Over the coming weeks we will surely be hearing so much Prince you’ll think it’s 1984 again. The reason is an undeniably sad one, but Prince’s music is almost scientifically designed to make people happy, so there has never been a better time to spin the hits. And there’s no doubt the hits will get the most spinning. Prince had enough that it shouldn’t get too repetitious, but he was an artist through and through, and his album tracks and B-sides were very often as spectacular as the stuff that got lots of radio play.
So now would be a good time to roll out 21 underrated Prince songs for those who’ve never gone deeper than The Hits. In fact, my sole criterion for determining what might be underrated was to simply eliminate anything that wasn’t on volumes one and two of that compilation series (the bonus disc of B-sides, however, was fair game). My one other exception was “Batdance”, a number one hit that somehow got left off of The Hits, possibly because it’s enduring reputation is not quite as respected as that of, say, “1999” or “When Doves Cry”. Nevertheless, I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, “Batdance” is the most bizarre and experimental song to ever take Billboard’s top spot, and in it’s own way, it is completely underrated. Yet I’m pretty sure you’ve heard it… at least you did if you were alive in 1989, and if you weren’t, why are you reading Psychobabble? Unless you’ve served as a foot soldier in the Purple Legion, there’s a fair chance you have not heard all 21 of the following underrated Prince songs.
1. “Sister” (from the album Dirty Mind) 1980
Ever since those primordial days when Jackie Brenston warned you ladies he was gonna introduce you to his “Rocket 88,” Rock & Roll has had a very dirty mind. In the sixties, guys like Mick Jagger and Lou Reed upped Rock’s pornography quotient, but none of those cats had the sheer audacity to do what Prince did on his third album and first true mission statement. Dirty Mind pirouetted over a series of sexual taboos, culminating in “Sister”, an ode to incest screeched in gospel rapture that not only memorializes losing one’s virginity to a sibling but also tosses in references to S&M, blow jobs, blue balls, and getting one’s underwear caught in one’s pubes. It was as if Prince wanted to separate the fair-weather “I Wanna Be Your Lover” fans from the real freaks who would follow him down any dark alley he chose. Those who did were rewarded a-hundred fold.
2. “Private Joy” (from the album Controversy) 1981Compared to “sister”, a love song about sex toys is positively G-rated, but Prince’s delighted squeal makes “Private Joy” sound just as dirty. On Controversy, he opened up his sound with less homemade production values, making “Private Joy” also sound more accessible than “Sister” or the rest of Dirty Mind. Perhaps that also makes it more subversive, but as is always the case with Prince’s songs, after the shock value wears off, the sheer infectious danceability lives on infinitely.
3. “Automatic” (from the album 1999) 1982
Prince’s ultimate epic of debauchery arrived on the album that made him a superstar, so perhaps “Automatic” is his most subversive song of all. It begins as a fairly conventional love song, though the mechanical rhythm is an early hint that something strange is afoot. As the song develops over nine and a half mesmeric minutes, Prince and his newly acquired Revolution take a slow decent to Hell, ending up in the eighth circle of sexual torture where souls tormented with pleasure cry out at the mercy of their cruel Purple Master. “Automatic” is Prince at his most awe-inspiring and disturbing. It is Prince at his greatest.
4. “Something in the Water (Does Not Compute)” (from the album 1999) 1982
Prince’s experimentalism slipped into a strange new cube with “Something in the Water (Does Not Compute)”. No longer were his mechanical rhythms danceable. They were the sounds of a system running on its last bit of RAM, headed toward a digital scrap heap. The sounds function as the backdrop for Prince’s nasty reaction to a woman’s iciness, matching his most progressive music with the most retro-blues sentiments. Prince’s tendency to lapse into misogyny was never one of his most admirable traits, but “Something in the Water” is still a striking and frightening chip of anti-funk.
5. “All the Critics Love U in New York” (from the album 1999) 1982
Prince is still wielding a blade on this groove from his breakthrough album. This time his problem is critics, but it isn’t that they don’t dig his music; it’s that NYC critics dig everything. Prince turns up his nose at anyone who would praise punk or hippie jams… strange considering that he was more than a little influenced by big-time hippies such as The Beatles and Hendrix. Once again, Prince’s anger seems misdirected, but his funk is focused as a laser beam and twice as hot.
