Prince Rogers Nelson was a musical giant whose talent was only rivaled by his confidence. Strutting onto the charts at the end of the ‘70s, his sexually and sonically adventurous fusion of funk, rock, pop, and electronic turned him into one of the defining artists of the ’80s alongside Michael Jackson and Madonna. His 1984 album Purple Rain made him an arena headliner and, briefly, a movie star. But Prince, always two or three albums ahead of his audience, never stopped to bask in the spotlight.
He was prolific in ways that the music industry literally couldn’t handle, and his successful early career at Warner Bros. ended when the label failed to keep up with his output. Changing names and labels alienated some fans, but Prince kept coming back — adding to his legacy with mind-blowing tours, TV appearances, and occasionally brilliant new songs. By the time he died suddenly in 2016 at age 57, he’d made 38 albums under his own name, plus writing and producing dozens more for various proteges and associates.
Prince’s commercial breakthrough 1999 turns 40 on Oct. 27. But is it his best album?
38. The Slaughterhouse (2004)
“This is the kind of stuff that requires patience,” Prince intones through grating vocal effects on Slaughterhouse opener “Silicon.” It’s an understatement. On the eve of Prince’s major label comeback Musicology, his website NPG Music Club released two MP3 albums of songs featured on the subscription service since 2001. The Slaughterhouse is Prince at his most insular, with often tedious material that mostly sounds like the artist aimlessly joking around in the studio. But “Golden Parachute” is one of Prince’s funkiest and most incisive critiques of the music industry, lyrically barbed yet butter-smooth.
37. Xpectation (2003)
On Jan. 1, 2003, Prince fans woke up to a surprise: his first completely instrumental solo album, released exclusively through his NPG Music Club website. The best tracks, including “Xogenous,” feature Prince on guitar trading licks with Vanessa-Mae, the British violinist who sold millions of albums in the 1990s with her interpretations of classical music. Unfortunately, aside from a squelchy, strange guitar effect on “Xpand,” Xpectation rarely rises above the level of elevator music from an overqualified cast.
36. HITnRUN Phase One (2015)
HITnRUN Phase One kicks off with snippets of “1999” and “Let’s Go Crazy,” reminding you how a great Prince album opens. But after a segue into “Million $ Show,” reality sets in that you’re absolutely not listening to a great Prince album. A rare instance of Prince deferring to a co-producer, Joshua Welton’s opulent electro beats on Phase One ride the 2010s EDM zeitgeist with mixed results. But the smooth highlight is “1000 X’s & O’s,” a song that had been kicking around in different forms since 1992. “When this album does succeed – which it does on its back half – it’s because Prince and Welton have achieved a balance between dance and funk in which each genre brings out the best in the other,” wrote Abigail Covington in the AV Club review.
35. The Chocolate Invasion (2004)
The Chocolate Invasion, like its companion album The Slaughterhouse, compiles NPG Music Club loosies. But these songs are better, highlighted by horny standouts like “Underneath the Cream” and “Sexmesexmenot.” “Vavoom” is a strutting rocker with squealing guitar leads, and “U Make My Sun Shine” is a romantic duet with Angie Stone. Still, both albums were understandably overshadowed by the release of Prince’s comeback album Musicology a few weeks later.
34. The Rainbow Children (2001)
In 2001, Prince was ready to be “Prince” again: The Rainbow Children was his first album in seven years that wasn’t released under the “love symbol” alias. But he wasn’t quite ready for a commercial comeback — in some ways, The Rainbow Children is Prince’s most ambitiously message-driven album since Around the World in a Day. Musically, it’s jazzy and dense, with a utopian narrative unspooling across the 10-minute title track and continuing through over-the-top experiments like “Digital Garden.” While many of Prince’s later albums feel slight and undercooked, The Rainbow Children is an impressive and effortful album — one that’s, unfortunately, a humorless drag to listen to. The only great song, “She Loves Me 4 Me,” is buried deep in the album’s back half.
