Prince: A complete album guide

'Prince' (1979)

'Prince' (1979) Emily Utne

It’s been a long year.

On April 21, exactly 12 months will have passed since we first heard the news. In the days that followed we read about the legal messes and the coroner’s inquiry, we heard anecdotes from those who knew Prince well and fans whose only connection to him was through his music, we listened as other musicians paid tribute to him by performing his songs.

But as time passes and Prince’s death becomes less of a news story and more of a reality we live with, the music he recorded is what we come back to. Because he left behind such a vast catalog, even some fans haven’t heard all of it. And because much of it was out of print and unavailable on streaming services, many younger fans are familiar with little more than the biggest hits.

That’s where this album guide comes in. Here you’ll find 32 Prince albums rated on a scale from ½ star to 4 stars. They’re ranked in relation to each other, so a two-star album here might sound better than many artists’ greatest hits. (A ½ star album, though? Let’s just say even geniuses aren’t infallible.)

Prince was a complicated guy, and his catalog is a little messy. To keep things simple, this guide is limited to commercially available albums of original studio material — no live recordings, no compilations, no NPG Music Club-only releases.

You won’t find any contrarian contentions that Sign o’ the Times is crap or that The Rainbow Children is a lost masterpiece. But if you’re a newcomer you’ll find plenty of music to explore, and if you’re a diehard you’ll find plenty of opinions to disagree with. We’ll be enjoying and debating Prince’s music for years to come, and hopefully this guide will be a small part of that experience.

'Dirty Mind' (1980)

'Dirty Mind' (1980) City Pages

In the Beginning

For You (1978) ★

Prince (1979) ★★

Dirty Mind (1980) ★★★★

Controversy (1981) ★★★ ½

You wouldn’t kick the 19-year-old kid who recorded For You out of bed, but you wouldn’t exactly be misty-eyed about that night’s orgasms four decades later. The harmonized falsettos (all Prince) and synthesizer work (ditto) are supple yet facile, and his budding songwriting skills strain to keep pace with the jackrabbit sprint of his musical talent except on the self-explanatory “Soft and Wet.” Just a year later, though, a more assured songwriter struts through Prince, issuing unignorable demands like “I Wanna Be Your Lover” and “Why You Wanna Treat Me So Bad?” Prince is shot through with intimations of what’s to come: “Bambi” offers a glimpse of his guitar heroics, “I Feel for You” shows off his playfully flirtatious side, and even on lesser ballads, his tactile breathiness adds a carnal edge we’d soon get to know much better.

But all that was just a prelude to Dirty Mind. The wiry guitar and sleek synthesizers suggest Talking Heads or the Cars, but Prince’s eager falsetto transforms the jitters of alienated white new-wavers into the restless agitation of sexual anticipation, and the rhythms that bring it all home take in Parliament-Funkadelic, disco, and post-punk without missing a beat. Prince mostly recorded these tracks alone as demos, and they ring out with raw, unfussed-over mastery, while playful touches like Matt Fink's clit-diddling keyboard solo on “Head” add to the thrill. From the romantic complications of “When You Were Mine” to the incestuous audacity of “Sister,” our hero embeds himself in all sorts of ingenious sexual predicaments, but his fantasies aren’t just porny: “Uptown” recasts Lake and Hennepin as a freaky, interracial street-party utopia, the germ of the imaginary vision of Minneapolis we’d soon see onscreen in Purple Rain.

No one gets to the end of Dirty Mind and asks “But what are this horny young man’s political opinions?” Perhaps a little too titillated by his potential to shock, Prince steeped Controversy in Cold War paranoia: His anti-nuke open letter to Reagan rocks, though his screed against a witchy woman named “Annie Christian,” blaming her for everything from the Atlanta child murders to Abscam, suggests he’d been watching too much TV. But the beat slams harder than ever, with the four-on-the-floor of the title track drawing up a blueprint for house music. The sticky-fingered rockabilly of “Jack U Off” points toward rock stardom, the nearly eight-minute “Do Me Baby” is his most thoroughly mapped out seduction yet (complete with postcoital coos), and “Private Joy” could either be about jacking himself off or the new love of his life: a Linn LM-1, the drum machine that would help define his sound in the following years.

