Home Music Music Lists

The 50 Greatest Aretha Franklin Songs

Essential moments from pop music’s greatest voice

aretha franklin in 1969

Aretha Franklin in 1969.

A. Sabine/NBC/NBCU Photo Bank/Getty

“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.

Aretha Franklin: 50 Essential Songs

“First Snow in Kokomo” (1972)

Almost unique in Franklin’s oeuvre for its lack of a groove, this touchingly personal original from Young, Gifted and Black describes an uncharacteristically relaxed visit to longtime consort Ken Cunningham’s Indiana hometown. The mood is calm thanks largely to Donny Hathaway’s subtle organ part, and Franklin’s optimism is contagious as she observes the scene. “I was feeling right up to it,” she sings. “Could it be done? Yes, I could do it.” In its bottom half, Aretha imagines the fates of the visitors she sees in this domestic fantasy so emotionally distant from her own life. “In the end,” her sister Carolyn surmised, “it was something of a fairy tale.”

Aretha Franklin: 50 Essential Songs

“Who’s Zoomin’ Who?” (1985)

This simmering flirtation chronicle from the 1985 smash album of the same name came out of a phone call between Franklin and producer Narada Michael Walden. “I asked her, ‘Do you go out at night? What do you do?’ because we hadn’t really met each other,” Walden told the sound engineering magazine Mix in 2006. “She said, ‘Oh, sometimes I go out, go to a club, then I see somebody I like, and he sees me and I see him. It’s like, Who’s zoomin’ who?'” Although the song’s lyrics arose from a friendly chat, Franklin was initially reluctant to record it. “It was the first recording she had done since her father passed away a few years earlier, so she was just getting back in the studio,” recalled Walden. “And it was so beautiful just to be there – at United Sound in Detroit ­– with her.” The song eventually reached the Top 10 of the Billboard Hot 100 and topped the Hot Dance Club Play chart despite not having a music video.

Aretha Franklin: 50 Essential Songs

“Soul Serenade” (1967)

The majority of the songs on Franklin’s first Atlantic album were either selected by Franklin and her then-husband Ted White, or written by Franklin herself. But one that Jerry Wexler brought in was “Soul Serenade,” written by Luther Dixon and Atlantic’s on-call sax doctor, King Curtis — “a lean and mean tenor man who could go both ways in terms of jazz and R&B,” according to Wexler. “Soul Serenade” had been a Top Five R&B hit for Curtis in 1964, and he played on the I Never Loved a Man the Way I Love You sessions, giving a player best known for honking and shouting a chance to flaunt his fluid lyricism over breezy guitar. Cut on February 15, 1967, Franklin’s version shifted the action to the interplay between her piano and Spooner Oldham’s electric keyboard, beginning with lounge-jazz that tied back to her recordings for Columbia and then unfolding an easy-rolling take on soul power. “I want to be free to fly away,” she sang, making this – like so much of the album – a declaration of her intentions. A year later, at Wexler’s urging, Curtis became Franklin’s musical director for her live shows, a role he served until his death in 1971.

Aretha Franklin: 50 Essential Songs

“See Saw” (1968)

In 1967, Franklin latched onto singer-songwriter Don Covay’s “Chain of Fools” when she heard him play it for Otis Redding as a demo. It peaked at Number Two in January of 1968, and a few months later when Franklin was in Atlantic’s New York studio she tried her hand at another Covay tune, “See Saw,” which Covay himself had made a Top Five R&B hit in 1965. Her version goosed the backbeat and highlighted a tight horn section that included King Curtis, David “Fathead” Newman and Pepper Adams. It was the rare Franklin cover that didn’t re-invent the song, but her vocal – shifting from raw need to purring satisfaction to towering strength – made it definitive. It was one of the many songs on 1968’s Aretha Now that reflected her deteriorating relationship with husband Ted White. “Sometimes you love me, like a good man oughta,” she sang. “Sometimes you hurt me so bad, my tears run like water.”

