This month Vulture will be publishing our critics’ year-end lists. So far we’ve covered TV, movies, albums, songs, books, theater, art, classical performances, and video games. Today: concerts and podcasts. Full disclosure: The author of this post works in audience development for Panoply, the company that produces some of the podcasts on this list, as well as most of New York Media’s podcasts.
NYM’s podcasts were excluded from consideration in this category, but we think they’re pretty good too. Check out Vulture’s weekly TV discussion with critics Matt Zoller Seitz and Margaret Lyons; “The Awards Show Show,” featuring analysis of Hollywood awards season from Vulture’s Kyle Buchanan and The Frame’s John Horn; “Sex Lives,” a conversation about dating, technology, coupling, fetish and freakiness with New York Magazine sex columnist Maureen O’Connor, the Cut’s Allison Davis, and editor David Wallace-Wells; and Grub Street, in which New York Magazine restaurant critic Adam Platt talks food with editor Alan Sytsma.
1. “Death, Sex, and Money”
Anna Sale is the absolute best at exploring difficult, intimate, and harrowing topics — loss, loneliness, survival, being left behind, pain, secrets, sex (or lack thereof) — while maintaining a deep, deep sense of dignity for the people she interviews. Probably the most likely successor to “Fresh Air” once Terry Gross decides to hang up her mic and live in the woods outside of Philadelphia, you’d be wise to jump on the Anna Sale bandwagon as she makes her way up. This is the best interview podcast of the year, by far.
2. “You Must Remember This”
Hollywood’s first century was a cesspool of depravity, violence, and power, and Karina Longworth’s podcast dives deep into secret and/or forgotten stories from that era. Deeply researched and wonderfully written, You Must Remember This is a hypnotic time machine that sketches out a dark world of the past — but one that echoes all the way into the present. The podcast hit a high this year with its season on the Manson Family murders, but it’s doing some incredible work right now covering the really shady stuff that went down during the early MGM Studio years.
3. BuzzFeed’s “Another Round”
“Another Round” is both one of the best conversational podcasts on the market as well as therapy for anybody who isn’t a straight white dude living in a world built by straight white dudes. Every week, BuzzFeed writers (and general forces of nature) Tracy Clayton and Heben Nigatu talk race, gender, identity, power, life, pop culture, squirrels, and everything that means anything to them. It’s smart, funny, and often effortlessly powerful, and they have had an amazing debut year. Props to the BuzzFeed PodSquad.
4. “Reply All”
Despite the name, “Reply All” isn’t a podcast about technology — it’s a podcast that tells gorgeous, painfully human stories that happen to have bits of technology sprinkled in. It’s been a banner year for the podcast network Gimlet Media: The new darling of the industry burst into the business with its ear-catching “StartUp” podcast and may have found many famous fans with “Mystery Show.” But “Reply All” is the company’s workhorse, routinely churning out narrative stories that are consistently surprising, constantly great, and often quite special.
5. NPR’s “How to Do Everything”
Many public-radio podcasts have a tendency to lean too much into “Gee whiz, isn’t that interesting!” editorial territory (see: “Hidden Brain,” “Invisibilia,” “RadioLab,” “Only Human,” etc.) Which isn’t a bad thing by any means, and in fact, these shows are often excellent. But the abundance of such public-radio pods doesn’t just make it a trend — it defines it as an internalized culture. So when a public-radio podcast subverts that culture, I pay attention. “How to Do Everything” is a bizarre offering that takes this spirit and turns it inside out into the absurd, adopting the Monty Python approach of making highbrow inquiries into seemingly lowbrow questions, like, “How do you smuggle a live chicken?” or “How do you talk to a British dog?” It’s a fun, light show, and goes down pleasantly in your ear-balls.
6. “Song Exploder”
Here’s a hyperbolic statement that’s also true: “Song Exploder” is probably the best use of the podcast format ever. Each episode explores the structure of a given song by taking it apart layer by layer, piece by piece (past songs include: tUnE-yArDs’ “Water Fountain,” Sylvan Esso’s “Coffee,” and the Game of Thrones theme). Also present in each episode is the song’s composer, who’s there to tell you the story behind how the song was made — and because the creators are so knowledgeable about how the music-creation process works, it feels like the composers are in a space where they’re talking to you, the listener, as equals. That’s a really special feeling, and this is a really special podcast.
7. “The Watch”
Chris Ryan and Andy Greenwald are two of the best pop-culture writers around, and I’d go out on a limb and say that their show — formerly known as the Grantland “Hollywood Prospectus” podcast — is most definitely the best pop-culture podcast in the market. Oozing with wit, intelligence, and insight, the podcast is a fun companion for the media-obsessed, even if you’re not able to caught up on everything because, really, is that even humanly possible? (RIP, Grantland.)
8. “Limetown” / “The Message” / “The Black Tapes Podcast”
This entry may be a cheat, but whatever. In my mind, these three podcasts collectively represent a window into a very possible future for podcast programming: serialized audio fiction that’s thoroughly modern, eminently listenable, and draws from the creative (and structural) lessons of television. Sure, some of the episodes across these shows may be aggressively clichéd, and the similarities between them — the fake public-radio show conceit, female central protagonists of a certain Sarah Koenig–ean quality, general spookiness — are certainly peculiar, but, hey, it’s still a fascinating step forward in a modern audio-fiction world defined by “Welcome to Night Vale” and Jonathan Mitchell’s “The Truth.”
