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30 essential psychedelic soul songs

Psychedelic Shack

A lot of soul music is psychedelic by nature, but soul artists started borrowing overtly from psychedelia in the late ’60s, and psychedelic soul music peaked in popularity at the start of the next decade thanks to artists like Marvin Gaye and Curtis Mayfield. Those sounds had a resurgence during the ’90s neo-soul movement, and they’ve been creeping back into the musical zeitgeist since around the start of this decade. Now, psychedelic soul is probably more popular than it’s been since Marvin’s prime. Look no further than the tops of 2016 best-of lists or the tops of major 2017 festival lineups to find it from the likes of Frank Ocean, Solange, and Beyonce (well, now 2018 for the latter). We thought it’d be fun to connect some dots and put together a list of 30 essential psychedelic soul songs from the beginnings of the genre through present day. There’s no clear-cut beginning of any genre, but this list begins in 1967 and ends this year. So it also celebrates 50 years of psychedelic soul.

This list is just the tip of the iceberg — psychedelic soul spans far and wide and there are way more than 30 essential songs. Check out my picks below (one per performer), in chronological order. Also listen to a Spotify playlist of (almost) the whole list, at the bottom of this post. What did we miss?

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The Chambers Brothers – “Time Has Come Today” (1967)

The Chambers Brothers originally released a two-minute, forty-second version of this song in 1966 before putting out the more famous eleven-minute version the following year. The eleven-minute version took the soul/rock blend that The Chambers Brothers had going and injected the kind of trippy, lengthy instrumental jam that was typical of the West Coast psych-rock sound of the era. It helped create a blueprint for extended, jammy soul songs, a style that’s still being explored today.

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Diana Ross & the Supremes – “Love Child” (1968)

Diana Ross can really sing just about anything. Who other than Michael Jackson could lead the classic Motown era and the disco era so impressively? In the late ’60s, a handful of pop acts on Motown started exploring psychedelia, just as the pop rock bands at the time were. Diana did this on a few singles, including “Love Child,” one of psychedelic soul’s first true gems. Starting off with a snakey guitar riff, “Love Child” was darker sonically and thematically than the Supremes’ early hits. “Love” appeared in the song titles of most of them, but on the early songs it was usually reveling in love or yearning for love. This time it’s about a child born out of wedlock, and it’s pretty bleak (“never meant to be… scorned by society”). It was also the Supremes’ first #1 single for Motown not written by Holland–Dozier–Holland, who departed Motown a year earlier. (“Love Child” was written by The Clan.) Holland-Dozier-Holland’s departure marked a turning point in the development of psychedelic soul, as it gave psych-soul pioneer Norman Whitfield a chance to become a go-to writer/producer at Motown (we’ll talk much more about him soon).

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The 5th Dimension – “Aquarius/Let the Sunshine In” (1969)

The 5th Dimension were sort of the soul answer to fellow LA band The Mamas & the Papas (whose “Go Where You Wanna Go” was a hit for The 5th Dimension). Like that band, the psychedelia comes through in the harmonies — they’re more “sunshine pop” (Beach Boys, Zombies, etc) than the harder-edged psychedelia of West Coasters like The Chambers Brothers. On “Aquarius/Let the Sunshine In,” a medley of two songs from counterculture musical Hair, they use more than just their harmonies to trip you out. The song opens sounding like The 5th Dimension are way up in outer space and the lyrics use our solar system to sing metaphorically about peace and love.

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Curtis Mayfield – “(Don’t Worry) If There’s a Hell Below, We’re All Going to Go” (1970)

The political, socially conscious songwriting of psychedelic soul owes a lot to what Curtis Mayfield was doing in the mid-’60s with The Impressions (“People Get Ready,” etc), and Curtis went full-on psych himself when he began a solo career at the turn of the decade. The seven-minute song that kicks off his first solo album is a trip through polyrhythms and hypnotic basslines that tackles racial injustice in America. Curtis looks to unite “sisters, niggers, whiteys, jews, and crackers” by promising them, “Don’t worry, if there’s hell below, we’re all gonna go.” Some early psychedelia sounds forever-dated to its era, but this is timeless.

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Funkadelic – “Free Your Mind and Your Ass Will Follow” (1970)

This is one of those songs that could seem like it exists solely to soundtrack acid trips, if George Clinton wasn’t such a master. This ten-minute journey tells you to do exactly what the title says, over and over, and it’s got the most appropriate musical accompaniment in the world: mind-expanding guitar explorations and a danceable backbeat. The Chambers Brothers may have figured out how to insert a jam into a soul song, but Funkadelic are in jamming mode the whole damn time. It’s really closer to Hawkwind than to most things on this list, but still groovy enough to fit in.

