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Top 10 Hardest Aretha Franklin Songs to Sing

Top 10 Hardest Aretha Franklin Songs to Sing
VOICE OVER: Kirsten Ria Squibb WRITTEN BY: Cameron Johnson
These songs belong to Aretha Franklin for a reason. Welcome to MsMojo, and today we're looking at the most vocally challenging masterpieces by the undisputed Queen of Soul Aretha Franklin. Our countdown includes "Think," "Respect," "Skylark," and more!

#10: “I Say a Little Prayer”
“Aretha Now” (1968)

Aretha Franklin slowed Dionne Warwick’s hopping love ballad “I Say a Little Prayer” into an even more sophisticated rhythm. Central to that is her correspondence with the Sweet Inspirations, who also performed on alumni Warwick’s version. The backup singers harmonize secondary lead vocals that seamlessly take over the song’s refrains. Franklin hits her notes with audible precision, without any loss of serene emotion. Even her most thrilling belts during the chorus are smoothly pulled in time for the Inspirations’. This infectious mix of romance and exciting energy turned Franklin’s cover into one of her signature songs. The true feat of this pop classic, however, is how beautifully the vocal gymnastics cooperate.

#9: “I Can’t Turn You Loose”
“Aretha” (1980)

Franklin’s second self-titled album saw her moving from disco to more traditional funk. She especially hit the sweet spot in her fast-paced rearrangement of Otis Redding’s “I Can’t Turn You Loose”. Franklin naturally focuses more on soulful flourishes, with a matured raspiness to her mid and high notes. Far more unique is how she phrases this energy with the percussive rhythm. The drum and bass lay down some heavy funk, yet Franklin doesn’t miss a beat behind them and between the horn cues. Such firm discipline to an otherwise boisterous soul anthem really shows her adaptiveness in jams. Not many can get “I Can’t Turn You Loose” that tight.

#8: “Sweet Bitter Love”
“Soul Sister” (1966) / “Who’s Zoomin’ Who?” (1985)

Franklin recorded three versions of “Sweet Bitter Love” over twenty years. The two definitive arrangements are very different, but equally enchanting. The 1966 rendition is a jazzy soul ballad that emphasizes breathy longing. Even the high notes follow a controlled passage that flows back into the dreamier crooning. The ‘85 version is even softer, despite the gospel elements. When Franklin belts out of the haunted lilts, she completely roars. “Sweet Bitter Love” is not just another hidden gem. It reflects the evolution of a singer from the dreamy spirit of her 20s to a more introspective passion in her 40s. That’s a testament to how much the right feel plays into the already technically demanding ballads.

#7: “Only the Lonely”
“Soft and Beautiful” (1969)

The opening track of “Soft and Beautiful” perfectly establishes Aretha Franklin’s objective to bring her soaring soul back to its emotive jazz roots. That doesn’t mean her interpretation of the Sammy Cahn–Jimmy Van Heusen standard “Only the Lonely” is any less marvelous. It’s a swooning, bluesy ballad that displays Franklin’s painstaking melodic control. She gradually departs from the smoky likes of Frank Sinatra by crescendoing into soulful high notes, thoughtfully expressing the bittersweet lyric to its fullest. “Only the Lonely” is the ideal hook to a showcase of Franklin’s unique jazz sound. Appearing on the compilation album “Aretha Sings the Blues”, it’s also one of her most underappreciated marriages of pure emotion and refined technique.

#6: “(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman”
“Lady Soul” (1968)

Few songs written specifically for Aretha Franklin embody her vocal richness as purely as “(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman”. Why, few love songs in general sound as sincere as this heart-wrenching classic. Franklin is gentle yet assertive in how she swoons through the verses with dreamy phrasing. The captivating chorus then shows off her heartfelt chops, but more through seamlessly layered scales than belting. It’s all about the perfect pitch and how organically Franklin evolves it throughout the song. “A Natural Woman” is a natural pop hit, whose deeply romantic lyrics and groove have been interpreted by many great singers. Of course, none can be paired with Franklin’s mastery of emotion.

