Prince certainly didn’t suffer from a lack of attention.
He released a successful album before he turned 20, scored his first major hit at age 21, became a household-name superstar at 26 and continually commanded headlines, critical praise and fan adoration across the world until his death in 2016 at the age of 57.
But nobody could keep up with the inhuman rate at which he created and released new music, so there are countless Prince songs that didn’t get the attention they deserved. Early in his career, this was mostly a result of an embarrassing overflow of worthy material; later in life, it became a bit more difficult, even for him, to recognize and separate the wheat from the chafe.
Below you’ll find three dozen overlooked Prince tracks that are most worthy of your time, one from each of the major albums he released during his lifetime.
“My Love Is Forever”
From: For You (1978)
Prince recorded his debut solo album when he was just 19 years old, handling all songwriting, instruments and vocals himself and blocking any attempt at outside creative interference. As impressive as this is, he really hadn’t found his voice yet. With the exception of his first hit single, “Soft and Wet,” most of For You is conventionally structured, musically and lyrically. The best of the rest is probably “My Love Is Forever,” a breezy confection that shows off Prince’s vocal prowess while also offering the first prophetic hint at his lead guitar skills.
“When We’re Dancing Close and Slow”
From: Prince (1979)
Prince started pushing at the boundaries of pop and R&B on his second, self-titled album, which featured his first Top 40 hit, “I Wanna Be Your Lover.” “Why You Wanna Treat Me So Bad” and “Sexy Dancer” made some noise on the R&B chart, but “When We’re Dancing Close and Slow” might offer the best example of his growing individuality. The atmospheric five-and-a-half-minute song is built around a delicate repeating piano refrain and builds to a crescendo with the help of some unexpectedly space-age synths.
“Gotta Broken Heart Again”
From: Dirty Mind (1980)
Dirty Mind kicked the doors of convention off the hinges, with Prince showing off bold sonics, razor-sharp songwriting and startlingly frank lyrics about sex. Nearly all of the songs on the critically acclaimed album quickly earned iconic status among Prince’s growing fan base, and most became cornerstones of his live sets. “When You Were Mine” was covered by Cyndi Lauper on her 1983 debut, She’s So Unusual. Its most underrated track, “Gotta Broken Heat Again,” is a raw breakup anthem that covers a lot of ground – including a retro rockabilly guitar solo – in a little more than two minutes.
From: Controversy (1981)
Dirty Mind was the skeleton for Prince’s future triumphs; Controversy found him adding layers of muscle, color and depth to his songwriting. His experiments were also becoming bolder, as demonstrated by the hypnotic synths, politically direct lyrics and raging guitar of “Annie Christian.”
From: 1999 (1982)
Five of the 11 songs on Prince’s huge commercial breakthrough were hit singles, and album tracks like “D.M.S.R.” and “Lady Cab Driver” made their way into public consciousness almost as strongly. The only song not squarely aimed at the dance floor is the earnest and surprisingly patriotic piano ballad “Free.” It hints at the even greater commercial and creative triumphs he was about to make by incorporating more rock ‘n’ roll into his music.
From: Purple Rain (1983)
The Purple Rain movie and soundtrack took Prince from star to superstar, with every one of the album’s nine songs given its own spotlight scene in the movie. The dazzlingly dynamic and sexually graphic “Darling Nikki” is probably the most famous of the four tracks on the album that weren’t singles, but most of that attention came after Tipper Gore added it to her “filthy fifteen” list of censorship-courting songs with controversial lyrics.
“Around the World in a Day”
From: Around the World in a Day (1985)
Refusing to be pigeonholed even by massive creative success, Prince made an immediate left turn on Around the World in a Day. He recorded much of the album before even hitting the road in support of Purple Rain, abandoning the icy electronic elements of his biggest hits in favor of more warm, exotic and psychedelic sounds. The result was a bit of a mixed bag. “Raspberry Beret” and “Pop Life” were undeniable triumphs, while the underrated title track does a terrific job of explaining and demonstrating Prince’s new philosophy and goals.
“Life Can Be So Nice”
From: Parade (1986)
Parade has long been one of Prince’s most underrated albums. Everybody bows down to “Kiss,” but he achieves similarly amazing levels of sophistication and grandeur, as well as a cohesiveness that was lacking on Around the World in a Day, throughout the album. “Mountains,” “Kiss”‘ follow-up single, deserved to be a bigger hit and marks the moment where real horns became an integral part of Prince’s sound. But because that track was a single, the LP’s most underrated-song honor goes to “Life Can Be So Nice,” which features a dazzling drum and cowbell performance by Sheila E.
