Aretha Franklin was the Queen of Soul. There’s no doubting that, and upon her death in 2018, her legacy was cited again and again. The pipes! The life! The career! And yes, the career: across 40 (what I call) “canonical” albums, Franklin painted an incredible, diverse landscape of the evolution of pop, soul, jazz, funk, disco…“diva” music, as it were, over the course of more than 50 years. She started young, recording and releasing gospel singles in 1956, with her first album (secular this time) coming in 1961; her last was released in 2014. In between, I added a couple of records that go beyond the typical “studio album” designation because of their importance in Franklin’s discography: AMAZING GRACE, a live gospel album, Franklin’s best-selling record, and one highly praised as one of her best, and SPARKLE, a soundtrack to the movie of the same name that essentially stands alone as another Aretha album. Left out of this mix are the assorted other live albums (secular and religious) and catalog retrospectives, from greatest hits to rarities releases. However, I think evaluating 40 albums from one of the best to ever do it (re: perform) should suffice.
#40 — A WOMAN FALLING OUT OF LOVE (2011)
Favorite track: “Sweet Sixteen”
It’s always a little strange to start out these ranked lists with the worst work of an artist I generally like, but I gotta keep the suspense going, ya know…? Anyways, yeah, Franklin’s penultimate album just lacks any of the hooks I look for from an Aretha Franklin record. It’s not that her voice doesn’t hold up; in fact, her late career tone is still powerful and pleasant. But the instrumentation of A WOMAN FALLING OUT OF LOVE feels overproduced, and none of the songs showcase Franklin’s talent particularly potently. “Sweet Sixteen,” a cover of B.B. King’s stellar track, is the lone exception.
#39 — ARETHA (1986)
Favorite track: “Jimmy Lee”
Franklin’s second self-titled record is the nadir of her ’80s output, already the collective low point of her entire recording career. The decade was not kind to many musicians who started out in the ’60s or ’70s, and Franklin was no exception. She vacillated between a number of styles, all of which encompassed the most cliche sounds of ’80s pop or “adult contemporary” music. I may have a slight bias, however, since I consider the ’80s the worst decade for modern, popular music. It’s a testament to Franklin’s skills, however, that the worst of her output doesn’t usually stem from her vocal performance. Usually, it’s a result of her producing and songwriting partners, and the string of them in the ’80s continuously tried to help her retool her image in the wrong direction. “Jimmy Lee” on 1986’s ARETHA is nevertheless a pretty little ditty, and representative of the fact that there is always at least one or two decent tracks on these bottom of these bargain bin records.
#38 — THROUGH THE STORM (1989)
Favorite track: “Think (1989)”
With her re-recording of one of her signature tunes, “Think” (from ARETHA NOW), Franklin unfortunately painted the disparity between the quality of that era of her career and what she had produced by the end of the ’80s. Most of the decade’s albums hit all the tropes of ’80s pop; there is a lot of drum machine, synth, and saxophone going on. Nevertheless, the 1989 version of “Think” takes the cake on THROUGH THE STORM, which relied on “star power” collaborations with the likes of Elton John, Whitney Houston, James Brown, and (shudder) Kenny G. It’s still hard to deny that soaring chorus.
#37 — GET IT RIGHT (1983)
Favorite track: “Every Girl (Wants My Guy)
The follow-up to the career-revitalizing, Luther Vandross-produced JUMP TO IT, GET IT RIGHT nevertheless didn’t hit it big in spite of Vandross’ continued involvement. His early ’80s R&B, almost adult contemporary sound is in fact worse on this record. In case you’re not aware, adult contemporary, in my book, just refers to generally bland soft rock/R&B/pop music that came of age in the ’80s. It just doesn’t do anything to excite. However, the bass line on “Every Girl (Wants My Guy)” is groovy, and the chorus relatively catchy. I think the biggest sin of these early ’80s records, though, is that they relatively cover up Aretha’s voice; they’re just not mixed very well, or maybe Franklin’s own voice was hitting some difficulties at this period in her life.
