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25 Essential Prince Songs

The best of the Purple One’s world-changing, genre-defying hits

Prince's music catalog has no shortage of iconic hits.

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“What’s missing from pop music is danger,” Prince was quoted as saying in a 2006 Guardian interview. “There’s no excitement and mystery.” Danger, excitement and mystery were Prince Rogers Nelson’s calling cards from day one. At the precocious age of 19, he released his debut album, 1978’s For You. From there, he used his platform as an outrageously attired, unapologetically sexy performer (who just so happened to be a virtuoso musician and an innovative studio genius) to craft some of the most taboo-cracking, musically forward-thinking hits to every break the mainstream.

From his critical and commercial apex of 1984’s Purple Rain through his recent Piano and a Microphone tour, Prince never sat still. His prickliness was legendary, but his body of work speaks profoundly to the depth, sincerity and sensitivity of one of pop’s most enigmatic masters. Sure, he had no trouble stirring up headlines every few months or so with some cryptic or outrageous maneuver, which only added another layer to his volatile mystique. But what truly touched the world was his music — songs that moved us emotionally, sensually, intellectually or just plain locomotive-ally. Here, just a sampling of some of his best.

This list was originally published April 2016.

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“Sign O’ the Times” (1987)

“Sign O’ The Times” may be the oddest of Prince’s lead singles. The man was at the height of his commercial and critical success, and his previous album Parade – a delirious tour into French jazz-pop that yielded the all-time funk classic “Kiss” and the cinematic debacle in Under the Cherry Moon – had taught his audience that Prince could be wonderfully unpredictable. Yet “Sign O’ The Times” sounded like nothing he had done before. The starkly minimalist track found him playing blues guitar over a Fairlight synthesizer, and wailing over the world’s troubles. “Man ain’t happy truly until a man truly dies,” he sings. Engineer Susan Rogers, who worked on the track along with keyboard programmer Todd Harriman, told Billboard, “He was coming down from the headlines of his huge success and he was aware that his audience was changing and things were changing for him. So it may have been a little bit darker in that respect.” Peaking on the Billboard Hot 100 at Number Three and topping the Village Voice‘s Pazz & Jop poll for single of the year, “Sign O’ The Times” was an affirmation that Prince’s audience would follow him anywhere, no matter where he led them.

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“U Got the Look” (1987)

In his sped-up, androgynous “Camille” voice, Prince introduces this hard-slamming funk number as the ultimate battle of the sexes: “Boy versus girl in the World Series of love.” The girl was Sheena Easton, who recalls that he’d already finished the track before contacting her. “He said, ‘Do you want to just come in and sing some backup vocals on the choruses?’” according to Easton. “So I went into the studio, and because I didn’t know I was singing against him… I was all over the place – and he said he kind of liked that, so he expanded it into a duet.” The boy, of course, was Prince himself, cooing with self-assured, flirtatious aplomb.

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“I Could Never Take the Place of Your Man” (1987)

At a certain point, Prince’s formidable gifts as a polymath began being taken for granted. In addition to his skills as a singer, songwriter, performer, mogul and multi-instrumentalist, though, there’s one role he’s never gotten enough credit for: storyteller. “I Could Never Take the Place of Your Man” was released in 1987, when Prince had cemented his place as a funk icon. But he turned his ninth album Sign O’ the Times into a smorgasbord of sounds and approaches – including this short story in power-pop form whose narrative is a poignant, sharply etched portrait of a would-be lover who doesn’t want to be a rebound. “Everyone has their own experience,” he told the NME in 1996. “That’s why we are here, to go through our experience, to learn, to go down those paths and eventually you may have gone down so many paths and learned so much that you don’t have to come back again.”

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“Alphabet Street” (1988)

The lead single from 1988’s Lovesexy shows how Prince could create fully realized funk from bare-bones elements. Jagged funk guitars and Levi Seacer Jr.’s bouncing bass line combine with Prince’s street-corner cool for a track that sounded absolutely bracing in the increasingly cacophonous context of late-Eighties pop radio. An extended breakdown featuring horns and an exhilarating rap by Prince protégé-choreographer Cat Glover turn up the heat and extend the party. The legacy of “Alphabet St.” continued through samples – hippie-hop collective Arrested Development’s much-lauded 1992 single “Tennessee” caused them to pay Prince $100,000 for their unauthorized repurposing while beloved weirdos Ween used Prince’s song-opening “No!” to mask the naughty words in their breakthrough “Push Th’ Little Daisies.”

