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25 Essential Prince Songs

The best of the Purple One’s world-changing, genre-defying hits

Prince; Essential Songs; 25

Prince's music catalog has no shortage of iconic hits.

Gonzales Photo/Christian Hjorth/Corbis

"What's missing from pop music is danger," Prince was quoted as saying in a 2006 Guardian interview. "There's no excitement and mystery." Danger, excitement and mystery were Prince Rogers Nelson's calling cards from day one. At the precocious age of 19, he released his debut album, 1978's For You. From there, he used his platform as an outrageously attired, unapologetically sexy performer (who just so happened to be a virtuoso musician and an innovative studio genius) to craft some of the most taboo-cracking, musically forward-thinking hits to every break the mainstream.

From his critical and commercial apex of 1984's Purple Rain through his recent Piano and a Microphone tour, Prince never sat still. His prickliness was legendary, but his body of work speaks profoundly to the depth, sincerity and sensitivity of one of pop's most enigmatic masters. Sure, he had no trouble stirring up headlines every few months or so with some cryptic or outrageous maneuver, which only added another layer to his volatile mystique. But what truly touched the world was his music — songs that moved us emotionally, sensually, intellectually or just plain locomotive-ally. Here, just a sampling of some of his best.

Prince; 1984

UNITED STATES - NOVEMBER 28: Photo of PRINCE; Prince performing on stage - Purple Rain tour (Photo by Ebet Roberts/Redferns)


“I Would Die 4 U” (1984)

On "I Would Die 4 U," Prince tossed aside gender roles, societal standards and mankind in general – "I am not a human, I am a dove," he proclaimed – in the name of love. It didn't hurt that he swaddled his mission statement in silk, courtesy of his Revolution backing band, because the quickest way to the heart is often through the hips. Neither Revolution keyboardist Dr. Fink nor Prince could play the bass line manually, so they rigged up an interface to lock a sequencer up to the drum machine. "We did some groundbreaking technological things that day," Fink remembered.

Prince 1984

November 1984 --- Prince in Concert --- Image by © Ross Marino/Sygma/Corbis

Ross Marino/Corbis

“Darling Nikki” (1984)

One of the Parents Music Resource Center's "Filthy 15," "Darling Nikki" is supposedly the song that inspired Tipper Gore to form the PMRC in the first place. Never released as a single, the Purple Rain track nonetheless found itself blasting out of the stereos of fans (including Gore's then-11-year-old daughter) when the album became a massive hit in 1984. "I knew a girl named Nikki/I guess you could say she was a sex fiend/I met her in a hotel lobby masturbating with a magazine," sang Prince in the first verse, leaving nothing to the imagination. Later, the Foo Fighters recorded their own version and Prince wasn't too happy. "I don't like anyone covering my work," he told Entertainment Weekly in 2004. "Write your own tunes!"

Prince 1985

June 1985, Detroit, Michigan, USA --- Prince on Stage in Detroit for His Birthday --- Image by © Ross Marino/Sygma/Corbis

Ross Marino/Corbis

“Take Me With U” (1985)

Though only the fifth biggest single off Purple Rain, the elegant, crystalline duet with Apollonia Kotero – originally intended for Apollonia 6's self-titled album – transcends both the album and the decade that birthed it. From the arresting drum-solo intro (which doubles as an equally stunning bridge) to the breathless exchanges between the two singers ("You're sheer perfection"; "Thank you."), the song instantly earned a place in the pantheon of classic love jams. "I don't have an expiration date," Prince said in an interview with The Word in 2004. "Take Me With U" is proof.

Prince 1985

INGLEWOOD, CA - FEBRUARY 19: Prince performs live at the Fabulous Forum on February 19, 1985 in Inglewood, California. (Photo by Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images)

Michael Ochs Archives/Getty

“Raspberry Beret” (1985)

When it first debuted in Spring of 1985, with Purple Rain's earth-moving electro-funk guitar-epic success mere months earlier, "Raspberry Beret" sounded way too … simple. Prince as a part-time counter-boy seducing a customer with great chorus, one could dig; but after Bobby Z's crazy electronic drums opened the account, why retreat into plain acoustic guitar and simplistic keyboard strings? Compared to its now almost-as-legendary B-side, "She's Always in My Hair," "Raspberry Beret" felt like a drop-step. Now, it seems obvious that it was a chance to explore more psychedelic pop songwriting. That too became part of Prince's arsenal – the same one that would manifest itself in the Bangles' hit "Manic Monday" – not deep personal thoughts, but a day's diary set to music. After the seemingly limitless aspirations of Purple Rain, it was this simpler poetry that actually proved that maybe Prince's creativity had no limits.

Prince 1986


“Kiss” (1986)

It was 1986, post-Purple Rain, when Paisley Park sound engineer David Z got a call from Prince to join him in Los Angeles. When he arrived at Hollywood's Sunset Sound studios, Z was handed a cassette-recorded demo — a verse, a chorus and a little acoustic guitar — intended for the band Mazarati. Z would later tell Mix Magazine it sounded like a Stephen Stills song. He and the band tinkered with it for a few hours, recorded a version and called it a day. When Z returned to the studio the next morning, Prince had stripped off the bass and hi-hat, added the iconic riff and recorded his own vocals. "This is too good for you guys. I'm taking it back," Z recalled Prince saying. Warner Brothers begged to differ; they said the track sounded unfinished, but Prince won the ensuing fight, and the single ultimately slingshotted to Number One.

