When I began blogging for my website I decided on a 10 Great Albums series from various genres. The first one was 10 Great Groove Albums. I’ve surprised myself that I didn’t start with Soul. Maybe because it was too daunting at the time.
Here’s a list of ten soul albums. It’s pretty straightforward. Most, if not all, names on the list are undeniably great, so this isn’t earth-shattering. I approached the content of this list from two views: These are albums that are some of my personal favorite all-time just to listen to alone, or they are albums that are essential at weddings.
1. The Best of Sam Cooke — Sam Cooke
There’s not another album I pull from more when coming up with a wedding playlist. It’s got great love ballads and fun upbeat dance songs. Released in 1962 on the RCA Victor label, this compilation contains a plethora of hits from 1957 to 1962 that old and young alike enjoy. On the back cover, the producers have this to say: “Like the champ that he is, Sam has come back again and again to score on the nation’s best selling charts. He lives in the Top Ten.”
Twistin’ the Night Away
I would list the tracks, but they’re right there on the album, just for you. Ya know, I feel happier than Sam Cooke looks on the cover whenever I play one of his songs. But that’s nothing. You should see the guests at the wedding reception. They’re way more happy-looking than me. I must finally admit, however, that the bride and groom’s faces are exponentially happier-looking than their guests, who are way more happy-looking than me, who’s by far more enthusiastic than Sam Cooke appears to be on the cover of this album.
2. What’s Going On — Marvin Gaye
I really don’t know how I’m to give this album justice for two reasons. One, countless people have already written about this, so what am I gonna add? Second, it’s just so fine and soulful and beautiful that words don’t do it justice. Listening to it and feeling it does it justice. This is the best soul record ever according to Rolling Stones magazine, and one of my absolute all-time favorite albums from any genre. Brother Marvin took soul music, and music in general, to the next level with What’s Going On in 1971, released on Motown’s Tamla label. The title track leads the whole thing off with the million dollar question. The music in the background has a party vibe, and Marvin’s vocals come to the foreground as a soulful prophetic voice, the preacher preachin’ to the choir, lamenting and encouraging. The Vietnam War was a real impetus and theme for the album. What’s Happening Brother is like an extension of the previous song, with a funky smooth instrumental and vocal groove. The bass line is solid and so are the background vocals. The third and fourth songs are where the album distinctly leaves radio land and becomes a personal, introverted piece of art. I remember playing this album to a close friend when we were right out of high school, and it got a little awkward when Flyin’ High (In the Friendly Sky) came on. The tempo got slower, and the content depressing. Save the Children has a vocal repetition that’s not gonna give your mouth sex appeal, but it will remind you of Gil Scot-Heron and his message that the revolution will not be televised, but live. The next track, God is Love, starts off defending God to all the detractors while reminding his brothers and sisters of God’s goodness and encourages them to show love toward one another. The first side ends with a song as well known as the first one in Mercy Mercy Me (The Ecology).
What’s Happening Brother
Side 2 only has three tracks, the first being over seven minutes long (the previous songs are around four minutes or less). Right On has a funky wooden guiro and other percussion, along with strings, piano, bass, and, of course, Marvin’s soulful vocals. The first part of the song is again to the family, but the second part of the song is to his baby. Wholly Holy is a pure, mellow, gospel prayer. The album ends with the third huge popular hit Inner City Blues (Make Me Wanna Holler). The intro to this song’s bass line was sampled by Digable Planets and is smooth, funky, edgy, and hypnotic. By the time you’re a minute in, your heart and soul feel like they wanna burst out into space. He is a master. It ends with a line from the first track, coming full circle. Will the circle be unbroken?
