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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

“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. 

Aretha Franklin: 50 Essential Songs

“Oh Me Oh My (I’m a Fool for You Baby)” (1971)

On the B-side to Young, Gifted and Black’s “Rock Steady,” Franklin found a vehicle for her vulnerable side. Tom Dowd, Arif Mardin and Jerry Wexler had already produced the song three years earlier for Lulu, for whom it was a Top 30 success. On the track written by Lulu’s fellow Glaswegian and former Stoics member Jim Doris, Aretha pleads emotional insanity with wailing soulful intensity. 

Aretha Franklin: 50 Essential Songs

“Until You Come Back to Me (That’s What I’m Gonna Do)” (1974)

Stevie Wonder co-wrote, recorded and then shelved a version of this charmingly pushy love song in the mid Sixties. Franklin did more than revive it; she turned a leftover into one of her most transcendent singles. Working with producer Jerry Wexler and producer-arranger Arif Mardin, Aretha bore down on the craft of record-making for this song and its accompanying album, Let Me in Your Life. “Everything we’d done with her has always been woodshedding in the studio with just the rhythm section there,” Wexler said, “but these were the first arranged sessions we’d done with her.” Thanks to studio pros like drummer Bernard “Pretty” Purdie and guitarist Hugh McCracken, along with Franklin’s own piano, “Until You Come Back to Me” achieves an effortless glide, Aretha’s vocal a purr. In her hands, romantic obsession never felt so warm and inviting.

Aretha Franklin: 50 Essential Songs

“A Deeper Love” (1994)

Aretha Franklin’s voice was made for house music, which has always prized full-throated belters and nurtured a close connection with the fervor of gospel. “A Deeper Love,” which appeared on the Sister Act 2 soundtrack, is a cover of a single by C+C Music Factory’s Clivillés & Cole, who sent the song to Number One on the Dance charts in 1992. Franklin doesn’t mess with a good thing, but she brings a lifetime of church training to her vocal. Stretching words like taffy, she adds at least three syllables to “survive,” and before the final hook she sings the word “easy” for nearly seven seconds. “A Deeper Love” is as majestic as it is danceable, and it burned through the clubs, putting Franklin back on the top of the Dance charts for the first time since 1985. 

Aretha Franklin: 50 Essential Songs

“Skylark” (1963)

In an arrangement echoing the style of then-current Nat King Cole and Frank Sinatra recordings, wrapped in strings and a choir of background singers, Aretha torches this torch standard by Hoagy Carmichael and Johnny Mercer, who penned the lovesick lyrics for his lover, Judy Garland. But Franklin makes it her own: The note she hits near the two-minute-mark probably knocked the engineer off their chair. As biographer David Ritz put it, “one of the great jewels of her career.”

Aretha Franklin: 50 Essential Songs

“One Step Ahead” (1965)

As Aretha Franklin neared the end of her contract with Columbia Records, it was clear that the label didn’t know what to do with a generation’s greatest soul singer. “CBS didn’t want her to go, but they could not reverse themselves to help her become a star,” said producer and arranger Clyde Otis in Aretha Franklin: The Queen of Soul. “So they said to me, ‘Well, look – cut as much stuff on her as you can,’ because they felt they might lose her.” Otis ended up recording several albums worth of material with Franklin, but “One Step Ahead” still fell through the cracks. It’s unclear why this glittery, incandescent ballad in the mode of Brook Benton didn’t get a bigger push, despite reaching Number 18 on the Billboard R&B charts. (Franklin has called her Columbia 45s “turntable hits,” songs that got radio airplay but little sales.) It would take future generations to appreciate it: Mos Def used it for his 1999 hit “Ms. Fat Booty,” and it underscored a key scene in the 2016 Academy Award-winning film Moonlight

Aretha Franklin: 50 Essential Songs

“Call Me” (1970)

October 3rd, 1969 found Franklin switching things up, recording not in New York but at Miami’s Criteria Studios. “She was in a pissy mood,” Jerry Wexler told Franklin biographer David Ritz. The sessions were charged with super power: Backed by the Muscle Shoals rhythm section, with Duane Allman sitting in on guitar, she cut so many classics that “Pullin'” and “Try Matty’s” had to be shelved for her next album, Spirit in the Dark. The rest went on This Girl’s In Love With You, which featured songs by Lennon and McCartney, Bacharach and David, and one Franklin original: “Call Me.” Supposedly written after Franklin heard a couple part by saying “I love you, call me,” the basic track centered around some soul-jazz piano from Franklin, sweetened by an Arif Mardin string arrangement that soared but never intruded. “It was sweet and heartfelt and filled with longing,” said Wexler. Backed by Franklin’s version of “Son of a Preacher Man,” it was a Number 13 pop hit and went to Number One on the R&B chart.

