Sunday, November 4, 2018

Queen: All the Albums, Worst to Best

If you haven’t seen “Bohemian Rhapsody” yet, then go see it ASAP (it’s basically a two-hour fangasm). After seeing it, you probably want to hear more great music from Queen because you’re a human with ears and they’re amazing. But after checking out a Greatest Hits comp / playlist, where should go next if you want to dig deeper? That’s where I come in. A lifelong Queen superfan, I’m going to give a ranked overview of all Queen albums from worst to best None of Queen’s albums are outright bad (there’s always at least one moment of greatness to be found). But some are better than others, and why start anywhere but the best? One rule: This list only includes albums released during Freddie Mercury’s life. No disrespect to Brian and Roger, but as far as this list is concerned anything after “Innuendo” didn’t happen. Oh, and if you want to hear any of the songs I mention, you can hear them on Queen’s official YouTube channel, which I suggest you visit. Let’s go!

Part I: Loser’s Bracket
14) A Kind of Magic (1986)
A Kind of Magic is largely comprised of music Queen wrote for the soundtrack to the classic action movie "Highlander", and for that reason alone it’s a personal favorite of some fans. There are a few truly fantastic songs on here: “Who Wants To Live Forever” is an epic so melancholy and beautiful that it’s made me cry more than once. The other singles (“One Year Of Love”, “One Vision”, “A Kind Of Magic”) are also pretty fun, capturing Queen at their biggest and most arena-ready. 

The rest of the record is filler, and I usually skip most of it. “Pain Is So Close To Pleasure” is terrible, “Friends Will Be Friends” has lyrics that hurt my brain (though it apparently was a live favorite), and a few songs are half-assed stabs at heavy metal that run out of gas well before they’re done (see “Gimme the Prize”). “Princes of the Universe” is great when edited down to a minute for TV, not so much at its full length. 

 Basically, all of the good songs on Magic can also be found on greatest hits compilations, which are better uses of your time. But definitely seek out the “Highlander Version” of the title track now that you can buy it on iTunes… the one on the album is a radio edit that isn’t nearly as metal.

13) Flash Gordon (1980)
The other film soundtrack Queen produced was for the sci-fi classic "Flash Gordon”, and it resulted in a more cohesive album than A Kind of Magic. But it’s not your usual soundtrack album. In addition to containing all of the music Queen wrote for the movie in more or less chronological order, sound effects and dialogue excerpts from the film are spliced in constantly. The effect is something like a radio play with half of the lines missing, and if you haven’t seen the movie it would be pretty hard to follow. 

As weird as that sounds, it makes a certain kind of sense. Before home video was everywhere, if you left a screening of "Flash Gordon" and wanted to take it home with you this was the next best thing. Also a lot of the music is more “film score” rather than “pop song”, and the dialogue clues you in as to why you’re listening to several minutes of moody synthesizer. 

Unfortunately, much of this is hard to enjoy separate from the film. Usually I’ll listen to “Flash’s Theme”, skip ahead to “Football Fight”, then skip again to side two. But starting with “Flash to the Rescue” the album delivers some unique thrills. The last 12 minutes or so are pretty great, and it’s not coincidental that most of what I remember from the film is the part scored by these tracks. While Flash Gordon is a very patchy record, the general weirdness makes it essential for Queen completists.
12) Queen (1973)

Fans of Queen’s heavier music may be angry at how low I placed their debut, and I do love a lot of the music on Queen. Unfortunately this album’s recording was rushed that the band were running on fumes during much of the process, and you can tell. Most of the tracks on this album are not the best or definitive versions of the songs. Superior alternate takes have been released on comps like At the Beeb, or as bonus tracks on reissues. But even though this is a warts and all recording (the amount of mistakes and wrong notes is shocking to hear from a band that’s known for being such perfectionists), it’s a cool document of Queen’s early sound. Brian’s and Roger’s music was dominant as Freddie’s songwriting had yet to catch up to his vision. So the best songs from these sessions are generally the heaviest: Even if Brian’s “guitar orchestra” technique would become more refined in the future, it’s never been pushed this far into sheer volume and intensity. It’s hard not to feel good letting songs like “Doing All Right”, “Modern Times Rock and Roll” and “Son And Daughter” demolish your senses. And a few of the other tracks come out alright: “Keep Yourself Alive” may not have been a radio hit, but it’s a nice try nonetheless. The best song is “The Night Comes Down”, a gorgeous acoustic ballad that hits a wonderful peak at its conclusion. Basically, there’s no Queen album that sounds quite like Queen, for better and worse. And even if it’s basically unfinished, it’s a good addition to the archives.
11) Hot Space (1983)

