What makes a magazine great? The writing. The ideas. The photography. The design. Sure. But more importantly, a magazine's worth depends on how it catches readers' glances, and then their hearts. Here, Tempo presents its second annual 50 Best Magazines list. Our selections reflect the periodicals that we pay good money to buy, that we pile on our nightstands, that we devour on trains, that we consider to be the best at what they set out to do. There are more than 17,500 magazines published in this country, so choosing the 50 best was daunting. We argued, we concurred, we scoffed. And we welcome you to continue the debate.
1. Wired. After a wobbly post-boom period, Wired has transformed itself from an insider computer monthly into a slick, smart and playful cultural journal. The reporting is excellent ("The Future of Food," "The New Diamond Age," for instance) and the graphics deliver some of the best short-form journalism in the business. The back-page feature Found" and the upfront section "Start" are consistently strong, and even the "Letters" page crackles with energy. The writing staff is lively yet authoritative, and columnists Lawrence Lessig and Bruce Sterling are smart without being snooty. Even the ads are cool. Finally: We dare you to show us a better magazine Web site (Wired.com).
2. Real Simple. This gem seduces and delivers the goods with teasers such as "A cleaner house in less time: 23 breakthrough tools and tips," "Swimsuits to flatter every figure" and "With a simple box of yellow cake mix, you can make any of these seven sweet desserts." The magazine is a breeze to read, filled with charts, photos, where-to-buy, how-to-order, how-to-make data right there, front and center.
3. The Economist. The no-nonsense font and rigid layout style make it look like a class handout on the first day of an MBA program, but don't be dismayed. This magazine features the most succinct, globe-encompassing wrap-ups of politics and economics on the market. Even often overlooked cultural features such as book reviews glisten with insight.
4. Cook's Illustrated. Our biggest complaint with this always readable mag? That they haven't come out with a gardening version that gives the topic the same thorough, skeptical treatment. We'll say it again: Not taking ads and writing about the actual cooking process so the average home cook can understand gives this magazine an authority that few others in any field enjoy.
5. Esquire. We suspect we're not as good-looking as we think we are. We know we're not clever enough. Esquire is the antidote to our human frailty. Snazzy, gorgeous, well-dressed, smart and that's just the magazine itself. The writing within is consistently great and sometimes beautiful, offering heaping portions of journalism, fiction, essays and helpful advice columns. Even if we doubt we'll ever wrestle with the great trouser-cuffs-and-suspenders debate, we love it that Esquire does.
6. The New Yorker. With Seymour Hersh's series of revelations about the abuses at Abu Ghraib prison, the New Yorker demonstrates yet again how a weekly magazine can still beat the pants off the 24-hour press. And with the presidential election season upon us, look to this book for insight and access into the process and players. Its coverage of pop culture also continues to shine.
7. American Demographics. There are more interesting facts about Americans in one issue of this than in 20 weekly newsmagazines put together. An unparalleled cruncher and analyst of census data, this is the place to learn which ethnic groups buy which products, what counties are the bigger lovers of boats and every detail about how and where we die, among other omnipresent realities.
8. Men's Health. Self-deprecating, funny and jammed with great information. Even those unbearable true-life weight-loss stories are turned into clever contests. Yes, it's full of sex and sultry women with pouty lips, but regular features such as Jimmy the Bartender ("on women, work and other stuff that screws up men's lives") and topical stories make it worthwhile for both sexes.
9. Jane. This fashion and features mag is unapologetically girlie but, surprisingly, is not content-free. For cover stories, celebs such as Kate Winslet and Meg Ryan let down their guard and answer real questions posed by the mag's chatty yet persistent interviewers, and the fashion and beauty advice is actually realistic. Who says a fashion mag has to be glossy, blase and written for stick figures?
10. Consumer Reports. The scolds of the American marketplace, they continue to set themselves apart from an advertising-driven (and, too often, advertising-influenced) media and give the straight dope on everything from dishwashers to insurance. In a world of daily ethical fudging, they're true-blue in giving us cold-blooded assessments of our obsessive consumer culture.
