Prince would have turned 62 on Sunday, June 7.
For the first time, his estate had planned to hold its annual Paisley Park Celebration event to tie in with the date of his birth, not the anniversary of his death. But that, like everything else, has been delayed into an uncertain future due to the pandemic.
One can only imagine what Prince would think about the world right now if he was still around. He’s not, yet his spirit lives on through his music and his fans. While it’s a gift he would not have welcomed, I decided to mark the Purple One’s birthday by ranking his 10 finest albums. If anyone ever tells you they don’t understand why Prince was such a big deal, give them one of these records, a nod and a smile.
10.) “Parade” (1986)
“Kiss,” the epic lead single from Prince’s eighth album stands as one of his greatest achievements. It’s the sort of song every musician would love to write, but could never pull off. And, at first, Prince was ready to give it away.
In the mid-’80s, Prince and Revolution bassist Mark “Brownmark” Brown assembled a new R&B band dubbed Mazarati. The Purple One gave the nascent group an acoustic demo of “Kiss” with the idea Mazarati would record it for their debut album. After the band and producer David Z. tinkered with the arrangement, Prince snatched it back, made a few more changes and pushed for it to be a single over the wishes of his record label. It went on to become his third No. 1 hit, win a Grammy and inspire memorable covers by Art of Noise (with Tom Jones on vocals) and Age of Chance.
As for the rest of “Parade,” it serves as the soundtrack to “Under the Cherry Moon,” the utterly bonkers feature film written and directed by Prince. It’s a collection of adventurous, sometimes off-kilter songs, from the joyous “Mountains” (one of Prince’s often overlooked classics) to the tragic “Sometimes it Snows in April” (Prince died 31 years to the day he recorded it).
9.) “Come” (1994)
By 1994, Prince was well into his widely publicized battle with Warner Bros. over the control of his career’s direction. He was churning out new songs at a rapid pace, but his label worried about oversaturating the market, which was a valid argument as Prince’s commercial standing in 1994 was, at best, starting to wobble.
At the time, Prince had several projects in various states of completion, from an “interactive musical experience” loosely based on Homer’s “Odyssey” to a triple-album dubbed “The Dawn.” He ended up assembling a pair of albums from the material – “Come” and “The Gold Experience” – and turned them in to his label on the same day.
Warner Bros. put out “Come” first, but for whatever reason, Prince tried his hardest to sabotage it. The dramatic cover art included the words “Prince: 1958-1993,” a signal that from that point on the Prince we thought we knew was gone. He changed his name to a symbol and essentially pretended “Come” never existed. Which is too bad, as it’s a thrilling listen with a dark, techno-inspired vibe quite unlike anything he had done at that point.
8.) “3121” (2006)
After spending the first few years of the new century toiling away in semi-obscurity, Prince decided he was ready to be famous again in 2004. He released “Musicology” – his most commercial album in a decade – and embarked on what would be his final traditional arena tour. Oh, and he was also inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
But in retrospect, “Musicology” seems far too safe and polite. With “3121,” Prince produced a record oozing with confidence, to the point of cockiness. From the lush bossa nova of “Te Amo Corazon” to the taut electrofunk of “Black Sweat,” pretty much every song on “3121” is a winner.
Prince had plenty of ideas to promote the record, from a (not great) perfume to a never-launched magazine, but he ended up playing a series of theaters backing his then-current protege Tamar, his duet partner on “Beautiful, Loved and Blessed.” Despite showing great Tina Turner-style promise, Tamar soon got the boot and Prince, as always, marched forward.
7.) “Prince” (1979)
Prince was still a teenager when he recorded his debut album “For You,” an impressive first effort that he wrote, recorded and performed almost entirely by himself. The following year, Prince started a live band and played his first show at Minneapolis’ Capri Theater. The experience clearly broadened the young Minnesotan’s horizons as his self-titled sophomore record crackles with excitement, starting with the bold one-two-three punch of the opening tracks “I Wanna Be Your Lover” (his first major hit), “Why You Wanna Treat Me So Bad” and “Sexy Dancer.”
“Prince” is such a strong album, one of its best tracks, “I Feel for You,” wasn’t even a single. Five years later, Chaka Khan wisely resurrected it and her distinctive cover version helped relaunch her career.
6.) “Emancipation” (1996)
One of the many issues Prince had with Warner Bros. is that the label wanted to release music on its schedule, not Prince’s. So when he finally was free from the contract, Prince surprised nobody by releasing the sprawling three-hour epic “Emancipation.”