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Edwin Starr – “Ball of Confusion (That’s What The World Is Today)” (1971)

The most famous version of “Ball of Confusion” is by The Temptations and Edwin Starr’s trademark song is “War”, but I chose this version for two reasons: 1) Edwin Starr’s nearly-thirteen minute version is trippier than The Temptations’ four-minute version, and 2) Edwin Starr’s “Ball of Confusion” is trippier than Edwin Starr’s “War.” One of the landmark songs by psychedelic soul pioneer Norman Whitfield and his collaborator Barrett Strong, “Ball of Confusion” tackled white flight, gun control, unemployment, war, and more. Edwin Starr’s howling voice and ad-libbing made it sound even more powerful than The Temptations’ version (he incorporates a bit of “War”), and the layers of fuzzed-out guitars and reverb puts the listener in more of a haze.

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Marvin Gaye – “Inner City Blues (Make Me Wanna Holler)” (1971)

Marvin Gaye starting dabbling in psychedelic soul in the late ’60s, when he made a hit out of Norman Whitfield’s “I Heard It Through the Grapevine.” But Marvin reached his fullest potential when he took the reigns as writer and producer and put out the socially conscious, musically brilliant, all-time classic concept album What’s Going On in 1971. As far as psychedelia goes, that never comes across more overtly than on the album’s closing track, “Inner City Blues (Make Me Wanna Holler).” The reverbed-out drums and looping bassline keep you in a daze, as Marvin laments about the desperate situations in inner cities. Like the Curtis song above, this one’s truly as powerful today as it ever was. (Marvin also might be the most currently influential ’60s/’70s-era artist on this list, thanks to his direct impact on Frank Ocean’s music.)

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Rotary Connection – “I Am the Black Gold of the Sun” (1971)

Before Minnie Riperton went solo, she cut her teeth in the psychedelic band Rotary Connection (whose instrumentalists helped Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf revive their careers in the psychedelic rock era by backing them on Electric Mud and The Howlin’ Wolf Album, respectively). The year after Minnie dropped her gorgeous orchestral soul debut, Come to My Garden, Rotary Connection did one more album, Hey, Love, which birthed the classic “I Am the Black Gold of the Sun.” After some delicate acoustic guitar, the full band kicks in for a funky mind-bender where Minnie & co. keep the surrealism at a high with vivid earth imagery (“I am the shining sea, I am the mountain high… I am the black gold of the sun”). The song is as pleasing to the ears as the images are to the mind.

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Shuggie Otis – “Strawberry Letter 23″ (1971)

“Strawberry Letter 23″ has really taken on a life of its own. It was popularized by The Brothers Johnson’s 1977 cover, and it was sampled/interpolated countless times (including on OutKast’s “Ms. Jackson” and Beyonce’s “Be With You”). But still nothing’s quite like Shuggie’s original. His late ’60s / early ’70s albums are cult classics now, and for good reason. He had a certain touch that those who re-interpreted his music couldn’t re-create. The acoustic guitar and bells intro to the original, the fluttery, highly psychedelic outro, and Shuggie’s unassuming voice. These are all crucial to making the song a true classic.

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The Undisputed Truth – “Smiling Faces Sometimes” (1971)

After penning hits for already-popular artists that helped define the psychedelic soul sound, Norman Whitfield assembled his own group, The Undisputed Truth, with which he could dive even further down the rabbit hole of psychedelia. Their rich, often-overlooked discography is worth exploring in depth, but their talent is clear from their biggest song, 1971’s “Smiling Faces Sometimes” (originally recorded by The Temptations earlier that year). It’s a perfect example of Whitfield’s unique musical vision — it’s got trippy atmospheres, surreal lyrics, haunting harmonies, just about everything that made him such a master of psych-soul.

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War – “The World Is A Ghetto” (1972)

As far as psychedelic soul albums go, not many artists beyond Marvin and Curtis made one more addictive start-to-finish than The World Is A Ghetto. And as far as songs go, its ten-minute title track is nearly perfect. With its acid-washed wah-wah guitar, perma-stoned rhythm section, extended jams, and dreamy harmonies, “The World Is A Ghetto” is basically all you can ask for from psychedelia. Lyrically, it’s mournful and a little political, but you get the sense that there’s hope in it too.

