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.]
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
Prince as programmer. The man knew his way around a drum machine, and “The Sun, The Moon and Stars” ends up a little bit dancehall reggae and a little bit drum ‘n’ bass. The rhythm takes precedence over his come hither lyricism and the string section hovering underneath it all.
Prince as Al Green. An homage to the productions of Willie Mitchell with some arch instrumental touches like that accordion that flutters through the whole tune and some sexual imagery (“a limoncello ballet / a psychedelic cabaret”) that the good Reverend wouldn’t dare touch.
Prince as Alexander Nevermind. The finest metaphor for a vajayjay until Janet Jackson and co. wrote “Velvet Rope.” A deliciously suggestive showcase for Scottish pop goddess that garnered our fallen hero a second spot on the PMRC’s “Filthy Fifteen.”
Prince as green-eyed monster. The tug-of-war between body and soul writ in anamorphic widescreen as part of his final directorial effort Graffiti Bridge. Unlike the film, a spare production with stray touches of color like that snarling guitar that gets snuck in the back door.
Prince as Maurice Starr. Another pseudonym, another ghostwritten tune for a friend. And for seven glorious minutes, this crack funk band lays deep in the pocket while leader Morris Day oozes devilish charm over melting psychedelic tales of interracial romance and sticky sensuality.
Prince as extra. The Purple One hovering in the background while drummer Hannah Welton takes the lead. She bounces, bobs, and weaves, giddily expressing her lovesick, lustful insomnia. Sometimes it’s sexier when she’s on top.
Prince as essentialist. Keep your earth, water, fire, and air. Mr. Rogers Nelson has his own four elements: dance, music, sex, romance. In that order, too. He’ll get to the wooing later.
Prince as monogamist. A starry-eyed newlywed musician who sounds thrilled and surprised that every lyric he writes is about his ladylove and fearful of the anger he feels when imagining her with another. And with a love like that, you know you should be glad.
Prince as cook in Martika’s kitchen. This is as unabashed as he got in his love for the Lord. Shame he handed it off to someone else to sing His praises. Listen closely for the Cocteau Twins sample.
Prince as Gamble & Huff. This one serves as a friendly homage to Philly soul long of enchanting intentions and dramatic crashes. You can imagine him conducting each one before falling to his knees.
Prince as G-funkster. The sound of a heart monitor flat-lining turns a simple expression of romantic regret into something far more eerie. The Chronic backbeat playfully confuses the issue even more.
Prince as doomsday party planner. The Cold War was in full swing. “Ronnie, Talk To Russia” didn’t get the traction the world needed. The Prince decrees that it’s time to listen to your body and dance your life away before the bombs start dropping.
Prince as bather. The water is warm enough. But in this bubbly tub, a certain someone’s pants are nowhere to be found. And all you’ll feel is that sweet shiver of antici………..pation.
Prince as pauper. No money and no prospects? Not a problem with that flowing mane and those heavy-lidded eyes. Just keep singing while you show us the way to your studio apartment.
Prince as Buddhist. Suffering arises from attachment to desires. Suffering ceases when attachment to desire ceases. Lay back and let the vibe just flow.
Prince as cuckold. The downside of being sexually adventurous is when jealousy slips in between the sheets. Those nasty sheets that this girl couldn’t be bothered to change.
Prince as sexual meteorologist. This is Audrey’s favorite song in Unbreakable, and it’s as cushiony and sleek as the song’s subject matter. Also, thanks to “Soft and Wet,” “sugarcane” is now in the running for best lyrical metaphor for our hero’s manhood.
Prince as The Starr Company. Remember when you were a kid, watching Beverly Hills Cop and those feelings of shock and excitement upon seeing naked women for the first time in a movie and this was on the soundtrack? I do.
Prince as psych pop troubadour. Even before Purple Rain was finished, Prince knew what direction to take his next album, recording this jangly gem. Not even the slap bass line could dull its luster.
Prince as restrainer. Elsewhere on Sign “O” The Times, he gets to rammin’. For this, though, he wouldn’t dream of taking advantage of a vulnerable woman. Not while there’s a guitar to shred.
Prince as power balladeer. This is our man sneakily folding the words and works of Jesus into a hit pop song. On the same album as “Cream” and “Gett Off.” How bold is that?
