Crystal Ball (1998)
Built from brisk horn stabs, varying vocal registers and a positive message of ‘you can make it if you try’, this is Prince at his most Sly and The Family Stone – an influence that’s confirmed by the liner notes citing the 1973 Fresh album as inspiration. Like the cartoon image of two midgets in a trench coat, Make Your Mama Happy masquerades as being double the size. It’s a two-minute song played twice, once with the vocal track and once without. A 7″ edit and an instrumental spliced together to pass unnoticed as a full length mix. It’s largely worked too as I’ve not seen this cut and shut job referenced anywhere but I’ve overlaid the two halves and, apart from the vocals, they really are identical. Whether this expediency was an artistic choice or a placeholder to be rerecorded later is not clear but as the tight, staccato funk is the highlight of this Crystal Ball track, hearing it unhindered is hardly a chore. It makes Mama, Papa and the whole Family Stone happy.
Time Waits For No One (1989)
Although its intended recipient Sheena Easton would have been a more obvious fit for this predatory funk-prowler, Mavis Staples cares not a jot for your bourgeois ageism. With a panther canter she hunts down and tears to shreds the notion that gospel singers in their fifties can’t sing about pursuing sexual prey. Melody Cool may have been “here long before you” but this powerful, lithe and unyielding “kitty wants your body fine” and she’s gonna get it, even if it means chasing you into the next lifetime. File under ‘stalker pop’, along with One Way or Another and Every Breath You Take.
Rainbow Children (2001)
Prince liked to prove that time is an illusion by creating songs where the experiential and running times don’t match. Digital Garden is over far too quickly for you to believe only four minutes have passed and yet still feels like an aeon-spanning epic. Like the rest of the album it has a readymade narrative – something about the Rainbow Children breaking through the digital garden, a surrounding barrier built by the Banished Ones – but for those not playing along at home you’re free to construct your own backstory. Serving suggestion: visualise the history of evolution, starting with single-celled organisms popping into existence and ending with the relentless, discordant voracity of the Anthropocene. Primordial soup to nuts. If Crazy You was a fragment of Brahma’s breath then Digital Garden could contain the whole lungful.
For You (1978)
This short breath of a song could fill albums, oceans, lifetimes, but when you’ve said all you need in the first ninety seconds, why spin it out? Keep the listener wanting more, or at least craving silence after the fade out so they can internally loop the acoustic guitar and water-drums, eyes shut, as hours pass, seasons cycle and civilisations fall. That laser you hear? It could be your ringtone or a collapsing galaxy. Nothing matters within the cosmic egg of Crazy You.
Bamboozled OST (2000) / The Slaughterhouse (2004)
There’s plenty to delve into with the lyrics on this laidback funk sermon and on internet forums I’ve seen them become a catalyst for discussions on everything from Spinoza to pyramid conspiracy theories. At its core though 2045: Radical Man is a lash out at the music industry and a call for an uprising against its non-musician gatekeepers and corporate venality. An impassioned, rallying cry at odds with the easy listening, lounge-band backing. The only time it receives a rocket and moves out of cruise (ship) control is during the alien interference that descends after the “oh my god, it’s the green mile!” shout and even then the keyboard noodling carries on in the background unfazed by the cacophony. It’s a calm, steady undertow pulling along a bizarre assortment of radio tuning, milkshake slurps and pitched-up Camille vocals. A gallimaufry that fascinates me much more that the soapbox word salad. The revolution will not be televised but it will sound like it was soundtracked by Money Mark.
An electric piano love letter to Lisa Coleman, acting as an apology for kicking her out of the house during a falling out. Strange Way (aka Strange Way of Saying I Love U) is one of the more melodic ditties to be found within the cracks of Prince’s discography and even though its roots aren’t strong enough to overturn the major flagstones, surely there’s nobody immune to its choppy, McCartney-esque charm. I have a feeling that Lisa would have forgiven murder if this was the mea culpa. To paraphrase his later Stylistics cover: doo-we-ooo-we-ooo-wee-oo means I love you.
A tribute to the 1976 episode of The Good Life in which Tom and Barbara parry Margot’s condescending remarks that their relentless optimism is “fantasy” by replying it “never hurt nobody” and “whatever chills the illin'”. Margot then begins to lecture the couple about double negatives before slipping over in pig manure much to Jerry’s guffaws. Or at least in my Britcom-addled mind it is. The reality is that this ball of 90s pop was the only single from Exodus to see the light of day in North America (the album itself was only released in Europe) and its mainstream appeal is strong. The single featured two hip-hop remixes from Kirk Johnson, with the Big City mix being the stronger of the two and sounds like a new song in its own right, complete with different lyrics and a smoky jazz bassline that Digible Planets would be proud of. This mix (no relation to the Big City swan song on HITnRUN Phase Two) smashes the two nondescript house remixes that were released in the UK two years later and is a challenger to the original’s pop crown. But its grumbling, profanity-strewn lyrics sound curiously lacking in bonhomie, making the OG the one to turn to if you’re after a hit of la dolce vita.
