GMail's new Priority Inbox sounds interesting - a special inbox with just the messages that are important to you, likely from people you care about. There's likely some magic special sauce in the Priority algorithm, but a simple facsimile can be created using a Smart Mailbox in a standard email app.
I have a group in my address book:
It currently has 96 people in it. People that I would stop what I'm doing to read a message from.
Then, in my mail app, I created a Smart Mailbox with a simple rule:
Done. A special Priority Inbox, without having to use GMail. There are probably some tweaks I could add, and some conditions to refine it, but it's a pretty decent start. Any messages from the folks in my Extended Family & Friends group get popped in here automagically, without having to sort out the bacon and noise.