Aretha Franklin: 50 Essential Songs

“Dr. Feelgood (Love Is a Serious Business)” (1967)

A slow-building love song that showcases Franklin’s seriously romantic side, “Dr. Feelgood” balances fiery passion with cool contentment, a song about of being head over heels for a man who, as Franklin sings, “takes me off alla my pains and my ills.” “It’s one of her most impassioned vocals by far,” Jerry Wexler 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. The song’s framework is simple – “basically nothing more than a 12-bar blues,” Luther Vandross told David Ritz, author of Respect: The Life of Aretha Franklin. “But the lyrics! And her piano playing! It’s like something my mama’s mama listened to – one of those original ladies, like Bessie Smith or Ma Rainey. I believe it’s one of the greatest blues ever written.”

Aretha Franklin: 50 Essential Songs

“Jumpin’ Jack Flash” (1986)

With guitar help from two of the Rolling Stones themselves – Keith Richards and Ronnie Wood – and a delivery that channels her tough rocker side, Franklin updated the group’s 1968 classic for the 1986 Whoopi Goldberg film of the same name. According to Clive Davis, Richards, the song’s producer, insisted Franklin play piano like she did on many of her Sixties sides. “Keith understood what I had learned years before,” said Jerry Wexler in Respect: The Life of Aretha Franklin, “when Aretha is anchored at the keyboard, it’s a stronger and more organic overall performance.” The song became the lead single from her 1986 LP Aretha, which features a cover by Andy Warhol, his final work before his death in 1987. 

Aretha Franklin: 50 Essential Songs

“Good to Me As I Am to You (1968)

This deep cut from 1968’s Lady Soul offers a dream pairing of Aretha Franklin and Eric Clapton, the Cream guitarist’s first guest studio appearance for a U.S. artist. “I told Jerry [Wexler] I was going to bring Clapton in and maybe he’d play,” wrote Atlantic Records co-founder Ahmet Ertegun in his 2001 autobiography, What I’d Say: The Atlantic Story. Pointing out the “weird” hippie outfits Clapton favored, Ertegun continued, “Even before I could introduce him to Aretha, she looked at him and went into this roaring bout of laughter. So I said, ‘Well, when he starts playing, you’re not going to laugh.'” Clapton’s “guitar obbligato” resulted in a medley of strutting chords and rhythmic notes. As for Franklin, her brassy, impassioned vocal rings in time to Clapton’s playing, making this a key cataclysm of sweet soul and Sixties blues psychedelia.

Aretha Franklin: 50 Essential Songs

“Day Dreaming” (1972)

Donny Hathaway’s ethereal electric piano introduces this heavenly pop track from Young, Gifted and Black, arguably Aretha Franklin’s most personal album. “That hit song was about me,” recalled Temptations singer Dennis Edwards, Aretha’s longtime lover, in David Ritz’s Respect: The Life of Aretha Franklin. Its writer, however, told Soul Train host Don Cornelius the tune was “nothing that I particularly want to talk about.” 

Aretha Franklin: 50 Essential Songs

“Wholy Holy” (1972)

The first hymn Aretha Franklin sang at the New Temple Missionary Baptist Church in January 1972 was a song from Marvin Gaye’s What’s Going On, released less than a year earlier. The only track from the resulting album to chart, “Wholy Holy,” is a gospel “Come Together” that Aretha sanctified with her piano playing and five-part harmonizing. Aretha could likely identify easily with Gaye’s song. He was the child of a preacher, like her, and often confused sacred and profane himself. As James Cleveland, her musical collaborator, told Franklin biographer David Ritz, “It’s all God’s music and it’s all good.”

