The soul is passionate and expresses emotional themes. The music comes from deep within the soul and is sung with devotion. Soul evolved from gospel and rhythm & blues in the late 1950s. The music was shaped by African-American musicians who sang songs about love, suffering, discrimination, and betrayal.
Soul played a pivotal role in the civil rights movement, giving a voice to all the oppressed. This list shows the 100 best soul songs of all time, which have influenced generations.
(You can find a Spotify playlist at the end of this article.)
1. “Respect” by Aretha Franklin
In 1967, soul legend Aretha Franklin landed a global hit with “Respect”. The soul song was originally written by Otis Redding in 1965, but it was Aretha’s cover that made the song a worldwide bestseller.
Franklin changed the lyrics and sang from a woman’s point of view.
“Respect,” tells of the frustration of African-American women who did not have the same opportunities as men in the U.S. in the 1960s. They finally wished for the respect they deserve. The song won two Grammy Awards in 1968. The single was a hit on the charts for weeks and became the anthem of the women’s movement at the time.
With more than one million copies sold, the song is one of the most successful songs of all time.
2. “My Girl” by The Temptations
In 1964, the Afro-American band The Temptations achieved sensational success with “My Girl”. The soul song became a number 1 hit and sold millions of copies.
The song was written by Smokey Robinson for the Motown record label. Robinson drew inspiration for the song from his wife, Claudette Rogers Robinson.
The song was a declaration of love for his wife, who was at the center of the story. Temptations member David Ruffin was impressed with his exceptional voice, which led to his selection for the lead vocals. In 1991, “My Girl” became a hit again thanks to the movie of the same name.
The Temptations landed with it 27 years after release at number 2 in the British charts.
3. “Stand by Me” by Ben E. King
He wrote and sang one of the best songs in soul music. The talk is of soul legend Ben E. King.
“Stand by Me” was released in 1961 and became a huge success. King was inspired by gospel songs.
The soul classic told of loved ones who should never leave each other, no matter what happened. The song conveyed important values such as reliability and loyalty. The song was written in A major and has only one chord progression.
“Stand by Me” ran successfully on the charts and again received high chart positions in 1986 due to the Stephen King film adaptation of the same name. Ben E. King won a BMI award for the song. The song has been covered by countless artists and bands, such as John Lennon, Sony and Cher, and even The Kelly Family.
4. “I Want You” by Marvin Gaye
In 1976 the popular soul classic “I Want You” by Marvin Gaye was released. The song has been Songwriters Leon Ware and Arthur Ross wrote.
The song quickly became a hit and is still considered one of the most popular disco songs of all time.
“I Want You” reflected the African American identity, which was concerned with the search for the self, its sensuality, and sexuality. The song still counts as one of the milestones of soul today. Inspired by Gaye, many other artists covered the song over the years.
Especially the cover songs by Robert Palmer, Diana Ross, and the Pet Shop Boys enjoyed great popularity.
5. “Try a Little Tenderness” by Otis Redding
Otis Redding released the soul hit “Try a Little Tenderness” in 1966. Originally the song was written by Jimmy Campbell, Reg Connelly, and Harry M. Woods and was released as early as 1932.
It was Redding’s cover that made the song famous worldwide.
The infatuated soul musician changed the beginning, which starts with soft and gentle tones. In the song, female morality was addressed from a male perspective, which was to return to its roots. “Try a Little Tenderness” reached high chart positions and was covered many more times even after Otis Redding’s success. The popular earworm is one of the best soul songs of all time.
6. “Living for the City” by Stevie Wonder
In 1973, the soulful soul song “Living for the City” by Stevie Wonder was released. The song was listed among the “500 best songs of all time” by Rolling Stones magazine. A very special feature of this song was that Wonder himself played all the instruments.
Additionally, recordings of everyday sounds such as traffic and voices were mixed into the song.
“Living for the City” denounced the discrimination of a young African-American man who wants to start a new life in New York City from Mississippi, but was broken by society’s prejudices. The single won two Grammy Awards and remains one of the classics of the soul to this day.
7. “At Last” by Etta James
Soul icon Etta James sang her way into the hearts of all music lovers with “At Last” in 1961. The song was already written in 1941 by Mack Gordon and Harry Warren for the movie “Orchestra Wives”. But it was Etta’s cover that made the song a hit.