6. “Take Me with U” (from the album Purple Rain) 1984
Case in point regarding that Beatles love. “Take Me with U” is Prince in full-on flowery mode with a sixties psych pop vibe vibrant as Lovely Rita’s meter maid uniform or Mr. Kite’s fairground. His reference to spending the night in his “mansion,” however, is pure Reagan-era bigger-is-better materialism. Prince’s Earthly desires were always at the other end of the seesaw from his loftier needs. On this particular track, Apollonia is on the other end too, providing sweet counterpoint to this sixties-meets-eighties valentine. It is a piece of perfect pop, and my personal Prince favorite, but it was not one of most successful singles. Released after everyone on Earth already owned a copy of Purple Rain, it was doomed to miss the top twenty and its rightful status as one of Prince’s greatest hits. The airwaves’ loss is this list’s gain.
7. “The Beautiful Ones” (from the album Purple Rain) 1984
Prince’s greatest album begins in a state of euphoria, immediately hitting the listener with the frenzy of “Let’s Go Crazy” and the felicity of “Take Me with U”. On track three, everything halts. The pace slows to a snake crawl. Prince’s voice disappears into the helium ether. Gone is the joy that began the record. Gone is the delicious melody. Only pain remains. Prince ignites the ultimate slow burn, and as the inferno swells, he loses it. Completely. He cries. He begs. He screams. Utterly chilling, utterly spellbinding, utterly real.
8. “Baby, I’m a Star” (from the album Purple Rain) 1984
By the end of the album, the joy is back in a mammoth way, peaking with another crazed plea. But instead of begging for love, Prince is begging for the recognition that he is a superstar. He’d already become one with the smashing success of 1999. With Purple Rain, he became a fucking galaxy. This get-off-your-ass-and-tear-down-the-ceiling-with-your-teeth freak out is all the proof of that you need. As the B-side of “Take Me with U”, “Baby, I’m a Star” also completes one of pop’s great double-sided does of amphetamines. Doctor!
9. “Erotic City” (B-side) 1984
The flip of “Let’s Go Crazy” got plenty of radio time in 1984. This was a pretty radical choice considering how delightfully filthy “Erotic City” is. DJs rationalized it by choosing to hear “we can fuck until the dawn” as “we can funk until the dawn.” Even if that was what Sheila E. was singing, the next line would still be “making love ’til cherry’s gone”! The FCC was not as easily fooled and made quite a bit of bread on the fines it handed out to American radio stations. As always, Prince is not content to just go for shock, and he raises one of his gnarliest funks around one of his gnarliest lyrics.
10. “Around the World in a Day” (from the album Around the World in a Day) 1985
Prince had made one of the massive smash eighties pop albums with Purple Rain. On his next album, he blended his own special brand of pop with that of pop’s all-time massive smash group by dressing up his songs in multicolored Sgt. Pepper’s uniforms. Actually, the title track of Around the World in a Day (a collaboration with Lisa Coleman’s brother David) may owe more to Satanic Majesties-era Rolling Stones than The Beatles, with its spiraling arabesques and “Sing This All Together” community vibe. The concept of “a government of love and music boundless in its unifying power,” however, is one of the most perfect summations of Beatles ’67 imaginable. It’s one of the most perfect summations of Prince ’85 too.
11. “Paisley Park” (from the album Around the World in a Day) 1985
Prince pulls back the pace. The funky acid is kicking in. His voice swells and thins. Your heart bursts into paisley confetti. Prince welcomes the abused and the homeless to a trippy wonderland where everyone’s smiles speak “of profound inner peace.” He imagines a Utopian shelter in song and builds one for himself in reality with the estate/studio of the same name. “Paisley Park” is another intoxicating piece of eighties psychedelia, and an early indication of the social consciousness that was beginning to roll through Prince’s music with greater frequency.
12. “Tamborine” (from the album Around the World in a Day) 1985
After the psych fancies of the last two songs, Prince is back in more familiar territory with a good old sexual metaphor. The instrument in the title isn’t really a round thing with jangles. It’s the thing on his baby and the thing on himself he wants to play with all day. The jerky groove forgoes all psychedelic doodads, playing out as one of Prince’s purest, clearest recordings.
13. “She’s Always in My Hair” (B-side) 1985
The B-side of “Raspberry Beret”, perhaps Prince’s most enchanting Beatles tribute, has more of the psychedelic flavor of Around the World than “Tamborine” does. The heavily phased drums are disorienting. The lyric will re-orient you, though, with a simple and sweet celebration of a woman who makes everything bad good again. Though it has some truly great songs, Around the World in a Day is a bit of an uneven album as a whole. It would have been a lot more even if one of the weaker tracks were replaced with this one.
