With the recent availability of nearly all of Prince’s catalog on the most popular streaming services, it’s a great time to (re?)discover the breadth of Prince’s incredible body of work.
The full scale of Prince’s music is probably too much for any unfamiliar listener to just dive into; he released nearly 40 albums under his own name(s), and regularly enhanced his single releases with brand-new extended versions, remixes that could sometimes comprise an entire EP on their own, and legendary B-sides that were often as strong as the song being released to radio or MTV. That’s not even counting the literally hundreds of songs he wrote (and often performed on) for others.
So, here’s an easier way to dive into his catalog, broken down by the type of listener you are, and what genres of music you prefer. I’m assuming little to no familiarity with Prince’s catalog here, beyond staples like the song Purple Rain. The nice thing about Prince’s work is that there are no bad starting points; if you don’t like what you hear at first, he almost certainly made a song in the complete opposite style as well. I don't cover his extensive side projects here, such as proteges, side bands, and ghost-written tracks, but if there's demand, I'll address those in the future — the material is often every bit as compelling as what Prince released on his own albums.
[This post has been updated in August 2018 to reflect the availability of albums from the second half of Prince's career, and in April 2020 to reflect additional content being released.]
If you’ve never really listened to Prince’s work, there’s a reason his 80s albums are revered. They hold up favorably against the very best albums in pop music.
Purple Rain (1984)
It really is that good. Half the songs on the album became hit singles, and the other half would have been except they were too sexy.
This one will surprise you. Though Purple Rain has more, bigger hits, this is the album that shaped the sound of 80s radio. And, well, a lot of the Top 40 to this day. The songs really stretch out, and this is the album that turned a lot of casual Prince fans into diehards.
Sign O’ The Times (1987)
If you want to hear Prince at his experimental best, this is almost every hardcore Prince fan’s favorite album.
My own curated playlist of the most quintessentially Prince-like tracks.
The greatest hits
There are a number of Greatest Hits collections for Prince’s work. Each has its own strengths.
The best overall collection of Prince’s work, this includes a number of his best b-sides and extended versions, amply demonstrating why those non-album tracks were essential to understanding his range. And if you like big hits like Little Red Corvette, it shows up here in the full 8-and-a-half-minute glory of its 12″ Dance Mix.
The Hits/The B-Sides (1993)
The first compilation of Prince’s work is still the only one to collect a large number of his b-side recordings. Even if you’ve heard most of his 80s albums, there are almost certainly songs here that you missed.
Anthology: 1995-2010 (2018)
This eccentric collection gathers together a wide range of tracks over the last half of Prince's career. What it lacks in coherence it makes up for in breadth, showing off just how many gems Prince created after changing his name and then re-emerging as an elder statesman of pop music.
Specially-crafted starting points
I made a number of playlists that are specifically aimed at people who feel like they’ve never really gotten Prince. I often hear people say, “I know he’s supposed to be super talented, but I never saw him live, and I don’t know what song of his I would love.” This is especially poignant for those of us who were fans because his live shows were amazing, often radically recasting his recorded material, and because his hit pop singles, while brilliant and unique, often didn’t resemble the more obscure works that won us over.
These playlists are necessarily incomplete, because of the inconsistent way Prince’s catalog is made available. Tidal comes closest to including all of these songs, though even at its peak Tidal still omitted hundreds of Prince’s songs from its service. I’ve included Spotify versions of the playlists if most of the songs are available from the service.
This is a playlist of the most “Prince-sounding” tracks in his catalog, a great way to hear work that a lot of serious fans would say could only have come from Prince.
Prince’s most riff-driven rock tracks, showing off both his pop songcraft and his predilection for shredding. This list shows off how his work became more conventionally guitar heavy in this century.
The signature sound Prince was known for was his extraordinary and cutting-edge adoption of the latest electronic technologies like drum machines, synthesizers, samplers and sequencers. By bringing all these tools to bear, he changed the sound of popular music. These are some of the songs that caused that change, and some showing off how he kept evolving.
In his final tour, Prince performed solo at the piano, reaffirming his raw showmanship and the strength of his songwriting. But throughout his career, he showed off his skills on the keys, as these songs amply demonstrate.
More to come
There are, of course, a nearly infinite number of ways to slice and dice a catalog that comprises over a thousand songs. None of these playlists even includes the work that Prince created for other artists. And it’s easy to imagine playlists like “Here are the Prince songs you’ll like if you love Hendrix” or “These are the Prince tracks that clearly influenced my favorite artist the most”.
But what’s most exciting is the idea that a new wave of listeners can find their own gems in a body of work that offers enough surprises and delights to last for decades to come. If you’re just getting into Prince, I hope these lists form a good starting point, and don’t hesitate to reply to me at @anildash if you’ve got questions or want suggestions of how to get started.