Most Queen fanatics would put Hot Space straight at the bottom of this list but I really don’t think it’s that bad. The main reason for its infamy is that Queen had never gone this far into dance and pop before, which alienated their core fans. Given the upheavals in pop music at the time and the massive success of “Another One Bites The Dust”, a move into total dance music wasn’t a ridiculous idea. Unfortunately it’s clear not everyone in Queen felt that way. Hot Space’s first side is pretty fine, especially “Back Chat” and “Dancer”, two absolute bangers that are a good example of Queen doing their best to try something new. “Back Chat” is a classic John Deacon pop tune with a fantastic solo from May. “Dancer” is a May number that rocks harder than anything else here, and shows that even Brian was willing to play along with the Hot Space sound to some extent. “Staying Power” and “Body Language” are pretty silly and don’t quite work but screw it, they’re still a lot of fun. Alas, on side two the wheels come off. Seemingly meant as a consolation prize for fans alienated by side one, this is some of the tamest, most conventional pop rock Queen ever released. They seemed to consciously reign themselves in, and that was most definitely not what they were best at. Still, as forgettable as this stuff is, none of it’s bad. If I borrowed an old car and found this in the tape deck I wouldn’t be mad (Yes, I’m old). Plus Hot Space has the decency to end with two real winners: “Cool Cat” (a fun soul excursion by Deacon and Mercury) and “Under Pressure” (the classic duet with David Bowie that’s probably the main reason this album sold any copies). Though I’ll defend Hot Space a great deal, it’s still one of Queen’s weakest records, the sound of a dysfunctional band hedging their bets. Part II: Getting to the Good Stuff

10) A Night at the Opera (1975)

Gasp! Shock! Horror! How could Queen’s most iconic album come in so low on this list? Well, don’t get me wrong, if I was a Queen fan in 1975 A Night at the Opera would have probably blown my mind. But I discovered Queen in the nineties, and I had the full perspective of their catalog informing my experience. And there’s little done here that isn’t done better on future releases, most notably on A Day At The Races (more on that later). Of course the big exception is “Bohemian Rhapsody”, one of the most impressive rock songs ever written. But this is not a singles contest, and A Night at the Opera is not an album I frequently spin. This is where Queen finally solidified their “classic” sound. After their early prog/metal efforts, 1974’s Sheer Heart Attack blew their sound wide open. But Opera is the first album where Queen finally sounded like the band they wanted to become, with even the oddest detours feeling like cohesive elements of the whole. The first side is pretty fantastic, and you can feel every pound of the massive recording budget throughout (tons of experimentation with instruments and studio trickery). There are two main reasons I drop Opera to the middle of the list. First, despite being very expensive the production feels a bit claustrophobic and compressed (especially the guitars). Also the album’s momentum takes a tumble about midway through “The Prophet’s Song”. At that point all I can think is how badly I want to skip ahead to “Bohemian Rhapsody”. If anything, Opera is a victim of its own success… it’s best track overshadows everything else, and future albums would prove to be even better. Still, there are some excellent songs here (“You’re My Best Friend”, “Love of My Life” and “‘39”) that end up on an awful lot of my playlists, and Queen is probably the only band ever to have released nine albums better than this one. 9) News of the World (1977)
News of the World is a polarizing record, a reactive effort by a band in crisis. Basically, the punk rock revolution had begun and Queen found themselves in the crosshairs of the new guard due to their pomposity and pop-progressive leanings. So the band fired back. They cut their hair, toughened their sound and cut their most aggressive record to date. Most of the songs are either aimed at starting a fight or making arenas full of fans pump their fists in the air. What is surprising is how well this abrupt identity re-invention actually worked out. “We Will Rock You” and “We Are The Champions” may feel like a single jammed at the beginning of a functioning record, but there’s a reason you can’t listen to rock radio for two hours without hearing them. “Sheer Heart Attack” (the song, not the album) is the closest to straight up thrash/speed metal Queen would ever get. “Get Down Make Love” is a cool, dark experiment that Trent Reznor would cover years later (not having to make many changes, honestly). News of the World is also surprisingly ballad heavy: “All Dead, All Dead” is beautiful, kind of an indirect ancestor of “Who Wants to Live Forever”. “Spread Your Wings” is a bit iffy but the closing showstopper “It’s Late” was my favorite song for a few months in middle school. Not all of the experiments work (especially that segment of ear-piercing noise in the middle of “Sheer Heart Attack”), but overall this is a fascinating listen. Extra points for Freddie’s torch song “My Melancholy Blues”... it’s like he had to have one moment of feyness even on an album of Jock Jams.

