In baseball, the five-tool player is kind of a bullshit concept, but it connotes a particular beauty. The five-tool player hits for power, hits for average, throws well, fields well, and roams the basepaths like a guerilla warrior; when the term “five-tool” is deployed, it implicitly presents these skills as equally weighted. As the greatest solo pop artist in American history, Prince boasts an unprecedented skill set. He writes, arranges, sings, plays, dances, and performs, all like a motherfucker. He busts taboos, flashes unstoppable ambition, blends genres together like paint. Ballads and rave-ups, autobiography and fantasy, sexual abandon and divine devotion. He’s Willie Mays and Ken Griffey, Jr. and Rickey Henderson and Bo Jackson. He’s Paul McCartney with the funk, Stevie Wonder with the freakiness, Joni Mitchell with the proper respect.
Respect, as you know, is also kind of a bullshit concept. Your favorite songs may not grace anyone else’s mixes; your favorite artists may not have ever left town. A century of recorded music has given us a galaxy of worthy tunes. But the gravitational pull of Prince is strong; it has few equals. If you dig people standing tall in the major-label machinery, he’s your standard-bearer. Practically anyone trying to marry pop songcraft to idiosyncrasy is in his debt: OutKast. The-Dream. Beyoncé. Juan Atkins. Of Montreal. Autre Ne Veut. Sky Ferreira. With astounding ease, he gave us dozens of evergreens and deep cuts, concept albums and slamming soundtracks, Anna Stesia and Bambi and Darling Nikki. At his peak, he was essentially a one-man record industry. He handed Sinead O’Connor and Chaka Khan the biggest hits of their careers. After seven years gone, Kid Creole And The Coconuts — a sterling act in their own right — rode “The Sex of It” back into the UK Top 30. Stevie Nicks, Sheila E., Sheena Easton, and the Bangles went Top 10 Stateside with Prince tunes. He’s been sampled by Nine Inch Nails, covered by Sufjan Stevens, pastiched by Weird Al.
Even with all this, his grandest legacy could be how he put so much of himself on wax while holding so much in reserve. His boldest thematic throughline would surely be sexuality: the pleasure of pursuit, the promise and demonstration of ecstasy. Yet Prince’s carnality exists in this weird middle ground between entertaining nonsense and raw reportage. It’s an obsession, but when it’s depicted, it’s rarely done obsessively. The same thing applies to his spiritual journey, which has traversed all the stations from guilt to exaltation. He’s pledged to Jehovah’s Witnesses — and has gone on record with his unease about everything from substance abuse to cussing to (tragically) non-heterosexuality — but it’s been no obstacle to his ardor. He’s still a flirt, and he’s still wickedly funny in his low-key manner. (On Dutch TV, he once explained his conviction about birthdays thusly: “I don’t celebrate birthdays, so that stops me from counting days, which stops me from counting time, which allows me” — and here he drops into a fey Southern accent and rises into some doofy shoulder-rocking, to a massive cheer — “to still look the same as I did, ten years ago, just like that lady said.”)
Fortunately, Prince’s reputation has rebounded from a dark period, when he was locked in battle with his record label, declaring himself a slave to the endless glee of late-night TV hosts. Once free from his contract, he initiated a years-long re-evaluation of the standard distribution model, experimenting with subscriptions, MP3 stores, albums packaged with newspapers and bundled with concert tickets. The records themselves were often uneven — to his unrealized chagrin, the major-label paradigm nurtures quality as much as it quashes it — but they always offered Princemusic, a heady blend of styles and passions that added to our conception of the man, even if they didn’t shore up the legacy. But when you’re the forever king, your legacy is already written. Not to say that he’s always reigned securely. Like Michael Jackson (a ruler of another galaxy, even if critics dreamed of a real rivalry), Prince worked to rule the charts without forsaking his black audience, which put him in a prolonged repulsion/attraction cycle with hip-hop before he matured into his current role as a funky elder statesman. Too smart to self-destruct, too restless to fully settle into a stylistic cul-de-sac, he’s now a living treasure, the greatest, weirdest gift ever sold.
Today, Prince’s biggest-selling album (having moved more than 20 million units worldwide), Purple Rain, turns 30. To celebrate, we’re taking a deep dive into the man’s prolific, magical career. What follows is a ranking of most of Prince’s studio LPs and soundtracks — though we limited what Wikipedia calls his “internet albums” to 1998’s The Truth and 2003’s Xpectation, which means you won’t find a few of his more esoteric releases (2004’s The Chocolate Invasion, for instance, or, um, 2004’s The Slaughterhouse) included here. That still leaves us with more than enough music for several lifetimes — and considering Prince’s continued vitality and infamous vaults, he’s probably got another few lifetimes’ worth of music ahead of him, too. Let’s go crazy.
Start the Countdown here.