9. “Happier With Gretchen Rubin”
Equal parts self-help, social psychology, and conversational podcast, “Happier With Gretchen Rubin” is a fun, advice-oriented podcast with a light touch. Every week, author Gretchen Rubin and her sister, TV writer Elizabeth Craft, pursue practical, tangible things that one could perform in order to generally make one’s life a little brighter. Which is great for people who are already inclined toward productivity stuff, but if you’re like me, a sad, miserable person who’s averse to any notions of self-improvement, the pleasure really comes from the warmth of the familial banter that’s a whole lot of more comforting than it had any right to be.
“Criminal” is a true-crime podcast that understands crime as something sociological, historical, even anthropological — that crime is a function of people, time, and place. Each episode tells the story of a crime as a sort of fable, even if the moral lesson at the center seems impossible, unclear, or out of reach. With incredible sound design, marvelous writing, and a boldness in the way it makes its choices, there are fewer shows that feel more alive.
BEST PODCAST EPISODES
1. “You Must Remember This,” “Charles Manson’s Hollywood, Part 9: August 8–10, 1969”
Karina Longworth’s podcast often deals with the forgotten stories of Hollywood, but her season on Charles Manson and the Manson Family massacre — which ran in 12 parts over the summer — was a sensational reinvestigation into a tragedy that’s well known but poorly remembered. The ninth episode, which features a brutal step-by-step walk-through of the killings, was an incredible piece of storytelling in its own right, but the narrative was elevated by the rich, deeply researched context of the eight episodes that came before it.
2. “WTF With Marc Maron,” “Terry Gross”
Maron, the patron saint of podcasters, had a banner year in 2015, and even managed to score President Obama as a guest this summer. But Maron’s presidential interview wasn’t the best show he did this year. That honor goes to his sit-down with beloved “Fresh Air” host Terry Gross at a live Brooklyn show back in May. Playful and revealing, the interview wasn’t just a lovely window into a public-radio talent who often shies from the spotlight. It’s also a lovely conversation between two people who clearly respect each other’s work. Simply sublime.
3. “Love + Radio,” “The Living Room”
A woman falls into an intimate, strange, and one-sided voyeuristic relationship with her new neighbors. Something happens, of course, but to describe it would give the story away. This episode was perhaps the most divisive piece of tape I’ve heard about all year; beautiful but utterly wrong, life-affirming but tragic, relatable but possibly reprehensible. “Love + Radio” excels at drawing out strong and unfiltered emotional responses, and boy, this story drained everything out of me.
4. “Criminal,” “The Portrait”
“Criminal” understands crime as something sociological, historical, even anthropological — that it’s is a function of people, time, and place. “The Portrait” is perhaps the embodiment of this sensibility. Part of the “murder ballad” episodes, “The Portrait” explores the origins of a traditional American ballad that narrates a grisly North Carolina murder of a family in the early 1900s. The episode culminates in a modern interpretation of the ballad performed by the Indiana-based musical act Elephant Micah, and the effect is haunting and quite unforgettable.
5. “This American Life,” “The Problem We All Live With, Part 1 & Part 2”
To place “This American Life” on a Best Podcast list may well be a cliché, but whatever, Ira Glass and Co. are boss. A special two-part series by Nikole Hannah-Jones and Chana Joffe-Walt, “The Problem We All Live With, Parts 1 & 2” examines several stories on school segregation in America along with the Herculean efforts (accidental and otherwise) to integrate them. Do not miss this.
6. “Death, Sex, and Money,” “Cheating Happens”
Anna Sale’s podcast was created to explore the more private things in life, hence the name. With that in mind, then, one could say that “Cheating Happens” is the episode the show was born to produce, and Sale attends to the topic of relationships strayed with great respect, empathy, and dignity. A podcast best consumed alone, away from everyone you love.
7. “Reply All,” “Shine on You Crazy Goldman”
“Reply All” is a podcast that plays with the form in some interesting ways. “Shine on You,” the best episode in an already very strong first year for the Gimlet show, starts out as a seemingly basic magazine-reporting piece, only to shift toward gonzo and conclude as a sort of semi-personal meditation. Sure, it’s a piece of me-first journalism, but it’s really good.
8. “Another Round,” “Madame Secretary, What’s Good?”
When the hosts of a show this entertaining sit down with presidential candidate Hillary Clinton, you’re going to get something special. And let me tell ya: This was something special, indeed.
9. “Longform,” “Rukmini Callimachi”
The “Longform” podcast has long been a great resource for journalists and those who love the practice, and its February interview with Rukmini Callimachi, who covers ISIS for the New York Times, proved to be essential listening. The Callimachi interview effectively shows the difficulty of reporting on a disparate terroristic entity and also serves as a uniquely informative window into understanding one of the most salient issues of our time.
10. “Mystery Show,” “Case #3 Belt Buckle”
The premise: In the 1980s, a young boy inherits a curious belt buckle that was found on the street. In the present, host/amateur sleuth Starlee Kine sets out to return the belt buckle to its rightful owner. Gimlet Media’s “Mystery Show” is a strange podcast to consume, let alone review. A show that’s ostensibly structured after a Columbo-style investigative procedural, it’s often meandering and a tad bit self-indulgent. And yet, in its very short run of six episodes, the podcast is capable of some truly amazing feats of magic. “Case #3 Belt Buckle” is one of them.