The podcast world has felt a little strange to me lately. Beyond the obvious persistently publishing heavyweights — Call Her Daddy, SmartLess, You Know Who — and, of course, all things Spotify, there seem to be few other shows, studios, or talents driving any of the contemporary attention and conversation around podcasting. This, despite the fact we got a stunner of a new release from the people at Serial Productions earlier this year!
But there’s still a bunch of shows that have come out in 2022 that I believe are well worth your time and discourse, and I’d be damned if I didn’t plug ’em from the high heavens. On that note, here are the 30 best of the year so far, in order of release.
Dead Eyes: “Tom” (Headgum)
Rare is the podcast mystery that gets a true resolution, and after 30 episodes, Dead Eyes gives you exactly that. Originally launched back in early 2020 as a fun “small stakes, big adventure” romp, the podcast follows the actor and comedian Connor Ratliff as he endeavors to figure out why he was fired from a tiny role in the critically acclaimed HBO miniseries Band of Brothers two decades ago — and what it meant that Tom Hanks, an executive producer on the series, felt Ratliff had “dead eyes,” which was the reason he was given for the dismissal. What starts out as a jokey premise quickly reveals itself to be a soulful reflection on the vagaries of life in the entertainment business. But then came the big news: Hanks finally joined Ratliff on the show earlier this year, and the ensuing conversation is one of the most interesting things you’ll hear.
Frog of the Week (independent)
Ah, what the hell. Serving up exactly what it says on the tin, Frog of the Week presents listeners with a weekly bite-size package that introduces a different frog, brings up a few random facts about them, and throws in a quick gag or two. These little episodes are thoroughly delightful — a thing you snack on if you need an extra pep in your step. It’s also, to be frank, one of the very few podcasts I’ve consistently kept in my rotation through this entire calendar year. Listen, sometimes you set out intending to find an elaborate meal at a sit-down restaurant, only to return to that tiny roadside cart that always makes you smile.
Sounds Like a Cult (All Things Comedy)
You can squeeze a whole lotta juice out of a good concept, as evidenced by Amanda Montell and Isabela Medina-Maté in this enjoyable chatcast. The premise is deceptively simple: In each episode, the duo takes a different phenomenon floating about in the culture — theater kids, minimalism, Trader Joe’s, and so on — and compares it to the framework of a cult. The podcast broadly serves as an extension of Montell’s work in her recently published book Cultish: The Language of Fanaticism, which examines how language is central to the cultivation of cultlike dynamics and how that manipulation of language has been replicated in the other, seemingly banal aspects of our culture, such as the corporate life. Sounds Like a Cult is a playful take on that perspective, but in that playfulness, it gets at something fundamental about the world: No matter where you are, you’re never too far from the brink of cultishness.
Read Nicholas Quah’s interview with Sounds Like a Cult hosts Amanda Montell and Isabela Medina-Maté.
Normal Gossip (Defector)
There’s something elemental about the pleasures of Normal Gossip. The show possesses an almost minimalist structure: Each episode sees host Kelsey McKinney bringing on a different guest, typically drafted from her pool of media friends and acquaintances, with whom she briefly starts off by discussing gossip in the abstract before shifting into a mode where she delivers to that person a juicy piece of gossip. But here’s the thing: The gossip is from — and about — perfectly ordinary strangers. The stories are intentionally banal, about dating or in-group conflicts or small-town bullshit, but as connoisseurs of the form know, the banality of a piece of gossip doesn’t preclude oddity or wildness. The end result is deceptively addictive, furiously frivolous, and relentlessly fun.
Read Nicholas Quah’s interview with Normal Gossip host Kelsey McKinney and producer Alex Sujong Laughlin.
This Is Dating (Magnificent Noise)
This Is Dating is tricky to describe. On the one hand, you have the obvious hook: It’s a podcast that sets up four chosen individuals on blind dates and offers listeners the voyeuristic thrill of listening in as those individuals navigate their encounters, with all the wincing and wonderment that entails. On the other hand, it’s a podcast that takes its popular reality-dating-show inspirations and runs the whole thing through an inquisitive, feelings-first filter, which shouldn’t be surprising, given that this production comes from some of the people who originated Esther Perel’s showcase therapy podcast, Where Should We Begin? In this case, the dating coach and behavioral scientist Logan Ury steps into the Perel role, providing the four singles with counseling between dates. Episodes are guided along by producers Jesse Baker and Hiwote Getaneh, who also make the show with Eleanor Kagan.
