Not long after Prince faked his death and moved to a tropical island to live with a couple of hot models who follow him around all day striking random poses (you believe what you want to believe, I’ll believe what I want to believe), I culled a list of what I felt were the best songs Prince ever did. At the time I just did a simple alphabetical list, saying there was no way I could rank them. Well, it has taken me two years and a lot of arguing with myself, but I have finally done it. There is an audio player of the song under each entry.
50. Adore from Sign o’ the Times (1987)
I will admit that I was not always a fan of the Prince slow jams but this one gets me every time. “Until the end of time, I’ll be there 4 U.” Come on. And that breakdown at 2:30 that leads to a classic Prince line: “You could burn up my clothes, smash up my ride… well, maybe not the ride…” A perfect mix of love and seduction.
49. Bambi from Prince (1979)
It was a track from his second album but it announced him in ways that would come to define his sound for years to come. That fuzzy, dirty guitar; the screaming falsetto; the rock God trappings. It’s all there and remember he was only 20 years old when he recorded it. Evidence, if you really needed it, that he was a prodigy.
48. Good Love from Bright Lights, Big City Soundtrack (1988)
This song has a bit of a tortured history. It was originally recorded by Prince with the Revolution for an album that was to be called Dream Factory, which was going to be the follow up to Around the World in a Day. When the band broke up in 1986, Prince put many of the songs on another unreleased multi-disc album Crystal Ball and then eventually put many of them on Sign o’ the Times, after taking out much of the Revolution’s contributions to the songs. This one, a funky pop ditty that gets in your ear and won’t let go, was included on the Michael J. Fox movie soundtrack but never released on an official Prince album or b-side (that I know of).
47. Alphabet Street from LoveSexy (1988)
The short, radio version of this is fun, funky, and get yo ass on the dance floor groovy but the longer version with the rap from Cat is where it really throws down… “Talk to me lover/Come and tell me what you taste/Didn’t your mama tell you/Life is too good to waste?”
46. Lolita from 3121 (2006)
I will freely admit that by the early 2000s I had pretty much stopped paying attention to Prince. For the better part of the previous decade or so I felt like he had gotten a little too myopic, doing music that was much more interesting to him than to anyone else. But then he released this album, certainly the closest thing he did to his old sound in years, and then really got my attention by doing a residency in Vegas. This song, while never released as a single, is classic Prince fun with a danceable beat, a vaguely naughty lyric that evokes his peak period during the 1980s and 1990s.
45. Feel U Up, b-side of Partyman (1989)
Interesting back story to this bass heavy jam – it was originally recorded in 1981 but then redone in 1986 for a project that never got released. It was used as the b-side of the single from the Batman album.
44. Gett Off from Diamonds and Pearls (1991)
Prince did a lot of dirty jams in his time but this one grinds in a way that practically demanded he wear pants with no butt cheeks on the Video Music Awards in 1991. Although he was certainly influenced by the music of his soul/R&B/funk godfathers, he rarely did what he did here, sampling a little bit of a James Brown and adopting the lyrics… “Remind me of something James used to say, I like ‘em fat, I like ‘em proud… ”
43. Private Joy from Controversy (1981)
I love the stacatto delivery of the lyric, which perfectly matches the propulsive drum beat and digital hand claps. Listen close for the occasional tamborine flourish in the background, like a accent mark. But my favorite part of the song is at the end, “Come on honey, baby get up!” as it strips down so you can really hear the intricate bass and the line “If anybody asks you belong to Prince.” Oh yeah. Then it fades into apocalyptic guitar and synth screeching as the album segues into Ronnie Talk to Russia, an ode to the cold war fears of the era.
42. Darling Nikki from Purple Rain (1984)
“I knew a girl named Nikki, I guess you could say she was a sex fiend.” Talk about an opening line setting the mood. But don’t let the lyrics distract you too much – the thing that makes this song truly dirty is the fierce, fuzzy guitar work in the background. And for the record, the backwards recording at the end says, “Hello. How are you? I am fine because I know the lord is coming soon. I know the lord is coming soon.”
41. If I Was Your Girlfriend from Sign ‘o the Times (1987)
The track itself is spare and evocative but to me it’s the lyrics that really sell this one. “If I was your one and only friend / Would you run to me if somebody hurt you even if that somebody was me?” That’s almost as meta as the closing lines of the longer album version, “We’ll try to imagine what silence looks like.”
40. Shockadelica, the b-side of the If I Was Your Girlfriend single (1987)
Another funk workout with stunning, screechy guitar work and a (purposely) tinny vocal from Prince that works perfect with the taunting lyrics.
