The Top 10 Prince Albums You’ve Never Heard Of.
Every musician worth their salt has a handful of decent obscurities — an early LP under a different name, a great cover version, or some live recording from 70s LA by Mike Millard.
These are cherished by the cognoscenti, delightful to the initiate and somewhat bewildering to the average listener.
My name is Prince
But Prince is in a different category.
You know he’s put out a lot of music — his most recent release HITNRUN: Phase One was, by some counts, his 35th studio album. (And the cheeky blighter just put out another new one: HITNRUN: Phase Two.)
And it’s no secret there have been a lot of Prince bootlegs, starting with The Black Album in 1987.
And that he’s recorded a lot of music for other people— one off tracks to be sure, but albums too, sometimes several, for acts such as The Time, The Family, Sheila E, Vanity / Apollonia 6 and Bria Valente.
And you may recall that he’s been at war the music industry since the early-90s, meaning that a lot of his material since then was under-promoted at the time, and neglected ever since.
And that he is not a fan of the Internet — which means that its not so easy to discover or hear his music these days — no Prince albums on Spotify, or videos on YouTube for you!
I know times are changing
But maybe he’s moving on.
The new album was first released on TIDAL.
Artist-owned, Prince seems to like it, and he’s shared a lot of music there which was previously more or less impossible to listen to.
And there remains the lingering promise, made a year or so ago when he re-signed to Warner Bros. Records, that we might, at last, get to hear Remastered, ‘Deluxe’ versions of his classic albums (including ‘previously unheard material’).
Because Prince has made a lot of music.
It’s not just the odd track that you might have missed.
There are whole albums of material Prince has recorded which, for whatever reason, never saw much of the light of day. They were discarded, reconfigured or recycled, overlooked, missed or dismissed when they came out, and were then largely forgotten.
And there are lots of them: a pretty daunting back catalogue for even a devoted fan.
So, mindful of his new more flexible attitude, and with absolutely no claim to objectivity, here are 10 of the best Prince albums that you’ve almost certainly missed, but which absolutely deserve your attention.
1. The Dream Factory (circa 1986/7)
Some scientists believe that we live in a multiverse — where every possible parallel universe exists side by side. So there’s a universe where you have 4 arms, a universe where JFK made it out of Dallas alive, and a universe where Stephen Hawking finds John Oliver funny.
Prince fans might wish for a universe where the Revolution was never disbanded, and played on what is generally considered Prince’s most accomplished album, Sign “☮” the Times.
Well, Prince fans are in luck, because that universe is this universe!
Unbelievably, the sprawling, expansive, eclectic double-album Sign “☮” the Times is actually a shorter, ‘Prince-only’ re-cut of a much larger triple-album project which Prince recorded with the Revolution entitled The Dream Factory (in some configurations, Crystal Ball in others).
While many of the tracks from The Dream Factory made it onto the officially released ‘Prince’ version, much did not, and almost all traces of Prince’s friends Wendy and Lisa were removed from the solo release.
And while several of the unreleased tracks have been re-recorded for others, or released later in dribs and drabs, there is nothing quite like hearing the whole as it was once intended.
This was Prince and the Revolution at their most musically diverse, inclusive and experimental.
Opening with the solo Piano track Visions, including the 10 minute funk-classical mash-up Crystal Ball and ending with the ethereal All My Dreams, this, perhaps better than any of his actual releases, epitomizes the breadth and daring of Prince’s musical imagination.
This is Prince and the Revolution’s best album — and yes, I know they made Purple Rain.
Killer Tracks: Movie Star, Crystal Ball, Visions.
Original Release: None — but maybe Warner Bros. can persuade him to put it out as part of the Remasters.
Where to find it now: C’mon people, that would be telling.
2. The Truth (1998)
It is a truth universally acknowledged that Prince’s run of albums from 80–88 (Dirty Mind to Lovesexy) were his critical and commercial peak.
1. Every album had its own unique ‘sound’ — a vibe which made it feel like it came from the same musical home — often deploying the most cutting edge production techniques of the time.
2. Because each album’s unique ‘sound’ superseded its predecessors, it felt fresh and new.
3. Prince did this not just once or twice, but 7 times in a row. By himself. Only The Beatles had a comparable run, and there were 4 of them, plus George Martin producing.