The Rainbow Children (2001)
Prince went to his workshop with a recorded drum track and emerged with an energetic hosanna to paradise, bestowed with luscious vocals of milk and horns of honey. A hymn in the hands of a believer with rhythm. Everywhere may be one of a handful of short songs on Rainbow Children that wouldn’t last long in the wild but for momentary rapture, crank up and dance to the drummer’s beatification!
Internet download (2013)
Sold via the 3rdeyegirl site in 2013, That Girl Thang is a demo at heart, having only been written and recorded six hours before it went up. Raw as cookie dough (you can hear the mic knocks) and unadulterated with no edits, backing or overdubs, it’s as pure a hit of Prince as you can get. An intimate Polaroid allegedly intended as a flirtation device for a member of his harem (the dancer from the Chocolate Box video) after she sent a late night request for him to sing her to sleep. Beautiful, passing glimpses into unobserved, secret worlds of pillow talk.
During the first few bars of this dance track you could be forgiven for thinking that you’d scrolled one artist too far on your MP3 player and are instead hearing a slowed down version of The Prodigy’s Everybody in the Place. It may not be “the ultimate rave” as he later calls it but if you were dosed up on cough syrup it could come close. When the vocals kick in though there’s no mistaking the purple maestro as he purrs his way through the verses. A lustful, feline satyr that quickly turns canine with the full moon, panting in heat as the La, La, La, He, He, Hee dogs bark in encouragement. I (or Eye if we’re being exact) Wanna Melt With U was a late inclusion on the 0(+> album, crowbarred in at the expense of several segues and a coherent storyline. I’m not normally one to bemoan the removal of phone skits (I had to edit them out of Kendrick Lamarr’s good kid m.A.A.d city in order to render it playable), however their loss does make the remaining interjections and some of the album’s lyrics baffling without the aid of the spin-off film or comic book. Not that this particular song carries much of the plot. In the 3 Chains O’ Gold film it’s only used as a gratuitous dream sequence where naked girls writhe in-between Mayte’s flashbacks of her father’s murder. This lends it a dark, warehouse bacchanalia vibe that doesn’t come across in its album setting when sandwiched between pop reggae and a syrupy ballad. To obtain the full intoxication, ingest the fluid from a glow-stick and watch the boundaries between you and the room melt while you play this track at chest-reverberating levels and party with demonic revellers of your own imagining.
Newpower Soul (1998)
Coming from an album that isn’t short of detractors, this brief, hidden track receives an unusual amount of praise. Unmentioned in the tracklist and buried after 38 tracks of silence it can feel like an uncovered gem and the way it sounds like nothing else on the CD will only endear it further to those who aren’t fans of Newpower Soul’s one-man funk (a camp that included myself before a fifth listen finally seduced me). Wasted Kisses is certainly the black sheep of the album and does not play well with others. The dark lyrics on their own could be passed off as lighthearted metaphorical play if they were not wrapped in disturbing sound effects of bloodcurdling screams, wailing ambulances, hospital chatter and flatlining monitors. It’s a radio drama adaptation of your suppressed traumas and is best stored where it was found – cushioned by several minutes of insulating, protective silence.
In my youth, in order to feed an unquenchable thirst for mid 90s hip-hop I would spend weekends raiding Our Price bargain bins and buying up anything sporting a Parental Advisory sticker (the very one that was outraged into existence by Darling Nikki a decade earlier). The results were mixed. Stone cold classics got unearthed along with cynical cash-ins and I acquired enough unchallenging g-funk and gangsta rap to fill a bath. And bathe in it I did, constantly. If you could take a median average of this collection the resulting song would sound something like a Scarface b-side with a competent yet easily forgettable rapper. Or, in other words, the first half of Da, Da, Da. Even Scrap D’s verses sound like a hip-hop word cloud. But two and a half minutes in, Prince steps out of the catchy (yet lyrically lazy) chorus to deliver a brief verse of positivity and then at the point where most producers would be on repeat-to-fade mode, he unleashes the guitars which sends the beat into spasms and elevates this track from hip-hop plaything into one of the album’s standout songs. The meaningless title becomes a nation of Russians chanting ‘yes, yes, yes’ as Kali, goddess of the boom bap, sits on a bed of jewel cases, rattling her gold rope of human skulls and scratched CD singles in time to a Funkmaster Flex mixtape.
