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Best Soul Songs: 20 Transcendental Tracks That Define The Genre
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List & Guides

Best Soul Songs: 20 Transcendental Tracks That Define The Genre

Moving the feet as well as the heart, the best soul songs continue to inspire respect for everyone from Otis Redding to Aretha Franklin.

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It’s kept us on the dancefloor for decades with songs that could also make you cry. It’s been the subject of movies, been sampled in hip-hop and it’s a quality everyone likes to believe they have. But what is soul? That’s hard to define, though you know it when you hear it. And it applies to music from every decade from the 50s onwards – if not earlier. Here are the 20 best soul songs in any number of moods and styles. If you can dig every one, you are truly soulful.

20: The Staple Singers: If You’re Ready (Come Go With Me) (from ‘Be What You Are’, 1973)

Family group The Staple Singers produced many contenders for a place among the best soul songs, and their burst of creativity in the early 70s, when they were at Stax Records, was undoubtedly the peak of their exceptionally long career. Respect Yourself, I’ll Take You There, Touch A Hand, Make A Friend… all were powerful fusions of funk, soul and sanctified music, but 1973’s If You’re Ready (Come Go With Me) was the standout. A reggae-influenced mellow groove, a featherlight acoustic feel underpinned by a rock-solid bassline and, out front, Mavis Staple’s soul-stirring voice calling you to a better place. We’re ready to go…

19: Betty Wright: Clean Up Woman (from ‘I Love The Way You Love’, 1972)

There are plenty of soul tunes where one woman speaks to another in an intimate, frank way: the careers of Millie Jackson and Shirley Brown were built on such songs. Here’s another, with Betty Wright, 17 at the time of recording, in 1971, sounding far more worldly wise than her age. Woman, that girl is gonna steal your man, you better wise up. In the background, a stew of brilliant Florida funk churns and bubbles, sliding straight out of the Everglades and into sunny city streets. Thanks for the heads up, Betty – and for this fabulous tune.

18: Clyde McPhatter: A Lover’s Question (single A-side, 1958)

Who invented soul music? Ray Charles had a strong claim to kickstarting the genre, but “The Genius” was not the only pioneer. Clyde McPhatter was the original lead singer of The Drifters, and launched their hitmaking career in 1953. Two years later, he struck out as a solo artist, and the light-stepping A Lover’s Question became his biggest hit, making No.6 in the US chart in 1958. One of the best soul songs from the genre’s formative years, its approach may be very different from the Stax, Motown or Philly sounds, but the soul in McPhatter’s voice shines through. Clyde died in 1972, prompting some veteran soul fans to declare him the greatest singer of their lifetimes – even though his hitmaking run had petered out in 1965, just as soul music was hitting its peak popularity.

17: Barbara Lewis: Hello Stranger (from ‘Hello Stranger’, 1963)

Though 60s soul has a reputation for being either sock-it-to-’em dancefloor stuff or weeping ballads, there was a third way, and Barbara Lewis walks it perfectly on this 1963 story of a lover coming home to her arms. Cushioned by gently popping organ and a floating almost-bossa-nova rhythm, plus a touch of doo-wop harmonies, Lewis’ vocal is the epitome of warmth and longing: she is so glad to see her lover again. So elegant, but don’t be fooled into thinking it is trivial. The US watched its young men head to Vietnam throughout the 60s: who knew if they’d return?

16: Dusty Springfield: A Brand New Me (from ‘A Brand New Me’, 1970)

Though best known these days by the British songstress Dusty Springfield, the first version of A Brand New Me was actually by Jerry Butler, co-composer with Philly soul backroom heroes Thom Bell and Kenny Gamble. Butler delivers its tale of redemption through love in a world-weary way; Dusty adds sparkle and glamour, as if this love has produced fireworks – or maybe sequins! There are many other versions, not least Tinga Stewart’s elegantly regretful reggae interpretation from 1972. All are good; that’s why this is one of the best soul songs of all time.

15: Jenny Burton: Bad Habits (from ‘Jenny Burton’, 1985)

A 1985 electro-dance disco hit created by Fred McFarlane and Allen George, whose Somebody Else’s Guy, produced in a similar style for Jocelyn Brown, receives much more attention. This superb put-down of a toxic lover must have rocked the bad boy to his boots while it made us dance in our Manolos. A fine groove, impeccable singing, and a tune that gets the point all the way home while filling floors. The 80s had soul, too.