Now, by the end of the 80s popular music culture began to fragment, and move towards hip-hop, dance music or grunge, leaving ‘pop’ just for kids.
As someone who thrived on musical cross-pollination, and aspired to mass musical appeal, these were separatist trends that Prince either wouldn’t or couldn’t embrace.
So his run was broken— there was no longer a pop music commons for him to occupy — he couldn’t appeal to everyone, he couldn’t apply his musical methodology, and consequently he couldn’t sound as fresh or current as he had.
But every once in a while Prince would decide to ignore what was going on in the pop world, and just do one thing thoroughly and well.
And when he did, the results were impressive.
Which brings us to The Truth.
In 1996 Prince had just left Warner Bros. and was finally free — launching the triple album Emancipation in celebration.
3 hours of new music, all delivered in one go.
But despite some excellent songs, Emancipation was simply too much music for people to digest, and its promotion was hampered by the bankruptcy of its distributor, EMI Records.
In addition, on a personal level, the record’s launch had been tragically marred by the death of Prince’s newborn son — who’d suffered a rare genetic disorder and who very sadly died a few days after his birth.
Recorded in late 1996, The Truth was billed as Prince’s first ‘acoustic’ record — and, despite much multi-track recording, and several samples, distortions and sound effects, it was pretty much just Prince and a guitar.
And it sounds really, really good.
Because that man can play the guitar, and he wrote this album when he was in a very strange frame of mind, making for some very strange, and in places very beautiful, music.
There are songs about why he’s a vegan (Animal Kingdom), songs about youthful lesbian flirtation (Circle of Amour), songs about his lack of radio promotion (Don’t Play Me). There is a standout swinging blues song about the object of his admiration (The Other Side of the Pillow).
But what are possibly the most touching songs in Prince’s entire catalogue close the album.
The penultimate track is Comeback.
Prince has stated that he doesn’t do interviews because everything he has to say he puts into his music.
He has never spoken publicly about the death of his son — but this song, with its plaintive hope that lost loved ones somehow still abide with us, says all Prince needs to say about his own family tragedy.
To me, the last song, Welcome 2 the Dawn, sounds like Prince’s idea of the music of heaven — and is perhaps an aspirant invitation for a young soul to a better place.
Killer Tracks: The Truth, The Other Side of the Pillow, Comeback, Welcome 2 The Dawn.
Original Release: As part of a 5 CD set alongside a 3 CD set of out-takes called Crystal Ball (not to be confused with the album above), and the ballet Karmasutra (don’t ask).
Where to find it now: It’s been released on TIDAL, so go listen.
3. Xpectation (2003)
If you’re reading this, you love Prince — by which I mean you love Prince’s music.
Or at least what you think of as Prince’s music — the ‘Minneapolis Sound’ he pioneered — the shimmering electro-funk-rock extravaganza of Purple Rain, or the eclectic maxi-minimalism of Parade.
But one of the most confounding things about Prince for the average listener is that Prince often refuses to make ‘Prince’ records — i.e. ‘music that sounds like Prince’.
That’s because Prince really likes music — not just ‘music that sounds like Prince’, but music in general.
He likes it, he likes listening to it, and he likes playing it — because, above all, he’s a guy that plays music for his living.
To be that good at something, you’ve got to be really, really into it.
And he is. He really likes music; all kinds of music.
And he really likes Jazz.
You might not like Jazz, and you might not listen to Billy Cobham or Herbie Hancock or Miles, but Prince does.
Because his father John L. Nelson was a Jazz musician, with the stage name ‘Prince Rogers’, a name that descended directly to the son — ‘Prince Rogers Nelson’.
Now, Prince might not be able to swing, the way a traditional Jazz player might, but he can play.
As we’ll see below, Prince has played on a lot of Jazz records over the years, under his own name, and others — but this was the first wholly instrumental album released under the ‘Prince’ brand.
Recorded in Autumn 2001, this was an ensemble piece, featuring John Blackwell on drums and Rhonda Smith on bass — two very talented players. They were joined by Dutch saxophonist Candy Dulfer and, somewhat implausibly, by violin prodigy (and would be ski-champion) Vanessa Mae.