#36 — JUMP TO IT (1982)
Favorite track: “Jump to It”
The aforementioned JUMP TO IT, the predecessor to GET IT RIGHT, was Franklin’s first big hit in six years. It broke a record as Franklin’s tenth #1 R&B album, and its title track entered the Top 40 Pop charts and hit #1 as well. All this commercial success, however, ebbed even by the next year and album, and continued off-and-on through the decades. Besides the commercial considerations, as I’ve reiterated, it also resides at the beginning of a string of critical disappointments, at least for me. “Jump to It” has another funky bass line, I must admit, but its chorus borders on the annoying and once again overproduces Franklin’s voice so much as if to relegate it to the background.
#35 — A ROSE IS STILL A ROSE (1998)
Favorite track: “I’ll Dip”
The umpteenth “comeback” album for Aretha, A ROSE IS STILL A ROSE was probably her most acclaimed release in the ’90s. That’s not necessarily a huge achievement, as she only released two records in the decade; it was one of the few periods, besides the gap between ARETHA (1986) and THROUGH THE STORM, that she didn’t put out an album every year. A ROSE IS STILL A ROSE was recognized for Franklin’s collaborations with hip hop and contemporary R&B songwriters and producers, such as Lauryn Hill and Diddy. The result is a middling update of Franklin’s ’80s sound, in spite of the claims that it was a deviation from that era. Oh sure, maybe its sound is more in line with the ’90s upgrade of mainstream popular R&B. But ultimately, A ROSE IS STILL A ROSE’s collective thrust is weaker than desired. “I’ll Dip” is the best track from the album; it’s kind of catchy, but still carries the “cheese” of the ’80s. The whole record would be Franklin’s last big hit.
#34 — LAUGHING ON THE OUTSIDE (1963)
Favorite track: “Make Someone Happy”
Ah, now we’re to the ’60s. Released at a time when Franklin was not only releasing a record a year, but occasionally multiple, LAUGHING ON THE OUTSIDE was, however, her singular album of 1963. “Skylark” is a decent song, and “Make Someone Happy” (from the musical DO RE MI ) is probably quite familiar as a constant standard among a number of recording artists. But as a ramp up to Franklin’s late ’60s soul sound from her early ’60s jazz-pop beginnings, LAUGHING ON THE OUTSIDE just falls by the wayside. It’s a little too soft, already kind of conventional, and I didn’t find myself really grabbed by it; it’s not offensive, though, by any means.
#33 — THE TENDER, THE MOVING, THE SWINGING ARETHA FRANKLIN (1962)
Favorite track: “Try a Little Tenderness”
THE TENDER, THE MOVING, THE SWINGING ARETHA FRANKLIN, in spite of its 46-character title, was Franklin’s “breakout” album. Her third album, however, has a similar problem to LAUGHING ON THE OUTSIDE; to me, it lacks the power to be found elsewhere in Aretha’s ’60s beginnings, whether at the beginning or near the end of the decade. The period in between just didn’t hit the same highs.
#32 — LET ME IN YOUR LIFE (1974)
Favorite track: “Until You Come Back to Me (That’s What I’m Gonna Do)”
Released in the middle of Franklin’s acclaimed Atlantic and (producer) Jerry Wexler period, LET ME IN YOUR LIFE was a commercial and critical success. Nevertheless, the album settles into a low-grade sameness that leaves it in relatively low esteem. “Until You Come Back to Me (That’s What I’m Gonna Do),” however, is one of Aretha’s best songs, period. I’m being a real great critic here, but I can’t quite put my finger on why LET ME IN YOUR LIFE doesn’t appeal to me; it has a ’70s soul sound that I should love, but it never hits the highs I expect.
#31 — ARETHA (1980)
Favorite track: “What a Fool Believes”
Aretha’s other (first) self-titled album started off her fallow decade. Perhaps it’s not a coincidence, either, that it was her first record away from Atlantic. Whatever the reason, ARETHA was a reined-in follow up to the much maligned disco album LA DIVA, and in that step, it actually became less interesting. “What a Fool Believes” still carries the disco spirit, though, and I can’t claim the record isn’t decent.
