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June 12, 2003

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The 50 Best Magazines

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The 50 Best Magazines

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Your turn

What are your favorite magazines, and why?
Please include your full name and your hometown.
Early reader reaction:
  • 'You left out MAD magazine, still the best humor magazine in the country.'
  • 'Utne tends to spark more conversation between my wife and me than the dozens of other magazines we read.'
  • 'WIRED is a true gateway for our future.'
  • 'Vanity Fair ... was never good to begin with.'
  • 'Have fun reading ToyFair, Sports Compact Car and Wizard. Losers.'

  • Published June 12, 2003

    We'd been told for so long that magazines were on their last legs, that the next generation of up-and-coming consumers didn't care about periodicals, not even the va-va-voom variety such as Maxim and FHM. Paper was -- oh, so 10-minutes-ago. The pictures were static, for crying out loud. Even pinups were passe.

    But magazines seem more relevant than ever, raising a ruckus at Wal-Mart, holding together the Martha Stewart empire, filling aisle after aisle at the bookstores. There are now more than 17,500 magazines published in this country, for goodness sake.

    So who does it best? Not so long ago, the National Magazine Awards honored a pack of familiar favorites such as The Atlantic Monthly and The New Yorker, offering elaborately eloquent justifications for having so anointed those august publications.

    Tempo chose a simpler route: What we like. We picked out magazines that you'll find on staffers' nightstands and coffee tables, in our backpacks and on our car seats and on the edges of our bathtubs. These are the periodicals for which we pay good money.

    The 50 Best Magazines

    1) Cook's Illustrated. The measure of a magazine is how well it covers its chosen field, and in that regard, Cook's is a gem, notable both for the quality of its recipes, for its testing of kitchen gadgets and for the obsessiveness of its recipe testing ("Now I had solved the problem of the soggy crust, but there was still work to do. The egg wash had proven only deflective, not impermeable. . . ."). Even if you're not a foodie, this magazine's tart, skeptical prose is well worth reading, and its product reviews are as trustworthy as can be, given its exhaustive testing and the fact that it doesn't take any ads.

    2) The New Yorker. As predictable as this choice is, we simply could not ignore this magazine's quality, which proves general interest can be generally interesting. The non-fiction is both topical and deliciously non-so, and the fiction has broken out of its delicate little box. Just the weekly "Comment" in Talk of the Town does more to illuminate the news of the week than the newsweeklies combined. The reporters have deep sources and beautifully synthesized ideas. The New Yorker rarely panders to the readers and, unlike many intellectually skewed mags, this one has a roster of frank critics.

    3) Martha Stewart Living. Stewart is the devil you say? We say: Here are our souls, now hand over those fast and easy chicken recipes. No, we're not going to be making gourd candles at Thanksgiving (or ever, for that matter), constructing a cockscomb Valentine wreath or making frames from stock molding for our vintage handkerchiefs. But we love that somewhere in the world, someone is, even if it's just the people who work at this gorgeous magazine.

    4) Sports Illustrated. Pound for pound, still some of the best writing around. Writer Gary Smith is a master among a talented staff of profilers. The photography is riveting. The only negative is the vastly overrated Rick Reilly.

    5) People. Magazines come and magazines go, but year after year, People manages to capture the zeitgeist without completely giving in to tabloid superficiality. Recent competition with US Weekly has only enlivened the mag -- don't ever count out this supermarket checkout-line staple. One of modern American life's great guilty pleasures.

    6) Wooden Boat. The deep feeling for boats and the people who build them is palpable. Helpful tips on building or restoring wooden boats, along with great travelogues of sea adventures. It's a magazine for dreaming on, by a fire, with the low moan of a foghorn in the distance.

    7) Q and Mojo (tie). These two English music magazines (we regard them as inseparable twins) are indispensable for music fans, especially given the eternally anemic state of American music magazines. They treat musicians far from reverentially, but what really makes them worthwhile is the sheer breadth and depth of what they cover -- everything from a 10,000-word opus on the history of the Stone Roses to theme issues on subjects such as "British Eccentrics," reggae and punk. As imports, they're expensive, but many issues come with top-notch compilation CDs.

    9) Entertainment Weekly. This is the top mainstream entertainment magazine, with solid music, TV, movie and book reviews; lively writing; adventurous design; good gossip; and some pretty darn fun (and short!) features.

