Top 20 Prince Songs of the Last 20 Years
It's been over two decades now since Prince willfully traded away his hard-earned place in the worldwide media spotlight -- and briefly, even his name -- to fight for complete artistic freedom and ownership of the music he creates.
In 1994, as a result of Prince being happy with the fact that he didn't own the master recordings of his music, and with his record label wanting the highly prolific artist to slow down the release schedule for those albums, he began a battle to get free of his lucrative Warner Brothers recoding contract. After a nasty and very public two-year fight, he was free, and has spent the ensuing decades releasing singles and records independently or through a series of one-off licensing deals with other major labels.
During this time, Prince endured a rather dramatic reduction in mainstream radio and television airtime -- partially as a result of his role naturally changing in the ever-shifting, youth-oriented music industry, and partially because of his choice to constantly take the more difficult path business-wise.
But as our list of the Top 20 Prince Songs of the Last 20 Years shows, you'd be a fool to think he wasn't still creating or releasing great music during this time. To the contrary, he's continued to push himself creatively, incorporating an ever-widening range of influences and styles into his work. It's been an amazing flood of music, much of which is hard to sample legally online due to Prince's amazingly effective team of YouTube video-removing specialists. But hopefully this list will point you in the right direction and help you catch up on some of the great music Prince has made in the past two decades.
(Oh by the way, it was recently revealed that Prince won his battle and will soon get back control of the master recordings of classic albums such as 'Purple Rain.' Always bet on purple!)
Eager to get free from a Warner Brothers recording contract he deemed unfair, Prince agreed to issue this collection of songs "from the vaults" under his former name -- if he would also be allowed to release 1995's 'Gold' album using the unpronounceable symbol he adopted in 1993. He publicly labeled the 'Come' material "old" and did very little to promote it. But in retrospect, the record has a loose, unpolished appeal -- and a thematic unity that suggests he couldn't help but put the proper effort into its assembly after all. Highlights include the horn-charged 11-minute long title track, the disturbing child abuse narrative 'Papa,' and the unholy rock-techno union of 'Loose!' But our favorite is this lush and yes, spacey slice of reggae-tinged futuristic romance, which finds him dreaming of "Cuddling on the planet Mars" with his beloved. Prince's always impressive lyrical skills are in especially fine form here, as you can see from this highly romantic (and yes, more than slightly Messianic) couplet: "I painted your face upon my ceiling / I stare at it all the time / I imagine myself inside your bedroom / I imagine myself in your sky."
About five years after his self-imposed exile from the mainstream, Prince was convinced by legendary label boss Clive Davis to create a star-studded comeback album for Arista Records. Of course, Prince doomed the thing right from the start by refusing to fully buy in to the plan, choosing just a small, eclectic group of collaborators and refusing to record anything so blatantly commercial as say, Santana's 'Smooth.' Most of the album is stuck in purgatory, destined to please neither the masses nor hardcore fans. But there are a few keepers -- such as this lilting and unabashedly romantic love song, which shows off Prince's amazing vocal range and evocative poetic style very nicely.
Outside of playing horned instruments, there seems to be very little that multi-instrumentalist-singer-songwriter-producer-bandleader-amazing dancer Prince can't do very well when it comes to music. But as if to prove he didn't need all those bells and whistles, in 1998, he strapped on an acoustic guitar and released an entire album of stripped-down songs entitled 'The Truth.' The fact that he was still managing to surprise people 20 years into his career wasn't lost on the Purple Yoda, who correctly if not-so-humbly noted "My only competition is, well... me, in the past" during one of the song's verses.
Prince spent much of 2001 releasing music through his pioneering web-based subscription service, the NPG Music Club. Each month, paying fans could download a generous array of new and previously unreleased songs, as well as vintage live audio and video. A few years later he assembled much of the new material from this era into two digital albums -- 'The Slaughterhouse' and 'The Chocolate Invasion.' 'The Daisy Chain' closes out the first of those records, and its slinky, stuttering groove finds Prince incorporating rap into his music more successfully than ever before. What's more, at the end things get positively sinister as he whips up a fuzz bass solo for the ages over an extremely psychedelic 'Shaft'-style guitar line. "Scream one more time for me," indeed!
Ever the Gemini, Prince is currently splitting his musical time between 3rdEyeGirl -- the most down and dirty three-piece rock band he's ever fronted -- and a 17-member version of his ever-evolving New Power Generation, complete with no less than 10 horn players. Luckily, the man who had no use for the instruments on his first six albums started out great and just keeps getting better at incorporating them into his music all the time. Prime examples include 'Turn Me Loose' (see below), the 'Emancipation' rave-up 'Sleep Around,' and this peppy little number about a model who could really rock and roll.