Crystal Ball (1998)
It was touch and go as to whether this made the cut or not, as you could argue that 18 & Over is a Come remix in all but name. It certainly started off life that way, having been made for a Come EP that never materialised. Too good to sink without trace and armed with its own lyrics, this sex track found its way onto the Crystal Ball compilation, along with fellow album remix So Dark and forges an identity as a whole new song. Out go the horns and in come the cosmic g-funk keys. It’s still “real dirty like” but the graphic intimacy of Come is now comic braggadocio with “bone ranger” punnery and underwear-eating vibrators. More sex-com than sex-cam. If it had been an original composition it would have charted leagues higher – but that’s the price of its remix origins. Something Violet the Organ Grinder will find out in due course.
I Would Die 4 U single (1984) / The Hits/The B Sides (1993)
This b-side is the only Christmas song Prince released although (barring the final few seconds on the extended mix) it certainly doesn’t sound festive. The sleigh bells on Come surprisingly make that R-rated cunnilingus ode a much better contender for a holiday mixtape than this drunken tearjerker. It unfolds darkly and much like The Pogues’ New York its wind goes right through you, it’s no place for the old. The increasingly out-of-control narrator may not have spent Christmas Eve in the drunk tank but we’re told Christmas Day was spent drinking “banana daiquiris till I’m blind”, as he has done every December 25th since his girlfriend died seven years ago. Cause of death: “your father said it was pneumonia, your mother said it was strep.” Winter Wonderland it definitely is not. What it is though is classic Prince storytelling, with the muffled screams of the guitars downwardly spiralling, perfectly mirroring the singer’s deteriorating state. Head to the extended mix to hear the superb lyricism in all its unedited, reverb-drenched glory with lines such as “I’d pay money just 2 see your laughin’ dancin’ silhouette upon the pier.” Boxing Day, when this song takes place, is often used to contrast with Christmas Day cheer. It’s the day George Michael had his heart given away and the day of Elvis Costello’s St Stephen’s Day Murders. Even Good King Wenceslas is full of cruel frost, freezing blood and winter’s rage. This is the soundtrack to that post-Christmas comedown. A day when the tinsel loses its glitter and you’re left hungover with a wilting, dead pine in your living room and the deferred sense of existential ennui returns. Merry Christmas!
The Family (1985)
Ostensibly written about the singer taking back control of his own life after a no-good relationship, Prince’s low-in-the-mix shouts out to Morris at the end (and also Jesse in the Prince-sung original) reveal the true thrust behind the lyrics. It’s Prince’s diss-song to those who leave his retinue, particularly Morris Day as the final lines are a direct quote of his from a year previously, when a collection plate was passed around the audience during rehearsal while Morris shouted “Prince are you out there, did you give? You TOOK! Did you give!?” Things between them only got worse from that point on and when Morris and Jesse jumped ship from the Time, Prince formed The Family from the wreckage. Rescued band members Jellybean, Jerome and Paul were commandeered into new roles with the latter taking charge of the ship’s helm under his new name of St Paul. So it was more Prince reshuffling his remaining deckhands than a genuine mutiny but like Old Friends 4 Sale it was a way to communicate his feeling of betrayal and became a good stick to beat deserters with. As St Paul found out himself when he later left The Family and had an irate Prince dedicating a performance of this song to “Paul, punk of the month”. Mutiny has Morris stamped all over the vocals, making it a particularly poignant missile to throw his way. But without the real deal at times it can sound like a Time pastiche. In an alternate universe a bona fide Time version of this song is rocking the high double digits of this list.
Vanity 6 (1982)
A woman sits at her vanity mirror lost in her own reflection as an electrical storm, pregnant with the future seeds of Detroit Techno and Chicago House, growls malevolently outside. My answer to André 3000’s question of ‘what’s cooler than being cool?’ would be this ice cold beat which shivers with a detached intensity and the equally robotic-in-delivery lyrics are asinine yet strangely menacing when anti-sung over the ahead-of-its-time techno rumblings. It’s Weird Science meets Bladerunner. A YouTube make-up tutorial given by the Kraftwerk shop dummies. The album’s high-point Nasty Girl may have reinvented Janet Jackson but Make-up inspired whole genres, making it an icy crucible of dance music worlds.
