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A Kind of Magic Play

By the release of 1986's A Kind of Magic, Queen's stature as a prominent rock band in the U.S. had slipped considerably, while in all other parts of the world (especially Europe), they remained superstar hitmakers. A Kind of Magic was their biggest album yet in England, where it reached number one, remained on the charts for 63 weeks, and spawned several hit singles -- the epic title track, the tuneful pop/rocker "Friends Will Be Friends," and one of their most haunting ballads, "Who Wants to Live Forever" (also included was the Live Aid-inspired hit anthem "One Vision," which was originally released as a single in 1985). Most of the songs were written for the movie Highlander -- "Gimme the Prize (Kurgan's Theme)," "Princes of the Universe," the aforementioned "Who Wants to Live Forever," etc. -- but instead of issuing just a movie soundtrack, the band added a few non-movie tracks and made an official Queen release out of it. It may not have been as cohesive as some of their other albums, but A Kind of Magic was their best work in some time. Queen would embark on a sold-out tour of outdoor stadiums in Europe upon the album's release, which would sadly turn out to be their final tour. ~ Greg Prato, Rovi

Hot Space Play

Because Queen took the better part of 1981 off to work on the follow-up to their big 1980 hit The Game, fans were confident that the band's next release would follow in their winning tradition of classic albums. Unfortunately, this would not be the case. Unlike its predecessor, Hot Space was an inconsistent effort, marred by unfocused songwriting and material that was simply not as strong as their earlier work. Since they had just previously enjoyed a massive hit with the disco-fied "Another One Bites the Dust," Queen decided to dedicate the entire first side of the album to dance music, something that alienated their longtime rock fans. And while the single "Body Language" nearly cracked the U.S. Top Ten, the rest of the dance material was easily forgettable -- "Back Chat," "Staying Power," "Action This Day," and so on -- however, the album was not a total washout. The more rock-oriented second side did contain some great tracks, such as "Put Out the Fire," "Calling All Girls," "Las Palabras de Amor," and the David Bowie collaboration "Under Pressure." But it was not enough to save Hot Space from a cruel critical and commercial fate, as its ensuing world tour marked the last time Queen would perform in the U.S. ~ Greg Prato, Rovi

A Day at the Races Play

In every sense, A Day at the Races is an unapologetic sequel to A Night at the Opera, the 1975 breakthrough that established Queen as rock & roll royalty. The band never attempts to hide that the record is a sequel -- the two albums boast the same variation on the same cover art, the titles are both taken from old Marx Brothers films and serve as counterpoints to each other. But even though the two albums look the same, they don't quite sound the same, A Day at the Races is a bit tighter than its predecessor, yet tighter doesn't necessarily mean better for a band as extravagant as Queen. One of the great things about A Night at the Opera is that the lingering elements of early Queen -- the pastoral folk of "39," the metallic menace of "Death on Two Legs" -- dovetailed with an indulgence of camp and a truly, well, operatic scale. Here, the eccentricities are trimmed back somewhat -- they still bubble up on "The Millionaire Waltz," an example of the music hall pop that dominated Night, the pro-Native American saga "White Man" is undercut somewhat by the cowboys 'n' indians rhythms -- in favor of a driving, purposeful hard rock that still could have some slyly hidden perversities (or in the case of the opening "Tie Your Mother Down," some not-so-hidden perversity) but this is exquisitely detailed hard rock, dense with minutiae but never lush or fussy. In a sense, it could even function as the bridge between Sheer Heart Attack and Night at the Opera -- it's every bit as hard as the former and nearly as florid as the latter -- but its sleek, streamlined finish is the biggest indication that Queen has entered a new phase, where they're globe-conquering titans instead of underdogs on the make. ~ Stephen Thomas Erlewine, Rovi

Sheer Heart Attack Play

Queen II was a breakthrough in terms of power and ambition, but Queen's third album Sheer Heart Attack was where the band started to gel. It followed quickly on the heels of the second record -- just by a matter of months; it was the second album they released in 1974 -- but it feels like it had a longer incubation period, so great is the progress here. Which isn't quite to say that Sheer Heart Attack is flawless -- it still has a tendency to meander, sometimes within a song itself, as when the killer opening "Brighton Rock" suddenly veers into long stretches of Brian May solo guitar -- but all these detours do not distract from the overall album, they're in many ways the key to the record itself: it's the sound of Queen stretching their wings as they learn how to soar to the clouds. There's a genuine excitement in hearing all the elements to Queen's sound fall into place here, as the music grows grander and catchier without sacrificing their brutal, hard attack. One of the great strengths of the album is how all four members find their voices as songwriters, penning hooks that are big, bold, and insistent and crafting them in songs that work as cohesive entities instead of flourishes of ideas. This is evident not just in "Killer Queen" -- the first, best flourishing of Freddie Mercury's vaudevillian camp -- but also on the pummeling "Stone Cold Crazy," a frenzied piece of jagged metal that's all the more exciting because it has a real melodic hook. Those hooks are threaded throughout the record, on both the ballads and the other rockers, but it isn't just that this is poppier, it's that they're able to execute their drama with flair and style. There are still references to mystical worlds ("Lily of the Valley," "In the Lap of Gods") but the fantasy does not overwhelm as it did on the first two records; the theatricality is now wielded on everyday affairs, which ironically makes them sound larger than life. And this sense of scale, combined with the heavy guitars, pop hooks, and theatrical style, marks the true unveiling of Queen, making Sheer Heart Attack as the moment where they truly came into their own. ~ Stephen Thomas Erlewine, Rovi

