Okay, folks. Below you’ll find my thoughts on each and every studio recording by my favorite band of all time. Here we go…
Queen’s debut album is the sound of a young band still trying to find itself. There are a few solid tracks, such as “Keep Yourself Alive,” “Great King Rat,” and “Liar,” but it’s a fairly unmemorable effort otherwise. It’s mostly straightforward 1970s hard rock, which is perfectly fine; however, the end result pales in comparison to what Queen would eventually become. The most interesting song on the album is probably “My Fairy King,” featuring Freddie’s piano playing and lots of vocal overdubs, since both would become trademarks of Queen’s songwriting throughout their career. It was written and built-up in the studio, unlike most of the other tracks, which were just songs the band had been performing live. It was also the song that inspired Freddie (born Farrokh Bulsara) to change his last name to Mercury, after a lyric that said “Mother Mercury, look what they’ve done to me.” Hooray for random trivia!
Queen II (1974)
Most people probably couldn’t name a single track on Queen II, with the possible exception of “Seven Seas of Rhye.” And that’s a shame, because it’s an excellent prog-rock record (and my personal favorite Queen album). The whole thing is split in half, with songs by Brian May on the first (white) side, and songs by Freddie Mercury on the second (black) side. Brian’s compositions have more of a traditional rock feel, but they also feature early examples of his unique guitar technique, in which he makes his homemade Red Special sound like an orchestra. Freddie’s songs are far more progressive, and their musical complexity foreshadows the band’s future masterpieces. The heavy guitar riff and fast drumming on “Ogre Battle” have the feel of early thrash metal, and “March of the Black Queen” was so musically complicated that the band was never able to play it live. In fact, they originally considered naming the album Over the Top, which would have been remarkably appropriate.
Sheer Heart Attack (1974)
This is the album that launched Queen into mainstream popularity, both in the UK and internationally. After the mixed critical reaction to Queen II, the band waved goodbye to their prog influences and began recording songs with (what we now know as) the classic Queen sound. As would later be perfected on A Night at the Opera, this album showcased experimentation with a variety of musical genres, including heavy metal (“Stone Cold Crazy,” which was famously covered by Metallica), vaudeville (“Killer Queen), piano ballad (“Dear Friends”), ragtime (“Bring Back That Leroy Brown”), and Caribbean (“Misfire”). Plus, according to Freddie Mercury, “In the Lap of the Gods” was the direct prelude to “Bohemian Rhapsody.” Many reviewers have pointed to Sheer Heart Attack as the moment when Queen truly came into their own.
A Night at the Opera (1975)
Not only is this Queen’s greatest album, but it’s one of the greatest albums ever recorded. It represents the pinnacle of the band’s musical creativity, with diverse genres ranging between music-hall (“Lazing on a Sunday Afternoon”), Dixieland jazz (“Good Company”), skiffle (“39”), proto-metal (“Sweet Lady”), prog (“The Prophet’s Song”), and straight-up rock (“Death On Two Legs”, “I’m In Love With My Car”). The album contains John Deacon’s first single, “You’re My Best Friend,” which has become a feel-good classic. It also includes the weird, epic, operatic awesomeness of “Bohemian Rhapsody,” considered by many to be the best rock song of all time. Queen’s record company told them the song was far too long for radio play, but Capital Radio DJ Kenny Everett responded by playing the full track on his show 14 times in two days. And the rest in history. Back in 1975, A Night at the Opera was the most expensive album ever recorded, and if it had failed, Queen would have disbanded. Luckily for us, it was a massive hit, going platinum in the UK and 3x platinum in the US.
