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Best Prince Songs: 35 Royal Classics From The Purple Reign
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In Depth

Best Prince Songs: 35 Royal Classics From The Purple Reign

The best Prince songs explore sexuality, spirituality and humanity with a deep understanding of their interwoven complexities.

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Picking the best Prince songs of all time is a bit like picking your favourite children: they each have different personalities, and sometimes you prefer one over another, but they all come into their own when you most need them. Prince recorded enough material to last several lifetimes, revealing every facet of his personality through both his own unflinchingly honest music and the songs and albums he recorded for side projects and other protégé acts. Throughout it all, his commitment to his art saw him explore sexuality, spirituality and humanity with a deep understanding of their interwoven complexities, setting the bar for every artist that followed.

Though the true breadth of his artistry cannot be contained in a single list, these 35 best Prince songs offer an entry point to an astoundingly rich body of work.

Listen to the best of Prince here, and scroll down for our 35 best Prince songs.

35: Thieves In The Temple (from ‘Graffiti Bridge’, 1990)

Falling between the juggernaut successes of the Batman soundtrack and the Diamonds And Pearls album, the Graffiti Bridge soundtrack is an often-overlooked outlier partly made up of cuts by The Time and guest stars in the film. Thieves In The Temple, however, comfortably went Top 10 on both sides of the Atlantic and remains a refreshingly stripped-back concoction of industrial-tinged beats and an early foray into Middle Eastern music, bolstered by a promo video in which Prince conclusively proved his dancing skills were as super-human as his musicianship.

34: Endorphinmachine (from ‘The Gold Experience’, 1995)

Stripping The New Power Generation to its barest essentials in the mid-90s, Prince turned them from a sprawling funk outfit into a coruscating rock group. Finally released after a protracted argument with Warner Bros, The Gold Experience featured some of his most vital music of the decade, including this piece of relentless riffage whose frenetic pace has less to do with getting itself over and done with than it does with showing you just how hard Prince could drive his guitar home when he wanted to.

33: D.M.S.R. (from ‘1999’, 1982)

Anyone else notice that D.M.S.R. is over eight minutes long? Us neither. As the centrepiece to the 1999 album, Prince turns its groove inside out, always keeping things fresh and funky. 1999 marked the moment when Prince crystallised the “Minneapolis sound” – a synth-led extrapolation of funk and R&B music that would spawn countless 80s pop imitators – and, as one of the best Prince songs of the early 80s, D.M.S.R. is as perfect an example of that as any. Rarely does so much get done with so little – and, with the “Dance/Music/Sex/Romance” refrain offering a manifesto for everything Prince stood for in the early 80s, he even finds a moment to give the perennially unfunky white folks a quick lesson in time-keeping.

32: Strange Relationship (from ‘Sign O’ The Times’, 1987)

Love songs – largely, they’re either about coming together or breaking apart; but what when both seem to be happening at once? “Baby, I just can’t stand to see you happy/More than that, I hate to see you sad… The more you love me, sugar, the more it makes me mad,” Prince sings in a remarkably open exploration of the behaviour that perpetuates toxic relationships. You’d expect the song to be maudlin and resigned, but it rides a bouncy groove embellished with sitar and finger cymbals – an example of how the best Prince songs often found him discovering creative freedom while unburdening his soul.

31: The Most Beautiful Girl In The World (from ‘The Gold Experience’, 1995)

At the height of Prince’s battle with Warner Bros, he convinced the label to let him release The Most Beautiful Girl In The World on his own newly formed NPG Records imprint. Racing to become his first UK No.1 (while acquitting itself at No.2 and No.3 in the US R&B and Hot 100 charts, respectively), the single’s success led to further wrangling over the then unreleased The Gold Experience album, and an affirmation of Prince’s belief that he didn’t need a record label to tell him what to do with his music. It helped that the song fit right in with the R&B ballads then dominating the airwaves, Prince’s vocal reaching for the firmament as he declared every woman a star in his eyes.

30: Diamonds And Pearls (from ‘Diamonds And Pearls’, 1991)

No one did dramatic quite like Prince. Despite a relatively understated start, as Rosie Gaines’ voice enters it becomes clear that Diamonds And Pearls’ title track is going to soar. Kick the guitar in, let Gaines raise the roof, and you have a love song that owes as much to gospel music as it does Prince’s genuflection before love’s “master plan”.