Aretha Franklin: 50 Essential Songs

“The House That Jack Built” (1968)

This track tells the story of a house that’s no longer a home once it’s been emptied of the love that built it. Franklin – struggling with her relationship with abusive husband Ted White and singing about “a dream that I thought was love” – inverted the pained lyrics with vocals that refused to be held down by loss. Listen to her swoop through the phrase “What’s the use of crying,” before she shouts the chorus with an undercurrent of defiance: “I got the house, I got the car, I got the rug and I got the rack – but I ain’t got Jack!” Twenty five years after the April 17, 1968 session that yielded this song, Jerry Wexler recalled it in his autobiography: “The groove still chills my blood.” 

Aretha Franklin: 50 Essential Songs

“Lean On Me” (1971)

Though “Lean On Me” shares its title with Bill Withers’ hit, this song, the 1971 B-side to “Spanish Harlem,” was written by Van McCoy and Joe Cobb, first recorded by Vivian Reed and later tackled by Melba Moore. Franklin’s version was cut at Criteria Studios in Miami. “It was a great studio,” explained Jerry Wexler in Respect: The Life of Aretha Franklin. “She sang the shit out of everything.” Here, Franklin is taunting the listener from the opening notes: The song begins with four repetitions of a low riff on the piano, a stuttering series of false starts, as if she can’t remember how, or when, to commence singing. This is a ruse, of course, and seconds later, she casually sends the phrase “let me walk” skimming over the piano, making “walk” quiver for several seconds and turning the claustrophobic opening into a joke. This device resurfaces throughout the song to great effect — as Franklin twirls and loops through the word “dream,” the band bears down on another short phrase four consecutive times — and the singer’s uncontainable energy is reinforced by clobbering drum fills.

Aretha Franklin: 50 Essential Songs

“Angel” (1973)

Franklin’s spotty 1973 collaboration with Quincy Jones, Hey Now Hey (The Other Side of the Sky), wasn’t the dawn of a new Aretha era that many hoped it would be, but it did produce one of the most sublime singles she made during this period. Co-written by her sister Carolyn (who died of cancer in 1988) and Sonny Saunders, “Angel” was a mournful cry: “Too long have I loved so unattached within/So much that I know that I need somebody,” Aretha pined, almost meditatively at first. With its purring strings and wispy sax solo, Jones’ arrangement coddles and comforts her, but Aretha doesn’t stay down: By the end of the song, she’s wailing and back in command, vocally blowing away her blues. “Everyone knew ‘Angel’ was a hit,” recalled Atlantic’s Jerry Wexler, and it was, climbing to Number One on the R&B chart and cracking the Top 20 on Pop.

Aretha Franklin: 50 Essential Songs

“A Change Is Gonna Come” (1967)

Franklin’s cover of Sam Cooke’s 1964 Civil Rights anthem “A Change Is Gonna Come” is a simmering, lightly arranged version that features knotty keyboards and Franklin’s beautifully calibrated vocal. She begins with a salute to her old friend Cooke (they’d met in the early Fifties while at church), noting how the song she’s about to perform “touched [her] heart.” “He was one of the greatest male singers of all time,” Franklin told NPR in 2007. “You put him in the category with Caruso and Pavarotti and these other great names. Sam Cooke, bar none, was one of the greatest singers of all time.” Franklin’s warm yet resolute vocal on “Change” calls back to her gospel training, and it has a twist right at the end: “I believe a change has come,” she asserts, right before the song fades out and her triumphant Atlantic debut I Never Loved a Man the Way I Love You comes to a close.  

Aretha Franklin: 50 Essential Songs

“Night Life” (1967)

Willie Nelson wrote “Night Life” in 1960 as a young Texas songwriter trying to crack the music business. Ray Price turned it into a hit in 1963; and Doris Day, Wanda Jackson and Marvin Gaye had covered it before Aretha Franklin’s version was included on 1967’s Aretha Arrives. Pivoting off Nelson’s lyric “Listen to the blues, they’re playing,” Franklin remakes the song as a languid, sensuous number that evokes empty beer bottles at a smoke-filled juke joint. Jimmy Johnson and Joe South’s bluesy guitar picking underlines her voice as she admits in wailing yet purposeful notes, “I tell ya that the night life sure ain’t no good life/But do ya know that it’s my life?”

