Today, soul music is back in the spotlight. Groups like Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings have reintroduced the genre to new listeners, but there remains an embarrassment of riches worth of overlooked soul gems. In this playlist, we put together a collection of our favorite soul music songs that consist of both relatively unknown names and old, familiar faces.
Soul music has often been seen as a starting point for many influential artists in other genres. With great artists and labels, soul music songs have influenced (and become influenced by) many other genres including funk, disco, hip-hop, and contemporary R&B.
Much of soul music’s history can be traced to gospel, blues and rhythm and blues (R&B), two currents that converged in the 1960s. Soul artists at this time offered an updated version of traditional blues music tempered with the impassioned singing styles of gospel music. While gospel music told stories of struggle, redemption, and salvation, early soul music songs had a secular bent that captured emotions such as love or longing.
The melting pot of these sounds, particularly as exemplified in Stax Records’ Memphis recordings, laid the groundwork for funk and disco over two decades later. While Stax helped to make Memphis’ rhythm and blues more danceable, artists on Detroit label Motown crafted a sound characterized by catchy hooks, syncopated rhythms and contemporary arrangements. Likewise, the deep south developed its own soul scene and over time gave rise to artists with strong country influences. Northern cities like Philadelphia and New York also played an important role in the development of soul music. As these regions grew distinct musical identities, musicians traveled among them bringing new stylistic influences with each relocation, creating one of the most varied and original catalogs in popular music.
The soul genre also emerged in an era of intense racial segregation. But despite these barriers, many Black soul musicians sought to connect their art to the Civil Rights Movement, helping to bring soul music songs into the national spotlight. Despite the various styles that emerged, soul music retained a sense of unity and a collective spirit of resilience. Soul music songs were frequently used as an opportunity to bring people together socially, and in many ways, soul artists’ messages from the 1960s are more relevant than ever before.