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The Temptations – “Masterpiece” (1973)

Maybe more than anyone on Motown, The Temptations made a hard transition from pop hitmakers to psychedelic explorers. The turning point was the Norman Whitfield-produced single “Cloud Nine,” and two years later The Temptations went ahead and named an album Psychedelic Shack. They weren’t looking back. Their most ambitious album, with Norman Whitfield in the writer and producer chair, was 1973’s Masterpiece, and the album’s centerpiece is its nearly-fourteen minute title track. It’s been noted that the mostly-instrumental song is more a Norman Whitfield and The Funk Brothers song than a Temptations song, but no matter who you credit it to, there’s no denying that is indeed a psychedelic soul masterpiece. (And it wouldn’t be the same without The Temptations’ voices.) The lengthy song, fleshed out by strings, horns and a mesmerizing atmosphere, is less a Funkadelic/Chambers Brothers-style jam and more an example of progressive pop. It was one of the last major singles before Whitfield would stop working with The Temptations, leave Motown, start his own label, and have an early disco hit with Rose Royce’s “Car Wash.” In many ways, it sounds like the end of an era.

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Terry Callier – “Dancing Girl” (1973)

Terry Callier started out in Chicago’s mid-’60s folk scene — and released The New Folk Sound of Terry Callier around then — but in the early ’70s he started incorporating soul and jazz into his sound and made three albums with Charles Stepney, the producer behind Rotary Connection. “Dancing Girl,” the nine-minute opening track off his second album with Stepney, What Color Is Love, nails the middle ground between psych-folk and psych-soul. It starts out with just Terry and his acoustic guitar in a way that’s not unlike the Nick Drakes and the Vashti Bunyans of the world. As the song progresses, he introduces jazz instrumentation and a soulful rasp that’s on par with any of the best howlers on this list. Eventually, Stepney adds in some of the orchestral backing he used on Minnie Riperton’s solo debut. I try not to throw around this word, but the song is a true epic. (For fans of modern alternative music, an interesting side note is that Terry went on to collaborate with Beth Orton and Massive Attack in more recent years, before he sadly passed away in 2012.)

Prince – “Around the World In A Day” (1985)

Right smack in the middle of Prince’s most classic era, he briefly switched gears for an album that mixed his mid-’80s sound with Beatlesque psychedelia (down to the artwork). Its biggest hit was the less psychedelic “Raspberry Beret,” but the opening title track was a full-on acid trip — and it’s way ahead of its time. Anytime anyone from The Flaming Lips to MGMT to Animal Collective to Tame Impala mix synthpop and sunny psychedelia, remember that Prince did it first. “Around the World In A Day” mixes tribal drumming with Eastern melodies, drifting harmonies, and something in the background that sounds like a bird chirping. It was a bold move for a pop star in his prime, and it still feels bold today.

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Society of Soul – “E.M.B.R.A.C.E.” (1995)

Atlanta production crew Organized Noize were responsible for a lot of the psychedelic sounds on OutKast and Goodie Mobb records, and, along with singer Espraronza and spoken word artist Big Rube, they made one record of their own as Society of Soul. These guys sampled some of the ’60s/’70s psych-soul records when producing for other artists, so it’s no surprise that they were well-versed in those sounds enough to create their own version of it. “E.M.B.R.A.C.E.” took cues from the ’60s/’70s but it sounded futuristic. Led by a rubbery, blunted bassline, it fit right in with the rap records that Organized Noize worked on. It was never as popular as most of those records, but “E.M.B.R.A.C.E.” (and the rest of their sole album, Brainchild) remains a gem.

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Maxwell – “Ascension (Don’t Ever Wonder)” (1996)

These days, neo-soul OG Maxwell is on a pretty slow release schedule but every time he puts out a new album it’s a huge deal. That’s partially because he perfected this sound right off the bat with his debut album, 1996’s Maxwell’s Urban Hang Suite. “Ascension (Don’t Ever Wonder),” one of the singles from the album, remains a classic. With its laid-back rhythms, groovy bassline, airy guitar, and Maxwell’s smooth-as-molasses croon, it sounds like pure sex and drugs.

