The impressiveness of her catalog can be attributed to several things. Her collaborations with far younger artists of each musical generation have proved remarkably fruitful, concreting her relevance while her stylistic counterparts have faded away in the twenty first century. Her unwavering passion and emotion triples that of artists thrice her junior. Mavis Staples is, in many ways, an American musical legend and treasure.
This list contains ten of her finest efforts – all from different eras of her life. From the Staples Singers to this year, this offering of songs is perfect for new and lifelong fans alike.
# 10 – ‘High Note’ (‘Livin On A High Note’ / 2016)
In the last several years, Staples’ content has dabbled in secularism, but for the most part, has been fairly grounded in gospel-oriented lyricism. Her new album this year, ‘Livin’ On A High Note,’ lands more into the former territory by calling upon a star-studded cast of songwriters. The title track, ‘High Note,’ is a resolute statement: “I’m still here.” She is ‘living on a high note,’ and she’s experiencing some of the most splendid success of her career.
# 9 – ‘We’re Gonna Make It’ (‘You Are Not Alone’ / 2010)
Mavis Staples is one of the supreme song interpreters of music. She pours her heart and soul into the songs, but usually doesn’t pen them. (Though she has been known to have some input in varying capacities.) This means that her ‘covers,’ if they can even be called that, redefine songs in drastic ways, making them wholly hers. Her take on Little Milton’s ‘We’re Gonna Make It’ in 2010 is one of those instances. Her banter with her wonderful back-up vocalist, Donny Gerrard, is reminiscent of her singing with her father, Pops.
# 8 – ‘Time Waits For No One’ (‘Time Waits For No One’ / 1989)
Staples has been able to remain particularly relevant over the decades because she surrounds herself with the most talented artists of each era after her. They’ve each gifted her with the ability to transcend into each decade’s scene with unmatched grace. Without these artists, Staples may have faded into obscurity long ago. In the late 80s and through the 90s, Prince was that artist for Mavis Staples. He wrote a good deal of her songs, released them on his label, and acclimated the gospel and soul queen to the era in which she was performing. ‘Time Waits For No One’ is a perfect example of Prince modernizing Mavis Staples while maintaining the integrity of her style. (Also, Prince was so respectful with how he injected himself into her songs. He didn’t showboat all around her.)
# 7 – ‘Losing You’ (‘You Are Not Alone’ / 2010)
Staples’ take on Randy Newman’s ‘Losing You’ is one of her most haunting endeavors. The track, which is one of the songwriter’s most heartfelt pieces, is well served by Staples’ beautiful heart. ‘Losing You’ is one of those special songs that everyone in the world can relate to. It can be applied to death, relationships, or just about anything else. It’s compositional strength and key structure is gorgeous in its simplicity. Rick Holmstrom, Staples’ current bandleader and guitarist, perfectly leads her through the song.
# 6 – ‘Freedom Highway’ (‘Live At Chicago’s New Nazareth Church’ / 1965)
Backing up over half a century, you’ll find yourself in the heart of some of Mavis’ most recognizable tunes. At this time, she was performing with her father and sisters under the legendary umbrella of the Staple Singers. ‘Freedom Highway’ is one of the most enduring staples of their catalog, one that remains poignant and relatable to every single political movement in the United States. Marching up ‘Freedom Highway’ is a constitutional right that the Staple Singers championed in unison with their good friend, Reverend Martin Luther King Jr.
# 5 – ‘Will The Circle Be Unbroken’ (‘Will The Circle Be Unbroken’ / 1969)
‘Will The Circle Be Unbroken’ is one of the greatest American music classics ever. Originally introduced into our collective consciousness by the Carter Family, the song has been covered unendingly over the years. It’s one of the first tunes Pops Staples taught his daughters, though, and as a result, it holds a very special place within Mavis Staples’ catalog. One could observe that the Staples Singers’ rendition is a spiritual successor to the original version – it’s one great American family band speaking to the other decades later.
# 4 – ‘Your Good Fortune’ (‘Your Good Fortune’ / 2015)
This EP is the record that won Mavis Staples her second Grammy several weeks ago. Written primarily by her label-mate, Son Little, the short album does a surprisingly good job capturing both the beginning and the more recent eras of Staples’ style in succinct, modern tracks. The titular song is a perfect example of this – it’s moody, bluesy, and eerily similar to songs like ‘Will The Circle Be Unbroken.’ It’s tunes like ‘Your Good Fortune’ that defy a genre organization. Is it blues? Is it gospel? Soul? It’s probably all of them.
# 3 – I’ve Learned To Do Without You’ (‘Only For The Lonely’ / 1970)
Even though the Staple Singers remained intact in varying capacities throughout the twentieth century, Mavis Staples began exploring solo musings in 1970. The opening of the record ‘Only For The Lonely’ is such a lovely time capsule of a young Staples performing some of the best soul music you’ll ever hear. Released via Stax Records, the finest soul label ever, ‘Only The Lonely,’ and in particular, ‘I’ve Learned To Do Without You,’ is the embodiment of that “Muscle Shoals Sound.”
# 2 – ‘I’ll Take You There’ (‘Be Altitude: Respect Yourself’ / 1972)
Does this song need an introduction? ‘I’ll Take You There’ is the diamond of the Staple Singers catalog, and for good reason. It’s arguably one of the most important American songs ever written. Mavis Staples has continued to perform it her entire career, rarely missing a concert without playing it. She’s been ‘taking us there’ her whole life. The track depicts a perfect world we all desire. It isn’t a fairy tale, though; we just work toward it one quarter step at a time. ‘I’ll Take You There’ is a reminder of that – to never give up, to never surrender to the world. The song will be an anthem hundreds of years from now. That’s more than a classic – that’s a piece of history engraved permanently into the architecture of social reform.
# 1 – ‘You Are Not Alone’ (‘You Are Not Alone’ / 2010)
In 2010, Jeff Tweedy, a modern Chicago treasure, reintroduced Mavis Staples, a senior Chicago treasure, to the world. He produced two of her albums and wrote several songs for her. One of those songs is ‘You Are Not Alone.’ In one track, Tweedy captured the soul and essence of Mavis Staples. He could not have written a better song for her, and it’ll always be one of her most powerful.
‘You Are Not Alone’ is a track to someone who has lost a loved one. It’s a song to someone who has lost a relationship or a friend. It’s a song to someone experiencing hardship – to someone deep in depression or dismay. It’s a reminder that you are not alone. Mavis Staples has been there, too. She’s ‘an open hand, an open heart, and there is no reason to be afraid.’ Both within and outside of her music, Mavis Staples has also been hero-material. ‘You Are Not Alone’ defines her as such, and also reminds us of the fragile humanity that she, too, shares.