Read Vulture’s review of This Is Dating.
Sorry About the Kid (CBC)
Sorry About The Kid is only four episodes long, but it doesn’t need very much to make a lacerating impression. We follow the Canadian producer Alex McKinnon as he works to unearth and remember as much as he can about a defining childhood trauma. In 1990, when McKinnon was 10, his older brother was killed by a speeding police cruiser. It was a random, utterly senseless tragedy, one that ripped through Montreal’s relatively small Anglophone community at the time and rippled out through the years. In addition to playing out as an extended essay on grief, what’s particularly interesting about this project is its nature as something of an investigative memoir; I say this because the approach reminds me, however faintly, of David Carr’s Night of the Gun (though very different in substance, obviously). McKinnon made this series with Mira Burt-Wintonick, whose past credits include Pen Pals, Love Me, and WireTap and who is definitely a producer to watch.
Chameleon: Wild Boys (Campside Media)
The vibes may be shifting, but tales of people scamming, shamming, and swindling seem to be lasting well beyond summer, to the point where it’s basically the new monomyth. Because of this, you’ll continue to find the podcast world, along with almost every streaming service in active operation, pumping out as many fraud stories as it possibly can, capitalizing on a moment that’s become a defining interpretive framework of our modern reality.
The most interesting podcast in the category of the New Year so far comes from Chameleon, Campside Media’s podcast shingle dedicated to grifter narratives. The latest season revisits a story that took place in the rural British Columbia town of Vernon, sometime in the early 2000s, when two boys suddenly appeared in the community claiming to be born of the wilderness. The town took them in, and the whole affair eventually became a media sensation. Of course, nothing is what it seems. Hosted by Vernon native Sam Mullins and produced by Abukar Adan, Wild Boys ends up being a fascinating story about the spirit of small-town life and the aftermath when that spirit is taken advantage of.
The Trojan Horse Affair (Serial Productions)
The Trojan Horse Affair is Serial Productions’ best release since S-Town, and that should not be taken lightly. This series follows Brian Reed and Hamza Syed, a former doctor turned budding journalist, as they dig into the prevailing mysteries of the titular British political scandal, which roiled the city of Birmingham in the early 2010s and inflamed Islamophobic tensions throughout the nation. What ensues is a thoroughly thrilling ride, filled with twists and turns and enough honest-to-God secret documents to put a pulpy Cold War spy novel to shame. The whole experience is elevated even further by the chemistry of the two leads and by how the show integrates the dynamics of their emerging partnership both as a framing device and a way to explore deeper themes about the stakes of chasing down the truth.
Read Vulture’s review of The Trojan Horse Affair.
Authentic: The Story of Tablo (Vice Audio and iHeartMedia)
In the late 2000s, the hip-hop artist Tablo, real name Daniel Lee, was already a superstar in South Korea and was poised to meaningfully break through into the Western music world when the online rumors started circulating. Before long, those rumors, which centered on his background as a Korean-Canadian, would metastasize into a huge cyberbullying campaign that ultimately derailed his career. There’s a lot going in the tale of Tablo, which weaves between multiple threads: It’s a story about one of the earliest instances of a toxic online mass movement that intersects with the identity struggle of a cross-cultural artist with feet firmly planted in two worlds, all grounded in the question of how to reclaim one’s narrative in the years following digital fallout. This co-production between Vice Audio and iHeartMedia does a solid job juggling the whole thing while creating a sense of space to linger a little longer in its meaning.
Let’s Make a Sci-Fi (CBC)
Three comedians — Ryan Beil, Maddy Kelly, and Mark Chaves — try to write an earnest sci-fi script together while making a podcast documenting their efforts at doing so. Sure, it sounds self-indulgent, and I’ll admit to bouncing off the show when I first read its description. My mistake. Let’s Make a Sci-Fi is a fun and lovely series that walks listeners through the rough stages of developing a science-fiction story for film and television. In its semi-educational pursuit, the show broadly intersects with the vast universe of screenwriting and Hollywood-industry podcasts that’s available out there. But what’s special about this one is how it captures the strong sense of play that comes through in the best moments of any creative collaboration. It makes me miss writing with other people.
