been assumed, but in 1999, Franklin confirmed the song’s subject in an interview with Oprah: “I liked him a lot. I did write (‘Day Dreaming’) with him in mind.”

17. ‘A Rose is Still a Rose’

When the bouncy production of the 1990s came around it knocked many stately recording artists for six and their works felt oddly dated in the new gaudy era. However, Franklin proved as timeless as ever. In fact, she proved it could’ve been 2090 and Franklin would’ve still been as fresh as ever. 

This neo-soul anthem was even seminal for her youthful contemporaries. With the help of Lauryn Hill, the song was one of the most cutting edge of the era. Franklin’s muscular tones and vocal agility ward off any degree of monotony in what is otherwise a relatively repetitive beat. 

16. ‘Sisters Are Doing It For Themselves’

Franklin’s team up with the Eurythmics in 1985 welcomed the ‘Queen of Soul’ back into the charts despite the fact that the Motown sound now seemed to be a thing of the past. Capturing the liberated spirit of Franklin’s early 1970s output, albeit in a slightly glossy sense, the anthem bristled with fierce femineity.

The song also proved that there is simply no sound that Franklin’s voice could get lost in. It’s hard to sound quite as powerful as she did on tracks like ‘Sisters Are Doing It For Themselves’ when she was competing with drum machines pounding on a scale measurable by the horsepower.

15. ‘Call Me’

As the only original song on This Girl’s in Love With You, Franklin lets her individualism pour through. Her piano playing tells the story of her musical revolution to this point mingling jazz, soul and gospel stylings with butter cutting ease and her voice is as natural as ever. In fact, everything about it comes with butter cutting ease. 

On top of the rather humble melody is Arif Mardin’s orchestral score that lifts the piece with a level of drama. It might only be a simple song about a spurned love interest but it secretly reveals a welter of revolution and evolution behind it. 

14. ‘Think’

Franklin wrote ‘Think’ with her then-husband Ted White and recorded the track for her 1968 album Aretha Now. The single reached number 7 on the Billboard Hot 100 as it became her seventh top ten hit. 

The lyrics appear to tell the story of a relationship gone sour as the subject expresses clear concerns over manipulation from their partner. “I ain’t no psychiatrist, I ain’t no doctor with degrees / But, it don’t take too much high IQ’s / To see what you’re doing to me”. Many remember the song from the classic 1980 film The Blues Brothers where Franklin features singing ‘Think’ in a cafe.

13. ‘Spirit in the Dark’

Franklin’s 1970 song ‘Spirit in the Dark’ was released as the second single from the album of the same name. The track was written entirely by Franklin and came as a candid marriage between soul and gospel. 

The simple yet powerful lyrics are uplifting and capture the essence of what they preach, the spirit of music. I have always interpreted the song to serve as an encouraging hand to the chin of the listener. Even though you may be in the dark, you can find the spirit of music and “move with the spirit” into the light.

12. ‘Mr DJ (5 for the DJ)’

Franklin appeared to hit a creative block in the mid-1970s with the release of her 1975 album You. The album was a significant drop in overall standard following the previous year’s LP Let Me In Your Life. The diamond in the rough of You, though, came in the form of ‘Mr. DJ (5 for the D.J.)’

The jaunty lead single came as the opening track on the album and was the album’s only single to chart reaching number 53 on the Billboard Hot 100. The album takes a turn toward the disco-influenced side of soul and while it certainly isn’t among Franklin’s finest artworks, it’s one of the best dancefloor accompaniments.

11. ‘So Damn Happy’

The title track to her 2003 album is a glorious throwback to her earlier records. Rather than strive for a new snatch of commercial gain with guest appearances and synth overtures, the album remained gloriously stylish and ‘So Damn Happy’ is the scintillating testimony of that. 

The song is simply bliss—pure exuberant bliss. With the crown sat firmly on her luscious locks, Franklin served up a musical walk in the park that seemed nostalgic without ever entering the dreaded territory of self-congratulatory reminiscence. Soul is the most timeless of genres and the Queen proved that with aplomb here. 

10. ‘Rock Steady’

“Let’s call this song exactly what it is,” Franklin rattles in a meta declaration. “It’s a funky low-down feeling,” she continues in what can only be described as the Ronseal of funk-soul songs. In fact, the lyrics have done my job for me. 

The only left for me to do is eulogise the anthemic power of the track. The song aims to get you moving and like dropping a hot pan, your body responds unconsciously. There is so much naturalistic bravura in these early ‘70s classics that it is easy to see why it is still considered the pinnacle of recorded music by many. 

9. ‘Until You Come Back to Me (That’s What I’m Gonna Do)’

Stevie Wonder wrote and recorded ‘Until You Come Back to Me (That’s What I’m Gonna Do)’ in 1967 but didn’t officially release his version of the track until his 1976 greatest hits collection, Anthology. Franklin released her version of the song after Wonder played it to her in 1973. Her version tweaks the narrative to portray a desperate love song in which she begs her partner to come back to her. 

Franklin’s version was popular upon its release in November 1973 and had reached the top spot on the R&B chart by 1974. With the song’s peak at number three on the US singles chart, Franklin became the first artist in the history of the Billboard Hot 100 chart to have a hit song peak at each position from one to ten on the chart.

