Q Magazine – “the modern guide to music and more” – first appeared in September 1986, and published its final issue in July 2020. Here’s a personal and highly subjective look back at the best music released in that period…
“God, I remember this”.
(His words, not mine. Although I remembered it too).
Yes, April 1993 – and thus the May 1993 issue of Q – was all about Dame David of Bowie, ostensibly to flog his latest opus Black Tie White Noise but also an opportunity for the magazine to indulge in some “This Is Your Life” shenanigans. Let’s face it, most of the Q scribes still preferred to bang on about how great Bowie was in the 70s than completely focus on his newest, sleekest offering.
(Q80) May 1993
“The real David Bowie stands up” was the rather embarrassing tagline, as if everything up to that point had been some other, fake David Bowie, one presumes. Bear in mind that Q had rather too enthusiastically bigged up Tin Machine in May 1989, and spent the following near-half-decade trying to live it down. They were going to make damned sure the Dame worked extra hard to earn his stripes (and 4 stars) this time.
Black Tie White Noise came out on top (in terms of the Bowie catalogue) when I last compiled my list of All-Time Top 100 albums, albeit at a modest #40-something. Q‘s favourable but cool reaction was mirrored by that of the general public, as the album debuted at #1 (his first solo chart-topper, that wasn’t a compilation, since 1984) but failed to hang around the Top 75 for more than 9 weeks.
He was already onto his next project, the soundtrack to The Buddha Of Suburbia, which more accurately indicated the way his muse would take him during the rest of the 1990s. His old label, EMI, meanwhile saw to issue a 2-disc Singles Collection on the same day in November as Buddha… appeared, which was thoughtful of them.
(Q85) October 1993, album released September 1993
The latterday Style Council LPs got a fearful kicking in Q (two stars apiece), so there was doubtless a degree of relish at the magazine’s offices when Paul Weller picked up his guitar again. It was fashionable to get those Jam albums out once more, lads. And the Traffic ones your older brother owned before losing them at a party in 1970. The rustic pop revival starts here!
And ended, of course, with Dadrock. Oops.
Nevertheless, viewed without knowledge of what was to eventually follow down the line, Wild Wood – and the whole Weller-returns-triumphantly narrative – was genuinely pleasing to behold. Too young to really get The Jam, I’d been a Style Council kid and had stayed as such right through to the bitter end of those misunderstood House records and hostile reviews.
Wild Wood is a fantastic album from start to finish, a definite upgrade on the previous year’s self-titled comeback and probably still the strongest Weller set of his eternally productive career.
(Q92) May 1994, album released March 1994
Seven years after Q had awarded the first post-Waters effort A Momentary Lapse Of Reason a grudging 3-star rating, The Division Bell surprisingly suffered an identical fate. The air of its predecessor being a Gilmour solo project that was expanded into a Floyd record out of necessity (shades of the Lindsey Buckingham and Tango In The Night situation) had clouded its critical response, but The Division Bell was greeted by most as a bona fide Pink Floyd creation, with all three members actively involved this time.
It felt like a big deal, from the unforgettable sleeve design to the unapologetically grandiose songs that were surely designed to be played (and heard) in enormodomes across the globe, accompanied by the most amazing lightshows that technology could create. Sometimes it verges on lightweight (the jaunty rhythm of Coming Back To Life, the generic windswept stadium-rock of Take It Back), but overall it resonated more strongly with the public than A Momentary Lapse… (even though I personally prefer the latter these days).
The Division Bell might have been the event release from the first half of 1994, but arguably the two most important albums of the year arrived on consecutive weeks at the end of August.
(Q97) October 1994, album released August 1994
Dummy was the proverbial slow-burner, a highly atmospheric set of twisted torch songs and spooky retro stylings, fashioned with samples and breakbeats to create what was subsequently termed Trip-Hop.
Q were immediately impressed. “Perhaps the year’s most stunning debut album”. Indeed.
A little bit of background on the genesis of the Bristolian scene that spawned Portishead, and a more detailed look at the album itself, can be found in my write up here.