Prince fans loyal enough to track down 1995's barely-released home video 'The Undertaker' were treated to something they'd long hoped to see -- their hero putting the keyboards, horns and drum machines away for a bit, and simply fronting a (relatively) straight-ahead rock and roll power trio. Just to completely fulfill all our fantasies, he filled most of that newly empty space by running absolutely wild on guitar. Needless to say, it was a look that suited him nicely. Thankfully, we got another glimpse of that approach on this delightfully raw toss-off from the following year's 'Chaos and Disorder,' an album the Purple One supposedly only released to get Warner Brothers out of his life. While toggling between a dry, stuttering riff and some effects-heavy showboating, Prince makes the most sacred vow he can think of -- to love his girl "Even more than I love my hair." Whoa. You want more good news? Prince is currently revisiting this sound -- and often, this song -- with his new backing group, 3rdeyegirl. Here's 10 more minutes of heaven for you.
The influence of funk legend George Clinton on Prince's music has never been more clear than it is on this 10-minute long sci-fi epic. Hiding his face behind a red mask and masquerading as someone named "Tora Tora" to avoid legal trouble with Warner Brothers, Prince uses Parliament-style horn charts and high-pitched synths to not-so-secretly lead his backing band on a musical quest to free both his fans' minds and his own ass.
Even among Prince's career-long parade of drop-dead gorgeous slow-jams -- from 'Do Me Baby' to 'Scandalous,' 'Joy in Repetition,' 'The Beautiful Ones' and many more -- 'Shhh' stands tall. That's partially because he lets his rock and roll side come out to play way more than usual, with a fantastic guitar solo and a big dramatic fills from drummer Michael Bland. Of course 1987's 'Adore' remains the gold standard, but 'Shhh,' which Prince still plays regularly in concert, just might be in line for the silver medal.
In addition to not-so-subtly celebrating his freedom from Warner Brothers -- the album cover shows a sunrise and a pair of hands breaking free from metal shackles -- Prince spends much of 'Emancipation''s three-hour running time celebrating domestic bliss. This gentle, piano-based song chronicles Prince's search for something deeper in his life ("Relationships based on the physical are over and done"). Ultimately, he has a vision, re-devotes himself religiously, and shortly before unleashing another fantastic guitar solo, decides to get married. Which he did in real life with his onstage partner, dancer Mayte Garcia, on Valentine's Day in 1996.
Over a vaguely militaristic drum beat, Prince once again continues his lifetime quest for spiritual and romantic fulfillment on this tragically under-appreciated song from his most recent studio album. The overdriven outer space organ riff that punctuates each chorus sounds like the musical embodiment of his own constantly yearning, exploring nature. As if that's not enough, the back half of the song he combines it with what just might be the driest James Brown funk guitar riff of his career.
When Prince finally got free from his Warner Brothers contract, he celebrated by releasing a triple album of new material named 'Emancipation.' His next step was to finally open his legendary vaults -- where hundreds if not thousands of unreleased songs reportedly reside. 'Crystal Ball,' the three-CD set he put out, was too heavy on more recent mid-'90s material for most fans' tastes. But a few highly coveted '80s treasures did make their way into the world legally for the first time. All love and praise to the title track and 'Crucial,' but the best of the bunch of our money is 'Last Heart,' an impossibly bouncy number about a man getting his heart broken over and over and over again.
This song kicks off with the same deep "Don't worry, I won't hurt you" vocal effects as Prince's classic '1999,' and later on we also get a reprise of the "Reproduction of the new breed leader / Stand up, organize" chant from 1982's 'Sexuality.' But otherwise, 'The Rainbow Children' couldn't be further away from the icy, digital robot funk of those songs. Instead Prince quickly whisks us to a warm, analog world filled with long jazz-fusion guitar explorations, soaring backup vocals right out of the musical 'Hair,' and a can-do, up-with-people spirit worthy of the 5th Dimension's 'Aquarius.' Sounds pretty hippy-dippy, right? Well trust us, you don't need to drop out to tune right into this one.
Over a deep and undeniably soulful groove, Prince offers up one of his best Jimi Hendrix impressions since 'Let's Go Crazy' on this hard-hitting rocker. He pays tribute to Martin Luther King Jr. while bemoaning the fact that the great man's dream of racial equality still remains unfulfilled. He also seems to reveal himself as a bit of a conspiracy theorist, addressing the increasingly popular "chem trails" belief: "Think they're spraying chemicals over the city while we sleep? From now on I'm staying awake!"