29: 7 (from ‘Love Symbol’, 1991)

Built around a drum sample lifted from Lowell Fulson’s 1967 R&B cut Tramp, 7 marked a profound shift for Prince – in more ways than one. With a promo video in which he symbolically killed off past versions of himself as if they were the seven deadly sins, it indicated not only the start of a spiritual rebirth that would culminate, the following year, in his name change, but also the most overt example of how his music had become influenced by Mayte Garcia. Appearing alongside Prince in the video, dressed in her gold belly dancer’s costume, Garcia had not only inspired a love that spanned “all space and time”, but also the Middle Eastern instrumentation that gave 7 its distinctive flourishes.

28: It’s Gonna Be A Beautiful Night (from ‘Sign O’ The Times’, 1987)

Effectively acting as The Revolution’s curtain call towards the end of the Sign O’ The Times album, It’s Gonna Be A Beautiful Night was written during a soundcheck in Paris, on 25 August 1986, and then recorded during the encore for that night’s show. Perhaps unsurprisingly, then, it boasts one of Prince’s most resilient grooves, tailor-made for live performances – including a standout 30-minute jam that brought his New Year’s Eve 1987 concert to a close. It also, improbably, took the March Of The Winkies refrain from Wizard Of Oz and turned it into a funky chant.

27: Gett Off (from ‘Diamonds And Pearls’, 1991)

In the main, Prince’s most salacious material was behind him by the time Gett Off leaped like a horny pony from the Diamonds And Pearls album. Sex and sensuality were, however, still very much on the menu, with Gett Off’s knowingly camp leanings seeming to wink, “You think this is raw? You should hear my earlier stuff.” Prince’s forays into hip-hop received a mixed response, but as one of the best Prince songs of the 90s, Gett Off had enough charm and personality to hit the US R&B Top 10 and the UK Top 5, paving the way for Diamonds And Pearls’ astonishing six-single run and Prince’s return to pop prominence in the early part of the decade.

26: The Ballad Of Dorothy Parker (from ‘Sign O’ The Times’, 1987)

Though Prince had a firm grip on every aspect of his career, he knew when to embrace a happy accident. A technical hitch led to The Ballad Of Dorothy Parker being recorded with no high-end – not that Prince knew until he’d finished the song, whose murky sound was perfect for its almost dreamlike narrative involving a hook-up with a waitress and a nod to Joni Mitchell’s 1974 single Help Me. Carried almost solely on its complexly interwoven drum machine patterns, it also shows the durability of Prince’s songwriting, even at his most minimalist.

25: Crystal Ball (from ‘Crystal Ball’, 1998)

Once the planned centrepiece to the shelved 1986 triple-album of the same name, Crystal Ball eventually saw the light of day a decade later, on the outtakes collection it lent its name to. Prince was right to ensure its release at some point: at over ten minutes long, it’s part theatre, part art-rock, all mind-boggling apocalyptic discourse involving “mathematical gas”, shout-outs to the drummer and bassist (himself – in both cases) and a girlfriend who scrawls graphic drawings of sex all over his walls. The most ambitious thing he ever put to tape, only Prince could corral so many stylistic handbrake turns and lyrical non sequiturs in one song and still have it sound like the most natural thing in the world.

24: Girls & Boys (from ‘Parade’, 1986)

One of only two musical set-pieces to make it into the Under The Cherry Moon movie (the other was Mountains, tucked away during the end credits), Girls & Boys was far too funky to be kept down. Capturing Prince at his most playful, the whimsical lyrics are anchored by a rock-solid groove nonetheless delivered with the lightest of touches, as if conjured out of the ether. It was denied a single release in the US, but played well in the UK and Europe, as befitting the movie’s continental locale.

23: Joy In Repetition (from ‘Graffiti Bridge’, 1990)

Falling by the wayside once the Crystal Ball project developed into Sign O’ The Times, Joy In Repetition drips like a nocturnal emission in song form as Prince details a nightclub narrative that unwinds into an altogether more transcendental experience. Like the audio equivalent of a Penrose staircase, the song delivers on the promise of its title, effectively circling in on itself as it burrows under your skin. Four years after recording it, Prince exhumed it for the Graffiti Bridge album, and continued to return to it throughout some of his most satisfying tours, among them the One Night Alone… and Piano & A Microphone shows.

22: Dirty Mind (from ‘Dirty Mind’, 1980)

“I wasn’t being deliberately provocative,” Prince declared of his Dirty Mind album. “I was being deliberately me.” With its earworm keyboard motif (developed by Matt “Dr” Fink) and unapologetically to-the-point lyrics, the album’s title track was adamant about two things: Prince was about to snatch the “punk-funk” crown from his onetime rival Rick James; and he would do so with a more brazenly sexual music than any other artist dared imagine. There was a scrappy DIY aesthetic behind it, but Dirty Mind marked the moment where his reputation as a no-holds-barred provocateur truly took hold.