From: Sign O’ the Times (1987)
Choosing an underrated song from a boundary-shattering double album that most critics consider the highwater mark of Prince’s career isn’t easy. The record’s four singles – the title track, “If I Was Your Girlfriend,” “U Got the Look” and “I Could Never Take the Place of Your Man” – were exactly right. The best candidate for another single should have been “Strange Relationship,” whose bouncy, sunny gait is contrasted by its lyrics, which paint a portrait of a very unhealthy romance.
“Rockhard in a Funky Place”
From: The Black Album (1987 / 1994)
The Black Album immediately obtained cult status when Prince canceled plans to release it at the last minute – but not quickly enough to stop bootleg copies from circulating around the world. He agreed to a limited-edition release in 1994 as part of his plan to escape from his Warner Bros. contract, but no singles or videos were issued to promote it. “Cindy C.” and “Dead On It” got a lot of attention, one for being an open lust letter to a real person, the other for its blatant criticism of rap music. But the slinky, sweaty “Rockhard in a Funky Place” packs the best punch.
From: Lovesexy (1988)
Lovesexy marks a significant and occasionally overlooked turning point in Prince’s career. He never shied away from discussing religion, but he became more openly evangelical following The Black Album‘s sudden withdrawal. Nowhere is that more clear than on the gorgeous, modern-day gospel “Anna Stesia,” where Prince begs for forgiveness and pledges eternal loyalty to “God above.” He’d go on to deliver more horny sex songs in the decades to come, but it was clear that going to church would be part of any future courtships from now on, too.
From: Batman (1989)
The Batman soundtrack, and the improbably chart-topping patchwork of “Batdance,” saved Prince from a relative commercial slump. “Partyman” was a deserved crowd-pleasing hit. But the most rewarding moments came when he pushed himself into new territory, like on the pulsating “The Future” or the effortlessly gliding “Vicki Waiting,” which connects a comic-book storyline to a productive and healthy relationship.
“The Question of U”
From: Graffiti Bridge (1990)
The least rewarding of Prince’s four major movie soundtracks, the bloated and guest-star heavy Graffiti Bridge includes a whole lot of ideas but not much in the form of theme or unifying sound. Prince is good enough to get away with all this, and the Time, Mavis Staples and George Clinton are well-suited for their rules. But the best moments feature Prince by himself and exploring new territory, such as the Top 10 hit “Thieves in the Temple.” Another winner: the thumping, futuristic blues of “The Question of U.”
“Walk Don’t Walk”
From: Diamonds and Pearls (1991)
Prince used his 13th album as an opportunity to reintroduce himself to mainstream audiences and remind them why they should be paying more attention. Positioning himself as the leader of a band for the first time since the Revolution days, he debuted a more organic sound on Diamonds and Pearls. The plan worked: The album sold more than 4 million copies worldwide. The title track and “Cream” were hits, the “Get Off” video got tongues wagging and Prince successfully integrated hip-hop into his sound for the first time on tracks like “Push.” Tucked away in the middle of the album, “Walk Don’t Walk” finds Prince and Rosie Gaines serving up their best Sly & the Family Stone tribute and pulling off a minor miracle of using car horns in the chorus without being annoying.
“Love 2 the 9’s”
From: Love Symbol (1992)
With his commercial fortunes back on safe ground, Prince took the New Power Generation out on the highway and really opened it up. The Love Symbol album is a stranger, more diverse and overall stronger collection than Diamonds and Pearls, even if the rock-opera concept and spoken interludes get a little tiresome. “My Name Is Prince,” “Sexy MF” and the daring “7” deserved the attention they received. But the song that best represents the spirit of the album, “Love 2 the 9’s,” shifts from jazzy love song to swinging mock trial, as future wife Mayte argues she’s marriage material.
From: Come (1994)
Prince’s long, bitter battle to escape his record contract derailed the momentum generated by his two albums with the New Power Generation. He vowed to release only old material to run out his obligations to Warner Bros. Regardless of its purpose, Come is a surprisingly strong and unified collection of material. “LetitGo” was a minor hit, and the sublime “Space” deserved to be an even bigger one. “Papa,” a harrowing tale of child abuse, sticks with you long after first listen, even if you preferred it didn’t.
