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.