    10) Esquire. Surprisingly, it uses the same formula as Maxim -- lots of man-formation and pop culture, plenty of scantily clad women and fashion -- but the sensibility is so grown-up, there's no need to hide copies from your girlfriend. It's a smart and often very funny read with a top-notch stable of regulars (David Sedaris and Tom Junod among them) who surprise and entertain each month.

    11) Vogue. Sure, you'll never have the money to buy that Dior gown, let alone fit into it, but this magazine is the perfect companion for a cross-country plane flight -- the articles are well written and timely, and the style features remain the gold standard for fashion fantasy. And nowhere are you exhorted to work on your abs or improve the quantity or quality of your orgasms.

    12) Atlantic Monthly. This is as hot as an old stalwart literary and political monthly can be. Whether it's big cover stories on President Kennedy's health, the real state of the union or the cleanup at the World Trade Center, it has displayed a deft touch with being responsibly provocative but mixing in lots of bright and thoughtful appetizers and desserts. An oldie but very goodie.

    13) Fine Homebuilding. This Old House has a bigger public-relations machine behind it. But this bimonthly is the unsung gem for knowledgeable do-it-yourselfers with taste, a budget and perhaps a need for scholarly debate on whether vinyl siding belongs on a fine home, not to mention how to install it properly. Stories are written by contractors, builders and architects, and all of them share disgust for cookie-cutter homes, McMansions and other misadventures of the nouveau riche.

    14) Texas Monthly. This never fails to produce at least one good article in each issue whether or not you're Texan, and longtime devotees are not surprised by the recognition it has received in recent years. Now with "W" in the White House, it's coverage of state politics is a must-read.

    15) New York. Simply the best city magazine. Sure, it's got a ton of fluff, but it also has some great critics and media and political columnists and tends to be on top of the trends instead of one step behind them. Combines cutting-edge cultural reporting, fearless critics and great, big, gritty features on everything from sensational crimes to mind-bogglingly obnoxious rich people to larger-than-life "little people" caught in the currents of (New York) history. Also, for voyeurs, the funniest personals section.

    16) Time. Certainly one could argue that Time isn't what it used to be, yet every week it produces some remarkable reporting and writing that help put a week's news into clear context. And Nancy Gibbs writes like an angel.

    17) Smithsonian. Its scope is broad, but it always maintains a high level of intelligent writing and fine graphics. It's especially strong in stories about little-known aspects of American history.

    18) FHM. Sure it's sophomoric and titillating (is that a bad thing for a men's magazine?), but it's also wildly inventive, witty, irreverent and well-designed.

    19) Washington Monthly. Want your regional magazine without a side helping of plastic surgery ads? You most definitely won't find flashy design here, but you may just find an article on national affairs that doesn't make you fall asleep before the third paragraph. The New Republic and the Atlantic may get more press, but for spry, accessible writing about things that matter, you can't do better than this dogged mag.

    20) Details. In the "lad-mag" age, where is a sophisticated young man to go? Too young to connect to GQ, disgusted by Maxim and all her offsprings, said young man can turn to Details. It looks great, promotes style, still toys with sexuality (we said sophisticated, not stale) and actually has a strong feature or two every issue.

    21) Reason. Dubbed a monthly for libertarians ("free minds and free markets"), it's not surprising that Reason has a small list of subscribers. But this magazine does everything well: culture, politics, religion, philosophy, and while other mags redesign to simplify and commercialize, Reason's redesign actually made it better.

    22) Consumer Reports. Sure, even CR seems to have biases (Sears products, the Volkswagen Passat), but they are not unreasonable biases and trusting its recommendations is a reliable way to save doing lots of research yourself. Moreover, it doesn't take ads and vigorously keeps its name from appearing in others' ads. Who else even attempts such scrupulousness in these mercenary times?

    23) Essence. Aimed at black women, this magazine features the usual bits of fluff -- health, beauty, fashion, cooking and sex tips -- but the articles are uncommonly topical and incisive, fearlessly taking on controversial issues of race and gender. Imagine Oprah's magazine with more guts and fewer flower arrangements.

    24) US Weekly. A great mag for star-gazing. It's People, but without the "Heroic Postman Saves Neighborhood Dog" stories. Just all celebs all the time.

    25) Family Fun. Leave the toilet training and breast-feeding advice to Parenting; this monthly is all about how to keep those restless little beasts entertained and engaged. The travel advice is refreshingly realistic and affordable.