From: The Gold Experience (1995)
As unexpectedly substantial as Come was, it paled next to The Gold Experience, a collection of all-new material Prince eventually agreed to release through Warner Bros. in order to hasten his escape from his contract. Working with a stripped-down version of the NPG, Prince sounds reenergized on tracks such as “P. Control,” “Dolphin” and “Shhh.” The alternately spiky and lush street life tale “Shy” may not have been single material, but it’s still worthy of your time.
“I Like It There”
From: Chaos and Disorder (1996)
The second album billed as old material as part of Prince’s Warner Bros. escape plan, Chaos and Disorder was even more exciting and unified than Come. Much of the LP featured Prince in guitar-hero mode, with the raucous, angular “I Like It There” serving as a highlight.
“The Love We Make”
From: Emancipation (1996)
Finally free from his Warner Bros. contract, Prince celebrated with a three-hour triple album. Although Emancipation is way too much to digest in one sitting and sounds a bit too clean and homogenized, there are many highlights. Strongest among them is the gospel-influenced “The Love We Make,” inspired by the heroin-related death of Revolution guitarist Wendy Melvoin’s brother Jonathan. It features one of Prince’s most compelling vocal performances ever.
From: Crystal Ball (1998)
Fans had been waiting more than a decade for Crystal Ball, the triple album Prince was forced to trim for 1987’s Sign O’ the Times. But instead of releasing that expanded album, he used its title for a spotty grab-bag collection of tracks from throughout his career. The best songs are the ones from the original Crystal Ball; the strongest among those is the slyly infectious “Last Heart.”
From: The Truth (1998)
Included with Crystal Ball, The Truth is an album of all-new material focused mostly on acoustic guitars. Many songs are interesting but inessential. But “Comeback,” which directly addresses the death of his week-old son Amiir, packs a devastating emotional punch.
“She Spoke 2 Me”
From: The Vault: Old Friends 4 Sale (1999)
As its title makes clear, The Vault: Old Friends 4 Sale was the third and final album of leftover material Prince allowed Warner Bros. to release in order to escape his contract. Once again, the songs fit together as an album, with a jazzy, romantic mood dominating the proceedings this time. There’s a lot of fun here, but the eight-plus minutes of “She Spoke 2 Me” definitely belong on your playlist.
“The Sun, the Moon and Stars”
From: Rave Un2 the Joy Fantastic (1999)
Prince unabashedly tried to follow Santana‘s guest-star-laden Supernatural formula on Rave Un2 the Joy Fantastic, but he’s far too eccentric and self-directed for equal, fruitful collaborations with even his biggest artists. So you find yourself wondering why Gwen Stefani, Sheryl Crow and Chuck D suddenly wandered into the party, and wishing Prince would have just focused on more songs like the intoxicating “The Sun, the Moon and Stars.”
From: The Rainbow Children (2001)
Prince made a whiplash shift here, abandoning Rave‘s attempt at recapturing a mainstream audience in favor of one of his most complex and personal works. The Rainbow Children features a whole lot of theology and complicated storytelling. With the exception of the album’s only single, the James Brown lovefest “The Work, Pt. 1,” the album is probably best understood as a whole and probably have worked better as an off-Broadway show. If you want the abridged version, and some fantastic jazz-guitar playing, stick with the 10-minute opening title track.
“Illusion, Coma, Pimp & Circumstance”
From: Musicology (2004)
After spending much of the five years following Rave Un2 the Joy Fantastic on instrumental jazz EPs and his first live album, Prince returned to the world of major labels and made a more natural-feeling bid for mainstream attention with Musicology. The title track positioned him as a champion of the old guard rather than an innovator, but the next track, “Illusion, Coma, Pimp & Circumstance,” finds him once again marching to the distinct sound of his own internal compass.
“Underneath the Cream”
From: The Chocolate Invasion (2004)
The first of two simultaneously released collections of songs from Prince’s innovative online subscription service NPG Music Club, The Chocolate Invasion can’t exactly be called a proper album. The tracks have no real obvious connection to each other and generally lack the spark of his best work. The sultry “Underneath the Cream” is an exception.
