Purple Rain may always be considered the crowning achievement of Prince Rogers Nelson’s career. But in many ways Sign o’ the Times — released 30 years ago today — is the definitive Prince album. Certainly, this ambitious (even for him) double LP is most representative of the many different musical shades of the Purple One. In celebration of the anniversary, EW is ranking all 16 tracks of His Royal Majesty’s masterpiece.
This nine-minute concert jam—recorded at a Paris stop on the Parade Tour—is the only song on the album featuring the Revolution. As the only live cut here, it plays somewhat like a bonus track, but it still sizzles in chicken-grease funk.
15. “Slow Love”
One of two pure R&B ballads on the set, this old-school slow dance would get more love if it didn’t have to play side-piece to “Adore.” Still, taking its sweet time, it hits all the right spots.
Ominous and obsessive, this eerie electro workout only has one thing on its dirty mind. It’s the kinkier sister to “Hot Thing.”
13. “Strange Relationship”
One of four tracks featuring the higher-pitched voice of Prince’s androgynous alter ego Camille, this deceptively bouncy ditty is a mind-twister with all kinds of mixed emotions.
12. “Play in the Sunshine”
This gospel-psychedelia rave-up wears a big beautiful smile all over it. Prince has never sounded downright giddier.
11. “Forever in My Life”
While “Adore” is more traditional, this is the alternative wedding song on Sign o’ the Times, with Prince declaring, “All that’s wrong in my world you can make right/You are my savior, you are my light.” It’s one of his most earnest vocals, with him wearing his heart on his ruffled sleeve.
10. “The Cross”
One of the most overtly religious songs that the pre-Jehovah’s Witness Prince had ever done, this builds from solemn folk to righteous rock. By the end, there is no doubt that he has gotten the holy spirit.
9. “U Got the Look”
It says a lot about this double LP’s depth that its biggest single is “only” ranked ninth. Such was Prince’s genius at the time, you get the feeling that he could have written this in his sleep. Still, it’s pretty much a perfect pop-rocker, with Sheena Easton out-singing previous Prince duet partners like Sheila E. and Apollonia. Heck-a-slammin’ indeed.
8. “Hot Thing”
Behind its scorching electro-funk groove, this is the sexiest thing on Prince’s opus. By the end, he’s been worked up into a wordless, orgasmic delirium by this barely-21-year-old hottie.
“Shut up, already—damn!” announces Prince—or make that, Camille—at the beginning of this James Brown-style throwdown. And with that ferocious rumble, it would still shut any party down today.
6. “Starfish and Coffee”
A sublimely quirky story-song sketching one of Prince’s most delightful characters, this is two minutes and 50 seconds of pure bliss. It never fails to put on a happy face just like the one Cynthia would draw “on every wall, on every school.”
Prince is at his most wonderfully weird on this slinky, slightly sinister piece of bass-thumping funk. The gender-flipping lyric explores what real intimacy can mean, whether it’s washing her hair, going to a movie and crying together, or dancing a ballet naked to get her off.
One of the essential Prince deep cuts, this is another story-song that paints a colorful character. Although she gets her name from the legendary writer, this is a different Dorothy Parker: a waitress who takes Prince’s fruit-cocktail order and then sets out to seduce him with a bath together. Along this jazzy vibe-out, Prince pays homage to his musical muse Joni Mitchell with a nod to “Help Me.”
While Sign o’ the Times saw Prince leaving the Revolution era behind, he looks back on that classic period here—as if to let them know he could do it without them. Indeed, this burst of guitar-pop glitter wouldn’t have been out of place on Purple Rain. The melancholy-streaked melodicism gives way to a bluesy breakdown that most mainstream artists wouldn’t dare to put amidst such tunefulness.
When it comes to Prince’s best ballads, this has to rank right up there at the very top. With his falsetto on fleek over a bed of soulful sumptuousness and a lyric that would melt the hardest heart as he pledges his eternal devotion (“If God one day struck me blind, your beauty I’d still see”), this one will stand until the end of time.
1. “Sign o’ the Times”
Prince had always been known more for his sexual consciousness than his social awareness. But he changed that with the title track that has become his answer to Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Going On.” Set against a barren beatscape to match the bleak lyrics about societal ills like AIDS, drugs and gang violence, it was a revelation back in 1987. And though some of the details may no longer be timely, sadly the spirit of the song’s message still resonates powerfully today.