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).
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.