Soul music is known for its gospel influence, and the genre was shaped by black Americans drawing on their life experiences. Impassioned vocals, big horns, and addictive rhythms make up the heart of soul music.
Even with these standard elements, each song on this list of the best soul songs is unique, and they will all move you in one way or another!
I Heard It Through the Grapevine – Marvin Gaye
Marvin Gaye’s classic soulful voice takes this song to the next level. He’s got passion, he’s got rasp, and it turns ‘I Heard It Through the Grapevine’ into a dramatic heartbreak song. Gaye has discovered that his romantic partner has been cheating on him, and he confronts them in this song, talking about how betrayed he feels.
Related: What rumors have you heard? Check out these songs about infidelity and betrayal.
(Sittin’ On) The Dock of the Bay – Otis Redding
This song had huge commercial success, but unfortunately, Otis Redding did not live to see it. Three days after recording the song, Redding died in a plane crash, and the song was released a month later. The swaying song and peaceful whistling give the listener a moment to pause and take it all in, “sittin’ on the dock of the bay, watchin’ the tide roll away.”
Related: This song features on our Top Gun song list.
(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman – Aretha Franklin
Aretha Franklin’s vocals shine in this song, and her two sisters provide backup. The track is all about feeling truly seen by a partner. Franklin feels comfortable being herself around this person—just being around them makes her feel more authentic. Lines like “when my soul was in the lost and found, you came along to claim it” shows how a love like this can save you.
The Tracks of My Tears – Smokey Robinson
Do you ever feel like you’re putting on a mask so that other people can’t tell you’re sad? Do you ever secretly hope someone will see through that mask? This song perfectly captures that feeling—it’s an emotional track despite the celebratory horns and jazzy style. Even when you’re laughing, if someone were to look close enough, they would see all the tears of the past on your face.
Related: Shed a few tears while you listen to these songs with the word cry in the title.
A Change is Gonna Come – Sam Cooke
Beautifully cinematic strings give you chills as soon as this song starts, setting the stage for Sam Cooke’s poignant vocals. Released in 1964, this track was written to support the civil rights movement. Despite centuries of racism, Cooke wanted to instill some hope that equality would be achieved someday due to the brave fights of social rights activists.
Related: Find this song on our playlist of human rights songs.
I Got You (I Feel Good) – James Brown
This song has one of the most recognizable sax riffs of all time, a warbling trill that can instantly lift your mood. The track is about feeling good and does an amazing job of making you feel good, too. James Brown reflects on how amazing the love in his life is. With this person, he is never at risk of feeling down.
Related: Need a mood boost? Here are the best songs about joy.
I Just Called to Say I Love You – Stevie Wonder
Stevie Wonder doesn’t need a reason to tell the person he is with that he loves them. He names a bunch of special occasions, like New Year’s Day and Valentine’s Day, before saying those occasions are not necessary for him to express his love. The day could be completely monotonous, and Wonder would still want to shout out his love to the world.
Related: Listen to more of the best ukulele love songs.
You Keep Me Hangin’ On – The Supremes
Electronic-sounding horns and a steady beat carry us through this emotional tune. The song is told from the perspective of a woman who knows her man doesn’t love her but is stringing her along because it’s easier than breaking up with her. She tells him, “get out of my life and let me sleep at night,” to try and make him see how selfish his uncertainty is.
Recommended: Our countdown of the most popular Supremes songs.
Let’s Stay Together – Al Green
Passionate horns and smooth vocals are the backbones of ‘Let’s Stay Together.’ AI Green sings about his relationship and how he wants to promise always to stay together in this classic love song. Through everything, “whether times are good or bad, happy or sad,” nothing can separate them. It’s a healthy mentality for love dedicated to remaining steady.
Related: See more songs about loving someone through hard times.
Soul Man – Sam & Dave
Singing along to ‘Soul Man’ is a great way to claim your love for soul music. Over and over, the track belts, “I’m a soul man!” Triumphant horns and riveting guitar riffs celebrate the power of soul music and the connection that comes with singing it. Writer Isaac Hayes has talked about how this song was partly inspired by the uniting effect that soul had on black people.
