Aretha Franklin is one of the greatest soul singers of the 20th Century. At her peak, she had a powerful voice that combined pop, gospel, rock, and soul. While she’s not terribly versatile, when she’s performing the kind of music that suits her best (soul, gospel, pop) most of her work is transcendental. Her best work is in the 60s, though she’s made some legendary work in the 70s, as well. The 80s to the 2010s were not the best for Franklin – it was at that point that instead of being a trendsetter, she was jumping on various pop music trends and her music was too fadish, which made much of her work during her later period dated.
Like Barbra Streisand or Diana Ross, Franklin has a huge discography, and after her commercial and artistic peak, her output became pretty spotty, but there were still solitary moments of excellence (if not excellence, at least they were enjoyable).
I Never Loved a Man the Way I Loved You (1967) – after years of being mismatched with jazz, supperclub music and pop standards, Franklin finally found her sound at Atlantic Records. This set contains her classic hit “Respect” (actually, a superior cover of the Otis Redding song), and the fantastic soulful ballad “Do Right Woman, Do Right Man.” The title cut is also great. Even though these songs were the hits, the album cuts are just as good that include a wonderful mix of covers and originals (some penned by Franklin).
Lady Soul (1968) – Another classic, genre-busting set that follows the format of I Never Loved a Man the Way I Loved You – a batch of covers, originals, and some self-penned tunes. “Chain of Fools” is a great song that chugs along with a great beat. “Ain’t No Way” is a wonderful soulful ballad written by Franklin’s sister Carolyn, who should’ve been a more prolific pop songwriter. Franklin also does a poignant cover of Curtis Mayfield’s “People Get Ready.” The highlight of the album is Franklin’s cover of Carole King’s stately “(You Make Me Feel Like) a Natural Woman.”
Spirit in the Dark (1970) – just misses the level of brilliance of Lady Soul or I Never Loved a Man the Way I Love You, this is still a very good album. She proves with her wonderful cover of “Oh Not Not My Baby” that after fellow 60s soul diva Dusty Springfield, she’s one of the best interpreters of the Carole King songbook. Franklin also gets great support from one of the best backup session vocalists, the Sweet Inspirations (that had Cissy Houston as one of its members). While none of the songs stand out above the rest, it’s still a satisfyingly consistent set of songs.
Aretha Live at Fillmore West (1971) – a great live set with Franklin performing at the famed Fillmore West, that was more famous for hosting rock acts. She performed her big hits for the appreciative audience, and it’s great to hear these songs in this setting, but it’s covers of the rock songs that make the album worthwhile, like the Beatles “Eleanor Rigby,” Stephen Stills’ “Love the One You’re With” and Simon and Garfunkel’s “Bridge Over Troubled Water.” She does Diana Ross’ “Reach Out and Touch (Somebody’s Hand)” beautifully, too.
Young, Gifted and Black (1972) – despite the misappropriation of “Respect” as a Civil Rights anthem, Franklin was never really a political artist. She’s tied to the Civil Rights Movement, but more because of her popular crossover success as well as her association with some of the movement’s greatest leaders; some of her music is socially conscience or topical, but overall, she’s known more for singing tunes of heartache or romance. The title cut of this album – written by Nina Simone – is one of the few moments Franklin sings of more weighty subject, but the rest of the album shows Franklin’s range as a singer. “Rock Steady” is a great swinging, funky number; “Oh Me Oh My (I’m a Fool for You Baby)” is a beautiful, lilting ballad with some great backup support; and “Day Dreaming” is one Franklin’s best, if most distinct hits, with its slightly hazy intro of layered vocals, before it turns into a classic, piano-driven soul number. She’s also masterful when covering other artists like Elton John, the Beatles, and Otis Redding.
Amazing Grace (1972) – Franklin’s greatest live album, and a strong contender for her greatest album. As fantastic as she is singing soul music, she shows just how awe-inspiring her gospel singing is. Unfettered by studio gloss or session musicians, Franklin sounds right at home singing in church in front of a very enthusiastic audience.
Who’s Zoomin’ Who? (1985) – Franklin’s sole classic record of the 80s suffers a bit from the dated production of some of the songs, but over all, this is a surprisingly consistent effort of latter day Franklin music. The title song is a fun slab of dance-pop, with a fat, thick bass and a thundering piano and a sly, no-nonsense performance by Franklin. “Freeway of Love” is a good, if slight, 80s dance song, helped by a wonderfully soulful wailing sax by virtuoso Clarence Clemmons; Franklin does some light rock with “Another Night” which benefits from Franklin’s passionate shouting, despite its cluttered sound; and she’s got good support from Eurythmics frontwoman Annie Lennox – a good soul singer in her own right – who band together for a rousing feminist anthem. The album isn’t as good as her classic work from the 60s, but it’s very good nonetheless.
The Very Best of Aretha Franklin: The 60’s (1994) – If you don’t want to buy any of her studio albums, then this would be the one Aretha Franklin CD (along with its sequel) to buy. Filler-less, it contains all of her big hits of the 1960s like “Respect,” “I Never Loved a Man (The Way I Love You),” “Chain of Fools,” “(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman,” among others – Franklin at her peak performed some of the most compelling and soulful music ever recorded.
The Very Best of Aretha Franklin: The 70’s (1994) – The level of artistry was a little spottier for Franklin during the 1970s, but this second collection of hits is remarkably consistent – she still released some brilliant singles in the 70s, avoiding for the most part, trends like disco or psychedelic soul. The songs are more ambitious in their scope and production and her work took a more somber and mature turn from much of her radio-ready stuff from the 1960’s. If one thing was certain, Franklin was still arguably the greatest soul singer working in that decade, her talent and musicianship unmatched.
Greatest Hits 1980-1994 (1994) – Franklin’s Arista years in the 1980s weren’t her greatest. Far too much of her work from that decade bore its excesses, namely heavy, gaudy production with intrusive, cold synthesizers that often sounded at odds with Franklin’s gospel-hewed wail. Still, this collection is good because it contains the best of her work, some of which can be very good. Luther Vandross was an extremely sympathetic producer, being able to bring the 60s soul legend into the 80s with some decent credibility with the bouncy “Get It Right” and “Jump to It” (unfortunately, their duet “Doctor’s Orders” is awful with its loud early 90s dance-pop production). There are a few new songs on this compilation, the best being “A Deeper Love,” Franklin’s excellent attempt at house music.
A Rose Is Still a Rose (1998) – by the late 90s, Franklin was a huge legend, but was coasting on her status and career longevity. The decade was the worst of Franklin’s recorded career, and while this is far from brilliant, it’s a surprisingly strong set – and the last of her career so far that is a worthy entry in her discography. There are still a few too many nods towards then-trendy hip-hop production trends, but Franklin’s surrounded herself with some top-notch urban producers who for the most part, put her still-mighty voice in some interesting productions. Lauryn Hill crafts the excellent title track, which probably Franklin’s strongest single of the 90s – it has a stuttering, sinewy beat and proves that the soul legend can move her heavy voice nimbly to keep up. None of the other cuts reach the height of the Hill song, but it’s still a very good effort from a singer who hasn’t released a strong LP in a while.