The best of Aretha Franklin: Five essential albums by the Queen of Soul

Aretha Franklin was universally known as the Queen of Soul.

She had more than 100 singles on the Billboard charts, including 17 songs that were top 10 pop singles and 20 that were No. 1 R&B hits. She won 18 Grammy Awards along with a lifetime achievement award in 1994. She sold more than 75 million records worldwide, making her one of the best-selling musical artists of all time.

Mary J. Blige said of Aretha: “Aretha is a gift from God. 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.”

Through a career spanning more than half a decade, she recorded 38 studio albums and six live albums. Here are five of those records that showcase the musical power and spirituality of Aretha Franklin.

Songs of Faith (1965)

These are the very first recordings of Aretha Franklin, captured in 1956 but not released as an album until 1965. At just 14 years old, she blows the roof off of the New Bethel Baptist Church in Detroit. Her performance is unparalleled, especially during her rendition of Precious Lord.  If you listen closely, you can even hear her proud father — the Reverend C. L. Franklin — in the background yelling to the congregation, “Listen to that!” This live recording is a must-have not just for fans of soul or gospel music, but for appreciators of music in general.

I Never Loved a Man the Way I Love You (1967)

In the early ’60s, Aretha recorded several jazzy and relatively restrained records for Columbia. In 1967, Jerry Wexler signed her to Atlantic Records and let her be Aretha. He took her to FAME Studios in Muscle Shoals, Ala., where she and the house band The Swampers created this explosive breakthrough record. Legend has it that Aretha burst into the studio on the first day of recording and told the band, “Get your damn shoes on, you’re getting someone who can really sing.” The house band laughed off her introduction, but the laughing stopped when she stepped up to the microphone and unleashed that powerful voice. The album opens with Respect, an Otis Redding tune that Franklin made her own. Beyond that, I Never Loved a Man the Way I Love You finds Franklin truly coming into her own as a songwriter. By the end of 1968, she had nine top-10 hits to her name.

Lady Soul (1968)

Jerry Wexler called Aretha Franklin “the lady of mysterious sorrows.” I Never Loved a Man the Way I Love You would have been hard to top, but she did it. Lady Soul sees Aretha grow as an artist. She and the rhythm section flex their muscles on classics like Chain of Fools, Money Won’t Change You and Ain’t No Way. The highlight is (You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman, a song that Carole King wrote specifically for Franklin and that became her signature song. If you only ever buy one Aretha Franklin record, this should be the one.

Aretha Live at Fillmore West (1971)

On March 5, 1971, Aretha Franklin played one of the last shows ever performed at the legendary Fillmore West in San Francisco. With backing by King Curtis’s red-hot band, Aretha’s set was one of the greatest live performances ever recorded. Often sitting at the Fender Rhodes, she dives into some of her signatures as well several of the era’s pop hits like Eleanor Rigby and Bridge Over Troubled Water. Just when you think she can’t take you any higher, Franklin calls Ray Charles to the stage and they turn the Fillmore into a church with a boisterous version of Spirit in the Dark.

Amazing Grace (1972)

This historic live set took place in January of 1972 at the New Temple Missionary Baptist Church in Los Angeles. The recording became Aretha Franklin’s biggest-selling album and the top-grossing gospel record of all time. Writer Jon Landau wrote, “Aretha sings like never before on record.” This album truly is a religious experience. She didn’t show up in church that day looking for Jesus — she brought him with her.

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