Prince's artistry spanned six decades, multiple genres and several hundred songs under his own name and pseudonyms. Even for a hardcore fan, his discography is one of the most daunting of any modern pop star. Here we present 16 albums that are essential to any collection.
Dirty Mind (1980)
For his third album and first masterpiece, he wanted to be more deliberately me, he told Rolling Stone at the time. So he stripped down his sound, and for the album cover, he stripped down to his underwear. Recorded at his home on Lake Minnetonka, outside Minneapolis (where he knocked out several songs in one night), Dirty Mind targeted New Wavers as much as funkateers. The sound was manic and spacious at the same time, and the songs were packed with sexual obsession. Prince euphorically sang about taboo subject matter: a threesome in "When You Were Mine," incest in "Sister," an all-races-welcome orgy in "Uptown" and the self-explanatory "Head," in which a virgin bride goes down on him on the way to her wedding. But his orgiastic utopia was a friendly place – that virgin bride from "Head"? He marries her. And his party was just getting started.
Though 1999 was credited to Prince and the Revolution, he was still essentially recording as a one-man band. "He wanted a movement instead of just a band," said guitarist Dez Dickerson. He got it. Prince danced on the edge of the world on "1999," made his vulnerability into a sex brag on "Little Red Corvette," paid his way with his tears on "Lady Cab Driver," made rockabilly modern with "Delirious" and perfected a drum-machine sound that made this one of the most influential records of its time.
Purple Rain (1984)
After 1999 gave him two Top 10 hits, Prince wanted more. So for the soundtrack to his semi-autobiographical blockbuster movie, he turned up his guitar and scored two Number One singles: first, the Freudian mystery dance "When Doves Cry," and then the glam-garage rocker "Let's Go Crazy." Purple Rain was his first real band album (the title track was recorded live at his hometown club First Avenue), and from the gospel preaching that opens the LP ("We are gathered here today to get through this thing called life") to the baptismal blessings of "Purple Rain" at the end, his spiritual and erotic fusion was never louder, or bigger.
Sign 'O' the Times (1987)
A kaleidoscopic double LP, with almost every song a shape-shifter: The panty-dropping "Hot Thing" opened up into psychedelic horn and synth melodies; garage-rock mash notes like "I Could Never Take the Place of Your Man" launched mystical guitar journeys. The spare title track was a tour of the headlines (AIDS, drugs, gangs) that went to Number Three; "U Got the Look" was hecka-slammin' pop mastery. But small gems like the one-man gospel call-and-response of "Forever in My Life" made his genius seem inexhaustible. One of the best albums of the Eighties.
Prince hired an orchestral arranger with a jazz background for the soundtrack to his second film, Under the Cherry Moon. But even the tracks without strings merged new-funk snap with cinematic sweep. "Kiss" was nothing but snap, and the closing ballad, "Sometimes It Snows in April," was "written on the spot," according to guitarist Wendy Melvoin.
The Black Album (1988)
Prince pulled this album in 1987 because he thought it was "evil," but he also knew these funk vamps were (as one title put it) "Superfunkycalifragisexy." He even performed some of them live. Cut the grim pimp monologue "Bob George" and you have an album full of dance, music, sex and, on "When 2 R in Love," even a dash of romance.
Love Symbol (1992)
A would-be "rock soap opera," it worked as a concept album about a man whose name was still Prince, and he was still funky. "Sexy M.F." took off from James Brown's "Hot Pants"; "The Morning Papers" was baroque pop with cloud-hopping guitar; and "7" mixed "The Humpty Dance" and biblical mysticism.
Gold Experience (1995)
The moist ballad "The Most Beautiful Girl in the World" was his last major hit, but he was breaking ties with his label and everything except his own vision – it didn't matter. "P. Control" was his best foray into rap, "Shhh" a slow-jam excuse for arena-rock guitar, and "Shy" a noir fantasy that grafted Sly Stone riffs onto L.A. pop.
Proof that he could turn it on whenever he wanted: "Black Sweat" was yet another way of getting on the good foot. And even if he was now advocating keeping your clothes on, three songs in the middle – "Incense and Candles," "Love" and "Satisfied" – were classic Prince red-light specials.
Prince later said he wasn't sure "which direction I wanted to go" when he began work on Dirty Mind's follow-up. "Sexuality" and "Jack U Off" are must-hear, but he still hadn't left disco behind. The title track ("Am I black or white? Am I straight or gay?") showed how good he was at pushing buttons. He'd only get better.
Around the World in a Day (1985)
This was a retreat after the world-conquering Purple Rain. Despite "Raspberry Beret" and "Pop Life," it was slight, and his dialogue with God in "Temptation" was his first true embarrassment.
The angular groove of "Alphabet St." is a brand-new bag that never lets up, but the God-is-love talk gets in the way of the sex, which, for once, isn't fully satisfying.
Diamonds and Pearls (1991)
His first album with the New Power Generation sent the lust-filled "Cream" to Number One and the love-praising title ballad to Number Three. The result was his biggest album since Purple Rain.
Released just after his Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction, with a fresh, lean sound. Highlights include "Musicology" (yet another James Brown reinvention) and "On the Couch" (where he doesn't want to sleep).
Art Official Age (2014)
The aqueous funk of "Breakfast Can Wait" made for his funniest song in many years. No hotcakes with honey, thanks: "I think I want another bite of you."
HitnRun Phase 2 (2015)
The Black Lives Matter movement inspired "Baltimore," his sharpest political statement, and a bigger horn section made it seem like he could keep doing this forever. If his vault has stuff this good, maybe he can.
Prince died on April 21st, 2016. Watch his remembrance here.