Over the course of Queen’s illustrious recording career, Brian May proved to not only be an outstanding guitarist but an incredibly talented and versatile songwriter. While the late Freddie Mercury was the focal point of the band during the band’s glorious run, May — to say nothing of Roger Taylor or John Deacon — proved to be equally vital to the band’s success.
In honor of Queen’s 15 studio albums, and in recognition of the fact that 10 is just too low a number for this list, I present my choices for the 15 best (aka my favorite) Brian May Queen songs in chronological order. The only criteria for inclusion, by the way, is that May had to have received at least 50 percent songwriting credit. Lead vocals don’t matter in this case.
But if 15 just isn’t enough for you, I’ve curated a Spotify playlist containing every Queen song eligible for inclusion on this list (almost 60 in all). Or if you just want the essentials, there’s an Rdio playlist with just these 15 tracks. Check them out and share your choices in the comments. And for another guitar-centric best-of list, check out my Ace Frehley Top 10.
#1. “Keep Yourself Alive” (from Queen, 1973)
Here is the song that introduced Queen to the record-buying public in July 1973, and what a song it is. Within the first 20 seconds of Queen’s recorded output the powerful, multi-tracked guitars that partially shaped the band’s identity are proudly on display. Although “Keep Yourself Alive” now rightly gets its due as a rock classic, the single was a total flop when it was released.
#2. “Doing All Right” (from Queen, 1973)
“Doing All Right” originated from Brian May’s pre-Queen band, Smile, and was co-written with Smile vocalist Tim Staffell. The version released on the first Queen LP is really just a refinement of the original. The basic song structure, effectively alternating soft and loud parts, is still there. Freddie Mercury even emulated Staffell’s vocal performance. I love the jazz-tinged arrangement after the first chorus.
#3. “Father to Son” (from Queen II, 1974)
Queen’s phenomenal sophomore release was divided into the White and Black sides, with the former comprised almost entirely of Brian May songs. After the table-setting “Procession,” the album takes full flight on this grand rock number, which also showcases the band’s earlier progressive leanings. “Father to Son” beautifully sets up the rest of Queen II, and kicks much ass to boot.
#4. “White Queen (As It Began)” (from Queen II, 1974)
As much as I love May’s rock songs, I really love his gentler compositions (although this does actually turn the volume to 10 when necessary). “White Queen (As It Began)” is not only a brilliant composition and arrangement, it’s also the perfect vehicle for Freddie Mercury’s gorgeous tenor. The effect on the album is heightened by the transition from “Father to Son,” and it really must be heard as a whole to be appreciated fully.
#5. “Brighton Rock” (from Sheer Heart Attack, 1974)
Queen’s dalliance with progressive rock basically lasted for one, maybe two records before they moved in a more streamlined, commercial direction on Sheer Heart Attack. And yet here we have the five-plus minute “Brighton Rock” leading off the album, to say nothing of its fairly lengthy guitar solo interlude clearly recorded with live performances in mind. Not too shabby but yeah, the lyrics are a trifle.
#6. “Now I’m Here” (from Sheer Heart Attack, 1974)
Consider for a moment that one of the most aggressive, infectious songs on Sheer Heart Attack was written by May while he was laid up in the hospital recovering from hepatitis. I start to get a fever and I can barely compose an email. The lyrics were inspired by Queen’s supporting tour with Mott the Hoople earlier in ’74.
#7. “The Prophet’s Song” (from A Night at the Opera, 1975)
Remember what I said earlier about Queen abandoning their progressive side? Well not so much on “The Prophet’s Song,” one of two master classes in songwriting and arrangement found on A Night on the Opera. Can you guess the other one?
Queen trivia — Up until the release of Made in Heaven and the inclusion of the 20-plus minute untitled hidden track, “The Prophet’s Song” held the mark for longest Queen song ever.
