Discog Fever - Rating and Reviewing the First 20 Years of Prince Albums (Part 1)

by Jeff Fiedler

Discog Fever is a regular feature on thegreatalbums.com, rating and reviewing a band's entire catalogue of studio albums.

One of the primary reasons why Prince’s career stumbled somewhat in the ‘90s was due to an ongoing and highly bitter legal battle with his label, Warner Brothers, that led to Prince pulling curious and very press-coverage-grabbing stunts such as changing his name to an unpronounceable symbol (for much of the ‘90s, the press simply referred to him as “The Artist”) or writing the word “Slave” on his face (albeit backwards).  Allegedly, one of the reasons for his anger was that the label simply wasn’t willing to put out everything he gave them – a rare instance of a major record label actually insinuating that one of their own artists was TOO prolific. They may have had a point, actually; once Prince was free of his contract, he went on to put out an absolutely dizzying array of studio discs, odds-and-ends packages, fan club releases, and side projects. Frankly, his discography got just a little too busy for even the most devoted of fans to keep track of everything he was putting out, and naturally, the quality also got a little spottier. It’s a real testament to just how breathtakingly prolific he was that there were reportedly still at least several dozen more albums of still-unreleased material allegedly sitting in his vaults at the time of Prince’s recent, sudden, and untimely passing. While his post-‘90s output is somewhat spotty and also lacks the radio hits of his older discs, it certainly shouldn’t be entirely overlooked, either – Musicology, 3121, and Art Official Age, for instance, are all very worthwhile albums and come recommended. However, we thought we’d dedicate our Discog Fever feature on the Purple One to his first twenty years before he had free rein to do pretty much whatever he wanted and his discography started getting so confusing. For a twenty-year period, it’s astoundingly solid, with only a few real stumbles of any note, and this doesn’t even cover the countless hits he wrote (often under an alias like Christopher or Alexander Nevermind) or co-wrote for other artists, such as the Bangles “Manic Monday,” Sheena Easton’s “Sugar Walls,” or Martika’s “Love … Thy Will Be Done,” so he certainly assembled a very admirable body of work as a songwriter in that time.  

For You (1978, Warner Bros.)

B –

It only hints at the potential to come, but, nonetheless, Prince’s debut outing is still an impressive and remarkably confident outing.  Prince has yet to form a backing band and consequently plays all the instruments here with amazing results, and he also already has developed a fondness for flirting with all kinds of different genres – the closing cut, “I’m Yours,” in fact, is practically a hard-rock song and features a few extended guitar solos that would impress even Eddie Van Halen (who, coincidentally, was on the same label and would similarly release his own first album the very same year).  Prince has yet to fully reach his potential here as a songwriter, so the album isn’t quite as strong composition-wise as the albums that would immediately follow it, but there are still some very fine tunes scattered throughout – particularly “Soft and Wet,” “Just As Long As We’re Together” and “My Love Is Forever” – and it all sounds great. You’re not likely to recognize any of the songs on first listen – the closest thing to a hit here was “Soft and Wet,” which just barely cracked the Hot 100 – but most of the songs do have decent hooks, and it’s clear throughout the disc that this was a man who would be a real monster talent with some more time to develop.

Prince (1979, Warner Bros.)

B +

This self-titled sophomore outing is aided by a huge leap forward in terms of Prince’s songwriting, and the album deservedly landed the Purple One his first Top 40 hit in the soulful disco of “I Wanna Be Your Lover,” still a radio favorite to this day. There are several other cuts that are nearly every bit as great, including the underrated “Why You Wanna Treat Me So Bad?,” “Still Waiting,” and “When We’re Dancing Close and Slow.” This album also sports the original version of “I Feel for You,” which would provide Chaka Khan with the biggest hit of her career five years later.  Khan’s groundbreaking cover is still the definitive and superior version of the song, but Prince’s softer-styled version is awfully good in its own right.

Dirty Mind (1980, Warner Bros.)

B –

Critics tend to really drool over this album, but that may not be so much because of the actual strength of the disc so much as this is simply an album that’s so wildly unsuitable for radio airplay – and this was arguably the most sexually explicit mainstream pop album that had ever been released up to that point - that it was pretty much inevitable that this album would be more of a cult favorite than a commercial success. While there are still some fine tunes here, the sheer frankness and lack of subtlety in the lyrics makes it a rather off-putting listen for more conservative listeners, and it’s consequently not anywhere nearly as easy an album to warm up to as Prince’s first two outings.  The album fares much better in the moments when Prince isn’t trying nearly so hard to shock listeners, and the new-wave flavored “When You Were Mine” (later covered by everyone from Mitch Ryder to Cyndi Lauper), “Uptown,” and the funk jam “Partyup” (co-written with the great Morris Day from The Time) are all truly essential early Prince cuts.

