Prince: Looking back at 25 essential tracks
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.
But it all began with his first record, 1978’s For You. Though less renowned than some of his later work, it helped establish Prince as an emerging force in music. In honor of the record’s 40th anniversary on April 7, EW is rounding up 25 of his most essential tracks.
“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.
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.
“Little Red Corvette” (1983)
Sex is like a ride in a limosine! Sex is like horse-racing! With “Corvette,” Prince went all in on metaphors to describe the thrill of a one-night liaison and it worked — the song became his first Top 10 U.S. hit. (Fun fact: It was actually written in the back of a bright pink Ford Edsell, which belonged to his bandmate and legendary keyboardist Lisa Coleman.)
“When Doves Cry” (1984)
Six years after his debut, Prince finally scored his first No. 1 hit with the lead single from his opus Purple Rain. A masterful example of Prince’s pop sensibilities and rock chops, it’s hard to believe the track was a last-minute addition to the soundtrack.
“Let’s Go Crazy” (1984)
Prince may have taken years to score his first No. 1, but it didn’t take long for him to earn his second. Less than two months after “When Doves Cry” left the top spot, Purple Rain’s opening track “Let’s Go Crazy” — an ode to getting “through this thing called life” — took its place.
“Purple Rain” (1984)
Prince’s album of the same name sold over 14 million records and spawned two No. 1 singles (“When Doves Cry,” “Let’s Go Crazy”) as well as this No. 2 hit. With his backing band, the Revolution, prominently featured and the XXX-rated lyrics toned down, Prince introduced the whole world to the Minneapolis sound.
“Raspberry Beret” (1985)
Prince’s gift for seduction through song is off the charts in this tale of an elusive female who sports a hat that would become the most iconic in pop history.
Prince originally wrote this tune for Mazarati, an R&B band started by his former bassist, Brownmark — but they didn’t get to keep it long. After the group added a funked-up groove to his demo, he reclaimed it, releasing it on Parade, his last album with his backing band the Revolution.
“Sign o’ the Times” (1987)
With lyrics that reference AIDS (“died of a big disease with a little name”), the Challenger explosion (“when a rocket ship explodes / and everybody still wants to fly”), and urban decay (“high on crack, totin’ a machine gun”), the title track from Prince’s masterful double album is one of his most political.
“Alphabet St.” (1988)
When Prince dropped Lovesexy in 1988, everyone wanted to talk about that now-infamous line in the title track: “It make me dance, it make me cry/And when I touch it, race cars burn rubber in my pants.” Prince had recently pared back some of his more explicit lyrics, but this looked like a return to form. Except it wasn’t, and shame on anyone for thinking Prince was ever going to do anything but move forward. Marrying ramshackle guitars and drumlines with freewheelin’, jazzy sensibilities and a necessary amount of bombast, lead single “Alphabet St.” reminded the world that plenty up-and-comers could play in his wheelhouse, but only he could keep re-inventing the wheel entirely.
Madonna, “Love Song” ft. Prince (1989)
The two musical titans collaborated on three songs for Madge’s seminal late-’80s set Like A Prayer. With its side-eyed look at relationships, “Love Song” is a perfect encapsulation of the album as a whole — but recast in the light of Prince’s career, it’s also a prime example of how the Minneapolis native didn’t always have to sing loudest to shine brightest. Even his delicate harmonies can suck the air out of a song.
Tim Burton’s Batman spawned two soundtracks: Danny Elfman’s classical score and Prince’s smash collection of pop gems. His soaring, playful reimagining of the iconic Batman theme hit No. 1.
“Round and Round” (1990)
Graffiti Bridge, Prince’s 1990 film sequel to Purple Rain, was less successful than its predecessor in nearly every way — but its soundtrack spawned gems like “Round and Round,” which helped launch Tevin Campbell’s career. Campbell would use the Prince-penned song on his platinum-selling debut the next year.
Prince scored his final No. 1 on the Hot 100 with this funky gem from Diamonds and Pearls, his first album with backing band The New Power Generation.
“My Name Is Prince” (1992)
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 motherf—r 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.