By Eric Henderson,
WCCO.COM Web Producer
It’s Prince’s 54th birthday today, and this year also marks the 25th anniversary of what many regard as the Purple One’s finest album: Sign O’ The Times.
On Friday, there will be a party at the Aloft Hotel’s WXYZ Bar at 10 p.m. to honor the, ahem, revolutionary 1987 double album, which was somehow pieced together from the wreckage of not one, not two, but three failed projects — the massive Dream Factory, Crystal Ball (which would eventually come to fruition in the late ’90s), and Camille, a gender-bending album in ersatz drag.
Bob Dylan may have just been coronated by President Obama, but Prince remains Minnesota’s foremost musical bad boy, no matter what years and years of Jehovah’s Witnessing have done to try and reverse that reputation. I’m sorry, you don’t “undo” a Dirty Mind.
In honor of his birthday and Sign‘s 25 years of reminding Housequakers that “It’s Gonna Be A Beautiful Night,” here are my picks for the 10 best Prince songs ever, with a self-imposed one-per-album limit. In chronological order:
“Sexuality” (Controversy, 1981)
Prince earned minor success at the very beginning of his career with solid, disco-era R&B (“I Wanna Be Your Lover” was a top 10 hit), but critics started paying attention when he scrubbed away the polish with Dirty Mind. As much punk as they were R&B, Dirty Mind‘s rough demos rewrote the playbook he perfected with Controversy. “Sexuality” is the album’s speed-freaky high point, fast, furious and funktastic.
“1999″ (1999, 1982)
With the title track of 1999, Prince managed to make a decisive move toward the mainstream without sacrificing any of the harder edges that made him a critics’ darling. And he assured himself relevance 17 years later. Oh, and it was one of the foremost hit singles that assured the world that dance music, post-disco, wouldn’t be dying anytime soon, thank you.
“The Beautiful Ones” (Purple Rain, 1984)
“Baby, baby, bay … bee!” If you put a gun microphone to my head and asked me to name Prince’s single best vocal performance … well, let’s just say you wouldn’t even have to put a gun microphone to my head. “The Beautiful Ones” always wins, each and every time. In 5 galvanizing minutes, Prince glides from playful tremulousness to soul-cleansing shrieks with a pit stop everywhere in between. The lyrics are knowingly picturesque (as in “paint a perfect picture”), but Prince’s vocals are startling and direct.
“Erotic City” (B-side of “Let’s Go Crazy” single, 1984)
A minor cheat as this is also from the landmark Purple Rainset, but given the song itself may (or may not) have broken a few FCC rules when radio stations started spinning it, despite the copious presence of a certain four-letter word, I’m willing to break my one-per-album rule too. The B-side to “Let’s Go Crazy,” Prince’s down ‘n’ dirty funk jam is plenty suggestive lyrically, but even more obscene sonically.
“I Feel For You” (Chaka Khan, I Feel For You, 1984)
Of course, this 1979 song achieved its full fame thanks to R&B belter Chaka Khan’s characteristically guttural take on it five years later — complete with Stevie Wonder harmonica solo and a deathless opening rap from Grandmaster Melle Mel (“Chaka Khan, let me rock you, let me rock you Chaka Khan!”). Khan’s version may very well be the greatest pop single of the ’80s, but I also reserve a special fondness for Prince’s original, slower disco version (available on his self-titled LP), no more so than when he turns it in concert into his own little girl group tribute.
“Pop Life” (Around the World in a Day, 1985)
Prince wisely chose to follow up his massive 1984 by focusing on the psychedelic minutiae of his sound, not the meat and potatoes stadium rock. “Raspberry Beret” was the major hit that assured the world, but it was the minor hit that I hold dear. Those varispeed piano riffs, the swirling strings, the snarky two-liners (“What’s that underneath your hair? Is there anybody living there?). “Pop Life” is a rarity in Prince’s catalogue: a totally underrated hit single.
“4 the Tears in Your Eyes” (We Are The World, 1985)
The King of Kings has long been a supporting character in Prince’s discography. His relationship with Jesus Christ is, obviously, complex and multi-faceted, but that’s what makes it so compelling. The one early case where Prince doesn’t seem conflicted at all is this song, his contribution to the USA for Africa LP We Are The World. Far from wrestling with his hedonistic impulses, Prince presents a simple parable: “The meek shall inherit the earth.” Prince can make you believe anything.
“If I Was Your Girlfriend” (Sign O’ the Times, 1987)
Sexuality and gender roles are as much Prince’s bread and butter as murder mysteries were Alfred Hitchcock’s. Most of the time, it’s pretty clear where Prince’s first-person and second-person pronouns fall, but for “If I Was Your Girlfriend.” Undoubtedly one of the very strangest in his string of unique pop singles, Prince adopts his “Camille” alternate persona to sing to a potential romantic conquest of all the fun things he could do with her if only he was her girlfriend. Or is he singing as a woman to a man about wishing she could make him happy? Or is it a man pretending to be a woman singing to a woman about wanting the total intimacy that can only come from same-sex pairings? All of the above, as far as I’m concerned. The sexual confusion of “Girlfriend” is endlessly worth unpacking for subtext.
“Nothing Compares 2 U” (Sinead O’Connor, I Do Not Want What I Haven’t Got, 1990)
Prince has written many female vocalists’ most indelible songs. Not just Chaka Khan, but Sheila E. (“The Glamorous Life”), Vanity (“Nasty Girl”), Apollonia (“Sex Shooter”), and The Bangles (“Manic Monday”). But no other singer ever managed to take a Prince song and so fully make it her own as did Sinead O’Connor with “Nothing Compares 2 U.” Originally written for side project The Family, the song was all but ignored until O’Connor tore through the opening salvo (“It’s been seven hours and 15 days since you took your love away”) against producer Nellee Hooper’s spare piano-and-drum backdrop. The result is unforgettable.
“I Hate U” (The Gold Experience, 1995)
If “Girlfriend” testified to the myriad joys the difference of the sexes can feed into intimacy, “I Hate U” is the tormented flipside. The delivery is definitely cruder, but so is the message: “It’s so sad that I hate you, ’cause you’re all that’s ever on my mind.” And if the lyrics don’t sell you on Prince’s irritation, the howling guitar solo that closes the song will remove any doubt.