The 51 Best* Magazines Ever
*Smartest, Prettiest, Coolest, Funniest, Most Influential, Most Necessary, Most Important, Most Essential, etc.
Words By Graydon Carter, GOOD magazine
Introduction By Bigshot Editor Graydon Carter
The essential strength of a magazine is its ability to amplify. An idea, or an image, or a story, set within the pages of a magazine and assembled by the right hands, can become the grist of breakfast chatter, dinner-party conversation, or elective body debate around the world. Until recently, with the advent of USA Today and the national editions of The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal, newspapers were by and large local endeavors. Magazines were national, and as they became international, their power of amplification grew exponentially. A woman photographs a dam. Nothing noteworthy in this, except that the woman is Margaret Bourke-White and the structure is the Fort Peck Dam. A photograph from that shoot appears on the cover of the first issue of Life and becomes one of the most known feats of human engineering in the world. That is amplification.
A magazine-like the smart, charming gazette you hold in your hands, even in this age of electronic everything everywhere, is a marvelous invention. In America, Ben Franklin is credited with conceiving of the first such publication, in 1741. (It was called The General Magazine, and it began a trend that exists to this day-within six months it had closed its doors.) Another essential difference between newspapers and magazines is this: News-papers tell you about the world; magazines tell you about their world-and by association, your world. Writers, photographers, editors, and designers bundle the slice of the world they have chosen to explore and deliver it to you in a singularly affordable, transportable, lendable, replaceable, disposable, recyclable package. You can buy a magazine almost anywhere. Publishers will even deliver it to your door, for less than the cost of going out into the hurried street to find and purchase one.
I admire, or have admired, most of the magazines the editors of GOOD have chosen as milestones or bellwethers-and I don't mean just Spy or Vanity Fair. But I have my own temple of greats. These magazines were original in concept and execution, and in their own ways, either minor or major, helped propel the idea of the magazine to its current state.
I'll start with The Spectator, the oldest continuously published magazine in the English language. A political confection of the essayists Addison and Steele, The Spectator is an excitable, beautifully crafted Oxbridge pulpit for England's Conservative Party, and continues to be a launching pad for political aspiration: In recent times three contributors have gone on to hold cabinet posts.
"Newspapers tell you about the world; magazines tell you about their world."
There is the trio of magazines to emerge from the Henry Luce empire: Time, Fortune, and Life. During the early years of Luce's "American Century," Time compressed the world for its audience of "busy men," Fortune captured for the first time the look and might of U.S. commerce, and Life brought the exuberance and nuance of world events and other lives to its readers. Luce was going to call the magazine "Dime" (for its cover price), but his wife, Clare Boothe Luce-a onetime Vanity Fair editor-convinced him otherwise. (In the play The Philadelphia Story, Philip Barry parodied Luce's Time & Life empire, calling the publishing company in the play Dime and Spy.)
Few magazines capture an era the way The Saturday Evening Post did in the decades before and after the second World War. It succeeded because it took the new values of the American Century and placed them before readers wishing to believe in them. The magazine's reach was immense, as were its resources. During the Depression the Post paid P. G. Wodehouse $90,000 for a three-part serialization of one of his Jeeves books.
The fashion magazine Gazette du Bon Ton, part post-Edwardian fashion curio, part Art Deco masterpiece, lasted a scant 13 years (from 1912 to 1925), but it defined not only salon-age Paris in the years after the Great War, but also the American flapper era of the 1920s.
The New Yorker, a ridiculed fribble catering to New York's smart set when Harold Ross founded it in 1925, found its journalistic footing during World War II, then went on to chronicle postwar New York and its suburbs in the 1950s and 1960s. It hit a long patch of fossilized institutionalism during the next two decades, but continues today as one of the finest vessels for first-rate journalism anywhere.
I could go on. There was Liberty, a general-interest magazine that posted above every article the approximate time it would take the reader to read it. There is The New York Review of Books, which was started up by Robert Silvers and Barbara Epstein during the newspaper strike of 1963, and which today commands the high ground of American intellectualism. There was Esquire during the heady days of the 1960s, when its editor, Harold Hayes, was sending off the most electric writers of the age to capture the era. At Rolling Stone, founder Jann Wenner did the same for the late 1960s and the 1970s.
