This post, originally published on 1/4/2018, is an apt way to mark Prince’s birthday. Enjoy it again!
Among his many other qualities as a musician, Prince was also one of the prolific recording artists of his (or any other) time. Even when hassled with contractual squabbles, and in the midst of forming and dissolving backing bands, he could usually be counted on for at least one full-length album per year, plus a host of B-sides. The following list has been restricted to the years from 1978 to 1990, during which he released a dozen albums worth of incendiary material. You know the smash hits; these are album tracks which may have snuck by, many of which could easily have been smashes themselves. Needless to say, the following years produced their own slew of unheralded winners, which might be the subject for another list down the road.
1. “With You” (1979)
After his 1978 debut For You solidified him as a newcomer of unusual musical talent, his self-titled sophomore release displayed the idiosyncrasy that really set him apart. He also showed the ability to hopscotch from genre to genre with ridiculous ease, as he shows here on this slow jam distinguished by high-arcing keyboards and his pillowy falsetto. It’s a recipe first devised by ‘70s soulsters like The Stylistics — and pretty much perfected here.
2. “Dirty Mind” (1980)
Prince’s third album was a major leap forward and his first masterpiece, as she showed off his ability to leave the comfort zone of his R&B jams for the spiky precision of power pop and New Wave. He hadn’t yet scored the breakthrough single, so this, the title track, was largely overlooked when it was a released as an A-side. That’s too bad, because Doctor Fink’s synthesizers and Prince as the yearning romantic underdog who doesn’t hide his salacious intentions, is an irresistible mix.
3. “Private Joy” (1981)
This synthy stomper was the last song recorded for the 1981 album Controversy, which turned out to be a kind of holding-pattern release before the breakthroughs of 1999 and Purple Rain. This song looks ahead to those releases, with its combination of forward momentum and weeping guitar, a formula that would be emulated to great effect in the albums to come. And he was already self-mythologizing even before he had his big hit: “If anybody asks you/You belong to Prince.”
4. “Free” (1982)
Prince seemed to understand the need for some kind of big-statement ballad to unify his albums; the obvious example in this category is “Purple Rain.” “Free” serves that purpose on 1999, a lighter-waver with the slow build that’s been the preferred rock ballad formula ever since “Hey Jude.” That one was Paul’s, of course, but it’s a Lennon-esque sentiment of personal liberty that’s delivered here in stirring fashion.
5. “4 the Tears In Your Eyes” (1985)
One wonders what “We Are the World” might have sounded like had Prince been involved, something perhaps more intriguing than what it eventually became. At least he contributed this beauty to the full album. As time went past, he would lean more on Christian themes, but to hear him not long after the massive success of Purple Rain praising Jesus was a shocker at the time. What wasn’t surprising was how effectively he pulled it off, thanks to his chilling guitar and Wendy and Lisa’s beautiful counterpoint vocals.
6. “Condition of the Heart” (1985)
People expecting Purple Rain II were generally disappointed with the psychedelia running rampant on Around the World in a Day. What they missed was an eclectic, intriguing album, one whose standout track was this tortured ballad, which grows from a distant cry in the wilderness to a primal scream of a man possessed by heartbreak. Notice how Prince toys with the perspective, transforming from an impartial narrator to the one suffering more than anybody.
7. “Girls & Boys” (1986)
Parade is often overlooked in the Prince catalog, perhaps because the album that followed it up (Sign o’ the Times) was such a monster. But it’s a constant joy, and the cartoon funk he conjures on this track is one of the standouts. The track isn’t too dissimilar from his legendary B-side “Erotic City,” but this one cuts even deeper. You get so caught up in the infectious groove created by The Revolution that you won’t even notice that the two protagonists don’t even end up with each other, matching cute posteriors notwithstanding.
8. “Starfish and Coffee” (1987)
Sign o’ the Times had room for a little bit of everything as a double album, and you can make a good case for it as the truest example of Prince’s far-flung musical genius (over the more streamlined Purple Rain). The grabbiest tune is this tale of an elementary school girl whose odd behavior only makes her mores special in the eyes of the narrator. Co-written by Susannah Melvoin, it’s a character sketch of the highest order.
9. “I Wish U Heaven” (1988)
Lovesexy finally put an end to Prince’s run of undoubtedly brilliant albums, as it suffered from inconsistency and ponderousness. Normally the third single on one of his albums would have chart legs to spare, but this thunderous track fell without a trace. That’s a shame, because it unites a muscular rhythmic attack, a thrilling refrain and some potent positivity in the lyrics. This is one that deserves to be rediscovered — or at least reevaluated — to bolster its reputation.
10. “The Question Of U” (1990)
Graffiti Bridge seems like a good cut-off point for this list, as Prince’s output beyond the ‘90s spun off in so many different directions that it was difficult to make sense of it all. The album is kind of a Prince songbook, with different artists like Tevin Campbell and The Time covering his material. But this mesmerizing track, caught somewhere between grinding blues and atmospheric exotica, is all Prince, right down to the obsessive intensity of the lyrics and the thrilling catharsis of the guitar solo.
Photo Credit: Prince by Frank Micelotta, Getty Images