The Revolution-ary Years

1999 (1982) ★★★ ½

Purple Rain (1984) ★★★★

Around the World in a Day (1985) ★★

Parade (1986) ★★★ ½

Dinky British synthpop ruled the airwaves in ’82, and Prince exploited the weapons gap to drop da bomb on every pouty, pasty ’80s virgin with a Casio and a funny haircut who’d lucked his way onto MTV, leaving nothing behind but a purple mushroom cloud. After the phased whooshes of the Oberheim DMX that announce the apocalyptic title track, we hear the voices of Lisa Coleman and Dez Dickerson before Prince’s — his way of letting us know he led a band now. “Little Red Corvette” rocked too hard for even KQRS to ignore, but after the hits 1999 spreads out and gets really fucking weird, with creepy voices, twisted electronics, and robotic drums meant to show up the supposedly futuristic new wave competition: “Automatic” is the greatest Human League song those Brits never recorded. And then there’s “International Lover,” a ridiculously brilliant airline-flight-as-seduction metaphor that inspires such fits of distracted giggling you won’t even realize Prince has got you naked till it’s over.

If 1999 was an effortless somersault over Prince’s new wave rivals, Purple Rain was where he staked his claim to both heartland rock and heavy metal. From the three-chords-and-the-truth of “Let’s Go Crazy” to the epic power ballad “Purple Rain,” with “Darling Nikki” tucked in along the way just to prove he could out-sleaze the glam guitar-slingers on the Sunset Strip, Purple Rain is an exercise in rock and roll oneupsmanship that leaves you asking “Bruce who? Eddie Van what?” There’s so much detail, so little clutter: the unduplicable Gordian knot of guitar virtuosity that announces “When Doves Cry,” the easy opulence of “Take Me With U,” and “The Beautiful Ones,” a ballad that feints at heartbreak and vulnerability only to climax with a shriek of manly pride that lets you know that if you leave Prince behind it’s your loss, hon.

'Purple Rain' (1984)

'Purple Rain' (1984)

Prince’s ambition finally overwhelmed his taste on Around the World in a Day, a detour through the more convoluted alleys of his imagination, with chintzy exotica imitating psychedelia. The opaquely reactionary “America” and the bloated “Temptation” are turn-offs. Still, “Paisley Park” is a funhouse worth losing yourself in and “Pop Life” an effervescent motivational jam, while “Raspberry Beret” still sounds like the first day of spring every time that stately string arrangement kicks in.

Spare where its predecessor was cluttered, Parade was initally assembled from the drum tracks up, and its psychedelic flourishes, even those as ornate as the knotted horns on “Girls & Boys,” spring from a solid foundation of rock and funk. Ostensibly the soundtrack to Prince’s charmingly inept directorial debut, Under the Cherry Moon, Parade is really just an excuse for Prince to show off his perverse skills, whether stripping the bass from James Brown funk and adding a gravity-defiant falsetto to “Kiss” or writing one of his loveliest ballads, “Sometimes It Snows in April,” about the death of a fictional alter ego. Parade was Prince’s most successful collaborative effort to date. Naturally he broke up the Revolution right afterward.

The One-Man Band

Sign o’ the Times (1987) ★★★★

The Black Album (1987/1994) ★★★

Lovesexy (1988) ★★★

Batman (1989) ★★ ½

'The Gold Experience' (1995)

'The Gold Experience' (1995)

Graffiti Bridge (1990) ★★ ½

In the privacy of his new Paisley Park studio, Prince constructed a nearly 80-minute masterpiece of unconstrained imagination where anything could happen: Not only does Sheena Easton sound funky, but Prince turns down sex at least twice. The first side of the first LP alone ranges from the bluesy social commentary of “Sign o’ the Times” to the giddy abandon of “Play in the Sunshine” to the deconstructed James Brown of “Housequake” to the fully clothed erotica of “The Ballad of Dorothy Parker.” Dorothy is the first of many women here whose lives and opinions and desires Prince works to comprehend, an exploration culminating in the psychosexual fantasy “If I Was Your Girlfriend,” his voice pitched upward to mimic femininity, and put to bed with “Adore,” the most gorgeous ballad he ever wrote. Prince never would top Sign o’ the Times, but that’s OK. Neither has anyone else.

Prince nearly followed up this tour de force with a collection of the weirdest, hardest, nastiest funk of his career, but The Black Album was yanked a week before its scheduled release and, though widely bootlegged, wouldn’t show up in stores till 1994. Parodying rap with the mean-spirited yet undeniably slamming “Dead On It,” voicing a murderous pitch-slowed thug on “Bob George,” or ending a funk jam by announcing the title “2 Nigs United 4 West Compton,” you can hear Prince worrying about his relationship with a black audience that had turned to street rhymes and sampled beats as his own music had grown more poppy and experimental.

