Being a Prince fan these days can be trying. I'm fine with his having found solace as a Jehovah's Witness (look at what religious exploration brought to Madonna's Ray of Light album and Boy George's The Martyr Mantras records), though I find his abandonment of his earlier, dirtier material comparable to parents who abandon their previous offspring when they marry into and create a new family (like in the film Shotgun Stories). What made Prince absolutely unique were the way he kept his contradictions in balance, like a philosophical juggler, and his music flourished.
I've been a Prince fan since 1983, and I've remained so during some dodgy times. As with all things, there are ebbs and waves in this relationship, and I'm finding him hard to defend with his reactionary recent actions involving the internet (suing his fans, not allowing anything involving him or his music to appear on YouTube or any similar website, and shutting down his New Power Generation Music Club site with little notice). But his music still endures, and I've decided to take a little illustrated journey through his Purple archives and deliver you what I think are his fifty finest moments, in ascending order.
50) PEACH (1993)
Released on "The Hits" compilation, "Peach" is strip club anthem Prince at its finest (see also "319," "Darling Nikki," and "Gett Off."). I love the little Hanna-Barbera sound effects and the metronomic sex grunt between every three and four beat.
49) IF A GIRL ANSWERS (DON’T HANG UP) – Vanity 6
Some of Prince's funniest funk ended up being recorded by his protege groups, and none are quite so daffy as this phone call conversation between the girls of Vanity 6 and the nameless new girlfriend of "Jimmy," the man who seems to be dating everyone in all of Minneapolis. It's silly girl fight drama, except that Jimmy's new girlfriend's voice is handled by Prince in his sassiest tone. It's deliciously weird, and one of the brightest spots on the surprisingly solid Vanity 6 record.
48) I WANNA BE YOUR LOVER (1979)
The first Prince song I ever heard. A near-perfect fusion of disco, R&B, and New Wave.
47) BLACK SWEAT (2006)
Chronologically the newest song on this list, this showed that Prince can still rock it if so inclined. Linn drum machines, sassy falsetto, that weird-ass squelching synth hook, and a sense that Prince was actually having some sexy fun in the aughts. Shocking, yes, I know, but a refreshing primer in how to rock it Prince-style. I knew it was something special when I saw MTV playing it. Ah, MTV. Once, Prince helped them explode their narrow racial prison in the early eighties, and oh how quickly they abandoned him.
46) MOONBEAM LEVELS (1981)
Originally intended for the 1999 album, it was removed and replaced by the execrable "Free" (to this day the only Prince song on any of the classic albums that I cannot abide listening to. Misidentified on some early bootlegs back in the day as "A Better Place 2 Die," this is one of those philosophical power ballads that Prince still occasionally does, but not this weird a fashion. The verses are tangled affairs, playing strange games with phrasing and flow, and it's still electrifying to hear.
45) NOTHING COMPARES 2 U – Sinéad O’Connor (1990)
Written for The Family, Prince's project that gathered the remnants of The Time and The Counterrevolution together with his then-girlfriend Susannah Melvoin (Wendy's twin sister). The song didn't break out of the purple ghetto until Sinead O'Connor covered it for her 1990 album I Do Not Want What I Haven't Got. I don't know what the real story is behind the night when Prince allegedly tied up and terrorized O'Connor following her cover's monstrous success, but I know that it certainly stands as one of the finest vocal performances of a Prince composition ever recorded.
44) EYE WANNA MELT WITH U (1992)
When Prince plays around with current dance music sounds, you never know quite what you're going to get. Sometimes you get genius ("51 Hours," "I Wanna Be Your Lover," and this effort), sometimes you get something that's kind of interesting ("Loose!"), and sometimes you get crap (any of the Tony M raps during Prince's hip-hop phase). "Eye Wanna Melt With U" is a great example of Prince taking the techno-rave sounds that were dominating the club scenes both underground and mainstream, and Princeifying it. Also, one of the best songs about deflowering ever recorded.
43) THERE IS LONELY
From his aborted score for James L. Brooks' film I'll Do Anything, this is one of the simplest and most pointedly devastating songs Prince ever made.
42) TAKE ME WITH U (Duet with Apollonia) (1984)
A swooping and propulsive love song, and certainly the best vocals Apollonia ever recorded during the course of her career. Originally intended for Apollonia 6, Prince decided that the song was just too good not to put on his own record. I'll agree with that logic, even though it did entail "Computer Blue" being shortened considerably.
41) SLOW LOVE (1987)
Written with Carole Davis, this is one of the most perfect R&B ballads of the 80s. The horn section is top notch, and the vibe is majestic for love and lounging.
40) FOR YOU (1978)
The first publically-released missive from Prince, and it is a multitracked statement of purpose. Beautiful and otherworldly, open to all, and as reassuring a debut as any artist ever gave his public.
39) WHEN 2 R IN LOVE (1987)
From The Black Album and Lovesexy both, this is one of Prince's most effective love ballads; explicit, moving, sinuous, and using his primo effects pedal rig on the drum machines.