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D’Angelo – “Devil’s Pie” (1998)

A beloved neo-soul singer that’s on an even slower release schedule than Maxwell is D’Angelo, who’s put out three albums in his 20+ year career. His 1995 debut Brown Sugar is as definitive a neo-soul album as Maxwell’s Urban Hang Suite, but he would turn the psychedelia up to 11 for his 2000 sophomore album Voodoo. “Devil’s Pie” (which appears on Voodoo but first came out on the Belly soundtrack two years earlier) is as good an example of this as any. It was produced by the legendary DJ Premier, and it’s a total trip. The jazzy bassline, the sound effects, the layered vocals — the whole thing sounds like it’s from another planet.

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OutKast – “Aquemini” (1998)

“Aquemini” is as much a psychedelic soul song as it is a rap song, and it’s one of the trippiest songs on this list. The groove puts you in a daze, and the vibrato guitar and shimmering cymbals only make you feel it more. Not to mention the alien-like chorus is at least as hallucinogenic as the music. For their verses, Andre 3000 and Big Boi try on a handful of flows here. Sometimes they’re barely rapping, other times they’re out-rapping the New York MCs who weren’t paying attention to the South at the time. Another song on the album Aquemini featured the legendary George Clinton himself (“Synthesizer”), but on the title track OutKast proved they could rival their hero at the sound he helped pioneer.

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Erykah Badu – “The Healer” (2008)

Along with D’Angelo and Maxwell’s debuts, Erykah Badu’s 1997 debut album Baduizm is a staple of neo-soul. Really any song on that album would’ve fit nicely on this list, but none of them are as far out as “The Healer” off 2008’s New Amerykah Part One (4th World War). Produced by Madlib, who knows a thing or two about trippy sounds, the song samples the psychedelia of 1971’s “Kono Samourai” by the not actually Japanese band The Yamasuki Singers. Madlib eschews the fuzz of the original and focuses on booming bass. With Erykah’s high-as-the-clouds vocal delivery, it’s a head trip in a totally different way than its source material.

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Janelle Monae – “Mushrooms & Roses” (2010)

Janelle Monae might be a household name now as an actress, having starred in the Oscar-winning Moonlight and the Oscar-nominated Hidden Figures. But let us not forget that she released one of the current decade’s most ambitious, genre-defying concept albums seven years earlier. Its most overtly psychedelic song is “Mushrooms & Roses.” If it wasn’t clear from the title alone, this one takes major influence from the druggy psych of the late ’60s — the vibrato on Janelle’s voice, the fuzzed-out guitar solos. Like Prince’s “Around the World In A Day,” she makes it work in the context of modern soul/funk without sounding like a rehash of the ’60s.

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Jill Scott – “Blessed” (2011)

Jill Scott’s “Blessed” isn’t explicitly psychedelic the way “The Healer” and “Mushrooms & Roses” are; it’s more like What’s Going On. A wash of colorful atmospheres, narcotic rhythms, and hazy harmonies induce many of the same feelings as the songs that were written to soundtrack acid trips. A lot of songs on this list address dark themes and struggles, but “Blessed” is an uplifting song that fights struggle with overwhelming happiness.

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Frank Ocean – “Pyramids” (2012)

Frank Ocean remains at the top of the world, and 2016’s Blonde proves that he can’t be held down to one sound. On “Pyramids” off 2012’s Channel Orange, he showed off his ability to trek through an almost-ten-minute journey of psychedelia. Like The Temptations’ “Masterpiece,” this lengthy song is more an example of progressive pop than a jam, but unlike “Masterpiece,” vocals are in the forefront here. There’s a little guitar solo at the end, but the spotlight is mostly on Frank. It starts out as a thumping synth jam, and evolves into something more atmospheric, and the whole time he’s singing about pyramids and Cleopatra.

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Georgia Anne Muldrow – “Kali Yuga” (2012)

Down to the cover art, Georgia Anne Muldrow’s Seeds is a total homage to the early ’70s era. The whole album was produced by Madlib, who gives “Kali Yuga” a bare, bass-heavy backdrop. It’s the perfect fit for Georgia Anne Muldrow’s singing that switches between airy falsetto harmonies and a bold lead vocal. It doesn’t entirely ignore modern sounds, but mostly it’d fit perfectly on a playlist between The Undisputed Truth and Rotary Connection. It’s some of the more brilliant retro-psych-soul around.

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The Internet – “Girl” (ft. Kaytranada) (2015)

Before Syd released her metallic electro-R&B solo album Fin, she mastered the art of tripped-out soul with The Internet. “Girl” has an addictive bassline, and reverby atmospheres and harmonies that make you feel like you’re in outer space. (It probably helps that the video stars The Internet hanging out in outer space.) Like Frank Ocean, The Internet started out as part of the Odd Future collective. They may have first gotten buzz for shock-factor rap and rowdy live shows, but some of their members have now become responsible for some of the best psych-soul around.

