Queen I (Elektra ’73) Rating: A
Queen is one of the quintessential ‘70s groups, one whose unbridled ambition and showy excesses met with both great commercial success and critical condescension (but hey many clueless professional critics of the day hated Zep too). History has proven the band’s vision to be the correct course, as adulation from peers (unfortunately brought to light by Freddie Mercury’s health problems) brought about a reassessment of the band’s output, ultimately resulting in a deserved Hall Of Fame induction. The band's self-titled debut album, esteemed metal critic Martin Popoff's favorite album ever, is a supremely fun and surprisingly hard rocking art rock gem that embodies all that was wonderful and (at times) frustrating about the band. Although Queen had a first rate rhythm section (John Deacon; bass, Roger Taylor; drums), the principal architect of the dense Queen sound was Brian May’s brilliant guitar playing, and his often multi-tracked guitar, with its singular, flawless guitar tone, soars throughout. Whether unleashing metallic mayhem on “Great King Rat,” “Liar,” and “Son and Daughter,” pacing the chugging grooves of “Keep Yourself Alive” (the album's catchiest and best known song) and “Modern Times Rock ‘N’ Roll,” or lending acoustic atmospherics to “The Night Comes Down,” May makes a convincing case for being considered one of the eras great guitar heroes. For his part, singer Freddie Mercury was one of the all-time frontmen as well as the possessor of a gorgeous voice, as evidenced on the pretty piano ballad "Doing All Right" (which also delivers balls-out rock at times) and the corny but catchy gospel-ish sing along "Jesus" (likewise), one of several songs here that showcases the band's strong harmony vocals. Sure, Mercury's tendency towards overly zealous operatic flourishes can be a bit over the top, which can make the band sound cheesy and dated at times. Perhaps the band's use of sometimes silly fairy tale lyrics also drew the critics' ire back in the day (another song here is called "My Fairy King"), but Queen's spectacular vocal chops and instrumental inventiveness smash away any minor complaints I might have. Producers John Anthony and Roy Thomas Baker (along with the band) do a great job, giving the band a full-bodied sound by masterfully overdubbing Mercury's voice and layering May's guitar wizardry, resulting in a highly underrated, extremely accomplished first release that has a nice mix of hard and soft sounds.
Queen II (Elektra ’74) Rating: A
This proggy album is proof that Queen was far more than just the singles band too many people dismiss them as being (though they were a great singles band, too). Containing nary a single save for the minor hit “Seven Seas Of Rhye” (you'll remember a shorter instrumental version of that song had appeared on the debut), this was another totally original creation that's completely self-contained and unclassifiable (just file it all under Queen music). Of course, the stuffy critics scoffed at these ages old tales of white queens and black queens and ogre battles, but if you allow yourself to get lost in these alternately beautifully melodic and hard rocking (sometimes within the same song) fables the band will take you to a truly magical world, again guided by Brian May’s brilliant guitar playing (what a guitar tone this guy has), Freddie Mercury’s uniquely theatrical and also singularly brilliant vocals, the band's rock solid rhythm section, and their otherworldly harmonies (which are at times cartoonishly high-pitched and campy but always fun). Though the band occasionally falters with some of their cheesier, more over the top theatrics, the band’s larger than life personality and epic sound results in some marvelous sonic tapestries. Let’s face it, Queen has always been a love ‘em or hate ‘em proposition, for they were all about excess, and arguably never more so than on this ambitious album. But they were also true originals who had tons of cool ideas and were willing to stretch boundaries, generally with interesting and sometimes with spectacular results (my favorite songs here are probably "Father To Son" and "Some Day One Day"). The bottom line is that true fans have a treat in store when they rediscover this somewhat forgotten fantasy world.
