Discog Fever - Rating and Reviewing the First 20 Years of Prince Albums (Part 3)

by Jeff Fiedler

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

The Hits/The B-Sides (1993, Paisley Park)

A  

A fabulous career anthology, there are admittedly some oversights on this three-disc package (namely, nothing from the Batman soundtrack is included, and “Take Me with U,” “Mountains,” and “Money Don’t Matter 2 Night” are unfortunately left out as well), but the compilers do a mostly fine job of hitting all the essentials (even reaching as far back as “Soft and Wet” from the debut album.) There are also four new cuts included on the first two discs (“Peach,” “Pink Cashmere,” “Pope,” and a live version of “Nothing Compares 2 U,” the Prince-written song Sinead O’Connor took to Number One). The truly essential reason to own this package, though – particularly if you don’t collect vinyl – is the third disc, which compiles twenty B-sides and rarities (including “4 the Tears in Your Eyes,” which was previously only available on the USA for Africa We Are the World benefit album). Prince’s B-sides have always been wildly entertaining, and often surprisingly very first-rate stuff, so if you don’t have his hits on 45, this is a very efficient way of collecting the bulk of his most essential non-LP sides, especially the sparse piano jazz of “How Come U Don’t Call Me Anymore” (later covered by Alicia Keys on her debut album), the great dance jams “17 Days” and “Erotic City,” the psychedelic pop of “She’s Always in My Hair,” the frenetic “Gotta Stop Messin’ About,” and the seasonal “Another Lonely Christmas.”

Come (1994, Warner Bros.)

D +

Easily Prince’s least essential album from his years with Warner Brothers, this album was nothing more than a contractual obligation and it sure sounds like it, too. There’s nothing here that’s all that terribly inspired – or all that commercial, for that matter, either. The minor Top 40 hit “Letitgo” is decent, and “Space” is worth a listen, too, but this is otherwise a completely forgettable album.

The Black Album (1994, Warner Bros.)       

C -

Originally intended for release back at the end of 1987, all kinds of stories exist for exactly what compelled Prince to pull the record from the presses at the last minute (the two most popular theories being that the label was too nervous about the lyrical content or that Prince feared the album was too dark), but the official reason for the album’s cancellation has never been explained. Bootlegs naturally surfaced, and Warner Bros. would finally release an official version of the album seven years later amidst a very public and nasty contractual battle with The Purple One. As it turns out, it was actually a really wise move for Prince to have shelved this disc and substituted it with Lovesexy. This is a fun and fascinating album to listen to, and its blatant attempts to shock will certainly delight critics fond of the edginess of albums like Dirty Mind, but it’s also not terribly great – Lovesexy, in spite of its faults, is still superior, even if it’s a lot safer (always a dirty word to critics) – and it’s not all that commercial, either, so it’s hard to imagine this album continuing Prince’s streak at the time of releasing discs boasting at least one Top 40 hit, if not several. It’s an intriguing one-time listen, but there’s little here to keep you coming back to it.

The Gold Experience (1995, Warner Bros/NPG)

A

Easily one of Prince’s most underrated albums, the Purple One had become a bit of a punchline by the time this disc was released owing to his weird behavior during his contractual disputes with his label (namely, changing his name to an unpronounceable symbol, which led people to refer him as “The Artist Formerly Known As Prince,” or “The Artist” for short).  This disc was consequently somewhat overlooked at the time of its release, but it’s certainly one of his finest post-Eighties albums, boasting two Top 40 hits (“I Hate U” and the lovely, lilting slow-jam “The Most Beautiful Girl in the World”) and a generous helping of strong album cuts, particularly “Dolphin,” “Shy,” and “Gold.” It can occasionally get a little too explicit for comfort (even the title of the opening cut isn’t suitable to print here), but the album’s best and milder moments are strong enough to compensate for it.

Chaos and Disorder (1996, Warner Bros.)

C

Yet another disc that was nothing more than a contractual obligation, Prince (who refused to promote the album at all) is at least trying harder here than he did on Come, and he seems to be having more fun, too, but this album is a huge step back in quality from The Gold Experience, and there’s nothing on here nearly as immediate as “The Most Beautiful Girl in the World” or “Gold.” Still, it’s all quite listenable and occasionally even inspired, particularly on “I Rock, Therefore I Am,” “Dinner with Delores,” and “The Same December.”

Emancipation (1996, NPG)

A –

His first full-length product after being freed completely from his ties to Warner Brothers, this triple-disc package is a major artistic statement, and it’s clear that Prince is relishing his creative freedom here. Surprisingly, Prince includes four different covers here, all quite excellent – Joan Osborne’s “One of Us,” Bonnie Raitt’s “I Can’t Make You Love Me,” the Delfonics’ “La La La Means I Love You,” and an especially glorious version of the Stylistics’ “Betcha By Golly Wow,” which would prove to be Prince’s final non-reissue Top 40 hit in America. In spite of the album’s running time, the consistency is surprisingly good – there’s filler, naturally, but there’s also a sizable number of strong originals here, including “The Holy River,” the funky “Somebody’s Somebody,” “Jam of the Year,” “Slave,” “Damned If I Do,” and “Get Yo Groove On.” It’s all very well-sequenced, too, the discs roughly divided along thematic lines, with most of the funk jams popping up on the third disc, the most pop-oriented songs concentrated on the first disc, and the second disc containing the bulk of the most romantic songs. The album wasn’t all that huge a seller and can be found quite easily in the budget bins at most secondhand shops and is a real steal at that price, so don’t pass over this one.

Crystal Ball (1998, NPG)

B –

Prince’s final studio outing before retreating back to the majors and signing (albeit very briefly) to Arista Records, the three-disc Crystal Ball is technically a compilation of mostly previously unreleased material from Prince’s vaults dating all the way back to 1983. It’s not nearly as strong as Emancipation, unfortunately, but as far as outtakes packages go, it’s not bad, either, and it’s all quite fascinating (particularly the ‘80s outtakes), even if there’s not quite enough strong material here to really justify all three discs and the packaging is virtually non-existent. Still, if you can find this one in a budget bin, it’s worth picking up, if just for minor gems like the title cut, “Dream Factory,” “Crucial,” “Make Your Mama Happy,” “Last Heart,” and“She Gave Her Angels.” [The package also includes the very-hard-to-find “Good Love,” previously only available on the Bright Lights, Big City soundtrack.]