The world has lost a singular musical genius in Prince. Few artists have refused to limit their work to one genre like he did. Not many artists could write such powerful lyrics about sex, love, and God — often in the same song.
Prince earned a reputation as a pop-music provocateur; just listen to songs like “Controversy,” “Dirty Mind,” and (gasp) “Darling Nikki,” and you’ll see that today’s purveyors of subpar musical rubbish have lost the ability to shock that Prince mastered.
But the truth is, Prince was a prodigy, releasing his first album in his teens. And he was prolific, with a catalog containing 39 studio albums, five soundtracks, four live albums, and more.
Prince was one of those once-in-a-generation talents. Sure, he was eccentric and often kept to himself, but when he took the stage he knew how to work a crowd. His feuds with the music industry were the stuff of legends, but he grounded his fight in his passion for artistic integrity. (That same passion made it difficult for me to find YouTube links for some of these songs.)
Here are eight of Prince’s most iconic songs. Others may disagree over what songs were the best and what songs were most important, but these eight encapsulate Prince’s nearly 40-year career well. Enjoy!
8. “Kiss” (Prince, 1986; Art of Noise featuring Tom Jones, 1988)
“Kiss” was a song that Warner Brothers didn’t want to release, but it became Prince’s third number one hit. Prince wrote the song as an acoustic blues number and gave it to the band Mazarati. When Prince heard Mazarati’s as yet-unreleased version, he took it back, changed the guitar solo, and recorded his lead vocals on top of their track.
It’s a funky, near-minimalist jam that feels familiar and fresh at once, and Prince wisely convinced the label to release it as the first single from the album Parade. British techno band Art of Noise covered it two years later, with Tom Jones singing lead vocals.
7. “1999” (1982)
“1999” is Prince at his new-wave best. The apocalyptic lyrics presaged the Y2K controversy, and the synth-heavy party vibe created an odd juxtaposition with the words. Prince shares the lead vocals with other members of The Revolution, and the distorted vocal effects throughout the song add to the bizarre fun.
It’s weird, funky, and sweaty, and the song stands up today as both classic and of-the-moment. I defy you to stay off your feet when you hear it.
Oh, and here’s a little trivia: when Prince wrote “Manic Monday” under the name Christopher, he borrowed the verse melody of “1999” on purpose, which is interesting since he based “1999” on the chord structure of the Mamas and the Papas’ “Monday Monday.”
6. “Alphabet St.” (1998)
I have a confession: I knew I was going to include “Alphabet St.” on this list because it’s my favorite Prince song. It’s also one of his most overlooked top ten hits, from one of his most overlooked and least successful ’80s albums, Lovesexy. The song is typical, sexy Prince funk with clever lyrics, and a rap break by Cat Glover.
Prince had originally written “Alphabet St.” as an acoustic song but decided to turn it into a bluesy funk number, and it works in its recorded context. I’m just not sure why it hasn’t gotten the love that it deserves.
5. “Nothing Compares 2 U” (The Family, 1985; Sinead O’Connor, 1990, Prince & Rosie Gaines, 1993)
Of course, we know that Prince wrote songs for other artists, often under assumed names — “Manic Monday” and “Sugar Walls” come to mind — but the most successful Prince cover turns out to be “Nothing Compares 2 U.” That one became such a big hit that Prince himself recorded a live duet version in 1993.
Prince’s Paisley Park protege The Family recorded the first version in 1985, and Irish singer and professional sourpuss Sinead O’Connor took her version to #1 for four weeks half a decade later. “Nothing Compares 2 U” is a heartbreaking song with simple lyrics and a haunting melody, and it’s easy to see why record buyers loved it and made it a hit.
4. Little Red Corvette (1982)
“Little Red Corvette” was the first Prince song that I remember distinctly hearing on the radio as a kid. The song’s sly wordplay got the message across without sounding overtly sexual — in fact, I understood it at age nine as a straightfoward love song while the metaphors went right over my head.
The song was Prince’s first hit to perform better on the Hot 100 than on the R&B charts. It’s clearly far more of a pop-rock record than an R&B tune, and it helped establish Prince as a crossover sensation. That guitar solo still sounds incredible today.
3. Raspberry Beret (1985)
With the album Around the World in a Day, Prince departed from his usual stew of funk and rock to take on psychedelic textures. The critics didn’t take too kindly to the musical diversion, but Prince did claim that funk master George Clinton expressed his love for the album.
The first single, “Raspberry Beret,” tells the story of a teenage boy’s “first time.” Its wistful remembrance and pastoral imagery fit well with the sweet ’60s vibe to create one of Prince’s most unusual and surprising hits.
2. When Doves Cry (1984)
Clocking in at nearly six minutes of glorious funk-rock, “When Doves Cry” was Prince’s biggest hit and the one that nearly everyone remembers most. Prince wrote the song for the Purple Rain film at the director’s behest, and the lyrics tie in with the film’s sequence of issues among lovers and between parents and children.
Prince even directed the video himself, and it was a staple on the local Atlanta music video channel at the time. (We didn’t have cable growing up, since we lived in a rural area in the pre-DirecTV days, so the only way I could watch MTV was to sneak a peek at my grandparents’ house.)
1. Purple Rain (1984)
“Purple Rain” is the final cut on the soundtrack to the eponymous film, and it’s a stunner. Prince takes all his influences — pop, rock, soul, and gospel — and rolls them into one epic power ballad. Everything comes together in just the right way here, but the whole song is greater than the sum of its parts. Sure, Prince had bigger hits — though #2 is nothing to sneeze at — but none of them satisfy quite like this one (and the full version is even better than the radio edit).
What are your favorites? Feel free to share in the comments section below.