Crypto Island (independent)
Crypto Island is the most formalistically exciting new narrative podcast that’s come out in a while. PJ Vogt, making his return to podcasting after Reply All’s Bon Appétit meltdown, approaches the utterly bonkers universe of crypto with an eye that is equally curious and skeptical and sparklingly, aesthetically dynamic. His toying with episodic shape-shifting and storytelling excesses results in a show that rarely settles into itself: One episode could be a simple interview recounting the ornate machinations of a spectacular crypto failure; another could be a mind-bending travelogue into bitcoiner Miami — you never quite know what to expect. Those generally averse to all things cryptocurrency might have an understandably hard time getting into this show, but for those looking to sail into the heart of darkness, Crypto Island is perhaps the most interesting and accessible vessel to do so.
Read Vulture’s review of Crypto Island.
The Town (The Ringer and Puck)
Behind-the-scenes brouhaha has always been a compelling part of the entertainment world, but, increasingly, so are the actual corporate machinations. I suppose there’s just more awareness now about how the latest merger affects your actions as a consumer, which recontextualizes Hollywood industry coverage to mirror how certain professional-sports leagues (like the NBA) feel equally interesting for their off-season antics. If the entertainment business now feels a bit like a spectator sport, then it’s only natural we’d get sports-radio-style coverage, and to that end, Matthew Belloni’s The Town, an extension of his insider Puck newsletter, is an exemplar of the form — with all that entails. For industry nerds like myself, it’s utter catnip.
The Superhero Complex (iHeartMedia and Novel)
The notion of actual people being inspired by comics enough to don a costume and fight crime themselves is easy to ridicule. But there are indeed people who do this, and when it comes down to it, their motivations can be understandable as a kind of mutual-aid-adjacent response to failures in policing. Nevertheless, doing something like that still requires a drastic leap in imagination … and, perhaps, an unchecked ego. In this fascinating series, David Weinberg (Welcome to LA) builds out a character study of one of the more prominent and complicated figures in the so-called real-life superhero phenomenon: Ben Fodor, a Seattleite who once led a group called the Rain City Superhero Movement and rose to notoriety. Weinberg and his team’s work is effective in their commitment to treating Fodor seriously as a person and in the way they treat the true-crime-y frame of the show with an ironic remove.
It took me a while to fully appreciate what is, frankly, so distinctive about Heidiworld. It’s less about what the series has to say, though writer and host Molly Lambert is plenty engaging in that regard: Her telling of Hollywood Madam Heidi Fleiss’s rise and fall grapples with a deep bench of fascinating ideas about lives shaped in the shadow of show business as well as this country’s often punitive and puritanical relationship with sex, money, and women who accrue power. Rather, Heidiworld’s uniqueness lies in how it’s saying things. In tone, narration, scripting, and even the way guest voices are casted and deployed, there’s a discernible opposition to the aesthetic conventions of many contemporary narrative podcasts. Whether or not it entirely works for you is one thing; personally, I find it exciting.
Truthers: Tiffany Dover Is Dead* (NBC News)
Hopeful stories about the state of just about anything in this country are pretty hard to come by at the moment, and I’m afraid the debut season of Truthers only contributes to the severity of that reality. That said, this audio documentary, which explores the mechanics and long afterlife of a particularly prominent anti-COVID-vaccine conspiracy theory, is a fascinating tumble down the abyss of modern American conspiracy thinking. In the hands of reporter Brandy Zadrozny, along with producers Frannie Kelley and Eva Ruth Moravec, Tiffany Dover Is Dead* quickly develops into a sober questioning about whether it’s ever possible to change a conspiratorial mind — and what the ramifications are if the answer turns out to be “almost certainly no.”
Ghost Church (iHeartMedia and Cool Zone Media)
The latest project from the ever-industrious Jamie Loftus braids together two of the universe’s greatest provocations: (1) Can the living ever speak with the dead? and (2) Why does everything peculiar seem to reside in Florida? Ghost Church follows the comedian to Cassadaga, a town halfway between Orlando and Daytona Beach that’s known as the “Psychic Capital of the World,” in order to learn more about the history and contemporary state of American spiritualism. As is the case with much of Loftus’s work, there’s a tremendous amount of heart at the center of this voyage; she moves through the Cassadaga community and considers, with great sensitivity, the people who remain among the dwindling ranks of American spiritualists. You might not connect with the specific tenets of their beliefs, but you’ll almost certainly see where they’re coming from. Loss is a universal experience; so are efforts to cope with what comes after death any way one can.
