Four months into the year, the fight for the Podcast Throne of 2018 remains very much up for grabs. We were spoiled last year with the early introduction of S-Town, which dropped in March and pretty much owned the industry narrative for the rest of the calendar. No such instant coronations this time around. Instead, we have a steady stream of really interesting projects that promise to take podcasting into wildly different directions.
A few quick notes on methodology: Craft is a bit more important to me than the stories themselves. I tend to put more stock into podcasts that function well as stand-alone experiences, though I’m aware that puts comedy, conversational, and “after-show” series at a disadvantage. And, as always, more established shows have the added burden of being ranked against prior seasons.
Oh, and of course, this list is definitive and all-encompassing and in no way is defined by the subjective limitations of myself, a human being with his own tastes and preferences. Let’s go!
Gripping, bold, and unsettling, the New York Times’ first serialized audio documentary is essential listening, full stop. Driven by a dynamic duo, Times foreign correspondent Rukmini Callimachi and Radiolab alum Andy Mills, Caliphate grapples with some fundamental questions about the withering, persistent conflict against terrorism that still consumes the western world: How does a person become radicalized? What is the dark appeal of the Islamic State? Who are we fighting, truly? Caliphate is immaculately produced, grounded with a vivid cinematic sensibility that melds well with the mind’s eye and an exceptionally strong opening sequence that pulls you into its world from the get-go. Above all, it’s a severe muscle flex from an audio team that’s only beginning to figure out what it’s capable of doing.
West Cork gets mad points for expanding the palate of the true crime podcast. Produced by documentarian Jennifer Ford and investigative journalist Sam Bungey, the podcast focuses on the 1996 murder of Sophie Toscan du Plantier, a French film producer who was found near her Irish vacation home around the West Cork town of Schull; a cold case that’s fairly well-known in the region. The documentary turns on a major twist that you might spot from a million miles away (or through a rudimentary Google search), but it’s one of those stories where the revelation isn’t the point. Instead, what begins as a textbook performance of a cold case quickly turns into a rich and unsettling character study of a prime suspect that’s living, breathing, and actively participating in the analysis itself. Mind games abound, and listeners are made to reckon with the limitations of discerning truth from a moving target.
If Nathan For You had a baby and left it in the Canadian woods to fend for itself, that baby would grow up to look a lot like Personal Best. Pitched as a “self-improvement show for people who don’t like self-improvement,” this comedy podcast is so much more than that. Every episode begins with someone’s simple request to fix or achieve something, but they all inevitably end up in the same place: a moment of realization, facilitated by a zany and wildly impractical solution, that reveals a deeper truth about being a human person. A funny and life-affirming romp through a world of hidden wants and quiet dreams, I love this show not just for its crazy adventures, but for the simple fact that it’s generous and gentle.
To love something well is an art in and of itself. That’s the big idea behind I Only Listen to the Mountain Goats, a Night Vale Presents project that recently wrapped up its first season. A collaboration between Welcome to Night Vale co-creator Joseph Fink and The Mountain Goats’ John Darnielle, the podcast is a vibrant and exciting listening companion to the band’s 2002 album All Hail West Texas. Every episode is dedicated to a different track on the album, and they feature the two artists — plus special musical guests like Andrew Bird, Amanda Palmer, and the Hold Steady’s Craig Finn — going deep not just about one particular song, but also larger questions concerning the creative process, the world, and how being an artist is largely informed by being a fan. In a lovely touch, every episode is capped with a cover of the song being discussed, underscoring the project’s larger themes about the relationship between fandom and art. I Only Listen to the Mountain Goats is a sensational and spirited idea, surpassed only by the wonder of its execution.
It could’ve been cheap. Worse, it could’ve been lame. That’s what I thought when I first heard Marvel was developing a fiction podcast based on Canada’s favorite cigar-chomping mutant, Wolverine. Everybody wants in on podcasting right now, and so Marvel’s gambit could have been as simple as getting some people to sit around and read lines from an old Logan arc. But that’s not what happened here. Instead, with The Long Night, a joint Marvel-Stitcher team set out to grapple with the opportunities and limitations of a story in which Logan is conveyed purely as a creature of sound: flesh-piercing claws and all. The story isn’t perfect, nor are some of the performances, but Richard Armitage’s Logan is legitimately thrilling. Marvel’s first serious stab at audio is a solid one, and one can only marvel at where it could go from here.
Note: The Long Night is currently only available on Stitcher Premium. It will be released widely later this year.
Come for the parallels between Nixon-era maelstroms and Trump-era pandemonium, stay for the endless stream of insane details. Hosted by Slate staff writer Leon Neyfakh, who boasts an alluringly dry vocal affect, the podcast is premised on helping listeners understand what it felt like to live through a specific historical moment — in this case, the Watergate scandal. The framing alone makes Slow Burn distinct from most of its genre peers, but its success largely rises from the strength of its meticulous research and its commitment to presenting the stories of the various characters it excavates from time.
Few things are more pleasurable than a group of smart, funny, and deeply nostalgic people going long on a piece of culture they really love. For The Rewatchables, the piece of culture is the movies that you can watch over and over and over again: Point Break, The Big Lebowski, You’ve Got Mail. Yes, great podcasts that go deep on beloved films are a dime a dozen — think The Canon, The Next Picture Show, How Did This Get Made (sorta) — but The Rewatchables pops off the Apple Podcast charts due to the sheer charisma and chemistry of its rotating cast of panelists.
WBEZ’s follow-up to Making Oprah is a gem. Hosted once again by Jenn White, this short audio documentary on the 44th president of the United States specifically focuses on his young adulthood in Chicago, where Obama cut his teeth as a community organizer, ran for office, and planted the seeds that would set the future in motion. Chicago plays no small role in shaping the man who would become this country’s first black president, and Making Obama understands this immensely. Over the course of six solidly produced episodes, the podcast is evocative in how it illustrates the impact of a place on a person, and a city on a psyche.
This daffy British podcast sitcom has been around since 2015, and it’s only gotten better over time. Wooden Overcoats is a story about rival funeral directors in a small village on a tiny island in the English Channel, but like most stories set in small villages on tiny islands in pastoral locations, it’s a playground for countless hijinks and a sprawling set of quirky characters (including, among others, a mouse that serves as gossipy narrator). I only started getting into this show pretty late into its second season, and it was a great time to witness the production kick into high gear. Now in its third season, which kicked off in March, Wooden Overcoats has never been more addictive, and its world has never been more interesting.
Lynn Levy’s Real World: Mars approach to the humdrum exploits of a HI-SEAS mission, in which a couple of scientists volunteer to spend time living in an isolated dome for science, proved to be a little divisive, with some listeners complaining about the lack of actual science in the podcast. I understand those complaints, but I’m not particularly sympathetic because that would be asking for a completely different show. On its own terms, The Habitat is a charming look at a group of normal people mundanely carrying out their lives in an extraordinary environment. It’s a sly juxtaposition, but also pretty audacious.
• Two shows that are still too early in their runs to list, but are nonetheless catching heat: Death in Ice Valley, the true crime collaboration between the BBC and Norway’s NRK, and the second season of In The Dark. Both are already superb.
• Don’t miss Chana Joffe-Walt’s “Five Women” episode of This American Life. It’s an exceptionally powerful entry into the growing body of #MeToo stories.
• I have a real soft spot for Off Book: The Improvised Musical, which has been so good lately.