8. ‘Maybe I’m a Fool’

Franklin was a fresh face new to the scene when she teamed up with The Ray Bryant Trio but she quickly assailed above the classic band and asserted herself as the head-turning front and centre. Listening back you almost imagine the pounding thuds emanating from Columbia Records offices as jaws slumped to the floor and it became clear a future queen was pulling up trees with her vocal takes. 

The beauty in this particular early effort is how the music and instrumentation bumbles along quite happily like a melodious summer stroll, while Franklin thunders in with a pure juggernaut of sound that threatened to end the space race earlier and land rattling half-notes on the moon. 

7. ‘Young, Gifted and Black’

This candidly titled classic was originally penned and recorded by Nina Simone, titled ‘To Be Young, Gifted and Black’. Franklin, as she did with so many other covers, made the song her own with her distinctive style that added vibrance to the song while retaining the power behind its message.

Franklin’s version of ‘Young, Gifted and Black’ was released on her 1972 album of the same name. Simone originally wrote the song with Weldon Irvine in memoriam of her late friend Lorraine Hansberry, author of the play A Raisin in the Sun, who had died in 1965 aged 34. Over the years, the song garnered attention as a key anthem of the Civil Rights Movement.

6. ‘The Weight’

Franklin released her cover of The Band’s 1968 folk-rock classic ‘The Weight’ in 1969. The cover came as a nod of respect to the blooming contemporary rock movement. In her career, Franklin performed a number of soul covers of rock classics including Elton John’s ‘Border Song’ and Simon and Garfunkel’s ‘Bridge Over Troubled Water’, but none hit the spot quite so well as ‘The Weight’.

The lyrics tell the story of a man who visits Nazareth, Pennsylvania. Upon meeting his friend Fanny who unloads her burden (“the weight”) onto him. The load that the subject shoulders appears metaphorical, symbolising the weight we carry when doing a good deed for someone.

5. ‘A Natural Woman’

At the height of the counterculture movement, Aretha Franklin and Carole King represented two hugely pivotal forces. Franklin was a trailblazing presence amid the civil rights scene and King’s transition from a studio hitmaker to a very natural presence under the spotlight itself earmarked her as a feminist force, not to mention anthemic tunes like ‘(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman’. 

“Being the Queen is not all about singing,” the late soul icon, Franklin, once proclaimed, “It has much to do with your service to people… your social contributions to your community and your civic contributions as well. Music does a lot of things for a lot of people. It can take you right back, it’s uplifting, it’s encouraging, it’s strengthening.” Franklin fully realised this with this track (and the look on King’s face in the performance below says it all).

4. ‘Spanish Harlem’

When people ask, what is Phil Spector’s wall of sound? ‘Spanish Harlem’ is the anthemic track he wrote with Jerry Leiber that offers up a decent answer. Franklin’s version in 1971 is a blitz of unadulterated attitude and sonic sensibility that defined an era. Each instrument seems to introduce itself as the gathering storm gets ready for the queen to take to the red carpet. 

With Dr John on keyboards and Chuck Rainey on bass, the level of instrumentation on this track is almost laughably good and not necessarily in the scientific sense either, but because of how readily it offers up a groove. Franklin is happy to ride along that wave and shatters glasses with sultry style as she volleys home a vocal take of muscular brilliance. 

3. ‘You Send Me’

With ‘You Send Me’, Franklin offers up the epitome of her brand of soul. She suffered great hardships throughout her life and in her songs, she truly seems to shrug them off, turning trauma and vulnerability into a cathartic explosion of bliss and liberated bravura. ‘You Send Me’ might not be one of her most renowned or societally essential efforts, but soul struggles to get any sweeter. 

Originally written by the man who got her into soul, Sam Cooke, the melody feels like the triumphant side of love. Franklin uses that platform to launch a sonic smile, the sort that has bluebirds suddenly appearing and so on and so on. It is soul at its perfect coffee-sipping sanguine morning best.

2. ‘Respect’

Franklin’s vibrant and soulful rendition of Otis Redding’s ‘Respect’, released in 1967 remains her most instantly recognisable hit. The classic track became her first US number one hit and became a feminist anthem throughout the 1970s and beyond. 

Franklin adapted the lyrics to include the “R-E-S-P-E-C-T” hook and the “Sock it to me” refrain. Her adaption and delivery changed the song’s meaning from a man demanding subservience from his wife to a steadfast demand for equality which could be applied to women’s rights or black empowerment. Redding once conceded with grace, “The girl has taken that song from me. From now on, it belongs to her.”

1. ‘I Say a Little Prayer’

Some songs tell stories, others are odes, but contained within ‘I Say a Little Prayer’ is a perfect vignette as full of glowing realism as an expressionist painting. Perhaps this is why it has soundtracked countless scenes and filled rooms for eternity as people follow in Franklin’s footsteps and get ready as their thoughts float elsewhere. 

As Franklin once said, “Sam Cooke said something about hit records: If people can sing along with you, it probably will be a hit record.” People not only sing this classic, but they get on the same page as it in an instant. It bottles up something undefined but nevertheless fully realised and it remains a timeless joy of honeyed belle till this day.