Queen Play

Like any patchy but promising debut from a classic rock group, it's often easy to underrate Queen's eponymous 1973 debut, since it has no more than one well-known anthem and plays more like a collection of ideas than a cohesive album. But what ideas! Almost every one of Queen's signatures are already present, from Freddie Mercury's operatic harmonies to Brian May's rich, orchestral guitar overdubs and the suite-like structures of "Great King Rat." That rich, florid feel could be characterized as glam, but even in these early days that appellation didn't quite fit Queen, since they were at once too heavy and arty to be glam and -- ironically enough, considering their legendary excess -- they were hardly trashy enough to be glam. But that only speaks to the originality of Queen: they may have traded in mystical sword 'n' sorcerers themes like so many '70s prog bands, and they may have hit as hard as Led Zeppelin (and Jimmy Page's guitar army certainly was a forefather to May's overdubs), but they didn't sound like anybody else, they were too odd in their theatricality to be mistaken for another band. That much was apparent on this debut, but one thing was crucially missing: songs that could coalesce their sound and present it in a memorable fashion. There is an exception to that rule -- the wild, rampaging opener "Keep Yourself Alive," one of their very best songs -- but too often the album plays like a succession of ideas instead of succinct songs, and the group's predilection for suites only highlights this, despite the occasional blast of fury like "Modern Times Rock & Roll." This can be quite appealing as sheer, visceral sound and, in that regard, Queen is kind of irresistible. It showcases the band in all their ornate splendor yet it's strangely lean and hard, revealing just how good the band was in their early days as a hard rock band. That might not quite make it an overlooked gem -- it remains patchy on a song for song basis -- but it sure makes for an interesting debut that provides a rough road map to their later work. ~ Stephen Thomas Erlewine, Rovi

A Night at the Opera Play

Queen were straining at the boundaries of hard rock and heavy metal on Sheer Heart Attack, but they broke down all the barricades on A Night at the Opera, a self-consciously ridiculous and overblown hard rock masterpiece. Using the multi-layered guitars of its predecessor as a foundation, A Night at the Opera encompasses metal, pop, campy British music hall, and mystical prog rock, eventually bringing it all together on the pseudo-operatic "Bohemian Rhapsody." It's a lot like Queen's own version of Led Zeppelin IV, but where Zep find dark menace in bombast, Queen celebrate their own pomposity. The appeal of A Night at the Opera is in its meticulous productions. It's prog rock with humor as well as dynamics, and Queen never bettered their approach anywhere else. ~ Stephen Thomas Erlewine, Rovi

Made in Heaven Play

During the 1980s, Queen ceased to be a big record seller in the U.S., but maintained its superstar status at home. In the '90s, following the death of Freddie Mercury, there was a brief resurgence of interest in America triggered by the inclusion of "Bohemian Rhapsody" in the movie Wayne's World. But in 1995, when the surviving members got around to releasing the final recordings done with Mercury in the form of Made in Heaven, the status quo had returned. The album topped the charts in Western Europe, with its single, "Heaven for Everyone," reaching the Top Ten, while in the U.S. it was on and off the charts within weeks. Musically, Made in Heaven harked back to Queen's 1970s heyday with its strong melodies and hard rock guitar playing, topped by Mercury's bravura singing and some of the massed choir effects familiar from "Bohemian Rhapsody." Even if one did not know that these songs were sung in the shadow of death, that subject would be obvious. The lyrics were imbued with life-and-death issues, from the titles -- "Let Me Live," "My Life Has Been Saved," and "Too Much Love Will Kill You" -- to lines like "It's hopeless -- so hopeless to even try" ("It's a Beautiful Day"), "Waiting for possibilities/Don't see too many around" ("Made in Heaven"), and "I long for peace before I die" ("Mother Love"). The odd thing about this was that Mercury's over-the-top singing had always contained a hint of camp humor, and it continued to here, even when the sentiments clearly were as heartfelt as they were theatrically overstated. Maybe Mercury was determined to go out the same way he had come in, as a diva. If so, he succeeded. ~ William Ruhlmann, Rovi

