10 of the Greatest Soul Music Albums of All Time

Stevie Wonder | Getty Images
Stevie Wonder | Getty Images

Like many genres of music, from psychedelic to jazz, soul is at least partially about spontaneity. Soul is that moment when a singer lets one lyric stretch out longer than it normally does because they are using their voice to further express the emotion behind the music. Soul music is about that extra bit of passion that brings a song or an entire album to life. These musicians bared their souls in order to create some of the greatest albums in the history of soul music, so let’s celebrate them by counting the albums off, in no particular order.

1. Songs in the Key of Life by Stevie Wonder

It took a double LP to capture the soulful vision of Stevie Wonder at the peak of his powers in 1976, when he released Songs in the Key of Life. Each of the album’s 16 tracks is bursting with musical and lyrical ideas that feel both personal and political, from the funky racial statement of “Black Man” and the brassy musical tribute of “Sir Duke” to the love letter to Wonder’s daughter “Isn’t She Lovely?” Using his powerful voice and a slightly outdated ’70s keyboard sound, Wonder explores genres and emotions, with genuinely moving results.

2. What’s Going On by Marvin Gaye

The messages of Marvin Gaye’s crowning LP achievement aren’t so much political as they are humanistic, simply using music to plead for a better future free from the violence Gaye saw infecting society. He uses his versatile voice to express such sentiments and to accompany the musical breaks with his lovely falsetto scatting, as expressive and moving as the album’s mixture of weepy string arrangements and layered drumbeats. It’s an album as lyrically interesting as it is musically interesting, its ambition outmatched only by the success of Gaye’s songwriting vision.

3. Sex Machine by James Brown

Most would have you believe James Brown’s Live at the Apollo is the premier LP from the so-called Godfather of Soul, but that barely half-hour album doesn’t give Brown and his band the time necessary for them to really stretch out. Though it isn’t as long as some of his great studio efforts like The Payback, Sex Machine shows Brown and his band’s amazing talent in a live setting, as they cycle through some of his greatest hits, including the title track, using rousing calls to action and danceable bass lines to create a pattern, so every slight variation becomes surprising, energizing, and amazing.

4. The Dock of the Bay by Otis Redding

Otis Redding died in December of 1967, but maybe his greatest album didn’t come out until two months later, when it stung to hear the genius on display in The Dock of the Bay knowing Otis was gone. His rousing, soulful vocals imbue every track with life as he leads roaring horns and a tight rhythm section through tracks that are as catchy as they are deeply felt. From the hopeful aimlessness of “Sittin’ on the Dock of the Bay” to the smooth balladry of “Nobody Knows When You’re Down and Out,” Otis continued to make his mark on the musical world with amazing songs, even after he was gone.

5. Dusty in Memphis by Dusty Springfield

Plenty of white musicians have tried their hand at the mostly black tradition of soul music — their efforts are commonly called “blue-eyed soul” — but few albums feel more unlikely and more soulful than this effort from blonde-haired English singer Dusty Springfield. Her fittingly-titled tribute to the music of the American south is brimming with passion and drama, as she uses her sultry, often sorrowful vocals and a series of beautiful, melancholic orchestral arrangements to create 11 straight tracks of depth and excellence.

6. Live at the Harlem Square Club, 1963 by Sam Cooke

The release of this live album from Sam Cooke was delayed in part because the raucous recordings were simply thought of as too racy for Cooke’s clean-cut pop star image. Now, more than 30 years removed from its late 1985 release, we can appreciate the way Cooke comes to life in a live setting, bringing a liveliness to this collection of his own tracks. His emotionally resonant songwriting sounds best with a crowd responding to his every call to action, giving Cooke the chance to come out of his shell and demonstrate the same sort of lyrical improvisation and style that made James Brown a star.

7. Shaft by Isaac Hayes

The blaxploitation films of the 1970s weren’t always high-quality, but their soundtracks captured some of the decade’s greatest artists at the peak of their powers, including Isaac Hayes, who creates cinematic scenes using only his keen ear for production and, occasionally, his baritone crooning. Each track has its own mood that feels lived-in but unpredictable, as sultry bass lines and flute interludes lead into propelling bongo rhythms or oddly lovely xylophone arrangements. There’s an astounding command of the multi-layered instrumentals as well as the three vocal tracks that make this one of the greatest soul albums of the ’70s, and therefore of all time.

8. I Never Loved a Man the Way I Love You by Aretha Franklin

Aretha Franklin only needs one track to cement herself as one of the greatest soul singers — her empowering cover of Otis Redding’s “Respect,” featuring her passionate, melodic wail that outshines even the track’s roaring brass. It’s that voice that turns this album of primarily covers into something that is all her own, her heavenly gospel choir voice transforming songs of spurned love like “Drown in My Own Tears” into larger-than-life artistic statements that make the listener feel as though they’re witnessing the hypnotic power of Aretha Franklin in person.

9. Ingredients in a Recipe for Soul by Ray Charles

Really, any number of Ray Charles albums could fit neatly into this spot, and each would be equally deserving. The legendary recording artist found crossover appeal for his amazing blending of so many American musical styles, frequently finding room for gospel, soul, jazz, and country influences within one album, or even a single track. His tortured spontaneous vocals and often his skilled keyboard playing anchor it all, but Ingredients in a Recipe for Soul has plenty more to entice the listener, featuring big band arrangements as versatile and larger-than-life as Charles himself.

10. Reach Out by The Four Tops

One of the defining albums of Motown from one of the defining Motown groups, Reach Out is packed with the infectious melodies and group dynamics that made Detroit a powerful force in pop music during the ’60s. The singles-based group managed a whole album of songs as catchy as the title track, employing a wall-of-sound production style and layered doo-wop vocals. Like other Motown groups The Supremes and The Temptations, The Four Tops were partially responsible for the racial integration of music, and it’s easy to hear why — how could even the most vile racist resist such soulful, pop-oriented tunes like “Baby I Need Your Loving”?

Follow Jeff Rindskopf on Twitter @jrindskopf