#30 — UNFORGETTABLE: A TRIBUTE TO DINAH WASHINGTON (1964)
Favorite track: “Evil Gal Blues”
Early in her career, Franklin paid tribute to another queen (of the blues): Dinah Washington. The result, UNFORGETTABLE: A TRIBUTE TO DINAH WASHINGTON, is admirable. It is, however, in a world apart from Washington, who nevertheless had died just one year before UNFORGETTABLE came out. I’m not saying Washington or Franklin is better, although I have listened to the latter much more, but this record, for some reason, doesn’t seem to be the best Franklin could do with the material, nor a full continuation of Washington’s legacy. It’s an enjoyable listen, however, and the rousing “Evil Gal Blues” is far and away the best track on UNFORGETTABLE.
#29 — SOFT AND BEAUTIFUL (1969)
Favorite track: “People”
SOFT AND BEAUTIFUL was kind of uncharacteristic for Aretha’s late ’60s output, and that’s because it was recorded in 1964. Released by Columbia two years after Franklin had already gone over to Atlantic, SOFT AND BEAUTIFUL falls in with the other mid-60s records that I’ve described as, well, too soft. It can be said, though, that the lush orchestration on tracks like “People” is beautiful, as are Aretha’s vocals on the song. The record feels lesser, however, when taken in as part of Franklin’s massive discography.
#28 — YEAH!!! (1965)
Favorite track: “Muddy Water”
Sometimes, a prolific artist can enter a mill of similarity. That’s the case with, again, Franklin’s mid-60s work. What’s remarkable, however, is that her similarity is still miles away from the most middling jazz of the era. There’s a reason why Aretha is acclaimed as one of the greatest singers of all time, and even if the jazz standards she sings don’t always hit like her soon-to-come, updated sound, a record like YEAH!!! is still a great dinner listen. “Muddy Water” is a lively track that sells the album, which could also, coincidentally, get you on your feet to also clean the house. I may have done that.
#27 — ARETHA FRANKLIN SINGS THE GREAT DIVA CLASSICS (2014)
Favorite track: “Midnight Train to Georgia”
I struggled with putting Aretha’s final album this high on the list. It’s not that I didn’t like it; obviously, quite the opposite. But I reckoned with its too-slick production and its place in a discography where richer sounds abound. But there’s a soulfulness in Franklin’s voice that can’t be found anywhere else in her oeuvre, even on her preceding record A WOMAN FALLING OUT OF LOVE. She ended her recording career with a quintessential quality “late period” work, a recursive record that sees Chaka Kahn’s “I’m Every Woman” interpolated by “Respect.” There’s a finality to Franklin recognizing the divas both before and after her. Her version of “Midnight Train to Georgia” is far and away the best track on ARETHA FRANKLIN SINGS THE GREAT DIVA CLASSICS, and a settling, modern send-off for an incredible career.
#26 — SO DAMN HAPPY (2003)
Favorite track: “Holdin’ On”
SO DAMN HAPPY was what critics claimed A ROSE IS STILL A ROSE to be: a refreshing embrace of then-modern sounds. “Holdin’ On” is a genuinely good 2000s R&B track, with some great backing vocals, and just one of a number of tracks on the record that actually hit strong pop hooks. It’s not an incredible album, and isn’t without its cheese, but SO DAMN HAPPY is a semi-impressive middling record.
#25 — THE ELECTRIFYING ARETHA FRANKLIN (1962)
Favorite track: “I Told You So”
The cover of Franklin’s second album illustrates the disparity between her earliest releases and the stuff to come out over the next few years. THE ELECTRIFYING ARETHA FRANKLIN is indeed electrifying, with Aretha belting out her songs, rather than crooning, as was the case for the next couple of years (with notable exceptions on each of the records to come). This is livelier jazz, and somehow cleverer and slicker.
