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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.