Sheer Heart Attack (Elektra ’74) Rating: A
Part of Queen’s appeal, aside from the fact that there’s never been anybody else even remotely like them, is that they always seemed perpetually stuck in the wacky seventies. Laugh if you will, but in retrospect that much maligned decade probably produced more great music than any other, and here the band remains as wonderfully weird as ever. This time Queen focuses more so on (shorter) individual songs than on creating an overall sound tapestry, though there are exceptions since “Tenement Funster” (the obligatory Roger Taylor written and sung song on the album), “Flick Of The Wrist,” and “Lily Of The Valley” are seamlessly linked and “In The Lap Of The Gods” is revisited at album’s end (though truth be told the “… Revisited” version isn’t all that similar). The clear classics are the extended layered guitar-fest “Brighton Rock” (despite the cartoonish falsetto vocals), the catchy pop single “Killer Queen,” the excellent rocker “Now I’m Here,” on which all band members stand out, and the short thrasher “Stone Cold Crazy,” later soundly covered by Metallica. In particular, “Killer Queen” contains all the elements that made Queen great, starting with the killer piano melody, charismatic vocals (Freddie on lead and of course flawless harmonies), layered guitar harmonies, a great guitar solo and stellar drum fills; you name it, this one has it. Though those songs rise highest, there are plenty of other quality tracks, including the intense, hard rocking tunes mentioned earlier (“Tenement Funster,” “Flick Of The Wrist”) and its pretty piano ballad companion piece (“Lily Of The Valley”), the spectacular vocal showcase “In The Lap Of The Gods” (the more fully fleshed out and anthemic "In The Lap Of The Gods… Revisited" is also stellar), the symphonic John Deacon penned “Misfire,” and the May penned and sung “She Makes Me (Stormtrooper In Stilettos),” which has an epic feel. Some of the songs are short to be point of being inconsequential (“Dear Friends” is barely a minute long), and the vaudeville (and Jim Croce) inspired “Bring Back Leroy Brown” is a bit silly, but at least it demonstrates what a badass bass player Deacon is. Plus, it’s impressive how all band members contribute to the creative process here (though Mercury and May do most of the heavy lifting), which makes this album more varied (“Stone Cold Crazy” couldn’t be more different than “Dear Friends,” for example) than their previous, more metal-minded releases (though this one can be plenty heavy as well). As usual, the production is first-rate, allowing May’s perfectly toned guitar an amazing spectrum of overlapping sounds, and Sheer Heart Attack is one of the band’s most acclaimed and popular albums.
A Night At The Opera (Elektra ’75) Rating: A+
The first of consecutive albums named after Marx Brothers movies, A Night At The Opera presented Queen at their peak. For starters, it has their signature song, the brilliant “Bohemian Rhapsody,” which everybody should know all about so I’m not even going to discuss this ridiculously ambitious song beyond saying that it deserves all the acclaim it gets as an all-time epic (and yes I picture Wayne and Garth every time I hear it too!). The album’s other epic, “The Prophet’s Song,” is also generally excellent (though it took a while for the a capella section to grow on me), recalling Queen II in its ambitious grandiosity, but unsurprisingly the rest of this stylistically diverse album is more modest though also generally first-rate. “Death On Two Legs (Dedicated to…)” is a strong hard rocking opener notable for its vitriolic lyrics about a former manager, while “I’m In Love With My Car” is justifiably one of Roger Taylor’s most famous songs. After that bit of heaviness comes the successful single “My Best Friend,” which was simply a peerless feel-good pop song from John Deacon (although sung flawlessly by Mercury, with the band’s trademark harmonies and May’s brilliantly layered guitar playing also being notable). “’39” is a pretty acoustic singalong written and sung by May, while “Sweet Lady” is another strong heavier effort and the harp/piano ballad “Love Of My Life” a stellar Freddie showcase. Elsewhere, songs like “Lazing On A Sunday Afternoon” and “Seaside Rendezvous” are lighter segues, while “Good Company” is also defiantly British and quite atypical; though the least substantial songs on the album, they’re all modestly enjoyable and add variety to what was simply a royal album from a one-of-a-kind band.
