That Aretha Franklin is one of the greatest vocalists the world has ever known isn’t up for debate. Neither is her title as the Queen of Soul. Over the course of her life, she scored 17 top ten hits on the Billboard Hot 100, 20 No. 1s on the R&B charts, 18 Grammys, and over 75 million album sales. But it was never about the numbers with Franklin, it was about the voice, a voice that has never sounded so powerful or more soulful than it does on these 10 best Aretha Franklin songs of all time.
10. I Say A Little Prayer
No one’s going to deny that Dionne Warwick’s version of I Say a Little Prayer is the definitive version. But there’s a lot to be said for Franklin’s impassioned performance. The punchy vocals are a step away from her usual smooth silkiness, but their steeliness adds a welcome edge to this otherwise easiest of easy listening classics. Released in July 1968, it reached number ten on the Hot 100 and number three on the R&B singles chart, becoming the singer’s ninth and last consecutive Hot 100 top 10.
9. Chain of Fools
When Atlantic Records producer Jerry Wexler asked Don Covay to come up with a few songs for Otis Redding, Covay handed him a demo of Chain of Fools, a song he’d written years before when he was singing gospel with his siblings. After listening to the recording, Wexler decided the song would be better placed with Franklin than Redding. it was a wise choice. The power of her vocals takes the song next level. She may be singing about being duped by an ex-lover, but when Franklin belts out “you told me to leave you alone,” you know who’s got the upper hand.
8. Do Right Woman, Do Right Man
As Billboard says, Do Right Woman, Do Right Man is such a quiet record. The arrangement is restrained, Franklin’s organ hums rather than thunders, the piano murmurs, and there’s absolutely nothing to distract from the hushed majesty of the voice and the words. Released on February 10, 1967, it peaked at number 9, spending 11 weeks on the charts in total.
7. Rock Steady
As The Guardian writes, Franklin was, at least at first, imperiously capable of assimilating any new musical trend into her sound. Nowhere is this more obvious than on the gutsy, groovy Rock Steady. The opener is funky, the melody is slinky, the call and response chorus is impossible to resist, and Franklin’s vocals are at the peak of their power. The whole thing is sensational, and a decided highlight of the 1971 album Young, Gifted and Black.
6. Day Dreaming
Written about Franklin’s tempestuous affair with the Temptations singer Dennis Edwards, Day Dreaming is every bit as dreamy as the title implied. Languid, wistful, and deeply sensual, Donny Hathaway’s ethereal electric piano adds the perfect backing to Franklin’s impassioned vocals.
5. I Never Loved A Man (The Way I Love You)
I Never Loved a Man the Way I Love You, Franklin’s 10th studio album but her first with Atlantic, was the album that heralded the arrival of a new soul queen. This was the album that gave us Respect. It gave us Do Right Woman, Do Right Man, Dr. Feelgood, and Drown in My Own Tears. And it gave us the titular track, her debut single for Atlantic and one of her most enduringly popular songs of all time. From the gospel-inflected opener to Franklin’s powerfully emotional delivery, the whole thing is a triumph.
4. Amazing Grace
1972’s live double album Amazing Grace was Franklin’s highest-selling album of her career. It went double platinum, earned a Grammy, and became the highest-selling live gospel music album of all time. You could close your eyes, point at any song on the tracklist, and be guaranteed a winner. But if push came to shove, the titular track is perhaps the most beautiful. Recorded with the accompaniment of the Southern California Community Choir at the New Temple Missionary Baptist Church in Los Angeles, it’s a little slice of heaven.
3. You Make Me Feel Like a Natural Woman
After 10 studio albums and years of paying her dues, Franklin’s star finally went stellar with the release of her first album with Atlantic, I Never Loved a Man the Way I Love You. Within just months of its release, Franklin had songwriters as respected as Carole King and Gerry Goffin queuing up to work with her. Released in 1967, You Make Me Feel Like a Natural Woman was a massive hit, reaching number 8 on the Billboard Hot 100. It’s been a karaoke classic for over 50 years, but even that hasn’t diluted its charms. Shortly after Franklin’s death in 2018, it made history in the UK when it entered the charts a full 51 years after it was first released.
Think could be a song about gaslighting. On the surface, the lyrics certainly seem to suggest it. But dig a little deeper, and you’ll find something more poignant. Recorded just a week after Franklin sang at Martin Luther King’s funeral, the cry for “Freedom!” and the urge to “let yourself be free” have a fraught power that still resonates today.
Obviously, only one song could claim the No.1 spot on our list of the best Aretha Franklin songs of all time, and, just as obviously, that song had to be Respect. Otis Redding’s original was decent enough, but Franklin’s treatment, which included adding the “R-E-S-P-E-C-T” hook and the “Sock it to me” refrain, transformed it from a good song into a groundbreaking one. Her tough, assertive performance turned it from a personal plea for respect into a global demand for equality. “The girl has taken that song from me,” Redding said at the time. “From now on, it belongs to her.” He was right.