Prince was a man of many songs – so many, many songs. Picking his best tracks is a near impossible task, but we here at the NME office have attempted it. You may not agree with the final list, but there’s no denying the brilliance of the 20 songs below. Thank you for the music, Prince.
‘I Wanna Be Your Lover’ – 1979
Prince’s first hit single came in 1979, a tail-end of disco diamond that was as sexy as it was smooth. In a delicious falsetto, the 21-year-old Prince set out his stall as not just a raunchy renegade but an uncompromising artist, who wasn’t going to let a little thing like public decency get in the way of making people dance. 37 years later, it remains dancefloor dynamite.
‘Little Red Corvette’ – 1982
Prince actually got the idea for this disco-funk anthem after dozing off in band-member Lisa Coleman’s pink Edsel. It’s the perfect example of his startling ability to take inspiration from seemingly anything and turn it into pop magic. ‘Little Red Corvette’ was yet another mammoth hit from fifth album ‘1999’; and with euphoric, pitch-defying vocal ad libs like these, it’s hardly surprising is it?
‘Raspberry Beret’ – 1985
Despite arriving on the slightly underwhelming ‘Around the World in a Day’, ‘Raspberry Beret’ sees Prince mingle with us mere mortals as he discusses his rubbish part-time job and making love in a barn to the girl in the ‘Raspberry Beret’. Arguably Prince’s pop masterpiece.
‘Purple Rain’ – 1984
Every truly great artist has their own masterpiece, that self-contained piece of perfection that sets them apart from the also-rans, and ‘Purple Rain’ is undoubtedly Prince’s. Sure, it’s arguably Prince’s best-known tune, but that’s for good reason too. Every guitar lick and gospel wail hits home with precision and euphoria. Brash, ballsy, self-indulgent and at the same time technically brilliant: it’s everything that’s loved about Prince condensed to a nine-minute epic.
Luke Morgan Britton
‘Alphabet Street’ – 1988
‘Alphabet Street’ is remarkable for two reasons: 1) It didn’t get banned upon release (never before has a song more obviously about oral sex reached the Top Ten), and 2) it’s epic transition, changing from a bluesy, chugging Bo Diddly demo to the kaleidoscopic, sample–heavy beast the world ended up knowing and loving. In that respect, it’s one of the greatest examples on record of how far pop music had travelled in just three decades.
‘When Doves Cry’ – 1984
‘When Doves Cry’ encapsulates Prince’s ability as a pop artist to create chart hits without compromise. Starting off with Prince’s elongated drawl, before a skewered synth line kicks in, it sounds like a musician taking risks and fulfilling their own creative whims right in front of the world’s ears and somehow, somehow, still managing to create a mass dance floor filler.
Luke Morgan Britton
‘1999’ – 1982
Probably the most Prince track out there, ‘1999’ encompasses every bit of his musical genius. From soaring synth riff to funky bass-line to pop-banger chorus it’s got it all. Dancing on the tables is not an option, it’s a necessity. So stick it on, turn up the volume and party like it’s 1999.
‘Kiss’ – 1986
The Purple One initially penned this one in an acoustic capacity, before he donated the track to funk band Mazarati. When Prince heard their version he took it back, replaced the lead vocals with his own, added the immortal guitar break in their chorus and hey presto – created a stuttering and groovy gem.
‘Sign O’ The Times’ – 1987
Named 1987’s best single of the year by NME, ‘Sign O’ The Times’ is, quite simply, a masterpiece. A protest song that pushed musical boundaries too, it pits its stark social message against minimal electronic sounds from a Fairlight synthesiser, tackling subjects including AIDS (the “big disease with a little name”), heroin, crack, gang culture, natural disasters, poverty and America’s Star Wars programme. The song’s power is in how directly these things are referenced; there are no flowery metaphors, just cold statements like this: “In September, my cousin tried reefer for the very first time/Now he’s doing horse [heroin] – it’s June”. The line “You turn on the telly and every other story is telling you someone has died” has been much quoted since Prince’s death, as yet another beloved star is taken from us. It won’t offer much succour, but it was never intended to – ‘Sign O’ The Times’ is a short, sharp shock of a song.
‘U Got The Look’ – 1987
Prince’s 1987 Sign O’ The Times album masterpiece is wildly diverse, taking in hop-hop, rock, jazz and funk. ‘U Got the Look’ is its new wave number, a stomping, swaggering ‘80s pop monster that even finds times for a delirious guitar solo. The song features backing vocals from Sheena Easton, a Scottish singer won the Esther Rantzen-hosted talent show The Big Time, and Prince’s lover – for whom he wrote the saucy ‘Sugar Walls’.