39. Cream from Diamonds and Pearls (1991)
How can you not love a song that starts with overtly sexual moaning? But then you add in the church organ doing a pop beat and Rosie Gaines providing background and it turns the whole thing up a notch. A decidedly sexy song.
38. The Beautiful Ones from Purple Rain (1984)
Back in 1985 I took a sign language class and the final project had us sign a song. I picked this one for its expressive lyrics that matched the beautifully expressive nature of signing. That moment at around 3:20 where the drum beat goes into hyperdrive and he starts screaming “Do you want him? Or do you want me? Because I want you!” is the definition of yearning.
37. The Most Beautiful Girl in the World (Mustang Remix) from The Gold Experience (1995)
This is one that I’m going to toss to a remix as being superior to the original. While the radio version is a sweet ode with a classic Prince falsetto, the Mustang Remix I have on a German EP called The Beautiful Experience is the one I really like. This is less a remix than a completely different recording of the song with Prince singing in his chest voice over a sultry lounge beat that adds a funk, heat, and sex to the song.
36. Sexy Motherfucker from the o+> album (1992)
This was Prince at his all time coolest. Nobody else could get away with a song like this that seemed dirty but was really all about respect and love. Prince made it the epitome of suave.
35. Diamonds and Pearls from Diamonds and Pearls (1991)
Probably the most traditional love song he ever wrote, enhanced by the simplicity of the lyrics (“All I can do is just offer you my love”) and a soaring co-vocal with Rosie Gaines.
34. Controversy from Controversy (1981)
“Am I black or white? Am I straight or gay? Do I believe in God? Do I believe in me?” Prince answers the critics of his androgynous sexuality with a resounding middle finger of song that pulses like an angry heartbeat. And then the audacity of putting the Lord’s Prayer in the middle of it? That’s some balls, right there ladies and gentlemen. My favorite line: “Was it good for you? Was I what you wanted me to be?”
33. Do Me, Baby from Controversy (1981)
Pure sex in the form of a falsetto slow jam. I’m guessing there were quite a few babies conceived while this song was playing.
32. Sexuality from Controversy (1981)
The main part of this rollicking ode to letting your body be free is great fun but it’s the spoken word part at the end that really sells it. “Reproduction of a new breed – Leaders, stand up! Organize!” with the up hitting perfectly on the smash beat every time is addictive as hell. And his tourist-bashing – something that would pop up again on 1982′s 1999 is just plain old funny: “Tourists – 89 flowers on their back…inventors of the Accu-jack. They look at life through a pocket camera… What? No flash again?”
31. Head from Dirty Mind (1980)
For this classic Prince funk jam you should go read the lyrics sometime to get the full effect of just how classically dirty of a song it is. Um… he did what on the wedding gown? And love the Star Wars synth work in the break.
30. Raspberry Beret from Around the World in a Day (1985)
Cheeky is the word I think of when I hear this song. The lyrics are kind of lacivious but it is done with such a bouncy, flirty delivery that elevates this beyond just a randy story of a couple doing it in a barn. Check out the extended version with its finger cymbal intro and Prince coughing at random places. What does it mean? Who knows, but it’s exactly the kind of thing that he did that made him and his music so unique.
29. Strange Relationship from Sign o’ the Times (1987)
The driving four on the floor beat plays an interesting counterpoint to the swinging melody that dances around playfully. It’s a great song and I always wondered why he didn’t release this as a single.
28. U Got the Look from Sign o’ the Times (1987)
Sheena Easton’s induction into the Prince family is a barn burner of a song about a guy trying every bit of flattery he can muster to get the girl.
27. Automatic from 1999 (1982)
Here he not only manipulates the instrumentation to sound vaguely robotic (if robots were funky dancing machines), but he does the same thing with the vocals. The stacatto delivery occasionally chirps up into the stratosphere like a machine coming to life. Be sure to listen to the full length album version with headphones so you can hear the freaky, fade in/out, left/right execution of the the spoken word part (“stop me if I’m boring you”). It’s simple but effective.
26. 17 Days, the b-side of When Doves Cry (1984)
I named my first play after this song, not because it inspired me to write the play, but rather that it’s spare, fuzzy guitar opening and bleak let the rain come down sing-songy chorus were what I pictured the main character, a man dying of AIDS, was hearing in his head every day. One of the many great examples of Prince’s music brilliantly setting a mood.
