Queen of Soul: The Atlantic Recordings
I came to this as someone with a single CD compilation of Aretha, of which the contents were very fine but the mastering not, wanting to hear more in better quality. And boy did I get it... A lot of (nearly all?) box sets contain far more of the artist or genre covered than anyone but a fanatic/trainspotter could possibly need, let alone listen to regularly. This quite fundamentally isn't one of them. It's almost universally (and rightly) accepted that Aretha Franklin's best work was recorded during the period she was signed to Atlantic (1967-1979) and this box covers that period, though it peters out before the end - there is nothing on here from her last two Atlantic albums. I can't pretend to know much about the material that has been omitted from this box - she recorded 19 albums for Atlantic and apart from those last two and one of the two live albums all of them are represented here. But if the compilers have left out better material it must be astoundingly good because the overall standard here is very high indeed. I'm sure seriously knowledgeable fans could quibble about the presence or absence of the odd track but unless you are one that's completely irrelevant.
Because the contents of this box are probably the most emotionally satisfying music I've ever heard. They'll fill you with joy, make you cry, put a comforting arm around your shoulder, squeeze you tight in a sexy hug, fill you with righteousness ... there's more heart and soul in Aretha's music than anyone else I've ever heard, her love is a force of nature. She is, without question, the greatest soul singer of all time - technically as well as emotionally. In fact she's one of the greatest singers of any genre. When she whoops those high notes, she takes you to a place no one else can.
Stylistically, while obviously the majority of this material can be described as soul, Aretha was quite adventurous, touching on funk, gospel (only one track here but the influence is present on every track), pop, Motown, blues and even jazz, filling all of it with the warmth and soul of her beautiful voice. A few of the arrangements don't quite work for me but her voice always does, on every single track, and the backings are, for the most part exemplary, not least her own piano playing. The sound quality, though this box is now 15 years old, is excellent, with some of the earlier tracks presented in mono "because of their greater musicality and superior sonics".
If you've ever liked an Aretha Franklin record and been touched by her voice, and if this is the only box set you ever buy, buy this. It's like having a new and really wonderful best friend. All the hits are here (well, all the Atlantic ones) to provide that initial chemistry, and then there's loads more to enjoy getting acquainted with. Five stars doesn't remotely do it justice.