#24 — LOVE ALL THE HURT AWAY (1981)
Favorite track: “Hold On, I’m Comin’”
LOVE ALL THE HURT AWAY was one of Franklin’s few ’80s successes. Her version of “Hold On, I’m Comin’” is undeniably fun, and it still retains the flavor of the ’70s that I so appreciate. It’s not without its echoes of the malaise to come with Vandross productions, but it’s a fun listen through, with a diversity of tempos and covers to keep one’s attention. I really don’t know if I can understate, too, how much heavy lifting “Hold On, I’m Comin’” does. It’s so good.
#23 — WHAT YOU SEE IS WHAT YOU SWEAT (1991)
Favorite track: “You Can’t Take Me for Granted”
At first listen, WHAT YOU SEE IS WHAT YOU SWEAT kind of annoyed me. Aretha’s version of “Everyday People,” an incredible song, just couldn’t reach the same highs. The record was in a weird place between her adult contemporary stuff, the ’80s dance sound she found success with when she made WHO’S ZOOMIN’ WHO?, and the emerging fusion of R&B and hip hop in the early ’90s. After repeat listens, however, I came to the conclusion WHAT YOU SEE IS WHAT YOU SWEAT is just a fun listen. “Everyday People,” while not as good as Sly and the Family Stone’s version, is still potent, and “You Can’t Take Me for Granted” is kind of a guilty pleasure. Its chorus is just so catchy; I feel guilty because its verses are a bit cliche, musically, and its lyrics are a little goofy. But these songs are just indicative of an album that maybe shouldn’t have been as good as it was.
#22 — WHO’S ZOOMIN’ WHO? (1985)
Favorite track: “Who’s Zoomin’ Who?”
WHO’S ZOOMIN’ WHO? was a big record. It was one of Franklin’s many comeback records, but perhaps the most pivotal one. WHO’S ZOOMIN’ WHO? is her only platinum studio album (that’s barring AMAZING GRACE), and its plethora of singles got a ton of airplay. Synthy, dancey, poppy, WHO’S ZOOMIN’ WHO? is another record I could have balked at. I’ve been done in by the ’80s nostalgia so much that it has me biased against the pure fun of a record like WHO’S ZOOMIN’ WHO? It’s not as rich or “principled” as the ’60s and ’70s stuff, and it’s a bit of a reach to turn Franklin into an ’80s version of a pop star, but damn it, its title track is catchy, and so are “Freeway of Love” and “Sisters Are Doing It for Themselves.” Quite obviously, and almost literally, this marks a transition point in my list from middling records to a consistent ramp up in quality.
#21 — SONGS OF FAITH (1965)
Favorite track: “He Will Wash You White As Snow”
SONGS OF FAITH, like SOFT AND BEAUTIFUL, was uncharacteristic for the time it was released. That’s because, like SOFT AND BEAUTIFUL, it was released after years to capitalize on Franklin’s success. SONGS OF FAITH was recorded in 1956 by J-V-B Records, and singles were released shortly afterward; but the whole record was released nine years later by Checker. Aretha was 14 when it was recorded, and SONGS OF FAITH stands as her only gospel studio album. By comparison to most anything else in her discography, SONGS OF FAITH could be described as “raw.” Its production isn’t streamlined, it isn’t mixed to maximize the power of her voice, and it doesn’t always come through super clear. It’s all the more impressive, then, that SONGS OF FAITH is, fittingly, a kind of spiritual experience, a glimpse into the very beginnings of an incredible talent. Franklin is backed by tremendous singers, and her piano playing is on point. This is a special little record, and although it doesn’t have the pop sensibilities that would define Aretha’s best work, it’s easy to slip into its magical dimension.
#20 — YOU (1975)
Favorite track: “Mr. D.J. (5 for the D.J.)”
Ah, the ’70s. With YOU, Franklin started a big slump that resulted in a number of records from the period still not being re-released. But if I’ve been critical of her ’80s output, I think the records released in the mid-to-late-70s are unfairly maligned. They’re simply fun, groovy records, and YOU is no exception. It was Franklin’s last collaboration with Wexler, and if it isn’t the most ideal send-off, it’s hard for me to resist the production and instrumentation of the record. “Mr. D.J. (5 for the D.J.)” is the most representative track for why I like YOU, and while its poppy chorus isn’t quite matched elsewhere on the album, it kicks off a snappy listening experience.