Prince; 1987

Prince performs on stage on the Sign of the Times Tour at Ahoy, Rotterdam, Netherlands, 26th June 1987. (Photo by Rob Verhorst/Redferns)

Rob Verhorst/Getty

“Sign O’ the Times” (1987)

"Sign O' The Times" may be the oddest of Prince's lead singles. The man was at the height of his commercial and critical success, and his previous album Parade – a delirious tour into French jazz-pop that yielded the all-time funk classic "Kiss" and the cinematic debacle in Under the Cherry Moon – had taught his audience that Prince could be wonderfully unpredictable. Yet "Sign O' The Times" sounded like nothing he had done before. The starkly minimalist track found him playing blues guitar over a Fairlight synthesizer, and wailing over the world's troubles. "Man ain't happy truly until a man truly dies," he sings. Engineer Susan Rogers, who worked on the track along with keyboard programmer Todd Harriman, told Billboard, "He was coming down from the headlines of his huge success and he was aware that his audience was changing and things were changing for him. So it may have been a little bit darker in that respect." Peaking on the Billboard Hot 100 at Number Three and topping the Village Voice's Pazz & Jop poll for single of the year, "Sign O' The Times" was an affirmation that Prince's audience would follow him anywhere, no matter where he led them.

Prince 1987

Rob Verhorst/Getty

“U Got the Look” (1987)

In his sped-up, androgynous "Camille" voice, Prince introduces this hard-slamming funk number as the ultimate battle of the sexes: "Boy versus girl in the World Series of love." The girl was Sheena Easton, who recalls that he'd already finished the track before contacting her. "He said, 'Do you want to just come in and sing some backup vocals on the choruses?'" according to Easton. "So I went into the studio, and because I didn't know I was singing against him… I was all over the place – and he said he kind of liked that, so he expanded it into a duet." The boy, of course, was Prince himself, cooing with self-assured, flirtatious aplomb.

Prince 1987

Popstar Prince pictured performing to Dutch fans in the Galgenwaard Football Stadium in Utrecht Friday night, June 19, 1987 the first concert of three to be held in the Netherlands, part of Prince's European Tour. (AP Photo/Barbara Walton)

Barbara Walton/AP

“I Could Never Take the Place of Your Man” (1987)

At a certain point, Prince's formidable gifts as a polymath began being taken for granted. In addition to his skills as a singer, songwriter, performer, mogul and multi-instrumentalist, though, there's one role he's never gotten enough credit for: storyteller. "I Could Never Take the Place of Your Man" was released in 1987, when Prince had cemented his place as a funk icon. But he turned his ninth album Sign O' the Times into a smorgasbord of sounds and approaches – including this short story in power-pop form whose narrative is a poignant, sharply etched portrait of a would-be lover who doesn't want to be a rebound. "Everyone has their own experience," he told the NME in 1996. "That's why we are here, to go through our experience, to learn, to go down those paths and eventually you may have gone down so many paths and learned so much that you don't have to come back again."


Rob Verhorst/Getty

“Alphabet Street” (1988)

The lead single from 1988's Lovesexy shows how Prince could create fully realized funk from bare-bones elements. Jagged funk guitars and Levi Seacer Jr.'s bouncing bass line combine with Prince's street-corner cool for a track that sounded absolutely bracing in the increasingly cacophonous context of late-Eighties pop radio. An extended breakdown featuring horns and an exhilarating rap by Prince protégé-choreographer Cat Glover turn up the heat and extend the party. The legacy of "Alphabet St." continued through samples – hippie-hop collective Arrested Development's much-lauded 1992 single "Tennessee" caused them to pay Prince $100,000 for their unauthorized repurposing while beloved weirdos Ween used Prince's song-opening "No!" to mask the naughty words in their breakthrough "Push Th' Little Daisies."

Prince; 1990

GRAFFITI BRIDGE, Prince, 1990, (c)Warner Bros./courtesy Everett Collection

Everett Collection

“Thieves in the Temple” (1990)

Graffiti Bridge, the sequel to 1984's iconic Purple Rain was Prince's final film role. But unlike its heralded predecessor, the accompanying soundtrack would far outshine the film. "Thieves in the Temple," a brooding, spiritual meditation on lies, rejection and soul-searching that hit Number Six on the Billboard Hot 100, was a last-minute addition. With a Middle Eastern flavor, almost operatic vocals and an agitated feel, it was a decidedly new vibe for Prince. And one in which he didn't feel comfortable residing for long. "I feel good most of the time, and I like to express that by writing from joy," he told Rolling Stone in 1990. "I still do write from anger sometimes, like in 'Thieves in the Temple.' But I don't like to. It's not a place to live."


Prince performs in concert circa 1991 in New York City. (Photo by L. Busacca/WireImage)

L. Busacca/Getty

“Cream” (1991)

Legend has it, Prince wrote "Cream" while standing in front of a mirror, and, really, is there any doubt? Why else would he sing, "You're so good/Baby there ain't nobody better" on this impossibly slinky Diamonds and Pearls hit — his last Hot 100 Number One.