Soul music is one of the most fascinating and complex genres of the 20th century. Taking its roots in gospel and jazz, this has gone on to influence the development of reggae, R&B, funk, and much more. Here are the 55 best soul songs to add to your playlist!
1. Respect — Aretha Franklin
Considered one of Aretha Franklin’s most famous songs, “Respect” wasn’t originally written for her. Otis Redding composed it in 1965, with lyrics written from the point of view of a man speaking to a woman. Franklin’s cover, recorded two years later, made some essential changes. The result was an early feminist anthem where the singer demanded respect from her man.
2. Let’s Stay Together — Al Green
Al Green’s 1972 hit made waves for its sheer sensuality. His vocals are the very definition of soulful. It was one of his first major hits, propelling him into the spotlight for the rest of his career. It should come as no surprise that the tune became a classic dance song for couples thanks to its intimacy and power.
3. Living For The City — Stevie Wonder
Stevie Wonder is no stranger to fame, having made major inroads in the soul genre. “Living For The City” is in a league of its own. Released in 1973, this powerful song is all about systemic poverty and racial injustice. Wonder tells the story of a black boy growing up in Mississippi before moving to New York. Instead of making it big there, he is targeted by police and sentenced to prison for a crime he didn’t commit.
4. A Change is Gonna Come — Sam Cooke
“A Change Is Gonna Come” is a quintessential soulful yearning, mournful, and raw. Sam Cooke’s powerful vocals are mesmerizing in this 1964 hit, describing the need for change in society. He describes how racism has kept him down, making his life full of suffering, but he holds onto the hope that change is on its way. Tragically, Cooke was killed the same year in a brutal attack by a hotel manager and never lived to see the change he hoped for.
5. This Old Heart of Mine (Is Weak For You) — The Isley Brothers
“This Old Heart Of Mine (Is Weak For You)” is a song that is all about having your heart broken and pining for the person you lost. Yet, despite its tragic lyrics, it is utterly catchy. It just goes to show how talented the Isley Brothers were—almost disguising the song’s topic in its sheer danceability. This tune, which was originally meant for The Supremes, was released in 1966 and fused elements of R&B, soul, and Motown.
6. Clean Up Woman — Betty Wright
There are countless soul songs written from the point of view of a man speaking to a woman or vice versa. But Betty Wright’s 1972 hit is a bit different; it speaks from one woman to another. Both women have been involved with the same man, and the singer knows that he is trouble. The song is a warning to clean up her act before she gets her heart broken. “Clean Up Woman” is a delightful fusion of soul and Florida funk.
7. People Get Ready — The Impressions
The Impressions’ 1965 hit is a perfect example of the link between soul and gospel music. These genres came together in a pointed Civil Rights song, urging people to be ready to fight for their rights. It became a famous Civil Rights anthem and was covered by Bob Dylan, Bob Marley, and The Chambers Brothers.
8. Who’s Making Love — Johnnie Taylor
Soul music is all about the deepest experiences of humankind. But, like the gospel music that inspired it, it also often carries warnings to people who don’t consider the course of their actions. In 1968’s “Who’s Making Love,” Johnnie Taylor reminds men not to expect their women to stay faithful to them while they themselves are out cheating. He sings: “When I decided to straighten up, I found it was a bit too late… Someone was-a lovin’ my old lady, While I was out making love.”
9. Midnight Train to Georgia — Gladys Knight & The Pips
“Midnight Train To Georgia” went through several rewrites before becoming the soul song that we know and love. It was originally a country tune entitled “Midnight Plane To Houston.” But the real transformation happened when Gladys Knight & The Pips recorded it in 1973. Their soulful rendition became widely known as their most famous song and earned a Grammy the following year. It is still known far and wide as one of the best soul songs of all time.
10. Lean On Me — Bill Withers
Bill Withers took soul in a new direction with his 1972 hit “Lean On Me.” He presented a simple, acoustic track that contrasted with the complex instrumentals that were popular in soul and R&B music at the time. Listeners found it compelling, and the song topped the Billboard Hot 100 and Soul charts. There is something hypnotic about the song and Withers’ passionate vocals. This might account for the song being named on Rolling Stone’s list of 500 Greatest Songs of All Time.
