Prince’s political songs (Annie Christian, Sign O’ The Times…) are usually restrained, calculated affairs, coldly spoken more than sung. However Ronnie, Talk to Russia is a rockabilly nursery rhyme with gunfire and dated Cold War lyrics which thankfully explodes in a mushroom cloud before it can take the Controversy album down with it. You have to admire its chutzpah. It flies in through an open window, crashes about, upsetting furniture and decorum and just as suddenly defenestrates itself not two minutes later in a flurry of feathers and feedback. It’s the wild excitement of “There’s a dog in the playground!” There’s a whale in the Thames! A disruption that’s felt long after side two finishes, leaving you with a feeling of “what just happened?” which is an impressive achievement on an album that also features the flippant bustle of Jack U Off.
A Batman-era outtake. Sparse and raw but a fantastic framework with a great chorus. The sample machine overfloweth, creating a cutlery-drawer sound that’s as awkward and disjointed as folding a fitted sheet, but keeping an upbeat, quirky character that could be mistaken for Art of Noise (a group who scored a hit with a cover of Kiss the previous year). Here Prince is once again the spurned lover wanting to know Why You Wanna Treat Me So Bad but this time he likes it. The third verse starts in a similar way to Batdance‘s “Hey Ducky…” and certainly this track wouldn’t sound out of place on the Batman soundtrack – in fact I’ll go as far as to say that if it had replaced the woeful Arms of Orion no doubt the album would ascend a few rankings in the general consensus. Instead Your Love Is So hard has to live forever in the vault, regretting it’s dateline tattoo of 1989 and secretly enjoying the neglect.
For You (1978)
An innocent and naive soul-purge hailing from a time before Prince was marketed as a sexual peacock. So Blue is both timid and self assured. It’s the first b-side of Prince’s career, being the flip to Soft & Wet, and the lyrics can basically be summed up with a colon, an open parenthesis and a sun emoji (if he had called it Sad & Sunny and made it an instrumental you would lose nothing of the lyrical meaning). However, the music is a delicate lacewing. A fluttering reminder of the heart wrenching melodrama of gauche self absorption played by a teenage prodigy. The Shangri Las without the dark drama and free of any studio svengali shadow tainting it with their nostalgias and olds. Teen self-pity has never sounded so pure and beautiful.
A hip-hop tempoed tale of a sexual e-predator. Prowling West Coast beats underpin cautionary vocals and a chorus of “www dot emale dot com” (a URL that disappointingly draws a blank). The hook sounds dated now but it was released a full eight years before Fatboy Slim’s hit Slash Dot Slash and 13 years before the Black Eye Peas were still singing that they’re “all about that h-t-t-p”. Remember, the internet was brimming with untapped potential back in the mid 90s, email being a novelty instead of the suffocating, stagnant water that office-workers have to swim in nowadays. The song is cold, full of the detachment of technology, but shivering with frisson. It’s the sound of the space between two strangers. G funk modems dry humping and dreaming of a broadband future.
Chaos and Disorder (1996)
Coming from a contractually obliged album that’s strewn with scorned roses, high on filler and veering close to Ugly Kid Joe on a couple of occasions, this has never been a darling of the critics. However, being one of the first Prince albums I owned, released in the era of my indoctrination, it will always remain close to my heart. The Same December moves fast through shallow-rooted country-rock, not stopping long enough at any idea to ossify into saltpetre. A motion blur over hot coals. Swallows swerving and diving for mosquitos between a verdant swamp and a sky of lapis blue. Its components have an air of the dank but the composition is divine. Like the month itself I guess. People I happen to be born in the same December as: John Legend, Nelly Furtado, Katie Holmes, Jodie Marsh and a fleeting first love who half a lifetime ago was my spirit guide beyond the pomp, possibly permanently pickling purple a wide-eyed, teenage mind.
Some nicely crafted, good ol’ rock n’ roll, swaying with whiskey and vibes. This would be the zenith of many a Hot New Thing’s rocketing career, before the implosion into nostalgia and good times. But this is Prince we’re talking about and he has a mountain of seraphic output that looms over such climes, so Wow gets to live around the foothills, getting teenagers drunk on its worldly bonhomie, handing out moonshine and free hugs.