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Adrian Younge – “La Ballade” (ft. Laetitia Sadier and Bilal) (2016)

If there’s any modern-day producer doing what Norman Whitfield did (albeit on a smaller scale), it’s Adrian Younge. He helped reignite the career of Philly soul veterans The Delfonics, he’s given a retro-psych backdrop to two Ghostface Killah albums, aided DJ Premier in making the PRhyme album as trippy as possible, and more. He also does his own albums, where he really gets to take his psychedelic soul explorations in whatever direction he wants. His Something About April LP series is sorta his equivalent to Norman Whitfield’s work with The Undisputed Truth. One of the songs off Something About April II, “La Ballade,” featured vocals from Lætitia Sadier of the neo-psych band Stereolab and neo-soul everywhere-man Bilal. That’s some power trio as far as mixing psychedelia and soul goes, and the song sounds as good as it looks on paper.

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Beyonce – “Freedom” (ft. Kendrick Lamar) (2016)

Like Diana Ross before her, Beyonce can sing just about anything. With Just Blaze’s sample of Puerto Rican psych band Kaleidoscope’s “Let Me Try,” Beyonce’s howls of “FREEDOM!” that are like a modern-day “WAR!”, and a delay-heavy verse from mind-bending rapper Kendrick Lamar, “Freedom” is the Queen Bey mastering psychedelic soul. It’s a highlight of her genre-hopping magnum opus (thus far) Lemonade, an album whose precedents include things like What’s Going On and Masterpiece (and Sgt. Pepper’s and Pet Sounds) — albums where major pop artists chose uncompromising artistry over commercial appeal for the length of an entire disc.

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Kadhja Bonet – “Honeycomb” (2016)

Maybe the only song on this list that’s part soul, part Bond theme is Kadhja Bonet’s “Honeycomb.” It’s orchestral and jazzy, and Kadhja’s vocals sound like they’re dripping with honey. (When the drums cut out and it’s just airy harmonies, the song gets even trippier.) “Honeycomb” is off Kadhja’s debut album The Visitor, which dropped last year on Fat Possum, but sounds like it could be a lost record from 1972.

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Michael Kiwanuka – “Cold Little Heart” (2016)

Michael Kiwanuka got a lot more psychedelic on 2016’s Love and Hate than he was on his safer 2012 debut, and he wastes no time letting you know it. Album opener “Cold Little Heart” does what a lot of the best songs on this list do: it keeps you hooked for a full ten minutes. It really takes its time, spending the first five minutes on wordless harmonies, gorgeous strings, and a fuzz-drenched guitar solo before Michael even comes in singing. When the intro starts fading out into gentle acoustic guitar, it sounds like the sun beaming down after a storm. He eventually builds back up to more fuzz guitar and even bigger-sounding harmonies, back down to a bare-bones acoustic song again, and so on. The song treks through so many peaks and valleys, that calling it a “trip” is truly appropriate.

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Solange – “Cranes In the Sky” (2016)

Solange made it clear that psychedelia and artistry were more important to her than commercial success with 2008’s Sol-Angel and the Hadley St. Dreams, but she perfected it on 2016’s A Seat at the Table. It’s a concept album that’s best played start to finish, but if there’s one song that maintains the album’s power when it’s played alone, it’s “Cranes In the Sky.” The song’s directly routed in the sounds of the early ’70s era, and it manages to avoid feeling like homage or like an attempt to modernize. It’s simply a fantastic addition to the psych-soul canon that sounds like it could’ve been released any year. And, lyrically, it’s a triumph. Solange compares the ugliness of mechanical cranes in areas that are constantly under construction, to her own personal life experiences. If there was ever a song that shows that the personal and the political aren’t so different, it’s this one.

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Sinkane – “Deadweight” (2017)

2017 has only been a year for a couple months, but it’s already given us a song essential enough to mention alongside Diana and Curtis and Erykah. Sinkane (aka Ahmed Gallab) has been around for a while, but he made his best album yet with this year’s Life and Livin’ It, an album that dives head first into ’70s funk and soul. The most mind-expanding moment is its opening track, “Deadweight,” which is led by a looping riff that recalls anything from “Cloud Nine” to George Clinton. The breezy harmonies and lyrics about “the thoughts that cloud my head” will make you even more dazed and confused than the riff.

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