If you want to know what the best music magazine in the world is, you don't need to know two words, like Rolling Stone, or even one word, like Spin or Vibe. You just need to know one letter: Q.
Q is a British publication, which I've read periodically over the last few years. As you might have guessed by now, I like it quite a bit. It's got that British sensibility. For example, the July 1999 issue has a guide to figuring out what UK summer music festival to attend, which is set up as a flowchart. This guide includes boxes like "Irishness: a good thing?" with the possible outcomes being "Without question" and "What do you mean?" The follow up to the latter is "Boyzone are ace, aren't they?" which has the outcomes "Yes" and "Fuck off!"
Further, it has a great scale for rating albums. A 5 point rating scale is used, which is described thusly:
5 stars - Indispensible. Truly exceptional.
4 stars - Excellent. Definitely worth investigation.
3 stars - Good. Not for everyone, but fine within its field.
2 stars - Average. Caution advised.
1 star - Poor. Best avoided.
Most albums are 2 or 3 stars, which is pretty much the way the world works I think. And there are no halves, because they aren't necessary. Halves are an indication of wishy-washiness that's either due to wishy-washy thinking (e.g., "oh, I don't know; Two and a HALF I guess" MAKE UP YOUR MIND! Or do you have one to make up?) or wishy-washy sentiment (e.g., "oh, it's OK, I guess; two and a half stars;" look, if you don't like it, SAY SO! are you so egotistical that you think expressing your dissatisfaction will kill the other person? it won't; and if it does, that's their problem).
There are lots of albums reviewed in each issue of Q - about 200 new and re-releases. The albums reviewed are from a broad spectrum of music. Jazz, blues, even some country albums are reviewed as well as everything that you might consider rock and roll, and some things you might not.
In the 4 issues of Q I have lying about, the 5 star rating was handed out only a dozen times out of hundreds of possibilities (about 200 albums are rated each issue). What rated 5 stars? Well there was a brief mention of the film Raging Bull being released on a new digital format, and that got 5 stars; Q does include a few reviews of films, as well as books and videos that are related to music. The other 5 star ratings went to the albums:
The Blue Nile - Peace at last
Teenage Fanclub - Grand prix
The Beach Boys - The pet sounds sessions
The Byrds - Mr. Tambourine man
Crowded House - Recurring dream (The very best of...)
The Hi-Los - Nice work if you can get it...
Dire Straits - Making movies
Dire Straits - Brothers in arms
The Carpenters - Singles 1969-1973
ABC - The lexicon of love
Marvin Gaye - What's going on?
Of those, The Blue Nile and Teenage Fanclub albums were the only new albums given 5 stars; the others were all in the re-releases category. Never heard of The Blue Nile? Neither had I. This is another thing I love about Q. There are many bands that I would never have heard of, if I hadn't read about them in the pages of Q, which indicates the British - rather than North American - origins of the magazine.
Here you have to ask yourself this question: why am I buying a music magazine? Do you want your music magazine to (a) give you new information on bands that you might not have heard of, and generally cover a broad spectrum of contemporary popular music, or (b) simply reaffirm the opinions you already have? If you chose (b), then you probably feel you know it all already, and don't need any new information. In that case, Q is probably not for you. However, if you chose (a), then you're probably happy to hear about new bands you've never heard of before, and you value new information so your musical horizon can expand. Then Q is for you.
Perhaps you're thinking: "well, it's fine and good to expand my musical horzion, but I'd prefer to do it by actually hearing tunes, rather than reading a magazine." Fair enough. And Q's solution to this is to periodically include music samplers. The latest CD sampler (in the July 1999 Q) features songs from bands that will be playing various music festivals in the UK. The bands on this sampler are: Texas, Stereophonics, Underworld, The Beautiful South, Mercury Rev, Happy Mondays, Ash, Supergrass, The Cranberries, Jurassic 5, Reef, Garbage, Blondie, (yeah, that Blondie; Rapture is the song included) and Basement Jaxx. If you recognized all of those names, good on ya.
The January 1999 issue of Q had a sampler CD with "the best tracks from the best albums of 1998." The bands on that CD are: Air, Fatboy Slim, James (a band not a person), Placebo, Massive Attack, Marilyn Manson (not a bad song that reminds me of The Zoo by The Scorpions), Garbage, Gomez (again a band not a person), Manic Street Preachers, Neil Finn (of Crowded House fame), The Beautiful South (with a cute little song called Look what I found in my beer), Oasis, and Bernard Butler (a person not a band).
In all, I've got 3 CDs and 2 cassette tapes over the years from buying Q. The "Best of 1998" sampler is very good (****); there are no weak tracks on it. A couple of years back they included a tape called Freewheeling, songs for the open road, which was also quite good (****). It had older material, including Don't fear the reaper by Blue Oyster Cult and the last track was America from the original cast recording of West Side Story. (yeah, a song from a Broadway musical appeared on a Q sampler; do you think Rolling Stone or Spin would include a song from a musical on a sampler CD? I don't). The other CD and cassette are OK (**).
Thus, my advice to you, if you have any interest in contemporary music, is to go out and buy the latest issue of Q. The downside of Q is that it's pricey. It costs C$10.95 (ouch!; the cover price is £2.80), but often you can get a spiffy CD in the deal. Nevertheless, you do get what you pay for, because it is the best music magazine in the world.