The song was a declaration of love and was about the end of loneliness. Life is like a song, in the end, everything will be fine and you’ll meet your loved one again. The song quickly became a catchy tune and was played over and over again on the radio.
The soulful song reached high positions in the charts.
In 1999, Etta’s cover was inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame, making it one of the best soul songs of all time.
8. “What’d I Say” by Ray Charles
1959 saw the release of “What’d I Say” by Ray Charles. The song quickly became a commercial success and sold millions of copies. In the American R&B charts the single occupied the top position for weeks.
Ray Charles was inspired by the music of the church services of his homeland. The musical pattern of the “call and response” theme became an important cornerstone of the song, which didn’t really tell a story in terms of content.
The song used the typical 12-bar blues scheme, which included unexpected vocal and instrumental passages. The song received a BMI award for its special historical impact on African American Protest movement. The soul classic was added to the Library of Congress and the National Recording Registry in 2003 for its great cultural significance.
9. “When a Man Loves a Woman” by Percy Sledge
“When a Man Loves a Woman” was the most successful soul single by Percy Sledge. In 1966, Sledge composed and released the song, which quickly became a big hit. Inspired by his own heartbreak, Sledge changed the lyrics to a positive message for all lovers and provided the melody to go with it.
The sentimental love ballad reached all the top positions in the charts. The song stayed at #1 on the pop charts for several weeks and also scored high rankings on the R&B charts. The singer sold millions of copies of the song and received a BMI Award.
There are 80 covers of “When a Man Loves a Woman” alone. The most important is by Marianne Rosenberg, Bette Midler, and Art Garfunkel.
10. “Don’t Stop ‘Til You Get Enough” by Michael Jackson
In 1979 Michael Jackson achieved sensational success with “Don’t Stop ‘Til You Get Enough”. After only a short time the first award followed. The single was honored with a gold record.
Jackson won his first Grammy and an American Music Award. The song became a hit worldwide and reached gold status. The single could stay on the top position of the American “Hot 100” and the “Hot Soul Singles Charts” for weeks.
The song spread the message to never give up no matter what happens. Michael Jackson sang for the first time in his falsetto voice, which later became his trademark. The song was considered a milestone and is one of the best soul songs of all time.
11. “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough” by Diana Ross
The song became Diana Ross’ first hit during her solo career in 1970. The single was already written by Nickolas Ashford and Valerie Simpson in 1966, but it was Ross’ cover that brought it a worldwide success.
Diana Ross incorporated elements of gospel and spoken passages. The soul song reached top positions in the American R&B charts and hit parades. Ross was honored with a Grammy nomination.
The song revolved around a love story. No road is too far and no obstacle too great to fight for the love of your life. With a very positive message and a danceable melody, “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough” is still considered one of the best songs of all time.
12. “Midnight Train to Georgia” by Gladys Knight & The Pips
In 1973, songwriter Jim Weatherley wrote “Midnight Train to Georgia,” which Gladys Knight & The Pips made into a hit. The song ran successfully on the radio and sold millions of copies.
The following year, the single won a Grammy Award.
Songwriter Weatherley was inspired by the song by a phone call that was about a trip by train to Georgia. A pair of lovers were at the center. The longing for the partner was so great that a trip was planned to be reunited again.
The soul song reached the top position in the American “Billboard Hot 100” within a short time.
13. “The Tracks of My Tears” by Smokey Robinson & The Miracles
“The Tracks of My Tears” became an incredible success in 1965. The soul song, written by Smokey Robinson, won several awards at once. With over one million copies sold, the song is still considered to be one of the most successful soul songs of all time.
Numerous placements in the charts followed, such as the American “Billboard Hot 100” and the “Billboard R&B”. In 2007, the single received the greatest honor and was inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame.
The song told of heartbreak and the loss of true love. The soulful voices of Smokey Robinson & The Miracles gave you goosebumps and made the song timeless.
14. “A Change Is Gonna Come” by Sam Cooke
In 1964, Sam Cooke thrilled millions with his terrific soul song “A Change Is Gonna Come”. Sam Cooke had been inspired by personal experiences.
