Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Aretha Franklin

  • I Never Loved a Man the Way I Love You [Atlantic, 1967] A
  • This Girl's in Love With You [Atlantic, 1970] B+
  • Spirit in the Dark [Atlantic, 1970] A
  • Aretha's Greatest Hits [Atlantic, 1971] B+
  • Aretha Live at Fillmore West [Atlantic, 1971] B
  • Young, Gifted and Black [Atlantic, 1972] A
  • Amazing Grace [Atlantic, 1972] B+
  • Hey Now Hey (the Other Side of the Sky) [Atlantic, 1973] B-
  • Let Me in Your Life [Atlantic, 1974] B+
  • With Everything I Feel in Me [Atlantic, 1974] B+
  • You [Atlantic, 1975] B-
  • Sparkle [Atlantic, 1976] B
  • Sweet Passion [Atlantic, 1977] C+
  • Almighty Fire [Atlantic, 1978] C+
  • La Diva [Atlantic, 1979] B
  • Aretha [Arista, 1980] B-
  • Love All the Hurt Away [Arista, 1981] A-
  • Jump to It [Arista, 1982] B+
  • Get It Right [Arista, 1983] B+
  • Who's Zoomin' Who? [Arista, 1985] A
  • Aretha [Arista, 1986] B-
  • One Lord, One Faith, One Baptism [Arista, 1988] B+
  • Through the Storm [Arista, 1989] B+
  • What You See Is What You Sweat [Arista, 1991] Dud
  • Greatest Hits (1980-1994) [Arista, 1994] A
  • A Rose Is Still a Rose [Arista, 1998] A
  • So Damn Happy [Arista, 2003] B+
  • Rare & Unreleased Recordings From the Golden Reign of the Queen of Soul [Rhino/Atlantic, 2007] Choice Cuts
  • Oh Me Oh My: Aretha Live in Philly, 1972 [Rhino Handmade/Atlantic, 2007] Dud
  • Jewels in the Crown . . . All-Star Duets With the Queen [Arista, 2007] Choice Cuts

Consumer Guide Reviews:

I Never Loved a Man the Way I Love You [Atlantic, 1967]
Aretha's glory and her failing is that she never does anything perfectly, but here she comes as close as is good for her--a healthy mix of rocking soul, dreamy pop, and reflective testifying. Not all of the tracks sound inspired, but on a collection that includes the title cut, "Respect," "Dr. Feelgood," "Do Right Woman," and (whew) "Don't Let Me Lose That Dream," that doesn't really matter much, does it? A

This Girl's in Love With You [Atlantic, 1970]
Although Soul '69 didn't convince me she was made for pop standards, this (basically appealing) mish-mash suggests that she's better suited to pop disposables like the title track and "Son of a Preacher Man" than to rock statements like "Eleanor Rigby" and "The Weight." I admit that when she sings "The Weight" it sounds as if she knows what it means. But I still don't. B+

Spirit in the Dark [Atlantic, 1970]
At first this may sound unnaturally even--jazzy in its pleasantness, pleasant in its jazziness--but that's just because no Aretha album has ever generated such a consistent groove. Four different bands, notably the Dixie Flyers and the Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section, keep things rocking at a medium-fast tempo, and what's lost in soul intensity is more than made up for in a kind of dusky barroom aura--if you can imagine walking into some funky cocktail lounge and finding the greatest singer in the world at the piano. Infinitely playable. Powerful song for song. Classic in its casualness. A

Aretha's Greatest Hits [Atlantic, 1971]
Great stuff, but not the greatest--and not as consistent stylistically as 1969's Aretha's Gold, which it duplicates on eight out of fourteen cuts. As for the latest hits, well, Aretha's done better recently than the contrived humankindness of "Bridge Over Troubled Water," the contrived religiosity of "Let It Be," and the contrived black consciousness of "Spanish Harlem." B+