14: The Drifters: On Broadway (from ‘Under The Boardwalk’, 1964)

Highly produced, glossy uptown soul from 1963 – the title even mentions a very swanky thoroughfare. But On Broadway is not the celebration of New York City’s showbiz street it first appears to be. The protagonist musing in the shadow cast by the theatre lights is actually on his uppers, having arrived in town with little more than dreams in his pocket and hopes in his empty belly. But he ain’t beat: he’s got his guitar and determination, and one day his name will be in lights. Brilliantly delivered by lead singer Rudy Lewis, and a big US hit.

13: The Supremes: Stop! In The Name Of Love (from ‘More Hits By The Supremes’, 1965)

Composed by Motown songwriting gurus Holland-Dozier-Holland – a trio whose work could fill any number of lists of the best soul songs – this was an almost-mechanical, relentlessly driving record as a No.1 for The Supremes in 1965. However, the song’s basic subtleties were not ignored by Diana Ross and co, and nor was the fundamental humanity of this plea to a straying lover overlooked by other artists who covered it. Among them was the wonderful Margie Joseph, who squeezed every drop of emotion from its lyric and melody when she transformed Stop! In The Name Of Love as only she could for Stax’s Volt imprint in 1971.

12: Aretha Franklin: (You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman (from ‘Lady Soul’, 1968)

The fifth hit of Aretha Franklin’s extraordinary 1967, the year this long-established recording artist set her soul free to find true greatness. Written by Carole King and Jerry Goffin from an idea by the record’s producer, Jerry Wexler, and built at American Sound studio in Memphis, (You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman stands as one of the best Aretha Franklin songs and finds the singer demonstrating her natural soul as well as declaring her naturally strong female state. It was also a highlight of her Lady Soul album, released the following year.

11: Archie Bell And The Drells: (There’s Gonna Be A) Showdown (from ‘There’s Gonna Be A Showdown’, 1969)

Curiously, New York Dolls’ cover of (There’s Gonna Be A) Showdown is now better known than the original by Archie Bell And The Drells. Who do you think is going to be a more authentic street dancer, Archie Lee Bell, who’d been entertaining the people in Houston from the age of ten, or those prancing street punks? Hilarious though the Dolls’ Stonesy makeover was, you can’t lick the original, as Archie declares his steppin’ superiority over his rivals while a glorious Philly groove gives him two minutes and 35 seconds’ worth of reasons to dance. Soul was built for steppin’, and this 1968 thriller is just one superior example among hundreds of songs that celebrate it.

10: The Dramatics: In The Rain (from ‘Whatcha See Is Whatcha Get’, 1971)

When Stax struck a deal with Don Davis’ Detroit-based Groovesville label, Davis brought several acts south to Memphis with him, the best of which was The Dramatics, who were produced by his ally Tony Hester. The group’s biggest hit was the million-selling In The Rain, an atmospheric ballad that was somehow simultaneously sad and uplifting. The song has steadily become appreciated as a classic, and has been much sampled. The second you hear the sound effects at the start, you know tears will fall…

9: Brook Benton: Rainy Night In Georgia (from ‘Brook Benton Today’, 1970)

Talking of rain… Some of the best soul songs conjure a particular feeling – maybe an entire lifetime. Tony Joe White’s Rainy Night In Georgia is one; you can almost hear the raindrops beating on the tin roof of the railway box car and smell it hitting the dust, while Brook Benton, that consummate purveyor of smoky storytelling ballads, explains how he feels about his life at that moment. His is the definitive rendition, though we are also partial to Randy Crawford’s delightfully lush yet poignant 1981 version.

8: Spinners: Ghetto Child (from ‘Spinners’, 1973)

The best soul songs have a remarkable ability to tackle difficult subjects in an appealingly confessional manner. Hence Ghetto Child, the story of growing up dirt poor in the city, told from the perspective of a young man coming to an understanding of the circumstances that created the pain he felt. Produced by Philadelphia magician Thom Bell and co-written by Linda Creed, it’s one of many gems from Spinners’ dazzling debut album for Atlantic. Real-life orphanage boy Philippe Wynne’s vocal is perfectly measured: you feel his pain without any sign of him overselling the poignant tale. But he’s not the only one handling the lead: credit is due, too, to Bobby Smith on the bridge, and Henry Fambrough, who sings the first two lines of the verses. The ghetto was everybody’s personal story.

