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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.

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

“Jump to It” (1982)

The title track of Franklin’s 1982 LP paired her with Luther Vandross just as he was rocketing into position as one of the premier singer-songwriter/producers of the 1980s. Add her old background singer Cissy Houston to the mix along with bass ace Marcus Miller (a regular Vandross sideman who also spent time with Miles Davis) and the result is one of Franklin’s grooviest singles. She rips through a “shab-a-doo-da-dwee-da” ad-lib with enough force to make the Gap Band’s Charlie Wilson jealous, while Miller’s viscous bassline scoots the whole track forward. “I played the bassline with my bass guitar and then I’d get a synthesizer and I’d overdub the same thing, so you had two types of basses playing the same bassline at the same time,” he told the Red Bull Music Academy in 2015.

Franklin had decided to seek out Vandross after hearing his peerless rendition of “A House Is Not a Home” in 1981. “I was working on [a version of the same song] at home,” she said. “I said, ‘Aha, he beat you to the punch!’ … Coupled with the fact that there was a relatedness and a similarity in stylings, I said, ‘Why not [have him produce]? He obviously knows what he’s doing!'”

Aretha Franklin: 50 Essential Songs

“Try a Little Tenderness” (1962)

This reading of the Otis Redding signature pre-dates his by four years and Sam Cooke’s version (from his beloved At the Copa) by two. There’s little doubt both men had taken note of Aretha Franklin’s smoldering version. The recording recalls the Platters’ 1958 Number One hit version of “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes” in an arrangement by Robert Mersey, “who surrounded me with the finest musicians in the city,” Franklin told biographer David Ritz. “His charts were extremely lush, and I liked that.” Aretha sang it in her first TV appearance, on the teen-targeted American Bandstand. It wasn’t a hit, but she was on her way.

Aretha Franklin: 50 Essential Songs

“Rolling in the Deep (The Aretha Version)” (2014)

On Franklin’s 41st and final album, Aretha Franklin Sings the Great Diva Classics, the legend returned for one last lesson to the current generation of vocal powerhouses. Franklin covered everyone from the Supremes to Alicia Keys on her 2014 LP, but it was her take on Adele’s star-making hit “Rolling in the Deep” that captured everyone’s attention, turning into a Number One Dance hit and letting the world know that her reign wasn’t over. Franklin had nothing but love for the younger diva: “She’s a really good writer with very heavy, deep lyrics,” she told Rolling Stone. “She’s got something to say and says it a little differently than the norm.” And while “Deep” was Adele’s first Number One hit, it was special for Franklin too: her 100th single to chart on the Billboard R&B charts.  

Aretha Franklin: 50 Essential Songs

“Spanish Harlem” (1971)

A transfixing example of the way Aretha could refurbish a familiar song, “Spanish Harlem” was a romantic rumba in the hands of Ben E. King, who made it a huge hit in 1961. Opening with a blaxploitation-flick-style riff and a subtle lyrical rewrite (“There is a rose in Spanish Harlem” becomes “There’s a rose in black at Spanish Harlem”), Aretha modernizes it for the civil rights era. In her hands (and those of Dr. John, who played piano on the session), you can sense the heat pounding on the Harlem sidewalk in ways the song’s writers – the unusual combo of Phil Spector and Jerry Leiber – may have intended.

Aretha Franklin: 50 Essential Songs

“A Rose Is Still a Rose” (1998)

Aretha Franklin demonstrated her remarkable mutability on this Lauryn Hill-penned track. Thirty-eight years after Franklin released her first Columbia single, she put the ascendant wave of neo-soul singers on notice and scored a Top 30 hit. Seemingly unperturbed by the vicious, of-the-moment rap beat constructed by Hill, Franklin scats coolly, whizzes through the full extent of her vocal range and even displays a grasp of recent slang, singing about a woman who is out “tossin’ and flossin’.” The single debuted at Number 43 on the Hot 100, high enough that Clive Davis telephoned Franklin to share the good news. “I was in the kitchen when he called,” she remembered, according to Aretha Franklin: The Queen of Soul. “What I sang at the Grammys [filling in for opera singer Luciano Pavarotti] was nothing compared to the high note I hit when he told me where my song was coming in.”

Aretha Franklin: 50 Essential Songs

“People Get Ready” (1968)

Countless musicians have covered what may be Curtis Mayfield’s most famous song, but Aretha Franklin imbued it with fresh gospel intensity. Mayfield wrote it in 1964 as homage to the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech as well as other pivotal events from the civil rights era – his 1965 recording with the Impressions was a key moment in the rise of social consciousness in soul music. Recorded as an album cut for Lady Soul – and later becoming part of her concert repertoire – Franklin’s version opens with a fanfare not present in the original. “I believe … I believe,” she and her backing group the Sweet Inspirations sing. Then she closes with an repeated affirmation, “You just thank the Lord!” as her voice ascends in scale.

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.”