#8. “All Dead, All Dead” (from News of the World, 1977)
Here’s another one of those beautiful Brian May numbers (with fantastic piano work by Freddie), oddly enough inspired by the death of one of his cats. Listening to the pain transmitted in the brief but soaring, multi-tracked guitar interlude on “All Dead, All Dead,”, one is almost moved to tears. And need I mention that there are some fantastic group vocal harmonies on this song?
#9. “It’s Late” (from News of the World, 1977)
May wrote “It’s Late” as a three-act musical play of sorts, but without any of the fussiness normally associated with such endeavors. It chugs along perfectly fine until about halfway through the second “scene,” when May takes charge via two guitar solo — the first one of which features a fairly early example of guitar tapping on a rock record. The whole thing threatens to go supernova until the band brings it back down for the final scene. Just stick around for the last 40 seconds, and the payoff is most grand.
#10. “Dragon Attack” (from The Game, 1980)
Sandwiched in between two all-time Queen classics, “Play the Game” and “Another One Bites the Dust,” is “Dragon Attack.” I’m hard-pressed at the moment to think of a better album-opening sequence of songs than these three. What I love about “Dragon Attack,” especially sequenced where it is, is how it’s so stylistically different from anything Queen had ever done before. Just listen to that repeating riff and that groove. Although the band got even funkier on “Another One Bites the Dust,” they got downright filthy on this song.
#11. “The Hero” (from Flash Gordon, 1980)
This one is a bit of a cheat, because what puts this already excellent song over the top is Howard Blake’s stunning orchestral arrangement. They give it a sense of grandeur and theatricality that hadn’t been heard on a Queen song in years, and the effect is dazzling. But even without that, “The Hero” is an absolute over-the-top guitar orgy, and I bask in every second of it.
#12. “Hammer to Fall” (from The Works, 1984)
You can count me among those who have a soft spot for Queen’s much-maligned 1982 release, Hot Space. But I suppose it says something that I didn’t include any of its songs here. Instead we get a great example of Queen’s special brand of straight ahead hard rock. This is really a stylistic brother to much of the music from The Game or even News of the World, with its no-nonsense arrangement and killer riffs.
#13. “Who Wants to Live Forever” (from A Kind of Magic, 1986)
Brian had just two songwriting credits on A Kind of Magic, which also doubled as a soundtrack of sorts for The Highlander, but are they both ever great. I do love the scorching ”Gimme the Prize (Kurgan’s Theme),” but once again May’s tender side carries the day. In the movie it provides an extra dose of emotional punch as Connor MacLeod watches his non-immortal wife grow old and die, but really it’s powerful stuff on its own. This is a great but uncommon instance of May and Freddie Mercury sharing lead vocals, and it’s a joy to listen to. Credit also goes to Michael Kamen for some damn fine conducting.
#14. “I Want It All” (from The Miracle, 1989)
While Freddie Mercury’s AIDS diagnosis essentially forced Queen to stop touring after A Kind of Magic, they lost none of their potency as a recording act as the ’80s ended. May brought this song into the sessions for The Miracle, and the title was inspired by a catchphrase of Anita Dobson, later Brian May’s second wife: “I want it all and I want it now!” I’m not a huge fan of the somewhat cold production on this song or the rest of the album, but there’s no denying that the material is strong.
#15. “The Show Must Go On” (from Innuendo, 1991)
Aw man, I love this song so much and yet it makes me so sad to hear it. Think about it for a second. Freddie Mercury knew his days on earth were numbered by this point; May in fact had doubts as to whether or not he would be able to sing this at all. But Freddie was a showman and a professional to the end, and recorded what was essentially his own epitaph in one take. When he sings, “Inside my heart is breaking / My makeup may be flaking / But my smile still stays on,” it’s enough to make this author weep.
And then, just when you can barely take it anymore, comes an achingly brilliant May guitar solo and the most beautiful section of music Queen ever recorded. When Freddie sings “I can fly my friends” you know it’s true.