The single binding aspect of all the magazines subsequently mentioned in this issue, and this will seem obvious, but far too many editors ignore it, is that for a publication to succeed it has to have a point. It can't just come into being because the owner wants to impress his friends. Or because market studies have shown an opening in a certain line of interest. Many of the big magazine companies, such as Time Inc., are run these days not by people who love magazines but by people in search of profit. Great magazines come from the gut and the heart. Take anything that comes out of the Dave Eggers factory, for example-they are unique, irreplaceable, and should be cherished.
Magazines-or, rather, certain magazines-aren't going away anytime soon. They have survived radio, movies, and television. And they have, so far, not perished at the altar of the internet. It will take something not known of today to replace the power of the combination of words and image when, as I have just said, they are aligned by the right hands. Magazines that tell stories in type and pictures will survive the coming electronic revolutions. Magazines that merely deliver information will have to either become stronger and more vital, or drown in the turbulent wakes of change.
GOOD's 51 Best Magazines Ever:
Under Harold T.P. Hayes (1961-1973)
Esquire had the men's magazine formula backward. An uncommon example of a magazine that sold out first before establishing itself as a literary force, Esquire was launched in 1933 as an early juggs-and-journalism rag (illustrated of course, not photographed), but its most important period began in 1961. Under the leadership of new editor Hayes, the magazine's pages got bigger, future celebrities Gay Talese and Tom Wolfe ushered in New Journal-ism, and design titan George Lois produced the most iconic magazine covers ever. Esquire captured last century's most dynamic decade, visually and literarily altering the way Americans thought about their changing country. Sonny Liston as black Santa Claus? The unsuccessful quest to interview Sinatra? Anti-Vietnam-War Muhammad Ali as St. Sebastian? We rest our case.
2. The New Yorker
A rare cultural touchstone both relevant and revered nearly a century after its inception in 1925, The New Yorker has remained a beacon of intellectual clarity and incisive reporting to over-educated bourgeoisie far beyond the borders of Manhattan. With a design that has changed only imperceptibly over the decades (except for earth-shattering changes under mid-1990s editor Tina Brown,who allowed-gasp!-color and-the horror!-photographs), all that's different at the magazine are the stories it covers. The New Yorker today is just as willing to publish a barely illustrated, three-part, 30,000-word jeremiad on climate change as founding editor Harold Ross was happy to devote an entire issue to one article on the aftermath of the Hiroshima bombing. This is not to mention the fiction, humor, poetry, criticism, and cartoons-all parts of a consistently brilliant editorial vision.
Before cable TV and the internet, there was Life. Publishing giant Henry Luce (Life, Fortune, Time) helped fuel Americans' natural curiosity by turning a then-failing general-interest magazine into a glossy weekly with 50 pages of pictures (by photographers such as Alfred Eisenstaedt and Margaret Bourke-White) and captions (written precisely to fit in neatly justified blocks) in every issue. For 36 years, Life showed us the world-for pennies a week.
It would be tough to overstate the greatness of a magazine that had Marilyn Monroe as its first centerfold, and Kerouac, Steinbeck, and Wodehouse on call by its fifth anniversary. Launched in 1953 by the grotto-dwelling, robe-wearing Playboy himself, by the 1960s its table of contents was a veritable who's-who of the best writers of the day and their most compelling subjects. While the magazine has lost its footing as the culturally relevant read for men, its signature "Playboy Interviews" still deliver the kind of no-holds-barred ranting and raving that made it famous. All that, and we haven't even mentioned the naked girls.
5. The New York Times Magazine
Since Sept. 6, 1896, The New York Times Magazine has without fanfare done what it does best: publish smart, populist stories that no one else will touch. Never sold on newsstands, it is to this day perfectly positioned to uphold a sacred but troubled tenet of the journalist's code: reporting news that matters to the world, instead of news that matters to circulation managers and newsstand consultants. This same freedom spills over to the design-minimalist, original, and completely refreshing.