Aretha Live at Fillmore West [Atlantic, 1971]
This record almost gets over on sheer vocal excess. Neither Aretha in Paris nor any of her studio albums has ever caught her in such an explosive mood, and the result is a "Dr. Feelgood" that could heal the halt and versions of "Eleanor Rigby" and "Bridge Over Troubled Water" that sound like Sunday morning. But though the speedy tempos help vitalize those last two songs as well, they do less than nothing for "Respect" and "Don't Play That Song" and can't save "Love the One You're With" or "Make It With You" (did she have to do 'em both?). And while in theory nothing could be more exciting than an eight-minute duet with Ray Charles on "Spirit in the Dark," in practice I'd rather hear Ray sing "The Three Bells" and Aretha go it alone. B

Young, Gifted and Black [Atlantic, 1972]
This plays straight to the nouveau-bourgeois black album audience, with all the self-consciousness and instrumentation that implies, but though it's genteel it's never bloodless: Aretha's free-flight improvisations are vehicles of a romanticism extreme and even unhinged enough to soar from the Afro-American experience right into the blithe fantasies of pop. She makes "Long and Winding Road" rock and turns the programmatic title anthem into a hymn. She proves herself a fond observer of everyday life on her own "First Snow in Kokomo." And on "Day Dreaming" she provides a metaphor her American-dreaming sisters and brothers can relate to: the song is wishful thinking, but the man it's about may just be real anyway, and that's the way America is sometimes. A

Amazing Grace [Atlantic, 1972]
Because I don't think God's grace is amazing or believe that Jesus Christ is his son, I find it hard to relate to gospel groups as seminal as the Swan Silvertones and the Dixie Hummingbirds and have even more trouble with James Cleveland's institutional choral style. There's a purity and a passion to this church-recorded double-LP that I've missed in Aretha, but I still find that the subdued rhythm section and pervasive call-and-response conveys more aimlessness than inspiration. Or maybe I just trust her gift of faith more readily when it's transposed to the secular realm. B+

Hey Now Hey (the Other Side of the Sky) [Atlantic, 1973]
In which she rejects the producers who made her career for Quincy Jones and drifts off into the hey now hey with rudder trailing. "So Swell When You're Well" and "Sister From Texas" might sneak onto Spirit in the Dark with a little more funk, and "Just Right Tonight" busies itself nicely, but too much of this is pretentious baloney, and "Somewhere" and "Mister Spain" are horrid. B-

Let Me in Your Life [Atlantic, 1974]
Welcome Tom and Jerry (Dowd and Wexler) back--this isn't great Aretha, but it rocks steady even on the ballads. If she doesn't get away with "The Masquerade Is Over," she does renew "A Song for You" with a fresh electric piano part and a good helping of indiscreet interpretation. Guided indiscretion, that's the key--her great gift is her voice, but her genius is her bad taste. B+

With Everything I Feel in Me [Atlantic, 1974]
Aretha has established herself as such a solid property--certain to hold onto a good-sized audience for years to come, but unlikely to expand any further--that it's getting hard to resist thinking of her as a cross between Frank Sinatra and Nancy Wilson, turning out collections as custom-designed as next year's Oldsmobile. This one's more ethereal styling--less bottom, more la-la scatting--is presaged by Young, Gifted and Black's exploration of the spirituality on black pop rather than Hey Now Hey's spindrift, and I like it fine. But it's hard to get excited about an album that puts so much of its soul into the codas. B+

You [Atlantic, 1975]
Does the curiously unfocused effect of this album reflect Aretha's inability to direct her own career? Or is it just the way the bass is mixed? Or are the two the same? B-

Sparkle [Atlantic, 1976]
Aretha vamping over competent-plus Curtis Mayfield tracks is sexy at worst, mixing rhythmic and emotional frisson, soul product as it should be, albeit deplorably post-verbal. Good late-night listening, I suppose--but not as good as Spirit in the Dark, or Super Fly. B

Sweet Passion [Atlantic, 1977]
When I work at listening, I can tell that she still sings real good. C+

Almighty Fire [Atlantic, 1978]
Well, she did call the last one Sweet Passion, and if she calls the next one Transcendent Glory it won't bring the spirit back. C+

