It’s been a busy business year in podcast-land: acquisitions upon acquisitions, a bungled $100 million rollout, and the Obamas jumping into the podcast pool. On the creative side, though, is a steady stream of solid compositions — some definitively old-school, others divinely new.
As always, 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 “aftershow” series at a disadvantage. As always, more established shows have the added burden of being ranked against prior seasons (which is why, unfortunately, Leon Neyfakh’s Fiasco won’t make the list this time). Also, I’m cognizant of the insanity that comes with pitting narrative, documentary, comedy, fiction, interview, and other podcast genres against each other.
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. With that all out of the way, let’s go.
Headlong: Running From Cops (Topic/Pineapple Street)
When it comes to a pop-culture artifact as iconic and self-evidently ubiquitous as Cops, it can be easy to ask the most basic questions. How, exactly, does something as inherently bizarre as this — a reality TV program that packages footage of police officers doing their jobs as entertainment — come to be? How did it become so influential? What’s real, and what isn’t? And most importantly, what has it done to us? Rigorously reported and elegantly constructed, Dan Taberski’s follow-up to Surviving Y2K is a scorcher of sociological examination. The six-part series takes listeners down the rabbit hole of the show’s legacy, from its somewhat unremarkable origins all the way through to its morally murky rise. What you find on the other end, it seems, is a window straight into our modern dystopia.
Lost Notes, Season 2 (KCRW)
Executive produced by Jessica Hopper, the veteran Chicago-based music critic, KCRW’s music documentary anthology series has assembled an utterly unforgettable collection of stories for its sophomore season. Among the highlights: “Teenage Offenders,” in which the founding member of a punk band, now a middle-aged father, reckons with the misogyny of his old lyrics; “Sonic Sculptor,” a portrait of Suzanne Ciani, whose synth art is intimately embedded in the sound of the ’80s; and “To Chan Marshall,” which features the poet Hanif Abduraqqib performing a letter to Cat Power, whose album The Greatest may well have saved his life. As with many historically oriented documentaries, reexaminations of the past are abundant in the season. But under Hopper’s guidance, it’s never felt more raw.
Against the Rules (Pushkin Industries)
This should have been abundantly obvious from his books, magazine features, and audiobook readings, but Michael Lewis is a gifted raconteur. Through the filter of his slight Louisianan drawl, his capacity for sketching characters and deconstructing systems takes on new life. When operating as audio documentarian, he’s never been more accessible. Against the Rules is classic Lewisian material, with the focus trained on the degrading role of referees and institutions acting as referees in modern society, and how that process is affecting us. The actual production quality of the show isn’t completely polished, but those bumps don’t really get in the way of the narrative. If you like Lewis’s stuff elsewhere, you definitely shouldn’t miss Against the Rules.
The Big One (KPCC)
The Big One has a slightly oddball premise that’s fascinating enough to be worth the price of admission. Produced by Southern California Public Radio (KPCC), this limited-run podcast endeavors to give listeners a sense of what to expect when the San Andreas fault line that lies beneath the city inevitably rips, and what they should be prepared to do. Half service journalism and half speculative fiction, it’s an innovative piece of science journalism that pulls off the execution. It’s also a pretty fun listen … or at least, as fun as an end-times survival guide can be.
10 Things That Scare Me (WNYC)
Podcasting was made for shows like this. The title basically tells you everything you need to know: Each bite-size episode, which usually runs between five and eight minutes, features a different person, often someone of note but occasionally a listener, discussing ten things that scare them. The fears range from the banal, like bugs, to the existential, like a loss of purpose. When strung together contiguously as a collection, these lists are sublime windows into the quiet horror that comes with being alive. 10 Things That Scare Me also features some wonderful, thoughtful sound design, bestowing an uncommon level of aesthetic polish to these recordings.
