“Albums still matter,” the late Prince Rogers Nelson cogently declared just over two years ago at the 2015 Grammy Awards ceremony. “Like books and Black lives, albums still matter. Tonight and always.” Indeed, few artists have embraced, evangelized, and exemplified the intrinsic value of the album format as fervently as Prince did across his storied 40-year recording career and 39-albums deep studio discography.
He was also staunchly and unapologetically protective of his music. He obsessed about how (and when) his albums and songs were disseminated throughout the world, as most notably manifested during his infamous contractual conflicts with Warner Bros. Records during the 1990s and his more recent refusal to authorize the licensing of his music to streaming services other than Tidal. Hence our team’s collective surprise and tempered delight when rumors of Prince’s entire Warner Bros. album catalog surfacing on Spotify and Apple Music began circulating this past January. The rumors became reality last month on Super Bowl Sunday, February 12th, when a few dozen of his albums were added to these platforms and immediately consumed by millions of giddy listeners.
One must wonder what Prince himself would make of this 180-degree development were he still alive today, though it’s reasonable enough to assume that he would have never allowed it to happen in the first place, and the bulk of his music would still be exclusively available via Tidal and physical formats. But hypothetical assumptions aside, if nothing else, the arrival of his Warner Bros. catalog on Spotify and Apple Music re-energized our shared, yet never-dormant affection for his album repertoire, and hopefully introduced his sterling discography to those born after the respective original release dates.
Hence why the Albumism team recently decided to submit our individual votes for the 10 greatest studio albums in Prince’s catalog, the consensus rankings of which appear below. We fully recognize that this is a blatantly subjective exercise, as most lists are. But we also hope that our selections inspire some healthy debate among our fellow Prince aficionados, while rekindling our readers’ most vivid, cherished memories of Prince’s many wonderful albums.
#10 | Prince
Warner Bros. (1979)
Revisited by Chris Lacy
A more successful record in every way compared to his 1978 debut For You, one could sense more confidence in Prince’s sophomore effort. Lead single “I Wanna Be Your Lover” remains a disco-soul classic, thanks to a silky falsetto and lyrical fig leaves in the right places (“I wanna be the only one that makes you come… running!”). “I Feel for You,” a breezy R&B/pop tune (rejected by Patrice Rushen), would later turn into a late-career hit for Chaka Khan in 1984.
The shimmering funk nugget “Sexy Dancer” is a house party special that will still pack any dance floor today, while “Why You Wanna Treat Me So Bad,” “Bambi,” and “It’s Gonna Be Lonely” are among the finest compositions in Prince’s vast catalog. Although Prince would only scratch the surface of what he would accomplish in the 1980s, it’s an album worthy of being on anyone’s Top 10 list.
#9 | Controversy
Warner Bros. (1981)
Revisited by Matt Koelling
Prince inhabited the cultural zeitgeist of the 1980s at a level only comparable to David Bowie and Stevie Wonder in the 1970s, or Bob Dylan in the 1960’s. Amid a decade of groundbreaking, genre-bending, classic material, Purple Rain or Sign O’ the Times will likely always be more celebrated than Controversy. Controversy is viewed more as a “bridge album,” between his critical breakthrough on Dirty Mind and the blockbuster commercial triumph of 1999.
Which is all well and good. But if an album represents a bridge between two of the greatest albums produced during the decade, it also means said album is no slouch itself. It’s easy to forget now how crucial Controversy, the fourth album of Prince’s career, released at age 23, was as a springboard for things to come when it dropped in 1981. Yet it nearly doubled Dirty Mind’s sales during each of their respective years of release. It solidified Prince as a headlining act. It was the first album to associate Prince with the color purple, or utilize “Prince lettering” in song titles (“Jack U Off”).
Controversy, like Dirty Mind before and 1999 after, begins with a thematic tone-setting title-track. “Controversy” is a dizzying seven minutes that crystalized Prince’s vision clearer than anything he’d recorded to date. Initially, you may consider the thumping bass, ray gun-like synth lines, cooing and caterwauling vocals, or its lyrical content, to be the song’s lynchpin. Further listens reveal the song’s unsung star to be the deft work of Prince’s rhythm guitar. Long before he’d become recognized as one of rock’s greatest guitarists, he was deploying those chops to steer the ship, even on an insistent straight-funk cut like this.
Can Prince maintain the blistering pace he sets in Controversy’s opening seven minutes for the remaining thirty that come after it? In a word, no. It’s simply not humanly possible, even for a musical genius of his magnitude. Do his first forays into overtly political commentary on “Ronnie, Talk To Russia” or “Annie Christian” hold up today? You could likely debate that either way.