21: Nothing Compares 2 U (recorded 1984, released 2018)

Though one of Prince’s most beloved songs, it took over three decades for fans to actually hear his original studio version of Nothing Compares 2 U. Most people know it as a worldwide smash released in 1990 by Sinéad O’Connor, and while Prince slipped a live duet with Rosie Gaines onto his The Hits/The B-sides collection in 1993, the song actually went back a decade earlier, when he recorded a hauntingly sparse guide version for his side project The Family. Unearthed two years after Prince’s death, the world finally got to hear the man himself sing the sentiments fans had expressed for decades.

20: I Could Never Take The Place Of Your Man (from ‘Sign O’ The Times’, 1987)

As nonchalantly pop-rock as Prince ever got, I Could Never Take The Place Of Your Man wrapped a worldly and unsentimental look at rebound relationships into six minutes of cheerful melodies, breezy backing vocals and a naggingly catchy descending piano line, topping it all off with a moody guitar solo that almost doubles the song’s length without ever outstaying its welcome. You think this is what confidence sounds like? The super-deluxe edition of Sign O’ The Times unearthed a first pass at the song, recorded, astoundingly, when Prince was just 21. It revealed that he had all the basics in place – including the self-aware admission “I may be qualified for a one-night stand/But I could never take the place of your man” – even as a fledgling talent waiting to go supernova.

19: Sometimes It Snows In April (from ‘Parade’, 1986)

Originally closing the Parade album, Sometimes It Snows In April took on whole new levels of poignancy after Prince died, on 21 April 2016, turning from a lament over the death of the fictional Christopher Tracy into a heart-rending acknowledgement of the loss of a true icon. The best Prince songs were often soul-baring explorations of his feelings, but rarely did he sound as intimate as he does here – listen closely and you can hear his piano stool creak; or maybe that’s just the sound of millions of fans’ hearts breaking.

18: Controversy (from ‘Controversy’, 1981)

A taut new wave/funk hybrid built on infectious chicken-scratch guitar and throbbing synths, Controversy helped push the whole Dirty Mind aesthetic forward while also fully establishing Prince as one of the greatest rhythm guitarists of all time. Some misheard the lyrics as “I want your pussy”, while, on the seven-minute album edit, Prince threw in a recitation of The Lord’s Prayer that, framed by his desire to live a life of nudity without consequence, marked a crucial step in his attempts to reconcile his spiritual and sexual urges.

17: I Wanna Be Your Lover (from ‘Prince’, 1979)

Prince’s first out-and-out hit, I Wanna Be Your Lover topped the US R&B chart and nestled just outside the mainstream Top 10, proving his assertion that he “knew how to make hits by my second album”. Shaking off the last vestiges of any disco influences, the song found Prince pulling instruments in and out of the mix in an early example of his ability to ride a groove into infinity.

16: When You Were Mine (from ‘Dirty Mind’, 1980)

Arguably the single that should have been, When You Were Mine was the first evidence that Prince could write catchy pop songs just as easily as he could turn out groove-laden R&B material. Reportedly inspired by John Lennon, the song added a new twist to the boy-girl love song narratives Lennon and McCartney perfected with The Beatles, as Prince places himself in the centre of a ménage, surveying his situation with both heartbreak and bemusement (“I never was the kind to make a fuss/When he was there/Sleeping in between the two of us”). With a low-slung guitar riff and a lovelorn vocal, he brought both vulnerability and a pop nous to a landmark song that fed post-punk through an R&B filter.

15: Do Me, Baby (from ‘Controversy’, 1981)

Writing in his posthumously published memoir, The Beautiful Ones, Prince earmarked Do Me, Baby as a standout early composition, revealing that he “took the R&B ballad form” of the 70s and “updated it” for the 80s. Based on a slow bass groove that cushions Prince’s vulnerable falsetto, the song endured for decades more, and regularly appeared in setlists for his final tour, Piano & A Microphone, including his penultimate show, at the Fox Theatre, Atlanta, Georgia, on 14 April 2016.

14: Let’s Go Crazy (from ‘Purple Rain’, 1984)

“Dearly beloved, we are gathered here today…” For many Prince fans, Let’s Go Crazy was the conversion moment. Opening the Purple Rain album with the mock-grandeur of a church sermon, it found Prince offering guidance through the dark times even as he exhorted listeners to dance their asses off. Following When Doves Cry to the top of the Billboard R&B and Hot 100 charts, it confirmed that the US was all too ready to go nuts for his Royal Badness – who, in turn, used the song to cement himself as a guitar hero as much as he was a rock messiah come to save the world from sins of unfunkiness.

