Prince: five best albums

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There were majestic highs throughout his career but Prince’s greatest – and most influential – albums emerged in one nine-year purple patch.

1999 (1982)

By the time 1999 rolled around for real, Prince was perhaps unfairly viewed as an eccentric egomaniac, having changed his name to a symbol six years earlier (he reverted back to Prince in 2000), but it is easy to forget his creative generosity. The first voices we hear on his breakthrough album are his backing singers, Jill Jones and Lisa Coleman, on the title track: "I was dreaming as I wrote this, forgive me if it goes astray." It kicks off one of the finest LP A-sides ever, with the tracks 1999, Little Red Corvette and Delirious. This album helped to knock down barriers in the musically-segregated United States, while pushing Prince into pop stardom.

Purple Rain (1984)

Prince had no time for conventional genres, mixing funk, soul, gospel – and on his greatest album, Purple Rain, hard rock – to create a unique sound. His increasingly appropriately-named backing band, The Revolution, are in epic form here on hits such as Let's Go Crazy, When Doves Cry and the title track. But it is Prince's own guitar heroics that most frequently impress. Even hard rock fans were now permitted to like Prince. The risqué track Darling Nikki upset censorship queen Tipper Gore (wife of future vice president Al). Her "Parental Guidance" stickers backfired, however, and soon became a badge of honour for edgy musicians.

Parade (1986)

This underrated record was rather sullied by the famously awful film that accompanied it, Under the Cherry Moon. The album is a brilliant curiosity, much less immediate than his harder-hitting 80s releases, but with fascinating depth as a more vocally-vulnerable Prince replaces the rock licks with complex arrangements. There are nuggets of irresistible catchiness – notably the sensational lead single Kiss – but Parade turned off great swaths of listeners, while earning enormous critical praise. Another corner turned.

Sign o’ the Times (1987)

A decade into his hugely successful career, Prince was amassing an impressive back catalogue but had yet to deliver his version of What's Going On, Marvin Gaye's genuinely heartfelt statement about the state of the world. Unlike Gaye's 1971 classic, Sign o' the Times is no high-minded concept album, more a dance floor-friendly celebration of his female muses – notably Scottish singer Sheena Easton on the thrusting U Got the Look. But the moment that resonates most is the title track, a musically minimal but lyrically massive look at Aids, drugs, poverty and power. It's one of the decade's boldest hit singles.

Diamonds and Pearls (1991)

The ego had definitely landed by the late 1980s, as Prince tested his audience with annoying CDs (1988's Lovesexy could only be listened to in order and featured him naked on the cover) and another dreadful movie, 1990's Graffiti Bridge. Diamonds and Pearls was a welcome oasis – from the mainstream R'n'B of Money Don't Matter 2 Night and the eastern-flavoured title track, to the raunchy Cream and Gett Off, this is the pop genius in full crowd-pleasing mode. By 1992 he'd be naming an album after a symbol, then naming himself after that symbol – and things would never be quite the same.