Aretha Franklin's recording career did not begin with her signing to Atlantic Records -- she cut some fine gospel sides in the '50s, and in 1961 she signed with Columbia Records, who hoped to groom her into a jazz-leaning singer in the manner of Dinah Washington. But Aretha's first single for Atlantic, "I Never Loved a Man (The Way I Love You)," was her first defining career moment, the point where she made good on her considerable promise, and it was clear that producer and Atlantic co-owner Jerry Wexler understood Franklin's abilities in a way Columbia did not. Aretha Franklin's years at Atlantic brought her commercial success and a well-earned reputation as America's finest soul singer, and The Queen of Soul is a four-disc set that brings together 87 songs from Franklin's 1967-1979 tenure with the label. On the surface, this doesn't appear to be an especially impressive collection; the artwork is nothing to write home about, the skimpy liner notes contain only credits, and while some rare B-sides and outtakes have been included, there's nothing here that hasn't popped up on other Franklin anthologies in the past. But give this a spin and nearly all quibbles are forgotten: no matter what she's singing, Franklin sounds excellent on this material, ranging from soul classics to pop standards to deep gospel, and if the hits and acknowledged classics dominate this set, the sheer scope of these four discs leaves room for some welcome surprises (such as a cover of "Eleanor Rigby" that Franklin reworks into the first person, and a Johnny Ace tribute that melds "Pledging My Love" with "The Clock"), and the emotional force and innate intelligence of Aretha's performances are evident no matter what she does. (And the Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section, her backing band on many of these selections, know exactly what to do with these songs, and hearing them interact with Franklin is a big part of the pleasure of this music.) The Queen of Soul is hardly the definitive Aretha Franklin set, or the career-spanning cross-licensed box set she deserves, but as an introduction to her peak years at Atlantic, this is splendid stuff and a rewarding listen from front to back.