25. Let’s Work from Controversy (1981)
That slapping bass line is enough to sell me but add in the early 80s synth work and the multi-tracked vocals turn this into a perfect bit of funk fun.
24. Mountains from Parade (1986)
Another song that I stole the title of for a play, this upbeat shuffle has the full Revolution-era treatment including Wendy & Lisa backing vocals, horns, and more. And that breakdown! “Guitars and drums on the 1, huh!” Classic.
23. Girls and Boys from Parade, (1986)
Irresistibly groovy from start to finish with a sax hook that won’t quit and breathy backup vocals from Wendy & Lisa. This is one that loves to stick around in the corners of your brain for days – “Vous etes tres belle, mamma, girls and boys.”
22. Lady Cab Driver from 1999 (1982)
I used to think of this song almost every day while sitting on the 101 freeway behind somebody who isn’t paying attention to the fact that traffic ahead of them is moving. “Put your foot on the gas, let’s drive” pops into my head and then it’s all there – the funky kickdrum/hand clap beat, the twangy bass, and the intricate keyboard work. The extended spoken part on the album version (“This one’s for Yosemite Sam and the tourists at Disneyland:) is both dirty and a little disturbing as a woman moans in the background. Is it love or anger?
21. I Would Die 4U from Purple Rain (1984)
I love the original on the album but check out this 10 minute version (only ever available on vinyl and as an album only cut on the remaster), which isn’t just an extended remix but a live, full band studio recording and a complete rework of the song with shoutouts to Wendy and Lisa, horn players Eddie M and Miko Weaver, and drums by Sheila E. It keeps the driving forward motion of the original but adds depth with intricate synth and percussion work.
20. I Could Never Take the Place of Your Man from Sign o’ the Times (1987)
The poppy, kicky beat could distract you from the lyrics but don’t let it – they are profoundly self-aware and heartbreaking. “She asked me if we could be friends/And I said, oh, honey baby that’s a dead end.” This is the long version, which I recommend because the song goes from upbeat pop to dark, tortured guitar at around 3:45 and in just a few bars adds a layer of complexity that is almost heartbreaking.
19. Irresistible Bitch, the b-side of Let’s Pretend We’re Married (1982)
A bass-heavy, stacatto beat works perfectly with the spoken word lament about a woman that did him wrong that he can’t stay away from. Come on… who else would do a song called Irresistible Bitch? No one.
18. Purple Rain from Purple Rain (1984)
A lot of people don’t know this but Prince’s signature song from his breakthrough album was recorded live in 1983 at a benefit concert along with Baby I’m a Star and I Would Die 4U. That the track reportedly required minimal remastering speaks to not only his genius as a musician and performer but as a storyteller. Interestingly the iconic guitar chords at the beginning do not come from Prince, but Wendy. His solo work comes in around the 3:45 mark and is heartache, heartbreak, and heart pounding in aural form.
17. Willing and Able from Diamonds and Pearls (1991)
An upbeat, almost acoustic jam with overt gospel influences including a full choir doing back up. Perfect if you need a mood boost.
16. I Wanna Be Your Lover from Prince (1979)
One of the few songs by Prince that you could put into a disco playlist and not look like an idiot. The wocka-wocka guitars and Prince’s perfect falsetto make this an irresistable dance floor groove.
15. How Come U Don’t Call Me Anymore, the b-side to 1999 (1982)
With all due respect to Alica Keys’ remake, Prince’s original version of this bluesy piano ballad destroys not only with its emotion but with its simplicity. From falsetto to chest voice to screaming and back again, this song may have a languid tempo but it feels filled with urgency.
14. Joy in Repetition from Graffiti Bridge (1990)
If you are looking for evidence of Prince’s musical genius, you must listen to this track about a woman in a club on the mic “repeating these 2 words, over and over again” but you really have to pay attention. On the surface it sounds like the same four bars repeated over and over again, which is kinda the point, but it’s what he does with the lyric and its relation to the music that is so subtly incredible. This line: “These 2 words, a little bit behind the beat. I mean just enough 2 turn u on.” He sings the line just a little bit behind the beat and when he gets to those 2 words he sings THOSE a little bit behind the beat. It’s stunningly simple and yet complex at the same time.
13. Anotherloverholenyohead from Parade (1986)
The vaguely Indian intro segues into a piano driven monster with a dirty guitar line and itricately weaving vocals that wraps up (on the short version) with “There’s gonna be a riot if you don’t clap your hands.” I saw him do this live at one of his shows and I nearly lost my mind. This is the extended version with a lot of additional funky horn and piano work.