    26) American History. It's amazing how a better understanding of the past helps us get a grip on current events. This is a good place to start the process. The magazine makes American history relevant by connecting it to today's headlines without any of the deadly, dull reading we were assigned in a classroom.

    27) Saveur. It's not just a great food magazine, it's a great magazine: smart, witty, eccentric and worldly without a hint of condescension -- and wildly entertaining to boot. It's assumed that you, too, would walk a million miles to find everything from the best boiled peanuts to the perfect pot-au-feu. We look forward to the yearly Saveur 100, an "appreciation of our favorite food, drink, restaurants, people, places and things," which this year included Maldon Sea Salt, vodka and caviar at Sher-emetyevo (the Moscow airport), Zingerman's deli in Ann Arbor, Mich., the Web site, and Steak 'n Shake.

    28) Granta. Top-notch journalism, memoir, essay, photography. This British magazine has been hip for a quarter of a century.

    29) Sound on Sound. If electronic musicians had married Wooden Boat with FHM, the result would have been this glossy U.K. mag. With in-depth reviews of the latest musicmaking equipment and photos that inspire insane depths of gear lust, the pages of SoS are familiar to electronic musicians, music producers and deejays around the world, whether they perform dance music or experimental esoterica.

    30) Dwell. Whereas Wallpaper and Surface are so hip and modern, we don't understand them, 2 1/2-year-old Dwell is the alternative shelter and design magazine for people who can distinguish between cutting-edge homes, people and design matters, and those that have fallen off the normalcy curve.

    31) Harper's. A grand tradition of publishing serious non-fiction, Harper's makes the list for the outstanding front of the book. Granted, Lewis Lapham is several yards more boring than he is intelligent. But the Index uses statistics to make pungent points, and the eclectic and engaging Readings are the height of the magazine editor's art.

    32) BusinessWeek. The newsweekly standard for business leaders, with some of the most insightful business journalism in the industry. It may lack the writing touch and packaging of Time Inc.'s Fortune, but it more than makes up for it in reporting.

    33) Sport Compact Car. Technically sound without sounding overly technical, this is a great read for the (generally speaking) import car-tuner speeding through the learning curve from novice to master. The annual Ultimate Street Car Challenge (in which readers choose their favorite cars built by fellow subscribers for a 10-ride shootout) is one of the best (and most controversial) testing comparisons in any magazine.

    34) Outside. A smart blend of advice and stylish writing, and while it can come across as pretentiously extreme, there is a certain vicarious pleasure reading about people who compete in 24-hour medley marathons, especially for somebody who doesn't like to walk up a flight of stairs. (Yes, we know we should resent Outside's big shots who abandoned their headquarters at Clark and Division streets to flee to trendy Santa Fe. But can you really blame them?)

    35) The New Republic. It goes through editors like most of us go through tall skim lattes before deadline, and its politics are mistakenly called liberal when actually moderate, but the best part of TNR is in the back: Its book reviews and cultural coverage are terrific.

    36) The Christian Century and America (tie). If you're interested in religion outside the sanctuary and concerned about the way faith has an impact on everyday life, these magazines are for you. The first, which looks at the world from a Protestant perspective, doesn't pull punches whether looking at al-Jazeera television or suburban sprawl. The second, published by the Society of Jesus, the Catholic religious order more commonly known as Jesuits, takes a similarly hard-edged approach to such subjects as the just war theory, the New Age movement and talk of an American empire.

    38) American Bungalow. If you've got a thing for the Arts and Crafts, Mission or Prairie styles, and the turn-of-the-last-century home style that shows them to best advantage, this magazine is pure pornography. Nothing stirs the blood like a prodigiously lined chunk of quartersawn oak and the advertisements telling you where you can get more of the same.

    39) National Geographic. After all these years, still a remarkable blend of history, science, politics, exploration and some of the finest photography in the world.

    40) Fortune. If you're not that interested in the nuts and bolts of business and management, but are intrigued by trends in industry and finance, this accessible mag is for you. The writing is top-notch and the reporting is even better, all without a hint of the snoozy, dry prose that often afflicts business publications.

    41) Creativity. The Crain's offshoot of Advertising Age. The right amount of sass, gossip, profile and, of course, a collection of the edgiest advertising in the U.S. and abroad. Though it tends to lean toward the fanzine side in its creative profiles, no other publication captures the spirit of the cool, ugly, prima donna, and humble mix that makes up the personality of the complicated creative director. You really start to believe that advertising can be art. OK, maybe not. But it tries really hard to convince you.