Very recently a good friend who is very proud of her win/loss record in debates on topics ranging from music to politics tried to get us to confess that our love for Prince's new music was based solely on his past accomplishments. Normally it would take three hours and four glasses of wine to get her to concede something as obvious as, say... yes, in fact, the sun is hot. But about two minutes after we cued up this ultra-breezy ode to the famous vineyards of Switzerland from Prince's most recent studio album, we had our victory and a full apology. It's a shame the '20Ten' album was only released as a free giveaway with newspapers in the UK and Ireland, much of it is highly worth your time.
Back in 1990, for the soundtrack to his 'Graffiti Bridge' album, the always genre-hopping Prince recorded exactly the kind of gospel-influenced song you'd expect him to make, 'Still Will Stand All Time' -- complete with a gorgeous backing choir. It was great, don't get us wrong. But six years later, he outdid it all by himself, effortlessly incorporating the spirit of the music in a much more unique setting while testifying about the need to stay righteous in an increasingly corrupt and morally bankrupt world. Now we know you're not supposed to swear in church, but we've just got to end this by saying, "Damn, what a voice!"
Sometimes it's easy to forget just how seamlessly Prince has incorporated music from so many eras and genres into his own work. It was a little easier to spot the different influences earlier in his career, when the mix was a bit chunkier, like a really good Dairy Queen Blizzard. Nowadays, sometimes he runs the blender a bit too long, and even with the best ingredients you run the risk of winding up with the musical equivalent of a slightly bland smoothie. Thankfully, that's far from the case here, as big hunks of Chuck Berry, doo-wop and a punchy horn section bounce off each other in wonderfully unexpected ways while everybody's favorite purple multi-millionaire tells us all about the evils of money.
Although it was he who helped convince the rest of the world to use drum machines and synthesizers alongside and in place of "real" instruments with groundbreaking albums like '1999' and 'Purple Rain,' starting with 1991's 'Diamonds and Pearls' Prince made a sharp shift towards analog traditionalism. Over a decade later he offered up this impossibly catchy old-school musical history lesson, complete with shout-outs to his peers and inspirations: "Let's groove, September, Earth Wind and Fire. Hot pants by James / Sly's gonna take you higher / If it ain't Chuck D or Jam Master Jay know what? They're losing / Cause we got a Phd in advanced body moving."
Only Prince* would use a character named 'Pussy Control' in a song encouraging female self-empowerment in the workplace. At least we think that's what's going on, and to be fair it seems that despite the "No, prostitute she / But the mayor of your brain" lyrical protests, the business at hand involves trading sex for cash. Or as he puts it with more reverence and respect than you'd expect from anyone else, "Pussy got bank in her pockets / Before she got d--- in her drawers." Of course, he presents himself as the one lover who can tame her. But the most important thing about this, the lead-off track from the Purple One's much-ballyhooed debut as "The Artist Formerly Known as Prince,' is that the outer space keyboards and rolling hip-hop beat make 'P Control' every bit as bold, fresh and new-sounding as he promised it would.
(*no disrespect intended -- we don't have the symbol he was using as a name at this time)
Over an absolutely filthy, off-kilter beat courtesy of his best-ever rhythm section (Michael Bland and Sonny T.), our hero waxes poetic about how much fun he had renting and then illegally renovating NBA player Carlos Boozer's Los Angeles mansion. Apparently Prince welded his famous symbol to the front gate, replaced the master bedroom with an actual hair salon, and painted just about everything purple. (It would appear you can witness his handiwork within the pages of the album's art.) Perhaps understandably, the basketball star briefly considered physical violence before filing a legal complaint. So how come years later he described Prince as a "gentle dude, very humble" who he was proud to have as a friend? His friends say its because the musician cut Boozer a million dollar check to fix the place up. But if it was us? Heck, he could burn our house down to the ground if we knew it would help inspire the winding, gloriously unresolved guitar solo (starting at 3:39-mark) that punctuates this song.
The night before he dazzled the crowds at the 2008 Coachella Festival with a set that included Santana, B-52s and Radiohead covers, Prince dropped by 'The Tonight Show' to debut a jaw-droppingly awesome new song named 'Turn Me Loose.' It was about the most perfect synthesis of James Brown and Chuck Berry he's ever achieved, filled with witty, barely PG-13 sexual boasts, tight chicken scratch guitar and an absolutely massive horn section. Most importantly, it also rocked to high heaven. Naturally, apart from being played in a much lesser studio form on an internet radio station a few months later, the song was never heard from again. This series of events perfectly sums up the thrill -- and torture -- of being a Prince fan. One can only marvel at what other discarded treasures must lie in those famous vaults.