by Jeff Fiedler
Her nickname says it all: she’s the undisputed Queen of Soul. Simply, there’s no one – not simply in soul music, but ANY genre, for that matter – with a voice like Aretha’s, whether your barometer is one based on power, passion, or pure versatility, the last of which she most famously demonstrated in one of the great Grammy moments of all-time, when she stepped in as a last-minute replacement at the 1998 ceremony for a sick Luciano Pavarotti, stunning the crowd by absolutely nailing the opera legend’s signature tune “Nessun Dorma.” It’s a testament to the glory of her voice that the following fourteen signature albums of hers span the gamut from straightforward soul and adult-contemporary balladry to dance-pop, hip-hop and pure gospel. Even the weakest of her albums were always redeemed by that voice, one capable of elevating even the most generic of tunes to something powerful. Unfortunately, Aretha stranded some of her best performances of all on 45s or as added sales bait on best-of discs, so even a full collection of her studio albums will deprive you of such great moments as her spine-tingling gospel-infused rendition of Simon & Garfunkel’s “Bridge Over Troubled Water,” her oh-so-groovy re-arrangement of Ben E. King’s “Spanish Harlem,” the funky “The House That Jack Built,” and her first-rate cover of Marvin Gaye & Tammi Terrell’s “You’re All I Need to Get By,” and her full catalog of hits is moderately tricky to collect in full for that reason. But Aretha’s body of work is about so, so much more than her singles – in fact, her most powerful album of all is one that has no radio hits on it at all – so a best-of doesn’t quite suffice for an artist of her greatness, and even the most casual of Aretha fans still should own copies of her best early outings on Atlantic, where she finally shook off years of obscurity recording for Columbia and quickly – if belatedly – made a name for himself as a force to be reckoned with on the R&B and pop charts alike. Some nicknames are hyperbole, but Aretha’s? Hers is as spot-on as musical nicknames get. Simply, there was no one else quite like Aretha, and there never will be. Reign on, your highness. Reign on.
I Never Loved a Man The Way I Loved You (1967, Atlantic)
It’s not her first album by any stretch of the imagination – her first full-length actually came out in 1956 and she’d been recording at least one album a year for Columbia since 1961 – but this disc – her first for her new home of Atlantic Records – sure feels like the arrival of a brand-new artist. Frankly, Columbia never really seemed to know what to do with her talent, and her tenure with the label was mostly directionless, as the powers-that-be just kept trying one new style on her after another, from standards and supper-club pop to gospel to jazz to, ridiculously enough, a full disc of Dinah Washington covers. Ironically, the one genre Columbia didn’t have Aretha delve into to any substantial degree was the very thing her legend today is built on: pure, unbridled, exuberant soul. Atlantic co-founder and president Ahmet Ertegun was savvy enough to know exactly why Aretha’s career had been floundering up to this point and wisely paired her up with legendary R&B producer Jerry Wexler, let her write some of her own material, and sent her to Muscle Shoals for the initial set of sessions that birthed this disc. The result? An instant classic. The haunting and minimalist dramatic title cut gave Aretha her first Top Ten pop hit and ruled at the top of the R&B chart for seven weeks, while the follow-up single – a radically-rearranged cover of Otis Redding’s “Respect” – did even better, surpassing the Redding original both artistically and commercially and rocketing all the way to Number One on its way to becoming an enduring dancefloor classic for decades to come. While her readings of King Curtis’ “Soul Serenade” and Dan Penn’s “Do Right Woman, Do Right Man” are standouts in their own right, perhaps the biggest surprise is just how strong Aretha’s own writing here is, and “Dr. Feelgood,” “Save Me,” and “Baby Baby Baby” stand up remarkably well to the hit singles on hand. If the Columbia albums didn’t exist, it’s likely this would have gone down as the best R&B debut album of the ‘60s, if not of all-time, but as it is, the album is still easily one of the greatest comeback statements ever crafted by a performer of any genre and is a must-own for any R&B buff.
