Seven groovy and powerful soul albums from 1969

1969 was an incredible year for music and especially for the album format, and these seven soul classics were the best released in that genre in the final year of the 1960s.
Sly And The Family Stone Perform in New York
Sly And The Family Stone Perform in New York / Walter Iooss Jr/GettyImages

By 1969, popular music had splintered in multiple directions at once, and the homogenized “pop music” genre of past years was no more. Furthermore, singles had been fully replaced by full-length albums as the preferred listening method of people around the world.

As such, in the final year of the 1960s, artists delivered a wide-ranging collection of classic albums that made 1969 one of the best years in music history.

Soul music had experienced a sea change since the early 1960s – as well as since the early days of pioneering soul label Motown’s success in 1964 – and the genre was becoming more and more socially and politically conscious. The Temptations went from doo-wop crooners to pioneers of psychedelic soul, and Sly & The Family Stone continued their work in that burgeoning field as well.

1969 was an amazing year for music, and these seven soul albums showcase that brilliance

Though 1969 had its fair share of albums from a variety of genres that have stood the test of time, these seven soul albums celebrating their 55th anniversary this year are surely among the best. Read on to explore the seven finest soul albums from the final year of the 1960s.

No. 7. The Brothers: Isley – The Isley Brothers

The Isley Brothers would continue to get funkier as the years went on, and their second release of 1969 was far funkier than the last. Highlights include the powerhouse ballad “I Got To Get Myself Together,” which is the only track on the album sung by someone other than frontman Ronald Isley (in this case it’s middle Isley brother Rudolph crooning smoothly).

The album’s magnum opus, “The Blacker the Berrie,” features meandering, sexy vocals that showcase Ronald Isley's feathery falsetto, which would come to dominate the group's career over the course of the 1970s.

The album closes with the powerful “Feels Like the World,” which is a strong finisher and sets the stage for the adventurous sonics the group would continue to explore throughout the early-to-mid-1970s.

No. 6. Soul ’69 – Aretha Franklin

A staggering showcase of the Queen of Soul's legendary vocal talents, this Aretha Franklin album is not as well-known as her two most notable releases – 1967’s I Never Loved a Man the Way I Love You and 1968’s Lady Soul – but it is still a sensational release that provides listeners with a bevy of top-notch tracks.

Franklin delivers a near-yodel on opening track "Ramblin'," and showcases her blues chops on numbers such as "Today I Sing The Blues." Of course, her voice, which is one of music’s most indelible instruments, delivers plenty of softer readings too, such as on “Gentle On My Mind” as well as a powerhouse cover of Smoky Robinson’s classic “The Tracks of My Tears.”

No. 5. Dusty in Memphis – Dusty Springfield

A sultry, powerful, and intimate soul album from Britain’s leading chanteuse of this era, Dusty in Memphis saw the legendary singer travel to, you guessed it, Memphis, Tennessee to record this 1969 soul classic. A far cry from the more sanitized productions of her 1964 album I Only Want to Be With You / Stay Awhile (containing one of the best opening songs from a debut album), this album is typified by its employment of a saucy horn section throughout, which is representative of the “Memphis sound” that American Sound Studios in the selfsame city was producing during this time.

Highlight tracks include the profound “Just One Smile,” the powerful “I Can’t Make It Alone,” and, of course, the album’s most notable masterpiece: “Son of a Preacher Man,” which is likely Springfield’s best-known song.

No. 4. It’s Our Thing – The Isley Brothers

This was the Isley Brothers’ first album after the group left Motown, where they had been shoehorned into that label's regimented production methods and songwriting style, which ultimately cramped their style. Their newfound freedom on this album allowed them to spread their wings and develop their own funk-leaning, soulful style, which was more intriguing than their poppier and heavily structured work for Berry Gordy's label.

Littered with seminal early funk productions and the inimitable, spirited vocal talents of Ronald Isley, this album contains plenty of hard-hitting funky R&B numbers, such as the legendary “It’s Your Thing” and opening salvo “I Know Who You Been Socking It To”, but it also delivers sweet ballads such as “Save Me,” which is an immaculately written and performed love song, as is the satisfying and powerful side-two banger “Love Is What You Make It.”

No. 3. My Whole World Ended – David Ruffin

David Ruffin’s solo debut is a stirring collection of tracks written by Motown's stable of tremendous songwriters, producers, and arrangers and performed admirably by in-house group The Funk Brothers, which was headlined by the greatest bass player of all time: James Jamerson.

The title track was the biggest hit, but there are plenty of highlights on display here, including "I've Lost Everything I've Ever Loved," which features some of Ruffin's trademark skyscraping falsetto flourishes, and perhaps the best song on the entire album: "The Double Cross," which serves as a tremendous showcase for Ruffin's singular vocal talents atop a bluesy melody underpinned by a riveting string arrangement.

Of course, the all-star supporting cast of writers and performers was important, but the real star of the show is Ruffin's raggedly soulful voice, which is one of the greatest instruments in the history of popular music. A spellbinding soul album from start to finish.

No. 2. Stand! – Sly & The Family Stone

An intense, highly entertaining soul/funk album with strong performances throughout, this 1969 release contains the evergreen classic "Everyday People," which still holds up 55 years later as a powerful statement of unity – though it was especially powerful during the tense and violent late 1960s.

Much of the album is dominated by extended funky jamming, but it's all extremely entertaining and underpinned by the powerhouse rhythm section of Greg Errico on drums and Larry Graham on bass (uncle of rapper Drake). The nearly 14-minute long "Sex Machine" is a slinky highlight with terrific drumming from Errico and strong lead guitar work from Sly Stone; keep an ear out around the 8:30 mark as an extremely fuzzed-out guitar solo from Sly begins to dominate proceedings.

No. 1. Cloud Nine – The Temptations

The late ‘60s were a period of tumult for The Temptations, one of Motown Records’ most important acts, as longtime member and nominal frontman David Ruffin left the group to pursue his solo career to impressive effect (see number three on this list).

Replacement tenor Dennis Edwards gets off to an auspicious start with the group, as his keening yelps serve as a terrific counterpoint to the smooth falsetto of Eddie Kendricks and the bellowing bass of Melvin Franklin – as well as the velvety midrange provided by Otis Williams and Paul Williams.

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The group’s first studio album of 1969 was a showcase for the tremendous artistic vision and writing talent of producer and songwriter Norman Whitfield, who had already been working with the Temptations for years, but on this album, the group became his project alone. And what an impressive beginning it is.

Cloud Nine still has its fair share of pure pop classics, such as the catchy "Hey Girl," the Paul Williams-led “Don’t Let Him Take Your Love From Me” as well as a funky, up-tempo take on the Motown classic "I Heard It Through the Grapevine."

Of course, this album is regarded as classic due to its “psychedelic soul” innovations on the iconic title track as well as the socially conscious epic “Runaway Child, Running Wild.” This brilliant album also netted the group its first Grammy award. Essential stuff from the Tempts.

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