7: The Royalettes: It’s Gonna Take A Miracle (single A-side, 1965)

The Royalettes, a four-piece Baltimore female vocal group, struck it lucky when their biggest hit came their way. It’s Gonna Take A Miracle was originally intended for another great soul act, Little Anthony And The Imperials, but that group was in dispute with their record label, so the song was passed to The Royalettes. A stately and emotional affair, it made No.41 in the US in 1965, and the hit triggered enough interest for the record label, MGM, to release two albums by the group. The song has seen several great covers, notably by Laura Nyro, Deniece Williams and Alton Ellis, but the original retains a special magic.

6: The Persuaders: Thin Line Between Love And Hate (from ‘Thin Line Between Love And Hate’, 1979)

A curiously touching story about domestic abuse. Soul music has never flinched from the subject, with songs such as Mable John’s Don’t Hit Me No More and Macy Gray’s Still spanning sad decades of relationship violence. The Persuaders’ original version of Thin Line Between Love And Hate, from 1972, is presented as a warning to men not to take their partners’ love for granted. The victim is a fella who has pushed his loved-one’s tolerance to the limit; when she finally flips, he is in hospital, having endured a brush with death. All this is delivered in a gentle, harmonious way, with Douglas “Smokey” Scott sounding like the epitome of the everyday guy, making the storyline all the more shocking. A slice of life from brutal 70s New York City.

5: Sam & Dave: When Something Is Wrong With My Baby (from ‘Double Dynamite’, 1966)

Originally tucked away on Sam & Dave’s 1966 album, Double Dynamite, When Something Is Wrong With My Baby was much more than album fodder, asserting itself among the best soul songs when it became a No.2 R&B hit in 1967. It reveals the sensitive side of the duo often portrayed as a hard-dancing good-time soul act. They were so much more than that: both Dave Prater and Sam Moore could have been solo singing stars in their own right, as this hymn to empathy, penned by Isaac Hayes and David Porter, makes clear. The perfect Stax ballad from one of the greatest – sadly underappreciated, these days – soul acts of all time.

4: The Impressions: People Get Ready (from ‘People Get Ready’, 1965)

Soul’s roots are in gospel music, and nobody melded the two more effectively than Curtis Mayfield, whose vocal group, The Impressions, effortlessly traversed borders between dance grooves, uptown love ballads and demands for freedom. Here, they’re in sanctified civil-rights mode, calling the listener to join the righteous train, and the song became an instant anthem on release in 1965. There were cover versions by Bob Dylan, Bob Marley and a famed remake by The Chambers Brothers, but the direct and unfussy original remains a deeply touching entry among the best soul songs.

3: Otis Redding: My Girl (from ‘Otis Blue: Otis Redding Sings Soul’, 1965)

Written by Smokey Robinson as a male riposte to My Guy, the hit he wrote for Mary Wells, My Girl was an apparently unimprovable track in 1965 for The Temptations, Motown’s impeccably talented vocal group. However, Otis Redding decided this elegantly soulful confection could do with a nugget of Southern grit, and delivered a deliciously earthy yet tender take of the song that same year for his Otis Blue: Otis Redding Sings Soul album. Not issued as a US single, it made No.11 in the UK chart. There have been numerous other versions from artists as diverse as Glen Campbell and Il Divo, but when it comes to soul, who could beat Otis?

2: The Supremes: You Keep Me Hangin’ On (from ‘The Supremes Sing Holland-Dozier-Holland’, 1967)

Our second visit to the Holland-Dozier-Holland songbook and The Supremes’ discography brings us this urgent, energetic slice of mid-60s soul. A US No.1, it has a slightly rocky feel in the morse-code guitars and doom-laden organ. Did this make it attractive to heavy-metal originators Vanilla Fudge, who turned it into a thunderous symphony the following year? Wilson Pickett’s superb 1970 version walked a line between the two versions, like gospel-rock, and there have been many other cuts – a sure sign of an irresistible song. Rocked out or not, You Keep Me Hangin’ On has soul by the truckload.

1: Aretha Franklin: Respect (from ‘I Never Loved A Man The Way I Love You’, 1967)

Otis Redding had a habit of bringing an extra dimension to other people’s hits, but Aretha Franklin did it to him with Respect. Redding scored with the song in 1965, and it appeared perfect in itself, promising everything to his woman, who could pretty much get away with anything she wished so long as she respected him in his presence. Two years on, Franklin took Respect for her own, moving it beyond a domestic setting and making it a feminist and civil-rights anthem that tops our list of the best soul songs: she wasn’t asking for respect, she was demanding it. Totally thrilling.

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