Lady Soul (1968, Atlantic)
The follow-up to I Never Loved a Man The Way I Loved You was the largely forgettable Aretha Arrives, which boasted one minor classic (“Baby I Love You”) but otherwise was a bit heavy on padding, especially on its cover-heavy first side (which found the Queen of Soul covering everything from the Stones’ “Satisfaction” and ? & the Mysterians’ “96 Tears” to Willie Nelson’s “Night Life” and the standard “You Are My Sunshine”). Aretha’s third album for Atlantic, however, was a monster and a true return to form, containing a sizable number of classics, including the self-penned “(Sweet Sweet Baby) Since You’ve Been Gone,” the lovely “Ain’t No Way” (penned by sister Carolyn Franklin), the slinky and immortal dancefloor favorite “Chain of Fools,” and the much-covered Gerry Goffin-Carole King ballad “(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman.” Even the lesser-known cuts are still wildly entertaining, R&B great Bobby Womack popping up on guitar on “People Get Ready” and “Come Back Baby,” while Eric Clapton, on loan from Cream, handles the guitar work on “Good to Me As I Am to You.” I Never Loved a Man The Way I Loved You is still the more quintessential disc, but if you only pick up one other studio album from the Queen of Soul, Lady Soul is arguably the one to get.
Aretha Now (1968, Atlantic)
It’s a bit on the front-loaded side, but sequencing aside, this disc isn’t all that far-off in quality from Lady Soul and is undeniably one of her three best albums of the ‘60s, even if it clocks in at under a half an hour. This disc is where you’ll find the feisty “Think” and her soul-tinged cover of Dionne Warwick’s “I Say a Little Prayer,” but don’t miss such oft-overlooked lesser hits as “See Saw” and “I Can’t See Myself Leaving You.” The Queen of Soul also turns in a great reading here of the blues classic “Night Time Is the Right Time.”
This Girl’s in Love with You (1970, Atlantic)
Aretha closed out the ‘60s on a brief commercial hiccup with the all-covers Soul ’69, a disc that unfortunately lacked any new self-penned material and failed to yield any sizable crossover hits, but she bounced back nicely with this disc. This Girl’s in Love with You tends to get just lukewarm reviews from most critics, but it’s actually arguably a more adventurous outing than Soul ’69 since its covers venture further outside the realms of R&B and apply Aretha’s ever-soulful voice and way with a gospel ballad to recognizable pop sides that call out for a bit more soul, such as The Band’s “The Weight” (with a guest turn from Duane Allman on guitar!), The Beatles’ “Let It Be” and “Eleanor Rigby,” Dusty Springfield’s “Son of a Preacher Man,” and a gender-flipped version of Herb Alpert’s “This Guy’s in Love with You.” The disc also sports a hit cover of Bobby Bland’s “Share Your Love with Me” and a new first-rate original from Aretha in “Call Me.” For an album sporting four Top 40 hits, it’s shockingly not particularly well-known, but it’s an underrated disc and one deserving critical reappraisal.
Spirit in the Dark (1970, Atlantic)
It doesn’t sport nearly as many hits as This Girl’s in Love with You, but Spirit in the Dark is arguably still the best album from the Queen of Soul since Aretha Now. For starters, it’s her least covers-oriented album yet, Aretha writing four of the twelve cuts (highlighted by “You and Me” and the great heavily gospel-tinged title cut, the latter a #23 hit) and sister Carolyn providing a self-penned cut of her own in “Pullin’.” Secondly, the covers are very well-chosen indeed, highlighted by remakes of Ben E. King’s “Don’t Play That Song” (Aretha’s version of which is arguably the definitive reading and topped the R&B survey, stopping just one spot shy of cracking the pop Top Ten as well), Maxine Brown’s criminally underrated “Oh, No, Not My Baby,” and B.B. King’s “Why I Sing the Blues.” [Aretha even daringly tackles “The Thrill Is Gone” here as well and nearly tops King’s career-making rendition in the process.]
Young, Gifted and Black (1972, Atlantic)
It’s not nearly as famous as any of her ‘60s albums for Atlantic, but this slightly obscure album was both her highest-charting and her first gold album since Aretha Now and spun off one very long string of singles indeed. In fact, you can find a full five of the Queen of Soul’s forty-five Top 40 entries on this one studio album alone, the best of which are penned by Aretha herself, namely “Rock Steady,” “All the King’s Horses,” and, best of all, the wistful “Day Dreaming.” The disc also sports great remakes of Dusty Springfield’s “A Brand New Me,” Lulu’s “Oh Me Oh My (I’m a Fool for You Baby),” Elton John’s “Border Song” (featuring the great Billy Preston on organ) and the Nina Simone-penned title cut. It gets a tad too covers-heavy in its back half, but that’s a minor flaw in what’s otherwise a very solid and criminally overlooked disc.