Post comic book, before the death of founder William Gaines (1955-1992)
Mad was the skeptical wise guy. Ever ready to pounce on the illogical, hypocritical, self-serious and ludicrous, it was also essentially celebratory: to accurately parody something, you ultimately have to love it. Mad transposed onto the printed page the anarchic humor of the Marx Brothers and Looney Tunes, parodying comics, radio serials, movies, advertising, and the entire range of American pop culture. Nowadays, it's part of the oxygen we breathe; and Mel Brooks, Saturday Night Live, and The Simpsons would be unthinkable without it.
Until it was sold to fun-sponge Jean Pigozzi (1986-1991)
With the exception of knock- knock jokes, most of what you find funny today probably came from these pages. In typical Spy fashion, that might not be exactly true, but it's certainly close enough, and the well-informed post-ironic humor behind everything from The Daily Show to Gawker owes more than a little debt to Spy and its founding editors Kurt Andersen and Graydon Carter (see intro; 31). The design was pitch-perfect, the stories of office hijinks are publishing-world legends, and its impact on the landscape of American culture is immeasurable.
Early years until Condé Nast buyout (1993-1998)
Pages oozing with retina-burning inks and startling layouts broadcast a vision of the future that was both utopian and tangible. Wired was able to bridge the cultural divide between geeks and the rest of us because they saw that in our democratic digital tomorrow, we were all geeks. They let us in on the secret that technology wasn't news, but how it affected our lives was. But Condé Nast giveth (see 2; 31; 45) and Condé Nast taketh away: Its 1998 purchase gradually sapped the infectious energy that so characterized Wired's early years. Still, it's rare to find something as perfect to its cultural moment; both a mirror and a lens, a tribute and a battle hymn. What's next, indeed.
9. Andy Warhol's Interview
Until Warhol's death (1969-1988)
When an era's biggest celebrity/artist/pop-culture icon decides to start a magazine about celebrities, art, and pop culture (though mostly celebrities), it's bound to be interesting-if all you care about is interviews with famous people and their pretty pictures, that is. It turned out Warhol was onto something, as he often was, and even way ahead of the curve. Should you be tracing the origins of our present celebrity worshiping culture, this isn't a bad place to start.
The first 13 issues, under Tibor Kalman (1991-1996)
Like the screaming and still-bloody newborn that appeared on its first cover, Colors popped wildly onto the scene in 1991. It was an exuberant, often shocking magazine that fearlessly mirrored the world-in all its peculiarity, fantastic injustice, and rampant possibility. The brainchild of feather-ruffling photographer Oliviero Toscani and designer/big thinker/wildman Kalman, Colors was wholly underwritten by Luciano Benetton (and his clothing company), which kept it nicely free of common media constraints. Originally published from New York, an international staff put out front-to-back-themed issues in five bilingual editions, each one packed with in-your-face photography that could communicate to anybody, anywhere. From its conspicuous start, Colors challenged all sorts of expectations, including what a magazine could be.
11. Rolling Stone
Before the move to New York (1967-1976)
Rolling Stone, during its 1970s heyday, left a blank space on its letters page so that aspiring contributors could write a record review and send it to the editors in the hopes of being published. What's more amazing, this is how editor Jann Wenner found Lester Bangs and Greil Marcus. Before becoming disturbingly un-cutting-edge, Rolling Stone compiled the zeitgeist of a musical revolution. Also try Creem
12. National Geographic
Founded nine months after the eponymous society in 1888, and framed in its instantly recognizable yellow, the magazine didn't publish photos as covers until 1959. Whereas it initially charted and shot unknown civilizations, it has now become a visual catalog of civilizations in decay, and is still the benchmark for global photojournalism.
13. Collier's Weekly
Reporters for Collier's, founded in 1888, were some of the first to get down in the muck and start raking. Its influence was vast-Congress passed important laws based on evidence printed in the magazine, including a 12-parter on unregulated medicines and a pre-The Jungle essay on slaughterhouses by Upton Sinclair. Also try McClure's
14. New York
The model for pretty much every regional magazine since, New York (previously the Sunday supplement to the New York Herald Tribune) was founded by editor Clay Felker and designer Milton Glaser. They curated a unique blend of local politics, gossip, national news, and lifestyle features-until they were forced out by Rupert Murdoch, who bought New York in a 1976 hostile takeover.