Controversy (1981, Warner Bros.)

B

This album tends to get labeled by critics as the worst of Prince’s early-‘80s albums, but honestly, I actually like this one better than Dirty Mind. Like that album, this isn’t exactly a family-friendly disc and it’s still a little bit too sex-obsessed for its own good, but it doesn’t go to nearly such extremes to be shocking as the most notoriously explicit cuts on Dirty Mind did, so it’s slightly easier to warm up to for that reason. The iconic “Do Me Baby” (later covered to great success on the R&B charts in the late ‘80s by Meli’sa Morgan) is here and remains one of Prince's greatest slow jams, but it’s bested by the slippery, synth-driven funk of the title cut (still one of Prince’s most underrated early songs). Other highlights include “Let’s Work” and the bouncy “Private Joy.”

1999 (1982, Warner Bros.)

A –

Prince’s fifth outing is easily his best yet. Not everything on the double album works, and, like Dirty Mind and Controversy, the cuts that fare the worst are the ones that try the hardest to be shocking (especially the notorious “Lady Cab Driver” and “D.M.S.R”). You could make a very valid case that all the good songs here could have fit onto a single disc, but the best songs here are so good that it’s really petty to complain about the album length, and this album deservedly yielded three major hits (Prince’s first Top 40 hits since “I Wanna Be Your Lover” three years earlier). The title track, of course, remains one of the definitive party jams in all of pop music history, while “Little Red Corvette” is just as iconic (and sports a wonderful guitar solo from Dez Dickerson) and the frenetic synth-pop of “Delirious” just as catchy. There are other fine cuts beyond just the three hits, though, especially “Free” and “Automatic.”

Purple Rain (1984, Warner Bros.)

A +

Arguably Prince’s masterpiece, this soundtrack to the film of the same name is an absolute knockout from start to finish, made all the more remarkable by the fact that the majority of the hits included here don’t arrive until the album’s back half.  The album-opening Number One hit “Let’s Go Crazy,” with its iconic, organ-drenched, spoken-word intro and Jimi Hendrix-like guitar-shredding solo that closes the song, still has not lost any of its impact over time and remains a party classic, while the groundbreaking Number One hit “When Doves Cry,” which famously doesn’t employ any sort of bass line whatsoever, still sounds fresh as well. The propulsive pop of “I Would Die 4 U” is every bit as catchy, while the gentle acoustic stomp of “Take Me with U” remains one of Prince’s more underrated singles.  Just as iconic as the album’s two Number One hits is the epic, eight-minutes-plus, album-closing title track, as dramatic and emotionally powerful as any ballad from the ‘80s without ever actually being bombastic.  Even the non-singles inbetween are pretty unforgettable, especially “Computer Blue” and “Darling Nikki.” This is also the first album on which Prince has really gone out of his way to unleash his full guitar prowess, and the album is absolutely loaded with must-hear guitar solos.  If you’ve never heard this album in full and have yet to grasp Prince’s status as a guitar hero, this is the first place to go to in order to understand the acclaim.

Around the World in a Day (1985, Paisley Park)

A –  

This album had the misfortune of coming out immediately after Purple Rain, so it was almost inevitable that it would be perceived as a letdown, no matter how many good songs it may have included, and this album consequently got a lot of mediocre reviews, likely fueled in part by the fact that it wanders quite a bit from Prince’s usual funk/R&B stylings and ventures heavily into pure pop territory, albeit pop with a very distinct psychedelic influence, much like the Beatles circa Sgt. Pepper and Magical Mystery Tour. So this is definitely not the album to start with for Prince fans who prefer his funk jams. This isn’t to say that the album is as masterful as Purple Rain, because it’s certainly not, but it’s still a perfectly fun and intriguing album, and it’s arguably every bit as strong as – if not even stronger than – any of his pre-1999 albums. (Most music critics are likely to disagree with me on that, if only because this disc lacks the rawness and utter shock value of those albums that so many critics tend to be drawn to, but the songwriting itself is arguably much stronger and more mature here than it was on those early outings.) “Condition of the Heart” is one of Prince’s most underrated ballads, while “Paisley Park” (which shares its title with Prince’s newly-created record label and recording studio) and the title cut (co-written with Prince's father, interestingly enough) are both quite enticing as well.  Even better are the album’s three hit singles: the funk jam “America,” the punchy and vibrant chiming pop of “Pop Life” (easily one of Prince’s most underrated singles), and, best of all, the vaguely psychedelic, swooning pop of “Raspberry Beret,” which might very well be the greatest and most instantly infectious single the man ever made, if not a very legitimate contender for the title of the single-best pop song of the '80s, period.