We pick Prince’s 10 best songs
As with other pop geniuses (Bob Dylan, Stevie Wonder, William Hung), it’s impossible to narrow down Prince’s mighty catalog to a mere 10 songs. But we did it anyway. Here’s a decade-spanning playlist (arranged in chronological order) that offers a glimpse at his purple prowess.
”When You Were Mine” (”Dirty Mind,” 1980)
With its perky keyboard riff and eighth-note guitar strum, you could easily mistake ”When You Were Mine” for a Cars song. But then Prince begins singing — in a high, feminine register — about a lover who ”didn’t have the decency to change the sheets.” Playing nearly every instrument heard on the song, Prince offers early proof that he was unbound by the strictures of genre, able to achieve musical cross-pollination — in this case, R&B vocals atop a new-wave pop sound — like no one else.
”Little Red Corvette” (”1999,” 1983)
It begins ominously, with swelling synthesizer chords, but ”Little Red Corvette” is one of Prince’s most joyous tunes. Its cars-and-girls lyrics plug him into a rock tradition that goes back to Chuck Berry, while the song’s complexity — multiple drum machine tracks, thick stacks of backing vocals, synthesized bass, and lyrical lead guitar — propels it into what still sounds like an uncharted pop future. Baby, he was moving way too fast.
”When Doves Cry” (”Purple Rain,” 1984)
What DOES it sound like when doves cry? Apparently, it sounds like one of the most minimalist hit singles of all time. The song reached No. 1 despite a backing track consisting of just a drum machine and intermittent keyboards — there’s no bass line. The lack of distractions puts the focus on Prince’s imaginative vocal arrangements (check out the deliberately robotic backing vocals on the line ”How could you just leave me standing”). One possible negative: Because of the song’s video, it’s impossible to hear it without picturing His Purpleness in a bathtub.
”Purple Rain” (”Purple Rain,” 1984)
The chiming rhythm guitar is nabbed from the Jimi Hendrix playbook, and the song structure from classic soul (think Sam Cooke’s ”A Change Is Gonna Come”), but this anthem nonetheless belongs solely to Prince. Coming in at 8 minutes and 41 seconds (albeit not in the radio edit), ”Purple Rain” remains his masterpiece, simultaneously combining and transcending all of his influences while showcasing his unmatched vocal range and underrated lead-guitar prowess (that’s right, rock snobs — the dude can shred).
”Erotic City” (B-side to ”Let’s Go Crazy,” 1984)
It took a B-side to unleash Prince’s nastiest impulses — in a career full of sexy songs, ”Erotic City” is among the most carnal (and most fun). ”We can funk until the dawn/ Making love till cherry’s gone,” the chorus goes — but is the lyric really ”funk”? Paging Tipper Gore…
”Kiss” (”Parade,” 1986)
After the ”Purple Rain” album, Prince got bogged down in baroque arrangements, but ”Kiss” marked an end to that problem. Harkening back to the lean funk of his earliest work, it’s a respectful nod to James Brown (with a guitar part torn from ”Poppa’s Got a Brand New Bag”), and a reminder that Prince could be great even WITHOUT jumping genres. Plus, the guy has a hell of a falsetto.
”The Ballad of Dorothy Parker” (”Sign O’ the Times,” 1987)
Prince’s egomania makes it too easy to overlook his flashes of humor — in ”Dorothy Parker,” the protagonist orders a fruit cocktail for dinner, prompting the title character to label him a ”real man.” Complementing its quirky lyrics, which include a nod to Joni Mitchell’s ”Help Me,” the song is notable for its musical oddity: It’s loaded with dissonance — from an off-kilter bass line to weird little keyboard stabs — but somehow remains a catchy pop tune.
”Batdance” (”Batman” soundtrack, 1989)
Just kidding. But we do kinda like it.
”Money Don’t Matter 2 Night” (”Diamonds and Pearls,” 1991)
Prince turned back toward R&B with his ’90s band, the New Power Generation, and the richly arranged ”Money Don’t Matter 2 Night” set a template for the decade’s slow jams (TLC’s ”Waterfalls” owes a particular debt). It also boasted one of Prince’s most heartfelt vocal performances, and lyrics that offer an apt epitaph for the greed-is-good ’80s: ”Just when you think you’ve got more than enough/ That’s when it all up and flies away.”
”7” (The Love Symbol Album, 1992)
With apocalyptic, mythology-packed lyrics, choir-o’-Princes backing vocals worthy of Queen, and a hand-clapping, gospelesque refrain, ”7” is a neglected late-period high point. He was on the verge of changing his name to that hieroglyph (which, for the last time, was NOT pronounced ”Victor”), but hadn’t yet descended into the inaccessibility that marked his late-’90s work.
”On the Couch” (”Musicology,” 2004)
Prince has proven that his latest comeback isn’t just an onstage affair by releasing a sturdy new album, ”Musicology.” The slow-building, retrosoul ballad ”On the Couch” is an early favorite — it finds our formerly womanizing hero amusingly reduced to begging to sleep in his own bed. ”Don’t make me sleep on the couch,” Prince howls, in an anguished falsetto, as Sam and Dave-style horns make the plea hard to resist.
What would you include in YOUR Prince playlist?