33. One Nite Alone… (2002)
Purple Rain is the album with “When Doves Cry,” but One Nite Alone… is where doves actually cry…or at least coo. Divinity and Majesty, Prince’s two pet doves since the ‘90s, make vocal cameos – in fact, aside from drummer John Blackwell on two tracks, they’re the only guests. Fans had long clamored over the few solo recordings of Prince singing and playing piano, including the classic B-side “How Come U Don’t Call Me Anymore?” One Nite Alone… finally delivers, at least partially. Some songs feel a little meandering and half-baked, while others, like “U’re Gonna C Me,” are spoiled by garish synth overdubs. The highlight is a beautiful cover of Joni Mitchell’s “A Case of You,” dedicated to Prince’s father, John L. Nelson, who died in 2001.
32. Art Official Age (2014)
Prince took his longest recording pause in the early 2010s — he went four years without a new album, focusing on touring and sporadic singles. Then in September 2014, he returned with two records on the same day. Art Official Age is Prince’s overt late-period attempt at catching up with the contemporary R&B zeitgeist, and it’s also a half-baked sci-fi concept album. It doesn’t entirely succeed on either front, although the more soulful tracks are enjoyable, particularly “Breakfast Can Wait” and the two duets with Andy Allo (later the star of the Amazon Prime series Upload).
31. N*E*W*S (2003)
After saxophonist Eric Leeds joined Prince’s band in the mid-‘80s, the duo broke off from the main group and made a couple of jazzy albums with their side project Madhouse. Sixteen years later, Prince released N*E*W*S, an instrumental solo outing heavily featuring Leeds — a mellower return of Madhouse. At its best, N*E*W*S is an extended groove workout, driven by one of Prince’s best drummers, John Blackwell, who died in 2017. But it can be a slow, uneventful listen: Opener “North” features a great guitar solo, but Prince doesn’t really get it going until almost halfway through the 14-minute track.
30. Planet Earth (2007)
Released a few months after his triumphant halftime performance at Super Bowl XLI, Planet Earth reunites Prince with some collaborators from his ‘80s peak: Wendy and Lisa, and Sheila E. While there are hints of Prince’s Revolution era, the album felt like a bland letdown after Musicology and 3121 brought him roaring back to mainstream relevance. Planet Earth sold well in the U.S., while Prince partnered with British newspapers The Daily Mirror and The Daily Record to distribute the album in the U.K. as a free covermount CD.
29. 20Ten (2010)
Following the distribution experiment of Planet Earth, Prince once again gave away over 2 million copies of 20Ten with issues in various newspapers across Europe. (It wasn’t given a traditional release elsewhere.) There’s a relaxed air to 20Ten, with “Sticky Like Glue” standing out for its unique mix of funk guitar and burbling synth bass. But the album isn’t exactly memorable, and “Everybody Loves Me” is a perfect example of how grating Prince’s later uptempo songs could be. Tony Parsons of The Daily Mirror called 20Ten “his best record since Sign O’ The Times,” but publications not distributing the album were less enthusiastic.
28. HITnRUN Phase Two (2015)
The last Prince album released in his lifetime was barely noticed. Available exclusively on Tidal, a streaming service with only a million subscribers at the time, HITnRUN Phase Two was an earthy, brass-heavy counterpoint to the more electronic Phase One, issued two months earlier. The death of Freddie Gray (after injuries sustained while in the custody of Baltimore police) moved Prince to record the single “Baltimore,” throwing his support behind the Black Lives Matter protest movement. But Prince’s swan song is also optimistic in songs like “Groovy Potential” and “Black Muse,” with its uplifting refrain, “A new day is dawning.”
27. Rave Un2 The Joy Fantastic (1999)
Carlos Santana, one of Prince’s biggest musical influences, staged an enormous comeback in 1999, with the star-studded Supernatural dominating the charts and Grammys. Later that year, Prince signed a one-album deal with Santana’s label, Arista, and released the bright and accessible Rave Un2 the Joy Fantastic, featuring guest spots from Gwen Stefani, Sheryl Crow, Eve, Chuck D, and Ani DiFranco. Needless to say, it was not Prince’s Supernatural moment, with the single “The Greatest Romance Ever Sold” missing the Top 40 and the album stalled out at gold. Still, crisp and bright R&B tracks like “The Sun, the Moon and Stars” charm more than the would-be hit duets.