#19 — TAKE IT LIKE YOU GIVE IT (1967)
Favorite track: “Take It Like You Give It”
TAKE IT LIKE YOU GIVE IT is the predecessor to perhaps Aretha’s most legendary album, besides AMAZING GRACE: I NEVER LOVED A MAN THE WAY I LOVE YOU. When you make such a comparison, it’s hard to bring the most favorable assessment of TAKE IT LIKE YOU GIVE IT. However, it was such an important step for the Queen of Soul. This was a record that, along with SOUL SISTER, set up the move to Atlantic and a full embrace of the changing sounds. Its standards are updated with a livelier tone and broader appeal, making TAKE IT LIKE YOU GIVE IT a brilliant middle to the trilogy that ended with the record that gave us “Respect.”
#18 — WITH EVERYTHING I FEEL IN ME (1974)
Favorite track: “Don’t Go Breaking My Heart”
Another un-re-released relic of the end of Franklin’s Atlantic tenure, WITH EVERYTHING I FEEL IN ME was an awakening from LET ME IN YOUR LIFE. It’s vibrant, funky, and emotional, best epitomized by “Don’t Go Breaking My Heart.” This is key, fun ’70s soul and pop, and I don’t know what else to say about it.
#17 — ARETHA: WITH THE RAY BRYANT COMBO (1961)
Favorite track: “Won’t Be Long”
Aretha Franklin’s debut album is probably the next closest record to the “rawness” of SONGS OF FAITH. She came out of the gate belting, which was reined in across the next few albums and unleashed once again near the end of the decade. Franklin was only 18 when she recorded ARETHA: WITH THE RAY BRYANT COMBO, but the certainty with which she approaches the jazz and pop standards on the record, supported by the aforementioned Ray Bryant Combo, is beyond her years. This is a great record, full-stop, and the start (on this list) of a number of Aretha Franklin records I would be inclined to put on at any given time.
#16 — HEY NOW HEY (THE OTHER SIDE OF THE SKY) 
Favorite track: “Mister Spain”
HEY NOW HEY (THE OTHER SIDE OF THE SKY) was Franklin’s secular follow up to the success of AMAZING GRACE. It toned down the power of that live album in favor of a low-key, yet not attractive, sound. “Mister Spain” is the standout song, fusing the jazz standard sound of the other tracks with then-modern soul/funk. The rest of the record fits into a groove nevertheless; HEY NOW HEY is a relaxing, enveloping listen…
#15 — AMAZING GRACE (1972)
Favorite track: “How I Got Over”
…as is AMAZING GRACE. Well, maybe not relaxing, but it certainly envelops you. This album, recorded live during a legendary live performance, is uplifting and otherworldly. I always feel compelled by gospel music, and this is one of the greats of the genre. The confluence of Franklin’s voice, her backup singers, and the piano/guitar/organ trifecta has the effect of making the listener feel like they are themselves ascending to heaven. In spite of this praise, though, AMAZING GRACE takes “only” the fifteenth spot because it isn’t exactly something you listen to all the time. It’s strange to pick a single track, because AMAZING GRACE is really meant to be taken in all at once, but “How I Got Over” is widely appreciated for a reason.
#14 — SWEET PASSION (1977)
Favorite track: “Touch Me Up”
Although the records to come on this list are less “important” than AMAZING GRACE, they have the distinction of being immensely listenable as a whole, with a number of stand out tracks to pick out as well. Aretha had another commercial flop on her hands with SWEET PASSION, after the comeback success of SPARKLE, but I still really enjoy the album. It’s not exactly a disco album, but it seems to be an important transition step between the ’70s funk and the soon-to-be cemented mainstream success of disco. The blaring horns and beat of “Touch Me Up” keep me moving in my seat even as I write this, indicative of the effect of most of the record.