3. There’s a Riot Goin’ On — Sly & The Family Stone
1971 is a good year for soul. Released on the Epic label, this is my favorite Sly & The Family Stone album, and I think his best. It’s versatile and balanced — great lyrics with great instrumentation. Rather than mention the symbolism and meaning in the album title and album cover, I just wanna say how funky and soulful it is from start to finish. Actually, I want to mention the back cover for a second. When you look at it, you might think you’re looking at the back of the Beastie Boys’ Check Your Head with the collage on the back, each one I’m assuming is a shout-out to their friends and heroes. It conjures up many thoughts and emotions just looking at it. One of the thoughts is: “These people look happy. They might have been high and gettin’ down. The war on drugs seems to be more of a war on people. Lots of war, politically, spiritually, internally, and externally. What’s going on? A riot. What’s changed?”
Just Like a Baby
Listening to the first track – Luv N’ Haight – makes me think Sly originated the P-Funk. He sets the stage with great poetry and soulful, funky music. It’s got movement. Just Like a Baby slows it down with drums and guitar, with a smooth rolling bass. His vocals on here are incredible. At this point in the album you begin to think that this album really could continue to be special throughout. A look at the lyrics of this song shows you what the next song is about. In a simple, funky way, Poet answers a myriad questions from many angles that likely came at Sly around this time. I’m a poet. Next? The fourth track is one of his most commonly played, but It’s a Family Affair is no less great because of it. At this point, you’re probably tired of reading this. Listen to it and get it in your collection if you don’t have it already. It’s a must for funk and soul fans.
4. Maybe Tomorrow — Jackson 5
After I had written down the first nine albums, in no particular order, I was searching for the tenth. I had given this list a few thoughts in the past, and had told myself, “Don’t forget about this one.” This is one of those that definitely fall into both categories of loving to listen to by myself, and loving to play at weddings for others.
The first side of this 1971 Motown release is so classic: Maybe Tomorrow, She’s Good, Never Can Say Goodbye (which has an incredible intro), then The Wall. She’s Good is an essential wedding track. The second side has lesser-known titles. The intro to (We’ve Got) Blue Skies has a Beatles feel to it. I Will Find A Way is my favorite on Side 2, which is a love song with smooth rhythm.
5. Let’s Stay Together — Al Green
In a similar way to the Sam Cooke album, this one is essential at weddings. After the classic title track, this 1972 Hi record gets even better with La-La for You, which should be a household name. It’s the embodiment of soul, and my favorite on this album. So You’re Leaving is full of groove and soul, and has enjoyed some recent fame by being sampled on a few different TV commercials. The last two on this side – What is this Feeling and Old Time Lovin – finish off Side 1 at a high level. I’m very partial to Old Time Lovin with the mellow tempo, soul harmony, and jazzy but restrained organ.
I’ve Never Found a Girl (Like You)
Side 2 starts with another classic track in I’ve Never Found a Girl. In stride with most of the previous tracks, it’s a love song with an irresistible smooth groove. How Can You Mend a Broken Heart is the next track, where he breaks it down beautifully, singing the blues that may make you cry if you let it. Judy is a smooth, sweet unheralded love song. (He says the name Judy once, and it’s a bit inconspicuous, so this song could be played around non-Judys, and they would probably really like the song anyway.) It Ain’t No Fun to Me, a fairly popular Green tune with a blues groove, finishes it off. In short, the instrumentation and soul vocalization throughout are as next level as the cover of this classic soul LP.
6. Soul Classics — James Brown
This is a great album from the Godfather of Soul James Brown, Soul Brother #1! Released in 1972 on the Polydor label, this LP contains songs originally released from 1965 to 1972.
I’ll let the titles speak for itself: Papa’s Got a Brand New Bag, I Got You (I Feel Good), It’s a Man’s Man’s Man’s World, Sex Machine, Soul Power, and Super Bad. It also has Cold Sweat, Give it Up or Turn it Loose, and Make it Funky—Parts 1 and 3.
7. Cymande — Cymande
I first heard of Cymande from the soundtrack to Spike Lee’s film Crooklyn a year or two after it was released. Bra was the song on there that’s represented on this album, which is Cymande’s first of five career albums. According to discogs.com, the group referred to their music as a mixture of funk, soul, reggae, and African rhythms. They were formed in 1971 in London and had a short, three-year career.
