In 2002, the prodigious talents of Sharon Jones were discovered by the world. A 46-year-old woman who had worked as a corrections officer on Rikers Island and an armored-car guard for Wells Fargo, Jones had always possessed a passion and a will for musical performance—but had never received the opportunity to showcase it. That all changed when her debut album, Dap Dippin’ with Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings, became the first full-length release from the label that would go on to become Brooklyn’s Daptone Records. It was the rarest of musical occurrences: The late-career birth of a bonafide superstar.
In the years that followed, Sharon Jones & The Dap-Kings spearheaded a revival of funk and soul music that took the industry by storm, with Sharon as the firebrand frontwoman of one of the tightest groups of R&B musicians ever assembled. Countless other great bands have swirled into and out of their orbit, from Antibalas and the Daktaris to Lee Fields, Charles Bradley and The Budos Band, but if there was one person who was emblematic of the modern spirit of soul, it was Sharon herself. Her passing in 2016, after the re-emergence of the cancer she previously seemed to have conquered, is a hurt that will never really heal.
But as time goes by, the best way to keep the spirit of Sharon Jones alive—as a person and a titanic live performer—is to keep sharing her music. Here, then, are our picks for the 10 best Sharon Jones tracks, gathered from over the course of her entire career.
10. “Ain’t No Chimneys in the Projects” – Soul Time!
Yes, it’s a novelty song on some level, but it’s a freakin’ great one. Appearing first on the compilation album Soul Time! before being an obvious inclusion on the band’s Christmastime It’s a Holiday Soul Party in 2015, “Ain’t No Chimneys in the Projects” is a glimpse at Sharon’s sweet side, as well as what is presumably a semi-autobiographical account of her childhood. It’s a perfect fusion of holiday sentimentality with the realities of racial economic hardship and inequality in America, along with a hopeful message that love can potentially triumph over all. The 2013 video from Daptone is particularly cute, what with its depiction of cute little baby Sharon and all. There are a number of nice covers on It’s a Holiday Soul Party—I quite dig the instrumental version of “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen” in particular—but “Ain’t No Chimneys in the Projects” feels like the clearest expression of Sharon’s own personality on the ideals of Christmas. This song will be a holiday staple forever.
9. “Make It Good to Me” – Dap Dippin’ with Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings
Of all the Sharon Jones albums, Dap Dippin’ is the one that feels the most like it could be a discovery from some dusty archive of forgotten ’60s and ’70s soul grooves. Perhaps it’s because it was her first true album release, or perhaps it’s thanks to the minimalist production, but the album is largely filled with high-energy, fast-paced tunes like “Got a Thing on My Mind” that feature driving bass and explosive drumming. Personally though, I instead find myself drawn to “Make It Good to Me,” which slows down the pace in a sultry, romantic ballad with what I assume is vocal accompaniment from the Dap-Kings—not something you hear on a lot of their tracks. Over the course of her career, Sharon has her fair share of sweet-sounding love songs, but this is the one I think of first. Love that vintage organ sound, too.
8. “Matter of Time” – Soul of a Woman
The posthumous release of Soul of a Woman in 2017 was a gift for all of us Sharon Jones fans who needed just one more dap-dip into the world of her talents. “Matter of Time” appropriately feels completely timeless—it’s a soul groove that could have fit on pretty much any of her albums that came before, or could have come afterward. Effortlessly catchy and empathic, it’s accompanied by another Daptone video that compiles great moments from Jones’ career, both in front of an audience and in the studio. You’ve gotta love the Charles Bradley cameo in particular. Miss you too, Charles.
7. “I Learned the Hard Way” – I Learned the Hard Way
The title track of 2010’s Sharon Jones & The Dap-Kings album, “I Learned the Hard Way” is another one of Sharon’s classic post-breakup songs—she bitterly tells us that once she opened her eyes, she could see “clouds of perfume and lies, and a hotel key,” which makes it pretty clear what’s been going on. Listening to Jones’ love songs, one gets the sense that many of these love affairs were on the tumultuous side, but even on a track like “I Learned the Hard Way,” there’s still a hopeful chorus that recalls classic Motown R&B harmony groups. A common theme and refrain of Jones’ music seems to be the fact that we can pass through trials and tribulations and emerge stronger on the other side, which is exactly what “I Learned the Hard Way” seems to be getting at.
6. “How Do I Let a Good Man Down?” – Naturally
Naturally is one of Sharon’s strongest overall collection of tunes, an eclectic mix of instant classics and songs that barely missed out of this ranking, such as “Your Thing is a Drag” or “You’re Gonna Get It.” This one, on the other hand, is basically another breakup song, but a very different one from “I Learned the Hard Way.” This time, it’s not Sharon who was seemingly wronged by some two-timing man—instead, it’s a rumination on how she can break up with a perfectly adequate “good man” after finding someone who gives her “chills” instead of “comfort.” There’s a very interesting admission of fault here—it’s seems to be Sharon’s way of saying “I realize that you don’t deserve this, but I can’t deny my heart, and I’m sorry.” That message is delivered to a rollicking beat that hooks the listener with galloping drums and bass in the opening moments, and never lets up from there. It’s simultaneously catchy and sort of devastating.
