It’s tough to weigh the catalog of the Purple One. Over a career that spanned five decades, nearly 40 studio albums, and more than 100 singles — including collaborations with the likes of Madonna, Chaka Khan, Patti LaBelle, and No Doubt — the prolific Prince contributed to nearly every genre of music.
After he died in 2016 at age 57, EW rounded up 25 of his most essential tracks for longtime fans and new listeners alike.
“Soft and Wet” (1978)
Prince’s first single didn’t make a massive impression on the charts — it peaked at No. 92 on the Hot 100 in late 1978 — but it established his knack for groove and melody out of the gate.
“I Wanna Be Your Lover” (1979)
Prince’s first mainstream hit was written as a lark. Warner Bros. Records was dismayed at his debut’s lack of commercial success and when they leaned on him, he quickly threw “I Wanna Be Your Lover” together. It worked, the song cracked the Billboard Hot 100’s Top 40 and topped the R&B singles chart. Bonus? Decades later we may know those falsetto runs all too well, but at the time “Lover” served as a thrilling introduction.
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True to its name, Prince’s third album Dirty Mind helped define him as one of the most lewd lyricists in pop. “Head” might be Dirty‘s dirtiest, a wild, sexy ode to meeting a bride-to-be and — well, we’ll let Prince take it from there.
With that icy synth hook and white-hot funk guitar riff, it’s one of his most instantly recognizable anthems — and never has a party-for-the-end-times sounded so hot.
By Prince, about Prince, and sampling earlier Prince songs “Controversy,” “I Wanna Be Your Lover,” and “Partyup” it’s hard to imagine there being a more Purple-experience than this song, right here.
“The Most Beautiful Girl in the World” (1994)
This one-off single from 1994 didn’t appear on an album, but is crucial to Prince’s history as an artist: It’s the first song he released after changing his stage name to an unpronounceable sign — but the ballad’s mellow groove help to elevate it above novelty.
“Bob George” (1994)
It’s hard to imagine that any single track can rightfully be considered the weirdest Prince song — that is, until you hear “Bob George.” The song was recorded in the late ’80s as part of the long-gestating The Black Album and on it, he takes the perspective of a gun-slinging woman-murderer who refers to Prince as “That skinny motherfucker with the high voice?” in a computerized drawl.
“The Work, pt. 1” (2001)
As a theme, sex was certainly Prince’s most expounded upon topic, but racial relations were also ruminated upon frequently. At the turn of the century he released The Rainbow Children and in “pt. 1” — which is actually the fourth track on the album — he pays homage to James Brown while discussing inequality, Christianity, and, you guessed it, the holy pleasure found by a woman’s body in a highly-distorted vocal over a bumbling jazz backing.
“Call My Name” (2004)
Following years of artistic experimentation and label complications, Prince made his long-awaited return to the pop music spotlight with 2004’s Musicology. The straight-ahead R&B of “Call My Name” makes it obvious why it took home the Grammy for Best R&B Vocal Performance—Male.
“Te Amo Corazón” (2005)
After resurrecting his career with Musicology, Prince made his Universal debut with 3121. It includes one of his most sultry songs, the bossa nova-inspired “Te Amo Corazón.”
His Purpleness’ career was born from controversy and it remained a part of the conversation surrounding him throughout his tenure. Most often it was due to the sexual nature of his content, but like on “Ronnie Talk To Russie” and “MARZ,” he took more concrete political positions. Following the death of Freddie Grey, a 25-year-old black man who died in police custody in the title city of the track, Prince entered the national conversation once more, singing, “If there ain’t no justice, there ain’t no peace,” which became a rallying cry for protestors.
“Shut This Down” (2015)
With tinges of EDM, this synth-heavy highlight from Prince’s 2015 album, HITnRUN Phase One, proved the pop icon was still looking ahead.
Prince might’ve paid homage to his 1986 song “Kiss” on this single his final album, HITnRUN Phase Two, but the track was far from a nostalgia-play. Even at 57, he sounded just as vital as when he burst on the scene.