Aretha Franklin: 50 Essential Songs

Aretha Franklin and George Michael, “I Knew You Were Waiting (For Me)” (1987)

Franklin’s sole Number One single in the U.K. was the result of the then-freshly-solo George Michael’s drive to team up with his favorite soul singers. The admiration, it turned out, was mutual. “The first time I heard George was with Wham!, and I liked it then,” Franklin told Entertainment Weekly shortly after Michael’s death in December 2016. “He had a very unique sound, very different from anything that was out there.” The boisterous duet that resulted from their meeting uses river-deep, mountain-high metaphors as a way to allow Franklin and Michael to show off their impressive instruments and deeply felt emotionalism, while Narada Michael Walden’s production adds a touch of late-Eighties glitter. “It reminded me of [working with producer] Jerry Wexler,” Franklin recalled to EW. “We’d go in the studio and cut songs. If we were happy with what we recorded, Jerry would say, ‘Let’s wait until tomorrow. If we feel the same way that we do now, maybe we have a hit.’ ‘I Knew You Were Waiting’ had that. Musically, it does not grow old.”

Aretha Franklin: 50 Essential Songs

“I Say a Little Prayer” (1968)

Dionne Warwick’s original version of this Bacharach-David classic was barely eight months old and still on the radio when Franklin cut her cover – “a magic bit of luck,” according to Atlantic’s Jerry Wexler, who remembered in his autobiography, Rhythm and the Blues, that it started with Franklin and her back-up singers the Sweet Inspirations goofing around with the song in the control room during a 1968 session for Aretha Now. Wexler was against covering a tune still near its peak; everyone else in the studio (including Warwick’s cousin, Cissy Houston, one of the Sweet Inspirations) was for it. With Franklin’s piano rolling the song’s bossa rhythm towards gospel and Muscle Shoals rhythm pro Roger Hawkins splitting the difference between a soul backbeat and show drumming accents, they knocked it out in one take. It hit the pop Top 10 in October. Even Bacharach admitted Franklin took the song to “a far deeper place. “Hers is the definitive version,” he told David Ritz. 

Aretha Franklin: 50 Essential Songs

“Freeway of Love” (1985)

The lead single from Franklin’s mid-Eighties smash Who’s Zoomin’ Who? is an exuberant electro-soul jam that honors the combined power of the open road, the pink Cadillac and Aretha Franklin’s inimitable voice. Zoomin’ was produced by Narada Michael Walden, who was brought in to orchestrate the album by Arista bigwig Clive Davis. “I had written ‘Freeway of Love’ for myself,” Walden told Billboard in 2003. “But I flipped it and rewrote the lyrics for her. However, all those little [ad-libs] in that song, like ‘better than ever street,’ were things she worked up off the top of her head.” Franklin’s lusty vocal and Clarence Clemons’ exuberant sax solo combined for pop-soul gold, with the song reaching Number Three on the Hot 100 and snagging her a Best Female R&B Vocal Performance Grammy for the 10th time. “I like the ‘up’ these days, most definitely. Let’s keep it positive. ‘Up’ is it,” she told the Australian Sunday Mail, right after her interviewer noticed a tiny pink Cadillac on her mantle – a gift, she noted, from Walden. (Franklin, for what it’s worth, drove a white station wagon at the time.)  

Aretha Franklin: 50 Essential Songs

“Are You Sure” (1961)

Franklin’s secular recording career began after she signed to Columbia Records via A&R legend John Hammond, turning down an offer from Motown, then just a fledgling local imprint. (“I wanted to be with a fabulous worldwide label, and I’m not in the least sorry,” she’d say later.) Hammond’s forte at the time was jazz, which showed on Aretha With the Ray Bryant Combo, her 1961 Columbia debut. Though still a teen, her astonishing voice is fully formed, lighting up an occasionally dubious selection of songs. “Are You Sure” from the Broadway hit The Unsinkable Molly Brown is an unlikely gem. Arranged as a sort of folk-jazz mambo with a nod to Ray Charles’ “What’d I Say,” Aretha hones in on the song’s spiritual theme, taking it to church and then some.