Will Be Wild (Pineapple Street and Wondery)
It’s hard not to feel despair when considering the galling asymmetry between information and action with respect to the January 6 insurrection. Since the events at the U.S. Capitol, a tremendous amount of reporting, documentation, and opinion-shaping about the attack has been generated near-daily, and so a perfectly natural question that may arise with Will Be Wild — the eight-part documentary on the matter led by Trump Inc.’s Andrea Bernstein and Ilya Marritz — would be this: “Well, what else is new?” The answer is that it’s less about generating any explosive revelation at this point and more about figuring out a way to process the future within this calcifying context of multiple clashing subjective realities. On this particular front, Will Be Wild offers much to digest with its approach of unpacking January 6 through the revolving perspectives of individuals from various corners of the event: the insurrectionists, their compatriots, their loved ones, the people who tried and failed to raise the alarm, and so on. Sure, for folks who closely followed the long aftermath of the insurrection, a good deal of what’s collected by Bernstein, Marritz, and their team might not feel particularly new, but when placed together within an interlocking milieu, they generate a kind of clarity all the same.
Deliver Us From Ervil (Novel and iHeartMedia)
The journalist Jesse Hyde’s journey into the strange, elaborate, and lingering legacy of a would-be fundamentalist Mormon utopia in the Mexican desert gives you what you’d want from a straight down-the-middle narrative true-crime podcast: you’re drawn into the story by one hell of a hook, and you’re kept there as it becomes a window into an entire world. There are extensive accountings of criminal chicanery, an utterly bonkers central figure (with the name Ervil LeBaron, no less), and gestures toward larger ideas about the relationship between faith and extremism. On top of that, the series really benefits from coming out in the same year as FX’s adaptation of Jon Krakauer’s Under the Banner of Heaven. They make fine companion pieces.
Not Lost (Pushkin Industries)
My kingdom for more travel pods and low stakes. Not Lost, which features Brendan Francis Newnam bouncing around various cities with a friend in search of a dinner party, is a delightful time for anyone looking to soothe their latent wanderlust. Newnam carries over the dapper charms of his previous work on the now-defunct The Dinner Party Download, and there’s a kind of existential comedy lingering in the background as well. Kinda has the slight energy of Andrew Sean Greer’s Less, but let’s not oversell it.
The Draymond Green Show: “Game 3” (iHeartMedia)
For a not insignificant portion of the NBA fandom, basketball podcasts have added a lot to the hoop-head experience. Takes, gossip, and information now flow more freely from a wider variety of places, and for those with the appetite, the sport can be enjoyed with little to no off-season whatsoever. Amidst this outrageous abundance is the emerging subgenre of podcasts from players themselves, and earlier this year, one in particular turned heads. The Draymond Green Show, starring Golden State’s aging enforcer, kicked up a storm during the NBA Finals when some observers blamed Green’s lackluster performance against the Celtics on his extracurricular podcasting activities. Green’s in-podcast response to the chatter, recorded hours after playing poorly in game three, turned out to be an utterly fascinating artifact: a revealing instance of how a professional athlete (albeit one who’s been expressive and vocal throughout his career) processes criticism and self-criticism within the heat of a high-stakes finals run. Quite a bit has been written about the disruptive (and entertainment) potential of pro athletes reclaiming their narratives through their own podcasts and media platforms; for a brief moment, The Draymond Green Show offered a glimpse at that potential actually being realized.
Read Nicholas Quah’s 1.5x Speed newsletter, “Let Draymond Green Podcast.”
Mother Country Radicals (Crooked Media)
Here, revolution is a family affair. Mother Country Radicals explores the history of the Weather Underground, the militant left-wing organization that sought to overthrow the American government, sometimes through violent means, during the 1970s. And the series does this from the inside out, as it’s created and hosted by Zayd Ayers Dohrn, who happens to be the son of two former Weather Underground leaders: Bernardine Dohrn and Bill Ayers. The interviews that Zayd collects to construct these episodes are remarkable, drawing from numerous conversations not just with his parents but also with surviving members of the broader revolutionary network — a system of “overlapping undergrounds,” including the Black Liberation Army and the Timothy Leary–sparked LSD movement — that was active at the time. What emerges is a robust portrait of an American era that was equal parts harrowing, volatile, and filled with genuine political imagination. Listening to the series right now provokes all sorts of feelings about where we are today, and where we might go.