15. Atlantic Monthly
Founded by Emerson and Longfellow in 1857, The Atlantic was the Boston Brahmin answer to overly intellectual magazines from New York (until a recent move to D.C. stole its identity). Throughout its 150-year history, The Atlantic has continued to be both sophisticated and deliberate, while only barely dumbing things down for the increasingly culturally illiterate masses. Also try Harper's
Often called the Life of black America, Ebony was founded by John H. Johnson in 1945 with a $500 loan, borrowed against his mom's furniture. By the time Johnson died last year, his magazine had spawned a publishing empire, the first, and for a long time, only black-owned one in the country.
Original incarnation, pre-Condé Nast (1982-1988)
Launched in 1982 under the legendary Annie Flanders, Details was the ultimate insider look at New York's downtown cool. It knew how to dress, what music to listen to and, most importantly, where to party. It went on to have countless identity crises, and no longer comes even close to downtown cool. Also try Index
The most left-wing magazine on our list.
Famous for its radical 1960s muckraking, Ramparts broke the story on the CIA infiltration of college campuses during the Vietnam War, published the diaries of Che Guevara, and attracted some of the left's brightest stars. Rolling Stone's Wenner got his start there; so, too, did Mother Jones founder Adam Hochschild.
More than the start of founding editor Dave Eggers' career, Might (1993-1997) was the definitive expression of Clinton-era/internet-boom post-college confusion. Admittedly and ambivalently entangled with pop culture, Might was nonetheless the exceptional youth magazine that refused to pretend the latest CDs, books, movies, and TV shows were the most important things in life. Also try Vice
Created by art director/ editor Alexey Brodovitch (of Harper's Bazaar) and editor/art director Frank Zachary (of Holiday and Town & Country), Portfolio only existed for three issues in 1950 and 1951-but its integration of form and content is still inspiring over half a century later. Brodovitch exploited his medium to its fullest, using foldouts, die-cuts, and other printing tricks to feature the work of artists and designers like Charles Eames, Paul Rand, Saul Steinberg, and many others. Also try Artforum
21. National Lampoon
From its founding through its best-selling issue (1970-1974)
Started in 1970 by Harvard Lampoon alumni, National Lampoon obliterated the idea that a college degree made you a grown-up. Deeply profane and juvenile, it launched the careers of Michael O'Donoghue and director John Hughes; spawned a syndicated radio program that featured Chevy Chase, John Belushi and Bill Murray, and spun off a series of movies that began with Animal House. Also try Army Man
Founded by former journalist Tyler Brûlé, Wallpaper (like a lot of the magazines in this list) showed up in the right place at the right time. At the height of the dotcom boom, Wallpaper talked about "the stuff that surrounds you" to a gener-ation hungry for soft-core design pornography. Brûlé sold out to Time Warner in 1997, but the flavor of the magazine didn't change that much until he left in 2002.
Under editor Helen Gurley Brown (1965-1997)
Launched in 1886 and later bought by William Randolph Hearst, Cosmopolitan already had a million-plus circulation by the 1930s. But it was Brown, who in 1965 single-handedly reinvented the magazine (and the genre) by giving ladies something to talk about other than falsies, pot roast, and marrying a lawyer: casual sex. Also try GQ
With a stranglehold on the dentist waiting-room market, Highlights has been entertaining (and subtly educating) the pediatric-fluoride set since 1946. From the vaguely preachy "Goofus and Gallant" to the awesomely interactive back covers (nope, that hammer doesn't belong in the tree), Highlights hasn't missed a beat in half a century. Also try Dynamite, Nickelodeon Magazine
The best teen magazine on our list.
Until it moved from LA (1987-1994) Rewriting the rules of teen magazines, Sassy addressed its readers in a smart, sarcastic voice. Its frank coverage of sex, drugs, and politics, and its support of indie music and fashion earned everlasting devotion from its fans and the ire of conservative groups who pressured Sassy's advertisers, resulting in its demise. Also try Dirt
26. The Saturday Evening Post
It wasn't until 95 years after The Saturday Evening Post's 1821 launch as a weekly magazine of current events and popular fiction that its then-editor met a 22-year-old artist named Norman Rockwell. After running his first cover illustration in 1916, Rockwell churned out American classics for the SEP on a weekly basis. Also try Newsweek, Time
27. The Face
Though ostensibly a music magazine, The Face realized that cool tunes didn't matter unless everyone looked good. With the innovative marriage of fashion and music, "the best dressed magazine" quickly became the arbiter of style and cool in 1980s England. Also try i-D
28. Sports Illustrated
This ur-sporting tome brought joy and titillation through that unique magazine innovation: the football-phone giveaway in the 1980s. A golden age under Frenchman André Laguerre (1960-1974) saw the rise of serious reportage that baptized a generation of sports writers as legitimate cultural players. Also: Swimsuit Edition-a pivotal moment in the lives of young men everywhere.
