In the days since news of his passing, Prince has been the subject of both intense scrutiny and passionate mourning. And for good reason. For nearly four decades, he has been a consistent presence in our pop culture universe, still inspiring artists and delighting fans even when work stopped scaling the heights of his ‘80s apex. The truth that such a light has been turned off for the rest of time seems almost unfathomable.
But as with the death of every great artist, we still have Prince’s discography to celebrate. It’s a vast one, too, with dozens of albums and singles, a bunch of songs written for other artists, and scads of material he never released properly floating around on bootlegs. What became apparent when re-exploring this massive catalog in preparation for putting together this very subjective list is that, like all the great musicians and songwriters of the modern pop era, he was a chameleon and a shape shifter, changing gears and guises sometimes from song-to-song on the side of one of his many LPs.
That’s the element of his artistry that dazzles me the most these days—his willingness to adapt to serve the song in question. He had a direct line to his personal muse and they did some world-changing work together. Of all that material that came out of him, here are 50 of the best.
[Ed. Prince was notorious for keeping his music off of services like Spotify and even YouTube. While we have made every effort to include playable songs, they may suddenly become unavailable, as is the nature of the worldwide wonderful web.]
50. “Dance With The Devil”
Prince as philosopher. An unblinking look into our strange attraction to evil creatures, “Dance With The Devil” becomes darkly beautiful with low swinging piano chords and a creeping Tom Waits-ian percussion track.
Prince as preacher. “Love” is a full-length sermon on 1 Corinthians 13:13 (”And now these three remain: faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love.”) set to bobbing and weaving P-Funk.
48. “Empty Room”
Prince as sadboi. Skyscraping guitar chords and minor key melodies set aloft a devastating expression of heartache brought on by a row with his then-girlfriend Susannah Melvoin. The poignant lyrical details make it worse: “Found a strand of your hair by the bathroom window / How am I ever gonna get you off of my mind?”
Prince as dancefloor king. His influence on Detroit techno and early industrial music comes full circle in this hard-charging dancefloor slapper. Plus, there’s some particularly nasty guitar playing and some deliriously goofy soapbox ranting like, “Get your education first / then buy a pair of shoes.”
46. “Future Soul Song”
Prince as Smokey Robinson. The eye of the quiet storm happening on the surface of Jupiter. All chakras are engaged, as one man tries to harness the power of futuristic soul music to unite the world. He just about succeeded, too.
Prince as arena rocker. The pyrotechnics are going off. You can smell the smoke, feel the heat, see the colors bouncing around the room as that Eastern-inspired guitar hook takes you higher. This is the kind of sensory overload we can all get behind.
44. “Take Me With U”
Prince as jangle pop maestro. One of his most direct sentiments is this psych pop duet that finds him sharing love-struck and lustful yearnings with Apollonia. Of course that still finds the couple club hopping and lazing about in a mansion. Because Prince.
Prince as oralist. What’s sexier: his squeaks and squeals as he takes a blushing bride-to-be to his bed or her dusky commentary as she willingly follows him there? The correct answer is the Bernie Worrell inspired synth solo that wraps things up.
42. “Electric Intercourse”
Prince as pleader. Confidence is the name of the game as our hero offers some nameless lovely a Technicolor climax. There’s tenderness there, too, as he quietly inquires, “Don’t you wanna make love?” If you keep playing the piano like that, the answer is yes.
41. “Just As Long As We’re Together”
Prince as romantic. A blushing mawkishness does nothing to take away from this tune’s lean funk and that irrepressible turnaround anchored by a dancing Moog line. Come for the wine and music; stay for the extended outro.