The year before, the soul singer was denied a hotel room because of his skin color. The song addressed the African American civil rights movement of the time. The desire for change and equality for African-American citizens were expressed.
Likewise, the hope for a better future. The song became an important anthem of the civil rights movement. “A Change Is Gonna Come” has been included in the Library of Congress and the National Recording Registry because of its important historical significance.
15. “I Want You Back” by The Jackson Five
The Jackson Five landed a big hit with “I Want You Back” in 1969. The single was penned by songwriting troupe Berry Gordy Jr., Deke Richards, and Alphonso Mizell.
The soul song was originally intended to be sung by Diana Ross, but Berry Gordy decided to sing it with The Jackson Five.
The sensational success exceeded all expectations. The single stayed at the top of the American charts for weeks and gave the Jacksons a dream career. The song dealt with the loss of lost love.
A boy is desperate because his girlfriend left him. He wants to do everything to win her back. In 1999, the song was inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame.
16. “Let’s Stay Together” by Al Green
In 1971 Al Green published his song “Let’s Stay Together” and landed a great hit with it. The single was produced by Willie Mitchell.
Drummer Al Jackson contributed the melody, which Green immediately fell in love with. In just a few minutes Al Green wrote the lyrics for the soul song. A very fast recording followed and only a few days later the song entered the charts.
A sensational wave of success took its course. Al Green finally scored a number 1 hit in the USA thanks to the song. The classic song was about the strong love of a man for his sweetheart.
There was only this one love for him, to which he will remain eternally faithful.
17. “You Make Me Feel Like A Natural Woman” by Aretha Franklin
With “You Make Me Feel Like A Natural Woman,” Aretha Franklin scored one of the biggest hits of her impressive career in 1967. The song was written by Carole King and Gerry Goffin.
After sensational chart positions all over the world, the song quickly became an anthem for African-American women.
The hit was based on the autobiographical experiences of producer Jerry Wexler. In the song, a woman thanked her man for inspiring her and making her feel like a natural woman. For many female artists, the song was an important signpost in their careers.
Among others, world stars such as Celine Dion and Mary J. Blige are expressive soul classics.
18. “I Heard It Through The Grapevine” by Marvin Gaye
In 1968, “I Heard It Through The Grapevine” was released again, a million-seller by the successful soul legend Marvin Gaye. With more than three million copies sold, the single is considered one of the best soul songs of all time.
The song was originally written by Barrett Strong in 1966 and composed by Norman Whitfield. Gaye penned a very unusual intro that included a rattling sound produced by a tambourine.
The song was about the infidelity of a partner. Her husband is desperate and hears about it from others. The humiliation runs so deep and his former sweetheart is now in a relationship with the other man.
The soul song was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and the Grammy Hall of Fame.
19. “Soul Man” by Sam & Dave
“Soul Man” by Sam & Dave thrilled millions of people in 1967. The hit was written by Isaac Hayes and David Porter. Hayes found inspiration for the song during the civil rights movement. During the riots, African American citizens marked buildings that had not been destroyed with the word “Soul”.
Hayes and Porter compared the events to a biblical reference, and thus the “Soul Man” was born, proud, and fearless.
The song landed at the top of the American charts and hit parades. In 1968, Sam & Dave received a Grammy for the song in the category of “Best Rhythm & Blues Group Performance, Vocal or Instrumental”. The song has had a lasting impact on the soul and has therefore become an important historical document of the time. “Soul Man” was added to the National Recording Registry and the Library of Congress.
20. “I Only Have Eyes For You” by The Flamingos
In 1959, The Flamingos was enchanted with the romantic soul song “I Only Have Eyes For You”. The song was originally written in 1934 by Harry Warren and Al Dubin.
Already several artists Performered the piece. But it was only through The Flamingos that the soulful song celebrated sensational successes. The passionate soul song quickly became a hit on the radio and achieved high chart positions worldwide.
The song was about great love. People in love even go blind with love because there’s only that one person you want to look at. Everything else is forgotten, only the great love counts. In 2003, the soul classic was inducted into the “Grammy Hall of Fame”.
To this day, “I Only Have Eyes For You” is catchy and is one of the best soul songs of all time.