The UK’s Official Charts Company recently announced that Queen’s 1981 Greatest Hits collection is the first album in Britain to sell over six million copies. That figure, if you notice, also makes Greatest Hits the best-selling record in British history. To put that feat in perspective, note that the album outpaces popular works by fellow British royalty the Beatles (at number three on the country’s all-time sales list with Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band), Oasis (number five with (What’s the Story) Morning Glory?), and Pink Floyd (number seven for The Dark Side of the Moon). Even global superstars ABBA (number two), Michael Jackson (numbers six and nine), and Madonna (number 11) can’t best that.
Queen has long been considered a national treasure in its home country, but in other places (namely, the United States) the group has had to gradually allow its legacy to grow large enough to help it escape the dismissals of critics and earn it its proper place in the rock pantheon. Sniffed at for its penchant for campy bombast, its flights of fancy, and its brazen showmanship, history has proven those qualities to be among the band’s virtues. Look no further than 1985’s Live Aid extravaganza to see how Queen measures up in the wider scheme of music—it took the stage the same day as scores of other rock and pop icons, and in 20 minutes mopped the floor with the lot of them.
In commemoration of the band’s record-setting feat, Sound Affects offers up a Queen-themed List This countdown fixated squarely on its larger-than-life sensibilities. No, this is not a listing of the best Queen songs, hence the noted absence of “You’re My Best Friend”, “Another One Bites the Dust”, “Under Pressure”, and other masterworks. What is on offer is a list of Queen’s awesomest songs, those outsized, bombastic undertakings meticulously crafted with the express purpose of leaving listeners deaf, dumb, and reeling. Queen based its career on that kind of aural shock and awe, meaning there’s no shortage of crowd-pleasing anthems to choose from. The hard part is simply limiting ourselves to ten entries.
(Sheer Heart Attack, 1974)
From the start “In the Lap of the Gods” is an overblown spectacle so preposterous that it’s liable to prompt instant giggles. Truth be told, I wouldn’t doubt if that was Queen’s intention in the first place. Immediately, drummer Roger Taylor’s ludicrously high-pitched screeching overwhelms all other sounds, with the background music swelling like Wagner’s worst nightmare. It all crescendos with a unison utterance of the song’s title (the appearance of a placard stating “in Technicolor” would not at all be out of place when it happens), and in a cheeky display of studio trickery, the track immediately fades out, pans dramatically from one speaker to the next, and then increases back to ear-splitting volume. And this all occurs in less than a minute into the song!
“Tonight / I’m going to have myself a real good time,” Freddie Mercury croons at the start of “Don’t Stop Me Now”, a song whose breezy demeanor and delicate ivory-tickling at first gives little inkling as to the rollicking romp the singer is setting up. Following the first chorus, all restraint is discarded as the tempo kicks up. With that, Mercury is off to the races, throwing off preposterous lines like “I’m burning through the sky, yeah / 200 degrees / That’s why they call me Mr. Fahrenheit / I’m traveling at the speed of light” and “I’m a sex machine ready to reload / Like an atom bomb” borne of the giddiness he feels at the prospect of a night out on the town. The song’s insistent “Don’t stop me! Don’t stop me”’ bridge section—used to fantastic effect in a fight scene from the comedy Shaun of the Dead—is irresistible, and when it seems the track’s thrills can no longer be topped, in steps Brian May, who lets rip another classic guitar solo to up the excitement level to 11.
(A Kind of Magic, 1986)
Queen’s grandiose theatrics weren’t just reserved for the stadium-filling rockers or the flights of studio whimsy—when deployed right, they added gravitas to the most tender moments. Take “Who Wants to Live Forever”, one of many songs from the A Kind of Magic album that the band wrote for the fantasy film Highlander. The curse of the movie’s immortal swordsman Connor MacLeod is that he is doomed to outlive everyone else, not least his beloved wife. Soundtracking the inevitable aging and death of MacLeod’s missus, this majestic number is an incredibly moving evocation of the immense grief portrayed in those scenes. Even divorced from its source material, the song’s emotive sweep is liable to elicit a tear or two.
Bombastically defiant even to the untrained ear to begin with, what makes “The Show Must Go On” so special are the circumstances of its creation. One of the singles from Innuendo, the last Queen album released before Mercury’s passing, this song is an astonishing display of what the singer was still capable of even as AIDS rapidly ravaged his body. “The Show Must Go On” presents an incomparable frontman, forced to confront his own mortality, mustering every last ounce of his power to make it to through to the final curtain call. Ever the consummate showman, Mercury asks for no sympathy and offers everything he has in return. Even though the posthumous Made in Heaven is considered by the band to be the concluding entry in the Queen discography, Innuendo‘s magnificent closing track is the perfect last will and testament for the band.
(The Miracle, 1989)
Queen doesn’t beat around the bush here: as boldly and as forcefully as possible, Queen’s trademark wall of multitracked harmonies repeatedly let listeners know they want it all, and they want it now. It’s not only the chorus that means business—the guitar chords and rhythm section slam as one, and Mercury’s delivery brandishes a ferocious edge that will be a surprise to those unfamiliar with the band’s harder rocking deep cuts. Hey, they guys knew what they wanted, and knew how to make their demands heard. And they want it now.