“The Daisy Chain”
From: The Slaughterhouse (2004)
Like The Chocolate Invasion, it’s hard to take The Slaughterhouse as anything but a slightly ill-fitting repurposing of songs originally designed for something else. But this time there’s a notable exception: “The Daisy Chain” is a surprisingly compelling song that concludes with a breathtaking guitar and fuzz-bass duel between Prince and Sly & the Family Stone legend Larry Graham.
From: 3121 (2006)
Just like he did with on Love Symbol following Diamonds and Pearls, once Prince placed himself back in the spotlight with Musicology, he let more of his wonderfully weird self out again on 3121. He made those intentions clear right off the bat with the title track, which featured a filthy beat, the return of pitch-shifted Camille-style lead vocals and a guitar solo that seems to fold in on itself in defiance of physics laws.
From: Planet Earth (2007)
There are hundreds of artists who’d give anything to release an album as accomplished as Planet Earth. But by Prince’s high standards it can only be called disjointed and uninspired. The modern disco of “Chelsea Rodgers” was the lone standout, but it was also the album’s second single, so we’re leaving it off this list. That leaves “Mr. Goodnight,” which pairs a charming ringing-bell refrain with a tour-rider explanation of exactly what you’ll get if you spend the night with Prince.
From: Lotusflow3r (2009)
By this point in Prince’s career, the format of his album releases generated as much attention as the records. In 2009, he combined the rock-oriented Lotusflow3r with the more R&B-themed MPLSound and an album by his latest protege, Bria Valente. Both Prince albums include several notable highlights. But the most surprising song on Lotusflow3r is the chunky throwback “$,” which sounds like he’s angling for a spot on the soundtrack for a ’60s beach movie.
From: MPLSound (2009)
Much of MPLSound finds Prince unabashedly revisiting and updating past triumphs. In 1987, he wrote a song for supermodel Cindy Crawford; more than two decades later, “Valentina” finds him trying to get Salma Hayek’s daughter to put in a good word for him while borrowing from both Carlos Santana and “Macarena”‘s chorus.
From: 20Ten (2010)
Three years after the disappointment of Planet Earth, Prince reemerged with another free album included with newspapers and magazines, and this one is a gem. Too bad it has never been released in the U.S. The effortlessly catchy “Lavaux” is great, but the terrific “Beginning Endlessly” pairs organ from a baseball stadium three galaxies from Earth with Controversy-era dry-funk guitar.
From: Art Official Age (2014)
After fighting so hard to release music faster than Warner Bros. wished, Prince had now slowed to a more conventional pace. Once again making the volume of music part of the story, he released a solo album and the debut record by his new band 3rdeyegirl on the same day in 2014. Art Official Age is the stronger album, with highlights like “Clouds,” the Dave Chappelle-inspired “Breakfast Can Wait” and “This Could Be Us,” basically a meme in song form. “U Know” is the hidden gem, with Prince’s rapid-fire, plain-spoken delivery riding a sparse, exotic beat based on a sample from Mila J’s “Blinded.“
From: Plectrumelectrum (2014)
Ever since Purple Rain, Prince fans have been teased with the promise of an album focused on guitar rock. When he introduced the band 3rdeyegirl with a slowed-down, stoner-rock version of “Let’s Go Crazy,” it finally seemed like go time. Plectrumelectrum‘s opening song, “Wow,” seemed to confirm that notion. As the album unfolded, his pop sensibilities took center stage, but at least we got the stunning “Wow.”
“Like a Mack”
From: Hit n Run Phase One (2015)
Prince opened himself to collaboration as never before on his penultimate studio album, with new protege Joshua Walton earning cowriting credits on all but three of the 11 tracks. There’s a concerted but not always successful effort to shake things up here, but when things click, like on the EDM-meets-Bollywood mashup “Like a Mack,” it’s pure magic.
From: Hit n Run Phase Two (2015)
Released just three months after its experimental companion LP, Hit n Run Phase Two finds Prince assembling a long-brewing variety of tracks into an unexpectedly satisfying and cohesive album, one that seemed to suggest he may have even have been entering a new hot streak. There’s no aiming for the pop charts here – just an honest, sophisticated update on what he’s always done best. Written in honor of Damaris Lewis, a model who danced on several of his tours and was credited as his inspiration in tour programs, the Stevie Wonder-esque “Black Muse” is thumping and classy, offering passionate social commentary that doesn’t bury melody in a torrent of words like The Rainbow Children did.