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Sunday 22 September 2019

Ranked & Rated: Queen (By Alex Swift)

Queen. Their majesty. The name itself has etched itself into the collective consciousness in such a way that everyone with a decent musical upbringing can name an anthem from the iconic four-piece. This will be a hard piece to write, largely due to the fact that every album (well, almost every album) has at least one great song on. Most of them have a number of great songs on and a few are absolute classics. Every member brought something to the fold in terms of songwriting. Freddie Mercury brought theatrical bombast, Brian May made powerful guitar-led pieces. John Deacon introduced a pop-orientated charm. Even Roger Taylor had a knack for rock n’ roll ragers. Bear in mind that I am taking into account the strength of the albums as a whole, and have endeavoured to provide a fair and reasoned account of why I feel the way I do. Are we at an understanding? Then let ranking commence

15. Flash Gordon (1980)

In principle, getting the greatest rock band in the world to provide the soundtrack to a hilariously camp, over the top, sci-fi movie sounds ideal. Still, outside of being the only Queen album not to feature any great songs, Flash Gordon is also the only one not to feature any songs. Instead of huge, towering pieces about space, we get thirty-five minutes of keyboards, overlayed with out-of-context soundbites from the movie. The closest the record gets to accomplishing a flagrant level of flamboyance, are on Flash’s Theme and Hero, which despite bearing enough camp flair to make them salvageable, are likewise padded out with stints of nothingness. I hate to be cynical, though, from my point of view, the group was hired to make the movie perform better at the box office. Flash makes me feel actively bored. And boring, as I think we can concur, is not a look which fits Queen well at all.

14. Hot Space (1982)

In the liner notes to their 70’s albums, Queen boldly declared ‘’No Synthesisers’’. I do not hold the changeover against them. After all, they had successfully broken that rule before, and few bands last long without incorporating synths in some capacity, especially if they happen to exist during the’80s. Indeed, before we get to the records many flaws lets focus on the main redeeming quality, Under Pressure. The chemistry between Bowie and Mercury is fantastic, seeing both trade lines with an incredible amount of passion and emotion. Meanwhile, Deacons bass thuds along in a simple yet effective way. Aside from that memorable showstopper, there are a few songs where I can understand the intention. Life Is Real tries to be a sentimental tribute to John Lennon, yet both the lyrics and compositional elements leave me cold. Later, Las Palabras De Amor (The Words of Love) begins on a romantic note, yet never flourishes into anything grandiose. Then we come to the insufferable, tedious and lazy aspects. The failed experiments with dance and pop, which led the band themselves to express regret over the direction of the record. Staying Power, Back Chat, Body Language and Cool Cat. Needless to say, aside from the fantastic closer, Hot Space is largely forgettable.

13. The Miracle (1989)

With their attempts to adapt to modern trends yielding mixed results and facing struggles relating to Mercury’s Aids diagnosis, the 1980s were a turbulent period. The Miracle proves promising in places yet ultimately directionless. I Want It All features bombastic vocal arrangements, and ambitious solo work from Brian May, allowing the anthem to stand tall. Meanwhile, the title track proves an intriguing experiment, made inadequate by the absence of a distinctive chorus. Whatsmore, in spite of the Boys of Summer plagiarisms, I find myself returning to Breakthru for the infectious bassline and powerful chorus. Still, there are moments when bad habits rear their head. Party and My Baby Does Me could have been raised straight out of the recording sessions for Hot Space. The Invisible Man sounds like they were trying to construct a piece around the Ghostbusters theme tune yet forgot to write a decent keyboard melody. Scandal feels like wasted potential, especially considering how the theme of the endless press baiting around Mercury’s sexuality, could have been a template for a vastly more intriguing piece. Overall, despite bearing better moments, The Miracle refuses to hold up well overall.