Now from Trip-Hop to Britpop…
(Q97) October 1994, album released August 1994
Oasis v Blur. What a lark. Blur, the art-school southerners who adopted a mockney style in ’93 after earlier jumping aboard the bowl-haircut indie dance bandwagon for their debut, hit the jackpot with Parklife in the late Spring of ’94. Around the same time, lairy northerners Oasis – with the Lennon-like Liam Gallagher strutting his stuff up front – came along with their first single Supersonic.
Two further 45s down the line, Oasis were celebrating a straight-in-at-number-one LP, Definitely Maybe and Blur’s newly-found status as the darlings of Britpop was already under threat. The media, of course, being largely establishment types and former art-school alumni, favoured Blur. They scooped all the BRIT awards at the 1995 show, and Q famously championed The Great Escape over (What’s The Story) Morning Glory when both acts unleashed the follow-ups to Parklife and Definitely Maybe respectively.
Blur made some cracking singles, many of which I hammered during the mid-90s (For Tomorrow was the one to first click with me, and Coffee & TV was the last). Oasis, though, just seemed to go from strength to strength, a series of classics that even had the cheek to put some more classics on the B-sides, such was their supreme command of the format in those halcyon days.
Definitely Maybe is surely their best album, a deliberately distorted and relentless tirade of guitars, drums, feedback and strident vocals. Plus points: the songs, Liam’s swagger, the attitude and confidence. Downsides: a fatiguing production style that announced the start of the Loudness Wars, and helped make so much late 90s music unlistenable to me.
(Q103) April 1995
Fast-forwarding to the Spring of 1995, and the second long-player from soon-to-be-everywhere Radiohead, we skip some outstanding late 1994 efforts (Turbulent Indigo by Joni Mitchell, Protection by Massive Attack) as well as a couple of early 1995 releases (The Human League’s glorious commercial comeback with Octopus, and Twisted by the ever-reliable Del Amitri).
The Bends was the one which marked the Oxfordshire combo as a breed apart from the dominant Britpop and Lad’s rock that was holding sway at that point. They were ahead of their time, fusing cracked vocals and alienated lyrics with huge sprawling guitar epics of all shades and tempos. My Iron Lung, with its monstrous gear-change of a riff, was the single which turned me onto the band in late 1994, before Fake Plastic Trees and Street Spirit helped the album become part of the musical landscape of 1995.
(Q106) July 1995, album released May 1995.
For Q, a new Rod Stewart album was mainly a chance to ignore the actual music and bring out the same old cliched stuff about blondes, football and how his nose is “like a bloody banana”. Oh and talk about The Faces, and the 70s, and….sorry, is the pub closing soon?
This 1995 studio set was the first in 4 years, although there had been an entire album – Once In A Blue Moon – recorded with Trevor Horn and scheduled for a late 1992/early 1993 launch. For reasons never fully explained, this superb album (posthumously given a limited release in the US) was kicked into touch and replaced by Lead Vocalist, a 50/50 collection of old solo/Faces tracks and a handful of tracks belonging to the nixed Blue Moon project.
Then, perhaps in a case of poetic justice, Lead Vocalist found itself pushed into the margins after a matter of weeks by Unplugged And Seated. Clearly aiming to cash in on the fashionable trend to present your work in a stripped-down, concert setting, it did almost as well as Eric Clapton’s Grammy-winning Unplugged from the year before. It definitely restored some of that elusive credibility which he’d been denied since having the gall to jet off to America in the late 70s and make some slick AOR.
Nevermind the interpretational skill involved in his work with Trevor Horn from 1989 to 1992, and the oodles of studio time and money lavished on making it all sound exquisitely lush; have Rod sit in chair and jam along with his old Faces buddies on acoustic versions of the old classics….that makes him a real artist again. This is what we’ve been up against since the 80s, and why the redux culture of musical authenticity led us so far from the kind of gorgeous-sounding, carefully crafted records being made in the years directly before the Loudness Wars.
