This is not a list of the best or most influential Prince songs. Rather, this is a list of songs where Prince was in most fearsome control of his craft. These ten tunes, plus additional recommendations, demonstrate why Prince was an unrivaled pop talent and shed light on all the facets of his frequently contradictory persona. Prince doesn’t make it easy to find his music, so good luck seeking these out. You won’t be disappointed.
(from Dirty Mind, 1980)
Prince was at his nastiest between Prince and 1999, and “Head” ranks among the filthiest songs the man ever wrote. Everything from the virgin-in-heat backing vocals to Prince’s absurd story of spiriting away a bride-to-be to Monica Lewinsky on her gown adds up to some of the purest and best smut ever committed to tape. It doesn’t help that he followed it up on parent album Dirty Mind with a song about being seduced (willingly) by his sister.
See also: “Sister”, “Darling Nikki”
“Do Me, Baby”
(from Controversy, 1981)
Rivaling perhaps only Donna Summer’s “Love To Love You Baby” in the canon of extended pop orgasms, “Do Me, Baby” is the template from which all Prince’s subsequent sex jams were spawned. This eight-minute celebration of sex was Prince’s best use of album real estate, taking up a full quarter of the otherwise half-baked and overly polemical Controversy; it nearly saves the album by itself.
See also: “International Lover”, “Come”
“How Come U Don’t Call Me Anymore?”
(non-album B-side to “1999” single, 1982)
What makes Prince truly special is that his guard is always down, and nowhere is this more apparent than on “How Come U Don’t Call Me Anymore.” On his definitive piano ballad, Prince makes a mockery of the ideals of cool and comprehensibility, his vocal less a lament than a tantrum, alternating between bitter muttering and heaven-piercing falsetto. If it were any more raw, Prince would have beamed it psionically from his head straight to tape.
See also: “Free”, “Sometimes It Snows In April”
“Lady Cab Driver”
(from 1999, 1982)
Our hero steps into a taxi to complain about his demons and the storm brewing behind him; he doesn’t care where he’s going, he just wants a ride. All the while, the driver remains silent—until Prince fucks her in lieu of paying the fare, naming his humps and shouting out tourists at Disneyland twice for some reason as she moans in ecstasy. Like much of Prince’s best work, it’s funny, unsettling, and deeply funky.
See also: “Automatic”, “Let’s Pretend We’re Married”
“Something In The Water”
(from 1999, 1982)
At the heart of the dystopian storm of 1999 is this wrenching little ditty. Featuring some of Prince’s most sickening screams and a beat that should by all means have short-circuited his poor drum machine, “Something In The Water” is one of the singer’s most avant-garde experiments and proof that he’s far more than a pop star. Prince was still only 23 when he made this, and it’s filled with the angst of a frustrated kid and the boldness of a rising pop auteur.
See also: “I Would Die 4 U”, “Bob George”
“Take Me With U”
(from Purple Rain, 1984)
Along with its B-side “Baby I’m A Star,” this is pop-traditionalist Prince at his best, crafting a lovebird duet for the ages with his Purple Rain co-star Apollonia. Both singers burst with excitement beneath the functional cool required of pop vocals, and by the time they reach the ecstatic bridge (“I don't care if we spend the night in your mansion”), they're barely able to control themselves. It’s brilliant.
See also: “Baby I’m A Star”, “U Got The Look”
“Forever In My Life”
(from Sign o’ the Times, 1987)
Prince was a firm adherent of “less means more.” Everyone knows about how Prince omitted the bass from “When Doves Cry”. On “Forever In My Life”, he emits pretty much everything except the Linn drum and one of his catchiest hooks before bringing in a guitar on the fade-out to lead the listener into the abyss. The drum pattern never changes, but listen how subtly the song builds just through force of Prince’s voice.
See also: “When Doves Cry”, “All The Critics Love U In New York”
“If I Was Your Girlfriend”
(from Sign o’ the Times, 1987)
Though he’s nearly as synonymous with sex as Marvin Gaye, Prince was awkward as hell, and nowhere is this more obvious than on his stammering “If I Was Your Girlfriend”. The scream in this song comes not in the midst of orgasm but as he’s completely bombing in talking to the object of his affection. “Could we just hang out, I mean, could we go to a movie”— then the scream, half longing and half frustration at his blubbering self.
See also: “Kiss”, “Jack U Off”
(from Batman, 1990)
In the late eighties, Prince jettisoned sex appeal in favor of a manic Frankenstein persona that craved shadows and drank squirrel blood. It made sense that he’d work with Tim Burton, an equally young, hungry, and gothic auteur whose 1989 Batman created the perfect metropolitan hell for Prince to wreak havoc in. “Batdance” is Prince at his darkest and least listener-friendly, mashing up vocal samples, gorgeous harmonies, and some of Prince’s most deranged singing.
See also: “Superfunkycalifragisexi”, “The Future”
(from The Black Album, 1994)
Prince doesn’t get enough credit for his sense of humor; the dude was a brutally funny motherfucker. The Black Album is his most comedic work, and its heart is “Cindy C”, a self-consciously creepy ode to Cindy Crawford filled with blue come-ons (“I’m sure you’re intelligent, a whiz at math and all that shit/but I’m a tad more interested in flyin’ your kite tonight”) and a great exchange where Prince desperately begs for Cindy’s love as she yells “just a minute!”
See also: “Le Grind,” “Rock Hard In A Funky Place”