#13 — LA DIVA (1979)
Favorite track: “Only Star”
OK, LA DIVA was the infamous disco album. After her contribution to soul, which then fed into the proliferation of disco, some saw Franklin’s full attempt to keep up with the times (a couple of years late) as regrettable and, well, bad. And, yeah, disco sucks blah blah blah…but it also kind of rules. Franklin reclaimed the already dying disco sound for herself with LA DIVA, and her own songwriting contribution “Only Star” is one of the best songs in her entire catalog. It’s incredibly catchy, and is situated in the middle of a track list that runs a gamut of disco tendencies turned up to 11, appropriate for La Diva herself.
#12 — ARETHA ARRIVES (1967)
Favorite track: “Satisfaction”
Hey, did you know Aretha arrived six years after her debut album with her twelfth since then? Well, even if she arrived long before ARETHA ARRIVES, she sure showed up again for this record. Her third release in 1967, and the follow up to I NEVER LOVED A MAN THE WAY I LOVE YOU, ARETHA ARRIVES certainly lies in the shadow of its predecessor. But if its biggest crime is that it’s not as good as an amazing record, it deserves reevaluation. Her version of the Rolling Stones’ “Satisfaction” is a good enough cover that it really deserves status as a full-blown, separate work, and the soulful takes on a number of other standards and another ’60s rock track, “96 Tears,” really shine.
#11 — SOUL ’69 (1969)
Favorite track: “Tracks of My Tears”
SOUL ’69 closed out the first decade of Aretha’s career with a relatively low-key continuation of her evolving soul sound. Just hear the opening bass line from “Tracks of My Tears” and you might get the picture on how beautifully simple the record is. There isn’t a dud on the album, and SOUL ’69 is just a great, tight listen.
#10 — SOUL SISTER (1966)
Favorite track: “Cry Like a Baby”
I think SOUL SISTER is a pivotal record in shifting Franklin’s mid-60s “soft and beautiful” jazz work to, well, her soul music of the rest of the decade. And no, I don’t just say that because of its title. You can hear it especially in the chorus of “Cry Like a Baby;” the ramping volume of Franklin’s voice and the syncopated horns sounds like something that could have come out six or seven years later. There’s also a greater focus on the blues, really; “Ol’ Man River” and “Swanee” are not characterized as such, but Franklin turns them into something richer.
#9 — RUNNIN’ OUT OF FOOLS (1964)
Favorite track: “Mockingbird”
RUNNIN’ OUT OF FOOLS was a standout record from the mid-60s. This is great pop music, and although the tracks were not written for an Aretha album, they flow into each other and complement her talent perfectly. “Mockingbird” is one of my favorite songs by Franklin, and it opens the ’60s R&B album and sets the tone for a more “fun,” rather than easy, listen than the next few records to come.
#8 — SPIRIT IN THE DARK (1970)
Favorite track: “That’s All I Want from You”
If it sounds like I’m repeating myself a lot, well, try writing about 40 different albums from the same artist. But especially in this portion of the list, I’m describing an incredible run of records that, while thematically similar, offer a wide range of musical experiences that fit into the “soul” moniker. SPIRIT IN THE DARK is no different; I think where it stands out, however, is the update of some of its bluesy songs to the funk sensibilities that would emerge in the next few years. “That’s All I Want from You” illustrates that best, but so do a number of other songs on SPIRIT IN THE DARK, like “Try Matty’s” and the title track.
#7 — ALMIGHTY FIRE (1978)
Favorite track: “Almighty Fire (Woman of the Future)”
Let’s return to that forgotten ’70s period of Aretha’s career to talk about ALMIGHTY FIRE. Written almost entirely by Curtis Mayfield, who had collaborated with Franklin on SPARKLE, ALMIGHTY FIRE succeeds perhaps primarily because of him. The depth of songs like the title track don’t necessarily hit the pop hooks ALMIGHTY FIRE was sandwiched between, but then, maybe it didn’t have to. Mayfield was an incredible songwriter, and because he had such control over this album, it feels like one of Aretha’s most cohesive. That goes a long way in making it one of her strongest, which is full of performances that stretched some of the work she had done before.