11. Whole Dog Journal. WDJ endorses a distinct, positive and all-natural approach to dog care. There's no advertising, so the monthly doesn't mince words in its product reviews. You can count on no-fluff articles offering relevant tips, and the training and animal behavior pieces are succinct and practical. Passions run high in dogdom; WDJ calmly presents its point of view.
12. Time. Solid, credible reporting, interesting special reports, spot-on political analysis from Joe Klein and generally good writing all around. Is it better than Newsweek? Is Coke better than Pepsi?
13. Reason. In an era of smash-mouth, left vs. right political discourse, the libertarian Reason is a fresh and nuanced antidote, with a frequent a-plague-on-both-their-houses approach. And it kicked butt with a head-turning cover story, meant to underscore the power of database marketing, in which the cover was personalized for each of the 40,000 subscribers with an aerial photograph of the mailing address.
14. People. One of the most influential mags ever, it is America's guilty pleasure. Only the true snoot will deny the allure, especially stuck waiting for a hairdresser, of learning who's sleeping with whom, who's splitsville and who's due when. Yes, there are serious topics, but these folks tapped into our obsession with celebrity and continue to beat the competition to the punch. So who is dating Ben Affleck these days?
15. Business Week. Consistently the best business magazine, more timely than the biweeklies Forbes and Fortune. One strength is international reporting, as in the cover story on India and outsourcing.
16. Fine Homebuilding. If the inside of your head is lined with ceramic tile, then this publication is for you. Amateurs and professionals alike will squint appreciatively at the lavishly detailed photos of distinctive homes. The how-to pieces and the buyers guides to tools and products are written with clarity and thoroughness.
17. The Atlantic Monthly. With a knack for coming up with cover stories that always seem a step ahead of the Next Big Thing in news, this magazine continues at the top of its game. Even the stories that don't make the coveted cover would, in any other magazine, be the spotlight feature.
18. National Review. This right-wing glossy offers smart, certain ideology for these uncertain times. More serious than Bill O'Reilly or Rush Limbaugh and less Air Force One-obsessed than the Weekly Standard, the middlebrow NR even manages to squeeze the pretentious arts through its conservative wringer.
19. Conde Nast Traveler. Relentlessly up-scale, yet balanced with fascinating and practical consumer information, this is the magazine for the well-heeled traveler who's not above wearing sensible shoes. Its annual Readers' Choice ranks the best-of-everything in the world of travel -- as long as money isn't an object. But, then, what's a travel magazine for if not to dream?
20. No Depression. For those who crave that tasty trail mix of traditional country, punk, folk and rock that goes under the moniker alt country or Americana, there is no finer or more thorough source for news, reviews and profiles. We adore the long chewy portraits of the genre's big names, and the dispatches from concertland.
21. Cooking Light. Pleasantly attitude-free and rich with all aspects of a healthy lifestyle, including nutrition and fitness. Not only are the recipes simple, tasty and healthy, but each month offers ideas for the "Inspired Vegetarian." Another handy section called "Superfast" provides ideas for meals that can be ready in about 20 minutes.
22. Aperture. Each issue of this recently redesigned photography quarterly is a treasure. The printing quality and paper stock are better than in most photography books. Founded by Ansel Adams, Dorothea Lange and others more than 50 years ago, Aperture thrives as a venue for today's most captivating and diverse fine art photography.
23. Us Weekly. No one does photo captions better. Us hooks us with its amazing image-storytelling, like the narrative arc of a Britney spread in which she looks skinny one day and pudgy the next, coupled with a "story" about her fast-food eating diet. We also continue to love the "Stars: They're Just Like Us" feature, in which we gawk in amazement as Jennifer Aniston ties her own shoe and Ben Affleck drops off laundry. Maybe they really are just like us!
24. Car and Driver. Other car magazines make some attempt to appear grown-up, but not C&D. From the legendary "Dodge Intrepid vs. U.S.S. Intrepid" comparison to thorough, definitive road tests, C&D sets the standard. When it arrives in the mailbox, full of readable prose ranging from cranky to hilarious, you see why C&D rules.
25. Essence. Indispensable to its loyal readership with lively and timely reports on issues that matter to women of color. Whether the topic is obstacles to career advancement, obtaining financial security or fighting for better health in the black community, Essence is on the cutting edge.
