Like so many, I can’t believe that Prince is gone, and I’m struggling not only to reconcile that, but also to reflect with any coherence on his impact on my own musical conception. When I was a kid, I listened eagerly to all his singles and watched his videos, with no conception of anything else like the enormity of his talent and artistic self-empowerment or the conventions he was transgressing in the realms of race, gender and sexuality. I just knew that “1999” was trippy and “Little Red Corvette” rocked and “When Doves Cry” was moody in a way I loved but didn’t understand. I watched enough MTV that I heard and watched his stuff all the time (puberty more or less lined up with the video for “U Got the Look,” which . . . well, never mind) and thus never really noticed or wondered about his absence from the rock radio airwaves even though “Let’s Go Crazy” rocked harder than at least 90% of what was on there.
I got more into his music and understood more what was going on as I got older and went about the simultaneous tasks of following his development and revisiting the older stuff, including the stuff that predated my initial MTV-fueled awareness of him. The older (and more aware of what it means to be an artist) I got, the more I admired him and was fascinated both by the depth and diversity of his musical skill and by the business choices he made.
This list covers some of the moments I’ve loved from Prince as a recording artist. While I could’ve just used every song on Purple Rain, for example, I worked to make this list reflect the breadth of his career, with these tracks covering a 35 year span.
1 ) “I Wanna Be Your Lover” from Prince (1979)
His first big hit, this song cut through the clutter of disco and showed the emergence of his distinctive artistic voice. Most people probably didn’t care at the time that he was also playing all the instruments, but I sure care.
2 ) “Delirious” from 1999 (1983)
Of course I also love the hits from this record, but the super-upbeat groove on this one knocks me out – I actually use it sometimes with students to teach about multiple layers of groove. Whenever I get really tired, this song plays in my head on repeat.
3 ) “Purple Rain” from Purple Rain (1984)
Such an achingly soulful song, and THAT GUITAR SOLO and then the dramatic falsetto part at the end . . . okay, I’m hyperventilating just thinking about it. Others have waxed poetic about this song plenty (and, rightfully, about the rest of the album/film) so I’ll leave it there.
4 ) “Raspberry Beret” from Around the World in a Day (1985)
I have loved this song from the first moment I heard it. It is perhaps my favorite of the many songs bearing the distinctive Wendy and Lisa sound. I think this is the first Prince song with which I truly fell in love.
5 ) “If I Was Your Girlfriend” from Sign O’ the Times (1987)
Funky, freaky, playing all the instruments, manipulating his voice. Maybe this doesn’t mean anything to anyone else, but I use a riff from this as my ringtone for Kate, and whenever I’m unsure about an outfit before we go somewhere together, I ask (and we sing in unison) for her to help me pick out my clothes before we go out. Not sayin’ I’m helpless, but . . . well, you get the idea.
6) “Sexy MF” from Love Symbol Album (1992)
When I was starting college and in full-on jazz immersion mode, I heard about this song and thought “huh, he’s still around, eh?” And then I heard the song and grinned ear to ear. And again the second time I heard it, and the 50th.
7 ) “Don’t Talk 2 Strangers” from Come 2 My House by Chaka Khan (1998)
Prince as producer/songwriter needs to be represented here, and while there are lots of examples (from Larry Graham to Madonna), to me it begins and nearly ends with Chaka Khan. There are so many great Prince/Chaka collaborations, from her hit version of his “I Feel for You” to the Prince-produced “Sticky Wicked” from the CK album, featuring the trumpet of Miles Davis. My personal favorite is this tender, sentimental song, yet another that Prince recorded compellingly first before finding magic with Chaka.
8 ) “The Work, Part 1” from The Rainbow Children (2001)
One of numerous songs in the JB-inspired mode (something only reinforced once Maceo Parker began to anchor his horn section in live shows), and to my ear one of the best. I remember hearing it and thinking “boy, when is this guy going to slow down?” Maybe it wasn’t hit-after-hit by that point, but wow.
9 ) “A Case of You” from One Nite Alone (2002)
I love this track for a number of reasons. I love Joni Mitchell and I love seeing the connection between them, which makes total sense, made explicit. And I love the heartbreaking poeticism of this song and the tenderness with which Prince sings it. And listen to that piano playing – as much as I adore Prince as a guitarist, his piano work here is exquisite.
10 ) “ANOTHERLOVE” from Plectrumel (2014)
I first heard this one at the end of a medley that he performed with his backing band 3RDEYEGIRL. The whole album is a great example of his still-got-it songwriting in a rock-out context and the guitar duel at the end is fierce.