This album guide focuses on Prince's 1980s recordings because, well, it's nearly all we have. Longtime Rhapsody listeners will be grateful -- until around 2011, all we had was his 1993 greatest-hits collection, The Hits/The B-Sides. Sadly, most of his output from the 1990s and 2000s, as well as side projects like Vanity 6's 1982 debut, remain unavailable on streaming services.
Despite those omissions, our tight focus works out well, because Prince's reputation as a musical genius largely rests on his 1980s output. From 1980 to 1982, he wrote, performed and produced three albums by himself -- including the double album 1999 -- each more successful than the last. Then he created a concept piece, Purple Rain, that not only made him the biggest pop star in the world, but also generated one of the highest-grossing music films of all time. A resulting frenzy of activity yielded both platinum, critically hailed work like Sign O' the Times and dozens of unreleased songs that made him the most widely bootlegged artist since the days of Jimi Hendrix and Bob Dylan. (His 1987 funk excursion The Black Album has been called the most-bootlegged album of all time.) Throughout this period, he wrote songs he made into hits himself ("When Doves Cry," "Kiss" and some made famous by others, such as "Nothing Compares 2 U" (Sinéad O'Connor) and "I Feel For You" (Chaka Khan), and he collaborated with Stevie Nicks on "Stand Back."
With an evocative sense of fashion that often involves high-heeled boots, masks and frilly shirts unbuttoned to reveal his hairy, muscular chest, Prince remains a magnificent sex symbol. Even at the age of 54, his brief appearance at the 2013 Grammy Awards as a presenter for Record of the Year was enough to send Gotye, the award's winner for "Somebody That I Used to Know," into an effusive speech of praise, while fellow winner Kimbra trembled visibly, trying hard to keep herself from squealing with delight.
Prince is one of the greatest pop idols of the past three-plus decades, but his music would function as pure nostalgia the way we might cue up, say, Whitney Houston's "I Wanna Dance with Somebody" if not for his frequently tortured bouts with the meaning of sex and religious faith. These issues continue to resonate with us. We might not have the same drive as the self-described "Horny Toad," but we're all sexual beings. In his best work, he wrestled with his essential humanity, and often seemed torn between making love for the sport of it or as a holy endeavor. Perhaps that's why his music seems so taboo -- and yes, making songs about incest ("Sister") and masturbation ("Darling Nikki") doesn't help. Carnal jams are a dime a dozen on the radio, but few artists explicitly draw the connection between sex and God.
One of his lasting symbols is the color purple. On "1999," he sings, "The sky was all purple and people running everywhere"; later, on "Purple Rain," he adds, "I only want to see you laughing in the purple rain." For him, purple is a sign of God's divine grace, whether it's destructive or healing. No matter His/Her choice, it's for the betterment of man's souls, which is why in "1999," Prince dances his life away amid a nuclear apocalypse.
Musically, he was one of several R&B artists who adopted New Wave pop-rock tropes -- staccato keyboard lines, arch and sarcastic vocals -- influenced by the likes of The Cars, Devo and Blondie. He could crank out a funk party hit like Cameo and Midnight Star, too. His foray into purely electronic dance music dovetails with other innovators like Cybotron, Afrika Bambaataa, Arthur Baker, Roger Troutman and many others. And of course, he's a spiritual heir to funk's holy trinity of James Brown, Sly Stone and George Clinton.
Eventually, he grew into a peerless artist that represents his own universe. Just like Bruce Springsteen's New Jersey and Wu-Tang Clan's "Shaolin" of Staten Island, Prince's Uptown Minneapolis -- later to be called Paisley Park and the home of the New Power Generation -- is both a real place and a figment of his imagination brought alive through his music.
His adventures in the 1980s led him down many avenues. There are the muscular guitar heroics of Purple Rain, the psychedelic pop of Around the World in a Day (inspired by L.A.'s Paisley Underground rock scene, and bands like the Three O'Clock and The Bangles), and the comely jazz pop of Parade (inspired by the U.K. jazz and nu-soul revival and bands like Sade and The Style Council). On his last great album, Lovesexy, he expanded James Brown's big-band soul workouts into a new kind of funky gospel.
Since those, Prince has slowly receded from pop's cutting edge into jazz-inflected blues, funk-rock and adult contemporary soul. Some of his stronger albums post-1980s include 1992's Diamonds & Pearls, 1995's The Gold Experience and 2004's Musicology. It's unfair to dismiss these later works, as they have key moments worthy of comparison to his golden era. Even Chaos & Disorder, his much-maligned 1996 album, has the quirky "Dinner With Delores." And this year brings a new album that is preceded by two promising singles, "Screwdriver" and "Rock & Roll Love Affair."
But if you're looking for the essentials from Prince's golden era, this spotlight has them. I also included two playlists. One, Prince Favorites, is simply that. The second, Written By Prince, includes songs he's penned for other artists as well as cover versions. Sorry, The Bangles' "Manic Monday" and Celine Dion's "With This Tear" are unavailable.