26. Lotusflow3r/MPLSound/Elixir (2009)
Prince released several double and triple LPs. But this was the only time he folded three distinct albums by two different acts into one package. Lotusflow3r is heavy on electric guitar but low on energy, with a cover of “Crimson and Clover” standing out as a rare memorable tune. MPLSound throws a bone to fans nostalgic for his early work, reverse engineering his ‘80s sound with imitation LinnDrum beats and pitched-up “Camille” vocals. Elixir, the debut album from Prince’s young protégé Bria Valente, is a fairly anonymous set outside of “Another Boy,” one of his best late-period R&B compositions. None of these albums is a masterpiece individually, but it’s a satisfying set, with MPLSound as easily the best of the trio — despite the uncanny valley effect of hearing Prince imitate his younger self.
25. The Vault: Old Friends 4 Sale (1999)
The Vault: Old Friends 4 Sale fulfilled Prince’s Warner Bros. contract, completing his long divorce from the label that stretched across most of the ‘90s. Most of its songs had been kicking around for about five years before Prince assembled them into an album, and then the label took three more years to release it. But somehow The Vault felt right on time for the late ‘90s neo-soul era, with a six-piece horn section bolstering some of Prince’s most self-consciously retro R&B songs.
24. For You (1978)
Prince was 19 when he convinced Warner Bros. to sign him and let him produce his own albums, a rare privilege even for established artists at the time. Though For You feels like a tentative dry run for the legendary decade ahead of him, it’s still remarkable how fully formed Prince’s talent already was. For You features squishy synth funk (“Soft and Wet”) and hard rock (“I’m Yours”) alongside acoustic balladry (“Crazy You”) and a heavenly cathedral of a cappella harmonies (“For You”), setting the template for genre-mixing that nearly every future Prince album followed.
23. Plectrumelectrum (2014)
While the Revolution and New Power Generation were big, versatile ensembles, the all-female trio 3rdeyegirl was the smallest and punchiest backing band to earn co-billing on a Prince record. His only project with 3rdeyegirl, Plectrumelectrum, is a front-to-back guitar rock album, with even fewer frills and stylistic detours than Chaos and Disorder. At the time, Plectrumelectrum was somewhat overshadowed by the slicker, more R&B-leaning record released the same day, Art Official Age. But it’s a high point from the last decade of Prince’s career: funk rock with a fuzz pedal.
22. Batman (1989)
When Tim Burton’s first Batman film ruled the box office in the summer of 1989, Prince was along for the ride, topping the album and single charts with his soundtrack and the zany “Batdance.” It’s easy to see why Prince may have identified more with Batman’s mischievous, purple-suited arch villain The Joker more than the movie’s hero, and funky tracks like “Trust” and “Partyman” brilliantly scored Jack Nicholson’s scenery-chewing scenes. Batman is the only multi-platinum Prince album that feels like a minor work, but it’s undeniably entertaining.
21. Crystal Ball (1998)
Sign O’ The Times began as a compromise after his label balked at the prospect of releasing a triple album called Crystal Ball. For a decade, that lost project remained a holy grail for Prince obsessives who’d attempt to reconstruct it with bootlegs of unreleased tracks. The three-disc Crystal Ball that a newly independent Prince finally released in 1998 wasn’t it — just a third of its tracks were recorded in the ‘80s, with “Good Love” and the 10-minute epic “Crystal Ball” the only songs that appeared on the original shelved album. But the box set still marked the biggest official release from Prince’s legendary vault of unreleased songs. Despite some embarrassing ‘90s tracks like the reggae pastiche “Ripopgodazippa” that drag the collection down, Crystal Ball contains a wealth of material, some wonderful and some loose and downright comical.
