Aretha Franklin, who died on August 16th at age 76, recorded more than 40 full-length albums in her six-decade career. It’s a deep catalog, crowded with indisputable classics and hidden gems. Rolling Stone’s music staff is paying its R.E.S.P.E.C.T.s to the Queen with tributes to our favorite Aretha LPs. Next up: Brittany Spanos on the Queen’s final album of all-new vocal performances.
The Queen of Soul didn’t just fade away in her final years. For the final proper album released in her lifetime, Aretha Franklin covered a mixture of her peers, her heroes and a new generation of singers who were naturally inspired by her. Proving to be a generous queen, she considered all of the above to be Great Diva Classics, the ultimate nod of respect and admiration from one of the greatest voices in the world.
Released in 2014, Franklin’s pop romp gained a lot of attention for her decision to cover Adele’s “Rolling in the Deep.” Promoted as the album’s lead single, it became her 100th song to make the pop charts. While a formidable moment, that cover barely scratches the surface of what makes this album truly lovely: Here, Franklin showcases her impressive ability to interpret any song from the canon of popular music and make it feel fresh, unique and entirely her own. “Rolling in the Deep” is a fairly faithful rendition of the Adele hit, mixed in with a bit of “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough” towards the end to give it that particular Aretha flavor. It’s followed by a take on “Midnight Train to Georgia” (originally recorded by Franklin’s former back-up singer Cissy Houston and popularized by Gladys Knight) that brings the soulful classic successfully into the 21st century with a Babyface assist.
Later, Destiny’s Child’s “Survivor” gets interpolated into Gloria Gaynor’s disco classic “I Will Survive” while Aretha’s own hit “Respect” is mashed up with Chaka Khan’s “I’m Every Woman.” The project is bookended by two of the album’s best moments: It begins with a sublime take on Etta James’ iconic ballad “At Last” and ends with a rousing, funky, Andre 3000-produced cover of Prince’s “Nothing Compares 2 U” that lands closer to the version Prince and the Family recorded than of the better-known Sinead O’Connor cover.
The album was shrouded in a gossipy press cycle, as people wanted to know what the Ultimate Diva thought of the new class of pop stars. Memes of her statements on “beautiful gowns” abounded, but all you really need to know about how Franklin felt about the canons of both 21st and 20th century pop is right on this album. Here, Franklin reminds us that beyond her larger-than-life voice and personality, she was an insatiable listener, loving, admiring and appreciating all the corners of the music world her own influence could reach.