So today mental_floss is running the quiz that I suggested to them back in April, which led to the idea of a whole week of Klaw quizzes: Can you name the six #1 hits authored by Prince?
To celebrate this, here’s a countdown of my twenty favorite Prince songs, which I recommend you skip until you’ve tried the quiz. Prince completists out there will probably notice that all but one of these songs were released as singles; in part this is because I am generally a singles guy instead of a deep tracks guy, in part because I think deep tracks guys are usually pretentious boobs, and in part because my first introduction to early Prince came from The Hits which, if you ignore the third disc that is clearly for pretentious boobs, is rather awesome.
(EDIT: Why 21? Because somehow I deleted “Raspberry Beret” when reordering songs, didn’t notice it, and added a 20th song before posting. Of course, I wrote the whole thing two weeks ago, so I’m just guessing that that’s what I did.)
21. “Partyman.” Prince had a very long peak, but it wasn’t a steady one; the late ’80s were relatively fallow for him and he didn’t bounce back all the way until Diamonds and Pearls in 1991. The video for “Partyman” starred a relatively unknown Dutch sax player named Candy Dulfer, who then had a crossover pop hit called “Lily Was Here” a year later.
20. “Little Red Corvette.” I wonder what Prince song has actually received the most airplay over the years – it seems like “Corvette” is a staple of eighties stations the way that Visage’s “Fade to Grey” is de rigueur for ’80s new wave compilations. It’s a good enough song, with lyrics that walk the line between clever and all-right-we-get-it-everything-is-about-sex, which kind of sums up 64% of the songs Prince recorded, with the other 36% just about sex without any of the metaphors.
19. “Why You Wanna Treat Me So Bad?” Prince was pretty big on the synth early in his career, before the New Wave crowd took it and played it directly into the ground. This was one of Prince’s catchier synth hooks; “When You Were Mine” has better lyrics (“You didn’t have the decency to change the sheets”), but he sounds like he recorded his vocals with a towel stuffed in his mouth.
18. “I Wanna Be Your Lover.” His first US top 40 pop hit, with 28 more to follow. I wonder how many programmers and listeners realized what exactly Prince was saying in the chorus.
17. “Black Sweat.” I think this is the only post-name-change song on the list; it sounds a lot like early Prince with better production values and a very catchy drum machine riff behind it. It’s less-is-more music.
16. “I Could Never Take the Place of Your Man.” Ten thirty-five on a lonely Friday night.
15. “Sign O’ the Times.” Hated this song when it came out, because it was so strange. Now I like it, because it’s so strange. Prince was never big on social commentary, at least not in songs he released as singles, but “Sign” is entirely about it, and one of the first mainstream songs to talk about AIDS.
14. “Thieves in the Temple.” Honestly, if it wasn’t for this song, I’m sure Prince could propose that we all forget that Graffiti Bridge ever happened and get a unanimous “amen” from the congregation.
13. “1999.” Might not have made my list at all on January 1, 2000, because I was so damn sick of it.
12. “Let’s Go Crazy.” Dearly beloved … Purple Rain was Prince’s breakthrough, and I’d like to think the main reason is that he veered so much farther into rock territory than he ever had before. He was already working his own wide-ranging style of fusion, and by assimilating a big chunk of not just rock but distorted guitar-driven rock, he created something pretty amazing that no one has been able to match since then. Oh, and this wasn’t even the best song on the album.
11. “Delirious.” Great song that sounds kind of dated now. It’s begging for a remake that replaces the little Casiotone synthesizer he used on the original track with some guitar.
10. “U Got the Look.” Prince invents text messaging, with the help of the hey-she-got-kinda-hot Sheena Easton.
9. “Alphabet St.” Perhaps better in the version released as a single, without the embarrassing rap from “Kat,” although for embarrassing it’s tough to top “Dead on It” from The Black Album. Also, getting “Alphabet St.” as a single meant that you didn’t have to buy Lovesexy and end up with one of the more ill-advised album covers in music history. (This was the most ill-advised cover in music history. I warned you, but you’re going to click anyway.)
8. “Pope.” I think this is the only B-side on the list – it was unreleased before The Hits came out. Very catchy, with humorous lyrics and that same less-is-more feel that a lot of Prince’s best songs have. It’s poppy by Prince standards.
7. “Raspberry Beret.” My wife was floored when I told her this wasn’t one of Prince’s #1 songs. I’ve often wondered if this song gave Ian Broudie the idea to call his side project the Lightning Seeds (a mondegreen from the line “thunder drowns out what the lightning sees”). And no, I don’t think the urban legend about “in through the out door” is true.
6. “Sexy MF.” Not one you’re going to hear on the radio any time soon. Sort of a funky NPG jam session with plenty of sexual innuendo and a syncopated beat that feels like an odd time signature or a record that keeps jumping ahead. I could argue for any song from here on for #1.
5. “When Doves Cry.” Hell of a guitar intro, brilliant lyrics, and no bass line whatsoever.
4. “Soft & Wet.” This was actually Prince’s first single, according to Wikipedia, but I’ve never heard it on the radio. The title gives you a fairly clear indication of what the song is about, and what almost every song Prince recorded in the first four or five years of his career was about. It’s dated with the heavy synth use – almost funk meets new wave – but the hook is sharp. Great first line, too, although that might be the reason I’ve never heard it on the radio.
3. “7.” No one seems to know to what seven people the song refers, but the mystical lyrics and catchy chorus made it kind of a surprise hit. Of course, in the U.S., it peaked at #7.
2. “Gett Off.” One of the best opening stanzas to any song, ever: “How can I put this in a way so as not to offend or unnerve/But there’s a rumor going around that you ain’t been gettin’ served/They say that you ain’t you know what in baby who knows how long/It’s hard for me to say what’s right when all I wanna do is wrong.” The song was sort of a return to Prince’s glory days of sex-driven funk, but despite serving as the first single off the Diamonds and Pearls album, it didn’t make a dent in the singles charts until the album’s second single, “Cream,” went to #1.
1. “Kiss.” Iconic? Anthemic? Timeless. There may be no better exemplar of less is more in music.