11. (Sittin’ On) The Dock Of The Bay — Otis Redding
“(Sittin’ On) The Dock Of The Bay” is inarguably one of Otis Redding’s most famous songs. But despite its easy melody, it is actually a mournful ballad about feeling lonely, purposeless, and alone. The lyrics include the lines “…I’ve had nothin’ to live for, It looks like nothin’s gonna come my way… And this loneliness won’t leave me alone.” Redding recorded the song just three days before he died in a plane crash in December 1967; it was released posthumously in January 1968.
12. I Want You — Marvin Gaye
Marvin Gaye has become synonymous with sensuality and sultry invitations in the form of music. The reputation has long outlived him; a 2016 pop hit even took its title from his name, with the repeated line “Let’s Marvin Gaye and get it on.” His song, “I Want You,” is Gaye at his soulful sexiest. It features heavy percussion in the form of bongos; meanwhile, the lyrics are part declaration, part confirmation of consent.
13. Move On Up — Curtis Mayfield
“Move On Up” is a soul song that stands all on its own. Positive and hopeful, it is all about looking toward a difficult path and having faith that you can walk it without stumbling. The heavy instrumentalization takes the song to another level, and you might not even realize that the track is nine minutes long. It is easy to get lost in this classic soul song about hope, perseverance, and fortitude.
14. The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face — Roberta Flack
Roberta Flack wasn’t the first one to record “The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face,” but her soulful cover is the one that lives in our memories. It was originally a folk song, but she effortlessly switched genres, adding backing tracks of strings and piano. This poignant love song is controlled in every bar but still full of emotion, keeping listeners spellbound until the very last note.
15. When Somebody Loves You Back — Teddy Pendergrass
Teddy Pendergrass’ 1978 track is a soulful love song that remains popular to this day. It’s impossible not to be drawn in by his emotional, sultry performance, which makes us all long for the kind of love he is describing. The song was surprisingly progressive for the era, describing equal love where each partner contributes the same amount. It was an ideal relationship back in the late 1970s, and it still sounds like a pretty good deal to this day.
16. Maria (You Were The Only One) — Michael Jackson
Long before Michael Jackson was known for his iconic dance moves and electric pop songs, he was exploring genres like soul and R&B in the early 1970s. “Maria (You Were The Only One)” was released as a B-side track in 1972. It’s a classic soul hit about unrequited love, with the singer pining after a woman named Maria who is running away from him. Jackson’s voice sounds incredibly young compared to his later performances, yet he nails the passion and emotion of the song.
17. Walk On By — Isaac Hayes
If you love those classic soul songs that go on for two or three times as long as most tracks, Isaac Hayes’ 1969 “Walk On By” should be on your playlist. This 12-minute track is a wild ride of vocals dripping with emotion, extended instrumental solos, orchestra backing tracks, and Hayes’ signature unique vocalizations. Never has heartbreak sounded so intense or sultry, and it is bound to leave you captivated up until the very last bar.
18. A Lover’s Question — Clyde McPhatter
If you ever want to start a debate among hardcore soul fans, ask them who invented the soul genre. You’ll probably hear the name Clyde McPhatter among the answers. He wasn’t so much a part of the rise of soul music as he was a precursor to it. He started his solo career in 1955 and recorded “A Lover’s Question” in 1958. Released long before the popularity of Motown, the song has the unmistakable flavors of “proto-soul,” continuing to influence the genre long after McPhatter’s death in 1972.
19. Pusherman — Curtis Mayfield
“Pusherman” was the herald of soul music’s transformation in the 1970s. During the first half of the decade, the genre evolved into upbeat music focusing on social and political topics. Soul was also fusing and blending with other genres such as funk, progressive, and psychedelic. Released in 1972, “Pusherman” pushed the envelope on what soul truly was, focusing on social justice issues such as poverty and drug addiction.
20. Get Ready — The Temptations
The Temptations were widely known for their upbeat group tracks, warm harmonies, and falsetto. But “Get Ready,” released in 1966, went in a slightly different direction. The track utilizes all of the group’s typical musical tactics but draws more heavily on the influences of soul and Motown. Like many other soul songs, it interweaves themes of love and sensuality, bridging genres and sensibilities in a way that was perfect for the pop-soul scene of the mid-1960s.