Amazing Grace (1972, Atlantic)
Okay, we’re cheating a little bit here – technically, this disc was recorded live at Los Angeles’ New Temple Missionary Baptist Church, even if the material itself is new to the Aretha oeuvre. But while this may not quite fully classify as a traditional studio album, it’d be a crime to not include this album in this feature. Not only is the disc her best-selling album, having been certified double-platinum, but it’s a landmark album, not just for Aretha but for gospel music in general. Simply put, this is arguably the greatest of all gospel albums, and no record – whether gospel, pop, soul, or any other genre – better demonstrates the sheer emotional power of Aretha’s singing better than this record does. It’s not a pure gospel album, mind you – Aretha works in covers of Marvin Gaye’s “Wholy Holy” and Carole King’s “You’ve Got a Friend,” but they make perfect sense within the context of the album and don’t stick out in a bad way at all; on the contrary, the King cover is one of the album’s highlights and makes the more famous James Taylor version seem completely emotionless in comparison. But when she does stick to pure gospel, the results are radiant and her performances on tracks like the title cut, “How I Got Over,” and “Give Yourself to Jesus” will give you chills. It may not contain any of her hits or signature tunes, but this might very well be the most awe-inspiring album she ever made.
Hey Now Hey (The Other Side of the Sky) (1973, Atlantic)
It falls short of the greatness of Young, Gifted and Black or Spirit in the Dark, but this intriguing and jazz-tinged disc – the lone full-length from Aretha to be helmed by the great, legendary Quincy Jones – boasts just enough highlights to make it one of Aretha’s more worthwhile post-‘60s outings. There are two hits to be found here, both of them quite underrated: the Aretha-penned “Master of Eyes (The Deepness of Your Eyes)” and, even more memorably, the Carolyn Franklin-penned ballad “Angel,” an R&B Number One smash. But as sharp as Aretha remains with her pen (writing or co-writing a full half of the songs here, including the heavily jazz-flavored “Just Right Tonight”), two of the standouts here not only come from outside but are very left-field excursions indeed: “Somewhere” (which enchantingly features Aretha alongside the great jazz saxophonist Phil Woods, best known to pop audiences for his solo on Billy Joel’s “Just the Way You Are”) is a cover of the great Sondheim-Bernstein number from West Side Story, while “Moody’s Mood for Love” finds the Queen of Soul in her most jazz-oriented setting yet.
Let Me in Your Life (1974, Atlantic)
Just the cast of supporting players alone – which includes the late, great Donny Hathaway, Stanley Clarke, and session greats David Spinozza, Hugh McCracken, Bob James, Willie Weeks, and Bernard Purdie – would make this disc a fun listen, but Aretha (who sadly contributes just two songs this time out) and Jerry Wexler, who returns as co-producer here, have also done a nice job of selecting outside material for Aretha to tackle here. Leon Russell’s “A Song for You,” of course, has been covered by nearly everybody, but its ubiquity doesn’t prevent it from being a highlight and a song that even then was already overdue for a remake by soul’s reigning queen. Even better are the Bill Withers-penned title cut, Bobby Womack’s “I’m in Love,” and best of all, a radiant and snappy version of the Stevie Wonder obscurity “Until You Come Back to Me (That’s What I’m Gonna Do),” arguably the best of all Aretha’s singles from the ‘70s and a song that returned her to the Top Three for the first time since 1971’s “Spanish Harlem.”
Sparkle (1976, Atlantic)
To call this a “soundtrack” isn’t quite accurate, even if the cover clearly contains the words “Music from the Warner Bros. Motion Picture.” The songs themselves do indeed hail from the Irene Cara-starring movie of the same name, but the lead vocals have been removed and replaced with new lead vocals from Aretha. It’s a moderately crass idea, yes, but to anyone unfamiliar with the movie, you’re not likely to even take notice of this. What makes this disc notable is that it marks the first and only full-length collaboration between Aretha and R&B legend Curtis Mayfield, who has written and produced all of the eight songs here. Mind you, Mayfield was just slightly past his creative peak at the time he made this record, so it’s not quite as excellent as you might expect it to be, but there are still several gems to be found here, and En Vogue would go on to score a Top Ten smash in 1992 by covering this album’s “Giving Him Something He Can Feel.” It’s a bit unfortunate that Franklin and Mayfield didn’t team up together earlier in the ‘70s, but they still generate just enough magic together to make this an interesting disc and arguably the best thing that either of them would make in the back half of the decade. “Something He Can Feel” would go to #28, but Aretha wouldn’t have another major pop hit for six years.