12. Made In Heaven (1995)

I have a lot of respect for Made in Heaven. From the chilling ballads to the inspiring epics, there's a lot of emotion to be found. Mother Love is spine-tingling, made all the more poignant by being Freddie’s last ever vocal performance. A moment of realisation comes when Brian May takes over vocal duties. So the story goes, halfway into recording the song, Freddie told his bandmates: ‘I need to have a rest’. Too Much Love Will Kill You shows one of our frontman’s most awe-inspiring recitals, in which every word resonates with the pain he endured. Let Me Live has those familiar choir melodies which, in spite of the sad lyrics, create a triumphant feel. In fact, far from being woeful, each of these anthems are resilient at heart. So why the low position? Well, the placement has to do with the backstory. Freddie died in 1991. The song Made in Heaven is taken from Mercury’s solo album. Its A Beautiful Day is fleshed out from a soundbite. Furthermore, while I Was Born to Love You proves exuberant, the vocals are taken from a slow B-side, with the instrumentals reworked. While I by no means blame Taylor, Deacon, and May for deciding to finish their work, the assorted nature means I don’t feel I can sensibly place the album any higher than necessary. In interviews, the band described making the piece as a ‘labour of love’. After several decades of them performing with Freddie, I’m pretty sure they saw the task not as a contractual obligation, yet a mark of respect to their friend.

11. The Game (1980)

Here’s where I start to alienate people. Your opinion on The Game will depend on your taste for traditional rock n’ roll. Far from being generic, the album is bookended with larger than life anthems. Play the Game has a dreamy yet strangely sinister quality, swaying from mellow to ferocious in enthralling fashion. Save Me’ is brilliantly formed, climbing and subsiding in exactly the right moments to create a sombre yet resolute effect. Another One Bites the Dust has arguably the most memorable bass line in history, and clever, gripping use of tension which seizes your attention from the outset. Also, while I would hesitate to call Crazy little thing Called Love one of my favourites, I can appreciate an amusing frolic, which refuses to take itself too seriously. My lack of enthusiasm for the Game stems from the fact that, while I can respect a resolve to try something different, there’s a lack of scale and ambition present. Dragon Attack, Need Your Loving Tonight and Rock It (Prime Jive), feel like cheap knock-offs of the rock n’ roll Roger and May grew up with. Then, we get to Don’t Try Suicide - a tune I despise, largely for the questionable lyrical choices. Taken together, The Game shines in places, yet feels desperately lacking at times.

10. The Works (1984)

The Works saw Queen finally striding into pop. Still, distinct from later works, the album creates an air of variety and changeability which doesn’t make me feel like I need to be continuously hitting skip. Even though the Works was the very first alum to place particular emphasis on synthesisers and accessible song arrangements, these ideas are executed in a way which captures the melodic charm of earlier albums, albeit in a vastly different way. Radio Ga-Ga and I Want to Break Free are excellent pieces of power pop, bridging the divide between synth and guitar-led music in captivating fashion. Meanwhile, it’s a Hard Life and Hammer to Fall act as call-backs to earlier albums, the emphasis on loud rock instrumentals, sanguine piano touches and operatic vocals, making them gloriously reminiscent. Some of the lesser-known tracks are well-composed as well. Man on the Prowl and Keep Passing Open Windows are successful attempts at rock n’ roll and pop. Nevertheless, not everything works on The Works (sorry, you all knew that joke was coming). Tear It Up feels like the band thinking ‘let’s just do We Will Rock You again’. Meanwhile, Machines (Or Back to Humans) has many questionable keyboard and vocoder choices, massively holding the number back. There is also the fact that, while the random and unpredictable approach had worked wonders on past albums, the lack of thematic consistency or flow contributes to an experience, which although definitely worth your time, should not necessarily be a priority for those of you diving into the discography headfirst.

