The fight for the podcast throne of 2018 remains very much up for grabs, but that doesn’t mean we’re short on excellent contenders as well as podcast projects that are simply ear-catching, whether due to idea or execution. If there’s a theme of the year so far, it’s the industry’s steady stream of interesting projects that collectively promise to take podcasting into some wildly different directions.
A few quick notes on how I’ve assembled this list: 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. As always, more established shows have the added burden of being ranked against prior seasons. Also, I’m cognizant of the insanity that comes with pitting narrative, documentary, comedy, fiction, interview, and other podcast genres against each other.
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 palatte 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. (Slow Burn is set to return with its second season on August 8, which will focus on the Clinton impeachment.)
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. If you’re looking to try it out, a few particularly great dispatches include The Devil Wears Prada, Mission Impossible, and Michael Friggin’ Clayton.
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.
Americans, as the old cliché goes, tend to like their underdog stories with a triumphant conclusion. Have sympathy, then, for the American soccer fan, particularly if their World Cup allegiances align with their nationality, because triumph remains endlessly elusive. The United States did not qualify for this summer’s tournament, and as Men in Blazers’ Roger Bennett illustrates through this spirited and charming serialized podcast for WNYC Studios, the failure can be understood as a continuation of an amusingly tragic historical narrative. Focusing on the run-up to the U.S. Men’s National Team’s doomed 1998 World Cup campaign, American Fiasco tells the story of a rag-tag team’s brief flirtation with glory, subsequent temptation of fate, and ultimate date with disaster. As processed through Bennett, an Englishman turned American citizen who brims with burning love for both his adopted country and the beautiful game, the story ends up being a classic exploration of what it means to be an American in the way that only a non-American can tell it.
Two years after its investigation into the 1989 disappearance of Jacob Wetterling, APM Reports’ In the Dark is back with an absolutely stellar second season. And while this follow-up effort doesn’t benefit from a dramatic concurrent break in the case as it did last season, it is nonetheless everything that sophomore season should be: even more of itself — rigorous, composed, thoughtful, and furiously expansive in scope with its implications. This time around, Madeleine Baran and her team have trained their attention on the case of Curtis Flowers, a black man from a small town in Mississippi who, unbelievably, has been tried six times by the same white prosecutor for the 1996 murder of four employees of a furniture store where he once worked. It is hard listening, but it is incredible.
A charismatic leader, a spiritual movement, a moment of reckoning. In this challenging season, Julia Lowrie Henderson takes listeners into the complicated world of Bikram yoga, a community struggling with its identity in the wake of sexual-assault allegations levied against its founder, Bikram Choudhury. Over five tightly produced chapters, Henderson threads together an illuminating portrait of a destructive system: how its built by a forceful individual through the use of mythology and capitalism, how it wields power, and perhaps most importantly, how dissenting voices can begin to pull it apart. 30 for 30: Bikram is, of course, exceptionally resonant culturally at this point in time. But beyond the glimpses it offers into the interiority of the #MeToo moment, Henderson has also built a prism into more elemental things in America: the way capitalism’s insistent dream logic enables individuals with the capacity to create “reality distortion fields” — and the ways in which we are also drawn to it.
Produced by Chana Joffe-Walt, “Five Women” is a particularly powerful entry into the growing body of #MeToo stories. The episode is more complex and nuanced than most, primarily due to its adoption of a Rashomon-style structure that layers together the multiple perspectives of the many women linked to the same accuser. The women, deepened by their histories and biographies, clash and coalesce in many big and small ways, resulting in a portrait of a problem so messy, it reaches for a deeper truth. It’s an absolute cliché to roll This American Life into any one of these arbitrary “Best Podcasts” lists, but I tell ya: This is one episode that’s still present and alive in the back of my head, almost four months after it was published.
Does the world deserve Jonathan Van Ness? Probably not, but I’m still glad he’s here gabbing with interesting people for our aural pleasure. Van Ness has been making this fantastic interview podcast since well before he booked Queer Eye, and the success of that reality show has thrusted Getting Curious straight into the podcasting limelight. Digging back through the archives, it’s apparent that Getting Curious has always been good, and that Van Ness has always been a remarkably generous, collaborative, and fun interviewer. The show is further elevated by the sheer breadth of Van Ness’s interests, which span from discussions about art and social media to inquiries about the opioid crisis and China’s economic relationship with the U.S. It’s always exciting to see what he takes on next.
• KCRW’s Welcome to LA is one of my favorite listens all year, and I wish there were more shows like it: memoiristic, observant, well-written, and unafraid of looking foolish.
• Everything Is Alive, Radiotopia’s new show from How to Do Everything’s Ian Chillag, is an offbeat and incredibly strange improvisational podcast that should capture the heart of anybody who loves deadpan stuff.
• Two fiction podcasts to check out: Night Vale Presents’ Alice Isn’t Dead is back for its final season, and Maximum Fun’s Bubble is a worth listening to if you fancy a mix of Portlandia and Buffy the Vampire Slayer with a sprinkling of Tavi Gevinson.
• Mission to Zyxx, which bills itself as an improvised sci-fi comedy sitcom, recently kicked off its second season, and it’s super-enjoyable. A great playlist addition for fans of Hello From the Magic Tavern.
• Punch Up the Jam is very good. Great hangout, and even greater concept.