But you can’t convince me that the sweat-soaked groove on “Let’s Work”, a kissing cousin of “Get It Up” which he made for The Time around the same time, doesn’t still work as well as it did at the onset of Reagan’s first term. Try to tell me with a straight face that “Do Me, Baby” isn’t one of Prince’s all-time greatest slow-jam burns. The “Private Joy” of this one-man, self-contained band was apparent prior to this record. But for the third album in a row, with at least five more to go, Prince updated and elevated. Therefore, it remains another indispensable gift, from a man who changed popular music. There can no longer be any controversy about that.
#8 | Diamonds and Pearls
Paisley Park/Warner Bros. (1991)
Revisited by Justin Chadwick
Preceded by extensive radio and MTV play for its pair of lead singles “Gett Off” and “Cream,” Prince’s thirteenth studio album Diamonds and Pearls was met with lukewarm critical reception at best upon its release just over 25 years ago. In one of the more overt condemnations of the album, David Browne of Entertainment Weekly concluded his review by suggesting that “the imp continues spinning his wheels, the hole in the road growing a little deeper with each new record.” Did dude really call Prince an imp? I mean, really?
Other critics accused Prince of courting too much favor with the mainstream and attempting to robotically appropriate the prevailing musical trends of the time, hip-hop and new jack swing chief among these. Much of the shade thrown the album’s way was misguided, however, as Prince had long been considered a “mainstream” artist due to the universal accessibility of his songcraft. Not to mention that his adventurous creative spirit and versatility were some of his signature qualities, so heaven forbid that he adapt his sound and incorporate elements that align with the trends of the time. No other artists have ever done that, right? Wrong.
With Diamonds and Pearls, Prince introduced his new supporting band, The New Power Generation, marking the first time he had employed the services of an ensemble since he parted ways with The Revolution after Parade’s 1986 release. No doubt aided by the still developing chemistry between Prince and the NPG, the album remains one of his most eclectic sets, featuring a multitude of sounds and styles. The LP presents cool-breeze smooth jazz (“Strollin’), gospel-infused guitar-pop (“Willing And Able”), straight-ahead funk (”Push”), slow-jam balladry (“Insatiable”), and hip-hop (“Jughead”), the latter of which is arguably the album’s most obvious misstep due to Tony M’s questionable rhyme skills.
Variety of material aside, Diamonds and Pearls contains some of Prince’s finest fare, including the unforgettable, Rosie Gaines bolstered title track, the unconventional sonics of the aforementioned “Gett Off,” and the more conventional strain of pop heard on “Cream.” The intimately human, empathetic narrative of “Money Don’t Matter 2 Night” is the unequivocal highlight of what is—critics be damned—an engrossing affair overall.
#7 | Lovesexy
Paisley Park/Warner Bros. (1988)
Revisited by Patrick Corcoran
Emerging from the long, dark nights of the soul that accompanied the recording and eventual withdrawal of the bleakly funky Black Album, Prince delivered the tenth and most unusual album thus far in his glittering discography to Warner Bros in early 1988. Recorded across only a few weeks, it saw a refreshed and somewhat repentant Prince issue a proto-gospel album of dazzling invention.
Naked, save for his modesty artfully concealed, he stared out from the cover an innocent reborn , a naïve asexual waif. From the spine-tingling spoken word intro of “Eye Know” to the zen like chant of album closer “Positivity,” there was a greater feeling of the divine, peaking with the climactic ecstasy of the evangelical “Anna Stesia.” But the virginal cover art fooled nobody, for the impudent, sexual genie still lurked in the more profane corners of the album.
The irrepressibly playful lyrics of “Alphabet Street” nudged and winked their way to funk-topia. The sublime guitar of “I Wish U Heaven” sounded unlike anyone else’s out there, while the sole survivor from the scrapped Black Album—“When 2 R In Love”—succeeded in being another of his amazingly romantic, yet utterly filthy ballads. Marking the end of his golden, peerless run of the 1980s, it showed an artist unbothered by fashion, untainted by chasing trends, and wildly creative. In short, everything that we love about Prince.
#6 | Around the World in a Day
Paisley Park/Warner Bros. (1985)
Revisited by Chris Lacy
On the heels of the 1984 blockbuster Purple Rain, audiences were ready for more of the same. Prince and The Revolution, however, felt burnt out from performing the same material night in and night out. Enter Around the World in a Day, a fresh, psychedelic-hued palette that left many critics and fans puzzled upon its release. The carefree pop of “Raspberry Beret” and airy melodic funk of “Pop Life” enhance the mysterious aura that surrounded Prince and his iconic Revolution band. The majestic “Condition of the Heart,” drum-heavy “Tamborine,” and politically-fueled “America” are as good a trio one will find on any Prince record. Even the B-sides (“She’s Always in My Hair,” “Hello,” “Girl,” and “4 the Tears in Your Eyes”) offer something unique, powerful, and timeless. In retrospect, Around the World in a Day stands as an important artistic milestone that planted the seeds for Parade, Sign O’ the Times, and Lovesexy.