A Day At The Races (Elektra ’76) Rating: A-
Although not quite as majestic or as ambitious as its other Marx Brothers titled big brother, A Day At The Races is more prime time Queen. There’s only one “greatest hit” this time out, but boy is it a great one, as “Somebody To Love” is arguably Queen’s ultimate pop song and it shows how the band has mastered the sing along chorus. This one has it all and is a strong contender for “quintessential Queen song”; Freddie on piano delivering one of his best lead vocals, a karaoke worthy chorus (helped out by excellent harmonies), crisp rhythms, and a predictably great guitar solo. Elsewhere, the album begins with the hard rocking favorite “Tie Your Mother Down,” while later on Deacon’s “You and I” delivers more hard rocking goodness. “You Take My Breath Away” is a refreshingly straightforward and pretty ballad on which Freddie predictably shines, while the ringing guitars and airy harmonies of “Long Away” (written and sung by May) hit the spot as well. “The Millionaire Waltz” and “Teo Torriatte (Let Us Cling Together)” are a pair of strong, ambitious “grower tracks” of the type that could only come from Queen; the guitar/vocal interplay is the best part of the former song, while the latter is a dramatic, epic (if pretentious) sing along. Another more modest highlight is the multi-tracked piano popper “Good Old-Fashioned Lover Boy,” which is also another great guitar track, and only a couple of lesser entries on side two - the cheesy hard rocker “White Man” and Taylor’s “Drowse” which would’ve been better had it been sung by Mercury - diminishes what is still a very strong effort overall. Once again Mercury and May write most of the songs (4 apiece) while Taylor and Deacon are essential contributors to the band’s impeccable chemistry, resulting in another highly enjoyable album that’s well-worth revisiting almost 40 years later.
News Of The World (Elektra '77) Rating: A-
Of course I’m sick of the overplayed 1-2 tandem of “We Will Rock You” and “We Are The Champions,” but that’s not Queen’s fault and those are still great songs. “We Will Rock You” does just that, and relentlessly, while “We Are The Champions” (which always follows the former song on the radio) is a corny yet uplifting anthem that can still give me goosebumps (let’s face it, if you’ve ever been fortunate enough to have won a sports championship at any level, you’ve sung this song at the top of your lungs at some point!). But those two sports arena/classic rock radio mainstays are readily available elsewhere, so you would really be buying News Of The World (which has the band’s most memorable album cover art) for the fast-paced adrenaline rush provided by “Sheer Heart Attack” (isn’t this on the wrong album?), the anthemic chorus of “Spread Your Wings,” and “It’s Late,” a hooky epic-scale track (the rest of the album is comparatively concise) that also features a good guitar sendoff. Also of note is “Who Needs You,” whose sweet music (with excellent and surprisingly subtle guitar work from May) contrasts with its nasty kiss off lyrics, and “My Melancholy Blues,” a subdued, aptly titled finale which provides quite a contrast to how the album started (with “We Will Rock You”). Elsewhere, the sad, laid back ballad “All Dead, All Dead” at least ends optimistically (“of course I don’t believe we are all dead and gone”), while “Sleeping On the Sidewalk” is an earthy, slinky little shuffle that to me sounds something like a dry run for “Crazy Little Thing Called Love.” Unfortunately, the mid-section of the album brings it down several notches, as Taylor’s generic hard rock “Fight From The Inside” sounds like mediocre Billy Squier, while the sleazy “Get Down, Make Love” is completely obnoxious and easily skippable. Still, though perhaps this album is slightly less consistent than prior triumphs, it’s still a varied set with its fair share of significant highlights.
Jazz (Elektra '78) Rating: A
Queen fittingly ushers out the ‘70s (at least studio-wise) with another imperfect classic, one that has nothing to do with jazz but instead delivers pure rock n’ roll fun. Remember when great bands would release an album each year? Now we’re lucky if the best bands release an album every 2-3 years! But I digress, this album gets off to a rough start with the annoying “Mustapha,” but if you can’t sing or laugh along to “Fat Bottomed Girls” you probably need to check your hearing or get a sense of humor. Simply put, this is among the band’s most famous and loveable songs, with rocking verses, a ridiculously catchy sing along chorus, and probably Taylor’s most famous drum break (you know the one). Continuing, “Jealousy” is a poignant (“now I’m only left with my own jealousy”) piano ballad that’s a bit of a downer, but only Queen could concoct an anthem about one’s simple love of cycling and make it work despite its corniness (I’m referring to the ambitious, multi-sectioned hit single “Bicycle Race” of course). The strong hard rocking mid-section of the album then commences with “If You Can’t Beat Them,” “Let Me Entertain You,” and “Dead On Time,” with “If You Can’t Beat Them” and “Dead On Time” in particular containing some of May’s finest guitar playing (Taylor really stands out as well on “Dead On Time”). Later on we get treated to more low-key, idiosyncratic charmers such as the short, melodic piano ballad “In Only Seven Days,” a pair of airy pop songs in “Dreamers Ball” and “Leaving Home Ain’t Easy” (Queen doing easy listening soft rock but extremely well), and the catchy piano ballad turned upbeat rocker “Don’t Stop Me Now” (a top 10 U.K. hit). Less impressive this time out are Taylor’s two contributions, the disco-ish “Fun It,” which is something of a less inspired precursor to “Another One Bites the Dust,” and “More Of That Jazz,” a decent heavy rocker that cleverly ends the album by briefly running through some of the previous tracks on the album (I think that Queen was among the first to do this nifty little gimmick). And though Jazz lacks any kind of thematic unity and like most of their (still great) albums it features two or three songs I could take or leave, ultimately the albums minor flaws hardly matter since the band delivers dazzling amounts of diversity and creativity throughout.