A Day at the Races (1976)
Essentially written and composed as a sequel to A Night at the Opera — and completely self-produced by the band — A Day at the Races shares similar cover-art, a similar title (also taken from a Marx Brothers film), and similar musical themes with its sister album. The masterpiece and hit single on the record was undoubtedly “Somebody to Love,” a gospel-inspired track featuring layers upon layers of choir-like vocals and Freddie Mercury’s valiant effort to become Aretha Franklin. However, never short on variety, the band also ventured into proto-metal with “Tie Your Mother Down” (often played live by Foo Fighters) music-hall with the bouncy “Good Old-Fashioned Lover Boy,” and even singing in Japanese with the rousing ballad “Teo Torriatte (Let Us Cling Together),” specifically performed live for fans in Tokyo. In 2006, voters in a national BBC poll named A Day at the Races the 67th greatest album of all time. During the same year, it was voted #87 in a worldwide Guinness and NME poll to find the “Greatest 100 Albums of All Time.”
News of the World (1977)
Okay, yes. News of the World is indeed the album that features “We Will Rock You” and “We Are the Champions,” two of the biggest stadium rock anthems in history, and two of Queen’s all-time biggest hits. But there’s also a bunch of other great tracks on the album, including “It’s Late,” which is one of my favorite lesser-known Queen songs (seriously, listen to it right now). Beyond that, “Sheer Heart Attack” was the band’s response to the then-burgeoning punk rock movement, “Spread Your Wings” is a rock ballad and also their first ever single without backing vocals, “Who Needs You” is a fun attempt at flamenco, and “My Melancholy Blues” is a slow, jazzy composition by Freddie, with only piano, bass, drums, and vocals. On the whole, News of the World is a more straightforward, mainstream record with less complex arrangements, but it remains a landmark album, an arena rock classic, and Queen’s second most popular release in the US (behind The Game), having gone 4x platinum.
Admittedly, I’ve never understood the title of this album. Considering that fact that Queen experimented with pretty much every other musical genre, I wouldn’t have been that surprised to see them release a jazz album. But… this album contains no jazz. It does, however, contain “Fat Bottomed Girls” (one of my favorite go-to karaoke tunes) and “Bicycle Race,” which were released as double A-side singles and promoted by a nude women’s bicycle race at Wimbledon Stadium in London. Because of course they were. There are some great deep cuts on this record, such as “Let Me Entertain You” and “Dreamer’s Ball,” and of course, the rousing “Don’t Stop Me Now” remains an uplifting fan favorite. However, the rest of the album feels kinda like filler, and that’s what keeps Jazz from being as highly regarded as its classic predecessors.
The Game (1980)
The Game was a transitional album, featuring less heavy metal guitar, but also less camp and glam. Instead, it’s just a straight-up rock & roll record, and it became the only Queen album to reach the #1 position in the United States. The band delved into bluesy, 1950s rockabilly with “Crazy Little Thing Called Love,” and “Don’t Try Suicide,” a theme made evident by the black and white photo of Freddie, Brian, Roger, and John wearing white t-shirts and leather jackets on the record sleeve. The remainder of album is mostly mainstream radio rock (“Need Your Loving Tonight”, “Rock It”, “Coming Soon”), but the classic Queen sound is most evident in the title track, “Play the Game,” as well as the soaring “Save Me” (speaking of which, check out Brian May playing “Save Me” with Kerry Ellis). They also landed a worldwide hit with the funk-influenced “Another One Bites the Dust.” In my opinion, this was Queen’s last truly great album before their glorious swansong with Innuendo.
Hot Space (1982)
Nope. You didn’t just see this. Look away. For some inexplicable reason, Queen decided to record a funk / disco album, and it’s just… terrible. Also, remember when KISS did the same thing on Dynasty? Ugh. After the initial tour was over, the band rarely ever played any of these songs live, and for good reason. The only saving grace is Freddie’s duet with David Bowie, fan-favorite “Under Pressure,” which was famously sampled by Vanilla Ice for his cheesy hit single, “Ice Ice Baby.”
