The world lost a musical giant in Prince's passing on April 21st. While there are plenty of details and revelations still to come, AllMusicBooks would like to take this time to celebrate the man and his music, and are asking authors to share their thoughts on Prince.
Matt Thorne is the author of the recently published Prince: The Man and His Music , which examines every phase of Prince's career over thirty-five years. Matt decided to share his “Top 10 Underrated Prince Albums” with us and we can't think of a better way to kick off a celebration of the extraordinary artist known as Prince.
“Albums were important to Prince. As he told the Grammys, ‘like books and black lives, albums still matter.’ He put out at least one most years, sometimes several. Some of these—Dirty Mind, 1999, Purple Rain, Sign o’the Times — rank as the finest achievements in popular music. But in his huge catalogue there are as many records that remain lesser known, highly regarded by his most devoted fans but often ignored by the world at large. While we wait to find out what treasures are buried in his Paisley Park vault, here are a list of ten albums released in his lifetime worthy of further exploration.”
10 — 20Ten (2010)
Before re-signing with Warner Brothers in 2014, Prince tried every possible means of distributing his records — making them part of the ticket price at concerts, selling them via exclusive deals with big box stores, internet fan-clubs — but his weirdest means of distribution was via British tabloid newspapers, which he did not once but twice. 20Ten was the second of the two releases and never even got a proper American release (a ‘Deluxe Version’ was rumoured but failed to materialise). Very little is known about the recording of this album — it’s mainly Prince alone or with his three backing vocalists of the time — and it’s one of his least characteristic records. The lyrics alternate between funny boasts (one track’s called ‘Everybody Loves Me’, another features Prince referring to himself as the “purple Yoda”) and, very unusually, travelogues from foreign lands. But it has a unique sound that owes little to his back catalogue and some of his most adventurous music.
9 — Chaos & Disorder (1996)
The first of two kiss-off albums given to Warner Brothers to release after he’d left the label, Prince told a reporter he was trying to emulate Van Halen recording their first album in a week with his most hard rock influenced album. But that wasn’t the whole story. Although he recorded the majority of the record in two months in Miami, he also dug out some old songs from the Vault, slinging together one of his most vicious records, a break-up album not with a woman, but his employers. Largely forgotten at the time, Prince later came to reappraise this album, frequently playing large chunks of it live.
8 — Lotusflow3r/MPLSound (2009)
Two albums sold together (well, actually three, as they came with a protégée record by Bria Valente in the same package), these records show Prince returning to his roots, in two different ways. Lotusflow3r is a ‘70s-influenced rock album, while the aptly-named MPLSound sees Prince going back to (and updating) his city’s signature sound. It was disappointing how quickly Prince fell out of love with these albums as there’s some great music here (‘Colonized Mind’, ‘Ol’ Skool Company’, ‘No More Candy 4 U’), his loss of interest largely due to the failure of the website he set up to promote them.
7 — The Vault…Old Friends 4 Sale (1999)
The second of the Warner Brothers albums released after his departure, this curious collection was given a low-key release and came with a warning discouraging the listener from playing it. A strange mixture of rejected soundtrack songs, Prince’s own version of a song ('5 Women +') he gave to Joe Cocker, and some jazz-influenced tracks recorded in unknown circumstances, it’s one of his most varied and enjoyable later records.
6 — Emancipation (1996)
Prolific artists are often described as erratic. Prince was never erratic. If he had a flaw, it was his consistency. He was consistently good, and that was exhausting for some. Emancipation is the greatest example of that, three whole hours of consistently good music. It has less great tracks than many of his records, but aside from a couple of songs that have dated (the Kate Bush collaboration ‘My Computer’, about the early days of the internet), there’s not a weak song here.
5 — Hit n Run Phase Two (2016)
Prince’s last album doesn’t feel in any way like a late work or final statement. It’s not like Bowie’s Blackstar: it definitely doesn’t feel like a record written by a man with any awareness of his mortality. Instead this collection offers a different sort of comfort. Containing what feels like a dozen fresh starts, it explodes out in every direction. A clearing-house for tracks that hadn’t made it to any of his other recent projects, it shows that had he lived Prince could have gone on coming up with new directions forever.
4 — New Power Soul (1998)
Yes, it is a Prince album. It may be left out of some of his discographies because it was credited to the New Power Generation, but it was recorded as a Prince record, and only released under the band’s name because there was some disappointment about the results. This disappointment is inexplicable — it may be rough round the edges (some of the tracks are literally rough mixes), but it’s one of Prince’s warmest, liveliest, funniest records. And then, buried as a hidden track at the very end of the album, his darkest song, ‘Wasted Kisses’.
3 — Art Official Age (2014)
When Prince returned to releasing albums in 2014 after his longest ever break from releasing LPs (he’d still been putting out singles in the interim) he came back with two records. One, Plectrum Electrum, was a slightly disappointing rock album with his new band, 3rdEyeGirl. The other was a record to rank with his finest, and his last truly great album. Part sci-fi concept album, part the weary lament of a rock-star always on the road, it felt deeply personal yet kept the listener at a distance. This is one that still has mysteries to reveal.
2 — The Rainbow Children (2001)
Along with 3121, this was Prince’s greatest album since Lovesexy and it’s only not on the top spot because I have to acknowledge that the record split fans. Less adventurous listeners were put off by the jazz, the Jehovah’s Witness-inspired lyrics and Prince interrupting the music to bark strange commands in a distorted voice. But for those familiar with experimental music and longing for Prince to make a grand statement again, the strength of the musicianship and the outrageous ambition of this record was a reason to fall back in love with him after the confusing ‘90s. The album was accompanied by one of his best ever tours, and a triple live set One Nite Alone…Live also well worth hearing.
1 — 3121 (2006)
Perhaps the best-known record on the list, this came out via a major record label (Universal) and enjoyed some chart success. On first listen, it seemed encouragingly ambitious after the more conservative Musicology, but it needs months (hell, years) on the turntable to truly reveal its depths. This album revitalised Prince’s live show, the title track and ‘Get on the Boat’ giving his new horn section (including Maceo Parker) room to shine. There’s no filler on the record and tracks like ‘Te Amo Corazon’, ‘Black Sweat’, ‘Love’ and ‘Fury’ deserve a spot on any Prince playlist. Pop Prince at his purest.