Prince’s hasty replacement, Lovesexy, was lightweight but durable — only “When 2 R in Love” survived from The Black Album, more at home in this buoyant context. “Alphabet Street” is so coyly dirty-minded that only every single high school kid could have told you it was about cunnilingus, and calling for choreographer Cat Glover to rap on that hit was a bitchier swipe at hip-hop in its way than “Dead On It.” Lovesexy is defined by Eric Leeds’ snaky horn arrangements, as unpredictable as a deflating balloon whipping around a room, and by Prince’s spiritual obsessions, often garbled and intrusive but purified into a melodic mantra on the hypnotic “Anna Stesia.”

Then Prince watched Tim Burton’s Batman and recorded the soundtrack to a very different movie than the rest of us saw. The overlap between the director’s vision and the composer’s is limited to a few dialogue snippets from the movie, a song about Vicki Vale that was probably just Prince’s way of getting Kim Basinger in bed, and “Batdance,” truly one of the weirdest Number One songs in pop history. Whether as dark as “The Future” (“boy, it’s rough”), or as frilly as the Sheena Easton duet “The Arms of Orion,” the Batman soundtrack is like a dream — Prince’s dream, not ours, of course, but related memorably to the accompaniment of serrated guitars and mechanical beats.

Prince started the ’90s inauspiciously with Graffiti Bridge, the two-LP soundtrack to a flop Purple Rain sequel. The hottest tracks, tellingly, came from other artists: The Time never got funkier than “Release It,” and “Round and Round” launched Tevin Campbell’s career. Sequels tend to repeat themselves, and we’d sure heard the footloose rockabilly of “Can’t Stop This Feeling I Got” (a sane, secular “Let’s Go Crazy”) and the taut drama of “Thieves in the Temple” (a more compressed, less repressed “When Doves Cry”) all before. Maybe, as the downright zen “Joy in Repetition” suggested, the echoes were intentional. But though Prince proved he could soar even when covering old ground, wasn’t 32 a little young to be making that point?

The NPG Era

'Emancipation' (1996)

'Emancipation' (1996)

Diamonds and Pearls (1991) ★★ ½

Love Symbol Album (1992) ★★★

Come (1993) ★ ½

The Gold Experience (1995) ★★★★

Chaos and Disorder (1996) ★★

After the false start of Graffiti Bridge, Prince rebooted his career for the new decade by recruiting his first studio band since the Revolution, the more virtuosic and versatile New Power Generation, who debuted on the glistening, scattershot, oddball Diamonds and Pearls. The title track is all glass and paste, but “Money Don’t Matter 2 Nite” took an all-but-solitary stand against the first Gulf War, “Gett Off” got funky with a beat that suggested prison chains clanging against concrete, and the percolating chart-topper “Cream” made the album his biggest seller in years. The introduction of the robust belter Rosie Gaines, the most worthy vocal foil of Prince’s career, balanced the inclusion of wack rapper Tony M.

The NPG came into full flower on an untitled album represented by the androgynous symbol that Prince would soon afterward adopt as his name (and patent as “love symbol #2,” hence the commonly used titular shorthand). Until the Roots hit their stride, there was no better live-band hip-hop on record than “Sexy MF” and “My Name Is Prince” (which even featured samples of older Prince songs and turntable scratches). The slick supper-club jazz-funk of “Love 2 the 9’s”? The lithe reggae of “Blue Light”? No sweat for these cats. The album is also, alas, a “rock soap opera,” clogged with skits in which Kirstie Alley plays a reporter hassling the beleaguered rock star. But up until its gruesome climax, “3 Chains o’ Gold,” a ludicrous shotgun wedding between prog-rock at its most Dungeons & Dragons and Andrew Lloyd Webber at his most scenery-gnawing, the range and playfulness sugars the pill of Prince’s pretensions.

'Rave Un2 the Joy Fantastic' (1999)

'Rave Un2 the Joy Fantastic' (1999)

Then Prince changed his name to an unpronounceable glyph and began feuding with Warner Bros., which refused to release Goldnigga, the New Power Generation’s debut, and instead dropped a three-disc Prince retrospective on the market: The Hits/The B-Sides. Had The B-Sides been released as a standalone, with the four unreleased tracks from The Hits tacked on as a bonus, it’d best nearly every album Prince would subsequently release in his lifetime. You need the scarifyingly sexy “Erotic City” and the shamelessly plaintive “How Come U Don’t Call Me Anymore?” in your life. Go make a Spotify playlist.