#5 | Dirty Mind
Warner Bros. (1980)
Revisited by Terry Nelson
In October of 1980, if you bought Prince’s new album Dirty Mind thinking you were going to get more of the sound you heard from his previous two releases, then you were in for a big surprise. You were about to embark on a mind-blowing journey that would last over three decades. The album cover alone should have tipped you off. Disco was officially dead and sadly, black music was part of the collateral damage. Not wanting to be pigeonholed by being labeled an R&B artist, Prince sought inspiration elsewhere. Shortly after the release of his self-titled second album, Prince and his band recorded a heavy rock album under the name The Rebels. The album was never released, but Prince’s musical focus continued to shift.
In the spring of 1980, Prince and his band spent nine weeks on the road opening for Rick James and testing out new material that would eventually be on Dirty Mind. Prince adopted a hypersexual persona on stage that made his act a must-see. It even fueled the jealousy of James, who grew tired of being upstaged by the tour’s opening act every single night. The reactions to the new songs were strong and Prince could not wait to get back to the brand new 16 track studio that Warner Brothers paid for. Prince often recorded his albums alone, getting himself into a zone. Prince once told Rolling Stone of the Dirty Mind sessions, "Nobody knew what was going on, and I became totally engulfed in it.” The only other contributors to the album were keyboardist Doctor Fink (“Dirty Mind” and “Head”) and new band member Lisa Coleman (vocals on “Head”).
Once the eight song masterpiece was completed, Prince and his manager presented it to Warner Brothers. The execs were in complete shock. They didn’t know what to make of Dirty Mind. Even the band was thrown for a loop by “Head,” a tawdry tale in which Prince interrupts a wedding, receives fellatio from the bride, and eventually runs away with her. When hearing the song, guitarist Dez Dickerson said, “OK, I guess we're going there!" He also described Warner Brothers as being “scared to death. They thought they were signing the new Stevie Wonder. They didn't know they were getting a cross between Wonder and Johnny Rotten."
Even though “Uptown” got moderate airplay on R&B stations and “When You Were Mine” was in the regular rotation on new wave stations like WLIR in New York and KROQ in Los Angeles, album sales were sluggish. His memorable appearance on Saturday Night Live on February 21, 1981 in which Prince sang “Partyup”, complete with an F-bomb, failed to produce a bump in sales. The album hit 500,000 in sales 4 years after its release.
Dirty Mind is an underrated classic that didn’t pander to any particular audience. It was just a genius doing his thing and finding his groove. It was our freaky dirty little eight song secret that the rest of the world didn’t catch on to right away and at the time, I liked it that way.
#4 | 1999
Warner Bros. (1982)
Revisited by Christopher A. Daniel
It was the album that signaled the dawn of Prince as a superstar and a digital innovator. His fifth studio LP, 1999, was a seamless sonic collage (judging by the cosmic-toned, purple-colored cover art) of industrial rhythms (“All the Critics Love U in New York”), long-playing jams (“D.M.S.R.,” “Automatic”) and a raunchy (yet tame considering its time) imagination (“Let’s Pretend We’re Married,” “International Lover”).
The album’s Top 20 title track is a dance record, showcasing a Sly and the Family Stone-esque vocal harmony that promises to live life in the midst of potential world disaster. The minimally lush “Little Red Corvette,” the Purple One’s debut Top 10 pop number, metaphorically pays homage to the female genitalia. “Delirious,” another Top 10 track, channels the rockabilly swagger of Chuck Berry and Little Richard. He preaches liberation on “Free” while also being the scorned, vulnerable half of a failed relationship on “Something in the Water (Does Not Compute).”
Originally released on October 27, 1982 as a double album, 1999’s 70+ minute run time grants the Minneapolis genius and one-man-band with his signature opulent purple trench coat the opportunity to exceptionally mesh together electrofunk with R&B/soul, New Wave, rock, gospel and pop. The cover art even introduced Prince’s touring band, The Revolution (name printed inverted).
1999 was definitely the perfect album to unveil Prince as a force to be reckoned with: garnering quadruple platinum certification, a Top 10 slot on the Billboard 200, two Grammy nominations and frequent MTV rotation. 1999 clearly set the tone for the multi-hyphenated megastar we would all adore and consider an icon.
#3 | Purple Rain
Warner Bros. (1984)
Revisited by Patrick Corcoran
Standing like a Neolithic monument, towering above all else in Prince’s discography lays Purple Rain. Neither before, nor after did Prince have such a heady mix of critical, popular and commercial success. Oscars, Grammys and sales of many millions all flooded his way. 1984 was his year.