26. Science News. You don't need a PhD in science to understand this weekly, and it's far more concise than, say, Science or Nature. Those two may fight for first dibs on the newest research, but SN will report later so a layperson can understand it.
27. Budget Living. Here's a magazine that aims at those of us in slightly lower tax and stock sophistication brackets than, say, Martha Stewart Living, where we are not afraid to ask questions such as: Where can I buy a spring coat for less than $40? What is really the cheapest cell phone plan? And how do I garden if I am still a renter?
28. Sports Illustrated. Cliches are the athlete's foot of sports writing, the scummy, unavoidable residue of the genre. This veteran magazine, however, still manages to come up with surprising, inventive prose about the week's big events in the sporting world. The longer features always sparkle. The photos are often instant classics.
29. Vogue. In a landscape of lookalike, sound-alike women's magazines, Vogue maintains its position above the masses with singular old-fashioned sophistication and a healthy sense of humor. It's first and foremost about fashion, which it covers beautifully (those Irving Penn photos!), so we can forgive the long, personal essays about breast-reduction surgery.
30. Entertainment Weekly. If magazines were candy stores, EW would be a wall of delectable penny candy. With bite-size features, irreverent Q&As and exclusive photos, EW generates buzz like few magazines can. While their movie preview issues are more fun than an afternoon of watching summer trailers, EW's movie criticism remains as snarky as it is unpredictable.
31. Parenting. These guys know what parents of young kids need and that's commiseration and advice on uncivilized children, endless colds, work-family guilt, sleep deprivation and keeping up with the Joneses. And that's in just one issue. We really like the "All Yours" section where moms can get tips on what to do during their nanosecond of weekly personal time.
32. Gourmet. Ruth Reichl has pulled this periodical from its stodgy rut into a lively but substantial read. As always, the stunning photography offers nourishment enough, but the magazine is also jammed with fabulous travel pieces, stylishly written guides to upscale and down-home entertaining and the terrific back section.
33. Martha Stewart Weddings. Every bride-to-be knows that a wedding magazine's primary function is to be a carrier for ads. Ads for wedding gowns primarily. Ads for beautiful, unattainable, perfectly snug or flowing or draping or plunging wedding gowns. And on this count, Martha's quarterly beats the competition.
34. Dwell. For modernists who worship at the temple of design rather than decor with an emphasis on graceful re-use. It can be a bit grad-schoolish at times ("How an Idea Becomes a Chair"), but that's part of its serious charm. Otherwise, it's supercool, environmentally aware, and never ever mentions chintz. What else do you need to know?
35. The American Scholar. Despite the intimidating moniker and fancy pedigree, this lean publication includes some of the sharpest, most down-to-earth writing around. Incisive articles about current events, such as bioterrorism, rub shoulders with profound personal essays by the likes of Thomas Mallon and Annie Dillard.
36. The New York Review of Books. In an era in which brevity is deemed beautiful, this remains a home for engaging and longer-form literary and political essays by an A-list of the smartest folks around. For sure, lengthy dissections of the oeuvre of German critic Walter Benjamin by South African Nobelist J.M. Coetzee can be a challenge. But you'll find critical dissections that provide their own intellectual oasis amid the jargon-filled clutter about us.
37. Wooden Boat. Don't own a boat? Doesn't matter. This boldly illustrated magazine brings out the hidden mariner in even the most stubborn landlubber. Yes, those who occasionally do get out on the water might be most intrigued, but the adventure stories and recollections of special journeys are captivating.
38. New York. With a recent boost from new ownership and a prestigious editor in chief, this venerable city magazine is reinventing itself yet again. Whether it's improving upon an existing feature (gossip pages shun celebs for media moguls), bringing back respected contributors (Kurt Andersen, Maer Roshan) or getting away from the fluffy style of its past few years, New York seems to be edging toward a neo-golden age.
39. National Journal. Frothy liberal mags obsess over New Economy titans. But when the wonkish National Journal picks a Power 100, it offers profiles of the men and women of . . . the Department of Homeland Security. No nudity, but phone numbers attached. Insights from the only magazine that treats federal bureaucrats like the megawatt stars they are in their own minds can be more useful than you'd expect.