    42) ToyFare. All the inside news on the collector toy market, from the latest GI Joe resurgence to the forthcoming Harry Potter figures. Each issue includes a price guide and "Top 10 Hottest Action Figures," but we buy it for its snarky captions and often naughty, non sequitur word balloons.

    43) Soccer America. It's the only publication in this country providing extensive coverage of the sport at every level, international, U.S. pro, college, high school and youth. This is the only place where you can find the standings, for instance, of the Greek First Division on a regular basis. Its strength is the weakness of most other media's avoidance of soccer coverage.

    44) Field & Stream. Great photography, interesting features. Anti-hunting folks may want to take a pass, but for coverage of its subject, the old coot delivers.

    45) Metropolis. Twenty-two years strong and still the gold standard in design magazines. The best writers, the best stories covering the world of design (both geographically and topically), the best editor in chief Susan Szenasy, whose quiet, deeply informed voice rings throughout.

    46) Vegetarian Times. This monthly for healthy living brings a vegetarian lifestyle into the mainstream with everything from organic trends to eco-friendly products -- plus it has great recipes.

    47) The Week. Trumpeting itself as "All you need to know about everything that matters," this relatively new publication offers seven days of headlines in Cliff's Notes form (sort of a weekly version of USA Today). It's great for the short attention span crowd that only has time to read about the week's top world events if they are offered up in nifty news nuggets gathered from a differing variety of other publications.

    48) Trains. Part geek bible, part passionate advocate for better passenger service and part dreamy evocator of rail's golden years, Trains is ideal reading for those sitting on Amtrak, waiting for the train to actually start moving again. With more maps, charts and photos than a Pentagon briefing, the July issue explains the precise routes of the 500 freight trains that battle through Chicago every day. It offers histories -- and gorgeous vintage photos -- of our six great passenger stations.

    49) Wizard. So you like comics? Not like these people like comics. Providing the Entertainment Weekly approach to comic books and comic book movies, Wizard employs sharply written, side-splitting prose for a niche audience. With interviews, previews and a tongue-deeply-in-cheek style, Wizard knows its audience because it's written by its audience: comic book fiends and lovers.

    50) Yoga Journal. The magazine honors the complete balance of life -- body, mind and spirit. The stories are of great interest and written to all levels from beginners to yogis. The visuals are stunning as the designers balance photography, space and text. The colors and mood of the magazine create a tranquil space.

    Contributing: Terry Armour, Tim Bannon, Allison Benedikt, Linda Bergstrom, Joan Cairney, Mike Conklin, Rob Elder, Eric Gwinn, Kelly Haramis, Steve Johnson, Chris Jones, Blair Kamin, Michael Kellams, Julia Keller, Jim Kirk, Karen Klages, Charles Leroux, Lilah Lohr, Jason McKean, Emily Nunn, Patrick T. Reardon, Maureen Ryan, Nara Schoenberg, James Warren.

    And, furthermore . . .

    Mags gone bad:
    Rolling Stone

    Vanity Fair

    Best regular features

    Can This Marriage Be Saved? (Ladies Home Journal)
    Readings (Harper's)
    Five-Minute Guide (Esquire)
    High/Low (Metropolitan Home)
    Scorecard (Sports Illustrated)
    Transformations (In Style)
    Twisted ToyFare Theatre (ToyFare)

    Best writers

    Mark Bowden (Atlantic Monthly)
    David Denby (New Yorker)
    Nancy Gibbs (Time)
    Malcolm Gladwell (New Yorker)
    Sarah Kerr (Vogue)
    Jeffrey Rosen (New Republic)
    Lisa Schwarzbaum (Entertainment Weekly)
    Gary Smith (Sports Illustrated)

    Best columnists

    E. Jean Carroll (Elle)
    Jean Sherman Chatzky (Money)
    Christopher Hitchens (Vanity Fair)
    Lewis Lapham (Harper's)
    Joel Stein (Entertainment Weekly)
    Jeffrey Steingarten (Vogue)
    Michael Wolff (New York)

    Best back-page features

    The Average Guy (Men's Health)
    Remembering (Martha Stewart Living)
    Parting Shot (Outside)
    Punto (Latina)
    Southern Journal (Southern Living)
    Thoughts: On the Business of Life (Forbes)
    Try This Now (Family Fun)
    0:01/On the Clock
    (ESPN The Magazine)

    Copyright © 2003, Chicago Tribune

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