There were soul singers before her, and there will be many to come, but Aretha Franklin — who died today at 76 — is the template. She wasn’t born the Queen of Soul, yet it was her destiny. Below is just a mere sampling of the legacy she has left with us, though it was difficult to pick only ten of the best Aretha Franklin songs from her vast catalog.
10 of the very best Aretha Franklin songs
1. “I Never Loved a Man (The Way I Love You)”
Though she started releasing music in 1956 (Songs of Faith, if you were wondering), Franklin didn’t become the powerhouse we know until the release of this powerful barn-burner of a love song. The band at Muscle Shoals gives it its swing; the lusty emotion in Aretha’s voice gives it its grit.
Though some of her greatest songs were personal in nature, the backdrop of civil unrest in the 1960’s turned them into powerful anthems for black consciousness and liberation. So this 1968 number one put her man on notice while also putting The Man on notice. (It’s also the track used in her short scene in The Blues Brothers movie.)
I was five years old when this tune came over the radio, and how is it that my parents didn’t at least suspect that the sassy, shoulder-popping, neck-swiveling soul mimic in the backseat of their gas-guzzling station wagon wasn’t a budding gay boy? What better song to inform your musical and emotional life than this one, to inspire and reinforce a no-bullshit policy when it comes down to how you expect the world, and your lover, to treat you?
4. “Chain of Fools”
This swampy blues throws down the gauntlet in the battle of the sexes and one thing is for certain: Ms. Franklin is going to be the victor that finally breaks the chains.
5. “Who’s Zoomin’ Who?”
Almost thirty years into her career, ReRe had an ’80s moment of ascendency where she ruled the charts for a good year or so. It’s sleek ’80s funk made flesh by Franklin’s deepening voice (thanks to aging) and a reasserting of her demand for respect.
6. “Freeway of Love”
The ’80s Big Beat, the squelchy synths, that trilling saxophone; this was an inescapable number one and a club banger (before there was such a thing). And it can still fill a dancefloor as fast as a muscle car can go from 0 to 60.
7. “Sisters Are Doin’ It for Themselves” (with Eurythmics)
More empowerment, this time with an avowed acolyte, Eurythmics’ androgynous belter, Annie Lennox.
8. “Young, Gifted, and Black”
The consciousness she helped to raise in the ’60s included her own. The title track from one of her best albums of the 1970s has the added bonus of being where any nascent singer should go to learn how to survey the heights of soul without over-singing.
9. “Until You Come Back to Me (That’s What I’m Gonna Do)”
Not everything Franklin touched became a cultural touchstone, but when the spirit moved through her — which was more often than not — she could essay a perfect pop confection that helped pass the time on a breezy summer afternoon.
10. “(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman”
Think of this as the original blockbuster ballad like Streisand’s “The Way We Were,” Whitney’s “I Will Always Love You,” or Celine’s “My Heart Will Go On.” And then remember that Aretha got there first, did it better, and outshined them all.