While some of the individual compositions are perhaps a little simplistic, what makes the album stand out is its musical coherence — it feels like a suite, rather a collection of songs, staying in a musical mood, and then working through various themes towards a satisfying musical peak.
If you don’t like Jazz, then maybe its not for you, but honestly, it’s your loss — because while this is not ‘Prince music’, it is music that Prince wants to make, and Prince knows how to make good music.
Killer Tracks: I just said it was a suite — so listen to the whole damn thing!
Original Release: As a download through Prince’s ground-breaking, award-winning distribution service — the NPG Music Club, and then never again.
Where to find it: Until now, that is — this one turned up on TIDAL too.
4. The Undertaker (1993)
Prince likes to cut things live.
Purple Rain — title track of the Oscar-winning #1 hit movie, 26 weeks at #1 album — was recorded live.
(There is an amazing video of this performance with commentary doing the rounds — catch it before Prince’s lawyers do!)
PLECTRUMELECTRUM — the title track of last year’s Prince & 3RDEYEGIRL album — was also cut live.
(And it was videoed too — you can watch it on TIDAL right now.)
So when Prince was in the middle of his battle with Warner Bros. and looking for a way to get his music out, he thought ‘why not just cut a whole album in one take, then give it away for free with Guitar Player magazine?’
And if grunge is the thing du jour, and Nirvana the leading musical light of the time, make it a grunge album — or, whatever kind of a ‘grunge’ album as Prince can make.
Which gives it a coherent sound — a distinct musical feel from a stripped down trio of bass, drums and guitar — a weird hybrid of blues, rock, and feedback — a lot of white noise, but also a lot of space; a little empty dread between the notes.
Warners were unamused — the giveaway canned. All the CDs shellacked to prevent their use. Another nail in the coffin of their relationship.
But Prince apparently videos all of his recording sessions, so the entire album was put out as a rather trippy mini-movie a couple of years later. HA!
Killer Tracks: The Undertaker, Poorgoo, Dolphin.
Original Release: VHS and Laserdisc(!)
Where to find it: That’s another one for Google…
5. Old Friends for Sale: The Vault (1999)
So, yes, Prince likes his moving pictures.
He’s made a few:
- Purple Rain: the quintessential rock’n’roll movie.
- Under the Cherry Moon: beautiful, crazy and absurd all at the same time.
- Sign “☮” the Times: the greatest concert movie ever committed to celluloid.
- Graffiti Bridge: let us never speak of it again.
There are even rumours that there are two more complete movies sitting somewhere in the Vault in Paisley Park.
But he hasn’t just made music for his own movies — his Batman soundtrack was huge, and Song of the Heart, for the children’s movie Happy Feet, won a Golden Globe(!).
And — you’re going to have to go with me on this one — Prince also wrote music for the 1994 James L. Brooks musical, entitled I’ll Do Anything along with Carole King, Sinead O’Connor and several others.
Musicals are notoriously hard to sell to contemporary Western film audiences, and the test screenings were uniformly bad, so all the music was pulled and the movie re-cut as a straight drama.
Which left Prince with a handful of tunes right in the middle of his contractual dispute with Warner Bros., when he was looking to run out the clock by turning in albums as fast as he could.
Hence The Vault… Old Friends for Sale — built around the core of these songs and adding more in the same vein — all with a lounge jazz vibe, as if Prince were the crooner-in-residence at some future hepcat hangout.
(Think Prince the mega-star that wouldn’t spend his time in restaurants, spanking out random jazz tunes for a tiny crowd? Well, I’ve seen him do it.)
The title couldn’t have come across as more dismissive, leading many to dismiss it.
And, as mentioned above, for many, if it doesn’t sound like ‘Prince’, it’s bad ‘Prince’, rather than ‘new Prince’ or ‘different Prince’.
Which is unfortunate, because, again, it’s a small and perfectly formed musically cohesive set with some well crafted ballads, a splash of sass, and lot of excellent playing.
Killer Tracks: Extraordinary, It’s about that Walk, Sarah.
Original Release: Warner Bros.
Where to find it: Now up on TIDAL.
6. Exodus (1995)
So, you hate your record label because they won’t release your music fast enough.