The 11th: “His Saturn Returns” (Pineapple Street)
There is so, so much to love about this one. Sai Sion’s deliciously bombastic hour-long “cosmic audio drama” follows a young egocentric space alien named Duran Durag as he’s put through a series of galactically scaled challenges meant to push him to see beyond himself, learn how to connect with others, and essentially grow up. In other words, it’s a classic coming-of-age tale, one that’s rooted in Blackness with a dizzying array of seeming influences. Mash together shades of RuPaul’s Drag Race, astrology, Douglas Adams, The Fifth Element, and E.T., and you’ll come close to about a third of what it’s like listening to “His Saturn Returns.” This one-off project was produced as part of The 11th, Pineapple Street’s umbrella feed for creative experiments, and it’s elevated by a technical polish that delivers a remarkable level of coherence despite the tremendous level of energy, ideas, and sonic playfulness that are flowing through it. The vocal performances are genuinely believable too (despite the space alien of it all), which is a nice cherry on top of an already impressive sundae.
Welcome to Provincetown (Rococo Punch, Room Tone, Stitcher’s Witness Docs)
Between the release of Fire Island the Andrew Ahn film and Fire Island the Jack Parlett social-history book, this summer has seen a boomlet in material about queer seaside havens on the East Coast. Welcome to Provincetown isn’t set in Fire Island, obviously, but it definitely feels apiece with the whole vibe. This production, led by Mitra Kaboli (The Heart, ESPN’s 30 for 30 podcast), drifts between several individuals who flocked to the seasonal Massachusetts town over the course of a recent summer. The result is a little audio verite, a little travel journal; Kaboli’s glimpses into the scene are vivid and naturalistic, eager to jump into the seaside destination’s swirling threads of hope, sex, friction, solidarity, complexity, and history.
Choosing Sides: F1 (iHeartMedia and Sports Illustrated)
One can easily spot the play here. American interest in Formula 1 has been on a staggering rise due to Netflix’s Drive to Survive, and it’s only smart to capitalize on the wave by building a show dedicated to briskly orienting new converts and helping them select team allegiances. But there’s also a broader interestingness to Choosing Sides, one that’s rooted in how the show, hosted by journalist Lily Herman with comedian Michael Kosta, approaches the question of how and why we attach to sports fandom. Wading into a storied sport can be prohibitively daunting, but Herman and Kosta keep the focus on the personalities, the extracurricular drama, and the emotional hooks — all the things that many corners of various sports fandoms tend to paper over with more technical language. Choosing Sides: F1 is a fun expression of cultural accessibility, and I’m eager to see how the model can be used to tackle other professional leagues. (Or newer sports. Pickleball, perhaps?)
My Mother Made Me (Radiotopia Presents)
My Mother Made Me is a gem. This Radiotopia Presents release, by the author and poet Jason Reynolds (with producer Mark Pagán), is essentially an essay in four parts in which Reynolds reflects upon the ways his mother shaped his perspective on the world and his existence. Part of the pleasure here simply lies in language: Reynolds is such a good, interesting, searching writer, and his prose is further augmented by the sheer wholeness of his delivery. But what makes it really special is the palpable gratitude that drives the whole project. To have a parent that really connects with you is a remarkably fortunate thing. Even more so is having the opportunity, and the tools, to honor that connection.
Shameless Acquisition Target (independent)
How else do you build a mythology than by speaking it into existence? Shameless Acquisition Target, Laura Mayer’s scrappy accounting of the podcast biz and her time in it (so far) as a journeyman executive at places like Stitcher and Sony Music Entertainment, is best compared to the early Hollywood-insider memoir … except, of course, the podcast world is neither as big nor glitzy nor portentous as the industry built around the silver screen. Nevertheless, the place is definitely interesting, especially when contextualized against its stupidly fast rise in recent years. Aiding Mayer’s case as a compelling chronicler is her voice, which is wry, funny, and uniquely strange. Don’t miss it.
Crooked City: Youngstown, OH (truth.media and Sony Music Entertainment)
Call it Crime2own, or something like that. Marc Smerling, the co-creator of that early Gimlet Media hit, returns with what is essentially a continuation of the project with this new podcast. You’ll hear that familiar interest in the interweaving threads of a city’s relationship with crime, politics, and power. In this instance, it’s applied to Youngstown, Ohio, in many ways the archetypal example of the Rust Belt experience. Crooked City doesn’t reinvent the wheel, but it’s a solid reminder of what a talented team can bring to a true-crime genre that’s saturated to the point of parody: a verve, a voice, and a point of view.
Read Nicholas Quah’s review of Crooked City.