Planet Earth (2007)
Fragile piano steadily loses ground to terraqueous bass and eco-religious lyrics before the cherry-picker view pans out, revealing Barry Manilow’s Could It be Magic (or Take That depending on your vintage). Well that was unexpected – it’s like watching documentary footage of an arctic tundra and seeing Claire Rayner wander into shot. Meanwhile the view is still panning out (drone camera now) and the track culminates in the kind of stratospheric guitar drench-out that Slash hears in his head whilst miming on a mountaintop for a disinterested helicopter.
The Gold Experience (1995) / The Undertaker (1995)
This closes the more saccharine of the four sides of The Gold Experience lp and probably wouldn’t have made the top 500 if it hadn’t been carried over the line by the low East wind of the Undertaker sessions. The unpolished version included on that rehearsal album dials down the cloy and gives over half the track to the steady, brooding 30 second leadout of the original minus the dolphin clicks. The lyrics are unchanged but world-wearier and the underwater, panning effect of the guitar shimmers with a sleazier intensity.
There are swathes of Prince’s back catalogue that stand beyond time but this infectious house banger off Emancipation is a perfect summer capsule of a care-free 1997. You can imagine it simultaneously blooming amongst a thousand Yates’ Wine Lodges before withering at the hard winter onset of cinnamon vodkas and Jägermeister promotions. The NPG Hornz lift this track out of mere house territory, gilding it with flighted bravado and the breakdown three and a half minutes in sounds like the world has stop spinning as Gaia catches her breath. If this had replaced D:Rream in soundtracking Tony Blair’s electoral victory then the afterglow would be so strong we would still be crowning him with fillets of wool and anointing his head with myrrh. Yes, I’m saying this song is so powerful it can be used to whitewash war crimes. Despots take note.
Unreleased (1991) / Martika’s Kitchen (1991)
A version exists of this track with Prince on vocals. And also a version, renamed Work The Fat, which is a plus-size paean by a gun-toting Bob George-esque alter ego. Despite what I said previously in Ain’t No Place Like U, this time round the released Martika version actually outshines Prince’s take. His heart doesn’t sound in it, although she never can quite reach the right level (who can?) of raw Princeness on the “Baby when we get started we won’t e-e-ever stop.” part. Yet she makes the track her own (if the title didn’t already do that) on the “Boom Box kick kick kickin” line. Prince obviously agreed as he later based a whole track around that sample. But the least said about that the better.
Unreleased (1993) / Mayte: Child of the Sun (1995)
Prince distills 1993 into a beat and loops it relentlessly until 30 seconds from the end when it finally gives way to rave synths. Howling, night-drenched guitars and insanely catchy lyrics of barely restrained lust leave you under no illusion as to who’s behind this unreleased track and the drum pattern turns up again in Emancipation‘s Slave, stripped of the guitars and sounding more funky for it. Ok, ok, it’s not quite unreleased as it was used on a Mayte album in 1995 (and again by Jevetta Steele) but a Prince track without Prince’s vocals can be a pale imitation, lacking glimpses into an internal sun. Ain’t no piece like the original – plus it has rave synths. Mayte – where are the rave synths?
HITnRUN Phase Two (2015)
A sturdy, jazz-funk ode to a sight-giving Nefertiti. Flute, sax and keys trace the outline of a late night seduction, played out amongst neon bar-signs rippling in midnight puddles while Prince fills in the outline with lyrical shades of honeyed confidence. Fun fact: The late night phone-in DJ talking over the end doesn’t actually exist – it’s all in your head.
This mid-tempo, robotic, jitter-funk anthem is adorned with dirty synths that has Prince on restrained mode to keep us tantrically charged, teasing us with flashes of When Doves Cry. Either that or he’s held back on turning it up to 11 on a throwaway freebee album that was bundled in with The Mirror newspaper. The lyrics contain some classic Prince pick-up lines, smoothly pirouetting on cosmic contemplation that we’re all “minerals and chemicals of space you carry within your womb” into an invitation to go home with him to “get nice, till serious is gone.” Both celestial and corny, it’s Eros’s seduction of Psyche acted out by replicants with magnetic eyes of tempered steel.