#5: “Skylark”
“Laughing on the Outside” (1963)

Hoagy Carmichael and Johnny Mercer’s tribute to Judy Garland is a staple of whimsical jazz vocals. Aretha Franklin’s interpretation is steeped in classic orchestral pop, tender yet crisp in its exploration of scales. Still, no amount of vocal warmup can prepare just anyone for the soaring heights in the crescendo. The highest note in the song may be one of the most striking notes Franklin ever delivered in the studio. This performance is a favorite among fans, including Franklin’s biographer David Ritz. He alleged that not even Etta James wanted to touch “Skylark” afterwards. From the longing lows to the soaring highs, the song is its own statement about Franklin’s unrivaled melodic skill.

#4: “Respect”
“I Never Loved a Man the Way I Love You” (1967)

Although Otis Redding deserves respect for originating this touchstone of soul, Aretha Franklin owns it. Her Grammy-winning R&B arrangement of “Respect” sounds like a wild expression, when it’s actually precisely phrased. The verse alternates between extended belts to command attention, and melodic resolutions to convey attitude. The chorus’ uptempo rhythm with the backup vocals is infectious enough. But the explosive refrain is one of the greatest in the history of popular music. This demand for dignity, noticeably more impassioned than Redding’s, is an altogether iconic anthem for both the singer and female empowerment. It’s admittedly hard to not sing alone. It’s far harder to sing it like Franklin does.

#3: “Amazing Grace”
“Amazing Grace” (1972)

The live album “Amazing Grace” is hailed as one of the greatest recordings in all of gospel. The title track alone is the perfect expression of Franklin’s faith and how it extended her talent. She draws John Newton's seminal hymn to 16 minutes, edited down to 10 for the album’s original release. She ruminates on each note, scaling from chilling lows to uplifting highs against a rich backup choir. It's gospel vocalization at its most spectacular. Still, it hardly feels overindulgent in how it resonates Franklin’s piety to the wailing audience at New Temple Missionary Baptist Church. You just can't teach soul this genuine, if you can even handle the scope of the vocals.

#2: “Think”
“Aretha Now” (1968)

Franklin’s definitive foray into funk really just concentrates the full measure of her soul. Co-written by Franklin herself, “Think” is a fiery love anthem that seems to allude to feminism and civil rights. For over two minutes straight, she bursts with passion that sails into some ridiculously high notes. The epic belts and piercing falsetto practically whip out of nowhere. Through it all, she keeps a brisk rhythm that disciplines this commanding energy. There really is a lot of thought put into all that feeling. “Think”’s relentless hooks easily makes it one of Franklin’s biggest and most distinct hits. You can't help moving to it, but you better think before trying to sing along.

Before we unveil our top pick, here are a few honorable mentions.

“Angel” / “Hey Now Hey (The Other Side of the Sky)” (1973)
Enchanting Flow & Hypnotic Harmonies Live Up to the Song’s Title

“Chain of Fools” / “Lady Soul” (1967)
The Signature Hit Confronts a Cheater with the Perfect Link Between Soulful Sorrow & Sassy Rock ‘n’ Roll

“Laughing on the Outside” / “Laughing on the Outside” (1963)
A Jazzy Ballad is Adapted with Devastating Crying Through a Bright Croon

“Sisters Are Doin' It For Themselves” / “Who's Zoomin' Who?” (1985)
Franklin & Eurythmics' Annie Lennox Harmonize on a Funky, Fiery Feminist Anthem

“Today I Sing the Blues” / “Aretha, with the Ray Bryant Trio” (1961)
Subtle Emotional Form & Melodic Perfection Deliver One of Franklin’s Definitive Blues Ballads

#1: “Ain’t No Way” (1968)
“Lady Soul”

The masterpiece “Lady Soul” ends very much on a high note with “Ain’t No Way”. Written by Carolyn Franklin, the heartbreak ballad brings an intense desperation to her sister’s poetic phrasing at its most progressive. It’s a concentrated build from melancholy nostalgia to a sweeping final run. Meanwhile, Cissy Houston leads the Sweet Inspirations and Carolyn’s backup with a ghostly operatic howl. “Ain’t No Way” is a true singer’s song, favored and effectively covered by only the most elite vocalists. A performance on “The Merv Griffin Show” notably marked the perfect TV debut for Cissy’s daughter Whitney Houston. Still, there’s no way to fully capture the technical and emotional magic in this confirmation of the Queen of Soul.

What are your favorite Aretha Franklin songs to at least try to sing? Show your respect in the comments.