8) The Works (1984)

The Works is one of Queen’s most underrated efforts, a fantastic comeback from the commercial and fan disappointment of Hot Space. This is Queen at their most absolute 80’s-est (there’s even the painfully earnest acoustic protest ballad “Is This The World We Created?”, which instantly dates this to the era of “Live Aid”) and despite what some die-hards would tell you Queen were a hell of a good band in the 80’s. They just shifted their focus to their live presence and singles, and that made some of their albums suffer a bit. The weaker tracks on The Works are thankfully bunched together on side one: “Man on the Prowl” doesn’t gel with anything around it, and “Tear It Up” is a retread of “We Will Rock You” with a weaker chorus (it gets pretty good towards the end though). But “It’s A Hard Life” and “Radio Ga Ga” are fan favorite anthems that sound confident in a way that none of Hot Space ever did. The second side is all killer, no filler. “Machines (Back to Humans)” is a thundering sci-fi epic bigger than anything since A Night At The Opera. “I Want To Break Free” is possibly John Deacon’s finest pop delight, and “Just Keep Passing The Open Windows” is a hidden gem, one of Mercury’s more progressive oddities. Finally, there’s the one-two punch of “Hammer to Fall” and “I Go Crazy” (a bonus track not originally on the album but such a perfect closer that I can’t live without it), two intense rock numbers that basically burn the house down. The Works isn’t entirely consistent but it’s a personal favorite. If you want to hear the band that rocked Live Aid, this is the best place to go. 7) The Miracle (1989)

The Miracle was a very important album in Queen’s history, the first released after a two year hiatus (a break-up in all but name). You’ll also notice that each song is credited to “Queen”, rather than individual members as on every previous album. That’s the result of new, more democratic approach that clearly changed the band’s sound. The emphasis was put on getting together as a band and just having a good time without letting touring or commercial considerations get in the way. The impact of this is immense, and Queen’s last two records almost feel like a new band, lively and rejuvenated. The Miracle is a light, breezy affair from a group of pros who really know their way around a studio. It’s basically a party from start to finish (the first track is even called “Party”), a collection of enjoyable songs that almost any other group might have been able to wrangle a one-hit-wonder status out of. The big hit was “I Want It All”, eventually co-opted by Sony into an iconic ad campaign that may have been tacky, but definitely made me want a Playstation 3. Everything about The Miracle is loose and liberated, and the band could devote all of their energies to studio-craft meaning that they never sounded better. May’s guitar pyrotechnics are stunning, often popping up in unexpected corners of the dancier songs (That face-melting solo on “The Invisible Man” for example). There may not be many well-known classics here but the songs are at a solid B-plus level throughout, elevated by the strong sound and performances. Special shout out to “My Baby Does Me”, a moody jam that is (no kidding) one of my absolute favorite Queen songs. 6) A Day at the Races (1976)
Fresh off of the life-changing success of “Bohemian Rhapsody”, for the first time in their career Queen had nothing to prove to anybody. They were hot, they knew it and everybody else knew it. So what else was there to do but just give the fans more? A Day at the Races has a certain tossed-off quality, as though the band just happened to have this music lying around. This would be off-putting except that 70’s Queen at their most complacent was still writing masterpieces like “Somebody To Love”. Races also boasts one of the best production jobs Queen ever had. Where the band sounded a big muffled on A Night at the Opera, here they practically leap straight out of your speakers. “Tie Your Mother Down” is Queen in their purest 70’s hard rock mode, a live favorite that kick ass and takes names. It’s immediately followed with “Take My Breath Away”, an 180 degree turn into soft, romantic drama. That whiplash is pretty common on Races, which feels like a collection of great moments randomly thrown together. Later on, for example, “White Man”s metallic stomp is immediately followed by the prancing silliness of “Good Old Fashioned Lover Boy”. What saves A Day at the Races is two things: That cocky, careless attitude is awfully intoxicating, and every song on it is good. Any Queen fan will sing the praises of “Somebody to Love” (where three British guys somehow sound like an entire gospel choir) but there are also fun pop tunes like “Long Away” and Freddie dancing the “The Millionaire’s Waltz” at peak gay. It’s a prime album for people who want to look past the greatest hits and discover some hidden gems. Probably my favorite is “Drowse”, a nostalgic Taylor number that I’m surprised by all over again every time I hear it. Part III: The Best Of The Best 

