Before we begin, some customary caveats on the list-making process: I’m a human being who adheres to conventional space and time, which means I was unable to listen to every podcast that’s ever been published this year. (I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but everybody has one now.) Craft is a tad bit more important to me than the stories themselves. I tend to favor podcasts that function well as complete stand-alone experiences, though I’m aware that puts conversational shows at a disadvantage. Established shows have the added burden of being ranked against prior seasons. Also, I’m cognizant of the insanity that comes with pitting documentary, comedy, fiction, conversational, interview, art house, and other podcast genres against each other.
That said, I try to emphasize shows that I felt said something about the medium, pushed it forward, or extracted something from the world in a way that only that show could. You will likely disagree with me, in which case, sure!
And with all that said: I really enjoyed this year in podcasting! There were so many shows that made the short list, and there were so many other things I wish I could say.
10. Wooden Overcoats Season 3
Since launching in 2015, this charming take on the British sitcom, about a failing funeral parlor on a tiny island in the English Channel, quickly established a fundamental understanding of the genre: A good sitcom is one that reliably comforts while also deepening over time. And reliably comfort it did, with a gloriously mischievous sensibility and a charming cast of daffy characters — including, among others, a mouse that serves as a gossipy narrator. But it wasn’t until this most recent season that I fully appreciated just how much those characters have grown on me, and have grown themselves.
9. It’s Been a Minute With Sam Sanders
I have a lot of admiration for just how much Sam Sanders, with his dexterous and refreshing take on the news-radio structure, is bringing to the sound of NPR. Consistent in quality, It’s Been a Minute mixes news roundups with interviews as it searches for depth, outruns categorical boundaries, and aggressively looks forward. The production is a vigorously realized expression of Sanders’s eye and curiosity, finding its way into the world through a voice that’s vibrant, personal, and fun. It’s hard to build a show like this in a way that feels genuinely new, but Sanders and his team have done it, and it’s a fantastic addition to public radio’s sprawling podcast universe.
8. Alice Isn’t Dead Season 3
Night Vale Presents has had quite a batting average this year, between an impressive wave of new releases (Dreamboy, Adventures in New America) and a solid core of ongoing productions (in particular, I loved I Only Listen to the Mountain Goats). But the one that will stick with me the most is Alice Isn’t Dead, which concluded earlier this year after three seasons. With an ever-dependable performance by Jasika Nicole powering the bulk of the show, Joseph Fink’s tale about a truck driver in search of her missing wife doubles as a heartfelt love letter to odysseys, the great American road trip, and a longing for home. It’s a bit of a strange mix, but the effects are potent.
7. Headlong: Surviving Y2K
Dan Taberski’s follow-up to Missing Richard Simmons is a marvel and a gem. Funny, poetic, and wonderfully written, Surviving Y2K starts out as a seemingly straightforward examination of a societal phenomenon — what did happen with the whole Y2K thing, anyway? — but ultimately reveals itself to be a series of moving human portraits about starting over and leaving the world behind. Simply put, it makes the listener feel so many things. It’s the kind of podcast that you’ll remember for a long time.
6. 30 for 30
The podcast version of ESPN’s beloved documentary series really took a leap this year. In 2018, the show published two full seasons: The first is a stunning serialized investigation by Julia Lowrie Henderson into the complicated world of Bikram yoga, a community struggling with its identity in the wake of sexual-assault allegations levied against its founder; and the second is another straightforward anthology, but one that showcases an excellent baseball-heavy collection of the team’s most interesting and effective storytelling to date.
5. Personal Best
Personal Best might be ranked fifth on this list, but it’s my personal favorite from the whole year. Originally pitched as “a self-improvement show for people who don’t like self-improvement,” this Canadian comedy podcast is much more than that. Each episode is often built around an ordinary person’s simple wish to achieve something banal — waking up earlier, say, or becoming better at small talk — and they all inevitably end up in the same place: a moment of realization, facilitated by a zany and wildly impractical solution that reveals something deeper about being a person in the world. 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. I wish there were more things in the world like it.
4. In the Dark Season 2
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. 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. And it’s everything a sophomore season should be: even more confident of itself; rigorous, composed, and thoughtful, with the precision of a scalpel; and deeper in its weight, ambition, and scope.
The New York Times’ first serialized audio documentary is essential listening, full stop. Driven by Times foreign correspondent Rukmini Callimachi and “Radiolab” alum Andy Mills, Caliphate grapples with many of the fundamental questions surrounding the withering, persistent conflict against terrorism that continues to consume the wider world. How does a person become radicalized? What is the dark appeal of the Islamic State? Who are we fighting, truly? But beyond its excellent reporting is also an immaculate production, one that’s grounded in a surprisingly cinematic sensibility that takes furious advantage of the mind’s eye. There is no greater expression of this than the manner in which Caliphate is bookended: The podcast features an exceptionally strong opening sequence that immediately pulls you into its world, and an ending that’s quiet, delicate, and fully aware that terrorism is a story that’s far from over.
2. Serial Season 3
Look, we’re never going back to the feverish pitch of the first season. And probably for good reason: It was madness! It was also awash with debates and controversies, a legacy that lingers, somewhat frustratingly, to this day. But that was 2014, and this is now. This year, Serial returned with a vastly different approach and a significantly more soulful affair. Sarah Koenig, new co-host Emmanuel Dzotsi, and the team spent a year covering the courts that make up Cleveland’s criminal-justice system. The result is a vivid, ethnographic journey into the everyday reality that is administering the law in these United States. What this season provides, effectively, is a window into the surreal nature of our courts; it’s crushing to see how humanity is lost during the practical execution of the law. Serial is much better this year than ever before, moving away from the cliffhanger-y hooks of its first two outings toward something that feels significantly more meaningful. It also features a clear and definite ending that fascinatingly ties everything back to a core question: What is the role of the reporter in the lives, communities, and worlds that they report on? And how do the roles of “reporter” and “citizen” intersect?
1. Slow Burn Season 2
To be frank, I thought the first season of Slate’s political documentary series — which I’ve come to think as “30 for 30 but for politics,” given its premise of trying to capture what it felt like to live through a historical moment — was a little obvious: Let’s look back at the Nixon Watergate scandal and see what it tells us about the current era of Trump. That debut season, hosted by Leon Neyfakh, was a solid exercise in the genre, but nothing particularly outstanding. However, this second season, again hosted by Neyfakh, focused on the more recent Clinton impeachment scandal — and became something truly special. Maybe it’s the fact that it digs into the very recent past, which has a way of feeling more unstable in cultural memory than a more distant history, or the fact that the events and perspectives explored feel less like an echo and more like a direct prequel to the world we see today. Whatever it is, Slow Burn’s second season, committed to seeing things from the ground up, is not only excellent but devilishly uncanny. It couldn’t have been better timed, and it couldn’t have felt more impactful.