A sound so fun and uniquely Prince that he would attempt to recreate it several times over the next few years. But only Delirious would come close to bettering the neo-rockabilly lunacy of Jack U Off. It was the first live band recording on a Prince album and the first to utilise his trademark Princebonics, with his spelling of ‘U’. When he performed it to 94,000 Rolling Stones fans as part of a warm-up set in 1981 they couldn’t stomach this assault on their rigid, conservative tastes and booed him off stage. But if your notion of rock’n’roll excludes a gender-flipping hand-job singalong performed by a black man in bikini briefs then you’re doing it wrong. This is weapon-grade Little Richard and should always be deployed in areas of high pretension.
Diamonds and Pearls (1991)
There’s a handful of placings on these pages that I feel compelled to justify as their ranking swims against the tide of popular opinion. Money Don’t Matter 2 Night is one such song and didn’t even feature in an early version of this list which may appal all those who have it in their top 10. It certainly caused an outcry from a friend of mine who’s only familiar with the singles and partly due to their reaction it’s barged its way back in, ousting out the Stop The Cavalry bugles of Man in a Uniform. It’s not that I don’t think the music isn’t great – it is – it’s just that hearing someone with money sing about the unimportance of it all seems a little unseemly. The three verses are pitched to a gambler, an investor and the US Government in the midst of the Gulf War, but the tone, like the later Rich Friends or even the earlier Pop Life chimes as off-key, not helped by an accompanying Spike Lee video that pounds the poverty angle low and hard. But like Prince himself once said: “musical excellence, like beauty, is in the eye of the beholder” and when held in the right light Money Don’t Matter 2 Night is a joy to behold. A smooth pop back-rub, with enough vocal and chord idiosyncrasies to work its fingers in deep. If I was only limited to just one Prince song a day then I couldn’t go a complete calendar year without hearing it, so it creeps back into the list at at #365 to be listened to on New Years’ Eve. And if that offends your sensibilities, wait to you hear where its oft-despised, album-mate Jughead ranks (trigger warning: higher).
Rave Un2 the Joy Fantastic (1999)
There’s an art piece by the Scottish artist Katie Paterson, called Earth-Moon-Earth, which consists of a self-playing piano dutifully performing a version of Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata that has been bounced off the moon’s surface in the form of a morse code signal. The effect is a faithful performance but with gaps. Notes and sometimes whole sections got misplaced in lunar transit. I think of this piece sometimes when I listen to Rave Un2 the Joy Fantastic as there’s something celestial in its sparse arrangement. It’s almost like the elements we hear captured on record are only the ones our earthly receivers were tuned in to catch. Layers of inaudible funk as dark matter, only felt by their gravitational effect on their surroundings. Beats separated by the negative space of distant planets passing in front of stars. It was originally recorded in 1988 and if that version hadn’t have been leaked (revealing it to be almost identical) then I’d entertain theories that it was lost to time and that 1999’s officially released version was an archeological recreation made up from what could be gleaned from its references in other tracks: the titular mentions in 200 Balloons and Batdance remixes; the borrowed Egyptian horn riff in The Max; the sheet music spotted in the film Graffiti Bridge. A skeletal reconstruction. Incredibly it was always that lean though and lost only a few flourishes prior to it’s release at the turn of the millennium. Even though it’s over a decade old at that point, it sets out its stall for the shimmering, futuristic vibes that the album is peppered with. Undisputed, Hot Wit U and Strange But True all share a similar aesthetic, unfortunately interrupted by tracks of less inspired and now dated mainstream chart appeals. Prince said he left the song to “marinate” as he thought it was too similar to Kiss but it still sounds ahead of its time now. In fact I wouldn’t be surprised to hear that it’s an alien art-piece being reflected off our planet’s surface. The missing notes from a Martian sonata absorbed in the mind of a Minnisotan musician.
Possibly the darkest spell in Prince’s grimoire. Dance With the Devil is a downtempo spinetingler, created for Batman but replaced on the album by the much chipper Batdance. Maybe it was too out there to fit in, or possibly it spooked Prince into burying it like the Black Album – either way the film loses out as it’s much more in keeping with Tim Burton’s gothic world than anything else recorded for it. Gregorian chants, Faustian lyrics and cinematic screams all paint a bleak picture and the horror gets ramped up when the synths go all Toccata and Fugue in D Minor. This is what it sounds like when doves cry on ketamine.
