The 10 Greatest Aretha Franklin Songs: Critic's Picks
Aretha Franklin, who died Thursday (Aug. 16) at the age of 76, has long been known as The Queen of Soul. But with 17 top ten hits on the Billboard Hot 100 and 20 that have gone No. 1 on the R&B charts -- as well as 18 Grammys, and 75 million albums sold -- she could have easily just been the Queen of Music.
Aretha’s discography is unbelievably vast; a singles chart fixture from the 1960s through the 1990s, running the gamut from easy listening to stomping soul, dance pop and contemporary R&B. But her hits read like the soundtrack to 40 years of the radio. And it’s not just limited to those highly-celebrated days at Atlantic in the late 1960s and '70s: there are the underrated gems from her Columbia days, like “Soulville” and “Rock-A-Bye”.
Her '80s comeback era on Arista with Clive Davis also warrants more retrospective attention; where she collaborated with hitmakers like Luther Vandross and Narada Michael Walden on sparkly MTV era smashes like “Jump to It” and “Freeway of Love.” But it’s hard to work around the brilliance of classic-era Aretha, when that voice, that piano and those songs combined to define the times and set a standard for what we call “soul.”
It’s almost impossible to pick just ten, but here are ten Essential Tracks from Aretha Franklin’s classic era:
10: “Do Right Woman, Do Right Man” (I Never Loved a Man the Way I Love You, 1967)
It’s such a quiet record. Franklin’s organ opens things and hums throughout, and she also played the distinctive gospel-inflected piano lines. The song began life at the legendary FAME Studios in Muscle Shoals, but Aretha finished it in New York City after an argument with FAME’s Rick Hall.
9: “Rock Steady” (Young, Gifted and Black, 1971)
“Let’s call this song exactly what it is.” A smash hit penned by Franklin, “Rock Steady” was all guts and groove, with an opener that was as funky as anything Sly Stone had done by that point and pointed towards what disco would be. And Donny Hathaway is on electric piano, with the Memphis Horns also guesting.
8: “Day Dreaming” (Young, Gifted and Black, 1972)
Aretha as a songwriter is the most underappreciated facet of her artistry. From her acclaimed Young Gifted and Black album, this elegant classic was long rumored to be penned by Aretha about her then-beau Dennis Edwards of the Temptations. “I liked him a lot,” Franklin told Oprah Winfrey in 1999. “I did write that with him in mind.”
7: “Until You Come Back To Me (That’s What I’m Gonna Do)” (Let Me in Your Life, 1973)
The gorgeous ballad was written by Stevie Wonder, Clarence Paul and Morris Broadnax in the mid-1960s when Paul and Broadnax mentored the then-teenaged Stevie. Aretha’s take on their unreleased song hit No. 3 on the Hot 100 in early 1974.
6: “Chain of Fools” (Lady Soul, 1967)
Just a classic song -- originally written by Don Covay for Otis Redding. That twangy guitar keeps the sound greasy, as those sassy “hoo-hoos” and handclaps from the Sweet Inspirations make for one of music’s greatest breakdowns. But Aretha gives one of her best vocal performances over the Swampers' sweaty groove.
5: “(Sweet Sweet Baby) Since You’ve Been Gone” (Lady Soul, 1968)
It’s soul music perfected. Written by Aretha and then-husband Ted White, the swinging rhythm of the Swampers and Aretha’s surging piano sends things to a rapturous crescendo on the bridge. And of course, those backing vocals from Irma and Carolyn Franklin (along with the Sweet Inspirations) give it all pure gospel spirit.
4: “Call Me” (This Girl's in Love With You, 1970)
One of her first big hits as a new decade dawned, Aretha wrote this gorgeously wistful ballad after watching a couple as they said goodbye in New York City’s Central Park. It’s gorgeously rendered -- with Aretha’s piano playing at its most sublime.
3. “Respect” (I Never Loved a Man the Way I Love You, 1967)
It doesn’t get much more anthemic than this. It’s the song known by anyone who knows the name “Aretha Franklin,” and it’s one of the most famous recordings of all time. Written and originally recorded by Otis Redding, it became Aretha’s forever once she flipped into a woman’s rallying cry and added those “sock-it-to-me"s and spelled out “R-E-S-P-E-C-T.”
2: “Baby I Love You” (Aretha Arrives, 1967)
That “Ain’t no doubt about it” gives you chills. It’s gutbucket Muscle Shoals, the Swampers at their finest, with her sisters Carolyn and Erma giving those distinctive backing vocals. It’s quintessential '60s soul.
1: “I Never Loved A Man (The Way I Love You)” (I Never Loved a Man the Way I Love You, 1967)
The song that announced that the Queen had arrived. It was her debut single for Atlantic and it shot all the way to top ten on the Hot 100. The gospel sway of the opening is iconic. Her vocals are amazingly emotive -- vulnerable and powerful. It’s a powerhouse performance that only Aretha could deliver.