14. “Girls & Boys” (from the album Parade) 1986
Prince’s next album was more consistent than Around the World in a Day. That’s a relief considering that it’s also the soundtrack of an abysmal movie. However, if Parade would not have existed without Under the Cherry Moon, it’s a good thing that movie got made. Otherwise, there would be no “Girls & Boys”, a cheeky little pop funk full of grunty horns, chiming percussion, and French kissing.
15. “Mountains” (from the album Parade) 1986
On “Mountains”, Prince builds an ascending riff as towering and massive as the title objects. His songs are often emotionally raw, often depraved, often unsettling, often absurdly hummable, often dance-inducing. However, they are rarely as majestic as “Mountains”.
16. “The Ballad of Dorothy Parker” (from the album Sign O’ the Times) 1987
Prince’s talent is outsized. So is his output. During a decade when artists were expected to take a few years generate new product, he released a new album nearly every year. And nearly all of them were great! He released one of the greatest toward the end of the decade when you’d think his resources would have been kicked… and it was a double album! And that double album, Sign O’ the Times, stands as one of Prince’s defining statements. One of its most unique tracks is the vertiginous “Ballad of Dorothy Parker”. Funnily, the song does not pay tribute to the famous Algonquin Round Table wit, but it does feature a shout out to one of Prince’s favorite artist’s, Joni Mitchell.
17. “It” (from the album Sign O’ the Times) 1987
Alright, Prince has a song called “It”, and I’ll give you three guesses to guess what the “it” in question is, even though you only need one, because almost every Prince song on this list has been about “it.” Does he really need to add “fuckin’ on your mind” after shouting “think about it all the time”? Probably not. So what if the lyric is predictable Prince horniness when the music is also a predictably stellar Prince groove. He could still make it sound fresh.
18. “Strange Relationship” (from the album Sign O’ the Times) 1987
He could still make pure pop sound fresh too, though he sours it with a lyric about an emotionally abusive relationship. Prince must have taken great delight in impelling you to dance to songs with really fucked-up lyrics.
19. “The Cross” (from the album Sign O’ the Times) 1987
Prince lived by the cross as much as he lived by the cock, a concept that apparently disturbed him enough to drive him to write “Temptation”, one of his most revealing (though, frankly, ham-fisted and unmusical) songs. Yet Prince did seem to feel that eroticism and spirituality are not mutually exclusive, otherwise a song like “It” couldn’t sit on the same record as “The Cross”. Instead of flogging himself for his sins during an explicit battle between angels and devils as he did on “Temptation”, Prince goes the subtler route on “The Cross”. Using that Christian symbol as a basic symbol for hope in the face of poverty is as explicitly religious as the song gets. Musically, it’s one of Prince’s most enthralling piece of psychedelia, a droning raga rocker that rises from and hush to build to an glorious climax.
20. “Electric Chair” (from the album Batman) 1989
When Tim Burton got the gig of directing what would be the biggest blockbuster of 1989, he wanted his usual partner, Danny Elfman, to write the score. Producer Jon Peters had a more original idea. He wanted Prince. Burton and Peters compromised; Elfman would write the proper score and Prince would contribute a couple of pop songs. Prince, however, does not know what a compromise is, and when he wrote an entire album’s worth of songs, Batman found itself with two tie-in albums. Prince’s LP may not be as fondly remembered as 1999 or Purple Rain, and its smash single “Batdance” tends to get thought of as a mere novelty today (you already know my feelings on that topic, Dear Reader), but Batman actually has its share of excellent songs. The grinding “Electric Chair”, which would end up getting ground up and sprinkled into “Batdance”, is one of them.
21 “200 Balloons” (B-side) 1989
In fact, Prince recorded so many great songs for Batman, there wasn’t enough room on the record for all of them. Because it was somewhat similar to “Trust”, and because it was originally supposed to appear in the film where “Trust” ended up, “200 Balloons” ended up getting cut. So once again a terrific track—and really, one superior to the track to which it lost its spot—landed on a B-side, adorning the rear end of “Batdance” (as was the case with “Electric Chair”, shards of it also landed in “Batdance”). That’s too bad, but if that hadn’t happened, “200 Balloons” might not pack the same thrill of discovery that the other twenty underrated tracks on this list do.