After a two-year wait — hardly an unusual interval for a pop star, but an infinity in Prince years — fans expected something a little more weighty than the offhand funk and forced dirty talk of Come. The poppiest thing here, “Letitgo,” is a trifle, and I’d fake an orgasm to get the insistently pornographic 11-minute title track to end sooner. But the whispered come-ons of “Pheremone” will get you going and the squelch-laden frenzy of “Loose!” was not only club-ready but featured Prince’s most unhinged guitar freakout in years.

By 1994 “The Artist Formerly Known as Prince” was better known for not having a name and for accusing his label of reducing him to a “slave” (as he had emblazoned on his cheek) than he was for making hits. It was a weird time to release a masterpiece, but damned if that’s not what The Gold Experience is. The NPG’s attack is streamlined to a hard funk punch on the feminist celebration “Pussy Control” and the hard-hitting “Endorphinmachine,” And Prince even tacked on the lovely “The Most Beautiful Girl in the World,” the 1993 top 10 hit he didn’t yet know would be his last.

Prince’s final album for Warners, Chaos and Disorder, was a heavy-guitar fuck-you to the label whose clutches he’d wriggled out of. This was the NPG as no-fuss hard-rock band, bashing through AC/DC-worthy titles like “I Rock, Therefore I Am.” Only Prince could turn a contractual obligation album into an artistic statement.

Free at Last

Emancipation (1996) ★★★

Crystal Ball/The Truth (1998) ★

The Vault: Old Friends for Sale
(1999) ★ ½

Rave Un2 the Joy Fantastic (1999) ½

Prince (still identifying himself by his symbol) celebrated his release from Warner Bros. with a three-disc set that was a tad casual at times but never self-indulgent. The title of Emancipation was as racially charged as Prince’s label battle had been, and so, in a much subtler way, was the material. There was still plenty of funk, but here Prince favored a strain of black pop less immediately enticing to white audiences: quiet-storm R&B. Yet even as he played DJ at the backyard barbecue by covering the Delphonics’ “La, La, La Means I Love U” and the Stylistics’ “Betcha By Golly Wow!,” the Joni Mitchell fan in him seemed to be angling for a Lilith Fair spot, taking on Bonnie Raitt’s “I Can’t Make You Love Me” and Joan Osborne’s “One of Us.” And as he settled into his new life with his wife, Mayte, “The Holy River” and “Let’s Have a Baby” bid farewell to a tumultuous stage in his career.

If you’re looking for a self-indulgent three-disc set, that would be Crystal Ball. The 150 minutes of music collected here date back as far as 1985, when Prince was launching and scrapping multiple projects en route to crafting Sign o’ the Times. (It was initially packaged with a fourth, acoustic disc, The Truth.) But though a steady groove prevails, these tracks aren’t raw material excavated from the past as means of imagining the future, but drawing-board sketches gathered by a pack rat who can’t stand to see a single idea squandered. And “Calhoun Square” proves there were some things about Minneapolis even Prince couldn’t make seem cool.

Meanwhile, Warner Bros. had its own leftovers to dump on the market. Don’t be fooled by the title of The Vault: Old Friends 4 Sale — this attempt to cash in on Warners’ erstwhile signee didn’t exhume recordings stashed away in that storied vault we’ve all heard of, where lost Prince classics of the ’80s are stored. Prince submitted this music to his label at the same time as Chaos and Disorder, and it makes a decent counterpart to that other contractual obligation: jazzy, insouciant, and horn-driven where Chaos is distorted, intense, and guitar-heavy.

For Rave Un2 the Joy Fantastic Prince linked up with Clive Davis, the music biz legend whose recipe for success was to team an established star with unlikely collaborators. That concept would prove phenomenally successful with Santana’s Supernatural, a Davis brainstorm released that same year. But Prince was not built for such transparent commercial machinations, and guests like Ani DiFranco and Chuck D hardly seemed likely to boost him back into the Top 10. Whether Prince is sharing the mic with Gwen Stefani, Sheryl Crow, or Eve, Rave is a revue as frothy and schizoid as a TV variety show. This was decidedly not the way he said we were going to spend 1999, and you’ll forget about these tunes before you can say, “two thousand zero zero party over oops out of time.”

After 1999

The Rainbow Children (2001) ★

N.E.W.S. (2003) ½

Musicology (2004) ★★ ½

3121 (2006) ★★★ ½

Planet Earth (2007) ★★

Lotusflow3r /MPLSound (2009) ½

Prince was a pop musician. He challenged a huge mainstream audience to accept his way of making music, but that audience had expectations he had to take into account. He could bend the rules of pop music or even break them, but he had to acknowledge them. From the sanctuary of his own NPG imprint, though, Prince could cater to his most devoted fans rather than working to win new ones. Anyone who knows their pop music history knows how that story ends: minimal quality control, shapeless experiments, self-involved dead ends.