38) SUGAR WALLS (Dance Mix) – Sheena Easton (1984)
Another of Prince's songs that he let other people take to the next level, this was a huge hit, bringing unbelieveable levels of nastiness to Top Forty radio. Easton never sounded this provocative again, and her producer Greg Mathieson managed to screw up some of Prince's synth programs for the demo- only the extended 'Dance Mix' uses the correct Prince synth line, and for that alone, it is what you seek out.
37) LET’S PRETEND WE’RE MARRIED (1982)
Nasty, but with a purpose. Along the same apocalypsexy line as "1999" and "Crystal Ball," but with much more of an emphasis on the sexy than either of the others. He still wants to fuck the taste out of our mouths, but it's only because the relief of certainty in the next life has freed him up to have some fun.
36) STARFISH AND COFFEE (1987)
Written with love-of-his-life (at least for the 80s) Susannah Melvoin (Wendy's twin sister), this psychedelic masterpiece uses drum programs playing in reverse and Susannah's deliriously out-there lyrics about a differently-abled classmate to make a distinctively weird and beautiful record. This is one of the songs Prince performed when he appeared on Muppets Tonight.
35) OLIVER’S HOUSE – Sheila E. (1984)
One of the best tracks on Sheila E's stellar first album, this tale of an ambivalent manchild whose going away party becomes ground zero for some High School drama could have a short film made about it, so intricate and fascinating are its plot turns and wordplay. Much respect is due any song where people taking turns throwing down, then take turns throwing up.
34) 200 BALLOONS (1989)
One of Prince's biggest selling B-sides, this Batman track languished on the B-side of "Batdance" despite being superior to it in all qualities except weirdness. Propulsive and cinematic, and how can you not love a song where Prince wants to be your busy bee and says you must take him for what he r?
33) ALL MY DREAMS (1986)
One of the finest of The Revolution's body of work, this originally would have closed the aborted Dream Factory album. Prince's synthesis with Wendy and Lisa in the studio was at its peak, and its wild metaphors and playful backmasking add to a jubilant and saucy tale of painting submarines and Maxfield Parrish dreams. Ah, if only.
32) CIRCLE OF AMOUR (1999)
A slice-of-life look at four girls who would get together after school and explore each other in an intimate fashion. It's one of Prince's finest 90s offerings, and there's a kind of silly sincerity in his voice that just resonates strongly. There's a swooniness to this song that somehow makes me think of Rufus Wainwright, and the wistful tone serves as a welcome contrast to Prince's cold and hurtful comments about Wendy and Lisa's own private lives. It's from The Truth, the primarily acoustic record included with his three-disc Crystal Ball box set in 1998 (not to be confused with the abandoned 3-album Crystal Ball set he had initially fashioned after shelving the Camille project but before winnowing its tracklist down to the double album Sign "O" The Times.
31) MANIC MONDAY/1999 (1985/1982)
Linked together because they pretty much share the same melody (try it at a karaoke night sometime if you don't believe me), here's an example of Prince's thematic unity throughout his work. Days that don't quite start out how their respective narrators planned them, but with roots in a fierce sense of will and determinism, regardless of whatever life throws at them. It's just that one is about being late for work, the other is about the end of the world. But both endure to this day.
30) LISA (1980)
An ode to Lisa Coleman, who at that time had just replaced Gayle Chapman as Prince's chief live keyboardist. This is one of the more exciting of Prince's unreleased tracks, combining the primitive thrust of Dirty Mind with the cold electronic funk that would surface on the following year's Controversy album. It's got that fusion of hypersexed braggadocio and crushing naivete that defined "Bambi" on the self-titled 1979 album, but there's something here that demonstrates the significant inroads the underground sounds of punk and eurodisco had made into Prince's Minneapolis mindset.
29) LOVESEXY (1988)
Prince's last great sex song, also one of his last great spiritual songs. Defined as "the love u feel when u fall in love, not with a girl or a boy, but the heavens above," lovesexy the feeling involves finding new erotic methods of communication (including making love with only words and vari-speed voice recorders as well as race cars burning rubber inside the pants. Lovesexy the song is a shoulda-been dance club hit, uptempo and perfectly syncopated with some of Prince's greatest drum programming ever. This is one of those songs that kind of got away.
28) UPTOWN (1980)
Prince does not typically excel at making political material (notable exceptions: "Money Don't Matter 2Night," the unreleased version of "Live 4 Love," and the sorta-risible but kinda-awesome "Ronnie Talk 2 Russia"), but if any one song managed to craft a complex political manifesto out of all that is Prince, this is it. This is the national anthem of the Funk Utopia, and it has aged beautifully.
27) 17 DAYS ("THE RAIN WILL COME AND U WILL HAVE 2 CHOOSE, IF U BELIEVE LOOK 2 THE DAWN AND U SHALL NEVER LOSE") (1983)
B-side of "When Doves Cry," this was initially supposed to be an Apollonia 6 track. It works much better as a Prince song, especially with Brenda Bennett's backing vocals. It's a shame that more of Prince's songs didn't feature vocals from Bennett, whose timbre complements Prince's voice beautifully. This is one of Prince's greatest sad songs, all the more so for its shuffling and propulsive rhythm and acoustic guitar licks. This was covered by Living Colour back when that meant something.
