At last — cue the opening drum roll from Innuendo — we arrive at what this fan considers to be the twenty greatest Queen songs. The best of the best. It is surprisingly difficult to write anything about these twenty gems — especially the singles — as so much has already been said, not least about Bohemian Rhapsody, which — major spoiler alert! — did make my final twenty. The list is heavily weighted in favour of the ’70s, with five of the tracks coming from Queen II and five from A Night at the Opera. I have written elsewhere about the problems of choosing a ‘best’ album: the four albums from Queen II to A Day at the Races are all quite exceptional. There is a fairly even spread of Freddie and Brian songs here (with one contribution from Roger), though Brian wrote all of the songs in my top three and sang two of the songs in my top ten. Enjoy.
20. Killer Queen (Mercury), Sheer Heart Attack, 1974
Freddie’s song about a high-end prostitute has a lighter feel after the dense sound and full-on fury of much of Queen II. The penchant for witty lyrics and camp, theatrical delivery was typical of Freddie in the ’70s — think of Lazing on a Sunday Afternoon, Seaside Rendezvous and Bicycle Race. Their first big hit single, it’s often forgotten that it was actually a double-A-side with Flick of the Wrist (the one you won’t have heard on Tony Blackburn’s show, as Brian said at the Rainbow). Best moment: the guitar solo — one of Brian’s favourites, so he has indicated.
19. Teo Torriatte (Let Us Cling Together) (May), A Day at the Races, 1976
After Brian’s billet doux to America (Now I’m Here) came this paean to Japan, written after two incredibly successful tours there. Utterly gorgeous from start to finish, the song starts conventionally enough (albeit with a chorus partly sung in Japanese), until Brian reaches for the power chords and Freddie delivers a sensational middle eight (“When I’m gone / They’ll say we’re all fools and we don’t understand”). The climax is an exquisite multi-tracked choir effect, emphasising the inclusive message of the song. The HD mix featured on the 2011 remasters is sublime.
18. Nevermore (Mercury), Queen II, 1974
A short yet quite delightful piano ballad from Freddie. The title is perhaps drawn from Edgar Allen Poe’s poem, The Raven. The piano playing is gorgeous, the words — beautifully sung — are tender and touching, and the backing vocals are magnificent. A rare example of where the BBC session version didn’t really work (an indication, perhaps, of how important the backing vocals are in the song). Best moment: the angelic choir sound at 0:58.
17. Innuendo (Queen), Innuendo, 1991
Rolling, sweeping, majestic. Innuendo casts off the self-imposed straitjacket of the conventional four-minute pop-rock song that constrained the band’s creativity as mega-stardom beckoned in the ’80s. In its epic scale, Innuendo recaptures the youthful idealism and spirit of adventure of songs like The March of the Black Queen and The Prophet’s Song. Like the rising of the sun and the incessant motion of the tides, music and lyrics combine to evoke a boundless, timeless universe — “’til the end of time” indeed. Best moment: a toss-up between the sparse acoustic interlude at 2:45 and Brian’s magnificent guitar from 4:19 onwards.
16. Father to Son (May), Queen II, 1974
An appropriately guitar-rich epic, this is Brian’s loving tribute to his father, Harold, with whom he of course built the Red Special. The centrepiece is Brian’s sweeping, multi-layered solo, yet the whole song illustrates the prevailing Queen motif at that time — to fill every possible space with sound, right from the opening power chords after the final strains of Procession fade away. The Procession / Father to Son opening of the March ’74 Rainbow concert is possibly the greatest beginning to a live album ever. Best moment: Brian’s lines expressing the unconditional love between parent and child — “But the air you breathe / I live to give you”.
15. White Man (May), A Day at the Races, 1976
Another breathtaking exploration by Brian of the possibilities of two-part and three-part guitar harmonies, White Man is a snarling howl of anger and rage at the tragic fate of America’s native peoples, all but wiped out by the onward march of European so-called ‘civilisation’ — “the hell you’ve made”. Freddie brilliantly conveys the pain and anguish in his throat-shredding vocals. Best moment: guitar and drums from roughly 3:02 and particularly Roger’s drums at 3:09.