Aretha Franklin: 50 Essential Songs

“Eleanor Rigby” (1969)

The Beatles’ “Eleanor Rigby” was a left-field choice on 1970’s This Girl’s In Love With You. The album’s other cover songs leaned towards soul music (“Son of a Preacher Man,” “The Dark End of the Street”), but here was a piece of flowery, baroque chamber pop. If deep soul elements weren’t present in the original, she would just remake the song with those crucial components added. No strings here; instead, a driving backbeat, call-and-response between Franklin and her backing vocalists, playful electric keyboard and hard, scrubbing rhythm guitar. She sang from the first person — “I’m Eleanor Rigby, I picked up the rice in the church where the wedding’s had been” — but her scalding vocal appears untouched by the loneliness that afflicted one of the Beatles’ most famous characters. 

Aretha Franklin: 50 Essential Songs

“Something He Can Feel” (1976)

Hooking Franklin up with Curtis Mayfield during his post-Super Fly prime was a promising idea, and the result – the soundtrack to the 1976 movie Sparkle – more than lived up to expectations. Aretha luxuriated in Mayfield’s rich, proto-disco arrangements, and he was able to unleash one of pop’s most ferocious singers on songs that would have sounded trivial in other hands. The process wasn’t always easy; when cutting “Something He Can Feel,” Aretha felt she’d sung enough, but the soft-spoken Mayfield egged her on. “In his gentle way he got at least a half dozen more takes out of her,” said her brother Cecil. As Aretha herself later said, “He was the producer, so I let him produce.” A vampy, fairly rigid strut, “Something He Can Feel” still gave Aretha plenty of room to belt and preach. En Vogue cracked the Top 10 with a 1992 cover and the song re-appeared in the 2012 Sparkle remake.

Aretha Franklin: 50 Essential Songs

“United Together” (1980)

“United Together” was a crucial track for Aretha Franklin. Not only was it her first single of the 1980s, an era when new forms of R&B were climbing the charts, but her first single on new label Arista, the organization helmed by formidable executive and pop-ballad-maestro Clive Davis. Franklin went into the studio with producer/writer Chuck Jackson, who had previously enjoyed success co-producing Natalie Cole, and the two put together a heaving, happily-ever-after ballad, complete with strings, muted brass and a massive, immensely satisfying key change that sends Franklin into a full-blown wail. Franklin’s mesmerizing histrionics push her backing vocalists to excel – at the 3:38 mark, they almost steal the track with three wondrous, breathy exhales. In Aretha Franklin: The Queen of Soul, the singer summed up her connection with Jackson: “It all worked out like peaches and cream!”

Aretha Franklin: 50 Essential Songs

“Young, Gifted and Black” (1972)

The title track of Aretha’s twentieth studio album probably wouldn’t have been recorded if co-producer Jerry Wexler had gotten his way. He felt that Nina Simone, who’d written the black pride anthem in 1969 with bandleader Weldon Irvine, had already nailed it. Fortunately, Franklin sought a second opinion. “I think you’ll crush it, Ree,” said Billy Preston, who plays organ on the track, when asked. “I think you’ll make them forget about Nina.” 

Aretha Franklin: 50 Essential Songs

Eurythmics and Aretha Franklin, “Sisters Are Doin’ It for Themselves” (1985)

Clive Davis’ desire to “contemporize” Franklin for her Eighties revival led to the then-president of Arista Records introducing her to pop stars of the time – including Eurythmics, the art-synth duo whose spiky yet soul-tinged tracks had been ruling radio and MTV. But Eurythmics vocalist Annie Lennox, who served as Franklin’s foil on this clamorous proto-girl-power anthem, needed some introductions of her own. “I have to admit that before I was introduced to Aretha Franklin – it’s very embarrassing to say this – I hadn’t really listened to any of her records,” Lennox confessed to the British music magazine Q in 1987. “A few people said, ‘Annie Lennox sounds like Aretha Franklin,’ so I thought, ‘What does she sound like? I’d better listen to her.’ When I sang with her, I realized I don’t sound anything like Aretha Franklin. She’s unique, she has her own sound and she’s incredibly flexible as a singer.” The gospel-tinged celebration of female independence, which was produced by Lennox’s musical partner Dave Stewart and which features playing by Heartbreakers Stan Lynch, Benmont Tench and Mike Campbell, has since been covered by the Spice Girls and Lisa Simpson.

Aretha Franklin: 50 Essential Songs

“(Sweet Sweet Baby) Since You’ve Been Gone” (1968)

Aretha Franklin’s and her then-husband Ted White co-wrote her fifth Gold single, the B-side opener to her classic Lady Soul. She was so hot at the time that the 45 version of “Since You’ve Been Gone” reportedly sold 450,000 copies in a week. Eager to keep her happy, Atlantic Records renegotiated a bigger contract just over a year after she signed with the label in 1966. The track itself is peppery, full of piping horns and hot rhythm, and gathers much of its power from a Muscle Shoals-centered unit that included Bobby Womack on guitar. Franklin cries out the words until they feel like a blur while the Sweet Inspirations shout and support in the background. “Take me back, consider me please!” she sings in an incandescent wail. Who could refuse?

