The soul hits of the 60s are some of the most recognizable tracks in the history of popular music. Like the jazz and blues that dominated the 1920s, 60s soul music is known for its iconic voices and big band arrangements. With labels such as Motown, RCA and Atlantic stocking their rosters with talented groups and solo acts, soul became one of the most popular and profitable genres in a celebrated era. The albums in this list were selected because they encapsulate the sound of an iconic decade.
10. Gladys Knight and the Pips – ‘Nitty Gritty’ (1969)
Though often overshadowed by other Motown groups such as the Temptations and the Supremes, Gladys Knight and the Pips were one of the highlights of Detroit label’s roster during the 60s. ‘Nitty Gritty’ is the album that made the group’s potential for success very obvious. Covers of the Temptations’ hits ‘Cloud Nine’ and ‘(I Know) I’m Losing You’ prove that the they could shine just as brightly as the label’s top stars. On ‘Nitty Gritty’, Knight asserts herself as one of the definitive voices of 60s soul.
9. Etta James – ‘At Last’ (1960)
Backed by an orchestral arrangement, Etta James’s debut solo album ‘At Last’ was instantly recognized as one of the greatest soul albums of all time. Releases by Argo Records in November 1960, it was produced by Phil and Leonard Chess. The 10-track record explored themes of romance and loneliness, capturing the intensity of James’ voice through her powerful shouting. Music critic Stephen Cook gave it five stars, writing that James “expertly handles jazz standards seen in ‘Stormy Weather’ and a ‘Sunday Kind of Love’”. However, it was the single ‘At Last’ that sparked her rise to fame and has become a classic anthem of love. The album left a lasting impression and will be remembered as one of the great albums to come out of the soul era.
8. Ray Charles – ‘The Genius Sings the Blues’ (1961)
Ray Charles is one of the most distinctive characters in the history of soul music. 1961’s ‘The Genius Sings the Blues’ stretched the boundaries of the genre and established Charles as one of the most prominent figures of the era. Sometimes blues, sometimes jazz, sometimes something entirely unique, the one thing that is constant is the power of his’ voice as his fingers dance across the keys.
7. Sam and Dave – ‘Hold On, I’m Comin’’ (1966)
Possibly one of the best named songs of all time, the title track earns the LP a place on this list from the first horn blast. By the time Sam Moore’s voice comes in you are already hooked. From then on, 11 more tracks show why this dynamic duo had earned the name “Double Dynamite”. The few ballads carefully placed throughout this album give the listener a chance to catch their breath before it’s back to the races. ‘Hold On, I’m Comin’’ is fun from the beginning and a true joy to listen to throughout.
6. Nina Simone – ‘Nina Simone the Sings Blues’ (1967)
Known as the high priestess of soul, Nina Simone’s RCA debut, ‘Nina Simone Sings the Blues’ was a considerable leap from her previous catalogue of work. Backed by a smaller band, her talent could now shine freely in all its powerful glory. It is said to be the rawest record she had ever cut, featuring upbeat tracks to accompany her strikingly relatable and expressive lyrics, before shifting dramatically to reveal an emotionally charged vocalist belting out tracks like ‘My Man’s Gone Now’. The album delves deep into the heart of soul music and is a must listen for all fan s of the genre.
5. Smokey Robinson and the Miracles – ‘Going to a Go-Go’ (1965)
The mastermind behind so many Motown hits, Smokey Robinson shows off his singing talent on this 12-track album. Robinson’s smooth tenor voice is on full display throughout, and the group prove their versatility as they are switching between mellow ballads and up-tempo dance tunes. The title track is sure to get anyone on their feet, while ’Ooo Baby Baby’ is the epitome of tenderness in soul music.
4. Sam Cooke – ‘Ain’t That Good News’ (1964)
Sam Cooke’s final album may well have been his finest. ‘Ain’t That Good News’ shows off Cooke’s range as a songwriter with its upbeat, feel-good tracks followed by empowering and soulful ballads. The record reaches its climax with ‘A Change Gone Come’: a song that spoke for a generation of people during the struggles of the American Civil Rights Movement. Though he never got to see the change, having been shot and killed in December 1964, Cooke’s music is still a beacon of hope for people searching for inspiration today.
3. Aretha Franklin – ‘I Never Loved a Man the Way I Love You’ (1967)
Aretha Franklin’s ‘I Never Loved a Man (Like I Love you)’ is arguably her most powerful and significant LP. The album was produced and heavily influenced by famous rhythm and blues powerhouse Jerry Wexler. It was her 11th studio album and her first with Atlantic Records. Boasting two top 11 singles, what makes this album truly special is Franklin’s legendary rendition of Otis Redding’s ‘Respect’. Described by Rolling Stone as a “slow fire of ferocious sexuality”, it became an instant battle cry for both women and the Civil Rights Movement. To this day, ‘Respect’ is still sung around the world, cementing Franklin’s position as the “Queen of Soul”.
2. The Temptations – ‘The Temptations Sing Smokey’ (1965)
When the top soul writer teams up with the top group of soul singers, you know that it’s going to be special. ‘The Temptations Sing Smokey’ is the dream album for anyone who loves Motown. Eddie Kendrick’s sweet falsetto on tracks such as ‘The Way You Do the Things You Do’ and ‘Way Over There’ are reminiscent of Robinson’s own voice and a real driving force throughout the album. The emergence of David Ruffin on ‘My Girl’, one of the most popular soul songs of all time, is a defining moment that set the stage for the Temptations’ meteoric rise to stardom.
1. Otis Redding – ‘Otis Blue: Otis Redding Sings Soul’ (1965)
‘Otis Blue: Otis Redding Sings Soul’ is a reliably solid showcase of the gritty and powerful voice Redding is loved for. Recording 11 of the 12 tracks in under 24 hours, the album consists mainly of covers of songs by other R&B and soul artists, including Redding’s idol Sam Cooke. In 2004, The British Phonographic industry gave the album silver certification for the shipment of 60,000 copies in the UK. With Redding’s iconic voice leading the way, it is no surprise that the album was included in Time magazine’s list of “All-time 100 Greatest Albums”.
Thomas Joa is a journalist and songwriter from Madison, Alabama. He is interested in anything art related and loves exploring the world around him.
This article was co-written by Madison Pearce.