40. Donna Hay Magazine. This lush Aussie glossy about food comes with a bit of a built-in language problem (We still haven't quite figured out what a "bug" as in "grilled bug tails with kaffir lime leaf and basil" is. A small lobster? A big shrimp? An actual insect?). But the art direction and photography are so gorgeous and satisfying you could skip a meal after reading it. It's also loaded with scores of uncomplicated recipes, kitchen tips and party ideas.
41. Texas Monthly. Now, more than ever. After years of mostly supportive pieces on "W," a 6,000-word article in the February issue by writer Paul Burka titled "The Man Who Isn't There" seems to have signaled the end of the honeymoon. But there's much more than politics in this state, as any Texan will tell you, and it is presented in all its glory here.
42. Vanity Fair. VF really knows what it's doing, and we like that. We'll forgive the magazine for its obsession with the very rich and the very famous. We can read about regular people any old time now, on to Cameron Diaz! We especially appreciate the beautiful photographs of beautiful people and the provocative writing of Christopher Hitchens and James Wolcott.
43. Chicago. It is impossible for a Chicagoan to read an issue and not come away with useful information. This is its first appearance on the Tempo list since The Tribune Company bought this monthly, but you don't have to take our word it belongs here. It just won a National Magazine Award for general excellence for its mix of probing journalism, clever service stories and darn good restaurant coverage.
44. In Touch. For those who consider People too intellectually cumbersome, In Touch is the ideal way to find out what those crazy celebrities are up to (Keanu Reeves Buys His Sis a House! Britney's Sexy Beach Date). In Touch has lots of pictures, just enough text to qualify as a magazine, and an obvious respect for bringing the truth to light (for instance, Nicole Kidman "is aghast over reports that she almost gagged to death on piece of tempura" at a trendy NYC eatery).
45. Heeb. This smart-alecky upstart calls itself "the New Jew Review." The slick, sometimes sick and often funny quarterly is intelligent, provocative and oh-so Jewish. Heeb especially appeals to readers who have celebrated their bat or bar mitzvah after 1990 and those who wish they had. The magazine's young and hip point of view, its embrace of its audience's inner-dweeb make it an interesting and unexpectedly fun read.
46. Legal Affairs. Law is no longer a remote, esoteric academic topic and we don't just mean the Kobe Bryant trial. We mean the way legal matters seep into everyday life, influencing and being influenced by the culture at large. For lengthy, extraordinarily topical articles about the law's long reach into our living rooms and psyches, this magazine has become a must.
47. ToyFare. Three words: "Twisted ToyFare Theater." Collectible figures do and say things obviously not condoned by their corporate owners in a feature so popular, it's anthologized outside the magazine. Example: Comic book villains play the board game Risk and recount naughty anecdotes of world domination while harassing the pizza boy. Oh, it's also a price guide and irreverent toy industry magazine.
48. Rolling Stone. Sure, it occasionally reads like your dad trying to be cool. But RS can still blindside with probing, offbeat features (example: Neil Strauss holes himself up in a hotel room with a swirling-the-drain Courtney Love) and a solid national affairs section. The record reviews can be predictable, but the front-of-book "Rock & Roll" short takes remain addictive.
49. Seahorse. The official magazine of the UK's Royal Ocean Racing Club has built itself into the definitive source for grand prix sailing. Stories range from giant multihulls conquering round-the-world records to America's Cup happenings to who's building the next megayacht.
50. Chicago Wilderness. OK, the tone is a bit boosterish, but what other journal concerns itself with the migrations of the painted lady butterfly or the symphony of flowers busting through our beleaguered prairies? Celebrating the region's natural heritage, this lavishly illustrated quarterly focuses on the inspiring people who protect and heal the local landscape.
Contributing: Tim Bannon, Allison Benedikt, Beth Botts, Mike Conklin, Randy Curwen, Amy Dickinson, Robert Elder, Monica Eng, Mike Esposito, David Jackson, Patrice Jones, Chris Jones, Julia Keller, Karen Klages, Lilah Lohr, Emily Nunn, Maureen Ryan, Charles Storch, James Warren, Kevin Williams, Michael Zajakowski. Your turn: What are your favorite magazines and why? Write to: Tempo, 435 N. Michigan Ave., Chicago, IL 60611 E-mail: Ctcfirstname.lastname@example.org.