La Diva [Atlantic, 1979]
Blame what's wrong with this record on the late trite Van McCoy, one of the most tasteless arrangers ever to produce an LP. What saves it is that McCoy didn't control half of these songs--arrangements by Richard Gibbs and Arthur Jenkins (rhythm only) and Zulema Cusseaux and Skip Scarborough (rhythm plus orchestration) provide frequent relief. Aretha contributes two sisterly originals, which are really fine, and one loverly original, which isn't. Because McCoy keeps intruding she never gets a flow going. But there haven't been this many good cuts on an Aretha album in five years. B

Aretha [Arista, 1980]
Yes, there are bright spots--a funk trifle with Re on piano, an autobiographical reminiscence speeded up Vegas-style, her voice. But the guidance she gets from new corporate mentor Clive Davis is typified by the vamp she adds to "What a Fool Believes." "Get the funk, get it now," she murmurs valiantly over a rhythm section anchored, as they say, by Louis Johnson and Jeff Porcaro. And who do you think plays the sax outro? If you guessed David Sanborn you get the picture. [Catalogue number: AL 9358.] B-

Love All the Hurt Away [Arista, 1981]
This is her best pop album since Young, Gifted and Black because it's her best groove album since Spirit in the Dark. The swinging, streaming, Quincy Jonesish dance pulse of (no getting around it) Toto (though Arif Mardin did have the smarts to add Jacksons vet Greg Philinganes) even helps her through jivy remakes of "Hold On I'm Coming" and "You Can't Always Get What You Want" on side one. But side two is, as Aretha puts it in her candid "Whole Lot of Me," the "cream de la cream": for once her voice is as rich and confident as it always has every right to be, and Aretha asserts her needs and prerogatives as if they go with the flow. Which they do. A-

Jump to It [Arista, 1982]
Luther Vandross is a great singer, and he's gotten a great singer's album out of Aretha. But he's not a great songwriter, and great singers do their greatest work with great songs. Sometimes great singers don't even know what a great song is, which is why we get to hear Aretha perform artificial respiration on Sam Dee's "If She Don't Want Your Lovin'" and the Isleys' hoary "It's Your Thing." And sometimes great singers are also great songwriters, which is why Aretha and Luther thank their stars for Smokey's "Just My Daydream." B+

Get It Right [Arista, 1983]
As long as Luther Vandross produces her she'll never do anything awful, but she might do something bland. Vandross's problem, obviously, is songs--he does his job on the title track, but even the one by Aretha's son outclasses his other four, which I blame in part on collaborator Marcus Miller, whose bass anchors the suavely pervasive groove. His virtue, just as obviously, is that he lets Aretha sing--there's a hoarse velvet grain to her voice here that turns Michael Lovesmith's "Better Friends Than Lovers" into a major statement and the Temptations' "I Wish It Would Rain" into an Aretha song. B+

Who's Zoomin' Who? [Arista, 1985]
It seems so simple now that it's happened, but let's face it--she's been trying to sell out this big for at least ten years. And take my word for it--she hasn't done anything near this good in over a dozen. It couldn't have happened without the top-forty revival, and it couldn't have happened without Narada Michael Walden, who unhesitatingly plugged his first legend into one pop format after another and came up with classics almost every time. From lead rocker to hooked ballad to Caribe Richie carnivalesque, these songs go no deeper than Franklin can make them by breathing, but their instant inevitability could keep this album alive for years. And when somebody like Aretha Franklin goes multiplatinum, the world rejoices. A

Aretha [Arista, 1986]
In which Narada Michael Walden returns to the land of weenies whence he came, and on some underling's steam--not up to composing these turkeys himself, he hired the songs out and then laid them on Re, who managed to sing as if she still cared. Duet attraction George Michael can't touch Annie Lennox; duet attraction Larry Graham can't even touch Peter Wolf. For this Clive didn't milk Who's Zoomin' Who? till it bled? [Catalogue number: AL 8442.] B-