12. Kiss from Parade (1986)
There are few songs that are so instantly recognizeable with their first two seconds but that guitar lick makes this one of them, announcing the falsetto masterpiece that follows. I loved how, in later years, he updated the references when performing this song. I saw him once change “You don’t have to watch Dynasty” to “You don’t have to watch Desperate Housewives.” This is the extended dance mix, which adds horn flourishes and ends with an argument between “Saul” and his wife over seeing Prince on TV.
11. 1999 from 1999 (1982)
“Don’t worry… I won’t hurt you… I only want you to have some fun.” We did, Prince. Thank you.
10. Let’s Go Crazy from Purple Rain (1984)
“Dearly Beloved, we are gathered here today to get through this thing called life.” If songs like this dance/rock jam were part of our daily soundtrack, it would be a lot easier to get through life. Note the fuzzy guitar work in the beginning that is a direct descendant of Bambi and see how it leads you to the epic solo that closes the track. Bonus points to this extended version that includes an insane asylum meets Bugs Bunny cartoon mashup of what, from any other artist, would just be noise.
9. Erotic City, the b-side of the Let’s Go Crazy single (1984)
If this naughty, pulsating, highly danceable song featuring breathy backup vocals from Sheila E doesn’t put you and your significant other in the mood, something’s wrong. It’s classic “dirty era” Prince that is remarkable if for no other reason than so many people know it but it never got any mainstream radio airplay because of its lyrics. And this was before satellite radio and social media gave platforms to songs that no one would touch.
8. Something in the Water from 1999 (1982)
Prince did a techno song? Well, no, but this one has the kind of strange alien beeps and a languid synthesizer background on top of a hyperactive drum beat that perfectly underscores the heartbreak of the song’s lyrics. When he gets screams “I’d buy you clothing… I’d buy you fancy cars” it sends a chill up my spine every time.
7. Housequake from Sign o’ the Times (1987)
“Shut up, already, damn!” Okay, I will and just let this delirious house party classic speak for itself.
6. Nothing Compares 2 U from The Hits/B-Sides (1993)
Originally (formally) recorded by the Prince offshoot band The Family and later made famous by Sinead O’Connor, Prince finally took back his song and did it as a stunning, heartbreaking duet with Rosie Gaines and pretty much made every other version look like child’s play. Yes, I have heard the new/old version from the vault of Prince doing it by himself but I still prefer this version.
5. Little Red Corvette from 1999 (1982)
The dirtiest song ever written that doesn’t contain any explicit lyrics. It’s about a car, isn’t it? And something about horses? I love the video as he works the camera with a “You know what I’m talking about” smirk. Check out this Dance Remix that inserts some moody interludes and rattling synthesizer bass lines that aren’t in the original.
4. Baby I’m a Star from Purple Rain (1984)
If you need a party to kick into high gear, put on this song. It’s a clap your hands, jump up and down dose of adrenaline with classic Prince squeals that announced to the world exactly what he was and who he intended to be. “You might not know it now, but baby what I are is I’m a star.” Damn right.
3. Forever in my Life from Sign o’ the Times (1987)
One of his rare non-falsetto slow songs, this reflective work uses overlapping vocals and an overarching feeling of melancholy to perfectly convey the yearning of a man reaching a crossroads. Listening to this song now breaks my heart.
2. When Doves Cry from Purple Rain (1984)
This song literally made me change the way I thought of music, opening me up to a world of possibilities that my limited, Iowa 1970s and 1980s upbringing couldn’t have imagined. Step back and really listen to it. There’s no bass line in the entire track, which is revolutionary on its own, but after the intro it gets stripped down to just drums and Prince’s vocal. Then it slowly layers in a dash of keyboards and then more and more, and finally pushing into a rush of guitars and that makes it feel like the whole thing is going to explode. After more than three decades it might be easy to take this song for granted, but it remains probably his most stunning musical achievement. So why isn’t it my number one?
1. DMSR from 1999 (1982)
Dance, Music, Sex, Romance. What else do you need? According to this classic funk masterpiece, absolutely nothing. Musically, it seems pretty simple on the surface – slapping bass, dirty keys, and a drumbeat that makes you want to move – but take a minute and really listen to the way the music seems to weave in and out of itself, almost like the call and answer vocals (“Somebody say DANCE!”). But in the end, it is less about the music and more about the spirit of this song that gets me. Nothing else he did ever encapsulated as much of the prime years Prince ethos as this song did. I’d like to think this is the spirit of how he’d like to be remembered.