I’ll Be Around – The Spinners
It’s rare for a relationship to end amicably without one person suffering more than the other. ‘I’ll Be Around’ takes the point of view of someone accepting the end of a relationship gracefully, but deep down, he doesn’t want it to be over. He promises to respect his ex but wants them to know, “whenever you need me, I’ll be there.” It’s a sweet sentiment but also a heartbreaking nod to being unable to move on.
Dance to the Music – Sly and the Family Stone
This electric song was Sly and The Family Stone’s first big hit, the beginning of a monumental career. Staticky bass and a driving beat are the backbones for the awesome horns and gripping vocals. Each member of the band and each instrument gets a moment in the spotlight, and it’s truly a song you can’t help but dance to!
Related: Hit the dance floor with these good songs for dancing.
Pusherman – Curtis Mayfield
‘Pusherman’ was originally released as part of the score for the 1972 film Superfly but soon became a popular standalone song. Curtis Mayfield sings about the often untold story of drug dealing. Dealers are painted as criminals, but sometimes they are just regular people trying to survive in a society that doesn’t offer them many other ways. This is most clear with the line “a man of odd circumstance, a victim of ghetto demands.”
Related: Listen to more songs from Superfly.
Lean on Me – Bill Withers
The electric piano in ‘Lean on Me,’ which walks up and down the melody, is instantly recognizable. This feel-good song full of love is universally known, offering an intimate connection to all who listen. It’s a reminder always to support others and accept support when you need it. After all, “we all need somebody to lean on.”
Related: These kindness songs will remind you to be there for others.
I’ll Take You There – The Staple Singers
The Staple Singers dream of a place free from oppression and discrimination in ‘I’ll Take You There.’ Lead singer Mavis Staples is a revered soul singer, and her vocals smoothly take this song to the next level. The repetition of “I’ll take you there” builds hope and determination that this free world can exist.
Related: Head over to our list of the most popular gospel songs.
Midnight Train to Georgia – Gladys Knight, Jim Weatherly, and The Pips
Writer Jim Weatherly got the inspiration for ‘Midnight Train to Georgia’ from two of his friends leaving LA after realizing their dreams weren’t coming true. Despite this, they’re just happy to be together. This lovely song follows that story, talking about a man who didn’t make it in LA and takes the train with his girl back to “a simpler place and time.”
Related: Next stop is our playlist of songs that mention trains.
Get Ready – The Temptations
Look out, love! This song is coming for you! ‘Get Ready’ is sung from the perspective of a man completely committed to his love. He’s excited and devoted, telling them to get ready because he’s bringing them “a love that’s true.” The track has lively horns and dancing keys and will get you moving to the beat.
Related: See our playlist of the best true love music.
Never Too Much – Luther Vandross
‘Never Too Much’ feels like dancing through the kitchen with the lights down low, candles flickering, and laughing with your partner. Like this soulful song, Luther Vandross’s smooth vocals are full of love. He sings about that consuming feeling of love that feels like nothing else matters. Nothing about this person is too much—you want all of them. Even “a thousand kisses is never too much.”
Related: Do you believe in soulmates? Here are some songs about finding the love of your life.
Who’s Making Love – Johnnie Taylor
Johnnie Taylor asks men an interesting question in this tune: “Who’s making love to your old lady while you were out making love?” After a tense build-up of horns and lyrical intrigue, the question is meant to stop you in your tracks. If you’re cheating on your girl, what do you think she’s doing while you’re not there?! It’s a comical idea, if not a bit troublesome.
Related: If there’s a cheater in your life, give these adultery songs a listen.
Your Love Keeps Lifting Me Higher and Higher – Jackie Wilson
After facing disappointment and hard times, Jackie Wilson has finally found peace in love. He sings, “now with my loving arms around you, honey, I can stand up and face the world,” telling us just how life-changing this love has been for him. The elated horns and climbing vocals lift higher and higher throughout the song, just like love lifts Wilson up.
Related: Feel great with these songs that are uplifting.
Thin Line Between Love and Hate – The Persuaders
At first, this song seems to be about a steady and forgiving love from a woman to the narrator. Despite him coming home late, she still offers him comfort and doesn’t get angry. But then, after the line “don’t think you can keep breaking a woman’s heart,” we find out this woman has done something to put him in the hospital! It’s a warning that love can easily turn into hate when taken for granted.
