Combining elements of gospel and R&B with funk and jazz, soul music captures such a rich, warm sound unlike any other genre. From the classics of the 60s, to the unending highlights of the 70s, to the new wave of neo-soul from the 80s onward, there are so many incredible albums to find in the genre. In this short list, I'll highlight thirteen albums I've deemed to be some of the most essential for getting into the genre. Bear in mind there are far more classics than this, but for newcomers, this should be a great start to get into one of the most beautiful genres in music.
1. Stevie Wonder - Songs in the Key of Life (1976)
Don't be intimidated by the length of this - in every regard, this is soul at its finest, and every minute is worth it. Stevie has such a wonderful voice, holding so much passion as he sings of love, life, and family. The production ranges from sombre balladry to hard-hitting funk, drawing inspiration from a range of different sounds. Listen in two sittings if you find the length overwhelming, but do not miss out on this flawless classic.
2. Marvin Gaye - What's Going On (1971)
Few albums are as iconic as What's Going On, and for good reason. While each track on its own is a perfect representation of smooth soul, when joined together, they form one of the most cohesive and engaging albums ever. Each song transitions into the next seamlessly, never giving the listener a moment's rest as the bright, summery production transitions into the next track smoothly and continues on until the very end. Marvin has such a strong presence, and overall this is such a complete and perfect album.
3. Isaac Hayes - Hot Buttered Soul (1969)
This album has a greater emphasis on funk, combining Isaac's soulful vocals with funky instrumentation which swells into some of the most cinematic and beautiful soul ever. The album is only four tracks long, but each one takes its time, giving each instrumental the time to breathe and build, and giving Isaac the opportunity to show off his grand and crestfallen vocals. It's the pinnacle of quality over quantity, with each song being some of soul's best.
4. Nina Simone - Pastel Blues (1965)
Pastel Blues, as well as being a soul classic, is an amazing vocal jazz album. Therefore, the instrumentation is far denser than the majority of albums on this list, with a far greater emphasis on jazz instruments. Nina has a very unique vocal style which took some getting used to for me, but after repeated listens I can appreciate the rawness of her delivery and the passion it holds. This is a great introduction to the jazzier side of soul, and a good entry point into her catalogue.
5. James Brown - The Payback (1973)
James Brown is another legend in soul, and The Payback may be his best work. He has such charming, strong vocals, from which you can truly hear how much he loves the funky sound. The funk production is immaculate, with so many long, slow-burn songs which give each instrumental the time to evolve. Some may be caught off guard by the length of each track, but I believe each one is the perfect length, with no song feeling half-baked nor any idea underdeveloped.
6. Otis Redding - Otis Blue (1965)
This album is the pinnacle of southern soul, and an undeniable essential for the genre. It has such a raw and gritty sound, evoking that feeling of being there to hear it live, with the music surrounding the listener. Otis has such a fiery passion to his voice, contrasting well against the often sombre and groovy instrumentation. It encapsulates the carefree, rustic sound of 60s soul, and is a great introduction to that section of the genre.
7. Curtis Mayfield -Superfly (1972)
This is my second favourite soul album behind Songs in the Key of Life. Made as the soundtrack for a film of the same name, Superfly is an exciting Chicago soul album with an emphasis on groovy rhythms, with a cinematic sound to match its label as a film soundtrack. Curtis has such a smooth, elegant voice, rivalled only by Stevie Wonder for my favourite voice in soul. Furthermore, like Stevie, Superfly has elements of psychedelia and Motown, so any fan of Stevie should love this.
8. Sade - Love Deluxe (1992)
Sade are an incredible neo-soul and sophisti-pop band who gained traction in through the 80s with an incredible run of albums into the 90s. While I would recommend them all, Love Deluxe is their magnum opus in my eyes. Sade Adu has such a strong presence, with a smooth voice which can come off as soothing on one track and as extremely powerful on the next. The production is rich with atmosphere, with so many layers to the bass-heavy, elegant sound. It's unlike any of the other albums on this list, but a true masterpiece.
9. D'Angelo - Voodoo (2000)
The neo-soul movement gained momentum in the late 90s as singers such as D'Angelo started their careers. Neo-soul -- unlike the classic soul which embraced gospel and funk elements -- borrows elements from hip hop, with production on this album being handled by D'Angelo, as well as legends in hip hop like J Dilla and Questlove. For that reason, it has a unique sound, combining the catchy rhythms of hip hop with the heart and passion of soul. It's perfect.
10. Erykah Badu - Mama's Gun (2000)
In the same year, Erykah Badu released a neo-soul masterpiece which I believe to be as essential as any Stevie Wonder or James Brown record. She has a delicate, charming voice holding so much emotion, able to convey so much anguish, anger, and happiness through these songs. The transitions between tracks are effortless, with each song weaving into the next, justifying that each track is essential to build on the warm, laid-back sound of Mama's Gun.
11. Maxwell - Embrya (1998)
This album sounds just like its cover looks: being submerged in water, and basking in the cool, spacious atmosphere below. Maxwell has a uniquely soft and articulate voice, working well over the groovy bass and crisp percussion found throughout the album. For those who like singers who love to show off the power of their voice, you will love this album. It's catchy, it's hypnotic in its melodies, and overall such an engaging and memorable sound, unlike any other soul artist.
12. Frank Ocean - Blonde (2016)
While some may consider Blonde straightforward R&B rather than soul, it still draws so much inspiration from soul artists of the past, and so I feel it has a place on this list to show the evolution and legacy of the genre. Frank has an incredible voice, painting such depressing and personal pictures through his words and bending his voice in so many ways to portray his anguish. The production is so lush and beautiful, stepping away from the funk and groove of classic soul in favour of more piano and acoustic guitar.
13. Lianne La Havas - Lianne La Havas (2020)
To hear what soul in the 2020s is like, I implore you to try this album. Lianne has a phenomenal voice, equal parts elegant and strong as she switches between lavish instrumentation and more intricate and dramatic production. There are so many beautiful and subtle sounds on this record, as well as powerful ballads like 'Bittersweet' which make full use of Lianne's range as a vocalist. While a departure from the old sound of soul, like any genre, it's constantly evolving, and Lianne gives me great hope for the future of this beautiful genre.
These are just thirteen albums I think anyone interested in the genre should check out. Of course there are dozens of names I haven't mentioned, whether it be Sam Cooke, Aretha Franklin, Lauryn Hill, and many more. From the raw passion of 1960s soul to the intricate beauty of 2020s soul, the genre has so much range and variety that I'm sure any listener will find something they love.