Jump to It (1982, Arista)
After a very drawn-out commercial slide in the back half of the ‘70s, Aretha finally jumped ship, leaving Atlantic to join Clive Davis’ Arista label in 1980. Her initial albums for the label were only marginally better than her last few for Atlantic (although the singles “United Together” and “Love All the Hurt Away,” the latter a duet with the great George Benson, were reasonably good), but Aretha began to show signs of a creative rebirth with this disc, produced and largely written by a then-surging R&B newcomer named Luther Vandross. The “Never Too Much” singer does a fine job of both making Aretha seem contemporary without playing too much to trends, and the record is also noticeably less dependent on covers of familiar tunes than either of the two previous Arista outings. Though it’s still mildly spotty and stops well shy of quite qualifying as a complete return to form, it was the most tasteful album she had released in years and set the stage quite nicely for the next part of her career, the title cut even supplying Aretha with her first Top 40 hit since 1976.
Who’s Zoomin’ Who (1985, Arista)
Easily her best album since at least Let Me in Your Life and possibly even Amazing Grace, this disc deservedly cemented Aretha’s comeback as a commercial force, even surprisingly becoming her first non-gospel full-length to go platinum! Largely helmed by Narada Michael Walden, best known at this point for producing Whitney Houston’s “How Will I Know,” this disc just bristles with energy and enthusiasm from start to finish and spun off a large string of hits. The feminist anthem “Sisters Are Doin’ It for Themselves” is a collaboration with the then-red-hot Eurythmics, and listening to Aretha team up with the similarly powerful, if not nearly as soulful, Annie Lennox, is great fun. “Freeway of Love” is even more joyful, the E Street Band’s Clarence Clemons delivering the perfect sax fills to complement the wormy groove of Walden’s rhythm track, while Aretha belts her heart out with an exuberance we haven’t quite heard from her on an up-tempo pop single since “Think.” The slinky title cut – a Top Ten cut in its own right – has sadly been a bit forgotten over time and seldom pops up on radio today but is just as delicious, while the snappy “Another Night” might be the most underrated 45 Aretha ever crafted during her years at Arista. If you only have one of Aretha’s albums for Arista in your collection, this should be it.
Aretha (1986, Arista)
There’s no question of this being a spottier disc than its predecessor, but Aretha is nonetheless still quite a fun listen. She duets with R&B great Larry Graham (Sly & the Family Stone, Graham Central Station) on “If You Need My Love Tonight” and even recruits Keith Richards to provide the guitar work on her cover of the Rolling Stones’ “Jumpin’ Jack Flash.” [Vinyl collectors, take note: the earliest pressings of the 45 for Aretha’s cover of the latter were pressed on clear vinyl and packaged in a picture sleeve featuring the Queen of Soul and the Rolling Stone posing together.] “Jimmy Lee” strangely only reached #28 but is one of Aretha’s finest post-“Until You Come Back to Me” singles, boasting a killer gospel-tinged intro in its full-length album version and a great shuffle-based groove that calls to mind Billy Ocean’s “When the Going Gets Tough, The Tough Get Going.” The biggest standout of all here, though, is the fiery duet “I Knew You Were Waiting (for Me),” a Number One smash that finds Aretha duetting with – and, naturally, completely blowing away – one of the then-biggest pop stars on the planet, George Michael, who does a great job in his own right of trying to hold his own, even if it’s ultimately an exercise in futility to try to out-sing Aretha Franklin. Aretha would sadly lose her way again shortly after, beginning with 1989’s Through the Storm (which boasts a fine hit duet with Elton John in the title cut but has way too much padding for an album with just eight tracks, including an unnecessary re-recording of “Think” and an equally unnecessary remix of the 1980 album track “Come to Me”), but her mid-‘80s comeback sure was fun while it lasted, as this disc demonstrates.
A Rose Is Still a Rose (1998, Arista)
Following 1986’s Aretha, soul’s reigning queen again started to fumble about for a direction, alternating between adult-contemporary sides and experiments at reinventing herself as a dance diva. The former was naturally a better fit, but she struggled to find infectious material, and like labelmate and one-time duet partner Whitney Houston (who she’d teamed up with on Through the Storm’s “It Isn’t, It Wasn’t, It Ain’t Never Gonna Be”), Aretha closed out the ‘90s by immersing herself into hip-hop. On paper, this sounds like a horrible idea, but it actually works strangely well – chalk it up to her knack for bringing in top-notch collaborators; Jermaine Dupri contributes “Here We Go Again,” Dallas Austin offers up “I’ll Dip,” and the great Lauryn Hill contributes the highly appealing title cut, which would become Aretha’s first Top 40 hit since 1994’s “Willing to Forgive” and sadly remains her last Top 40 hit to date. Although Aretha still naturally sounds best in a pure-soul setting, not only does Aretha manage to sound contemporary here without embarrassing herself, but the disc holds up as a whole better than anything she had done in twelve years.