#6 — SPARKLE (1976)
Favorite track: “Hooked on Your Love”
Speaking of Curtis Mayfield. SPARKLE was the soundtrack album to the movie of the same name; Franklin’s contribution was singing over the instrumentation and backing vocals provided for the movie’s singing cast. It was another one of those pesky comeback albums for Aretha, and for good reason. Again, it feels cohesive, which can’t really be said for many of the cover- and standard-based records Franklin put out throughout her career. But SPARKLE showcases her vocal talent effectively with funk musicality that shines alongside it; neither Franklin’s voice nor Mayfield’s songwriting chops are covered up.
#5 — THIS GIRL’S IN LOVE WITH YOU (1970)
Favorite track: “Son of a Preacher Man”
Although I just made a little dig at the extensive covering of other songs on other Franklin albums, THIS GIRL’S IN LOVE WITH YOU is one of the most impressive curation of such songs. The Beatles, The Band, Dusty Springfield, and more are represented here, and done great justice. Franklin puts an incredible spin on tracks like “Let It Be,” “Eleanor Rigby,” “The Weight,” and “Son of a Preacher Man.” The last is the album’s best track, and indeed one of Franklin’s best songs period.
#4 — ARETHA NOW (1968)
Favorite track: “I Say a Little Prayer”
ARETHA NOW is simply one of Franklin’s catchiest albums, chock-full of standout tracks from among Aretha’s massive catalog, including the aforementioned “Think.” But “I Say a Little Prayer” is a personal favorite, an undeniably great song among nine others. At just 29 minutes long, ARETHA NOW is on the short side, but if its lacking in length, it’s not lacking in potency. The record is a succinct declaration of soul, full of confidence after a couple of years of increased commercial and critical success. Clearly, ARETHA NOW is one of the best things Franklin ever did.
#3 — YOUNG, GIFTED AND BLACK (1972)
Favorite track: “Young, Gifted and Black”
But besides AMAZING GRACE, YOUNG, GIFTED AND BLACK may be Franklin’s most personal record. Although taken from the song by Nina Simone, YOUNG, GIFTED AND BLACK features a greater number of Franklin-penned songs that combine to make an artistic statement unlike any she made on any other album. I think the title communicates her feelings, and weaving her compositions with well-chosen songs by Paul McCartney and John Lennon, Burt Bacharach, Otis Redding, and Elton John and Bennie Taupin crafts a powerful, immensely listenable album.
#2 — LADY SOUL (1968)
Favorite track: “(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman”
LADY SOUL’s track list reads like a greatest hits compilation, even in the face of nearly fifty more years of a recording career. “(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman” is, deservedly, one of Franklin’s most famous songs; it’s also one of her best. And it’s joined by “Chain of Fools,” “Niki Hoeky,” “(Sweet Sweet Baby) Since You’ve Been Gone;” songs that, in addition to the vast bulk of the album, flesh it out as nearly Franklin’s best. LADY SOUL is comfort food music, without sacrificing engagement.
#1 — I NEVER LOVED A MAN THE WAY I LOVE YOU (1967)
Favorite track: “Respect”
But the default “best” Aretha Franklin album just has to take the cake for me. I NEVER LOVED A MAN THE WAY I LOVE YOU was an incredible, immediate result of Franklin’s growing confidence at Columbia and her move to Atlantic. Her first collaboration with Wexler yielded a near-perfect record; if LADY SOUL reads like a greatest hits album, I NEVER LOVED A MAN THE WAY I LOVE is the greatest hits album. All 11 tracks are near-perfect results of the flourishing of soul music in the 1960s, and they didn’t come from nowhere. Franklin was already a musical veteran by 1967, 11 years after her recording career began. It might seem strange to pursue the experience of a discography that “peaked” 11 albums into a total of 40. But Aretha Franklin is revered as the Queen of Soul because she chose her collaborators well, and performed at a level that few could match. Even in her lesser works, there are things to enjoy. I think it’s the sign of an incredible, everlasting artist that the curios of their canon can still offer worthwhile experiences. And an even greater sign that the incredible, everlasting artist offered high quality experiences again and again besides.