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  OUT WITH THE OLD, IN WITH THE NEW YEAR'S READS.  
   
  At the end of every year, The Black Table goes through the heap of magazines we subscribe to, kill off the ones that disappointed and load up on a whole new batch. But with 4,600 magazines on the market, nearly double the number there was in 1986, finding nuggets of gold in the oversaturated marketplace is a chore. No wonder newsstand magazine sales dropped to 1.6 billion from 2.1 billion over that same span.

To make life a little easier as the holidays approach, The Black Table has tackled the magazine rack and found four magazines you should take a shot at over the next 12 months, four you should shun from the mailbox and one you need to keep an eye on. (As a convenience, you can click the picture to subscribe to the magazine through Amazon.com. But know that prices are often cheaper when bought through the magazine inserts.)

SUBSCRIBE TODAY!

 

 
  BLENDER
In order to truly appreciate Blender magazine, you'll have to learn to control your gag reflex. Beneath the laddish Felix Dennis veneer is America's best music magazine. Consider those bold-type gaffes, like naming Christina Aguilera woman of the year, the cost of doing business. For every trash-pop record that gets too many column inches, there are a dozen blurbs about obscure artists that may never make the pages of Rolling Stone or Spin. And look, now that you're out of college,
 
 

your chances of finding those cool bands is virtually nil, so you need all the help you can get. A quick look at the editor's picks -- those discs that Blender claims are playing in the office -- underscores Blender's claim to coolness. Christina may get the cover, but the editorial staff prefers My Morning Jacket, Thin Lizzy and The Stooges, and while its tone can be insipid and juvenile, as with all of the Dennis pubs, this flaw can become an advantage. In one regular feature, the magazine gives a band $848 to spend on whatever they want. Metal gods The Darkness bought a goat. The Flaming Lips blew it on strippers and Pepto Bismol. The bottom line? At $9.79 for 10 issues a year -- $7.97 through the magazine -- Blender's the same price as two beers and well worth the cash.

 

 
  PLAYBOY
Did you know it only costs $12 for a whole year of Playboy when you buy through the magazine insert? That's only three-tenths of a penny per day! Sure, Playboy's noticeable decline in rack sales -- the 3.2 million subscribers it has now are half what it had in its heyday -- and cultural irrelevance has been noted so many times the past three years it's almost trite to rehash those facts. The Maximization of men's magazines has definitely played its part in Playboy's distracting infusion of tired, pop culture humor -- after
 
 

all, former Maxim editor James Kaminsky is running the show. But do those poorly executed hip-hop colloquialisms really matter? Playboy's writing is still better than most of its dopey rivals and let's not forget that the women are 400 times more attractive and, well, they're naked. Did we mention it's $12 a year! ($15.96 through Amazon.) It's probably in Playboy's best interest to leave Michelle Pfieffer's sister, Drew Barrymore's mom, and some of the uglier kin of A-list celebrities off the cover from now on. But I'd rather buy their issues instead of yet another magazine featuring Brooke Burke, Carmen Electra or Pam Anderson. Besides, you know Britney Spears is going whole hog at some point next year and Playboy's the only place she'd land. Wouldn't you rather have her issue arrive in your mailbox as opposed to loafing around bodegas and drugstores for hours until you build up the courage to buy it? Plan ahead. Playboy's $7 an issue on the newsstand.

 

 
  FOUND MAGAZINE
This is a magazine that's entirely comprised of notes, grocery lists, pictures and loads of other random crap people find, hence the name. New Yorker, GQ, and nearly all the alternative newspapers have gushed about Davy Rothbart's zine-slash-ongoing art project. The first two issues sold 50,000 copies and Rothbart's got a book coming out on Simon & Schuster in May 2004. But Found rises above the hype with an innovative concept and
 
 

personal charms. Each item featured in Found jogs a memory and elicits a comforting feeling that what truly connects humanity is the randomness of our crap. The break-up letters, prom photos, grocery lists and drugstore receipts are testament that we're all in this together. Yeah, it's a little pricey for only three issues a year, but Found is one of those rare publications that has an ability to captivate with its heartfelt simplicity each time you read it. After you've finished reading it becomes almost impossible not to start picking up scraps of paper and ticket stubs off the ground for further investigation. Just make sure you're picking up a piece of paper and not a dirty tissue. That spoils your motivation a bit.

 

 
  FOREIGN POLICY
Aren't you sick of your steady diet of nothing? With the three major newsweeklies turning to fluff to keep readers interested in the news, Foreign Policy's well-written analysis and keen insights will teach you how the world *really* works. Founded by Samuel Huntington and Warren Demian Manshel in 1970 and funded by the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, FP has the kind of pedigree that would make a political science department scream like teenage girls. Luckily,
 
 

the magazine doesn't take a professorial tone, opting for five 10-cent words instead of a confusing 50-cent one. Simply put, FP attempts to answer the difficult questions about America's post-9/11 future that newsweeklies don't even ask -- a big reason why FP won the National Magazine Award for General Excellence in 2003. A recent issue handicapped the fate of North Korea and other despot-led nations if and when the bad guy leaves office, contemplated the role of women in Japanese culture and discussed the global rise of anti-Semitism. While FP only publishes six times a year and has a somewhat pricey subscription rate of $19.95, the clear, jargon-free prose will shatter your understanding of the world by selling fascinating ideas instead of overblown trend pieces on obesity. Do you really need more junk news?