Prince as car enthusiast. Did he drive the auto-erotic metaphors a little too hard on this one? Of course. But what do we have to lose by giving ourselves over to this groove and that unforgettable melody?
Prince as feeler. The version on Prince was all fine and dandy. In Chaka Khan’s hands, contrasted with Melle Mel’s pleas to rock this R&B queen, it becomes the essence of sensuality.
Prince as piano man. Prince says goodbye to his Under The Cherry Moon alter ego Christopher Tracy with a quiet, heart wrenching ballad. This song is most likely to bring you to tears in the wake of Prince’s passing.
Prince as bizarre lover. That is, if you can call getting it on in the back of a limo and on a bed of flowers “bizarre.” This song boasts an outrageous groove and another entry in the manhood metaphor contest (“Swallow the pride and joy of the ivory tower”).
Prince as game player. “Controversy” is one of the best kiss-offs to the press ever committed to tape. It’s also inarguably the funkiest; we could listen to that synth line all day, every day.
Prince as book closer. The best of his should’ve been hits hidden away in demo form and only available on bootlegs. It’s a simple metaphor writ large by his buoyant rhythmic work and stinging lyrics.
Prince as purple banana enthusiast. Greatest album opener of all time? Check. Greatest opening line of a song of all time? Check. Best guitar solo used to punctuate an already spotless song? Check and mate.
Prince as enchanter. Prince’s starry-eyed love song features some of the most aching falsetto vocals of his career. It’s passion personified and readymade for a newlyweds’ first dance.
Prince as apostle. Another fearless ode to his Lord and Savior. Surely this is the only worship song to offer up savoir-faire as a weapon against the sins of the world.
Prince as beggar. The Kid already had our curiosity in Purple Rain, but when he and the Revolution kick into this song, letting the bandleader croon and writhe and scream and grind through every last glorious minute…that’s when he got our attention.
Prince as a real man. Again, our hero exercises self-control by leaving his pants on in the bath with this dishwater blonde. The story is as flimsy as the barely-there music undergirding this entire affair. Joni Mitchell never lies.
Prince as pure popster. This is indubitably one of Prince’s most masterful pieces of songwriting, smoothly melding together verse, chorus, and bridge into a glorious three-and-a-half minute love affair. Using the sound and symbols of psychedelia only further proved his greatness.
Prince as sad sack. Okay, so it’s the second greatest b-side of all time. Sometimes we need to embrace pain and heartache because something as brilliant as this may come out of it.
Prince as redeemer. “The Cross” is Prince’s best expression of his deep faith. Feel it deep within your core as it builds and builds and builds to that stomping, rousing climax. You don’t need to go to church when it’s already here on side four of Sign “O” The Times.
Prince as sex god. Reportedly, our hero saw Parliament-Funkadelic perform and, in a fit of inspiration, rushed home and wrote the greatest b-side of all time. Ball’s been in your court for 30 years now, George Clinton.
Prince as broken man. His protégés The Family did alright with this. So did he and the Revolution when they’d play it live. But no one took it to the heights that Sinead O’Connor did. She filtered years of hard living and the death of her mother through her peerless vocal performance and kept us locked in her gaze as she did it.
Prince as minimalist. Dig if you will a song constructed from the barest of elements, almost demo-like in its sparseness. Feel, if you will, how it still sinks so deep within your person as you get lost in its swirl of surrealist imagery, family psychodrama, and Prince’s cutting vocals. Touch, if you will, your skin as you realize how sweaty and tired a pop song just made you.
Prince as your fantasy. When he wanted to be playful, this is what came out of him—another three-minute masterstroke that has been reduced into something syrupy and sweet. It would be adorable were it not for that almost sleazy falsetto and that downright vulgar scream he takes on at the very end of this song.
Prince as showstopper. This is the greatest album closer of all time. It’s the perfect song to bring the house down and send the audience out into the street glowing with joy and a sense of togetherness. Even if you pay not one lick of attention to the downcast lyrics cataloging the end of a fraught relationship, this song will connect and resonate with you on an almost molecular level. Let’s replace “God Bless America” with this.
Robert Ham is a Portland-based freelance writer and regular contributor to Paste. You can follow him on Twitter.