5) Sheer Heart Attack (1974)
After the goth-prog-metal of their first two albums failed to blow up commercially, Queen changed direction: on Sheer Heart Attack they bounce around like a hyperactive puppy, demanding that you notice them. The sound is bright and colorful, the songs are tighter than before, and it’s all a lot of fun. Like some other 70’s Queen albums, there’s a lot of tonal whiplash, more pronounced here because of how little dead time there is. Songs lead immediately into other songs and there are very few fade-outs. That said, basically every Queen fan loves this record… it’s a consensus favorite. Brian May happened to be terribly ill during the recording sessions, so all of his guitar work was dubbed in after the fact. Since he was doing this anyway, he just went insane with it, layering in more and more guitars until the edits disappeared in a haze of endless solos. This is without question May’s showcase, the shining example of what he brought to the band. When opener “Brighton Rock” derails itself for several minutes for a directionless guitar solo, it sounds so cool that nobody minds. Freddie also finally found his pop voice with the early hit “Killer Queen”. John Deacon’s first track is also here (yay!), the bubbly little non-single “Misfire”. The most underrated track on Sheer Heart Attack is “Now I’m Here”, a rock anthem that I’m shocked was never a radio hit (Personal note: I was overjoyed to hear it in the movie). Headbangers will also note “Stone Cold Crazy”, a legendary speed metal track famously covered by Metallica (and again, they really didn’t have to change much). So there’s a ton of great stuff on here. That said, the aforementioned whiplash is intense, and there are occasional weak moments that break the flow (like “Tenement Funster”). Still, it’s a hell of a sugar rush, and a fine intro to the band’s early years. 4) Innuendo (1991)
The spectre of mortality hangs heavy over Innuendo. Its title is a reference to ongoing rumours about Freddie’s health, and it would be the last full album completed before his death. Having established a more democratic working method with The Miracle, Queen truly gave their all on its follow-up. It’s an absolute tragedy that a band still capable of work this good couldn’t have continued forever. And yet, Innuendo is here, and for that I’m eternally grateful. Not since the early 70’s had Queen had such a sweeping, dramatic musical vision. The title track starts out huge, with lyrics tackling the big questions of life, purpose and even God. It’s also an absolute banger, featuring one of Brian’s most apocalyptic guitar leads in the midsection. The finale (“The Show Must Go On”) is even more enormous and impressive, a last defiant scream into the great beyond that still brings me to tears. In between is collection of songs better than anything Queen had produced in at least a decade. Standouts include “Headlong”, “I’m Going Slightly Mad”, and “These Are the Days of Our Lives” (which is quietly devastating, yet has a melody smooth enough to be heard in doctor’s offices and supermarkets everywhere). Freddie’s voice was suffering a bit by this point from his illness, and the massive vocal reverb seems might have been meant to hide that fact. Yet the intense emotion and drive behind that voice makes up for it. The biggest oddity is “Hitman”, a slab of aggro metal that seems to shove itself angrily in the second half of the record. That song is the culmination of many songs that Freddie has sung about the connection between love and death, and in it he adopts the persona of lover and murderer in a way that’s a bit terrifying. Innuendo is not an easy listen, but it’s a deep and rewarding one from a band some wouldn’t think capable of it. 3) The Game (1980)
The Game isn’t as iconic as A Night at the Opera or News of the World, but it’s a better record and was (in its time) an even bigger commercial success. You can chalk that up mostly to “Another One Bites The Dust”, a single that crossed over massively into the Black dance audience. A lot of people who otherwise wouldn’t have cared about Queen bought it, and they were treated to the band’s most polished pop feast. Even at their smoothest and most agreeable Queen remained experimental: The Game is a mashup of new wave, pop, rock, dance-funk and rockabilly that manages to sound like the most natural thing ever. It’s conveniently book-ended by two of Freddie’s greatest pop ballads (“Play The Game” and “Save Me”), and there are no duds in between. “Another One Bites The Dust” and “Dragon Attack” are works of funk-rock crossover genius. And “Crazy Little Thing Called Love” is irresistible, somehow becoming a popular country music cover over the years. The weirdest thing here is “Don’t Try Suicide”, a hilarious kiss-off to a drama queen who keeps threatening to end it all. Possibly the most flippant song I’ve ever heard on the subject, Freddie says not to do it because “you’re just gonna hate it”, “nobody cares” and “all you do is get on my tits”. It’s nice that even on an album this smooth there can be a nice little WTF number like this, and that it still manages to fit in harmoniously with everything around it. There’s nothing bad to say about The Game except that the intro to “Rock It (Prime Jive)” is a little stupid, and that there are still two Queen albums I like even better. Queen had the unique ability to challenge audiences and breaks boundaries while still making irresistible pop that goes down smoothly. You’ll never find a better argument for that than The Game, which is really rather brilliant.