One Lord, One Faith, One Baptism [Arista, 1988]
This artist-produced special-price live double comes from somewhere inside her--her soul, say--that doesn't distinguish between the personal, the political, and the religious. Structured to evoke a real church service, every side interrupted by a lengthy patch of prayer/invocation/sermon, it offers scant beat and lots of vocal glory, with much laying on of harmony. Guests include Mavis Staples, the Mighty Clouds of Joy, Jaspar Williams, and (on three sides for fourteen minutes total) Jesse Jackson. At times it seems like a self-indulgence, but more often its refusal of commercial compromise triumphs. Call it her tribute to her daddy. And never complain about her taste in clothes again. B+

Through the Storm [Arista, 1989]
Of the five count-'em five producers who labored over these eight tracks, only Narada Michael Walden--who claims four, including three of the four count-'em four celebrity cameos--can assure a very modern pop album. But only in spite of Walden is it a moderately seductive modern pop album. Delegating the JB duet to dodos who don't have the sense to sample him, buying noncommital generalizations even Whitney can't resist twisting, asking Elton in on the title number, the man epitomizes pop as market research. Singing her ass off on some halfway decent tunes, the artist epitomizes genius. B+

What You See Is What You Sweat [Arista, 1991] Dud

Greatest Hits (1980-1994) [Arista, 1994]
She's not the titanic presence of 25 years ago, but never count her out. That would require explaining away Clivillés & Cole's new "A Deeper Love," an electro masterpiece as emotional as "Ain't No Way" and as propulsive as "Chain of Fools" (and by the way, it's about God). She even makes Babyface's "Honey" sound like a song. If such late classics as "Jimmy Lee" and "Who's Zoomin' Who" are frothier than true believers might hope, that only proves her evolutionary superiority. All the principle she needs is in her voice, which should only keep adapting into the next millennium. Inspirational Verse That Isn't Even From the Michael McDonald Duet "Ever Changing Times": "I say the past is the past and it no longer matters." A

A Rose Is Still a Rose [Arista, 1998]
Unlike James Brown, say, or Ray Charles, the Queen of Soul is at home with up-to-the-minute black pop, cherry-picking producers the way Jerry Wexler once did songwriters. Cf. the uncountable rhythm tracks of Puffy Combs's apparently simple (and apparently unsampled) "Never Leave You Again"; Dallas Austin's long-suffering yet somehow jaunty "I'll Dip," on which Aretha sings barely a scrap of the written melody, improvising the verse and embellishing a chorus hook stated by a multitracked backup diva; Daryl Simmons's "In the Morning," disintegrating over and over into a mournful "I don't wanna be the other woman"; Franklin's own "The Woman," inarticulate in its wronged pain until she moans and scats the coda into a show of the pride she brushed by in the second verse; and Lauryn Hill's equally impressive title cut, whose unaffected big-sisterhood underpins the godmother's most credible feminist outreach ever. None of these 11 songs aspires to the declarative tunes and pungent phrases of the soul era, and at 55 Aretha is losing her high end. But after a decade in artistic seclusion, she had something to prove, and she did--with an album as audacious and accomplished as such great Wexlers as Spirit in the Dark or Young, Gifted and Black. A

So Damn Happy [Arista, 2003]
No, not that "Ain't No Way," or that "Everybody's Somebody's Fool" either. New ones, shorter on tune hence longer on voice--a musical correlative of the way she blurs the erotic-domestic details of the relationships the songs are about. Instead, her singing embodies relatedness itself: the experience of human proximity, of emotion expressed subject-to-object. B+

Rare & Unreleased Recordings From the Golden Reign of the Queen of Soul [Rhino/Atlantic, 2007]
"Lean on Me," "Ain't But the One," "Rock Steady," "I Need a Strong Man (The To-To Song)," "Suzanne" Choice Cuts

Oh Me Oh My: Aretha Live in Philly, 1972 [Rhino Handmade/Atlantic, 2007] Dud

Jewels in the Crown . . . All-Star Duets With the Queen [Arista, 2007]
"Put You Up on Game," "Never Gonna Break My Faith" Choice Cuts

See Also