For the bulk of his career, Prince hid behind his larger-than-life persona, but “Emancipation” offers some of his most personal, intimate songs that celebrate both his newfound musical freedom and his then-new wife, Mayte Garcia. The couple had a child that died shortly after birth, about a month before “Emancipation” hit stores. Prince used a recording of his baby’s heartbeat in the song “Sex in the Summer.”
Prince dabbled in the blues and house music and, for the first time, covered songs from other artists: “I Can’t Make You Love Me” (Bonnie Raitt), “Betcha by Golly Wow” (the Stylistics), “La-La (Means I Love You)” (the Delfonics) and, weirdly, “One of Us” (Joan Osborne). Not every one of “Emancipation’s” 36 songs works, but the sheer depth and breadth of “Emancipation” remains impressive to this day.
5.) “Around the World in a Day” (1985)
“Purple Rain” made Prince a worldwide superstar and Warner Bros. surely would have been happy to let its success spill over into a second year. Prince, of course, had other ideas and handed the label “Around the World in a Day,” a psychedelic rock album that shared little in common with its predecessor, let alone anything else on radio at the time.
Prince also insisted the label issue the album with little fanfare. He wanted it to be seen and heard as a complete work and refused to release a single until several weeks after the record was in stores. The giddy “Raspberry Beret” gave Prince another hit, while the sly “Pop Life” has never gotten its proper due as a minor masterpiece.
“Around the World in a Day” was far too insular and contemplative to replicate the success of “Purple Rain,” but it sounds stronger than ever some 35 years later.
4.) “Dirty Mind” (1980)
Prince meant it when he called his third album “Dirty Mind.” It’s stuffed with sometimes still-shockingly explicit songs and wrapped in a cover featuring a come-hither, bare-chested Prince clad in a bikini bottom, open jacket and little else (other than a criminal amount of mascara).
Beyond its lyrics, though, “Dirty Mind” is most notable for its diversity in sounds, with Prince exploring rock, new wave and funk after sticking largely to straightforward R&B on his first two records. This was Prince declaring to the world for the first time that he could do any style and he could do it better than anyone else.
The title track, “Uptown” and “Partyup” are highlights, but once again, it took another artist to turn one of the best songs into a hit, which is what Cyndi Lauper did with her winning take on “When You Were Mine.”
3.) “1999” (1982)
Prince’s first four albums earned warm reviews and a cult following. But “1999” firmly established Prince in the mainstream thanks to its title track, “Delirious” and “Little Red Corvette.” It didn’t hurt matters that it arrived just as MTV started to play black artists. With his distinct image, infectious songs and general air of mystery and danger, Prince proved to be the ideal star for the video age.
The idea of the Minneapolis Sound really coalesced with “1999,” with its taut electronic rhythms, raging guitars and Prince’s otherworldly vocals. At 70 minutes and 11 songs, it was Prince’s first double album. But he had plenty more material under his belt, as was revealed through the two dozen previously unreleased studio tracks from the era that appeared on this past November’s deluxe reissue of the record.
2.) “Purple Rain” (1984)
When an artist in any medium produces something as wildly successful as “Purple Rain,” it’s can be tempting to dismiss it. But “Purple Rain” more than holds up. If anything, it’s hard to believe it could be any better. Now more than ever, it feels like an instant greatest hits album that opens with “Let’s Go Crazy” and wraps with “Purple Rain.” Prince was burning so hot, even one of the b-sides – the steamy “Erotic City” – is nearly as well known and regarded as any of the songs that made the album.
Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” may have sold more copies, but “Purple Rain” changed music forever.
1.) “Sign o’ the Times” (1987)
One of the greatest things about Prince was his musical flexibility and wide range. Time and time again, he proved he could tackle any style, any topic and break every rule in the book while doing so.
In terms of grand sweep, “Sign o’ the Times” is his crowning achievement. As he did throughout his career, Prince took the best bits from several in-the-works projects and created a double album of pure magic. It feels like a sonic roller coaster as it jumps from the dark minimalism of the title track to the filthy funk of “It” to the childlike pop of “Starfish and Coffee” to the deep spiritualism of “The Cross.”
“Purple Rain” proved Prince was a superstar. “Sign o’ the Times” proved Prince was one of the greatest artists of the 20th century.