The Best of Prince’s Vault (So Far)

On the 40th anniversary of 'Purple Rain,' a guide to the best of the posthumous Prince projects.

Prince attending the premiere of Purple Rain on July 26, 1984 at Mann Chinese Theater in Hollywood, California. Ron Galella Collection via Getty Images

Forty years ago this week Prince released the album that took him from star to icon. Purple Rain yielded his first number one pop single (“When Doves Cry”) and then his second (“Let’s Go Crazy”), with the title track blocked from the top spot by Wham’s “Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go.” The album itself held the number one position on the Billboard 200 for almost half a year and the movie (which arrived in July of 1984) earned ten times its $7 million budget.

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In a just world, no one would have to think about posthumous Prince projects. The musical genius was only 57 when he died of an accidental overdose in 2016, four months after the release of his 39th studio album. Since then—just as with Elvis Presley, Michael Jackson and countless others—the prospect of music from his storied vault was almost too good to be true. Prince died without a will, so the process of settling his estate took years, but that didn’t stop the flow of reissues, compilations and box sets—damn good ones, in fact. 

But in a business as unpredictable as the music industry, nothing is guaranteed. A quickly-settled lawsuit among the heirs back in January (half of whom are represented by the music publisher and management company Primary Wave, the other half represented by a brain trust that includes Prince’s former lawyer) suggests discord among the ranks. Fans have been baffled by borderline unprofessional social media messaging, and it seems likely that the 40th anniversary of the Purple Rain film and soundtrack will pass with nothing more than a 4K home video release and a Dolby Atmos remix to commemorate the occasion.

Still, there are dozens of titles to rediscover, and even a few to hear for the first time, thanks to the work of the Prince estate. Here are 10 of the best.

The Truth (Record Store Day vinyl, 2021)

In 2018, Sony Music inked a deal to distribute Prince’s material issued between 1995 and 2010—an era that saw him change his name to a symbol in protest of his contract with Warner Bros. Records and flit from label to label, adopting unique release strategies to get his music out to a loyal fan base. One of the most underrated records from that era is The Truth, an acoustic album originally packed into the rarities collection Crystal Ball It features The Artist going deep on sex, fame and even grief (having lost a newborn son to a rare birth defect two years earlier). A first-time vinyl release decades later finally gave the set its due.

The Gold Experience (Record Store Day vinyl, 2022)

Another great album from the 1995-2010 period was his very first as the symbol, 1995’s The Gold Experience. It featured his last Top 10 hit in America, “The Most Beautiful Girl in the World,” along with killer cuts like “👁 Hate U,” “P. Control,” “Dolphin” and the soaring title track. Unusually, an international plagiarism lawsuit kept “Most Beautiful” off of streaming for years—but when the dust settled, Sony decided to go all out for a vinyl reissue, repressing a rare promo version that featured a bonus side of remixes.

I Feel for You (Acoustic Demo) (single, 2019)

In the first few years after Prince’s passing, the estate would surprise drop one-offs from the vault in between larger projects—interesting finds too good to be tacked onto some reissue. The best of those loosies was a spare 1979 take on “I Feel for You,” a song from his self-titled sophomore album that later became a smash for Chaka Khan in 1984. Stripped of its synthesizers, it’s still a hell of a song, and it’s a thrill to hear the then-20-year-old visionary chipping away at pop magic.

Purple Rain (Deluxe Expanded Edition) (2017)

Before Prince died, he settled a long-standing dispute with his original label, Warner Bros., gaining the rights to his master recordings in 2014. (Lack of ownership of his masters was part of the reason he’d changed his name in 1993.) The plan was to remaster and re-release Purple Rain while he was alive, but that didn’t pan out until a year after his passing. The deluxe expanded edition included two bonus discs of B-sides, remixes, and outtakes as well as a never-before-released live concert video on DVD. It was a valiant first-time effort from the vault (even if some fans didn’t love the mastering) and there’s certainly more material from the era that deserves a release, including the legendary 1983 concert at Minneapolis club First Avenue that featured the first performance of “Purple Rain”—an edited and overdubbed version of which became the cut you know and love today

His Majesty’s Pop Life: The Purple Mix Club (Record Store Day vinyl, 2019)

If there’s one area in which Prince is possibly underrated, it’s his prowess as a dance club artist in the mid-’80s. He issued many choice extended remixes on 12-inch singles, and a Japanese double vinyl from 1985 collected great long versions of tracks from 1999, Purple Rain and the just-released Around the World in a Day. Bonus: beyond the Record Store Day vinyl reissue, Warner’s Japanese label also released a limited edition on CD—still the only place to find some of these versions digitally.