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“Thieves in the Temple” (1990)

Graffiti Bridge, the sequel to 1984’s iconic Purple Rain was Prince’s final film role. But unlike its heralded predecessor, the accompanying soundtrack would far outshine the film. “Thieves in the Temple,” a brooding, spiritual meditation on lies, rejection and soul-searching that hit Number Six on the Billboard Hot 100, was a last-minute addition. With a Middle Eastern flavor, almost operatic vocals and an agitated feel, it was a decidedly new vibe for Prince. And one in which he didn’t feel comfortable residing for long. “I feel good most of the time, and I like to express that by writing from joy,” he told Rolling Stone in 1990. “I still do write from anger sometimes, like in ‘Thieves in the Temple.’ But I don’t like to. It’s not a place to live.”

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“Cream” (1991)

Legend has it, Prince wrote “Cream” while standing in front of a mirror, and, really, is there any doubt? Why else would he sing, “You’re so good/Baby there ain’t nobody better” on this impossibly slinky Diamonds and Pearls hit — his last Hot 100 Number One.

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“Diamonds and Pearls” (1992)

A sultry ballad of a title track off Prince’s 1991 album, “Diamonds and Pearls” was a Number Three hit on the Billboard Hot 100 and, more importantly, one of the most prominent instances in which the Purple One’s new backing band, the New Power Generation, stepped to the forefront. With NPG singer Rosie Gaines providing backing vocal support atop seductive synthesizer, Prince sings: “If I gave you diamonds and pearls/Would you be a happy boy or girl?” echoing the nearly-identical lyrics he’d sung a decade earlier on 1982’s “International Lover.” The album was largely panned as Prince’s response to hip-hop, but Diamonds and Pearls‘ title track intricately wedded the singer’s love of glitz and glamour with a distinct, ever-evolving pop-R&B sensibility.

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“7” (1992)

In the midst of his rebranding as an unpronounceable symbol, the Artist Formerly Known as Prince expanded his sonic palette on “7,” tapping into tablas and sitars, widescreen multi-tracked vocals and a sample of Lowell Fulson’s “Tramp.” Of course, given his out-there status at the time, Prince may have also been dabbling in numerology– seven represents the seeker and the searcher of truth, though it’s also entirely possible the seven he rails against are folks at Warner Bros. Records. Was he fighting for freedom? Searching for respect? Looking for easy access to your boudoir?

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“The Most Beautiful Girl in the World” (1994)

In 1993, Prince had changed his name to a symbol, was in a creative rut and was fighting with Warner Bros. over creative control. He realized he didn’t need help from a major label when he released “The Most Beautiful Girl in the World,” on indie label Bellmark. Prince reportedly spent $2 million out of his own pocket to promote the single. It turned out to be his biggest hit in years. The gorgeous falsetto-steeped ballad has clean funk guitar touches and keyboards, but Prince lets his gift for melody do most of the work. It was originally written for his future wife, choreographer, Mayte Jannell Garcia. She later recorded her own version, “The Most Beautiful Boy in the World.”

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“Black Sweat” (2006)

Released as the lead single from his 2006 album 3121, “Black Sweat” may be the best of Prince’s late period singles. Reminiscent of “Kiss,” it’s nothing but drum machine rhythms, glorious falsetto and a noodle-y synthesizer melody that hearkens to the Ohio Players’ “Funky Worm.” “I don’t want to dance too hard, but this is a groove,” he sings. “I’m hot and I don’t care who knows it… I’ve got a job to do.” “Black Sweat” may have only simmered on the charts, peaking at Number 60 on the Hot 100, but it helped 3121 debut at the top of the album charts, and earned a handful of Grammy nominations. More importantly, it was a timely reminder that Prince will always have the funk.