As a Prince fan of a certain obtuse type though, it is easy to become blasé about the album—tired of those casual listeners proclaiming to be fans whilst only knowing the “Big 3” of “Let’s Go Crazy,” “When Doves Cry” and “Purple Rain” itself (however awe-inspiring they are). Or the sneaking feeling that the album was a calculated piece of self-mythology, a targeted appeal to the widest commercial market to fulfill his ambition to be the biggest star the world had ever seen.
Yet all it takes is one listen and those thoughts evaporate completely. Neither age, nor familiarity can dull the impact of an album that contains 9 tracks of cut glass craftsmanship. From the opening sermon (which has even greater power since his sad passing) of “Let’s Go Crazy” to the string laden come down of “Purple Rain,” not a single moment fails to stir the senses and send tingles down the spine. The frenzied infectious joy of “Let’s Go Crazy;” the impossibly sexed-up filth of “Darling Nikki” and the jaw-snapping one-two of “I Would Die 4U” and “Baby I’m A Star” light up the sky like the 4th of July. But it is “The Beautiful Ones” that truly destroys on first listen—the achingly visceral desire and the rampant, unbridled passion make it impossibly exhilarating.
Although the dizzy heights of almost universal acclaim and commercial success never really returned, Purple Rain established Prince as one of the biggest stars in the musical firmament and, more importantly, it paved the way for a decade spent innovating in ways others could only imagine. There are a million reasons to love this incomparable album.
#2 | Parade
Paisley Park/Warner Bros. (1986)
Revisited by Quentin Harrison
Parade was Prince's eighth album overall and second album to be tied to a feature film in which he was the principal character, Under the Cherry Moon. The gorgeous black and white romantic comedy shot in Nice, France was a continuance of the artistic expansion of Prince, musically and visually, pioneered as early as Dirty Mind (1980). In the span of six years, Prince became one of the most magnetic voices in popular music, this culminated with his sixth LP, Purple Rain (1984). The long player and its companion film were cultural juggernauts, propelling Prince and his band The Revolution to unimagined heights.
In the face of that success, Prince didn't blink and immediately promised to not rest on those accomplishments. Enter his seventh album, Around the World in a Day (1985). The album remains Prince's poppiest project. The transitional effort saw him wax his soul music with psychedelia and other art rock touches. Commercially, it marked only a slight decline.
Undeterred, Prince began work on his next record that, as mentioned above, tied into another movie project. Under the Cherry Moon wouldn't pan out critically or commercially for Prince, outside of his hardcore base, but Parade prevailed. The album was a focused, light, and refreshing synthesis of jazz, European pop and Prince's own blend of progressive R&B. His group The Revolution was in fine form on the record, making Prince's musical fantasies flesh on the airy soul of “Life Can Be So Nice” and “Mountains,” the latter of which was one of the sadly forgotten follow-up singles from this LP often remembered only for the sparse sex of its monster hit, “Kiss.”
Additionally, Prince fleshed out his sound beyond The Revolution, backing them with striking orchestral arrangements (courtesy of the late Clare Fischer) that made “Christopher Tracy's Parade” and “Venus De Milo” mesmeric. Parade was Prince at the summit of his powers, straddling memorable pop melodies without sacrificing his funk roots. In September 1986, at the conclusion of “The Parade Tour,” Prince dissolved The Revolution. The bittersweet move precipitated his next creative gambit with Sign O' the Times (1987), the album that, critically, eclipsed Purple Rain. Yet, Parade remains a genuinely lost masterpiece, the ultimate fulcrum in his canon that closed one chapter in his artistic story to begin another.
#1 | Sign O’ the Times
Paisley Park/Warner Bros. (1987)
Revisited by Chris Lacy
Some people overuse the word “genius,” but Sign O’ the Times provides indisputable evidence that Prince is worthy of that label. Largely produced, arranged, composed, and performed on his own, he encompasses all the emotions and struggles of his life into a diverse collection of sounds that whirl and twist in almost every direction imaginable. Grooves that put the listener in motion at both ends of the spinal column (“Housequake,” “Hot Thing”), artful storytelling that sent his peers back to the drawing board (“Sign O’ the Times,” “The Ballad of Dorothy Parker,” “If I Was Your Girlfriend,” “I Could Never Take the Place of Your Man”), and vocal performances that remind people of what made his voice such a revelation in the first place (“Forever in My Life,” “The Cross,” and “Adore”).
If you’ve never heard Sign O’ the Times before, firstly, shame on you. And secondly, play it and experience the delights you’ve missed out on for the past 30 years!
READ Chris Lacy's 30th Anniversary tribute to 'Sign O' the Times'