Which Prince Album should I buy?

Don’t own any Prince albums? Here’s the best greatest hits album to buy, five essential albums, and the five least essential albums too.
A friend of mine just asked me this exact question, and it got my brain buzzing. If you didn’t have much (or any) Prince, which album or albums should you buy?
When I say I’ve just been asked, I really do mean it; I’m sitting down to write this as an article because responding to his Facebook request would involve, more or less, writing an article.
It’s funny how inspiration strikes you sometimes.
Anyway, the standard response to this in many cases it to recommend a greatest hits album, because they’re generally good “samplers” of material with the requisite tracks that most people remember fondly. My friend in this case was a bit wary of this approach because he was aware that Prince viewed albums as complete entities (it’s why Lovesexy as a proper CD is one long, long track, so that you listen to it properly), and moreover he rather famously had long disputes with his record company.
Still, if you were picking a Prince Greatest Hits compilation, you’ve got a choice of three, and of those, the choice is pretty darned obvious. Both Ultimate and The Very Best Of Prince date from after he’d split with Warner Brothers, and they’re essentially full of the most obvious material from his pre-1992 career. They’re not bad, because they’re Prince, and if I had to pick between the two, I’d pick up Ultimate, because it has some nice remixes on the second disc.
Still, the best greatest hits compilation for any new Prince fan would still have to be the three-disc The Hits/The B-Sides compilation released in 1993. Not only does it cover a lot more ground, what with having some 36 actual hit tracks on it, you also get 20 b-sides and rarities on the third disc.
Sure, they vary in quality — I picked “God” amongst my Prince sampler last week because I think it’s a great track, whereas I can see why “200 Balloons” was left off the Batman soundtrack. Also, I totally forgot “Another Lonely Christmas” in my selection for mournful Prince tracks, and it’s a doozy.
Problem is, of course, that The Hits/The B-Sides is, to the best of my knowledge, massively out of print, and might be a bit pricey to buy. Still totally worth it.
The question got me thinking about the broader album context, though, because Prince released a lot of albums. It would be tempting to say “BUY THEM ALL!!!!”, but that’s not entirely practical, or for that matter all that easy if you’re still on the general path of actually paying for your music. Ahem. I think I’ve had enough of that argument elsewhere this week.
The other problem with boiling down an “essential” list of Prince albums is that my mood varies, and there’s so many choices to make. But, rather like my previous musings, this is what I’d recommend my friend (and anyone else pondering) pick up right now, presuming you can find them all. Some will be trickier than others.

Album Why
Sign O’ The Times It’s a classic. Sure, everyone knows Purple Rain, and it’s a classic too, but Sign is Prince at the absolute height of his powers, doing what he wants to and not giving a tinker’s cuss about anything else. If you were only going to buy ONE Prince album (and you’d be mad to only buy one, but whatever) this would be the one to buy. Prince_SOTT
Purple Rain Yeah, OK, you do have to buy Purple Rain as well. It’s his biggest seller, and his tightest album in a career that had a lot of eclectic choices that didn’t always work for everyone. Prince_PR
Musicology Prince fell out of “popular” favour, and released a lot of material that was still good, but not excellent. There’s not much doubt that a decent overseeing editor could have tightened up many albums, but not Musicology. Prince_Musicology
Emancipation Again with the later era stuff; while Emancipation does show tendencies towards slight “filler” material, there’s easily two great albums here. Might again be tough to legally source. Prince_E
Around The World In A Day What do you do after Purple Rain? The one thing that nobody thinks you will, and that’s Around The World In A Day in a nutshell. Prince’s “artist” statement that still stands up to scrutiny. Prince_ATWIAD

Of course, I finish writing that and my brain starts pondering. Hmm. Parade. Ooh… Dirty Mind. Argh… N.E.W.S (yes, I like N.E.W.S, even though I’m probably the only one). Dammit, it’s long, but Lovesexy is also very fine, too. Also, you should own The Gold Experience. Addictive stuff, this Prince music collecting lark.
Now, to balance the scales (and perhaps draw some ire), I should probably point out some of his, shall we say, less essential outings. By all means if you’ve got a full library track them down, but if you’re pondering a shelf (digital or real) of Prince offerings, here’s the ones I’d buy last:

Album Why
For You Yeah, it’s where Prince started, and he had to start somewhere, but there’s very little of “Prince” evident here. A nice album, but not essential Prince_ForYou
Chaos And Disorder Amongst the Albums that Prince essentially threw at Warner Bros to get out of his contract, and it shows. There’s a few nice ideas here, but editing this down would have helped A LOT. Prince_CND
The Rainbow Children Prince’s “Religious” album. May work for some folks, and that’s fine too, but it’s very self-indulgent. Prince_RC
Come Also a Warner Bros throwaway album. I’d buy this before Chaos And Disorder, but only just. Good for getting yourself depressed, though. Prince_Come
Slaughterhouse One of the NPG music club records, which means you can’t actually buy it any more, but like much of the period, it’s just… OK. Not great, and therefore far from essential. Prince_Slaughterhouse

All images are used in the context of review fair use and are to the best of my knowledge still (c) Warner Bros, at least while they sort out Prince’s estate.

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