Greatest hits compilations are odd birds. Record companies inevitably try to walk the line between giving you an enticing sampler of an artist’s oeuvre and giving away the farm. Often, the final product ends up leaving fans irate and neophytes scratching their heads as to what all the hype was about. So, despite several delays, big ups are owed to Warner Bros. for releasing a thoughtful and relatively comprehensive collection of the Gospel According to the Purple One. Far from simply cashing in on Prince’s recently renewed renown, Ultimate features some of the funktastiest music you’ll ever hear, including some rare remixes, all tucked into a convenient, double-CD case. Almost every major hit from the ‘80s and the Artist Formerly Known As era is included here, though there are some notable exceptions, including “Mountains” and the massive 1989 blockbuster “Batdance.”
Of the tracks that do show up, about a dozen are remixes or extended versions that were, for the most part, available only on vinyl up until Ultimate‘s release. Admittedly, hastily cobbling together remixes of B-sides has become commonplace on greatest hits records (the disastrous second CD of Death Row: Greatest Hits comes immediately to mind). But Ultimate shows up with some honest-to-goodness, tried-and-true revamps that do much more than just highlight the basic song with an amped up drum machine. The dance remix of “Let’s Work,” for example, throws a twisting, thumping beat, funked-out horns and a lengthy extend into an already roiling pot, while the long version of “U Got The Look” adds some tasty vocal calisthenics for His Purpleness to chew up and spit out.
As for the standard tracks, they need little introduction. Ultimate includes such masterpieces as “1999,” “When Doves Cry,” “Sign ‘O’ The Times,” and “Alphabet St.” Prince even reclaims his sultry ballad “Nothing Compares 2 U” in a powerful, live recording. The tracklist is generally chronological in order, and it’s striking to see the variety of themes that Prince has tackled over the years. Starting out with politically-oriented fare like “Controversy,” we move from Prince’s overtly religious “I Would Die 4 U” to his explicit “Gett Off.” Not too many artists can claim to have that kind of thematic range, let alone the musical genius required to give such songs mass appeal. Of course, not too many guys who dress in crushed velvet leotard pants and a panama hat can claim to have a number one single either. If nothing else, Ultimate should make you bow down to the raw talent of a single individual.
On the other hand, apart from some of the remixes, Ultimate contains only one track (the admittedly awesome “My Name Is Prince”) that has not appeared on one of Prince’s other greatest hits compilations. So if you’re a casual fan who’s already got 1993’s The Hits/The B-Sides, you’re not going to be getting much for your money with Ultimate. And, if you’re a worshipper at the Purple Altar, then you’ve probably got most of these tracks, in one form or another, sitting on your shelves. While a greatest hits album necessitates trotting out the old classics, it would have been nice to see some truly unique tracks on Ultimate (the 12-inch remixes of “America,” for example, are notoriously hard to find). Additionally, while the remixed songs are generally tip-top, if you happen to be partial to an album version of one of those songs, you’re SOL as far as Ultimate is concerned. Nevertheless, given the recent success of Musicology and 3121, newbies looking for the O.G. magic will not be disappointed with Ultimate. In fact, even for veterans, the album can be a convenient way to consolidate all those records, bootleg tapes, and MP3s into a single, friendly package.