Related: Need to take revenge? Here are some songs about getting even.
It’s Gonna Take a Miracle – The Royalettes
This atmospheric track is about not being able to move on. The singer is so hung up on her ex that she says, “it’s gonna take a miracle to make me love someone new.” It’s a desperately emotional line; she can’t even fathom being able to fall for someone that isn’t her ex.
Related: Still thinking about your former lover? Indulge in the best songs about your ex.
The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face – Roberta Flack
Roberta Flack’s vocals are soft and sweet, immediately hooking us. As her intensity grows and the melodies build, we are taken on an emotional roller coaster. The song is slow, almost hesitant, allowing us to take in all gorgeous metaphors like “the first time ever I kissed your mouth, I felt the earth move in my hands.”
Related: Fall in love with our love at first sight songs playlist.
La La Means I Love You – The Delfonics
The subject of this song is a woman that everyone wants. Many guys pursue her, but she turns them all down. The singer knows he might not have much, but his love for her is true. The strings are uplifting and passionate, just like the high notes of the vocalist.
In the Rain – The Dramatics
Rippling guitar and moving strings make you feel right in the middle of a dark and stormy night. ‘In the Rain’ follows a man after a fight between him and his love. He wants to escape into the rain so that this person won’t be able to see him cry. His tears will blend with the water, and no one can tell how much he’s hurting.
Do I Love You (Indeed I Do) – Frank Wilson
Frank Wilson professes his love for his partner in this song. Anytime his love is brought into question, he doesn’t hesitate to reaffirm just how deep his emotions run. The uptempo beat and rejoicing choir almost make this track sound similar to a worship song, which is perfect for how Wilson feels+——–.
It’s Your Thing – The Isley Brothers
A song that champions independence, ‘It’s Your Thing’ has dynamic horns and enthusiastic vocals that give this song an unbeatable groove. The Isley Brothers are singing to a specific woman in this song, telling her that she can do whatever she wants because no one else should control her. It’s a great message to any listener, telling us to take ownership of our lives!
Georgia on My Mind – Ray Charles
‘Georgia on My Mind’ is a classic Ray Charles song and a classic soul song in general, even winning two Grammys in 1960 for Best Male Vocal Recording and Best Pop Song Performance. It’s a slow song, full of swooning strings and enchanting harmonies that will have you happily rocking from side to side.
Related: Ray Charles has a range of genres. See him on our list of the top black country singers.
Reach Out I’ll Be There – Four Tops
If you’re ever going through a period where you feel lost and lonely, this song offers a helping hand to grab onto. Four Tops sings about various hardships, like when “your life is filled with much confusion” or “happiness is just an illusion,” before telling you to reach out. They will always be there for you.
Related: Enjoy more old Motown songs.
Hello Stranger – Barbara Lewis
A textbook soul song, ‘Hello Stranger’ features interesting rhythms, call and response elements, horns, and plenty of “shoo-bop, shoo-bops.” Barbara Lewis has run into a past flame, but it’s been so long that it now feels like they are strangers. Despite this, Lewis feels relief in just being near them again because she knows the love they once shared is still present.
Respect – Aretha Franklin
Aretha Franklin’s powerhouse vocals are always impressive, but they are particularly stunning in ‘Respect.’ The song was originally written and recorded by Otis Redding, but Franklin’s version (which added some sections to the arrangement, like the “sock it to me” lines) is more well-known. The track is empowering, all about knowing your worth and asking for respect.
Related: Learn what you deserve with these songs with respect in the lyrics.
People Get Ready – The Impressions
‘People Get Ready’ has some spiritual themes that are present in a lot of soul music, referencing a metaphorical train that will take you to a better place. This place could be heaven, or it could be somewhere that is free from racism and sinning. The track has celestial strings and a relaxing feel to it—something that can ease you on your journey to somewhere better.
Let’s Get It On – Marvin Gaye
‘Let’s Get It On’ is an iconic song, most widely known for its ability to set the mood for an intimate night. Sex-positive songs were relatively rare at the time of the song’s release, so this track helped relieve some of the shame people had over “getting it on.” Gaye’s fervent vocals match the jazzy style of the song beautifully.
Related: You can hear this song on our playlist of great ballads.