Girl 6 OST (1996)
This Spike Lee tie-in starts with a Paisley Park (or is it Raspberry beret?) lead-in and then we’re led on a pavonine tour through a phone-sex call centre permeated with ringing phones, unmoored sax and breathy samples from the movie of the same name. Prince wrote the lyrics but not the music (credited to Tommy Barbarella) and it’s a soothing, smooth ride with a welcome cameo from a “SHUT UP ALREADY! DAMN!”, although the sample cuts out too late, leaving in a fraction of the first bar of Housequake. But then there’s no true beauty without some slight imperfection. It’s Marilyn’s mole. Brad’s chipped tooth. Catherine Zeta Jone’s tracheotomy scar. It’s the sound of the Great Spirit entering the Navajo rug as Persian weavers and Amish quilt-makers bow down before the infallibility of Allah and God.
Art Official Age (2014)
In 2014 two new Prince albums were simultaneously released, heavily enshrouded with the usual media spiel as a return to form. You’ve been burnt before but the press is all “fo’ realz this time” so you have hope in your careworn heart. A hope that diminishes during the artless rock of Plectrumelectrum and sinks completely when this Art Official Age opener begins. A new plateaux has been reached. Prince has gone full Eurovision. You should never go full Eurovision. And if you switched the album off at that point and unflinchingly walked away, not looking back at the exploding fireball of Prince’s career you would have missed his most creative, interesting and damn right listenable album since 1995’s The Gold Experience. What follows track one is such refined, purple genius that repeated exposure worms this eurodance pastiche into your soul. It’s ridiculously bombastic. I stand corrected – you should never go half-measures Eurovision. Crowd noise. Electronic hand claps. Ricardo Da Force style rap. The whole shebang. And just when you think he has emptied the entire Eurovision toy box, the pyrotechnic operatics kick in, followed by 16 bars of dubstep, Egyptian guitar and a waterboarding sketch??? The song buckles under the weight and shuts down like HAL 9000 singing Daisy Daisy. Istanbul plunges into darkness as the Israeli lightshow trips the city’s power. Douze points!
The Gold Experience (1995)
Partyup‘s grown up, holding down a job and now wants to fight for social justice instead of the right to party – and it starts superbly. Shimmering, celestial murmurs and a power chord beamed straight in from Saturn kick it off. Mayte quotes the 3 musketeers en Espanol and Prince punctuates with “We March” vocal stabs. But then the beat kicks in and it’s weaksauce. More Samantha Mumba than Selma. It would sound at home in any generic 90’s pop fluff and reminds me of the neutered Led Zeppelin break propping up Sophie B Hawkins’ Damn I Wish I Was Your Lover – the sound of John Bonham spinning in his stairwell. The overlaid screams and siren samples fail to mask the balsawood build and the marching samples seem out of place and out of step. An army that’s more Salvation than Seven Nation. He dabbled with this sound before – Free‘s intro begins with it but has the foresight to fade out before the song starts – yet I can’t help comparing it to other artists’ military backed rhythms. We March would rout at the threatening onslaught of Bjork’s Earth Intruders “grinding skeptics into the soil” or the steadily encroaching, off-stage tattoo of Kate Bush’s Cloudbusting (Organon Mix). But this is a song about cohesion rather than threat. Prince may throw in the odd “watch your back” and “we’re kicking’ down the door” but more importantly “All is what we’re marching for”. It’s the sound of the world marching to the beat of just one drum. And in 1995 it is not an all-inclusive drumbeat if you can’t imagine it being used to soundtrack a macrobiotic yogurt advertisement. The man’s a genius.
Graffiti Bridge (1990)
A misleading pop ditty with lyrics of pure filth. Elisa Fiorillo fires off bubblegum higher/liar rhyming couplets while a lusty Morris Day swaggers around in the background talking about how he’ll “Drink. U. Til. Dawn.” The Highlight being the conversational Q&A style on the final verse, later used on Love 2 the 9s. Like most Time tracks, Prince’s usual tension between sex and spirituality isn’t at play here – it’s more of a tension between sex and cartoon sex. This machine would never pass the Turing test.
This list’s only purely instrumental track (apologies Madhouse fans) mostly makes the cut by being imbued by the aura of Parade. It’s the cooling zephyr at the end of side 1 after you’ve been pummelled by mind-altering, percussive bad-assery for 18 minutes. A decompression chamber filled with all the notes Miles didn’t play. A respite before you’re plunged straight back into the pulverising, new funk of Mountains on the reverse. It’s hard to keep in your mind – very much like the film it featured in – but when experienced in its album’s habitat it can feel like that scene in Trainspotting when Renton dives into the lavatorial, blue azure.