2) Jazz (1978)
Queen may not have been in the best of mental states in the late 70’s, at least not if Jazz is any evidence. This record was clearly fueled by cocaine. But even at their most chemically addled and excessive Queen managed to hang on to their genius. If the message of News of the World was “We can rock just as hard as the punks”, the message of Jazz was “Fuck you, we’re perfect” On Jazz Queen hold nothing back and do whatever the hell they want, trusting the audience to keep up with them. “Let Me Entertain You” is not just a great song, it’s a command: Submit to Queen and they will entertain you on their terms. There’s all kinds of weirdness, like “Mustapha”s weird semi-Arabic gibberish, the rough sexuality of “Fat Bottomed Girls”, and the very existence of “Bicycle Race”. That last track may sound like a goofy novelty song but is one of the most complex compositions Queen ever recorded. “Dead On Time” is unfathomably aggressive, a guitar workout so fast the band never dared to play it live, and it ends with a lightning strike and a scream of “YOU’RE DEAD!”. Having demolished the audience’s senses, Queen slam on the brakes with a few mellower numbers (“In Only Seven Days”, the beautiful “Dreamer’s Ball”), but the edge never quite disappears. The album’s climax is “Don’t Stop Me Now”, easily my favorite Queen song and the ultimate expression of hubris and hedonism. Finally, there’s “More Of That Jazz”, a really dark Taylor number with deep, dirty riffs and an ending that jarringly mashes up samples from previous tracks on the album. It ends in a way that leaves the listener holding their breath, the only possible resolution being to play Jazz again from the beginning. This album isn’t for everybody, but it’s exactly right for me. 1) Queen II (1974)
Queen contains multitudes, their music so sprawling and varied that no single album can do them justice. But if all of their records were in a burning house and I could only save one, it would have to be Queen II. It’s the pinnacle of Queen’s early prog-metal phase, with a sound so unlike what was to come that new fans may be taken aback. While they would go on to much greater commercial success, Queen II was a masterpiece of its kind and inspired many early metal bands… heck, Blind Guardian have essentially spent their entire career trying to remake “Ogre Battle”. Queen II is steeped in drama, and split into two halves. The first (“Side White”) contains songs written by May and Taylor, and is slightly more conventional. But Queen’s mix of delicate harmonies and brutal heaviness was pretty radical for the time even here. May’s guitar orchestra technique is able to flourish for the first time, though not to the extremes it would reach on Sheer Heart Attack. The somber “Procession” dramatically builds up to the beginning of “Father To Son”, a devastating rock epic with some of May’s best lyrics. “White Queen” is gorgeous, overblown and poetic in a way that would seem like self-parody if the band didn’t play it so completely straight. Then there’s “Loser in the End”, a Roger Taylor song about your mum (no, really). It sticks out like a sore thumb, but I’ve come to love it over the years for being just so damn heavy. “Side Black” (credited to Mercury) is where we blast off into crazy town. Freddie’s lyrics at this point were silly to the point of meaninglessness, but his music was so strange and over-the-top that teenage me couldn’t stop headbanging along to “Ogre Battle”. That song climaxes with battle sound effects and ear piercing screams, which I’m going to call Queen’s most metal moment ever. The rest is similarly nuts, climaxing with the progressive workout “March of the Black Queen”. Queen pull out all the stops here, ecstatically changing time signatures and dynamics as Freddie sings “I’m lord of all darkness, I’m queen of the night!”. When it comes to prog-rock songwriting Queen may not have been King Crimson or Genesis, but would either of those bands thought to have “Black Queen” climax with an explosion of choral bubblegum pop (“Funny How Love Is”)? That’s what made Queen special, and why they proved too big for one genre to contain. Queen II ends with “Seven Seas of Rhye”, the band’s first breakout single and a distillation of everything that made them great in a three minute pop gem. And most copies these days include the B-Side “See What A Fool I’ve Been”, a strange blend of heavy blues rock and drag queen vamping that puts a bow on an already essential package. Queen may well have made better albums than Queen II, but there are none I love quite so much.