14. The Fairy Feller’s Master-Stroke (Mercury), Queen II, 1974
The original and best example of Freddie’s penchant for writing fast-paced quirky arrangements, accompanied by witty or unusual lyrics — Seaside Rendezvous, Mustapha, Bicycle Race and the operatic section of Bohemian Rhapsody follow in the same tradition. Written around a painting by troubled nineteenth-century artist Richard Dadd and obviously the result of painstaking research (not something one would associate with later-era Freddie). Best moment: “What a quaere fellow!”
13. Radio Ga Ga (Taylor), The Works, 1984
A spectacular return to form after the misfiring Hot Space, Radio Ga Ga has achieved near-legendary status, not least as a result of its inclusion in the Live Aid set. Programmed drums notwithstanding (and a guitar sadly buried in the mix), it is a brilliant homage to the apparently dying world of radio — ironically, supported by one of their most ambitious and best videos — with great bass from John and an anthemic, show-stopping chorus. Best moment: “So stick around ‘cos we might miss you / When we grow tired of all this visual”.
12. Seven Seas of Rhye (Mercury), Queen II, 1974
After the prolonged, meandering opening to their first single, Keep Yourself Alive, their second single took them to the other extreme — delivering everything bar the kitchen sink in a spellbinding opening thirty seconds. A brilliantly crafted slice of rock (and one of their more ‘glam’-sounding efforts at a time when ‘glam’ was dominating the charts), with typically (for early-era Freddie) obscure yet compelling lyrics. Best moment: the snarling guitar at 1:51 after “Then I’ll get you!”.
11. Don’t Stop Me Now (Mercury), Jazz, 1978
Freddie’s hymn to the hedonistic lifestyle. An exceptional piece of commercial ‘pop’ music, comfortably the stand-out track from the patchy Jazz sessions and the closest Queen should have veered in the direction of disco. Now one of Queen’s most recognisable songs, it’s hard to believe that it only reached number 9 in the British charts. Unlike (it seems) many fans, this fan prefers the ‘long-lost guitars’ version from the 2011 re-releases and the ‘revisited’ version from the 2018 movie soundtrack, both of which offer a more ‘traditional’ Queen sound. Best moment: John’s bass at roughly 1:31.
10. The Prophet’s Song (May), A Night at the Opera, 1975
In some respects a companion piece to Bohemian Rhapsody from the same sessions, this is probably the most gloriously sprawling, ambitious and experimental song the band (in this case, mainly Brian) attempted — from the opening notes of the toy koto onwards. Mystical themes, delightful guitar harmonies and bizarre vocal effects combine to deliver eight minutes of bewildering brilliance. Best moment: the power of the bass-drum-guitar combination after “Listen to the madman!” at roughly 5:51.
09. Somebody to Love (Mercury), A Day at the Races, 1976
Freddie’s nod to Aretha Franklin and the gospel sound, this is a suitably over-the-top follow-up to Bohemian Rhapsody. A brilliant vocal performance from Freddie, wonderful gospel choir arrangements involving Freddie, Brian and Roger, and a great overall sound. It also translated exceptionally well to the stage, particularly the closing section of the song. Best moment: Freddie’s vocal combining with Brian’s guitar for “But everybody wants to put me down” from 1:45.
08. The Show Must Go On (Queen), Innuendo, 1991
Like These Are the Days of Our Lives, this song captures the sad and reflective yet defiant mood of the time, with the band writing and recording in the shadow of Freddie’s approaching death. The music is magnificent, particularly Brian’s guitar and John’s bass, and somehow Freddie delivers a truly stunning vocal performance. Some of the lines are — with the benefit of hindsight — unbearably sad, not least “Inside my heart is breaking / My make-up may be flaking / But my smile still stays on”. Best moment: a strong contender for the best lyrics Queen ever wrote — “My soul is painted like the wings of butterflies / Fairy tales of yesterday will grow but never die / I can fly, my friends”.