You’ve already changed your name to a symbol and are planning to tour a record (The Gold Experience) that your label won’t release.
Your next trick?
Why not wrap your face in a scarf, pretend to be someone called ‘Tora Tora’, and release another album under the name of your band?
And make it the most explicit call out to the 70s P-Funk and Parliament sound that’s always been a huge part of your musical DNA?
And have your bass player sing most of the leads, and heavily distort your voice whenever it appears?
And give it 9 songs, but 21 tracks — making huge chunks of the album a selection of weird segues and skits — one of which is an extended monologue of Prince pretending to be a wannabee high-roller sitting in a restaurant talking about a girl getting into a food fight with mashed potatoes?
Because, if you’re Prince, that’s obviously what you should do.
Which would seem pretty unlistenable — but if you are in a late 70s funk kind of mood, and you have a skip button and aren’t afraid to use it, is actually kind of fun — the music has solid vibe throughout, and Prince has never put out something so plain funky from funky start to funky finish.
Killer Tracks: Count The Days, The Good Life, Return of the Bump Squad.
Original Release: NPG Records.
Where to find it: Released on TIDAL on what would have been Prince’s 58th birthday.
7. One Nite Alone (2002)
Some of Prince’s most engaging songs have been solo piano efforts — I’m looking at you How Come You Don’t Call Me Anymore.
So if The Truth was Prince acoustic on guitar, One Nite Alone was the same trick, this time with the piano.
This album was right off the back of The Rainbow Children — arguably Prince’s most compelling post-80s release, and right before the One Nite Alone… Live tour, which produced an outstanding live release of the same name.
It’s a pleasingly consistent effort — everything comes from the same musical source, which, as we’ve noted above, is a hallmark of successful Prince albums.
There is some excellent music in the collection — Avalanche — a song about the racism inherent in America’s founding is both stark and startling, and there’s also a compelling cover of Joni Mitchell’s A Case of U, a song long close to Prince’s heart.
These alone make it worth a listen, and the album as a whole is another example of just what Prince can do when he’s in that kind of a mood.
Killer Tracks: Avalanche, A Case of U.
Original Release: NPG Music Club.
Where to find it: It’s on TIDAL, so go listen.
8. The Flesh (1985/6)
The cognoscenti are split.
Was the Revolution Prince’s best band?
Or the Sign “☮” the Times / Lovesexy band?
Wendy and Lisa?
Or Sheila E and Eric Leeds?
How about both?
Yup — there’s an album with the best players from Prince’s best bands all playing together.
After the Purple Rain tour Prince expanded the Revolution to include the saxophone of Eric Leeds and trumpet of Matthew ‘Atlanta Bliss’ Blistan, the guitar of Miko Weaver and a trio of dancers. Sheila E and her band would support.
Preparing for the Parade tour over the 85/86 New Year, Prince hunkered down with a hybrid group — Wendy and Lisa, Eric Leeds, Sheila E and her bassist, Levi Seacer Jr. — and jammed out for a couple of days.
The Flesh is the product of those sessions — an album of hard hybrid somewhere between jazz and funk.
Leeds took a prominent role in the session and the sequencing of the projected album, and Prince would have denied all involvement in the project, leaving it to be fronted by the saxophonist.
And indeed, like many of these albums, it does not fit comfortably with the public ‘Prince oeuvre’.
‘Hey there general public, would you like some 20 minute instrumental jazz funk workouts from the Purple Rain guy?’
‘Uh — maybe not’, says the general public.
But it is perhaps a perfect illustration of his M.O. and the reason why he decided to disband the Revolution.
This album shows him trying out new players and new sounds, and by doing so, stretching beyond the Revolution’s ‘tight’ sound, into the more expansive, experimental, capable, colourful, almost cartoonish sound that would reach its fullest expression on the Lovesexy album and tour — which I’d rate as the pinnacle of Prince’s artistic achievement.
Listen to A Couple of Miles and you’ll see what I mean.
So while it’s something of a curio, if you want to understand how Prince works, and stretches his musical thinking, this is the place to start that understanding.