Live Killers (Elektra ’79) Rating: B+
This double disc, 22-track live album shows that Queen was the rare “studio” band that was also great onstage (who that saw it can forget the way they stole the show at Live Aid?). Though this album can’t capture the flamboyant visual aspect of Queen’s live extravaganzas, this bountiful selection of crowd favorites should satisfy most fans of the band. True, few of the songs here trump their meticulously crafted, multi-tracked studio counterparts, and in fact quite a few are clearly inferior, but an appreciative crowd and raw, energized performances helps make this one of the era’s better live releases. Also, though my song selection would’ve been different (no “Somebody To Love” or “Fat Bottomed Girls,” for starters, plus I would’ve scrapped “Get Down, Make Love”), the set list still shows off an incredibly strong songbook, with album tracks like “Let Me Entertain You” and “Sheer Heart Attack” coming off surprisingly well even when surrounded by classics, some of which rush by all too quickly early on medley-style. Other memorable attractions: a sped up “We Will Rock You” (which appears twice, the second time at the more familiar tempo paired with “We Are The Champions”), Mercury singing “’39,” the crowd participation on several songs (“Now I’m Here,” “Love Of My Life,” and “Spread Your Wings,” for example), and expansive renditions of “Now I’m Here” (8:43) and especially “Brighton Rock” (12:16), the latter even more of a May guitar hero showcase than the studio version. And though the band breaks out a tape at the end of “Bohemian Rhapsody” (really, who can blame them?), this flawed but largely enjoyable live album ended a decade the band boldly helped define in fine (and loud) style.
The Game (Elektra ’80) Rating: B+
Rather than larger than life anthems, the big hits here are more modestly atypical: an insistent bass throb propels Deacon’s simple, funky disco tune “Another One Bites The Dust” (which borrows heavily from Chic), while Mercury’s “Crazy Little Thing Called Love” is a slinky little rockabilly ditty. They’re not personal favorites of mine, but both songs are quite good for what they are; the masses certainly agreed, as they would be the band’s lone #1 U.S. hits, as would this parent album, which was the band’s commercial peak (alas this was followed by a swift, brutal decline throughout the ‘80s). The other main highlights are “Play The Game,” a theatrical power ballad with a great May guitar solo, and “Save Me,” another piano ballad turned anthemic rocker. Elsewhere, “Dragon Attack” is another funky (if not as successful) track propelled by Deacon’s bass (which is more prominent than usual throughout), though May impressively adds his 2 cents as well, “Need Your Loving Tonight” is a bit generic and ultra-poppy but is easily singable and quite enjoyable, and “Sail Away Sweet Sister” is a fine hooky May number that’s both moving and dramatic. On the lesser front, “Don’t Try Suicide” misses the mark with an annoyingly jovial anti-suicide tune (who but Queen would even try such a thing?), and Taylor’s two efforts are also inessential, as “Rock It (Prime Jive)” is a simplistic (simple even) attempt at a party tune that sounds too dated to the ‘80s (remember when the band bragged about not having synthesizers on their albums? They’re out in full force here) and “Coming Soon” is little more than a big beat with some flashy decorations around it. Still, there’s little outright filler here, and even the lesser songs are still fun for the most part, but this short (35 minutes) album seems less ambitious and weighty on the whole than their prior studio triumphs. Note: As mentioned previously, the ‘80s weren’t especially kind to Queen, at least in the United States (their massive popularity continued elsewhere). After The Game came the Flash Gordon (1980) soundtrack, whose hokey yet somehow enjoyable title track was the main attraction. Hot Space (1982) could’ve been called Wasted Space if not for their completely brilliant collaboration with David Bowie, “Under Pressure” (among both of their best songs ever). The Works (1984), A Kind Of Magic (1986), and The Miracle (1989) were much better if far from classic, and Innuendo (1991) was a courageous and quite strong (especially given that Freddie was dying of AIDS) final studio album with Mercury (excluding the posthumous release Made In Heaven (1995)) that essentially ended the version of the band that truly mattered (with all due apologies to singers Paul Rodgers and Adam Lambert).
