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The 10 Best Soul Songs of All Time

The 10 Best Soul Songs of All Time

There’s nothing like turning on the record player and putting on a classic soul album to set the tone for the day. The expressive, inviting sound combining rich instrumentation and powerful vocals continues to be one of the favorite styles of music for people today. The best soul songs are the ones that stir up deep emotions and resonate throughout the generations. 

Pulling from musical roots in gospel, blues, and jazz, the soul movement soared during the 1950s and into the early 1960s. This era of music ignited inspiration for other areas of pop music to follow and can be found in various genres, including R&B soul and even country. To set the tone with some of the greats of music past, here is Victrola’s list of 10 of the best soul songs of all time that should be on everyone’s tracklist. 

#1 “(Sitting On) the Dock of the Bay” by Otis Redding

A favorite sing-along track by many is “(Sitting On) the Dock of the Bay,” which has been covered by numerous artists over the years, but none come close to the original version sung by legendary soul musician Otis Redding

In true artistic form, Redding began writing this iconic song while staying on a houseboat in Sausalito, California which speaks to his reference to the “Frisco Bay” in his lyrics. The laid-back feeling of the melody, complete with whistling parts and crashing waves, emulates the feel of his stay in California and the inspiration for a song beloved by so many.

#2 “The Tracks of My Tears” by Smokey Robinson

Smokey Robinson is one of Motown’s greatest artists, both producing and recording several songs for his music group The Miracles, as well as other soul artists throughout the decades. “The Track of My Tears” is one of his most notorious numbers and has been ranked as one of the top songs of the 20th century, as well as deemed the “The Greatest Motown Song of All Time” by Rolling Stone, in addition to numerous other awards and accolades. The smooth ballad speaks of love lost with Robinson’s silky vocals leading the way and debuted on the popular album, Going to a Go-Go released in 1965.

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#3 “I Heard It Through the Grapevine” by Marvin Gaye

Marvin Gaye is another soulful great who had hit after hit throughout the ‘60s and ‘70s with music always tinged with both a cultural message and chart-topping impact. His 1966 song “I Heard It Through the Grapevine” is instantly recognizable by its opening guitar chords and is about a more common theme of music of all genres: relationships gone wrong. 

Despite the original recording being performed by The Miracles, it’s Gaye’s magnetic voice and compelling sound that really drove the popularity of this song, adding a bit of his trademark funk to the soul of the song. His recording is considered of the best soul songs of all time and in 1998 was inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame.

#4 “I’ll Take You There” by The Staple Singers

Gospel group The Staple Singers were prominent players of the soul sound through the early 1970s, adding funk to their music complete with heavy basslines to create pulsating rhythms. Their song “I’ll Take You There” was part of their 1972 album Be Altitude: Respect Yourself and invited a call-and-response type of chorus that echoed their gospel roots. 

It’s one of the best soul songs to listen to when you want to set a feel-good vibe, although it does have more serious lyrical undertones with acknowledgment toward the Civil Rights Movement. The song was on many top hits lists and remains the most successful single from The Staple Sisters' decades-long career.

#5 “Midnight Train to Georgia” by Gladys Knight & the Pips

Looking for R&B songs to listen to? Though the original version of “Midnight Train to Georgia” was written as a country song with different lyrics and even a slight variation on the song title, Gladys Knight & the Pips made it their soulful own when they released the single on their Imagination album in 1973. With a rich mix of acoustic piano, percussion, and numerous string and brass instrumentation, it’s unofficially hailed as the group’s signature song. 

It’s a well-recognized favorite that has been reinterpreted and performed by numerous other musical artists and actors as a touchstone to the soul era. And, it was the first single of the group to reach number one on the Billboard Hot 100 and earned the group a Grammy at the 1974 awards ceremony for Best R&B Vocal Performance by a Duo, Group, or Chorus.

#6 “Soul Man” by Sam & Dave

True soul fans appreciate the music magic from one of the era’s most popular duos, Sam & Dave. They are some of the best black singers from the 60s. There’s no denying the emotion and upbeat tempo of one of the group’s most beloved songs. With “Soul Man,” the lyrics were co-written by Isaac Hayes who was inspired by the Civil Rights Movement in the 1960s to deliver a story about a struggle and uprising during that time. 

The term “soul man” was a marker of pride and confidence during that time. As with many soul songs, there is a heavy focus on saxophone and trumpet, as well as bass, drums, and piano to create a deep sound that can support the powerful lyrics and vocals. It won the duo a Grammy Award and their music earned them a spot in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, among numerous other accolades, awards, and initiations. 

#7 “Lean on Me” by Bill Withers

In contrast to the heavier instrumentation of many of the best soul songs of the mid-century, Bill Withers offered an almost acoustic style with his popular song, “Lean on Me.” It was the first single off his second album, Still Bill, released in 1972 and reached number one on the Billboard Hot 100 and the Soul Singles chart. 

The original, slower, stripped-down version has been reinterpreted over the years, but the motivation for the song is rooted in simplicity and a repeating chant of “call me” as an invitation for support and community at a time when Withers found both missing from his life. It’s been listed as one of Rolling Stone’s 500 Greatest Songs of All Time and continues to hold a soft spot in people’s hearts today.

#8 “I Got You (I Feel Good)” by James Brown

It’d be remiss to have the best soul songs list without mentioning the Godfather of Soul himself, James Brown. He was a leader of the soul-funk movement and became equally known for his exuberant performances and stage presence as he was his music. 

With several hits part of his career catalog, one of the most beloved is “I Got You (I Feel Good), a rousing, upbeat song that is sung like a celebration. Brass-heavy instrumentation and emotive vocals, including a few squeals and shouts, drive the tempo and mood of the song and became Brown’s signature style. The song was first recorded for his Out of Sight album in 1965 and went on to become his best-known and highest-charting recording.

#9 “Dance to the Music” by Sly & the Family Stone

Sly & the Family Stone’s single “Dance to the Music” was released on their second studio album of the same name. It infuses the funk sound of the late ‘60s into the traditional soul music from earlier in the decade while still expanding to a more pop-friendly sound for the masses. 

The musical group is known for paving the way for the psychedelic funk sub-genre, leaning heavily on sharing lead vocals and including scat singing and heavy instrumentation woven into its upbeat music. 

The single is arguably one of the band’s most well-known numbers and it was the first to reach the Billboard Pop Singles Top 10. The beat of this record inspires movement both with its lyrics and upbeat tone.

#10 Pusherman” by Curtis Mayfield

Soul and funk artist Curtis Mayfield is one of the most prolific musicians to emerge during the beginning of the progressive and psychedelic soul sound. He created politically conscious lyrics with catchy beats that defined the early ‘70s. 

With the debut of his soundtrack for the movie, Super Fly, his track “Pusherman” became one of the cult-following favorites from his comprehensive soul concept album, which focused on themes of poverty and drug abuse. Though not as popular mainstream as the album’s title track, “Pusherman” has a pace and a rhythm that embodies the sound of soul-funk with deep bass grooves serving as the foundation for the smooth sound of Mayfield’s vocals. 

With the critical and commercial success of the entire soundtrack, it became one of the few to outgross the film.

The foundation of soul music has merged with and influenced other sub-genres that are still relevant today. However, listening to the classics from the era when the sound was most popular allows fans to reflect on important moments in history through music, even if it’s only for the duration of the record playing. 

Looking for other soul artists you can listen to?  Michael Jackson, Aretha Franklin, Diana Ross, Luther Vandross, and Harold Melvin songs are a great addition. For neo soul music, try listening to Mary J Blige, Lauryn Hill, and D'Angelo.

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