I digress! Sort of, since this positive commercial response to Rod channelling his old-school laddish roots seems to have had an effect on the presentation of the next album, A Spanner In The Works. Why else would such a strong set of superb, thoughtful covers, in a masterful array of styles and genres, be marketed in such a naff sleeve? Half of Spanner… had its origins in the Blue Moon sessions; takes on Hang On St. Christopher (Tom Waits), Windy Town (Chris Rea) and of course my all-time favourite song – The Blue Nile’s Downtown Lights – were resurrected, and complemented by beautiful ballads like This, another superb Dylan cover (Sweetheart Like You), the folky Lady Luck and the rocking Delicious.
It ought to have been heralded as one of his finest albums, and achieved a lot more success than its brief chart run of 12 weeks, and spawned several hits instead of one overwrought #19 entry (You’re The Star) and a re-recorded Purple Heather for Euro 96 with the Scotland football squad. Did nobody really care about the project by the time it made it into stores? Given the time lapse between the Blue Moon tracks being originally recorded and finally appearing, maybe Rod himself was bored of it all.
Warner Brothers were certainly quick to move on (yet again!) to something else, another something old/something new collection of ballads If We Fall In Love Tonight. Which ironically utilised many of the stylish, sophisticated shots from the Spanner era that were relegated to its back cover and booklet.
(Q109) October 1995
The second half of 1995 gave us Blur, Oasis, Pulp’s Different Class, the Black Grape album, Smashing Pumpkins’ double opus Mellon Collie & The Infinite Sadness…and Life, Simply Red’s atrociously half-cocked successor to the all-conquering Stars. Bruce Springsteen reverted to Nebraska mode for The Ghost Of Tom Joad and Cher came up with an unexpectedly good concept album of songs written by men, It’s A Man’s World. Plus we had the small matter of Alanis Morrisette going absolutely postal with Jagged Little Pill. That almost made this selection.
But in the end, I’ve plumped for Garbage’s self-titled debut as the sole representative from those six months.
Fronted by Shirley Manson, formerly of the underrated Goodbye Mr. Mackenzie (whose Good Deeds & Dirty Rags from 1989 remains a seminal album), and including erstwhile Nirvana producer Butch Vig, Garbage were purveyors of a grunge-meets-industrial indie that pop kids could love. They also sounded a bit (okay, more than a bit) like early 90s shoegazers Curve (whose 1992 album Doppleganger I absolutely adored).
Q called Garbage “good tunes given a rough treatment”, which was pretty accurate. After a modest start, debuting just outside the top 10 and politely making its excuses on the way out, Garbage rebounded with a vengeance when Stupid Girl hit big in March 1996, and then the hits kept coming.
(Q117) June 1996
There weren’t many albums from 1996 that I found myself really getting into for some reason, but Everything But The Girl’s sublime reinvention was easily the highlight of the year.
The biggest musical event of the year, of course, was the return of my favourites The Blue Nile. And by golly did I need them back!
(Q118) July 1996
Seven years after the perfection of Hats, Paul Buchanan and co. finally delivered a follow-up. Peace At Last is the outlier in the band’s compact discography; a more acoustic feel and not as many enduring, gut-wrenching moments of transcendent beauty and emotional punch as on the other three LPs.
Newly signed to megabucks major label Warner Brothers, the relationship sadly proved to be short-lived and commercially underwhelming. Record company upheaval, and a lack of a defining signature single among its 10 songs, left Peace At Last somewhat all at sea. It ought to have had more impact, especially since they undertook a few major concert dates including some at the Royal Albert Hall.
A bizarre choice of Happiness as the only (retail) single didn’t help….Tomorrow Morning was the closest the album had to a Downtown Lights or Tinseltown In The Rain, while Family Life was the most powerful song of them all. God Bless You Kid had a bit of the Prefab Sprouts about it, and could have done a job too.
Seven years in the making, yet it was gone from the UK charts after only 4 weeks. It was the summer of Wannabe, of George Michael’s Older, the emotionally-charged revival of Manic Street Preachers, the arrival of Ash on the scene. Very few people beyond the devoted had time for The Blue Nile in 1996.