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The 50 Greatest Aretha Franklin Songs

Essential moments from pop music’s greatest voice

aretha franklin in 1969

Aretha Franklin in 1969.

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“American history wells up when Aretha sings,” said no less an authority than President Barack Obama.

The vocal achievements of Aretha Franklin have informed much of modern soul, gospel, R&B, dance music and especially rock. Beyoncé considers Franklin’s voice “one of God’s blessings.” Said Mary J. Blige, “When it comes to expressing yourself through song, there is no one who can touch her. She is the reason why women want to sing.” Patti Labelle described Franklin simply as “the best singer in the world.”

Franklin’s powerful instrument can be heard across a recording career that spans nearly 60 years. On the Columbia sides of the early Sixties, she laid into standards like then-current stars Sinatra or Nat King Cole, rivaling her backing orchestras for sheer power. Her classic Sixties and Seventies sides soundtracked the Civil Rights Movement, an object lesson in how a singer can embody and define her time. As poet Nikki Giovanni wrote, Franklin “lifted her voice in question and complaint and why not and we’re going to and voiced the needs of a generation.”

From there, Franklin found homes across genres: not just a testament to the versatility of her music, but to how the world had been shaped by it. Early Eighties collaborations with Luther Vandross were a smooth slide into funk-pop and quiet storm, a mid-Eighties New Wave makeover made her an MTV star and a Eurythmics collaborator, hip-hop groups like EPMD and Gang Starr mined her funky Seventies work for beats, 1994’s “A Deeper Love” made her a chart-topping modern house diva, a collaboration with Lauryn Hill linked her neo-soul and by 2014 she gracefully covered Adele. Here’s just 50 essential songs from the greatest voice pop music has ever produced.

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5

“Chain of Fools” (1967)

Don Covay, a singer-songwriter responsible for underrated Sixties soul classics like “See Saw,” wrote the biggest hit from Franklin’s Lady Soul, the iconic “Chain of Fools.” Covay said he originally wrote the track for Otis Redding, but Franklin’s producer, Jerry Wexler, swiped it for Franklin. “He said, ‘Hey man, Aretha needs to hear this.’ And all of a sudden, she was there,” Covay told Billboard. The resulting Number Two hit has a groovy, bottom-swaying swing to it – Franklin’s popcorn dance tracks are often overlooked in history of early funk – and an incredible backing chorus from the Sweet Inspirations and Ellie Greenwich that “shoop-shoops” the Queen of Soul onward. As for the gritty title, it makes for an unsparing metaphor for her lover’s trail of romantic destruction. Said Covay, “I could have written ‘Chain of Love,’ but no, I had to say something that immediately gets your attention. Otherwise, [listeners] might not let me get to the first verse.” As for Franklin, she renders Covay’s final verse with chilling venom: “One of these mornings,” she warns, “Your chain is going to break.”

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4

“(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman” (1967)

This Carole King and Gerry Goffin classic underlines the myth – sometimes celebrated, other times reductive – of Franklin as the epitome of earthy, “natural” womanhood. Despite the sometimes-sexist ways in which the phrase has been used, Franklin has embraced it. “I am a natural woman. I think that women have to be strong. If you don’t, some people will run right over you,” she told Vogue in 2015, shortly after her tribute performance to Carole King at the Kennedy Center Honors left President Barack Obama in tears. The song, which was released as the lead single to her 1968 album Lady Soul, depicts a woman in thrall to a man. But Franklin hardly sounds submissive, instead sounding vibrant and strong. “Oh, baby, what you’ve done to me!” she sings in a joyous lilt. “You make me feel so alive!”

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3

“Think” (1968)

On April 9, 1968, Franklin sang “Precious Lord” at the funeral of Martin Luther King, Jr. in Atlanta. Six days later, she sat at the piano at the New York studios of Atlantic Records, pounding the piano and singing about freedom. “Think” – credited to Franklin and her then-husband Ted White – was a woman’s demand that the man playing mind games with her take a look at himself, and Franklin was at a low point with the abusive White. But with “Think,” the personal was political. “Let your mind go, let yourself be free,” Franklin implored before hitting a bridge that had her and the Sweet Inspirations trading the word “freedom” 12 times, upping the intensity with each repetition. “[Think] resonated on a large cultural level,” Jerry Wexler said. “Young people were telling the war establishment to think about what they were doing. Black America was telling white America to think [about] what they were doing. The song spoke to everyone.” Released in May, barely two weeks after it was cut, the single reached Number Seven on the pop charts, and topped the R&B chart. 

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2

“I Never Loved a Man (The Way I Love You)” (1967)

The title track of I Never Loved a Man the Way I Love You was also the first song laid down by Franklin and her backing musicians during their very short January 1967 stint at FAME Studios in Muscle Shoals, Alabama. “The song didn’t have a specific meter, really,” keyboardist Dewey “Spooner” Oldham told Matt Dobkin, author of I Never Loved a Man the Way I Love You: Aretha Franklin, Respect, and the Making of a Soul Music Masterpiece, about the session where he and his fellow musicians first heard Franklin’s home-recorded demo. “So the band just sort of looked at each other like, ‘Well, what do we do? Where do we go now?’ We were all off in our little worlds trying to figure out a