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36. Prince - Musicology (2004)

As a devoted fan, this is what you dream about: your beloved artist, long considered past his/her prime, releases an album that stands shoulder-to-shoulder with their best work. Elton John did it a couple of years ago with Songs From The West Coast, but it's a very rare event.

So here we have Prince, who is not only content to release a good, consistent new record. No, he has mounted a full-on return to form accompanied by a performance at the Grammys, induction into the Rock 'N Roll Hall Of Fame, and an extensive tour. And he's getting more press than an elevator button (most recently and notably on the cover of Entertainment Weekly).

Of course Prince is saavy enough to know that without the critically lauded new album all of that is nothing but a nostalgia trip. So he has whipped up a seemingly effortless collection that's easily his best album in 9 years (The Gold Experience being the last, and some might argue with that). In those years Prince has followed his odd muse so doggedly (releasing some good music, but none of it without a caveat) that the first time I listened to Musicology, I kept waiting for something strange or annoying or off-putting to ruin the whole affair.

But that moment never came. This is a rock-solid record, a showcase of Prince's wide array of musical styles and abilities. Every song recalls something that you love about him, representing his best work without rehashing it. The title track and current single is modern Prince, jazzy and funky with keys that recall the 1999 era. Illusion, Coma, Pimp & Circumstance is a story-song in the Gett Off / P-Control mold. A Million Days is a guitar-hero workout that could slot easily into The Gold Experience. It's all drama and missing-you histrionics. Life O' The Party is a Diamonds and Pearls - style celebration with deep bass and shared female vocals.

And so it goes. I'm sure the Prince faithful will have a field day coming up with comparisons and touchstones. But the beauty is that this isn't just for the diehard fans. Anyone who ever grooved to a Prince song (and that has to be a lot of people) will find lots to love here.

Even with all the similarities to his classic work, there are definite differences on this album too. For one, there's a distinct sense of unguarded openness. He name-drops movie titles and other musicians (most notably in the line "I'm gonna put her on the same diet Missy went on" from The Marrying Kind... I guess he's paying her back for the "Prince couldn't get me change my name" shout out in Work It). And he's funny too. Witness: As someone speculating on himself, "he don't play his hits no more plus I thought he was gay" (from Life O' The Party) or "boy I was fine back in the day!" (from Illusion, Coma, Pimp & Circumstance). We knew that he had that fun side, especially from Under The Cherry Moon, but never before has it been so evident on record.

Additionally, three of the 12 songs (Call My Name, Cinnamon Girl, and Dear Mr.Man) mention war, with the last of the three speaking most potently and directly about society's current problems. Outside of Sign O' The Times it's something we just haven't heard from Prince.

Finally, Prince's Jehovah's Witness status has led him to cut out the use of blue language (if not innuendo), making this the rare Prince album you can jam to even if sensitive ears are listening.

All of this has the cumulative effect of making him seem damn near, well, approachable. Can you believe it?

Amidst this pleased gushing, I have only one complaint: The packaging. It's a digipak-style with a little overlapping flap that does nothing to keep the larger flap secure. Then there's a large booklet (with much-appreciated lyrics and photos) that just sits inside, with nothing to secure it, so it falls out at the slightest movement. What's up with that?!

Of course it's not anywhere near enough to dampen this accomplishment for the Artist. When I listen to this record (especially the appropriately-titled final song, Reflection), I feel like the Detroit Tigers ballcap-wearing owner of First Avenue in Purple Rain, when he gets a little misty-eyed and amazed at the end. Just like that. The Kid has done it again.

Rating: A+
Fave Song: Cinnamon Girl, for now

Fun Fact: Did you know an overwhelming majority of Prince's albums are named after a song on said album?

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