07. Good Company (May), A Night at the Opera, 1975
Almost four minutes of utter originality and genius, courtesy of Brian, beginning with the minimalist ukulele opening and concluding with the full jazz-band sound, all of which (drums excepted, obviously) was created in the studio on the Red Special and other guitars. Has the guitar ever been used to such stunningly original effect? Overlooked too are Brian’s wonderfully witty lyrics, particularly the way he cleverly weaves multiple uses and meanings out of the word ‘company’. Best moment: it has to be the jazz-band effect.
06. In the Lap of the Gods…Revisited (Mercury), Sheer Heart Attack, 1974
Freddie was at his creative peak on the first four albums, and this is yet another outstanding piece of writing straight out of left field. A brilliant way to end the Sheer Heart Attack album, it was also used as a magnificent show-closer until 1977, accompanied by industrial quantities of dry ice, and was (for this fan at least) an even better finale than We Are the Champions, which replaced it in the live set. Best moment: the long “Wo wo la la la” final section of the song.
05. Death on Two Legs (Dedicated to…) (Mercury), A Night at the Opera, 1975
As the elegant notes from Freddie’s piano make way for Brian’s snarling guitars, a sense of menace and unrestrained fury grabs the listener by the throat and doesn’t let go. Freddie’s diatribe aimed at their former management company is a brilliantly unsettling opening to the band’s Sgt Pepper, as he hurls the insults and heaps on the abuse in line after bitter line. Best moment: it can only be “But now you can kiss my ass goodbye!”.
04. Bohemian Rhapsody (Mercury), A Night at the Opera, 1975
For many, of course, Queen’s magnum opus. What more is there to be said about this song about which so much has been said and written? Startlingly original, certainly in terms of the singles charts — and yet what is magnificent about Queen is that many of the ideas in Bohemian Rhapsody are foreshadowed in their previous work. A complete one-off … and yet so typically Queen. Magnifico, indeed. Best moment: the operatic section, if only for the sheer audacity.
03. ’39 (May), A Night at the Opera, 1975
The finest of Brian’s many wonderful songs about absence, loss and the passage of time. More fitting than the rather upbeat on-stage delivery by Freddie, Brian’s sombre vocal perfectly matches the mood of the song. Exquisite folksy acoustic guitar throughout, supported by bass drum, double bass and tambourine. Best moment: the ethereal backing vocals, especially (but not only) at 1:37.
02. White Queen (As It Began) (May), Queen II, 1974
Queen’s finest power-ballad. Romantic and poetic, it is sung beautifully by Freddie, with backing vocals that are haunting and gorgeously ethereal. The acoustic playing is gentle and warm, matched by Roger’s subtle percussion. Brian’s guitar orchestrations are, as always, sublime. The BBC session version, particularly the interplay between guitar and piano, is possibly even better. Best moment: Brian’s soaring solo from 3:38.
01. Brighton Rock (May), Sheer Heart Attack, 1974
The finest five minutes in rock music? Brighton Rock is — for this fan at least — Queen’s best song, eclipsing Bohemian Rhapsody, Somebody to Love and the rest. It incorporates so much that makes Queen unique and utterly, utterly extraordinary. It features great lyrics, as with White Queen, both romantic and poetic: “O rock of ages, do not crumble, love is breathing still / O lady moon shine down, a little people-magic if you will”. It has great lead and backing vocals, not least the drop from falsetto to ‘normal’ on the final line of the verse.
Above all, Brighton Rock showcases the wonderful originality and inventiveness of Brian’s guitar playing, and the thrilling interplay of guitar, bass and drums. One can only wonder at the time it took to record the song. Best moment: all of it, obviously, but at a push it would probably be the wonderful combination of guitar, bass and drums at 2:25.
Queen songs ranked — from Hammer to Fall (’84) to Who Wants to Live Forever (’86)
Reflections on Queen’s first live album, forty-ish years after its release
Growing up as a Queen fan: teenage tales told through 10 Queen-related objects