26) TRAIN (1986)
Another track meant for the Dream Factory record, this eventually surfaced on one of Mavis Staples' Paisley Park albums. But no offense to Miss Staples, Prince's original version is near perfection. Bluesy and relentless, with spectacular use of the horns from the Counterrevolution.
25) OTHERS HERE WITH US (1986)
A Revolution track that easily wins the contest for eeriest song Prince ever recorded. One of the only times that he has addressed issues of death and spirituality completely divorced from religion, and the keyboards include remarkable shrieking wave envelopes (similar to what Howard Shore used in his score for Scanners).
24) WHEN YOU WERE MINE (1980)
I actually had heard Cyndi Lauper's cover of this song long before I'd heard Prince's version (I didn't actually hear the Dirty Mind album until 1989), and while her arrangement and performance is superb, when you hear Prince's original, it's jaw-dropping. It's one of those Rosetta Stone records like Grace Jones' Compass Point records, where punk, new wave, reggae, R&B, disco, and new wave were all playing exploratory sex games with one another and the end result was some amazing material. "When You Were Mine" is like new wave rockabilly (see also "No Call U," "Delirious," and "Horny Toad"), and it is one of the most immediate and timeless songs of his ever recorded.
23) JOY IN REPETITION (1990)
One of those Prince songs that kept floating around in search of a home before eventually surfacing on the Graffiti Bridge soundtrack. Supposedly written on a Kate Bush and Peter Gabriel binge, this is one of the most lyrically adventurous of Prince's efforts, a bluesy drone that endures on the level of Tom Waits' greatest smoky late-night material. My personal favorite version was from the aborted triple album Crystal Ball, where it was directly sequenced to follow opener "The Ball."
22) OUR DESTINY/ROADHOUSE GARDEN (1984)
Performed once, at Prince's 1984 Birthday Show at First Avenue in Minneapolis. A Holy Grail for Revolution fans, mainly because all of them play on it and it sounds like nothing else Prince has done before or since. Very danceable, with the Revolution laying down some superlative grooves. Of all the extant material that only exists in questionable quality, this is the one I'd most like to hear a proper recording of.
21) STRANGE RELATIONSHIP (1986)
One of those songs that seemed to kick around for years, being recorded several times. Initially sometime in the early/mid-80s, then given over to Wendy & Lisa to rework for the Dream Factory project, which they did- adding Indian instrumentation and letting a tabla drive the rhythm alongside the Linn LM-1. Then The Revolution fell apart, Prince shelved most of Dream Factory, and rerecorded the track during the Camille sessions of 1986. After shelving that project, he finally found a home for the track on Sign "O" The Times. I prefer the Dream Factory version, but all are pretty damned great. There are some lyrical differences between the two, though, with the released version being a bit more defiant and diminishing personal responsibility.
20) DANCE WITH THE DEVIL (1989)
Removed from the Batman soundtrack because Prince found the song too dark, this is one of the strangest and creepiest of Prince's transitional period songs. It certainly wouldn't have fit Jack Nicholson's take on the Joker (even though it contains his voice), but it meshes beautifully with Heath Ledger's take on the character. You can expect a more in-depth look at this comparison/theory sometime this weekend here at this site.
19) STAND BACK/LITTLE RED CORVETTE (1983/1982)
As with "Manic Monday"/"1999," herein is another case of two songs sharing pretty much the same melody. In this instance, though, Stevie Nicks, while listening to a tape of 1999 on a California honeymoon drive, started coming up with the "Stand Back" lyrics while listening to "Little Red Corvette." She called him, and he appeared, as if by magic, to program and play the synthesizers for the recording of "Stand Back," only to disappear when they were done. "Little Red Corvette" remains one of the best car sex songs of the past forty years, and it endures as a pop, rock, and R&B classic. But "Stand Back" carries that legacy even further, for years being a staple of classic rock radio, not particularly known for hospitality to female artists, synth programming, or Prince. So between the two of them, there's no one alive at that time who wasn't affected by one or both tracks.
18) BOB GEORGE (1987)
Hysterical, brutal, mean, moving, and a song no one but Prince could have come up with. It has the bleak inevitability of a murder ballad, the sonic assault and nightmare logic of the hardest horrorcore, the beats of hip-hop's most insane club jams, and the voice of Prince giving us the inverse of his Camille persona. Also, major points for being the source of the title of Dump's Prince tribute album "That Skinny Motherfucker with the High Voice."
17) CONDITION OF THE HEART (1985)
A smooth and rapturous ballad that stops just short of camp, providing the kind of magic that only Prince can (though Susanna and The Magical Orchestra did a pretty good cover of this song a couple of years back). Absolutely peerless vocal phrasing on this one.
16) LOVE… THY WILL BE DONE – Martika (1991)
Martika was a pop tart with hard-won chops and a great deal of will. She'd be worthwhile for her own solo material, but with this Prince song, she helped bring to life one of the most beautiful of songs that Prince has ever made.
Part II, which covers the fifteen best Prince songs of all time, will be coming soon. I hope you enjoy the reading and seek out some of the music (through legal channels). There is always a whole new world of Prince to discover.