The Dropout (ABC)
Is it just me, or has the summer of scams been going for a really long time? Like, I can’t actually remember the last time we weren’t living in a season so luxuriously filled with frauds. Anyway, folks who simply can’t get enough of stories about scams — and, specifically, stories about Theranos, one of the preeminent poster children of scams — shouldn’t miss ABC’s The Dropout, which turned out to be a solid addition to the growing body of literature on the Silicon Valley-based debacle. The podcast doesn’t quite have the depth of the John Carreyrou book Bad Blood, but what it does have instead, crucially, are raw audio recordings of the depositions from the lawsuits that were brought to the company. It’s a sensational get, and they provide a unique, powerful window into the case … and the mercurial figure at the heart of the story, Elizabeth Holmes.
The Last Days of August (Audible Originals)
In this semi-sequel to The Butterfly Effect, Jon Ronson and Lina Misitzis’s fascinating journey into the porn industry and how it’s been disrupted by the internet, the focus is on the mystery of a specific tragedy: the suicide of the adult performer August Ames, initially thought to be the result of cyberbullying until a series of logistical inconsistencies call the causal link into the question. What starts off feeling like what could possibly be another rote exercise in true crime eventually, and elegantly, evolves into a portrait of loneliness. The Last Days of August isn’t without its complications, but it’s compelling, thoughtfully assembled, and genuinely moving.
Bundyville: Season 2 (Oregon Public Broadcasting and Longreads)
Bundyville, the journalist’s Leah Sottile excellent documentary podcast on extremism in the American West, is less a linear investigation than it is a spine-chilling crawl down an insidious rabbit hole. On the other side is something that feels like a parallel world, one made up of a network of individuals, groups, and ideas associated with a growing undercurrent of political fundamentalism. (Broadly, that undercurrent has manifested itself as the so-called Patriot Movement.) Bundyville’s first season dug into the Malheur standoff of January 2016; earlier this summer, the podcast returned with a sustained examination of the standoff’s ideological effects, highlighting a social phenomenon — and a societal threat — that feels like it’s getting more entrenched by the day.
It was the classic definition of a scandal. In 2014, Donald Sterling, then the billionaire owner of the then-dysfunctional Los Angeles Clippers, was forced by the NBA to sell the team after audio recordings of him spewing racist comments were leaked to the media. (He was also fined millions of dollars and banned from the league for life.) Maybe you know about this story, maybe you don’t, and even if you did, you’d probably want to check out this fantastic audio-doc series by ESPN’s Ramona Shelburne, which vividly unpacks the scandal to explore a tightly woven bundle of societal fault lines, from the poisonous core of extreme wealth to the racial power dynamics of professional sports to the bigger-than-the-sum-of-its-parts ripple effects of player empowerment.
• The Clearing, the new true-crime podcast from Pineapple Street and Gimlet, is a strong addition to the genre thanks to the depth of its reporting and the strength of its hook. It also positions itself as a critique on the genre, and on this front, it is particularly curious. Can you exhibit distance from genre conventions while utilizing them to some extent? It’s a compelling conundrum, and it’s another reason the show is worth checking out.
• Fans of Avery Trufelman’s Articles of Interest from last year would likely really enjoy Nice Try! Utopian, her series on failed experimental communities that comes from a collaboration with Curbed. Interestingly enough, it pairs well with Lauren Ober’s Spectacular Failures, which is about failed experimental communities of another kind: companies and corporations.
• The New York Times Magazine’s 1619 Project, which memorializes the 400th anniversary of American slavery, has drawn long lines for its print copies. Its audio version, currently ongoing, is no slouch either.
• John Cameron Mitchell’s star-studded podcast musical, Anthem: Homunculus, is worth the price of admission for its ambition alone.
• Walking, Jon Mooallem’s absurdish audio podcast from his walks in the Pacific Northwest, remains one of my favorite finds this year.
• For those who court the strange: I can’t seem to get enough of Richard’s Famous Foods, which is a surreal and somewhat unsettling “quasi-journalistic” podcast about food.
• There’s something really interesting going on with Have You Heard George’s Podcast?, the podcast-distributed musical poetry project by the British spoken-word artist George Mpanga, a.k.a. George the Poet.