Greatest Hits (Parlophone, Hollywood ’81) Rating: A+
Queen is remembered by many as primarily a singles band, which couldn’t be further from the truth. Yes, they were a great singles band, but digging deeper reveals that during their 1973-1980 prime Queen’s albums were also generally excellent, though the singles did often serve as the high points of those albums. Released by Parlophone in the Europe and Hollywood in North America, either Greatest Hits collection will do (and there are plenty of others as well, but these were Queen’s biggest sellers so they’re the ones I’m reviewing). The 14-track Hollywood version provides an almost perfect singles summary, being a concise 14-track run through all the band’s biggest U.S. hits. The Parlophone version adds a few tracks (“Don’t Stop Me Now,” “Save Me,” “Now I’m Here,” “Good Old-Fashioned Lover Boy,” “Seven Seas Of Rhye”) and drops a couple (“Under Pressure,” “Keep Yourself Alive”), with the end result being fairly negligible overall. I mean, any album that rolls out the following songs one after another (all of which appear on both compilations) can only be called fantastic: “Bohemian Rhapsody,” “Another One Bites The Dust,” “Killer Queen,” “Fat Bottomed Girls,” “Bicycle Race,” “You’re My Best Friend,” “Crazy Little Thing Called Love,” “Somebody To Love,” “Play The Game,” “Flash,” “We Will Rock You,” “We Are The Champions.“ Just remember that any Queen Greatest Hits album should only serve as a starting point, and that big fans of their original studio albums likely need not apply.
Innuendo (Parlophone, Hollywood ’91) Rating: A-
Far from an insignificant last gasp from a band whose lead singer was in the final throes of his courageous battle against AIDS, Innuendo was instead a triumphant goodbye (that was of course overshadowed in every way and lent greater gravity by Mercury’s situation) from a band that appeared to have had a lot of life left had Mercury remained in good health. Though there are maybe one or two clumsy tracks I could live without, as per usual, by and large the band consistently delivers the goods here, and considering the situation this is an amazingly positive record, with lyrics like “we’ll keep on trying, we’ll keep on smiling” and “we’re all God’s people” being typical. The album peaks immediately with the epic multi-sectioned titled track, an ambitious “Bohemian Rhapsody” styled marvel that’s simply one of the band’s best songs ever. The whimsical George Harrison-like “I’m Going Slightly Mad” and the reflective “These Are The Days Of Our Lives” offer catchy and melodic thinking-man’s pop (with great guitar work on the latter), while the staggeringly emotional power ballad “The Show Must Go On” vividly closes things out in enduring (and endearing) fashion. Those are probably the album’s best-known songs, but there are many strong album tracks as well. For example, “Headlong” and “The Hitman” are a pair of solidly straightforward hard rockers, “Don’t Try So Hard” is another power ballad with some beautiful Mercury falsettos and a wonderfully melancholic guitar solo, and “Bijou” is another signature May guitar piece that soulfully seems to channel Jeff Beck. Again, there are some lesser efforts but little outright filler, as even “Delilah,” essentially a love letter to Mercury’s cat, is charmingly lightweight and a nice contrast to some of the surrounding seriousness. Slickly produced but nevertheless revealing plenty of sweat, Innuendo was an obvious labor of love from a band that banded together under tragic circumstances, the end result of which was (surprisingly enough) the band’s most inspired effort in over a decade.