20. Emancipation (1996)
Emancipation was Prince’s celebration — not just of his freedom from Warner Bros. but also of his marriage with Mayte Garcia. Warner Bros. had never let Prince make a triple album, so he immediately let loose a three-hour opus, full of new songs and covers of hits by the Delfonics, the Stylistics, and Bonnie Raitt. (Warner Bros. had also discouraged him from putting covers on his albums.) There’s something infectious about hearing Prince make happy, corny songs like “Courtin’ Time,” but you can’t get around the conspicuous lack of great material in a 36-track set.
19. Graffiti Bridge (1990)
People who aren’t diehard Prince fans probably don’t even know there was a sequel to Purple Rain. But Prince’s last stab at movie stardom revisited his only cinematic triumph, as he played The Kid again six years later. Graffiti Bridge’s soundtrack is really the only album that’s equal parts Prince solo and Prince writing and producing other artists, a rich but uneven grab bag of sounds. The Prince half includes one of his most unique and uncategorizable hits, “Thieves in the Temple,” and several old songs from the vault that actually predate Purple Rain. The other half features great performances from co-stars George Clinton, Mavis Staples, the Time, and Tevin Campbell, who was introduced to the world with his Graffiti Bridge hit “Round and Round.”
18. The Truth (1998)
The Truth was initially buried as disc four of the Crystal Ball box set, a stripped-down acoustic album of new songs after a vault-clearing collection of old outtakes. But for an artist who never performed on MTV Unplugged and wouldn’t make acoustic sets a regular live feature until 2004, it’s fascinating to hear Prince alone with little more than a guitar for a whole album. Still, The Truth isn’t a mellow collection of folk songs, as evidenced by Prince’s climactic shriek during the opening title track. It’s as feisty and opinionated on a variety of topics as any of his albums, with less instrumentation getting in the way of the lyrics.
17. Lovesexy (1988)
Lovesexy was initially released on CD with all nine songs on one long track, defying the digital format’s advantage of being able to skip around. Unfortunately, the album Prince insisted on being digested as an undivided whole was his weakest in a decade, the abrupt end to a historic hot streak. The record was tracked in seven weeks, as Prince’s self-conscious pivot to positivity and God, after he’d decided to shelve The Black Album — perhaps one of his most important turning points. But removed from the context of that initial disappointment, its playful funk and pious good vibes make it sound more like a superior prototype of roughly a dozen later Prince albums.
16. The Gold Experience (1995)
The Gold Experience contained the last top 10 hit of Prince’s career, “The Most Beautiful Girl in the World,” and was the only one of his last few Warner projects supported with a tour and sustained promotion. Perhaps if it had come out amid a less cluttered release schedule, without the label drama taking the focus off the music, it could’ve been another hit on the level of Diamonds and Pearls. Instead, The Gold Experience became something of a cult favorite among Prince’s shrinking fanbase, thanks to songs like the scorching rocker “Endorphinmachine” and the lascivious “P Control.”
15. The Black Album (1994)
The Sign O’ The Times singles were still charting in late 1987 when Prince decided on a surprise album of hard drum machine funk — one aimed at reconnecting with Black listeners after years of crossover pop success. The record was to be issued in a plain black sleeve with no title, but it gained even more mystique when Prince had a religious awakening and decided to pull the “evil” album at the last minute and instead release the more positive Lovesexy. Over the next seven years, the neglected material attained legendary status as a bootleg, hailed by critics and musicians as superior to Lovesexy. And The Black Album finally was officially released by Warner Bros. in 1994 as his contentious relationship with the label was sputtering to an end.
14. Musicology (2004)
In 2004, Prince returned from his long, largely self-imposed pop culture exile with a major charm offensive. He opened the Grammys performing a Purple Rain medley with Beyonce. He blew the roof off the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame with his jaw-dropping “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” solo. And he released Musicology, his only multi-platinum album of the 21st century. The record and its title track made a bold statement about returning to the classic values of musicianship and songwriting. The brash young star who had once upended gender norms and overhauled the sound of mainstream R&B with synths and drum machines was now a middle-aged guy in a suit lamenting that kids these days don’t have jazz chops. But the album backed up all his rhetoric with gorgeous, beautifully played songs like “Call My Name” and “If Eye Was the Man in Ur Life.”
