Prince’s Greatest Non-Greatest Hits.
*NB: Prince was notoriously fickle (and litigious) about having his music appear on YouTube. In the case of a missing song, we did our best to fill in with a live or a cover version. RIP Prince.
1. Shockadelica (1987)
Its name and chipmunk voices conjure up visions of George Clinton, and Prince turned that psychedelic funk template into a cartoonish horror show that’s one of his most danceable B-sides. “The girl must be a witch/ She got your mind, body and soul hitched,” he insists, but the rhythmic spell cast is pure Prince.
2. Cindy C (1994)
Kicking the fabled Black Album into overdrive is “Cindy C,” a teeming, violent city of a song where Prince wrestles with synths, horns and layers of both his own voice and others’. Typically, pop songs make us want to be the singer, to bask in the glory of the limelight while surrendering to the music. On “Cindy C,” Prince makes the singer’s gig look Sisyphean as he struggles to rise above the din. Counterintuitively, that’s what makes this song great. It’s not Prince’s voice that drives “Cindy C.” It’s his mad genius.
3. Erotic City (1984)
You could make a great Prince mix-tape just from his B-sides, and this is one of the most essential. Opening with high-pitched guitar and guttural moans, it’s one of his sexiest songs about sex, which is saying something: “I just want your creamy thighs.” It also inspired one of the most unlikely covers. Arto Lindsay, the man some describe as James Brown trapped in Don Knotts’ body, gets even more tension out of this sultry template.
4. Head (1980)
Few albums pushed the sexual envelope in the way that Dirty Mind did in 1980. This is Prince’s libido running rampant, and “Head” is the sultriest, sexiest song on an album full of them. The closest comparison one can draw is Chic, but Nile Rodgers never got this explicit. Prince knew what he wanted, and, more importantly, he knew how to get you in the mood. Explicit language can go a long way, but “Head” proves that it takes more than words to make those intentions clear.
5. The Beautiful Ones (1984)
Prince’s scream is one of the most powerful instruments in pop, as simultaneously sensual and disturbing as the man’s own music. Only on Purple Rain does it have its own song: “The Beautiful Ones,” which starts out as one of those austere ballads Prince is so great at and ends in a throat-shredding vocal workout so visceral you can practically smell blood. In the movie, Apollonia responds to this song by getting the hell out of the club, and it’s hard to blame her. The emotions in “The Beautiful Ones” are sincere, but the way he channels them… ew.
6. Starfish And Coffee (1987)
If there was an aspect of Prince’s songwriting that one could call “underrated,” it would have to be his knack for bubblegum pop. The man could toss off a song about a girl wearing a hat and turn into Top 10 hit worldwide. “Starfish and Coffee” didn’t become a hit, but it’s arguably the best expression of Prince’s fondness for bubblegum. Lyrically, it doesn’t make much sense, but Prince’s vocals and piano overflow with joy. The flourishes of keys and drum machines give the song an otherworldly feel, as if we’re listening to the pop music of the future. It’s a minor miracle of a song made all the more astounding by its effortlessness.
7. D.M.S.R (1982)
The initials stand for “dance, music, sex, romance,” four words that may as well be Prince’s personal mantra. An eight-minute funk jam that could have been better served by a longer runtime, “D.M.S.R” is the song that serves as a calling card for Prince. Whereas he had previously used sexuality to alienate and otherize himself, “D.M.S.R” does the exact opposite; it’s a celebration of all these things as communal experience. Coming as it did on the album that put him on the cusp of becoming a superstar, one could say that this was Prince’s way of leaving the door open and inviting everyone in.
1. The Ballad Of Dorothy Parker (1987)
The most mysterious track on an album with many, this makes woozy seductive, genuinely surreal from synth tones (like hazy air wobbling in a weird golden-brown-hued basement with large geometric shapes hovering in lieu of furniture), to the offbeat characters themselves; it’s like when you realize you’re in a dream and still coast on the illusion. 1:37-2:00 is production genius, with Prince’s loose melody line, Joni Mitchell imitation and ringing phone imitation teasing counterpoint while the keyboard tones dapple, the mix becoming denser just for a few moments before easing back as quickly as it began.
2. Blue Light (1992)
He changed his name to an unpronounceable symbol and every good ol’ boy DJ didn’t get it. Behind all of that was Prince’s most sophisticated writing to that moment. If you listen to this track, it’s easy to hear it as a country number. It’s a lover pleading to another to take time out and, as Shakespeare would say, get it on. It’s not raunchy, though. There’s a sweetness to it and that undeniable sense of humor. This guy, don’t forget, was brutally funny, and no one could have pulled this off as well as he did.
3. The Cross (1987)
Sign o’ The Times is almost like Prince lashing back at people who thought he’d dried up after Purple Rain. His next feature film didn’t have the same zeal. His follow-up album, Around the World in a Day was one of his strangest. Yeah, there were hits, but it wasn’t Purple Rain II. Then, this collection. It’s like his What’s Going On, a state of the union and proof positive that he could write songs that were popular and hit deep. There’s the title cut and “I Could Never Take the Place of Your Man,” which isn’t your typical pop piece. Then there are the deeper ones, like “The Cross.” It’s a reminder of Prince’s spirituality, which was always there. Even the non-believer has to sit up and take notice of this one. But it’s not just the lyrics. The music reminds us how steeped he was in many different styles and how he could move a melody in the most unexpected ways and still connect with the most inexperienced listener.
4. Dinner With Delores (1995)
A gorgeous little jewel from a tossed-off album and so deceptively simple it might slip right by you. But let your ears glide on the textures, and the rewards are delightful. Prince’s high register paired with the deliciously sweet melody would be charming enough, but though the singing’s fairly restrained, there’s still room for quirky invention: cooing backing vocals, guitar lines doubling-up in the bridge, the soft rush of the way he sings “coming round her door.” Like a warm night out on a rooftop restaurant in the summer, city lights under stars, fancy drinks and lucky toasts.
5. Sometimes It Snows In April (1986)
This closes out Parade, the album that stood as the soundtrack for Under the Cherry Moon. It’s sometimes more notable what doesn’t happen than what does – gentle guitar and piano figures and a naked, heartbreaking vocal from the Purple One. He’s expressing something that could either be incredibly daft or somewhat profound. We know where it’ll land but not until the very end. If you haven’t of late, go back and listen to this album. The compositions and playing are dynamite, and we all know, because of “Kiss,” how amazing the production was.
6. How Come U Don’t Call Me Anymore (1982)
His status as a funk-meister and guitar god is a given. But this sparely arranged ballad makes the case for Prince as a great R&B crooner. Accompanying himself with big gospel-tinged piano chords, his multi-tracked vocal sells the song’s romantic alienation: it’s a solo performance, after all. An unusually intimate example of Prince showing the more vulnerable side of sex: rejection.
7. The Holy River (1996)
Resplendent song, this, and maybe the best on the three-disc Emancipation. It starts as a breezy, low-key, conventionally lovely ballad with a delicate shimmering melody until the zither-y break, from which proceeds ephemeral harmonic licks of bells, keyboards and more. Vocally, Prince makes sentiments of domestic bliss feel like being reborn into a starry swirl, and the guitar solo that closes – especially toward the high end of the fretboard – is a thing of beauty, cracking out at one point only to come back aching and searing. “Why’d you come down to a world so cold?”