This article was originally posted on Oct. 7, 2015. We’re republishing to honor the achievements of Aretha Franklin, who died this morning at the age of 76.
You don’t earn the title Queen of Soul without turning in your share of outstanding vocal performances, so it should come as no surprise that this list of Aretha Franklin’s best could be much, much longer. There’s no cover of Bridge Over Troubled Water here, no The House That Jack Built No Since You’ve Been Gone (Sweet Sweet Baby), and no cover of I Say A Little Prayer. But in limiting ourselves to the most exceptional pieces of her extensive repertoire, we’ve compiled the 10 best songs by Aretha Franklin.
Franklin penned this 1967 track with her husband at the time, Ted White, and whatever…uh, chemistry the two may have had is evident as Aretha lays down some of her sexiest vocals ever, announcing she’s got a man named Dr. Feelgood and that you’ll understand where he gets his name after just one visit.
That minor chord gives “Chain of Fools” a woefulness fitting for a song about being duped by an ex-lover, but there’s no weakness here. When the guitar cuts out and we’re left with Aretha belting “you told me to leave you alone” backed solely by drums and some “ooo”s from her backup singers, the power is palpable, and we get the sense that she’s gonna be just fine.
“Do Right Woman, Do Right Man” lays out a simple concept: give me the attention and respect I deserve, or I’ll find it elsewhere. After all, “a woman’s only human, you should understand / she’s not just a plaything, she’s flesh and blood just like her man.” Seems pretty straightforward, but in 1967, such overtly feminist songs were still a relatively new phenomenon in popular music; when Aretha belts “they say it’s a man’s world, but you can’t prove that by me / As long as we’re together, baby, show some respect to me,” she sounds as though she’s fully aware of what’s to come and drawing a line in the sand—either you’re with her, on the right side of history, or you’ll be left behind for a new, do-right man.
You know that part in every rom-com ever where the two leads are temporarily separated and we get the “Determined Protagonist Bettering Him-or-Herself to Win Back Their Love” montage of them cleaning their apartment or helping an old lady cross the street or fixing whatever flaws their partner has discovered to set up their big reunion in the third act? “Share Your Love With Me” could be the soundtrack for every single one of those. For a song about what a shame it’d be if the person she’s got her eye on doesn’t love her, it’s got a surprising confidence—the kind only Aretha can deliver—that makes a relationship sound like an inevitability. And those wails alone probably earned Franklin her third Best Female R&B Vocal Performance Grammy (of eight consecutive ones!).
“Baby I Love You” might be less overtly sexual than “Dr. Feelgood,” but it’s still a steamy number, with Aretha cooing “if you want my loving / if you really do / don’t be afraid baby / just ask me / you know I’m gonna give it to you.” She later instructs the object of her affection to, “stretch out your arms, little boy, you’re gonna get it.” Ain’t no doubt about it—this one’s a classic.
Written by the great Carole King (with her partner Gerry Goffin), ”(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman” is a slow burn, building to that joyful chorus. It’s essentially the musical equivalent of shouting from the mountaintops how in love with someone you are, and when Aretha’s happy, we’re all happy.
That driving piano riff showcases Franklin’s skills on the instrument, and Spooner Oldham’s organ adds some soulful flourish—but like on any Aretha Franklin song, the vocals are the focal point here, as the singer issues a bold warning to her man: think about what you’re doing, and be prepared to face the consequences.
Songs about unrequited love are inherently sad, but “Ain’t No Way” is one of those rare melancholy masterpieces that makes you want to nod knowingly in support and raise your hands in silent agreement while Aretha testifies. To say she sings her heart out on this song would be trite and also a gross understatement—she turns in a wailing vocal performance so good that she manages to overpower Cissy Houston’s otherworldly backup “ooooOOOOOOOOOO”s and make you forget where you are as the horns swell and her pleas to the man who won’t love her back grow more and more desperate. It’s sad, yes, but it’s also life-affirming that there are still people out there like Aretha loving this deeply—whether the feelings are reciprocated or not.
Nearly 50 years after its release, “Respect” is still ubiquitous. This classic Otis Redding cover is not only one of the best Aretha tracks, but also one of the best songs of all time. From that very first “WHAT you want…” it’s clear this is an anthem, one that timed out perfectly with the civil rights era and the feminist movement, but it can be applied to pretty much anyone who’s looking for a little R-E-S-P-E-C-T. Aretha demanded her propers, and nearly half a century later, she still reigns as the Queen of Soul, thanks in no small part to this undeniable track.
Without “I Never Loved A Man (The Way I Love You)”, the Aretha Franklin we know and love may have never existed. Its origin is the stuff of legend—a session in Muscle Shoals was going nowhere until that iconic Wurlitzer riff got things headed in the right direction, and Franklin (who, up until that point, had sung mostly pop for Columbia) delivered one of her best, most soulful performances. It gave Franklin her first big hit and a new sound, and the rest, as they say, is history.