or those of you who don’t know, Prince has a new album out: 3121. It was released on March 21st (3/21) and early returns are positive. It is certainly better than Musicology, my be better than Rainbow Children, and may even be his best effort in fifteen years. “Black Sweat” and “Lolita” bring us back all the way to Prince’s Dirty Mind days, (hopefully) reminding or educating a new generation about where producers such as the Neptunes got theirs. Makes you want to look at his career, doesn’t it? Let’s try that…
A few weeks ago, Daddy Wrall and I began to solidify a long-debated list: Prince’s top six albums. Attempting to take into account artistic merit, critical acclaim, chart success, historical importance and most importantly, personal opinion, we went about ordering those albums that we considered his undeniable best. Some will balk at this list. We are too young to remember the debut of many of these works and did not have the knowledge or historical perspective to understand their impact at the time for any of them. When “Dirty Mind” hit the airwaves in the early 80’s, its stripped-down, one man funk must have been shocking next to the slick production of the disco of the day. Though we can understand this, we didn’t live it (at least consciously), so please save your critiques. If Dubs and I know anything, we know funk, and we can rate Prince compared to himself. That’s all we intend to do here.
(You might be asking, “Why top six?” And though, I know top five is more typical, I’m more into six. It fits better.)
6. 1999 Prince’s breakthrough album that catapulted him into the realm of superstardom, established that we was here to stay, 1999 should make the list just on the merits of the anthemic “1999” and “Little Red Corvette”. You know this record, though. What can you say about…
5. Diamonds and Pearls Probably his most underrated album, Diamonds and Pearls actually performed well in record stores. This album showed off an incredibly tight New Power Generation and only has one bad song: “Jughead”. With successful singles such as the title track and “Cream” it’s forever sing-along-able, but it’s “Willing and Able,” “Walk Don’t Walk” and “Money Don’t Matter 2 Night” that make this an artistic masterpiece. “Willing and Able” takes Michael Bland playing his best impersonation of the South African grooves popularization on Graceland and layers them with a call and response between Prince and the Steeles. As if that weren’t enough, the song ends with a rap by NPGer Tony M. Now, even if you don’t like the rap (which I do), its comedy is undeniable.
Diamonds and Pearls happened early enough in the nineties that Prince hadn’t yet been affected by the horrible production styles that were about to follow. And unlike his earlier recordings, there is nothing lofi in here. This album is probably too long, and “Jughead” is pretty awful (DW would argue in its defense), but it’s an incredibly entertaining listen, with a undeniable artistic merit. Don’t be scared by “Thunder” when it starts, though.
4. Dirty Mind This album changed the game. It popularized the stripped-down style that has become the basis for soooooooooooooo much of today’s pop music. It showed off the best one man band since Stevie Wonder. It can play beginning to end at a club and never empty the dance floor. Most importantly, though, it single-handedly rendered obsolete the distinction between the pop and r&b charts. If The Beatles caused the splintering of pop music by inventing fifty new genres, then Prince made those distinctions obsolete. Call him the great reuniter, since the king of pop title went to some other, less deserving soul.
3. Purple Rain The quintessential Prince album? Yes. This one took him to the top. And I mean the tippity-top. It has pop goodness (“Let’s Go Crazy”), pop badess (“Darling Nikki”), an acceptably overlong power ballad (“Purple Rain”), weirdness (“Computer Blue”) and a home for our favorite catchphrase (“When Doves Cry”). Did I mention that it’s also a great film that inspired waaaaaaaaay too many remakes (see 8 Mile) and launched the careers of Morris Day and Time and Appolonia?
2. Sign O The Times Most critics see this as not only his best album, but also his last good one. They are wrong. He has done good, and even better work, since. However, the merits of this album cannot be overlooked. An amazing collection of songs that traverse a variety of styles and topics, this record has something for every taste. One can see how it was whittled down from seven records spanning two projects. Prince was at his creative peak at this time, had finally embraced horns (thanks to Eric Leeds’ brilliance), and had a seemingly inexhaustible supply of clever pop gimicks to mix with his superior musicianship and vocal prowess.
What’s the problem, then? Why is this not the best? The simple answer is that he just got better. On Sign of the Times, Prince didn’t have these songs in this order in mind. It’s an amazing collection of songs, but it doesn’t flow with the best albums of all time. Also, he had a great new band to replace the revolution, but he didn’t trust them yet, so he continued to play a lot of the parts himself (perhaps too much). I love the Camille persona, but it does break up the flow a bit to have these competing ideas for a lead singer. I have a difficult time promoting a double album to the top of any list. It seems to break the definition of “album” and therefore deserve an asterisk. The concert video fixes most of these problems: the band plays the whole time, it’s shorter, Prince sings the Camille songs as Prince, and best of all: you get to see the choreography and outfits. Heck, the splits and Eric Leeds in a cloak: who could ask more than that? I could. I’d ask for…
1. Lovesexy Take nine amazing songs, have them played by the best musicians and sung by the best singer, produce them in a consistent way and order them so that they flow together. Now add recurring themes and an overarching idea. What do you get? (Ooh La La, Sha Sha… but that’s another story.)
You get Lovesexy. It’s only problem is that the CD version is all on one track. In the end, though, this actual works to Prince’s advantage. Some songs (that might seem more shallow at first listen) are considered with each listening, due to the inability to skip through, causing an extra appreciation for not just the album as a whole, but also these “weaker” songs. In the end, they aren’t weaker at all. “Positivity” is maybe the best last song in Prince’s discography. The Lovesexy band is his best group of musicians, and the group with the most personality. This album takes all of what was good about Sign O The Times and improves on it. Eric Leeds is quoted as saying that Prince’s vocabulary had been established before this record (meaning it didn’t break new ground.) Even if that’s true, Lovesexy is the best example of his vocabulary, the most complete version of Prince’s musical vision.
Honorable mention goes to Parade, the Rainbow Children and the Black Album. Critics lauded Musicology when it came out a couple of years ago and I think they are crazy. One review called it “his best since Sign O The Times,” which I think is just crazy. I saw Prince on that tour, and he was amazing, but I really thought he was done as far as recording went because of that record. 3121 proved me wrong, and might even make a case for top ten some day, so check it out.
Please excuse shameless plugs for Miss Fairchild’s own music; I really do think it’s that good. Oh, and stay tuned for more top six lists.