The most controversial magazine on our list.
Ralph Ginzburg was the first American publisher ever to go to jail over the content of a magazine-this one. A gender-neutral quarterly devoted to intelligent eroticism, Eros helped spark the sexual revolution. Four issues were published in 1962 before Ginzburg was indicted for "distributing obscene literature." Also try Hustler
30. Fuck You/ A Magazine of the Arts
"I'll print anything" was the motto of founder Ed Sanders, but Fuck You mostly printed work from famous Beat writers. A proto-'zine (it was printed on a mimeograph machine in Sanders' basement, starting in 1962) Fuck You was an inspiration to countless other out-of-the-mainstream underground publications.
31. Vanity Fair
If culture is the collection of stories we tell about ourselves, Vanity Fair might just be our greatest raconteur. Its contributor roster since its founding reads like a social register of talent (both words and pictures), and the 1980s revival at Condé Nast ushered in a renewed time of plenty: increased circulation, exclusive stories, and unparalleled visibility.
32. The Whole Earth Catalog
Original incarnation (1968-1972)
A bible for the counterculture proto-dork (read: the future billionaires club of northern California), WEC stuffed every oversize page with cheek-puckering idealism for purchase-think Buckminster Fuller manifestos and folk-style autoharps. Between the lines was the implicit power of centralized, comprehensive information-as Steve Jobs once said: "Like Google in paperback form, 35 years before Google."
Until the death of founding editor Henry Luce (1930-1967)
It was a different era when a great financial publication might also be one of the most beautiful. Launched just months after Black Tuesday, the oversize Fortune came with an exorbitant $1 cover price (most other magazines sold for pennies), justifying its cost with stunning graphic covers followed by hundreds of luscious pages brimming with business information and beautiful photography. Also try: Fast Company, Inc.
A 1974 spin-off of Time's "People" section, notably read for its various annual issues of superlatives (most beautiful, best/worst dressed, sexiest), it occupies a unique space in the world of celebrity journalism: It may sit next to tabloids on supermarket shelves, but stars who grace its pages are covered willingly.
The greatest women's advocate on our list.
Since its launch in 1971, Ms. has consistently informed policy, making it as much a provocateur as a political force. Gloria Steinem made history when, pre-Roe v. Wade, she printed the names of women who admitted to having abortions. It has since broken taboo stories like domestic violence and sweatshop labor-all before the colored ribbons made activism cool. Also try Bitch, Bust
Before it was sold (1977-1990) Games' wonderful dreamland of mind-boggling conundrums-for a time edited by the New York Times crossword guru Will Shortz-was the perfect read for anyone whose mind required strenuous workouts. Lest it seem uncool, know that it was owned by Playboy.
37. The Paris Review
Until George Plimpton's death (1953-2003)
The first magazine to publish literature by Adrienne Rich, T.C. Boyle, and Phillip Roth, the New York-based Paris Review is renowned for its virtu, its interviews (Hemingway, Faulkner, Kerouac) and its community: 50 years of literati parties at founding editor-in-chief George Plimpton's East Side apartment. Also try Granta
38. Popular Mechanics
In the golden industrial years (1930s-1950s)
Popular Mechanics was a perfect magazine at the perfect time. As the industrial age matured and science and tech-nology entered people's everyday lives, Popular Mechanics was there to hold hands and calm nerves ("Written so you can understand it," proclaimed every cover). The future never looked so good. Also try Omni, Popular Science, Seed
39. The Little Review
Founded in 1914, this literary journal's list of contributors is eye-popping: Ezra Pound, T. S. Eliot, James Joyce, William Butler Yeats, Marcel Duchamp, Ford Madox Ford, Emma Goldman, Carl Sandburg, Gertrude Stein, Wallace Stevens, and William Carlos Williams. And it wasn't just leftovers: Ulysses was first published in its pages, garnering founder Margaret Anderson a $50 fine for obscenity and an obscure but important place in the history of modern literature.