With a jazzy groove far-ranging enough to even take in hints of Nigerian juju music, The Rainbow Children was a convoluted yet promising start to Prince’s post-major-label career. (What if Prince had truly made an entire Afropop-inspired album?) But the spiritual ideas, a jumble of his new Jehovah’s Witness beliefs and Afrocentric mysticism, dragged the music down. It only got worse from there.

Prince marketed several albums of material solely through his NPG Music Club, omitted from this overview because, honestly, they’d bring down the curve. Only one of these made it to stores: N.E.W.S. contained four instrumentals and should dampen your excitement about the jazz album Prince was reportedly working on when he died. By the time these fan-bait releases started to resemble conventional (yet lackluster) Prince albums, he upstaged them with his first major-label album in five years.

“Don’t you miss the feeling music gave you back in the day?” Prince asks on the slickly expert and slightly pedantic title track of Musicology — yeah, yeah, yeah, Gramps, we get it. But he’s not just celebrating Earth Wind & Fire, Sly Stone, James Brown, and the other greats he namechecks, but expanding on their legacy. (He even samples some of his own hits on the coda.) And “Cinnamon Girl,” about an Arab-American heroine dealing with post-9/11 racism, showed his willingness to risk more political forms of controversy than advocating masturbation.

Prince is more coolly self-assured on the first third of 3121 than we’d ever expected to hear him again, aware of contemporary music without struggling to compete with it. The title track, named for the address of his new L.A. pad, was a companion piece to “Paisley Park” tagged with grimy guitar graffiti. On “Lolita” he nimbly dodged an eager young admirer — as “Little Red Corvette” and “I Could Never Take the Place of Your Man” had showed, Prince was especially charming when he cast himself as prey rather than hunter. And “Black Sweat” was his funkiest single in a decade, with a whining synth that suggested he’d been listening to the Bay Area rap subgenre hyphy and underscoring its color-coded title with the promise “You’ll be screaming like a white lady when I count to three.”

The winningly modest follow-up, Planet Earth, peaks high with the hard-driving funk work-out “Chelsea Rodgers” (about a model with “a butt like a leather seat”) and the self-explanatory “Guitar,” and never dips too low. But the two-CD Lotusflow3r /MPLSound (packaged with a third disc, Elixer, from his latest protégé, Bria Valente) was dull, overblown, and sold exclusively in Target.

The Final Years

Plectrumelectrum (2014) ½

Art Official Age (2014) ★ ½

HITnRUN Phase One (2015) ★

HITnRUN Phase Two (2015) ★ ½

Ideally, this would be the section where we talk about how Prince entered an exciting new artistic stage toward the end of his life. But though he seemed aware that the time had come for him to assume the status of elder statesman, mentoring younger artists and taking political stances, he seemed uncertain how to translate his acceptance of that responsibility into music. Unlike David Bowie, who died a few months before him, Prince didn’t leave us with a career-capping masterpiece. He was still a work in progress.

After a four-year recording hiatus, Prince returned with two albums simultaneously. Plectrumelectrum was an exciting idea: The legend jams out with an all-female hard-rock trio, 3rdeyegirl. But the riffage was predictable Guitar Center bombast, and the album really only comes alive when Lizzo and Sophia Eris chime in on “Boytrouble.” The more conventional Art Official Age, however, is enjoyably slight. “Clouds” is the most romantic complaint about our technologically mediated lives you could ask for, “This Could Be Us” suggests he’d been keeping up with meme culture, and “Breakfast Can Wait,” as fluffy as pancakes and sweet as syrup, was his most seductive jam in years.

Prince’s discography ends on a competent, unspectacular note with the two HITnRUN albums. The first, on which Paisley Park’s first in-house producer, Joshua Welton, received co-writing credits, tellingly peaks with an old cut, “1000 X’s & O’s,” written years earlier for Rosie Gaines. Phase Two, which would become the last music he’d release in his lifetime, leads off with the timely protest song “Baltimore” (“Does anybody hear us pray for/ Michael Brown or Freddie Gray?”) but soon loses its way.

Pop musicians often hit a mid-career doldrums, enduring the awkward second adolescence of middle age only to regain command of their music with a wiser perspective once they truly grow old. Bob Dylan kicked off a particularly fruitful later period with Time Out of Mind at 56, a year younger than Prince was when he recorded his final albums. Prince’s last few solo piano shows were revelatory, with the star seeming increasingly introspective and open onstage. Sadly, we’ll never know what music might have come from his restlessness and need to reconnect with his fans.