9. A Kind of Magic (1986)

A Kind of Magic is made both great and flawed by a strangely tousled nature. One Vision opens gigantically, setting you up with powerful strings before taking you off guard with those crunching guitars and commanding melodies. A Kind of Magic follows, the synthesizers and effects lending a canny artfulness, while the very present instrumentals keep in place that stadium rock feel. Who Wants to Live Forever? Furthers the bombastic prowess as the emotional epic majestically soars, utilising gorgeous orchestration and impassioned performances as a means of flight. Aside from the lauded triumphs on display, there are a few deep cuts worthy of your time. Standing out amongst them is Gimmie the Prize – which borders on metal territory, with May’s guitars roaring and Freddie ferociously screaming the words! Even Friends Will Be Friends and Princes of the Universe are deserving of a place in our memories, with the catchy harmonies and succinct playing bearing a friendly charm. So, why only no.10? Well, as I noted before the overall lack of direction means I very rarely return to a Kind of Magic as a cohesive experience. Whatsmore, with One Your of Love and Pain, is So Close to Pleasure, we seem to move through a lounge swing moment, which proves more strange than beguiling. Further, Don’t Lose Your Head consists of little else than overly loud drumming, vexatious synth textures, and dispersed samples. Once more we see another case of a record which is excellent and flawed in different measure. And yet, in this instance, I would add that the great moments definitely outweigh the mediocre.

8. Queen (1973)

Inspired by Metal, Prog and Musical Theatre, nobody expected Queen. They were unlike any band that had come before. In fact, if I can make one criticism before proceeding to gush over album no. 1, the production and scale elements do not speak to the full capabilities of these musicians. Still, we were a long way from Wembley and some roughness was to be expected. We open on Keep Yourself Alive, where joyous playing and exuberant melodies get a career, off to a roaring start. Great King Rat sees them adopting some of that darkly humorous strut which would bring so much character to future albums. Liar proves resolute and stands alongside the classically inspired My Fairy Queen as a piece which would set the songwriting style of Mercury and co. aside from that of other contemporary musicians. These were far from the first recorded specimens of long songs with diverse instrumentation, and risky genre-blending. Still, no one, including their detractors could deny they had their own unique spin on music. Of course, you could reasonably argue that the ideas conjured on the debut were buds which would later flourish into much more wonderful flowers. The Instrumental version of Seven Seas of Rye which closes the album proves evidence of that speculation. Still, you could apply that criticism to almost every band and for a debut, there is a surprising amount of ambition strewn throughout. Promise me that if you only listen once, you will do so from start to finish and with an open mind. Be prepared, here’s where we really start to get into great territory.

7. Innuendo (1991)

Arguably the most underrated and darkest of Queen’s albums, considering all the discussion which surrounds Mercury’s Death, Innuendo as a whole gets strangely overlooked. A spine-tingling nature runs throughout, so much so that the positive lyricism of which there is plenty, reverberates with a fiery, sizzling determination from Freddie and his bandmates to capture every hint of emotion. We open on Innuendo, a multifaceted piece which begins on an operatic section, painting a vivid and entrancing picture of life's capricious experiences before the song spills over into a galloping theatrical stint, comprising of careering electrics, Spanish guitars, abrasive drumming and gorgeously timed piano interludes. We soon rush into Headlong – an anthem brought to life by the harsh, exacting guitar textures, and our frontman's trademark snarl. I’m Going Slightly Mad proves one of the most creative uses of synthesisers, the repetition, and subtle key changes, elegantly capturing the hypnotic feel alluded to throughout. I Can't Live With You, All God’s People and The Hitman are more traditional Queen songs, made striking by the blackened yet strident lyrical content. Don’t try so Hard, Ride the Wild Wind and Bijou are ambitious and experimental in nature, proving that even at the end of their time together, these musicians could still innovate. These are the Days of Our Lives is a solemn beautiful moment, ending on the memorable lyric ‘I look and I find, I still love you’. We finish on The Show Must Go On, which reaches desperately sentimental heights, as the song and album climb towards an enthralling crescendo. Here, Freddie proves his commitment not only to music as a whole and his fans as he bellows ‘I’ll face it with a grin, I'm never giving in, on with the show!’