40. Ray Gun
During the peak of the grunge era (1992-1996)
Founding art director David Carson walked a fine line between typesetting brilliance and visual schizophrenia. Despite its eventual folding in 2000 and the appropriation of its style by mainstream outfits, Ray Gun spent its first few years laps ahead of the curve aesthetically and in its music coverage.
41. Brill's Content
Brill's Content was an inside-the-sausage-factory look at media for people who eat sausages, not those who make them. From 1998 to 2001, watchdog-in-chief Steven Brill demanded more from the press through accountability, transparency, and shame. Content's lasting gift was the awkwardly revolutionary premise that journalism is for consumers, and serving them should be a priority.
Founded and edited by the Milanese architect Gio Ponti (1927-1979), the monthly Domus shone a spotlight on modernist décor and architecture. Domus championed Italian forward-thinkers like Carlo Mollino, and international innovators like Charles and Ray Eames, who guest-edited an issue in 1963.
Maybe the weirdest magazine on this list.
The self-described "magazine of gourmet bathing" existed from 1976 to 1981 as a uniquely Angeleno tangent to New Wave-think Less Than Zero as read by an avant-guard artist. Published in Venice Beach, founder Leonard Koren featured young talents Matt Groening, Matthew Ralston, and April Greiman. Bright, bold, and bizarrely on point.
Founded in 2000, Lucky is essentially shopping porn, though the "I read it just for the articles" excuse isn't transferable for the simple reason that there aren't any. Makeup brushes, silk camisoles and slingbacks make up the centerfolds-always with price tag and contact number-which helped Lucky mint the "magalog" genre.
Founded in 1897, Vogue is as renowned to this day for its editrixes as for its fearless trendsetting-though it hasn't been the same since 1971, when they canned the infinitely quotable Diana Vreeland ("People who eat white bread have no dreams," "Pink is the navy blue of India"). The Starbucks of fashion mags, there's still a franchise based in every fashion mecca worldwide.
46. The New England Journal of Medicine
The peer-reviewed medical and surgery quarterly frequently boasts the highest "impact factor" (a measurement the number of times a journal is cited by other articles) of any American medical publication, and occasionally even flirts with casual readability. Also try Nature, Science, Scientific American
47. Architectural Record
Architectural Record chronicled, in simple and elegant design, the blossoming of modern architecture in America, giving space to architects like Frank Lloyd Wright and Louis Sullivan to publish treatises that changed the field forever.
The longest running satire magazine on our list (1841-1992)
A direct descendant of French satirical publications like Le Caricature and Le Charivari, Punch counted Kingsley Amis, Quentin Crisp, and P.G. Wodehouse among its contributors; perfected what we know as a magazine cartoon (a one-panel gag with a caption but no dialogue); and coined the now-ubiquitous term "cartoon" to describe it-all under the aegis of its glove-puppet mascot, Mr. Punch.
The perverted done-it-all older brother of the lad mags, the U.K.'s Loaded has, since 1994, outdone its American siblings in terms of nudity, crassness and, we suspect, binge drinking. It also nailed that irreverent I-know-you-are-but-I-am-cooler tone well before Americans started importing British editors to try to replicate it.
50. The Source
Until the start of the burnout (1988-1994)
Started in 1988 as a Harvard radio-show 'zine, it was the first magazine to give frontline coverage to the war on drugs, expose NYPD brutality, and introduce the world to a guy named Biggie Smalls. Its fall from grace was wince-worthy, but it wasn't called the hip hop bible (by its own founders, mind you) for nothing.
51. Tiger Beat
When they fell weak-kneed for Elvis, screamed for John and Paul, fainted for David Cassidy, swooned for Donny Osmond, or melted for Luke and Jason, Tiger Beat was there on the supermarket shelves in all its Technicolor glory, shining like a beacon of hunkdom for the teeny boppers of the day.