Thanks to industry expansion and increased general interest, the podcast universe has never been bigger, and the number of titles rolled out over the past year has never been more overwhelming. In the face of such noisy abundance, I found myself gravitating toward projects that were personal, individualistic, quiet. That’s not always the case, of course — The Hottest Take, which appears on this list, is frequently loud and chaotic — but on the whole this year, I valued some combination of competence, inventiveness, and most importantly, focus.
As always, some notes on assembly: Craft is a bit more important to me than the stories themselves. I tend to put more stock into podcasts that function well as standalone experiences. (And, for those wondering, our list of the year’s best comedy podcasts is coming next week.) As always, more established shows have the added burden of being ranked against prior seasons. Also, I’m cognizant of the absurdity 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.
All that established, these are my picks from what has been an exceptionally busy podcast year.
10. The Hottest Take (The Ringer)
Sometimes, a really good conceit can take you a long way. The Hottest Take is one of the more intriguing experiments to come out from the Ringer, the Bill Simmons–led digital-media company that doubles as a podcast lab. Hottest Take (which, readers should note, is a Spotify exclusive) has one of those premises that’s easy to describe but hard to execute well: Structured as a roundtable, each episode features a different staff writer submitting a hot take, which everybody else then proceeds to pounce on or defend. The takes alternate between absurd banality (buttons are bullshit) and painful reasonableness (actually, paper straws are good), yet the fundamental appeal comes from the juxtaposition between the low stakes of the take and the high intensity of the ensuing discourse.
9. The Last Days of August (Audible Originals)
The Last Days of August can perhaps be considered a semi-sequel to The Butterfly Effect, Jon Ronson and Lina Misitzis’s fascinating 2017 journey into a porn industry that’s been reshaped by the internet, but only because it takes place in the same milieu. The focus here 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 called that casual theory into question. What starts off feeling like what could possibly be another dicey 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 thoughtful and genuinely moving, a testament to the sensitivity of Ronson and Misitzis.
8. 10 Things That Scare Me (WNYC)
The title basically tells you everything you need to know. A podcast that’s simultaneously quiet and audacious, each bite-size episode features a different person, usually someone of note but occasionally a listener, discussing ten things that they’re afraid of. The fears range from the everyday, like bugs, to the existential, like a loss of purpose. When strung together as a collection, these lists becomes sublime windows into the quiet horror that comes with being alive. Featuring some truly wonderful sound design that renders each installment as fluid as a dream, 10 Things That Scare Me is a perfect pocket of meditative splendor.
7. Headlong: Running From Cops (Topic Studios and Pineapple Street Studios)
Dan Taberski’s follow-up to Surviving Y2K is a scorcher. When it comes to a media artifact like Cops, a television show so ubiquitous as to be American wallpaper, it can be easy to gloss over the most basic questions. Like 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 smartly constructed, the six-part series walks listeners through the show’s history and legacy, from its somewhat unremarkable origins all the way through to its morally murky rise. Given the current state of American politics, it’s probably fitting that a reality television show offers one of the clearest windows straight into our modern dystopia.
6. Have You Heard George’s Podcast? (BBC Radio)
This audio project from George Mpanga — a.k.a. George the Poet, the London-born spoken-word artist and musician — is hard to describe in an elevator pitch, but that’s part of the point, and much of the pleasure. Each installment is an electrifying blend of technical pieces, threading together components as varied as melodic narration, taped dramatic performance, and music in a way that ends up feeling not just coherent, but also like there wasn’t any other way. Some of Mpanga’s compositions are explicitly personal; all are expressly political.
5. Bundyville season 2 (Longreads and Oregon Public Broadcasting)
Leah Sottile’s excellent documentary on extremism in the American West is less a linear investigation than it is a spine-chilling descent straight into an overwhelmingly dark rabbit hole. On the other side is something that feels like a parallel world, one populated by the so-called Patriot Movement, a network of individuals, groups, and ideas associated with a growing undercurrent of political fundamentalism. Bundyville’s first season dug into the Malheur standoff of January 2016; this sophomore season follows that thread by examining the standoff’s ideological effects, highlighting a strand of radicalism that seems to be gaining ground by the day. Sottile’s reporting is tenacious, shedding light on an unsettling, often under-covered slice of American society.
4. Walking (Independent)
Yeah, this is a strange entry. Walking is a quirky little project from the author Jon Mooallem that’s essentially a series of field recordings capturing the sounds of Mooallem’s hikes in various woodland areas. You hear the crunching of leaves, the rush of rivers, the infrequent acknowledgment of other hikers. Occasionally, there’s a short mid-hike pause to deliver, somewhat absurdly, a host-read ad. That’s about it.
The simplicity of the project begs for projection. And I often oblige, letting the steadily monotonous recordings steer my thoughts toward anxieties about climate change, frustration at my own lack of appreciation for the natural world, and envy at the notion of going for a hike that long without succumbing to the itch of putting on my headphones. Mooallem’s recordings also foster within me sporadic anxieties about podcasting, thoughts along the lines of: “I wish there were more things like this, but the economic incentives suggests this to be improbable. Can there ever be a good system for such strange things?” I worry, but then I submit to the crunching leaves, the chirping birds, the yawning trees.
And then I don’t worry as much.
3. Moonface (Independent)
You should probably keep an eye on James Kim, whose debut fiction podcast, Moonface, feels like a blueprint for wherever the genre is heading. The story presents a specific moment in the life of Paul, a first-generation Korean-American immigrant and gay man played by Joel Kim Booster, as he navigates a hazy in-between phase of adulthood. Moonface is deeply felt and luxuriously personal as it explores frictions in language, culture, and generation, with the underlying emotional anchor being the relationship between Paul and his mother, played by Esther Moon. It isn’t perfect, as parts of the production can get a little tough in places, but perhaps the lack of polish is important. Propelled by a singular vision, sharpened by a point of view, and executed with tremendous flair, Moonface is exactly the type of podcast I wish to hear more of.
2. 1619 (The New York Times)
Much has already been said about Nikole Hannah-Jones’s 1619 project for the New York Times Magazine, the expansive multimedia project that works to reframe the narrative of American history as rooted in the beginning of American slavery, 400 years ago. The project spanned essays, photography, fiction, and, indeed, even a five-part podcast that, by itself, makes specific contributions to the podcast aesthetic. The project’s audio portion is a formal reimagining of what an audio essay can be, embracing aesthetic fluidity and a vivid sense of atmosphere in the service of historical remembering. This miniseries is an unforgettable experience.
1. Lost Notes season 2 (KCRW)
It’s hard to produce a uniformly fantastic anthology series, but the latest season of KCRW’s music documentary podcast, executive produced by veteran Chicago-based music critic Jessica Hopper, pulls it off. Among the highlights from this utterly memorable collection of stories: “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. The season presents a chorus of fascinating individuals grappling with memory, set against the backdrop of music. It’s the height of effective production, and it’s glorious.
*This article appears in the December 23, 2019, issue of New York Magazine. Subscribe Now!