13. Diamonds and Pearls (1991)
Three weeks before Prince released Diamonds and Pearls, he closed out the 1991 MTV’s Video Music Awards with one of his most memorable TV performances, singing “Gett Off” in an assless leopard-print jumpsuit. While that lead single reestablished Prince as one of pop’s most irrepressible provocateurs, the title track and the chart-topping “Cream” really made the album into a multi-platinum phenomenon, the last gasp of his imperial period.
12. Chaos and Disorder (1996)
Chaos and Disorder was issued just before Prince’s contract with Warner Bros. was dissolved. No singles were released in the U.S., and Prince refused to promote Chaos and Disorder, which became his lowest-charting album since the ‘70s and went out of print for over a decade. But time has been kind to the album: Chaos and Disorder is seen as a hidden gem from the flood of material released during his most embattled period, an energetic rock record full of humor and melody. There are stylistic outliers – “Dig U Better Dead” features some of Prince’s best hip-hop-influenced production – but the album finds Prince largely in guitar hero mode, backed by a leaner and meaner pared-down lineup of New Power Generation musicians.
11. 3121 (2006)
Arriving two years after the major comeback of Musicology, 3121 proved that success wasn’t a fluke — it became his first U.S. No. 1 album in 17 years. Also, “Black Sweat,” a single that genuinely excited people, may be the last time Prince sounded like he was on pop’s cutting edge. He wasn’t exactly competing with Justin Timberlake for radio spins, but he hardly needed to, since FutureSex/LoveSounds was full of Prince homages.
10. Love Symbol (1992)
A year before Prince changed his name to an unpronounceable symbol, he made it the title of his 14th album, ironically launched with a defiant single called “My Name is Prince.” Several dialogue-heavy interludes with a storyline involving Egyptian artifacts were cut from the final mix, leaving just a couple skits with Cheers star Kirstie Alley playing a reporter. Despite the muddled origins, great songs like “7” and “The Morning Papers” helped push the album to platinum sales.
9. Come (1994)
Like Chaos and Disorder, Come was an undeserving casualty of Prince’s name change and war with Warner Bros. He put the words “Prince 1958-1993” on the cover, marking a funeral for his old identity, and misleadingly dismissed the recently recorded songs as “old material.” But Come actually contains some of Prince’s most timely and vital music of the 1990s — it’s a sleek and sexually charged album that feels in step with groups like Jodeci and TLC who ruled the era’s R&B charts.
8. Around The World in A Day (1985)
Nobody would’ve faulted Prince if he’d toured Purple Rain for two years and released seven singles from the album, as Bruce Springsteen had done for its closest competitor, Born in the U.S.A. Instead, Prince had a curveball follow-up ready to go 10 months later, turning the page to new, more challenging songs. Even with singles as irresistibly hooky as “Raspberry Beret” and “Pop Life,” Prince’s huge new fanbase couldn’t help but notice how baroque and long-winded “Condition of the Heart” and “Temptation” were. But Around The World in a Day’s psychedelic detour was an important moment in Prince’s creative development, the peak of Wendy and Lisa’s influence on his sound, and proof that superstardom was never going to tame him.
7. Dirty Mind (1980)
Dirty Mind, the first album Prince recorded in a home studio, is a musically stark and sexually explicit break from the bright post-disco of his first two albums, laying the groundwork for his ‘80s triumphs. But beyond the tawdry envelope-pushing of “Head” and “Sister,” the winsome new wave of “When You Were Mine” showed that Prince’s crossover moment was inevitable. “Mick Jagger should fold up his penis and go home,” Robert Christgau wrote in his Village Voice review.