6. Queen II (1974)

Despite often being regarded along with the first album, as being amateur, Queen II is incredibly significant. We see hear choral vocal arrangements being utilised for the first time on Father to Son. Brian May hones his guitar style on moments in the vein of Loser in the End, while White Queen (As It Began) and March of the Black Queen see them learning the fine act of contrast, blurring light and dark if you will – creating a truly majestic experience in doing so. Some have called II, their loudest album. Ogre Battle certainly lends credence to that theory, with roaring instruments and a ferocious tone. Do not be fooled into thinking that there are no quieter moments. Nevermore proves truly beautiful, while Funny How Love Is feels like a 50’s doo-wop anthem, performed through the lens of musical theatre. At this time, Queen was already experimenting with eccentric techniques, which despite not having been perfected to an exact science, still lends to an uncanny experience. Instrumentals leap from one speaker to another and erratic cacophonies of composition whirl past you, creating the sensation of being trapped in the eye of a whirlwind. For those of you who regard album no. 2 as no more mature or ambitious than their first effort, I implore you to revisit. I can see a progression in almost every conceivable sense. The playing proves more complex, the compositions more fleshed out, from start to finish you feel like you are being taken on a journey – one which culminates in Seven Seas of Rye, again, personifying the powerful, honed and enriched qualities. Obviously, the album is still far from Queen at their absolute best - we would have to wait a year or two to see that. However, they undoubtedly set out on a promising note here.

5. Jazz (1979)

‘There’s no Jazz on Queen’s new record’ Rolling Stone condescendingly opine in their 1979 review. ‘Queen hasn’t the imagination to play Jazz – Queen hasn’t the imagination, for that matter, to play rock n’ roll’ they continue. The critic later goes on to ascribe Queen the title of ‘first truly fascist rock band’. Cut him some slack though - sometimes you have such a horrendously poor opinion on a band that you end up equating them with genocide, get humiliated, and have 21st-century internet critics dig up your content for cheap laughs! In fact, perhaps the reason that no Jazz appears on Jazz is that seemingly every other genre of music does. There are so many ideas at play which could have been a risk, if not for the bravery and execution. You can picture the wonderful scene, playing out: ‘Why don’t open the album with an adaptation on Arabic music? Sounds fantastic! How about a circus-esque piece casting Fred as an exuberant ringleader? Of Course! Can we have an epic all about Bicycles? Why not darling, it’s on-brand’. Fat Bottomed Girls begins on a jaunty nature before exploding into an energetic and instantly memorable chorus. Don’t Stop Me Now never fails to strike excitement into my heart! Bicycle Race meanwhile, proves a centrepiece - from the tongue-in-cheek call and response of the verses to the gigantic middle section to the bike bell solo, here’s the albums mission statement. They're more than accurate when they sing ‘we’ll give you crazy performance, we’ll give you grounds for divorce, we’ll give you piece de resistance, and a tour de force’. We see the same principle being applied across nearly all of Queen’s work. Take a ride through the freneticism of If You Can’t Beat ’Em Join ‘Em and Dead on Time, to the mellowness of jealously and Dreamers Ball, and tell me you aren’t crying out for More of that Jazz! With the imagination and creativity on display, here’s a far cry from fascism if ever I saw one!