13: Housequake (from ‘Sign O’ The Times’, 1987)

“You’ll be sitting there at the Grammys and U2 will beat you,” Prince once reflected to Rolling Stone, before adding, “And you say to yourself, ‘Wait a minute, I can play that kind of music, too… but you will not do Housequake.” No shit. Masquerading as a simple James Brown-indebted funk cut, Housequake is actually a complex studio masterpiece woven from juddering drum machine, ethereal synth lines, propulsive horns and group chants, all led by the taunting, pitch-shifted vocals of Prince’s Camille alter ego. Like a block party beamed in from a parallel universe, it’s all the more remarkable for effectively being a one-man jam (bar that horn section). As Prince himself asserts: if you ain’t hip to the rare housequake, shut up already, damn!

12: Raspberry Beret (from ‘Around The World In A Day’, 1985)

Though not an entirely fair representation of Prince’s Purple Rain follow-up, Around The World In A Day, Raspberry Beret’s buoyant paean to losing your virginity nonetheless encapsulated the album’s broadly psychedelic vibe – and quickly captured the hearts of hardcore devotees and fair-weather fans alike, both of whom would argue passionately for its place among the best Prince songs. Built on a harpsichord line devised by Lisa Coleman, and finalised before the Purple Rain tour even launched, the song also arguably marks Prince’s last flush of innocence before worldwide fame engulfed him forever.

11: If I Was Your Girlfriend (from ‘Sign O’ The Times’, 1987)

Prince’s androgyny wasn’t just an aesthetic thing. When it came to writing songs for his female protégé acts, such as Vanity 6 and Sheila E, or even penning material for the legendary gospel singer Mavis Staples, he was able to tap into his own feminine side and create insightful works from a female point of view. Perhaps the most remarkable example of this is the Sign O’ The Times album’s second single, If I Was Your Girlfriend. In trying to envision what life would be like if his lover confided in him as deeply as she did her closest female friend, Prince inhabited an entirely new headspace for male songwriters – one that no others have dared try and explore.

10: Erotic City (Let’s Go Crazy B-side, 1984)

Only an artist with as many flawless hits as Prince could leave a song like Erotic City tucked away as a B-side. Cheekily skirting its way around the censors, it marked the start of his working relationship with Sheila E (that’s her on backing vocals; she’d soon release the Prince-helmed The Glamorous Life solo album), and also gifted him a neat trick he’d revisit for his Camille persona: slowing the tape down while recording his vocals gave his voice an eerily high-pitched-effect when it was played back at normal speed. Entire careers could have been built on this one song. For Prince, Erotic City was just another monument to his ever-expanding genius.

9: Darling Nikki (from ‘Purple Rain’, 1984)

Ever wondered where those “Parental Advisory: Explicit Content” stickers slapped on the front of album covers came from? Years before Prince forced the music industry to rethink its approach to artists’ rights, Darling Nikki led to the creation of a whole new standard for categorising music. After Tipper Gore, the wife of US Democratic Senator (and future Vice President) Al Gore, heard the opening verse’s reference to masturbation, she formed the Parents Music Resource Center and lobbied for the Recording Industry Association Of America to begin classifying music according to its content. The resulting black-and-white “warning” label was a sure-fire way of alerting kids to the promise of illicit thrills – like the sort of one-night stand detailed in Darling Nikki. Beneath the infamy, it remains one of the finest examples of Prince’s ability to shift from seduction to desperation in the space of a single song, and is doubtless the reason the Purple Rain album belatedly received its own “Parental Advisory” sticker when it was given a deluxe reissue in 2017.

8: Adore (from ‘Sign O’ The Times’, 1987)

Prince’s understanding of gospel music is often overlooked in favour of his mastery of – well, pretty much every other genre that ever existed. With Adore, however, he elevated the quiet storm ballad to the heavens. The R&B slow jam for people who don’t like R&B, Adore is a transcendent expression of devotion that practically defines love as a spiritual experience as much as it is an emotional one. The overlapping vocal lines are sung with jaw-dropping finesse, while Prince delivers the whole with such casual confidence, he can throw off-the-cuff admonitions (“You could burn up my clothes/Smash up my ride/ – Well, maybe not the ride”) into a six-and-a-half-minute come-on, and no potential lover is aggrieved.