21. I Heard it Through The Grapevine — Marvin Gaye
“I Heard It Through The Grapevine” is another track that contends for Marvin Gaye’s top hit of all time. This infectiously danceable song, released in 1968, relies on the classic soul theme of sad lyrics delivered in an upbeat tune. It is actually about a man who has learned through gossip that his lover is planning on leaving him for someone else. Despite its sad content, the catchy beat makes it a popular choice for weddings and parties.
22. On & On — Erykah Badu
Long after the birth of the soul genre, Erykah Badu was helping develop the neo-soul subgenre. In 1997, she released “On & On,” an effortless fusion of hip hop, R&B, and soul. It also made waves for its use of imagery based on the teachings of the Five-Percent Nation. The result is a track that is a bit mystical in tone but with undeniable elements of soul. The song won Badu a Grammy and climbed to the top of the charts in both the US and the UK.
23. Try a Little Tenderness — Otis Redding
Most of Otis Redding’s best-known songs were self-composed, but “Try A Little Tenderness” wasn’t a Redding original. In fact, it was first recorded decades before the birth of the soul genre; Bing Crosby was the first one to record the track in 1933. More than three decades later, Redding gave the song a soul makeover, set against a backing track of organ music. His version is the most widely known, thanks to his unique instrumental arrangement and high-energy vocal performance.
24. La-La Means I Love You — The Delfonics
The Delfonics’ 1968 hit is the quintessential sound of Philly soul. Featuring complex harmonies and infectiously happy energy, “La-La Means I Love You” is the kind of song that gets everyone dancing. It has a throwback feel to the popular music of the 1950s, but with instrumentals and a musical arrangement that is undeniably soul.
25. Hello Stranger — Barbara Lewis
Barbara Lewis’ 1963 soul hit found a niche between ballad and dance hit. It effortlessly fused elements of organ music, doo-wop, and upbeat percussion, making it one of the most unique soul tracks of the early 1960s. The song is about a woman welcoming her lover home, and Lewis’ emotional vocal performance drips with joy and grief.
26. Who’s Lovin’ You — The Jackson 5
The Jackson 5 released “Who’s Lovin’ You” in 1969, at the height of their ensemble fame. Like most of their songs, the track showcased their vocal performance with complex harmonies and other elements. Though their cover is undoubtedly the most famous, the tune has been covered many times, including by The Supremes and The Temptations.
27. Brown Sugar — D’Angelo
D’Angelo made inroads in the modern soul genre of the 1990s. His 1995 track “Brown Sugar” is a sultry love song that stood out among the more pop-influenced soul tracks of the day. It is officially classified as neo-soul, though it draws heavy influences from jazz and funk, with strong instrumentals including bass and organ.
28. Back to Black — Amy Winehouse
Amy Winehouse’s career and life were cut tragically short, but she left a mark on the music industry during her time. She was a significant player in bringing the soul genre into the 21st century, and “Back To Black” was one of her best. The 2006 song is a heartbreaking ballad about a man leaving his lover for someone else.
29. When a Man Loves a Woman — Percy Sledge
Though the 1991 cover by Michael Bolton remains well-known to this day, “When A Man Loves A Woman” was first recorded nearly 30 years earlier. Percy Sledge’s 1966 original was so influential that it would go on to be covered not just by Bolton, but also by John Wesley Ryles, Bette Midler, and Joe Cocker.
30. On Broadway — The Drifters
The Drifters were a lesser-known group that was essential in the development of soul music in the early 1960s. Their 1963 hit “On Broadway” tells the story of an up-and-coming musician who arrives in New York City hoping to make it big. As he stares at the lights of Broadway with little to his name, he is determined to succeed.
31. Hound Dog — Big Mama Thornton
Elvis Presley’s 1956 cover is undoubtedly the most well-known version of “Hound Dog,” but four years earlier, Big Mama Thornton had recorded her original version. This track is one of the best examples of the earliest versions of the soul genre. Call it “proto-soul” if you will, but it is easy to see how later artists drew inspiration from her extreme emotion and powerful vocals.