Try a Little Tenderness – Otis Redding
This was not originally Otis Redding’s song, and he didn’t want to record his own version. But thank goodness he did! Redding’s desperate pleading in ‘Try a Little Tenderness’ paints the song in a new light. He encourages the listener to show women that they have intrinsic value, despite living in a world that tends to place all of their worth on their physical appearance.
Related: This song is on the Pretty in Pink soundtrack list.
(There’s Gonna Be A) Showdown – Archie Bell & The Drells
The competitive nature of dance seems to have inspired this song; the “showdown” the track talks about is a showdown on the dance floor. The narrator is completely confident in his abilities and knows that no one could match his skill. He’s ready for the showdown, warning his opponent, “when you get out on the floor, you better have your steps together” to even stand a chance!
Twenty-Five Miles – Edwin Starr
There’s no distance that Edwin Starr wouldn’t walk to be with his woman! The song is full of determined horns and a quick beat, matching Starr’s unrelenting march toward his baby. He sings, “I got fifteen miles to go now, and I can hear my baby callin’ my name.” Even with a daunting fifteen miles ahead, he knows what waits for him is more than worth it.
Untitled (How Does It Feel) – D’Angelo
This sensual ballad was partly written to pay homage to Prince, taking on a style similar to Prince’s early ballads. All D’Angelo wants is to be with the woman he is singing to, hoping to please her in whatever way she needs. The track does not shy away from explicit lyrics, which is a unique way to show how deep this dedication goes.
Related: ‘How Does It Feel’ to listen to the best 2000s R&B songs?
On Broadway – The Drifters
‘On Broadway’ is a song made for dreamers. The narrator’s resolve grows along with the instrumentation throughout the song, telling us that no matter the obstacles, he knows he belongs on Broadway. He sings, “I won’t quit till I’m a star on Broadway,” and it’s an inspirational reminder that you are the one who gets to determine your future.
Related: Dreaming of having your name in lights? Get inspired by these great Broadway songs.
I Second That Emotion – Smokey Robinson
Unreciprocated love is an awful feeling that is all too common. It can feel like all your thoughts revolve around this person and whether or not they love you. Smokey Robinson knows that he doesn’t want a relationship if the other person isn’t committed, but he is willing to offer himself up if they do return his feelings even a little bit—”if you feel like loving me, if you got the notion, I second that emotion.”
Related: Are you the only one with feelings? Check out these songs about one sided love.
When Somebody Loves You Back – Teddy Pendergrass
Love is music’s most popular muse because it is one of the best emotions, and it’s something that people spend so much of their lives chasing. That love is unmatched when you’re finally in a healthy and stable relationship. The relief and peace that comes with it are just “so good.” The euphoric horns and joyous vocals of this song really spotlight that.
Wonderful World – Sam Cooke
Sam Cooke admits he may not have been a stellar student in this song, but he doesn’t have a problem with it. All he needs to know is love. The swinging rhythm gives this song a comforting feel, a reminder that even if you don’t know much, you can still say “I do know that I love you” to the special people in your life.
Rainy Night in Georgia – Brook Benton and Tony Joe White
This quiet and introspective tune is a good one for a rainy night. The melancholy piano and strings get you right into that setting. Brook Benton is down on his luck, desperately missing someone he loves. Not having this person near is taking over his mood, so much so that he feels like “it’s rainin’ all over the world.”
On & On – Erykah Badu
‘On & On’ has a thrumming beat driven by relaxed drums and grooving bass, letting Erykah Badu’s lyrics and vocals stand front and center. Badu’s distinctive singing style is captivating, taking us into her world. She reminds us that the world keeps spinning and life keeps moving no matter what. So, even if you’re in a difficult period of your life, you can rest easy in the knowledge that it has to pass.
Related: Here’s the list of our favorite 90s songs.
Walk on By – Isaac Hayes
‘Walk on By’ was originally by Dionne Warwick, and Isaac Hayes’ version puts a more soulful spin on it. The track opens with gorgeous strings, slowly building tension until the beat kicks in. Then, the twangy electric guitar takes us for a ride. Hayes’ vocals are ambient, reverberating through us. The twelve-minute track is food for the soul!
Related: Take a stroll with these songs for walking.