7: Computer Blue (from ‘Purple Rain’, 1984)

When Prince described his Purple Rain album as “the most avant-garde purple thing I’ve ever done”, he must have had this song in mind – not least for its perplexing opening dialogue between Wendy Melvoin and Lisa Coleman (“Wendy?” “Yes, Lisa.” “Is the water warm enough?” “Yes, Lisa.” “Shall we begin?” “Yes, Lisa”). The centrepiece of the album, its mere four-minute running time (edited down from a 12-minute version later released on the deluxe-edition reissue of Purple Rain) belies the fact that Computer Blue is a tour de force of mechanical funk and crunching guitar that eventually gives way to a soaring solo based on a piano composition of Prince’s father’s, John L Nelson. As with much of the Purple Rain album, Prince could rock harder and funk stronger, but here he synthesises the two to perfection.

6: Little Red Corvette (from ‘1999’, 1982)

Even at the height of the neon-lit Venetian blinds aesthetic that characterised Prince’s 1999 era, Little Red Corvette defined the 80s slow jam like no other song. An early example of his mastery of sexual euphemism, it also saw him sneak a Trojan horse of a reference – to, er, Trojan condoms – into the US pop charts at a time when the AIDS crisis was barely understood, and serious safe-sex campaigns had yet to be conceived. Prince always let his lyrics speak for themselves, so while the wider context may have been lost on some listeners, Little Red Corvette more than held its own as a slice of exquisite pop balladry, taking him into the US Top 10 for the first time.

5: Kiss (from ‘Parade’, 1986)

Now rightly hailed as one of the best Prince songs of all time, Prince himself almost passed up on what became not only the lead single from Parade, but his first US Hot 100 and R&B chart-topper since Let’s Go Crazy commanded both top spots two years earlier. Initially demoed as an acoustic song, Prince handed Kiss to Minneapolis R&B group Mazarati, who were then led by The Revolution’s bassist, BrownMark. After the group and producer David “Z” Rivkin turned it into an infectious slice of electro R&B, Prince reclaimed the song, stripped it to its barest elements and laid that iconic falsetto on top. Chucking in one of his most memorable promo videos for good measure, he gifted the monumental Parade album yet another absurdly great song, and scored a Grammy for Best R&B Performance By A Duo Or Group With Vocals. Mazarati? They were placated with another Prince cut, 100 MPH – infectious enough in its own right, but it failed to leave a mark like Kiss.

4: The Beautiful Ones (from ‘Purple Rain’, 1984)

Another signature Prince ballad that endured right up to his final solo piano shows, The Beautiful Ones is a simple rebuttal to anyone who thinks electronic music can’t be emotive. The drum machines pulse like heartbeats, the glacial synths wash across like regretful sighs; even as the song seems to dismantle itself around him, Prince delivers a master class in lovelorn restraint before building to arguably the greatest, most larynx-shredding scream in rock history.

3: 1999 (from ‘1999’, 1982)

Improbably, 1999 was a last-minute addition to the album of the same name, recorded in one overnight session after Warner Bros suggested Prince’s new record needed an opening title track that would lay out the album’s themes. Immediately taking its place among the best Prince songs, this assured piece of electro-funk did just that, exhorting listeners to party in the face of Armageddon. Four decades later, it still sounds like the future.

2: Purple Rain (from ‘Purple Rain’, 1984)

With Purple Rain, Prince not only captured the zeitgeist, he singlehandedly created it. Arguably his most famous song, it closed the movie of the same name on an unambiguous note: this icon-in-the-making was ready to take centre-stage. From its soul-searching lyrics to Prince’s virtuoso guitar solo, it has everything required of an epic power ballad – and then pushes it all over the edge to out-epic them all. Oh, and that performance you hear at the end of the Purple Rain album? The basic tracks were recorded live, in one take, during The Revolution’s first official concert together, on 3 August 1983 at Minneapolis’ First Avenue. That’s self-belief; and this is the moment where Prince forever wrote himself into superstardom.

1: When Doves Cry (from ‘Purple Rain’, 1984)

With its otherworldly synths and strangely weightless centre – an effect achieved when Prince stripped the bassline out at the last minute – When Doves Cry still stands as one of the most audacious pop singles in history. Too audacious for Warner Bros, who were baffled by the song and panicked that radio wouldn’t know what to do with it. They needn’t have worried. When Doves Cry topped the Billboard Hot 100, helping to make Prince the first artist since The Beatles to simultaneously hold the No.1 spot in the US single, album and movie charts. Not bad for a song that took the psychosexual drama of the Purple Rain movie and expressed it in enigmatic lyrics fuelled by a bold commitment to sonic adventure. Topping our list of the best Prince songs, When Doves Cry has everything: daring studio experimentation, songwriting excellence and a fully realised expression of the themes Prince explored throughout his unparalleled career.

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