It’s hard to believe that it’s been three decades since Prince bade us to “dig if you will a picture.”
Yes, the blockbuster Purple Rain album — a 20 million unit monster that still stands atop the list of the bestselling Minnesota albums ever release, well ahead of Bob Dylan’s two separate Greatest Hits compilations — was released on June 25, 1984.
Normally, the occasion would call for a celebratory dip into the purifying waters of Lake Minnetonka, but since there’s still a no wake ordinance for that bulging body of water, we’ll all have to settle for a retrospective ranking of all nine tracks from worst to best.
Actually, we’ll even throw in the four main B-sides as well to make it a bakers’ dozen.
(And, as a caveat, by “worst,” we really mean “least best,” since there is scarcely a track from the entire Purple package that doesn’t blow just about everything else out of the water.)
If you disagree with our rankings, please take a cue from the Purple One himself and offer up your own rankings — “I know ain’t nothin’ wrong with your ears!”
13. “Purple Rain”
Oh yeah, we went there. Look, there’s no denying the prowess Prince has during that epic guitar solo, and the string-laden outro that caps off this seven-minute baptismal is among the most haunting things he’s ever done (and was used to great effect by house music producer Pépé Bradock). It’s a religious moment for many prince fans and First Avenue “I was there”-heads, but … it’s just not his most sophisticated composition.
12. “God” (B-Side of “Purple Rain”)
Man, this 45 was kind of a slog, no? That said, I admire the sheer weirdness of this spare, atmospheric record. It’s hard to tell if he’s being sincere, something that could have been said for his career in general at that early, hedonistic point.
11. “Another Lonely Christmas” (B-Side of “I Would Die 4 U”)
This tinsel-strewn bout of holiday self-pity is not necessarily in the top tier of Purple Rain‘s collection of songs, but it’s a killer track to include in any Christmas mixtapes you make for friends. Slot it alongside Cristina’s “Things Fall Apart” and Alan Vega’s “No More Christmas Blues.”
10. “Darling Nikki”
The track that your parents made you skip when you listened to it on vinyl, the raw lyrics of “Nikki” invited much public scrutiny, eventually leading Tipper Gore to launch the Parents Music Resource Center. You can basically trace the presence of those parental advisory stickers that now grace the covers of albums back to this song’s prominent position on one of 1984’s bestselling albums. Killer track, memorable sleaze, but at what cost?
09. “17 Days” (B-Side of “When Doves Cry”)
Opening with a memorable piece of rhythm guitar top-spinning, “17 Days” eventually lurches into a bottom-heavy midtempo ditty. The rubbery, scooping bassline plants one foot firmly in the language of funk, whereas the twinkling synthesizer lines anticipate the psychedelic overtures of Prince’s 1985 follow-up Around the World in a Day.
08. “Computer Blue”
A jam that in its full version (which can be found in any number of corners throughout the Internet, but will hopefully see the light of day when Warner re-releases Purple Rain later this year) ran on for a half-hour, the edited-down version is a little bit of a Frankenstein’s monster. Or, if you prefer, is a funk-rock symphony distilled down into four incredibly dense minutes.
07. “Take Me With U”
The only single released from the album that didn’t go top 10, “Take Me With U,” a duet with the pitch-shy Apollonia, is sort of the loveable stepchild of Purple Rain‘s tracklist. Whereas most of the album’s other tracks are seething, replete with the premillennial tension still lingering after 1999, “Take Me With U” is genial, sunny, and bright. Finger cymbals may have never sounded so incongruously wholesome.
06. “When Doves Cry”
That bassline! Or, rather, that lack of bassline! Undoubtedly one of the most daring, experimental, damned near goth songs to ever reach the top of the Billboard Hot 100 list, “When Doves Cry” compliments its spacey morning after imagery with a brilliantly deployed surfeit of musically baroque strokes. Maybe this song’s like Prince’s mother, but it left the world of pop more than satisfied.
05. “Let’s Go Crazy”
Dearly beloved, we are gathered here today to celebrate this thing called a massive hit record that’s filled to the brim with memorable hooks (“If the elevator tries to bring you down, go crazy, punch a higher floor!”), blistering guitar licks, a most paradoxically positive nihilism (“I’m excited, and I don’t know why/Maybe it’s ’cause we’re all gonna die!”), and an unabated blast of sonic octane throughout. The perfect shot of adrenaline to open both the album and the film.
04. “Baby I’m a Star”
The best thing about this fist-pumping anthem is that Prince follows the declaration “I’m a star” with the aside “you might not know it now,” probably the most insincere words to ever pass from his lips. Good one, Prince.
03. “Erotic City” (B-Side of “Let’s Go Crazy”)
Let’s just be glad that Tipper Gore apparently didn’t catch this one airing on any radio stations that year, because no matter how many times the man himself has insisted that the chorus’s key word is “funk,” it’s impossible not to hear the other four-letter F-word. Who funks until the dawn? Oh yeah, right. Anyone listening to this positively lascivious bit of aural porn.
02. “I Would Die 4 U”
Prince’s messianic showmanship reaches its apex here, and makes strange bedfellows with his gender-bending sideshow antics. “I’m not a woman, I’m not a man, I am something that you’ll never comprehend.” The lyrics are compelling enough, but his forward-thinking production — all those EQ-pushing synthesized pulsations predicting our current standards for over-modulation — make this one as much a stopover on the road toward futurism as Donna Summer’s “I Feel Love.”
01. “The Beautiful Ones”
If we argued earlier that “Purple Rain” preaches to the converted, we’ll come circle and say that this one probably does too. But in this case, we’re the choir. Religious moments are best observed in quietude, so click play below and let Prince’s cathartic screams cleanse your soul.