Attempting to summarize Prince in a few short words? Pretty close to impossible. The man is arguably the most important musician of his era. One of the few commercially successful artists to successfully blend the rock and soul genres, an unbelievably accomplished musician capable of playing any instrument you throw at him, mysterious public figure, movie star, rebel, hardheaded S.O.B.,  someone whose songs are capable of giving you the Holy Spirit and a raging hard-on, there’s no one quite like Prince Rogers Nelson.

The man emerged from Minneapolis to become a music and pop culture icon. I’m not sure how many folks saw him rather awkward appearance on “American Bandstand” back in 1980 and said “this guy is gonna be around thirty years from now”, but here we are in 2010, he’s announcing a tour and people are still going gaga for the man. Michael and Madonna were more popular, but no one made better music during the Eighties. Even the stuff he pawned off to other artists was better than the majority of stuff A-list artists were putting out during that time period. Even past his commercial peak, Prince continued to put out challenging music, and even his worst albums have at least a couple of gems.

Over the past fifteen years or so, Prince has become something of a frustrating figure, whether it’s his attempts to piss his fans off by suing the shit out of him or his many, many contradictions (so many I can’t even begin to enumerate). You can’t say that the man isn’t a legend, though. And I’ll excuse all kinds of inexcusable behavior for great music. Sue me. I’m shallow like that.

So what I’m gonna try to do is give you my take on the wheat and the chaff in Prince’s very lengthy discography. I’d say this is fairly complete without being exhaustive-I’m not gonna go into the realm of bootlegs, unauthorized recordings, and I’ll even set his side projects aside into their own individual post, otherwise I’d be posting bits of his discography until 3121 (to steal the title of his most recent above-average album). Anyway, enough of the small talk. Let’s start from the beginning…(and let’s see how long before some of these videos get taken down)

“For You” (1978)- I don’t think I even realized this album existed until some point after “Purple Rain” hit big, and I didn’t hear one note from it until 1993. While not Prince’s strongest effort, there are several things that were immediately apparent on his debut. One, the guy was uber-talented, writing, arranging and playing just about every note on “For You”. Second, he already had a thing for shock value, as evidenced by the title and lyrics of “Soft & Wet” (imagining convincing a record label to use a song with that title to introduce you to the world!). Third, he was already blending genres. While much of the album is funk with a slight disco influence, “Baby” is a dramatic ballad that makes sterling use of Prince’s falsetto, “Crazy You” has a jazzy feel and some of the artist’s best guitar work, and “I’m Yours” is full-on rock and roll. “For You” is all the more impressive when you consider that the album was made by a teenager. I’ll put it to you like this. When “For You” was released, Prince was only about 3 years older than Justin Bieber is today. Grade: B-

“Prince” (1979)- I remember the first time I saw Prince on TV-vaguely. I was barely more than a toddler at the time, but I distinctly remember being confused a) because he wore an earring (and dudes didn’t really wear earrings back then), b) because he sang about wanting to be “your mother and your sister too”, which is pretty impossible if you’re a dude, and c) he sang in a really high voice, but he had a mustache. My  gender role-related confusion aside, this was the album that introduced Prince to the masses, giving him his first major hit single with “I Wanna Be Your Lover”. “Prince” is rock-ier than it’s predecessor, and the songs are more immediate. “Sexy Dancer” is guaranteed to fill up any dance floor you play it on, and “Bambi” remains one of Prince’s all-time most “WTF?” songs (he’s trying to convince a lesbian to switch teams). He was still finding his way, but this album was a true indicator that he was one to watch. Grade: B

“Dirty Mind” (1980)- I don’t know if anyone saw THIS coming, though. Not all album covers tell you all you need to know about an album, but in “Dirty Mind”‘s case? Well, Prince’s third album is as stripped down, grimy and downright nasty as the album art would indicate. Prince, dressed in bikini briefs and a trenchcoat, the look on his face indicating “come hither” as well as “fuck off”. It’s a rock & soul triumph, the funkiest new-wave album ever, the album on which Prince completely and totally destroyed the chance of anyone ever pigeonholing him into one category. “Sister” and “Head” are still capable of making jaws drop thirty years later, “When You Were Mine” is one of the five best songs Prince has ever written, “Uptown” and “Partyup” are galvanizing dance-floor fillers, and I still can’t figure out whether that noise at the end of “Gotta (sic) Broken Heart Again” is a gunshot. I could listen to this album for days on end on repeat and not get tired of it. Grade: A

“Controversy” (1981)-Prince put his clothes back on and toned down the overtly sexual content (slightly) on “Controversy”, the first real attempt to blend his genre-blurring with a more commercial sound. If any album gets short shrift when discussing Prince’s catalog, I’d say this is it. The title track is a blistering mission statement (with some badass rhythm guitar work), “Let’s Work” is a lengthy dance workout in the vein of “Sexy Dancer”, and “Annie Christian” and “Ronnie Talk to Russia” both work despite being the most off-kilter songs Prince had recorded up to that point. Then there’s the babymaking classic “Do Me Baby” (the first of many in Prince’s catalog), and “Private Joy”, a bouncy number that should’ve been a huge hit. Should I be embarrassed because the first time I heard that song, it was recorded by LaToya Jackson? (BTW, that song marks the first and only use of the word “orgasmotron” in popular music that I’m aware of). Grade: A-

“1999” (1982)-Prince gunned for, and attained, pop success for the first time with this record.  “1999” was the first album on which he sang in his natural voice for any extended period of time, and it was the first to (however obliquely) credit The Revolution as his backing band. Hard to imagine a record company sticking with an artist until their fifth album these days, eh? “1999” also marked Prince’s first successful attempts at making commercial pop songs (see: “Little Red Corvette”, which became his first Top 10 pop hit), and while at first glance, it may seem like a sellout move,  he managed to infiltrate a Top 40 radio scene that was lily-white at the time without losing an ounce of his originality and daring. To be fair, “1999” does have more B-list tracks than any album since 1979’s self-titled effort (“Free” and “Automatic” aren’t bad, but they also aren’t essential), but it also contains two more timeless dance anthems (“1999″ and “D.M.S.R.”), the odd yet insanely catchy “All the Critics Love U in New York”, another showcase for his rhythm guitar skills (“Lady Cab Driver”) and yet another baby-making jam with “International Lover”.  Grade: A-

Next…Prince conquers the world…and then goes off the deep end…and then comes back…and then…

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