Truthfully, you could have any number of Prince top 10s. This is just one
Choosing the 10 best songs by the most ludicrously prolific and riotously diverse artist of the rocknroll era seems on the face to it to be flatly absurd. Where would you start? How could you possibly stop?
Even the most demanding of selectors could compile a suite of 10 worldbeaters from Princes pre-fame dirty mac years alone, or from songs written by Prince and made famous by other artists not only Nothing Compares 2 U but also the Bangles Manic Monday and Chaka Khans I Feel For You. Or why not the 1999 to Batman Imperial period of MTV and effortless global hits? Or B-sides, album cuts, and songs he never even released? And what about the bewildering post-Emancipation years when Prince began to write and record at a rate no record label and few fans could even keep up with? He was protean, a world unto himself, seemingly containing multitudes. For it all to end so early seems grossly unjust.
Lets try anyway. Here is one version of 10 Best Prince songs, a tiny snapshot of that vast world and necessarily tilted towards the familiar. The best Prince song of all? It was the one he started playing in 1965 when he was seven years old, and which has now ended.
Just your everyday story of an impromptu oral encounter with a bride-to-be who ends up marrying Prince in the morning instead. Lisa Coleman of Wendy & Lisa provides the hot-and-bothered lady vocals, but really its all about the hilariously lascivious keyboard squiggles and the irresistible microfunk post-disco arrangement, of which Daft Punk were clearly avid students. Almost the archetypal early Prince song: dirty, funny, groovy, ridiculous, utterly life-enhancing.
By the time of his third album, Prince had announced himself as something both unprecedented in pop the sex-drenched, post-male, polymorphous Imp of the Perverse and weirdly familiar; a new, lubricious Little Richard. Meanwhile his new wave-funk hybrid Minneapolis sound was beginning to set the agenda of black music rather than following it. The sizzling disco of this title track, with its squelching Funkadelic electronics and cheeky, childlike arpeggios, carries the first real Prince manifesto of self: Am I black or white? Am I straight or gay? Sex, God, the funk and the filth: its all here, right in time to outrage the Reagan era.
Pop Life (1985)
Received wisdom has it that the dreamlike Around the World in a Day album was Princes first significant wobble. But come on. Its got Raspberry Beret and The Ladder and this delicious, swaying slo-mo groover, which connects the mundanities of rent and crappy apartments and disappointing love lives (who says the Patron Saint of Fornication couldnt empathise with earthly woes?) to a Warholian ideal of transformation through the titular Pop Life. Recorded before Purple Rain was completed yet sonically months and years ahead, its evidence of Princes restless spirit but primarily a pop earworm of showstopping beauty.
Erotic City (1984)
Prince could make sex feel like the most innocent of playtimes and its absence the most soul-breaking of ordeals. The B-side to Lets Go Crazy was inspired by seeing Parliament-Funkadelic in Los Angeles in 1983, and this gently debauched bumpngrinder manages to present the conjugal act as a purifying communion without losing a scrap of the necessary dirtiness. The thwacking treated drums of 1999-era Prince are present and correct as he rides up and down his register, playing male, female and all points between. A gay club favourite, available in 3.55 and 7.24 versions to suit your staying power.
Purple Rain (1984)
The Prince epic, a vast existential meditation on the nature of longing and guilt where a formally incomprehensible image what exactly is this purple rain and where is it coming from? becomes a metaphor for Princes mental universe. The arrangement is stately, merging devotional gospel with rock and even country tropes, and the vocal simply spine-chilling (that Honey I know I know I know ). That such a flat-out weird piece of music could become such a global hit, and would set in stone a persona that would define Prince for the rest of his life, says much about the intensity of Prince and the Revolutions performance; incredibly, they recorded it live. In life and art Prince created his own world. This is its national anthem.
Sometimes It Snows in April (1986)
The nearest thing in the Prince catalogue to a Bruce Springsteen song, this closer to the restitutory Parade album eulogises a dead friend called Tracy in a stark and emotionally naked performance. The subject is actually the fictional Christopher Tracy from Princes incomprehensible movie Under the Cherry Moon, but the sentiment is raw and real and its unclear if Prince is singing as himself, as a man or as a woman. It is probable that fans will be turning to this song right now: Sometimes I wish life was never ending / and all good things they say never last.
Though a prolific writer for others, Princes persona was so singular and his musical powers so versatile that its hard to imagine anyone else singing most of the songs he reserved for himself. Kiss, however, is Princes one unimpeachable standard, a throwaway demo that became a planet-sized hit that anyone can sing even if they tend to miss the point of the lyrics sweet, funny, randy sex comedy. In the best-in-class video, a shirtless Prince puts the Pan in pansexual by gyrating around a clearly-not-interested Wendy Melvoin (punchline delivered years later: she was a lesbian all along!). It all underscores a gentle humour perhaps missing in Sir Tom Jones rutting prize bull version.
Sign O the Times (1987)
The Whats Goin On of the 1980s, an apocalyptic vision that reaches from the TV news to the Aids clinics to the gang-banging city corners to an exploding shuttle on the fringes of space. Having created one sound the gleaming edifice of Minneapolis super-synth soul Prince blows it up to create yet another for his best album, a minimalist, hallucinatory world of echoes where images of a panicking world crowd in. The answer? Love and sex, of course. This is Prince, after all. Get married, have a baby, call him Nate (if its a boy) and you might live 2 see the dawn.
If I Was Your Girlfriend (1987)
The most famous of Princes sonic signatures those slablike yet somehow subtle electronic drums, the understated keyboards, the tiny vocal scats and embellishments that transform everything reaches its apogee on this beseeching role-reversal psychodrama. Prince pitches his voice up until he really is your girlfriend. An unsettling wow effect of a warped record is artificially introduced, years before Portishead, to heighten the dream-state. And it all comes together on that devastating moment when he loses control and screams could we just hang out could we go to a movie and CRYYYYYYYY together? All your genderqueer thought experiment requirements are here.
You got the horn so why dont you blow it? As adept as Kenneth Williams with a winning double entendre, Prince enters his post-Imperial years when a hit was a delightful surprise rather than a matter of course with this engagingly mucky, Bolanesque swaggerer. A showcase for the moans, groans, whimpers and squeals of Princes overtly priapic guitar, its also surprisingly warm of spirit, restating the core Prince belief that sex heals everything and everyone. His final US No 1, Prince is reputed to have written it while looking at the sexiest thing he could imagine: himself, in a mirror.