Favourite Album: Mathematical Logic or Gut Instinct?

Inspired by a blog I came across recently (unfortunately I can’t find the link but there are loads of such blogs around), I have spent the last few days compiling my personal ranking of Queen songs, and I am just in the process of writing it all up, beginning with 185 – 161. I had in fact already started all of this when the Classic Rock readers’ poll listing came out – I am looking forward to comparing my ranking with theirs in due course. At the moment, I am just thinking about what my rankings are telling me about my favourite/least favourite Queen albums.

So I now have a database of 185 Queen songs (I explain here what I did/didn’t count as a ‘Queen’ song) – each one numbered from 185 (least favourite) to 01 (favourite). I decided to see if a bit of elementary mathematics (it would need to be) could help me formulate a ‘definitive’ ranking of albums. I was intrigued as to whether it would confirm what ‘gut instinct’ has always told me, which is roughly something like this:

1-2 Sheer Heart Attack & A Night At The Opera (usually ‘Opera’ at 1 but it seems to alternate in my mind)
3 Queen II
4 A Day At The Races
5 Queen
6-8 News Of The World, The Works, Innuendo
9 The Game
10 A Kind Of Magic
11-12 Flash Gordon OST, Made In Heaven
13 Jazz
14 Hot Space
15 The Miracle

I worked out the mean score for each album (the old-school ‘average’ – add up all the individual items and then divide by the number of items). This is what I got (mean score in brackets):

1 A Day At The Races (45.5)
2 A Night At The Opera (57.2) – but it was 47.5 without God Save The Queen
3. Queen II (63.4)
4. Sheer Heart Attack (67.2)
5. Queen (68.8)
6. Innuendo (78.3)
7. A Kind Of Magic (80.3)
8. The Works (87.3)
9. News Of The World (88.2)
10. The Game (91.9)
11. Jazz (100.3)
12. Hot Space (103.5)
13. Made In Heaven (113.1)
14. The Miracle (115.7)
15. Flash Gordon (138.3)

The big surprise there is that A Day At The Races came out the fairly comfortable winner. I have exceptionally fond memories of the album – it was the first one I ever bought – but I have never seriously considered it my absolute favourite.

I scored the tracks on A Day At The Races as follows: 9, 15, 19, 27, 46, 56, 61, 68, 72, 82. So consistency wins out, at least by this mean measure. I have of course always seen it as a very ‘solid’ album: there is nothing at the very top (the highest is 09 – Somebody To Love), but there is also nothing lower than 82 (Good Old Fashioned Lover Boy).

Ten very good tracks – the epitome of ‘solid’ – whereas a ‘great’ album that includes perhaps twelve or thirteen tracks may still include a couple of weaker songs which pull the overall average down. For example, I scored A Night At The Opera: 3, 4, 5, 7, 10, 28, 41, 78, 102, 109, 135, 164. It has five songs in the top ten but the ‘weaker’ songs bring the average down.

I should perhaps make clear that I don’t dislike God Save The Queen (number 164), but I found it an interesting headache where to rank short songs that I really like (such as some of the Flash Gordon songs but also songs like Dear Friends, which was at 141) and the God Save The Queen and Wedding March (170) traditional arrangements – part of a discussion for another time about what criteria we might use to rate a song.

The other thing that stands out for me from the mean list is that I seem to rate the individual elements of A Kind Of Magic higher than my gut sense of the album as a whole. Conversely, I like Flash Gordon as a soundtrack but that doesn’t come through when broken down on a track-by-track basis. The cold logic of mathematics, I suppose. It’s the old adage about the whole being bigger than the sum of the parts: the numbers are struggling to express how I feel about an album as an overall listening experience.

I then ranked them according to the median (list the individual items and the median is the one in the middle). Supposedly this is good for filtering out a small number of outliers that dramatically skew the average and therefore gives you a better sense of where the bulk of the numbers are. This is what I got:

1. Queen II (23)
2. A Night At The Opera (35) – 28 without God Save The Queen
3. A Day At The Races (51)
4. Sheer Heart Attack (65)
5. Queen (67)
6. Innuendo (72)
7. A Kind Of Magic (80)
8. The Game (84)
9. News Of The World (94)
10. The Works (99)
11. Jazz (101)
12. Hot Space (107)
13. Made In Heaven (116)
14. The Miracle (135)
15. Flash Gordon (152)

So this calculation yielded slightly different results. A Day At The Races is closer to where I would instinctively have put it. The big surprise was Queen II coming out top. When I look at how I scored the tracks, I find that it is an album very much of two halves (and I don’t mean the two sides, Black and White): six absolutely fantastic songs and five merely ‘good’ songs. It’s the very opposite of the consistency of A Day At The Races but the good tracks are so good (five in the top twenty) that it ends up winning.

This is how I scored Queen II:

02 – White Queen (As It Began)
12 – Seven Seas Of Rhye
14 – The Fairy Feller’s Master-Stroke
16 – Father To Son
18 – Nevermore
23 – The March Of The Black Queen
88 – Ogre Battle
112 – Some Day One Day
115 – Procession
145 – Funny How Love Is
152 – The Loser In The End (sorry, Rog)

Great fun to do – and I will be doing a lot more analysis in the next few days and weeks.

By the way, Brighton Rock was number 01.

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