5. “Retreat!” – Give the People What They Want
After surviving her first bout with cancer, Give the People What They Want was positioned as Sharon’s triumphant return album, with “Retreat!” as its instantly arresting centerpiece. There’s a dramatic, foreboding element to this song, in its chiming bells of its intro, that is perfectly captured by the video below—probably the best music video that Daptone produced for any of Sharon’s songs. The thematic messages are clear: Sharon is still here, and her inner light is a glorious thing that will overcome any of the adversaries that come against her. As she sings, “taking you apart is my kind of fun,” and “what a fool you’d be to take me on.” There’s a cocky swagger to it, physically captured in the close-up, goofy animation of Sharon’s butt waving back and forth—one of those little moments that highlight her magnetic personality. It’s a joyful declaration of vitality, only slightly dimmed by the fact that her cancer would eventually return. Still, in this moment, you can tell that Sharon was on top of the world, and we were riding high with her.
4. “He Said I Can” – Soul Time
I’ve always been amazed that this song wasn’t the lead single of one of Sharon’s albums, and was instead relegated to the UK-released compilation of non-album tracks, Soul Time, because this is the woman’s most virtuosic and powerful vocal performance. It goes straight to 11 in its opening moments, and Sharon’s voice is a thing to behold throughout. Featuring swaggering, stand-out horn accompaniment from the Dap-Kings, it’s the sort of song I hear and immediately start picturing how I’d use it in the opening credits of a Tarantino-esque thriller. Better than anything else on this list, “He Said I Can” captures Jones’ sheer power as a vocalist, and how immediately (within seconds) she could capture your complete attention. It was one of the first Sharon Jones songs I ever heard online, and I’ll never forget it.
3. “Stranger to My Happiness” – Give the People What They Want
This is just a perfect groove, plain and simple. It’s the kind of song that couldn’t possibly fail to get your toes tapping, highlighted by the Dap-Kings on the honking, driving baritone sax, as well as some very nifty background vocals from Sharon’s longtime backup singers, Saun & Starr, who put out their own very solid debut, Look Closer, back in 2015. In fact, this song is great about highlighting the team effort of the people at Daptone, and everything that went into amplifying the obvious greatness and diva talent of Sharon as the frontwoman. The video below captures this nicely, with close-ups of Dap-Kings on hand percussion and Saun & Starr as the glue holding everything together. It’s an upbeat, bouncy, instantly catchy melody that literally anyone could be expected to enjoy. If you play this for someone and they don’t like it, that person should be regarded as highly suspect.
2. “This Land is Your Land” – Naturally
As a musical style, soul music has always been comfortable with adapting other genres—check out this classic Lee Moses deep soul rendition of The Mamas and Papas “California Dreaming,” which I can never promote enough. But Sharon’s version of Woody Guthrie’s classic 1940 folk ballad is arguably the greatest soul cover of all time—a masterful and emotional vocal performance meshed with incredibly suave horns from the Dap-Kings, including the best horn solo in any Sharon Jones song. Her performance here breathes life into a song that can sound naive or cliche when performed by a busker on the street, infusing it with poignancy and social relevance. How can you not think of modern racial tensions and the threat of white supremacists in America when you hear the following: “Down by the welfare office, I saw my people. You know, now, they stood hungry, and I stood wondering. I was wondering if this land was made for you and me.” It’s a question we’re all asking ourselves, every day, and the words were written almost 80 years ago. It just took Sharon to imbue them with that power once again.
This rendition should be the new national anthem of the United States, and I’m not even kidding when I say that. Bonus: If you queue this up on a jukebox, it has the effect of immediately making you the coolest person in the bar.
1. “100 Days, 100 Nights” – 100 Days, 100 Nights
Much as I love “This Land is Your Land,” we should close with a Sharon Jones & The Dap-Kings original. And of all the classics in her discography, there’s nothing more quintessentially Sharon than “100 Days, 100 Nights.” It’s a song about love, as so many others are, but this one is about the uncertainty of love on both sides. It’s about that awkward period of courtship and falling in love, when you never quite know when things might fall apart or be derailed. It’s about the most fragile period in anyone’s emotional life, and it drips with tenderness as a result…as well as a foreboding sense of foresight that things aren’t fated to work out. The mid-song call-and-response segment, where the Dap-Kings intone first “100 days!” and then “100 nights!” meshes sublimely with Jones’ lead vocals. You can feel the depth of her love and the ache of heartbreak all at once.
It’s everything that was wonderful about Jones as a soul luminary, and exhibit A in why we’ll continue to miss her for decades to come.