This 1972 LP on Janus Records is worth having for two tracks: the aforementioned Bra, and the mellow instrumental One More. The Message, which follows Bra, and Getting it Back, which follows One More, are two more great soul songs. There’s also two funky instrumentals in Rickshaw and the ten-minute Dove.
8. Back to the World — Curtis Mayfield
This 1973 Curtom Records release is very similar to the style of Marvin Gaye’s album What’s Going On. Each has a bluesy, gospel feel with a prophetic critique of man in a fallen world, but encourages and gives hope. The first song is the title track, which is such a good intro that sets the stage for the listener. A soldier returns home from Vietnam, crying out that the war was never won, at home in the United States, and in man’s heart. Future Shock is the next song, which is one of the most recognizable Mayfield tracks. So full of soul and funk, it’s one Herbie Hancock covered a decade later, and is just as relevant today, 40 years from when Mayfield first released it. And no one should really be surprised, for all poets and prophets worth their salt speak to those who have ears to hear. Right On For The Darkness is a lament for all the darkness in the world, and an encouragement to those neglected and oppressed, who don’t have a voice, whether their skin is dark or just caught in the shadows of the oppressor. The message is encouraging.
Back To The World (full album)
If I Were Only a Child Again starts the second side. This song has a wonderful groove while crying out for nothing less than childlike glory and the kingdom of God. Say Nothin’ is a bluesy soulful jam starting out with some funky instrumentals, then goes into a number about trying to love his woman without all the nonsense. Keep on Trippin’ has a nice guitar intro then the sweet high-pitched voice of Mayfield in his rhythmic groove comes in and sounds like a continuation of the previous song. Future Song (Love a Good Woman, Love a Good Man) is probably my favorite on here and wraps up this album, as brother Curtis sings to his heavenly father, praying for humanity, and, specifically, every husband and wife, encouraging us to love.
9. Sparkle — Aretha Franklin
Released in 1976 as the soundtrack to the movie Sparkle, this album, like the movie, is lesser known. I haven’t seen the movie yet, but I’ve listened to this album enough to consider this great.
Something He Can Feel
When something has Curtis Mayfield on it, it’s usually good. The same could be said about soul sister #1 here. Putting them together is like peanut butter and chocolate. This is like a great steak. Put it on, flip it once, and enjoy. Many will recognize the original version that En Vogue made more popular — Something He Can Feel. Look Into Your Heart, Loving You Baby, and Rock With Me are feel-good love songs with harmonious female background vocals. In fact, the entire album (like so many other soul albums) is all about love.
10. Songs in the Key of Life — Stevie Wonder
Quite simply, this is arguably the best album ever, from any genre. Released on the Tamla label in 1976, this double LP has such great music and poetry, with Stevie Wonder as producer, arranger, writer, and composer. The cover is cool-looking, and comes with a lyrics booklet and a 45 containing four bonus songs. The content of this album shows great range of themes. If I had to pick one side out of four, it would be Side 2 (even though Side 4 is awesome), which is: I Wish, Knocks Me Off My Feet, Pastime Paradise, Summer Soft, and Ordinary Pain. Knocks Me Off My Feet is a great love ballad that makes all my wedding playlists. Summer Soft is a playful and wistful dedication to the changing of seasons. I can especially relate to this in October, as the wonderful season of Fall leaves too quickly. Ordinary Pain has two distinct halves. The first is Stevie singing of heartbreak, then the second half gives you a totally different vibe instrumentally and vocally from the perspective of the girl he was lamenting over. I Wish is a classic, as is Pastime Paradise, which Coolio paid homage to with Gangsta’s Paradise.
Songs In The Key Of Life (full album)
As for the rest of the album, there isn’t a bad song on it. Isn’t She Lovely is a dynamite tribute to the birth of his daughter Aisha. Love’s In Need of Love Today, Ngiculela – Es Una Historia (I am Singing), and If It’s Magic are all great songs about love. The best track on the album, and my favorite all-time from Stevie, is As, another great song about love, human and divine.