How can you choose just ten songs to represent a man who released almost 40 studio albums and changed the face of modern pop? Answer: you can’t. So we limited ourselves to ten iconic moments from his most purple of decades, the 1980s. Start here, then dive deep into the back catalogue of the little genius from Minneapolis. And good luck staying in your seat.
When You Were Mine (1980)
Most people got to know this song when Cyndi Lauper covered it on her hugely successful debut album. Three years earlier, Prince’s version is his most new wave pop moment, with scratchy guitar, whistling synths and a yearning vocal about loving a girl even more now she’s gone.
Early on, commentators were asking questions about Prince’s sexuality, race and religion. He addressed this upfront on the title track to his 1981 album, singing “Am I black or white? Am I straight or gay? Do I believe in God? Do I believe in me?” The thumping bass and disco-funk beat made the medicine go down in the most delightful way.
“Life is just a party and parties weren’t meant to last” – that line suddenly seems like a fitting tribute. This party-starter suggests that we let it all hang out in the face of apocalypse and it never fails to get feet on the dance floor and hands in the air, whether it’s 1982, 1999 or 2016.
Let’s Go Crazy (1984)
“Dearly beloved, we are gathered here today to get through this thing called life,” proclaims Prince over woozy church organ, coming across like a preacher in the pulpit. Then the beat kicks in, the synths start pumping and this thing called life is suddenly a lot easier to get through. And that final guitar meltdown? Righteous.
Purple Rain (1984)
The title track from the album and movie phenomenon is at heart a soul/gospel ballad in the tradition of Otis Redding or Wilson Pickett. In Prince’s hands it becomes a sky-scraping epic. It’s almost nine minutes long and when it ends you wish it went on for longer.
When Doves Cry (1984)
It’s no coincidence that “This is what it feels like when doves cry” became a common refrain on social media after the news of Prince’s death. It opens with wild Hendrix-like electric guitar, then twinkling keyboards, then the man uttering wonderfully bonkers lines such as “Animals strike curious poses, they feel the heat, the heat between me and you.”
Raspberry Beret (1985)
The gliding strings and the echoing handclaps drive this psychedelic pop classic, but it also possesses some of the slyest, wittiest lyrics Prince ever penned. There’s the boss named Mr. McGee who “didn’t like my kind ’cos I was a bit too leisurely” and the girl who wore her beret “and if it was warm she wouldn’t wear much more.”
Sure, everyone knows the Tom Jones version. And no disrespect to the Welsh belter, who put his own hairy-chested spin on it, but the man who wrote it used less testosterone and made it twice as sexy. And come on, “you don’t have to watch Dynasty to have an attitude” is one of his most killer lines.
Alphabet Street (1987)
The chicken-scratch guitar, the parping horns, the cowbell, the whoops and howls – it’s all here in an exhilarating mix of soul, funk and hip-hop that echoed the heat and hustle of the downtown streets of ’80s New York. “I’m just not in the mood,” Prince apologises to a girl. “If you don’t mind, I would like to…watch.”
Sign O’ The Times (1988)
“In France a skinny man died of a big disease with a little name” - as opening lines go, we were on notice that this one wasn’t about hedonistic partying. Everything here is sparse and lean, from the ticking percussion to the halting bass line, but with those few tools Prince managed to make heavy funk with a heavy message.