Piano & A Microphone 1983 (2018)

The first posthumous Prince album was a rehearsal tape recorded in his first home recording studio—just him at the keyboard, not unlike the tour he embarked on in the last months of his life. The informal recording doesn’t offer him playing any one song for too long, but he works out new material (a rough early sketch of “Purple Rain” and the fan favorite “Strange Relationship,” which would be on 1987’s Sign O’ The Times, four years after this tape was recorded) and pays tribute to some of his most striking influences, from gospel standards (“Mary Don’t You Weep”) to Joni Mitchell (“A Case of You”).

 1999 (Super Deluxe Edition) (2019)

This super deluxe edition is the closest thing to tapping into Prince’s brain as his star began to rise. The Prince estate packed his 1982 pop breakthrough 1999 with four bonus CDs and a DVD, offering B-sides, remixes and hours of unreleased studio and live recordings. An album as sprawling and ambitious as 1999 had plenty of interesting material that didn’t make the cut—including versions of songs Price released nearly a decade later (and which sounded fresh even then). 

Originals (2019)

Prince’s songwriting was so prolific that he gave away hits to artists he produced or wanted to get closer to. Originals showcases his demos and guide versions of familiar favorites such as “Manic Monday” (a number two hit for the Bangles), “Jungle Love” (top 20 for The Time), “The Glamorous Life” (top 10 for Shelia E.) and “Nothing Compares 2 U,” (originally a 1985 album track for the Prince-produced band The Family). There are also quirkier moments like the country-flavored “You’re My Love” (later given to Kenny Rogers) or the ethereal “Love…Thy Will Be Done,” a 1991 hit for “Toy Soldiers” singer Martika.

Prince and The Revolution Live (2022)

If there’s one thing Prince fans deserve more of from the vault, it’s live material. No two shows or tours were ever the same, apart from the common thread of one of the best bandleaders since James Brown at the helm. In 2022, the estate released a show from the end of the Purple Rain tour—a March 30, 1985 concert, just three weeks before Prince unleashed Around the World in a Day on unsuspecting audiences. Though it had been previously included on DVD in the Purple Rain reissue, the estate’s archivists outdid themselves on this two-CD and Blu-ray package, going back to the original negative of the concert film to make dramatic visual improvements and doing a complete remix that gives the audio greater punch.

Sign O’ the Times (Super Deluxe Edition) (2020)

Whatever your opinion of the current handling of Prince’s vault, you can’t say the estate never rose to the challenge. Take the super deluxe edition of 1987’s Sign O’ the Times, arguably Prince’s most ambitious (and to many, his best) album. Fans knew there was plenty to discover in the vault, since Sign had been years in the making and had taken the place of two albums Prince had planned: 1985’s Dream Factory and 1986’s Crystal Ball, a triple LP that was slimmed to two discs and released as Sign O’ the Times. In addition to the usual disc of B-sides and remixes, the Sign super deluxe offered three albums’ worth of outtakes, including the first version of “I Could Never Take the Place of Your Man” (recorded in 1979, eight years before the Sign O’ the Times version) and coveted outtakes like “Witness 4 the Prosecution,” “A Place in Heaven,” “The Ball” and “Rebirth of the Flesh.” Miles Davis shows up on the set twice: on the outtake “Can I Play with U?” and in the encore of one of the two live sets included in the package. A hardbound, LP-sized book of liner notes and rare photographs rounds out a killer package that does more than remind fans of Prince’s eternal genius: in the fast-paced digital music world, it justifies the aging but still vital idea of releasing music on disc, with gorgeous packaging to tell a captivating story.

The Best of Prince’s Vault (So Far)