The 60s sci-fi flick Barbarella rivals The Matrix in being a source of inspiration for Prince and he references it directly in the final segue of this album. However, two tracks previously it’s another Roger Vadim directed film that provides the title: 1956’s Bardot-parading, Et Dieu… Crea La Femme, translated as And God Created Woman. It’s easily missed on the sprawling O(+>, buried towards the end and sandwiched between two attention-grabbing anthems. Sometimes its three minutes pass without me registering a single note. But it thrives in isolation. A luscious, brain-massaging pampering, especially on headphones where the silken, multi-tracked vocals swell within you as if sung by all the nameless ancestors entwined in your soul. Featuring dangerous levels of smooth, it’s a Sade album in concentrate. Over three times your RDA so go easy. It’s also the third Genesis-retelling song on this list so far, showing that his favourite films still can’t match the Old Testament for source material. The Bible and Barbarella would have made an apt title for any Prince memoir of this time period.
At first acquaintance you can imagine this song in a travel segment on a morning show, soundtracking a montage of Swiss mountains and vineyards. An easily digestible ode to escapism. On closer inspection you hear suggestive hints at what Prince is escaping from and the inconvenient truth that “the cost of freedom is anything but free”. If you like your Prince served with hearty side dishes of social commentary and religiosity there’s plenty to unpack in the lyrics. Personally however, the meaning of the words washes over me as I savour the shimmying synth riff which owes more than a passing debt to The Pointer Sisters’ Automatic. A feel-good life raft in an album of few delights. In fact Lavoux is the last good song on 20ten until the hidden track at the end. If you’re really quiet you can hear it pine for the peaks of Parade.
A slow walk through young heartbreak with shimmering synths and a message of devotion in the face of desertion – a theme that his first two albums were built on. In 70s Prince bingo you’d be shouting house if you had any of the following words in a row: ‘blue’, ‘lonely’, ‘forever’, ‘baby’, ‘together’, ‘love’, ‘go’ and ‘leave’. But underneath the pre-Dirty Mind lyrics sits a solid steel ballad. A whetstone sharpening his tools in order to truly king this genre in the forthcoming years. As a quiet, unassuming album-closer in a sea of ballads it’s often overlooked, but obviously not by Kanye who recycled the guitar riff to great effect in his 2007 Jay-Z love-in, Big Brother. One thing that always wrongfoots me though is the one non-falsetto line in the middle, because although I know Prince says “your accent from gay Paree”, I always hear him addressing somebody called Barry instead. Changes the song somewhat. You always want to leave, Barry, who do you think you are?
This high-altitude mountain flower is delicate yet hardy, able to withstand the cold, hard frost of repeated exposure. Intricately arranged and improving with age, like the rest of Musicology it takes its time in getting its hooks in. It’s also one of many songs on the album concerned with marriage, featuring Prince playing the part of a wedded man knocking back the advances of somebody else’s wife. A position he doesn’t exactly stick to on the next two songs where he seems to want to orchestrate a break-up so he can swoop in amid a flurry of gifts. The lyrics may be noble but the music suggests an imbalance in thought and deed. Gentle and airy guitars grace a tightly coiled Linn beat, creating a tension between calm composure and twisted, distorted agitation. The music Bebel Gilberto would play if she was being slowly dragged down under the Earth’s crust by subterranean brambles, silently watched by a koala bear with fire in its eyes.
Prince often wrote songs where a sex toy would inexplicably appear in the final verse. 18 & Over, Mellow and Supercute all feature this late stage cameo with varying levels of subtlety but there’s one song in the vault which devoted the entirety of its verses, chorus and title to the humble battery-operated boyfriend. Vibrator is musically very repetitive but insanely catchy and with some grade A lyrics – my favourite being the comparison between her old and new (electric) loves: “uncharted waters sailed with ease, land is always in sight, but with u it’s always abandon ship and we didn’t even get away from the dock 2night”. It’s when Vanity’s ten-battery “body massager” runs out of juice however when the song really gets going, with a hilarious left-turn into a comedy sketch featuring Jill Jones as clerk number one and Prince reprising his role from If a Girl Answers. Possibly influenced by Purple Rain being in the script writing phase when it was recorded, Vibrator follows a standard screenplay three-act structure, with a sung setup, a comedic confrontation and a literal, final climax. It’s the classic ‘girl meets boy, girl leaves boy for toy, toy dies, girl goes on a quest for batteries’ story. The song got shelved, along with the rest of the second Vanity 6 album when Vanity quit the band but her pleasured moans would live on, later resurfacing on a couple of Madhouse releases and throughout the Come album credited as “she knows”. As famous enacted orgasms go Vanity is only kept out of the top three by Donna Summer, the woman from Lil Louis’s French Kiss and Sally.