4. News Of The World (1977)

We begin on the simple yet amazingly effective stomp-clap beat. Everything that follows proves a rallying cry to the disenfranchised: Are you a young man, hard man, and poor man rich man, ‘you’re going to take on the world someday!’ Not long after, we are met with the second of the uniting anthems on News of the World, the glorious we are the Champions. The magnificence of these two songs has nothing to do with complexity or pretentiousness – there’s a great reason why they’re the ones that everybody knows: the anthems are empowering. Through their combination of anthemic precession and striving realisation of life’s arduousness, they become persuasively optimistic. These set the tone for the entire album. Look to Spread Your Wings – arguably one of the most underrated Queen songs, ever – here, the uplifting tone and compassionate lyricism show a more empathetic approach to songcrafting, which would continue to inspire them years into the future. Even the faster moments are convincing. Sheer Heart Attack captures the feelings of anxiety and panic in acerbically danceable style. Fight from the Inside is another call to action, all about inner turmoil and struggle. Meanwhile, Sleeping on the Sidewalk Is a blues piece told from the perspective a common man who finds success playing the music he loves! Taylor once described this album as the closest the band ever came to writing a punk album. While the marks of traditional Queen are all still here, there’s an emphasis on making the audience feel valued and appealing to a sensibility which places artists and fans on an equal footing. We finish on Its Late and My Melancholy Blues, which capture the emotions of love, loneliness, and loss with precision and relatability, never once becoming caught up in their ambition. These elements combined make News of the World a unique piece in the anthology of Queen.

3. A Day At The Races (1976)

‘I can serenade and gently play on your heartstrings’ Mercury croons on the joyfully romantic Good Ol’ Fashioned Loverboy. Although the aim of his affections might have been a lover, Queen always had the ability to write complex music which made you feel everything. Beautifully sentimental whilst delightfully raunchy, a day at the Races feels like an album for heartthrobs. Somebody to Love stands tall among these – a gorgeously paced song which elegantly carries the passion of our protagonist, thanks in no small part to the awesome vocal harmonies of all four members. On a different note, Tie Your Mother Down proves a raucous and energetic opener, which despite the cheekily brazen tone, proves a blast of zealous fun-lovin’ enthusiasm. By charming us with the fine art of contrast, these connoisseur’s prove that the cherished tenors of a grand piano and the blatant riotousness of electric guitars need not be diametric opposites, yet companions in a mission to create a soaring and immense sound. You Take My Breath Away proves a romantic serenade tinged with the despair of longing. From there the song melts into the jubilant and folk-tinged Long Away. Soon, we indulge in some of that humoured while exquisitely performed grandiloquence, as The Millionaire Waltz, shows that Freddie’s overly sentimental croonings are not lacking a sense of wit. You and I is equally sauntering and jaunty in nature, in a way which still feels in keeping with the classical, operatic and carnival-esque indulgencies behind the album. White Man is a return to the crusading, stampeding sound which although less present throughout, rears into life in precisely the right moments. We finish on the distinctly 70’s sounding Drowse and the charmingly outstanding Teo Torriatte (Let Us Cling Together). Album no. 5 wasn’t praised by everyone at the time, with Circus magazine saying ‘they’re silly now’. I say we embrace the term, Queen are and have always been ‘silly’, yet that comical, multifarious, eccentric nature lends them all of their signature brilliance.

2. Sheer Heart Attack (1974)

Lately, many have made the case for Sheer Heart Attack being the greatest Queen album. Indeed, I’m half tempted to label the album my personal favourite, if not the absolute zenith of their capabilities. If Queen I was them experimenting with the operatic rock sound and Queen II was them honing and refining the idea, then Sheer Heart Attack saw them coming within a whisker of perfection. Brighton Rock exudes melody, swirling from an excitable summertime anthem to a motivated operatic piece, containing the insatiably inspiring chorus of ‘Oh rock of ages do not crumble, love is breathing still’. Killer Queen served as the bands breakthrough hit and the perfect combination of corralled vocal melodies, striking instrumentation and quirky if cerebral lyricism, makes the piece an absolute wonder to listen to. Tenement Funster and Flick of the Wrist follow hot on the heels of the hit, brilliantly bringing together formerly disconnected forms of musical elegance, the latter bearing a mischievous strut to the fold, as dancers in the audience wonder whether to jive or waltz. Now I’m Here has become another well-known one and while the music is still amazingly brilliant, the lyrics magically tread the line between dark and joyful: an overlooked element in the tapestry of dazzling colours which define Queen’s panache. In the Lap of the God’s Pt. 1 may seem to bear some strange musical choices, yet becomes fascinating upon realising just how much all four musicians were experimenting with different compositional methods and musical textures at the time. Following on from that theme, Stone Cold Crazy proves a fast-paced rager, all about a dream Freddie had of being a 1950’s gangster; interestingly, the song was once described by Q magazine as ‘Thrash, before thrash was invented’. Relying largely on acoustics to carry a resolute tone, Bring Back That Leroy Brown and She Makes Me (Stormtrooper in Stilletos), prove the obvious: that even with the fantastical production elements and roaring electrics stripped away, these musicians could still vividly impress. We close on In the Lap of the Gods…Revisited, granting the album the gigantic closer deserved and setting us up perfectly for the next album. There was no doubt in the air, Sheer Heart Attack had contained ambition only alluded to before. Queen was planning something absolutely massive, and fans at the time would only need to wait one year to witness those plans in fruition.