And these sessions also fashioned one of Prince’s funkiest tracks — U Gotta Shake Something — a pre-cursor to Sign “☮” the Times’ It’s Gonna be a Beautiful Night, which makes this album well worth the price of admission for that alone.
Killer Tracks: A Couple of Miles, U Gotta Shake Something.
Original Release: None. The album was abandoned as Prince focused his attention on Parade and Under the Cherry Moon.
Where to find it: That’s another “I’d like to ask the Internet, please Chris”.
9. Madhouse — 8 (1987)
The Flesh was also a precursor to Madhouse, a ‘band’ which was really no more than Eric Leeds and Prince jamming out and having fun (which is why I’m counting this as a Prince album, rather than a ‘side project’ or ‘related artist’ — Prince played *everything* on this album but Leeds’ saxophone).
8 was the ‘band’s’ first album, recorded in 4 days flat in autumn 1986 — each track titled simply One to Eight.
And it deserves to be heard — not least because Eric Leeds is the quintessential Prince player. That sax on Girls and Boys? The horns on Adore? The Flute in Gett Off? Eric Leeds.
It’s odd that Prince’s signature ‘Minneapolis sound’ replaced horns with synthesizers, but nothing sounds more ‘Prince’ than Eric Leeds, who provides a hint of trad jazz, a Latin flavour, and a strange angular fluency that teases out the best of Prince’s own musical weirdness and complements it perfectly.
And that’s pretty much what this album is — a slightly weird synthy, funky, saxy kind of thing — by turns melodic, beautiful, unorthodox — but coherent and compelling.
And don’t just take my word for it — Questlove and D’Angelo have something to say on the subject.
Killer Tracks: One, Four, Eight.
Original Release: Warner Bros.
Where to find it: This managed to make it’s way to Spotify — enjoy!
10. Madhouse — 24 (1993)
Prince obviously liked Madhouse.
A second album, titled 16, recorded in just 3 days, was released in November 1987, only 10 months after 8.
A third Madhouse album, 24, was cut in 1988. But perhaps concerned by the sheer volume of Prince’s output, Warner Bros. declined to release it.
Undeterred, Prince sent Leeds back to the vault to pull together a new album, 26, from their several years of recording together. This too was sidelined, with Prince eventually suggesting that Leeds release it under his own name, as the solo album Times Squared in 1991.
But Prince still wasn’t done with the Madhouse concept, and revived it in 1993, this time recording with Leeds and the core of his most recent band, the ‘New Power Generation’.
This band had impressive chops, with the rhythm section of Michael Bland on drums and Sonny Thompson on bass holding down the bottom end better than perhaps any other of Prince’s ensembles.
Handed to Warner’s in the middle of his contractual dispute, this new album, also titled 24, was rejected out of hand — which was a shame, since it was another nice slice of modern cross-over, with, if anything, even better playing than its predecessors (and actual titles for most of the songs, rather than just numbers.)
I saw Prince, Leeds and the NPG perform Asswoop live in a nightclub in London, and have an abiding memory of him spraying his guitar neck with oil, so he could play it *even faster* — and the man is no slouch when it comes to the guitar.
Killer Tracks: 17, Asswoop.
Where to find it: See above.
Tell me do U like what U see?
There you go — 10 solid Prince albums that you’ve likely never even heard of before, all of which are well worth the listen.
And if you think I’ve been scrapping the barrel here to compile this rundown, let me tell you that I’ve omitted two ‘digital-only’ albums The Chocolate Invasion and The Slaughterhouse, the live albums C-Note and Indigo Nights, the discarded configuration Camille, the 1989 version of Rave un2 The Joy Fantastic, the ballet Kamasutra, the jazz fusion album N.E.W.S., two albums from the New Power Generation GoldNigga and New Power Soul, and the early 80s band effort The Rebels.
(And those are just the straight-up Prince albums. If I started to include related artists that he did most of the music for, I could add Ingrid Chavez’s poetry thing, Carmen Electra’s album (yup — that really exists), and I’m not even trying that hard.)
It’s time we all reach out for something new.
So, to conclude.
Prince likes music way more than you do.
And he really likes to make music.
Not just ‘Prince music’, but all kinds of music.
He’s made a lot more music than you’ve heard.
Most of it is good and much of it is excellent.