While we lost the Queen of Soul earlier this year, mourning didn't feel like the proper way to pay respects. That's because so much of Aretha Franklin' music teems with life. When she sang of heartbreak, her voice gave the songs a sense of powering through and coming out okay on the other end. When she sang of tears, her gospel roots bestowed the fare with a we're-all-in-this-together spirit. Franklin's first five albums for Atlantic Records, a string that turned her from a star into a household name, can again be experienced in analog courtesy of the Atlantic Records 1960s Collection, a new 6LP box set complete with a disc of demos and outtakes making their vinyl debut. One doesn't need reasons to listen to Franklin, but here are five songs from those Atlantic releases – one song per album – that reaffirm why she has no peers.
No doubt Franklin's signature song, the opening number on 1967's I Never Loved a Man the Way I Love You is all fire. The tune became a woman's rights anthem by throwing down the gauntlet at the patriarchy while also inviting listeners to get down. It kicked off Franklin's hit-making run for Atlantic. No matter how often we hear the track, distinguished by an opening horn strut and curly guitar notes, it never loses its luster or passion. Indeed, every moment of "Respect" burns with attitude, be it the taunting of the background singers ("sock it to me") or Franklin's spine-tinglingly assertive spelling out of the song title in case anyone didn't get the message. One almost feels bad for Otis Redding. His version, while remarkable, relates more to frustration. Franklin's take, however, makes demands.
"You Are My Sunshine"
There's lots to love about 1967's Aretha Arrives, from the vocalist's sly take on the Rolling Stones' "Satisfaction" to the rambunctious funk of "Baby, I Love You." But revisit "You Are My Sunshine," which shows off Franklin's skills as an interpreter. She takes what's become a standard, employs plenty of lyrical tweaks, and plays up the mix of tension and euphoria. The first two minutes are drawn-out guitar notes and panicked piano flurries (Franklin allegedly played the 88s with just her left hand due to a right elbow accident) while the second half ups the energy. As future heartbreak enters the picture, Franklin lets loose, turning her malleable voice into an excited, upper-register plea.
"(Sweet Sweet Baby) Since You've Been Gone"
How can a song about heartbreak feel so good? Light-stepping and graced with sharp guitar work from Bobby Womack, this upbeat number also comes dotted with a vigorous horn section. Indeed, the animated trumpets and feisty saxophone point toward moving on rather than wallowing in sorrow. As Franklin sings about being blue and lonely, the call-and-response choir, led by R&B group the Sweet Inspirations, lifts up the narrator. Franklin may as well be shouting from the rooftops throughout. And as the barroom piano arrives mid-song, one gets the sense there's more to the tale than a run-of-the-mill breakup. "It was pride on my lips," Franklin sings with carefree abandon, alluding to her perceived faults that drove her man away. The lyrics say she wants him back. The tone says Franklin won't change if he returns.
"Tracks of My Tears"
Initially made famous by the Miracles, and co-written by Smokey Robinson, Pete Moore, and Marv Tarplin, "Tracks of My Tears" finds Franklin largely honoring the Miracles' rendition. Yet while Robinson and company play up the song's melancholic notes, emphasizing the tune's sadness and sympathetic nature, Franklin's power gives it a more aspirational tone. Yes, there are tracks of tears on her cheeks, she sings, but let's make sure things change. As she reaches for the heavens, Franklin gives herself a pep talk rather than offering a lament. Curiously, her arrangement does away with some of the orchestral flourishes favored by the Miracles. Of course, when you have a voice like Franklin's, who needs an orchestra?
The opening song on 1968's Aretha Now launches with a killer opening line: "You better think." Simple and direct, it immediately lets the listener who's in charge. Yes, the tune was co-written by Franklin and her then-husband Ted White. They would soon divorce. But even without the backstory drama, the work feels like a pre-breakup anthem. Its choir-led cries of "freedom" turn the potential split into a celebration. As Franklin hollers "give me some freedom," a trumpet shadows her as if she's leading a march through town. A stern piano furthers the statement of independence, with the notes beginning with a stomp and turning into a march. Listen, then go watch Franklin perform it in The Blues Brothers.