Even after Aretha's dramatic comeback in 1985, some questions lingered about how long it would last. Was Who's Zoomin' Who? truly redemptive or merely a fluke? Could Aretha assume enduring relevance for a generation of listeners not yet born when "Respect" came out? The answers come in two new releases: Aretha, which finds her still comfortable in contemporary settings, and 30 Greatest Hits, which cut for cut stands with the best of the Beatles and Rolling Stones as rock's most vital music — for all generations.
30 Greatest Hits chronicles Aretha's potent years at Atlantic Records, 1967-74, when both she and the record-buying public seemed divinely inspired. During an era when there were still million-selling singles, Aretha had fourteen of them (only the Beatles had more). In Franklin's first two years with Atlantic, producer Jerry Wexler applied her gospel leanings to the finest secular rhythm & blues material, and soon Aretha was the Queen of Soul, the first woman to make unadulterated black music part of the American mainstream. If the Stones danced with the devil, then Aretha battled him head-on with such legendary statements as "Think" and "Chain of Fools," while at least one track, "Ain't No Way," was so hauntingly lovely that it might have marched her right through the gates of heaven.
Some critics have suggested that Aretha's career has been in decline since 1968, when her records began to grow more sophisticated and she came to rely more on covers. But no singer alive had more right than Aretha to humble such mighty icons as "The Weight" and "Bridge over Troubled Water."
In the early Seventies Franklin transformed herself from matronly queen to svelte siren, turning to her own pen for the sizzle of "Rock Steady" and the allure of "Day Dreaming." But her crowning achievement came in 1974 with "Until You Come Back to Me," her final gold single for Atlantic and perhaps the most exquisite song Stevie Wonder ever had a hand in writing. Wrap all this up in a stunning package, with lucid liner notes from Canadian journalist Larry Leblanc, and you've got an album as essential to any collection as Born to Run — but with three times the music.
It would take Aretha eleven years to plow her way back to the pop Top Ten, with the hit singles from Zoomin'; though Aretha has the same main producer, Narada Michael Walden, this time around Franklin isn't trying to prove or reclaim anything. Instead she just relaxes, so that this year's Motown tribute, "Jimmy Lee," tames the Isley Brothers, where 1985's "Freeway of Love" revved up the Marvelettes. A duet with George Michael, "I Knew You Were Waiting (for Me)," might have turned into a shouting match, but instead it's a vocal caress, with a drum program gently rolling the voices along. The big disappointment is the Keith Richards-produced version of "Jumpin' Jack Flash." On paper it's a dream match, but with Richards's laborious new arrangement, he might as well have changed the lyric to "Jumpin' Jack Flash/Needs some gas."
None of Aretha is as timeless as 30 Greatest Hits, but at the very least it's timely, and that's a situation even Paul McCartney has had trouble negotiating lately. While both albums will reaffirm the faith of longtime fans, younger listeners can use Aretha as a springboard into 30 Greatest Hits. Then they'll realize why it's been such a privilege to have her around all these years.