‘Money Don’t Matter 2 Night’ – 1991
The vocals are distorted (a happy studio accident that Prince chose to leave uncorrected) but the message is clear: there’s more to life than that sweet dollar-dollar. Rather than trying to stack your paper, says Prince, you’d be “better off making sure your soul’s alright.” It’s a simple sentiment and a simple R&B song, but damn, it’s beautiful.
‘Diamonds and Pearls’ – 1991
If I close my eyes and imagine a wedding (not that that’s something I ever really do), this track is playing. I am wearing a big white meringue of a dress and Prince is slow dancing with me in front of my adoring friends and family. I am sad that this will never happen. We were the same height. It would have been wonderful.
‘Beautiful Ones’ – 1984
One of Prince’s most emotional songs, and one of the centre-points on the all conquering ‘Purple Rain’, it’s not entirely surprising ‘Beautiful Ones’ has been covered by Beyonce, Mariah Carey et al. Interestingly, it was also slated to be the title of Prince’s forthcoming memoir, set to be published next year by Spiegel & Grau. No word yet on what’s happening with that in light of yesterday’s news…
‘I Would Die 4U’ – 1984
Prince’s genius is laid bare here in that he makes a song about Jesus sound like a red-hot letter to a lover and inadvertently gives us the perfect summation of himself when he sings, “I’m not a woman, I’m not a man, I am something that you’ll never understand.” Listening now he sounds both immortal and like he never belonged to this earth in the first place.
‘Controversy’ – 1981
To his death, Prince remained an enigma. But as one of the biggest stars in the ‘80s, he faced unprecedented scrutiny from the media and from the on-the-rise Moral Majority, who identified the star as a threat to the USA’s sensibilities on account of his overtly sexual lyrics and perceived gender fluidity. Unlike Michael Jackson’s cry-for-help song ‘Leave Me Alone’, Prince’s approach with ‘Controversy’ was to cock a wry look at the pitchfork-wielders. It begins with the lines “I just can’t believe/All the things people say/Controversy/Am I black or white?/Am I straight or gay?,” goes on to recite the Lord’s prayer and later establishes a mantra: “People call me rude/I wish we were all nude/I wish there was no black and white/I wish there were no rules.” And it is, of course, funky as hell. Amen!
‘Darling Nikki’ – 1984
You know those Parental Advisory stickers you used to get on CDs? The ones that made mums and dads wary and kids want an album even more? Well you can thank Prince and ‘Darling Nikki’ for that. US author and prude Tipper Gore reportedly heard her 11 year old daughter singing along to this song about “sex fiend” Nikki (Sample lyric: “I met her in a hotel lobby. Masturbating with a magazine”) and began her campaign against explicit language in music. Prince then, a man so sexy that had to create a warning specifically for him.
‘I Could Never Take The Place Of Your Man’ – 1987
Prince always found honesty to be the best policy. In the lyrics to this glittering pop-rock cut he turns down a one-night stand (for which, he emphasises, he’s “qualified“) because the mystery girl he’s addressing would want to take things further. Of the two versions – album and single – the album one’s the standout, his blistering guitar solo giving way to an understated, funky instrumental midway.
‘Bambi’ – 1979
Taken from Prince’s 1979 self-titled album, Bambi is a tune about falling crazy in love with a young, gay woman and trying to persuade her that life is “better with a man”. It’s, er, a pretty questionable concept but hey, it was the seventies and hearing Prince growl “Baaaaaambi” over a killer riff is sexy AF. Did we mention the guitar solo? It’s up there.
‘The Most Beautiful Girl In The World’ – 1994
R&B jams don’t come more smooth or effortless than this chart-topping single from 1994 – it was Prince’s only UK Number One. With lyrics like “It’s plain to see you’re the reason that God made a girl” it’s no surprise that the woman it was dedicated to, Mayte Garcia, later became his wife, on Valentine’s Day 1996.
‘Sometimes It Snows In April’ – 1986
Tugging on the heartstrings as well as the bra-straps was Prince’s signature style. 1986’s ‘Sometimes It Snows In April’ is a breathtaking ballad about the death of a friend. “All good things that say, never last,” sang Prince with emotion as deep as an ocean. “And love, it isn’t love until it’s passed.” Now we get it.