32. The Tracks of my Tears — Smokey Robinson & The Miracles
Smokey Robinson was one of the big players of classic soul, and it isn’t just the brilliance of his song composition that made him famous. His vocal performances were intensely emotional—unique in the era of equating manliness with no emotion. “The Tracks Of My Tears,” released in 1965, is now in the Grammy Hall of Fame and the Library of Congress.
33. (Your Love Keeps Lifting Me) Higher And Higher — Jackie Wilson
Soul music can do every type of emotion: heartbreak, rage, yearning, loneliness, joy, and even dizzying happiness. Jackie Wilson’s “(Your Love Keeps Lifting Me) Higher And Higher” is the perfect example of soul music’s ability to be infectiously, over-the-moon happy. It’s no wonder that the tune continues to be a popular choice for weddings, especially with its upbeat energy and danceable beat. Wilson was a master of infusing his performance with an authentic joy that makes you believe he really is in love.
34. Be Thankful For What You Got — William DeVaughn
As we’ve mentioned before, soul music had its roots in gospel music, and it was never clearer than in William DeVaughn’s “Be Thankful For What You Got.” This 1974 hit expertly found a foot in both the soul and gospel genres and was played on radio stations of both kinds. This is especially significant since the lyrics make repeated mentions of gangster culture.
35. I Can’t Stand The Rain — Ann Peebles
Ann Peebles’ “I Can’t Stand The Rain” takes you right into the scene with instrumentals intended to sound like rain on a windowpane. The song is a unique variation of Memphis soul, and it is mesmerizing to hear. Peebles’ version was well-known during her time, though these days, Missy Elliott’s later cover might be more familiar.
36. Stop! In The Name of Love — The Supremes
The Supremes had many hits over the years, but their 1965 hit “Stop! In The Name Of Love” remains one of their greatest. They delivered this impassioned plea to a roaming lover in a high-energy party beat that exemplifies the soul sound of the mid-1960s.
37. Heat Wave — Martha Reeves & The Vandellas
“Heat Wave” is a love song about the physical feelings we experience when we’re in love. The singer jokingly compares feeling warm around her partner with being possessed or even having high blood pressure. While there are influences from other genres like doo-wop and jazz, the song is quintessential soul at its core.
38. Seven Days Too Long — Chuck Wood
“Seven Days Too Long” is best known for its cover by Dexys Midnight Runners. But the original version is just as compelling, performed in the style of Northern soul. With heavy brass instrumentals and a rhythm that’s reminiscent of a train, this hypnotic song will keep you mesmerized.
39. I’ll Be Around — The Spinners
The Spinners’ 1973 song “I’ll Be Around” is an emotional goodbye. To whom? It’s implied that it is the end of a romantic relationship, but the truth is we don’t fully know. Although the relationship is over, the singer promises to still be around if they’re ever needed.
40. I’m Still In Love With You — Al Green
Who among us hasn’t dreamed of hearing these words from an ex? Al Green’s 1972 song is an impassioned plea to a former lover. It wasn’t his most famous track, but it remains a wonderful soul track that is worth putting on any playlist.
41. I Got You (I Feel Good) — James Brown
No list of soul tracks is complete without James Brown’s “I Got You.” The Godfather of Soul, as he was called, was instrumental in the development of soul and funk throughout the 1960s and 1970s. His 1964 track was extremely popular at its release, but even more amazing is its continuing popularity more than half a century later. The song is also recognized for its heavy brass instrumentals.
42. Soul Man — Sam & Dave
“Soul Man” drew inspiration from Civil Rights protests of the 1960s when some African-Americans would mark their homes with the word “soul” to protect them from damage during demonstrations. It was famously covered by The Blues Brothers.
43. I Second That Emotion — Smokey Robinson & The Miracles
“I Second That Emotion” is a beautiful song combining strong feelings with being too proud to express them. The lyrics describe loving a woman and hoping she returns that love. But, having been vulnerable so far, the singer can only bring himself to say: “If you got that notion, I second that emotion.”