Aretha Franklin: 50 Essential Songs

“Spirit in the Dark” (1970)

The Franklin-composed title track of her 19th studio album starts out comfortably, quickly attains a steady soul-rock groove and then launches into a gospel rave-up right about the time most R&B singles would have put out the “closed” sign. Quoting Rufus Thomas’ “Little Sally Walker,” Franklin clarifies her R&B hit’s powerful amalgam of secular and sacred, a place where black power meets old time religion. “She was radiant,” recalled co-producer Jerry Wexler of the Miami session that featured his Dixie Flyers house band and backing singers the Sweet Inspirations. “She was off the sauce and on the one.”

Aretha Franklin: 50 Essential Songs

“Mary, Don’t You Weep” (1972)

The intense, atmosphere-establishing old-school gospel classic that kicks off Amazing Grace takes Caravans lead singer Inez Andrews’ awesome 1958 arrangement as its inspiration. First recorded by the Fisk Jubilee Singers in 1915, “Mary, Don’t You Weep” combines the drowning of Pharaoh’s army – a story of exile, slavery and liberation – with a family narrative about faith and resurrection. When its producers wanted to rearrange the track’s verses for a quicker build, bassist Claude Rainey recalled Aretha’s response: “‘Can you sing this song? I’ve been singing this song all my life. So this is the way I’m singing this song. I don’t tell you how to sell records or push buttons. Don’t tell me how to sing the song.” They did it anyway.

Aretha Franklin: 50 Essential Songs

“Drown in My Own Tears” (1967)

“Respect” is a tough act to follow. But the second track on her 1967 Atlantic debut LP finds Aretha as wretchedly miserable as its predecessor is powerful and uplifting. Written by Henry Glover, and frequently covered, “Drown in My Own Tears” was a 1956 success for Ray Charles, using female singers on a track for the first time. Where Charles plumbed its soulful miseries, Franklin – who recorded it the same days as “Respect” and “A Change Is Gonna Come” – gives it a pronounced gospel flavor, particularly when it sounds like she’s gasping for oxygen while screaming out the word ‘drown.’

Aretha Franklin: 50 Essential Songs

“The Weight” (1969)

Franklin wasn’t initially sold on covering the Band’s instant classic. “Aretha heard it and said she had no idea what the lyrics meant,” Atlantic Records boss Jerry Wexler remembered in David Ritz’s biography Respect: The Life of Aretha Franklin. “I said I didn’t know either, but that the song had a vicious groove and she could kill it.” 

“The Weight” turned into a summit of sorts: Franklin battled Duane Allman – on lead slide guitar – and the brawny basslines of Muscle Shoals’ David Hood for control of the track. Franklin is subtly masterful, injecting alarm into her voice when she sings about finding Carmen with the devil and inserting melismatic runs into the second chorus. Before the final hook, she throws caution to the wind and emits an interjection of “yeah!” that pushes “The Weight” into the red.

Aretha Franklin: 50 Essential Songs

“Rock Steady” (1971)

Though written by Franklin, she gave full props for this gospel-rocking Top 10 hit’s success to Donny Hathaway. “It was Donny who added the high organ line that gives ‘Rock Steady’ such extra added flow,” she said of the Young, Gifted and Black track. Drummer Bernard Purdie, meanwhile, says he added a reggae vibe he’d picked up while recording with Bob Marley. You also have to credit Tom Dowd’s magnificent arrangement for the Memphis Horns, along with backing singers the Sweethearts of Soul, for “Rock Steady”‘s overwhelming “funky and low-down feeling.” During a Flip Wilson Show appearance she made in African apparel, Franklin made her composition’s black-power intentions clear.

Aretha Franklin: 50 Essential Songs

“Bridge Over Troubled Water” (1971)

“When I first wrote ‘Bridge,’ I said, ‘Boy, I bet Aretha could do a good job on this song,'” Paul Simon told Rolling Stone in 1970, just as he and Art Garfunkel’s version of the gospel-influenced ballad was starting to conquer the planet. Within months, Aretha was tackling the song herself: It becoming almost as a big a hit as Simon & Garfunkel’s, and Franklin snagged a Grammy for Best Female R&B Vocal in 1972. Franklin doesn’t sing the first verse – she plays it on piano, lending the song a sacred feel from the start. As both the arrangement and Aretha’s voice build, “Bridge Over Troubled Water” becomes a reassuring, comforting church anthem.