September 17, 1993 at 04:00 AM EDT

The 36 songs shoehorned into Prince’s The Hits 1 and The Hits 2 are entirely predictable. But who cares? These days, greatest-hits albums rarely live up to their billing. Too often, they comprise a few recognizable smashes, some you barely recall, and the obligatory new tracks that may or may not become actual hits. The Prince collections, however — available separately or as part of a three-CD set that includes a disc of B sides and rarities — offer plenty of bang for your buck. They’re vital not just as the first overview of his music, but as an affirmation that, at one time, Prince’s very strangeness and eccentricities had a point; he was never weird simply for weirdness’ sake.

We shouldn’t need those kinds of reminders given his track record, but the last few years have been trying ones for Prince fans. Starting with 1989’s ”Batman” soundtrack, his albums have been hit-or-myth affairs, crammed with inferior songs and lackluster attempts to update his sound with nondescript rappers. This year’s bizarre announcements — that he would no longer release any new studio recordings and was changing his name to that symbol — were at best puzzling career moves, at worst the stuff of which laughing stocks are made.

There was nothing laughable about Prince’s accomplishments during, say, the first decade of his career (1978-88). The Minneapolis elfmeister expanded the range of black music because, to paraphrase someone with much graver career problems at the moment, it simply didn’t matter if he was black or white. As heard throughout both ”Hits” albums, what counted was that Prince could be a horny crooner one minute (”I Wanna Be Your Lover”), then a guitar-vamping arena rocker (”Let’s Go Crazy”) or funk bandleader (”Alphabet St.”) — and all of it sounded fine and natural. Prince also made sex and spirituality interchangeable, yet maintained mutual respect for each — thus the sequencing of these albums, vaguely divided into ”clean” and ”dirty” discs.

You could question the very idea of a Prince compilation devoted exclusively to singles, since he was one of the few ’80s pop stars who prided himself on making fully conceived albums. And ”The Hits” omit his darker, bumpier album tracks and anything from the much-bootlegged ”Black Album.” Crank up the actual ”Hits” records, however, and such high-minded considerations fall by the wayside. Unlike so many boxed sets, these anthologies aren’t weighed down with Significance — they’re simply a blast to hear and even revelatory. The ”Purple Rain” numbers, like ”Let’s Go Crazy,” come off a little sludgy now, while a weak song like 1992’s ”Sexy M.F.” sounds like a marvel of big-band arranging. (And of the inevitable previously unreleased tracks laced through the two albums, the best is the fuzz-blast rocker ”Peach.”)

”The Hits” don’t completely neglect Prince’s oddball side. The B-sides compilation jams together 20 lost treasures of aural weirdness, like the ”Purple Rain” outtake ”Erotic City” and frisky indulgences like ”Irresistible Bitch.” Few are essential, and many of them are little more than slinky riffs and wink-wink lyrics — the type of music that has become the trademark of his recent work. But mostly ”The Hits” remind us that Prince started his career breaking both musical ground and a few sociocultural taboos. Now that he’s calling himself [symbol] and writing musicals based on Homer’s ”Odyssey,” we need all the reminders of that era we can get. ”Hits 1”: A; ”Hits 2”: A; Three-CD set: A-

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