WAIT AND SEE, COULD BE A LOOKER!

 

 
  NEW YORK MAGAZINE
As it stands now, New York Magazine looks a lot like those forgettable New York Yankees teams from the 1980s, when Donnie Baseball was the only marquee name and George Steinbrenner was firing Billy Martin on a weekly basis. Back then, the Yankees were a team distracted and defined by the actions of upper management, and Primedia's ugly, too-public attempt to sell off New York has had the same effect on the magazine. At some point, the media scrum over
 
 

its fate will end and when the dust settles, New York has some tremendous upside. Hopefully, the new owner won't clean house too much, because the recent spate of flaccid, uneven, service-driven cover stories isn't necessarily reflective of a weak staff. With columnists like Michael Wolff, Simon Dumenco and Jim Cramer, the magazine has the things that make New York tick well-covered and would be worth the $9.97 a year for 46 issues if only columns counted. But what will make New York truly worth buying again is a firmer sense of self and a refined editorial mission -- one that doesn't aim for the lowest common denominator and reflects how different New York is from the rest of the country. As with those horrid Yankees teams, once the ownership problem sorts itself out, the business at hand will once again be producing a weekly magazine. Things can only get better.

DUMP THESE NOW!

 

 
 

THE BELIEVER
Before it launched, many optimists (us included) hoped The Believer would be the second coming of Might magazine, the legendary San Fran-based magazine started by Dave Eggers, before he was "Staggering." Sadly, it's not. Unlike Might, which was irreverent, smart *and* accessible, The Believer's eclectic stories and sharp design are undercut by an insular and elitist tone. Yet again, McSweeney's creates a package that charms readers only to

 
 

alienate them with obscure references, ensuring most will never feel smart enough to truly join the exclusive little club. On its Web site, The Believer claims to be "a monthly magazine where length is no object," but after the two-part retrospective on Jerry Lewis' career, perhaps there's something to that whole "brevity is the soul of wit" adage. Honestly, what's next? A 16,000-word transcript of a conversation between Salman Rushdie and the Prime Minster of Japuti? Furthermore, The Believer's anti-snark "Snarkwatch" campaign has only isolated the magazine from the very people who would be its biggest supporters, especially in Web-circles where snark is its own currency. At $55 for 12 issues, The Believer is too expensive, especially when there are plenty of people who already make you feel stupid for absolutely nothing.

 

 
  VANITY FAIR
When did Vanity Fair become so heavy? Christ. Last month's music issue ripped the magazine rack right off the wall. Graydon Carter can smoke all he wants in our apartment, but he has to spackle those holes first. Before it became this unwieldy behemoth, VF was a magazine that had interesting, compelling articles about Hollywood moneymakers and pretentious rich snots. Plus, VF was always good for one classic magazine cover per year. Maybe the fact Carter was passed up for the New Yorker motivated him to
 
 

produce incredible issues when it took the helm in the mid-1990s, but after that desperate mid-summer issue on tweens, is there any wonder circulation was off 7.3% in the first half of 2003? It very well may still have great writing inside, but we got so lost fumbling through the Tommy Hilfiger and Coach ads we completely forget what we were reading by the time we found the jump page. Maybe that's why Adweek named Carter Editor of the Year in a 4,600-word profile back in March.

 

 
  PENTHOUSE
Over the last five years, circulation of Bob Guccione's hard-core porn magazine has plunged from 1 million to 565,700, so if you decide to cancel your subscription this year, know you won't be alone. In the last quarter, revenue was down 25% year-over-year and business is so bad that General Media, the parent company of Penthouse, has declared bankruptcy. In November, Guccione walked away as CEO and chairman of the company, replaced by a 90-year-
 
 

old man, and despite the fact he continues to helm the magazine, everyone over there seems to have thrown in the towel. Like a contortionist at the Limbo Olympics, Penthouse has been reaching a series of lower lows with each issue -- no mean feat for a magazine that already featured gratuitous penetration shots and ends most pictorials with a facial. When your magazine is publishing the kind of crap that makes Hustler look like National Geographic, even Jenna Jameson, who is rumored to be interested in buying Penthouse, can't save it. A recent centerfold featured multiple pictures of an extremely young model urinating, images so vile that Penthouse no longer accomplishes the one thing that's kept it alive this long -- providing Grade A spank material.

 

 
  PEOPLE
Even without Bonnie Fuller, Us Weekly continues to beat the unholy ratshit out of People's entertainment coverage, getting fresher gossip, better covers and sating the nation's insatiable need for celebrity news. Although People's 3.6 million circulation is still stronger, Us Weekly is cheaper, has bettter writing, offers sharper Access Hollywood blather and will grab a younger, growing readership, unlike People's beach-bound-fat-mommy demographic. Ask yourself: Outside of the doctors office, what's People's
 
 

niche these days? Unless a precocious Midwestern child falls in a well or a bunch of hick-stick miners survive some "harrowing ordeal" every single week, People really has no place in the world of schlocky, dumb magazine reads anymore. Take your $109 and buy your own fat mommy something more substantial, like raisins or something.