The Works (1984)
At the end of Freddie Mercury and John Deacon’s unfortunate obsession with funk, disco, and synthesizers, they recorded The Works, which was more-or-less a return to form, and also a pretty underrated album. The big hits were “Radio Ga-Ga,” “I Want to Break Free,” and “Hammer to Fall” (which even casual fans ought to recognize), but there are also a handful of deep cuts that don’t really get the love they deserve. For instance, “Tear It Up” is a solid old-school rocker, “It’s a Hard Life” is a piano-driven throwback to Queen’s early days, and “Man On the Prowl” has a 1950’s rockabilly swagger that would have been right at home on The Game. The remaining tracks aren’t quite as spectacular and keep this from being listed among Queen’s greatest albums, but it’s certainly a good album and deserves a listen.
A Kind of Magic (1986)
You might have noticed that I didn’t include the Flash Gordon soundtrack in my list of Queen albums to review, but that’s because it’s mostly just instrumentals and bits of dialogue from the movie — not really a proper studio album in my opinion. While A Kind of Magic does primarily include songs recorded for and used on the soundtrack from fantasy cult-classic Highlander, there are no instrumentals, both “Friends Will Be Friends” and “Pain Is So Close to Pleasure” were written just for the album, and “One Vision” was included in the action film Iron Eagle. Either way, it’s still a damn good album, not to mention the fact that “Who Wants to Live Forever?” and “Princes of the Universe” remain two of my favorite Queen songs. Oh, the the music video for the latter is pretty cool. Sadly, the Magic Tour was the last time Freddie would be able to perform live, since he would soon after become too sick to go out on the road.
The Miracle (1989)
In short, there are too many synthesizers and drum machines on this album. It’s apparent that the pop sounds of the late 1980’s had somehow wormed their way into the brains of four musicians far too talented to write and record this kind of stuff. Don’t get me wrong — there are still a few good songs, including the title track and the hard-rocking “I Want It All,” but the rest is pretty forgettable. It’s not nearly as bad as Hot Space (which is a difficult bar to hurdle), but it makes a pretty strong case for being ranked second-to-last. Unless you’re a die-hard purist, I’d say skip it.
Freddie Mercury was dying of AIDS while recording this album, and it took almost two years to finish, but he put everything he had left into these songs. The album was seen as a return to form for Queen, who had been experimenting with pop, funk, and electronic sounds on their late 1980s releases. The title track (“Innuendo”) is a multi-part epic in the vein of their early material, and it features a flamenco guitar interlude played by Yes guitarist Steve Howe. There are also numerous genres represented on the album, such as gospel (“All God’s People”), hard rock (“The Hitman”, “Headlong”), and mellow instrumental (“Bijou”). But the most poignant and powerful track is “The Show Must Go On,” a song about Freddie’s efforts to continue performing despite approaching the end of his life. While recording, Freddie was so sick that Brian May had doubts that he would be physically capable of singing the song’s highly demanding vocal line. But when the time came to record the vocals, Freddie downed a shot of vodka and proceeded to nail his part in just one take.
Made In Heaven (1995)
In the months before he died, Freddie Mercury staggered into the studio whenever he was physically able to do so and recorded vocals. As many as possible. Sometimes just bits and pieces — a verse here, a chorus there. He asked the other band members to keep writing music for him to sing, knowing his time was running out, and that they could finish it up when he was gone. The result of his efforts was Made In Heaven, a beautiful and bittersweet epitaph for perhaps the greatest rock vocalist of all time. Songs like the title track, “Let Me Live,” “Too Much Love Will Kill You,” “My Life Has Been Saved,” and “Heaven For Everyone” all contribute to the running themes of life, death, and remembrance. Freddie’s final vocal performance was on “Mother Love,” a song he never finished, leaving Brian May to sing the last verse, and which features a few seconds of every Queen song ever recorded (spliced together and rapidly sped through a tape machine) at the end of the track. The album itself isn’t quite as good as Innuendo, but as the Jerusalem Post wrote when it was released, “Mercury and Queen’s ability to make a joyful noise in the face of pain and death makes this a very comforting album to have around in shaky times.”