The Works Play

Following the disappointing commercial performance of the dance-oriented Hot Space in 1982, Queen took 1983 off to get refocused and work on a follow-up that would put the band back on track. While the songwriting had definitely improved on the resulting The Works in 1984, the album sonically lacked the punch of such earlier releases as News of the World and The Game (strangely, Hot Space even had a better overall sound). Although the album only peaked at number 23 on the U.S. album charts, it was a Top Ten hit in just about every other area of the world, producing the huge single "Radio Ga Ga." Three other tracks were hits in Queen's native England -- the uplifting "I Want to Break Free," the love song "It's a Hard Life," and the politically conscious rocker "Hammer to Fall," which dealt with the danger of nuclear weapons. Other highlights included the '50s-sounding "Man on the Prowl," the electronic experiment "Machines," the thunderous "Tear It Up," and a touching acoustic ballad, "Is This the World We Created...?" Perhaps with a more straight-ahead production (and a U.S. tour), The Works would have landed Queen back on the top of the charts stateside. ~ Greg Prato, Rovi

The Miracle Play

Following their massive 1986 European stadium tour for the A Kind of Magic album, Queen took an extended break. Rumors swirled about an impending breakup, but it turned out the break was brought on by a painful marital divorce for guitarist Brian May (who subsequently battled depression and contemplated suicide), and Freddie Mercury being diagnosed with AIDS. Instead of sinking further into misery, the band regrouped, worked on each other's mental state, and recorded one of their most inspired albums, 1989's The Miracle. Lyrically, the songs tend to reflect on the band's past accomplishments ("Khashoggi's Ship," "Was It All Worth It") as well as the state of the world in the late '80s (the title track, "I Want It All"). Produced by the band and David Richards, The Miracle packs quite a sonic punch, recalling the rich sounds of their past classics (1976's A Day at the Races, etc.). Split 50/50 between pop ("Breakthru," "The Invisible Man," "Rain Must Fall") and heavy rock (the aforementioned "I Want It All," "Khashoggi's Ship," "Was It All Worth It"), the album was another global smash, even re-establishing the band stateside (going Top 30 and attaining gold status). Along with The Game, The Miracle is Queen's strongest album of the '80s. ~ Greg Prato, Rovi

Innuendo Play

Unbeknownst to the public, Freddie Mercury had been diagnosed with the AIDS virus in the late '80s. Although his health weakened by the '90s, Mercury insisted that the band work on music until the very end; their final album turned out to be 1991's Innuendo. Although it didn't receive the same critical praise as its predecessor, 1989's The Miracle, it was another strong album and global hit (again going gold in the U.S.). With hindsight, the song's lyrics are blatantly autobiographical from Mercury's standpoint, such as the reflective "These Are the Days of Our Lives" and the bold "The Show Must Go On." Also included are a pair of tracks that deal with mankind's inability to live harmoniously (the superb epic title track and "All God's People") and a humorous tribute to Mercury's beloved pet felines ("Delilah"). Queen's heavier side is represented by both the rock radio hit "Headlong" and "The Hitman," while "I'm Going Slightly Mad," "I Can't Live With You," and "Don't Try So Hard" show the band's pop sensibilities in full force, and on "Bijou," Brian May gets to show off his guitar chops. Innuendo was a fitting way to end one of rock's most successful careers. ~ Greg Prato, Rovi

Deep Cuts 3 Play

Released as a companion to the expanded Queen reissues of 2011, the Deep Cuts series digs deep into the classic rock band’s albums, culling a collection of overlooked fan favorites. This was somewhat easier to do on the first two volumes, which covered the group’s heyday, but Vol. 3 rounds up highlights from 1984-1995, when Queen weren’t anywhere near their prime. That much is evident on this edition of Deep Cuts, which never raises much beyond the level of “very solid.” That's enough for an album but not a compilation intended to convince doubting punters there was more to be found than what is usually showcased on hits collections. Although that's not the case here, this still could have some use for the curious Queen fan who doesn’t want to go to actual latter-day albums. ~ Stephen Thomas Erlewine, Rovi

At the BBC Play

Between 1973 and 1977, Queen recorded six sessions for the BBC, the first five during the initial flood of excitement that led up to the release of the stately Sheer Heart Attack, the last in 1977, when their pomp and circumstance ought to have sounded grossly misplaced amid the churning seas of punk rock -- but didn't. Each and any of these is a revelation, topping the regular albums for excitement and alive with all the improvisational quirks and oddities that the band delighted in distributing through their live set. All but two, however, remain deep in the vault, leaving At the BBC to stand among the most disappointing of all the albums in this venerable series -- at the same time as sounding as good as any of them. Drawing from Queen's first and third BBC sessions, in February and December 1973, the eight tracks are divided between the band's first two albums -- seven from Queen, one (a passionate "Ogre Battle") from what was then the still-gestating Queen II. And they are what you'd expect, vast and bombastic, widescreen epics that make no distinction between the hard rock that was the early Queen's most visible calling card, and the fey, quirky balladry that was the trick up their sleeves. And, while none of the performances here can touch the familiar LP takes in terms of production values and musical excellence, again the emphasis is on visceral verve and spontaneous combustion, qualities that Queen possessed in abundance. For many years the best-selling of all BBC sessions albums, At the BBC is not an album for the casual listener; nor will it satisfy the completist collector. Nevertheless, anybody who knows the band only for the operatic grandiosity of their regular albums would do well to check it out. It might well change your opinion forever. ~ Dave Thompson, Rovi
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