1. A Night At The Opera (1975)

Just like with the name Queen, A Night at the Opera is a piece so renowned, so vital and so revered that trying to form a perspective not already put to paper would prove difficult even for the most skilled of writers. Through an uncanny combination of musical grandiloquence, wit, and scale, the album perfectly captures the operatic idea alluded to in the title, while tipping a hat to a myriad of musical traditions, each as distinct and unique as the last. Death on Two Legs parts the curtains on a ferocious, thriving note, a bringing together of brash guitars with vaudevillian piano touches, setting the scene for a truly aspiring experience. You’re My Best Friend wonderfully captures that sweet feeling of knowing you’ve got somebody worth keeping promises for, the pleasantly engaged harmonies, and subtle though elated instrumentals, creating a feeling of true, unabashed joy. Providing melancholy to counter that songs elation, the subtle though moving elements which form Love of My Life are the unmistakable musings of one for whom undivided love leaves them deeply torn apart, for realizing loves fleeting nature. Earlier, Sweet Lady proves a familiar nod to glam rock – a scene which Queen grew up in, despite standing apart from. Meanwhile, ’39 proves folky in tone – Brain May’s gorgeous acoustics and succulent harmonies carry the song, while the ascending backing vocals contribute a mythical quality.

Such is the glory of the fourth album that even the straight-up silly moments exude genius, with the Roger Taylor led I’m In Love With My Car being absolutely sold from start to finish, despite the odd concept. Hey, Seaside Rendezvous is a ragtime jaunt featuring a kazoo solo, and still manages to be one of the most distinctive moments on the record. Though, of course, we need to mention an incredible epic which flows through multiple phases and has layers of harmonies which blend and fuse to create an experience which makes the record truly worth the title. That’s right…the Prophets Song – an epic which despite commanding, often goes damnably overlooked in contemporary debates around Queen.

Without further ado though, let us finish this piece by considering Bohemian Rhapsody – A composition so fantastic, unequalled and majestic that the label ‘Best song of all time’ wouldn’t seem a stretch unless you include famous classical movements in the definition of songs. Transitioning seamlessly from gorgeous melancholy to impassioned choirs of desperation, to sheer madness and then finally to stirring exaltation, nothing feels overwrought or pretentious. The vocal makeup, percussive elements, and guitar styles are able to change swiftly and feel entirely inspired. Just by writing these words I feel as if I’m preaching to the converted, yet let’s be honest with ourselves, Bohemian Rhapsody deserves every hint of praise allowed over the years, and more. A Night at the Opera encapsulates everything Queen should be, and everything theatrical rock should be. By standing away from seemingly every musical movement and cutting out their own sphere of influence, these musicians opened the floodgates to a world of possibilities, never previously considered. Their influence has resonated across the musical spectrum, and will continue to resonate, regardless of which directions music takes in 10, 50 or 100 years - ‘Any way the wind blows’.

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