6. Prince (1979)
Prince’s early one-man-band era established him as a wunderkind who could make a sound as opulent as Earth, Wind & Fire all by himself, with synths taking the place of horns. His self-titled second album was a quantum leap forward from For You, and “I Wanna Be Your Lover” became his first top 20 hit. But the entire album is a pleasure, from the cock rock of “Bambi” to cinematic closer “It’s Gonna Be Lonely,” later sampled on Kanye West’s “Big Brother.” Plus, “Why You Wanna Treat Me So Bad?” still stands tall as one of Prince’s best guitar solos.
5. Controversy (1981)
Controversy in many ways feels like a sequel to Dirty Mind. Both albums open with their respective title tracks using similar pulsing grooves; “Jack U Off” mixed retro sounds with edgy lyrics like “Sister” and the Cold War anxiety of “Partyup” continued into “Ronnie, Talk To Russia.” But everything about Controversy sounds bigger and more fully realized, especially his first quiet storm staple, the seven-minute epic “Do Me, Baby.” “I think that Prince stands as [Sly] Stone’s most formidable heir, despite his frequent fuzzy-mindedness and eccentricity. A consummate master of pop-funk song forms and a virtuosic multiinstrumentalist, Prince is also an extraordinary singer whose falsetto, at its most tender, recalls Smokey Robinson’s sweetness,” wrote Stephen Holden in the Rolling Stone review.
4. Parade (1986)
Parade’s opening suite — four songs that together run over nine minutes — is all the more remarkable because Prince reportedly laid down drums for the entire sequence in one take. After years of eschewing real horns and strings in favor of synths, Parade marked the arrival of two collaborators — saxophonist Eric Leeds and orchestral arranger Clare Fischer — who for years helped make Prince’s albums lusher. But Parade may have baffled the public just as much as its companion film, Under the Cherry Moon, had Prince not reclaimed “Kiss” from the group he’d originally written it for, Mazarati — giving his soundtrack a blockbuster single.
3. 1999 (1982)
Roger Linn introduced his LM-1 Drum Computer and its successor, the LinnDrum, into the marketplace in the early ‘80s — and, at the time, he wasn’t sure if it would be a niche product primarily used for demos. But it was headed straight to the pop charts, partly piloted by Prince. 1999 is when Prince really began to exploit the device’s possibilities, running it through guitar pedals for a wider range of textures. The distinctive knock of the LinnDrum is the foundation of “Little Red Corvette” and “1999,” the songs that made Prince a household name. His first double LP is also full of eight- and nine-minute songs like “Automatic” and “D.M.S.R.,” where Prince loses himself in hypnotic grooves while the programmed beat goes on and on.
2. Purple Rain (1984)
Soundtrack LPs were big business in the ‘80s. Flashdance, Dirty Dancing, Footloose, The Breakfast Club, Ghostbusters, Beverly Hills Cop — any box office hit with a big, silly synth pop song playing over a montage sent Americans to record stores in droves. But Purple Rain stands apart: a transcendent album that happens to have a pretty entertaining film attached to it. “Purple Rain” was Prince’s Journey-inspired attempt at a power ballad that would help him headline bigger venues like Bob Seger. But his naked ambition for world domination mingled freely with his immutable weirdness on Purple Rain, most famously on “When Doves Cry” but also on the outre “Computer Blue” and the bawdy “Darling Nikki,” the song that almost single-handedly caused albums with dirty words to be sold with “parental advisory” stickers.
1. Sign O’ The Times (1987)
After Parade, Prince worked on several ultimately shelved projects as the Revolution fell apart, including the original Crystal Ball, Dream Factory, and Camille, before the wealth of material coalesced into its final form. Sign O’ The Times is a tour de force, with some of Prince’s hardest funk (“Housequake” and the live free-for-all “It’s Gonna Be a Beautiful Night”), his most sensuous soul (“Adore” and “Slow Love”), and songs that defy categorization (“The Ballad of Dorothy Parker” and “If I Was Your Girlfriend”). Among other talents, Prince was a brilliant editor, turning these complicated origins into one of the most consistent, diverse, and exciting double LPs of all time.