44. Inner City Blues (Make Me Wanna Holler) — Marvin Gaye
“Inner City Blues (Make Me Wanna Holler)” is a cry of frustration for the neglect of the poor and suffering in 1970s America. Marvin Gaye and his co-writer were outraged at the government’s refusal to help the ghettos and inner cities while pouring money into space travel and other programs.
45. People Make The World Go Round — The Stylistics
“People Make The World Go Round” is a song about the constant struggle of humankind. The opening of the song mentions garbage collectors and bus drivers going on strike for better wages; the lyrics go on to say that this is the constant cycle of the whole world, locked in a constant struggle.
46. Never Gonna Give You Up — Barry White
Before it belonged to Rick Astley, “Never Gonna Give You Up” was the title of a 1973 soul hit by Barry White. The passionate song is a declaration of love and fidelity, with lyrics saying: “You’ve given me much more than words could ever say, And oh, my dear, I’ll be right here until my dying day.”
47. Papa Was a Rollin’ Stone — The Temptations
“Papa Was A Rollin’ Stone” is a departure from The Temptations’ more well-known, upbeat songs. This 1972 tune is about a child grappling with the emotions of losing their estranged father, who had never been around to care for them.
48. If You’re Ready (Come Go With Me) — The Staple Singers
In the early 1970s, The Staple Singers were one of the most influential soul groups in the industry. During this time, they recorded “If You’re Ready (Come Go With Me),” one of their greatest hits of all time. The song is a masterful combination of soul, reggae, and acoustic soul.
49. Hard Times — Baby Huey
Baby Huey didn’t enjoy a long career, as he died from a heart attack at just 26 years old. He is best remembered for his 1971 song “Hard Times.” It made inroads for its unique instrumental tracks, including flutes, brass, and percussion. But Huey’s vocal performance was also remarkable, somehow gentle and full of emotion all at the same time.
50. Dance To The Music — Sly & The Family Stone
“Dance To The Music” was a unique fusion of sounds from across the 1960s. The song effortlessly combines elements of early 1960s soul with the later influences of punk and pop. It should come as no surprise, as Sly & The Family Stone was a leader in the development of psychedelic funk. The song was inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame in 2005.
51. (You Make Me Feel Like) a Natural Woman — Aretha Franklin
As one of the most famous singers in the history of soul, Aretha Franklin had countless hits over the course of her career. But her 1967 hit “(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman” has to be one of her most famous and enduring. This upbeat, gospel-inspired soul track is still widely known and played to this day.
52. Cold Sweat — James Brown
James Brown’s song “Cold Sweat” was fairly risque for the late 1960s; in fact, it might even make you blush now! The electric song is all about the physical attraction between the singer and his lover, and how when they are together, nothing else matters. Brown’s intense vocal performance ups the sensuality until there’s no mistaking his meaning.
53. Tainted Love — Gloria Jones
Gloria Jones’ 1976 song features a heavy synth and an unrelenting rhythm. It might be a breakup song, but it isn’t one that’s full of regret; instead, it is a litany of the ways that her lover has poisoned their love. Never was there a burn like “Once I ran to you (I ran), Now I run from you (Now I run).”
54. Rainy Night in Georgia — Brook Benton
“Rainy Night In Georgia” is one of those smooth soul songs that captures a moment in time. As you listen, you feel drawn into the contemplative mood of the singer and can almost picture the scene. Brook Benton paints a scene of being lonely and far from home, made even lonelier by being caught out in the rain with nowhere to go.
55. Thin Line Between Love And Hate — The Persuaders
In the grand tradition of turning a song into a warning, the 1972 track from The Persuaders reminds men to treat their partners well. The song tells the story of a man who mistreated his wife by staying out all night and—it’s implied—being unfaithful to her. She has long endured his mistreatment, but having reached her limit, attacks him and puts him in the hospital.
As the Head Editor and Writer at Music Grotto, Liam helps write and edit content produced from professional music/media journalists and other contributing writers. He works closely with journalists and other staff to format and publish music content for the Music Grotto website. Liam is also the founding member of Music Grotto and is passionate in disseminating editorial content to its readers.
Liam’s lifelong love for music makes his role at Music Grotto such a rewarding one. He loves researching, writing and editing music content for Music Grotto.