Queen formed in 1970 in London, originally a hard rock band with shades of progressive rock and metal. They adapted as musical fashions changed; they flirted with disco on 1982’s Hot Space and produced stripped-down, synthesizer-fuelled pop hits on 1984’s The Works.
But over their twenty-year recording career, certain hallmarks of their sound remained; Freddie Mercury’s virtuoso voice and Brian May’s distinctive guitar sound, from his “Red Special” guitar that he handcrafted as a teenager with his father. Mercury and May were supported by drummer Roger Taylor, whose high harmony vocals were an important part of the group’s sound, and bassist John Deacon. While Mercury and May were the most prolific writers, all four members wrote hit singles for the band – they’re the only four-piece band to have all of their members inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame.
Queen’s best albums were generally at the start of their career – in the 1980s they were more focused on singles and dabbled with solo careers. Even as the quality of their albums declined, they remained a formidable live attraction, especially their 1985 Live Aid performance, and enjoyed hit singles throughout their twenty-year tenure. Queen refocused their attention as Mercury’s health declined before he succumbed to AIDS in 1991.
I’ve skipped 1980’s Flash Gordon soundtrack, as it doesn’t feel like a studio album, mostly short instrumentals interspersed with dialogue, but it would be at #15 if I had included it.
Queen’s Albums Ranked
#14: A Kind Of Magic
A Kind of Magic is Queen at their least focused, a compilation of their contributions to soundtracks like Highlander. But even on their weakest studio album, there are highlights. May’s ‘Who Wants To Live Forever’ is majestic and haunting, especially the moment when Mercury takes over the lead vocal. The group rocker ‘One Vision’ is built around a ferocious May riff.
#13: Made In Heaven
Queen re-emerged in 1995 with a collection of songs the band worked on with Mercury before his death. Many of the songs were outtakes from previous Queen albums or songs previously used on solo projects, and it feels thin, despite the heart-warming story behind it. ‘Mother Love’ was the last song Mercury recorded, and the closing features a short snippet of every song Queen ever recorded, sped up through a tape machine.
#12: Hot Space
Hot Space is infamous as Queen’s disco record. The fast songs are on the first side – there are weak moments like Mercury’s ‘Body Language’, the band does deliver effective dance tracks like Deacon’s ‘Backchat’. Any record that features the classic David Bowie duet ‘Under Pressure’ can’t be too bad, and the second half is more focused on balladry like ‘Les Palabras De Amor’.
#11: The Miracle
The two rock songs that open The Miracle, ‘Party’ and ‘Khashoggi’s Ship’, aren’t convincing. They disguise the fact that much of The Miracle marks a creative rebound for Queen after a sometimes indifferent 1980s. The anthem ‘I Want It All’ has scorching guitar work from May, while the title track is a pretty multi-part suite that recalls their earlier ambitious work.
Queen closed out the 1970s with their weakest album of the decade. The ‘Bicycle Race’/’Fat Bottomed Girls’ single is one of their finest, but most of the album tracks feel unfocused like weaker versions of past triumphs. It’s fascinating for hard-core fans, as it’s Queen’s most diverse effort with weird stuff like ‘Mustapha’ and ‘Dreamer’s Ball’.
#9: The Works
After Hot Space, The Works marks a return to basics. It’s not Queen’s most substantial album, although Mercury’s ‘It’s A Hard Life’ is a majestic ballad. The rhythm section supply the hits with Deacon’s ‘I Want To Break Free’ and Taylor’s ‘Radio Ga Ga’, while May is reliably rocking on ‘Hammer To Fall’.
#8: A Day At The Races
A Day At The Races was less ambitious than the group’s previous albums. Mercury’s gospel-tinged show-stopper ‘Somebody To Love’ is one of their best tracks, showcasing their harmonies. As always, Brian May is reliable on tracks like ‘Tie Your Mother Down’ and ‘Long Away’.
#7: The Game
The Game introduces a new, streamlined Queen. If they were an album band in the 1970s, they’re largely a singles band in the 1980s. The best tracks are the singles, which explore new territory for Queen – Mercury’s rockabilly ‘Crazy Little Thing Called Love’ and Deacon’s funky ‘Another One Bites The Dust’. May provides quality deep cuts with ‘Sail Away Sweet Sister’ and ‘Dragon Attack’.
Queen’s debut album wasn’t very successful in terms of sales, but a lot of their ideas were already in place. May’s ‘Keep Yourself Alive’ is the most well-known song, but there are strong, forgotten Mercury-penned pieces like ‘Great King Rat’ and ‘My Fairy King’. Like their other early work it benefits from underexposure – even if you’ve heard their hits too many times, there are lots of fabulous deep cuts awaiting your discovery on the early records.
Queen’s final album before Mercury’s death suffers from being released during the CD era – at almost 55 minutes it could do with some trimming. But the key tracks – the epic and sweeping six-minute title track and ‘The Show Must Go On’ – recapture the grandiose Queen of old, and they’re among the band’s best work ever. ‘These Are The Days Of Our Lives’ is touching too.
#4: News of the World
In the year of punk, Queen produced a simpler album. News of the World opens with two huge Queen anthems – ‘We Will Rock You’ and ‘We Are The Champions’. Even if you’ve heard those songs too many times at sporting events the rest of the album is surprisingly consistent, with highlights like May’s ‘It’s Late’ and Taylor’s ‘Fight From The Inside’.
#3: Sheer Heart Attack
Queen’s second album of 1974 contained their breakthrough hit ‘Killer Queen’. It’s one of their best singles, but it’s merely a foretaste of a relentlessly entertaining suite of songs. Songs like the old-timey ‘Bring Back That Leroy Brown’, Deacon’s charming ‘Misfire’, and the rocker ‘Now I’m Here’ showcase the diverse music interests of Queen’s four members.
#2: A Night At The Opera
A Night At The Opera contains the monstrous single ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’, a multi-part epic. There’s enough substance on Opera here that it doesn’t overshadow the rest of the record. Mercury’s catty opener ‘Death On Two Legs’, Brian May’s time-travel ballad ’39’, and Deacon’s pop song ‘You’re My Best Friend’ lead a very strong setlist.
#1: Queen II
Queen’s second album is their most indulgent and pretentious, but that’s a compliment. Mercury and May have an LP side each. May contributes the gorgeous ‘White Queen (As It Began)’, while Mercury’s ‘The March of the Black Queen’, ‘Ogre Battle’ and The Fairy Feller’s Master-Stroke’ are all multi-part magnum opuses.