I have 470 podcast episodes in my queue right now, after some paring down. There’s just too much good stuff to listen to: fiction, chat shows, history lessons, interviews, reported documentaries, weird semi-fiction. Of the hundreds of podcast episodes I listened to this year, these are the 15 that taught or entertained me the most.
Podcast titles link to the show’s Apple Podcast page; episode titles link to the episode on Overcast.
Ken Layne is a forward-thinking curmudgeon and a lover of myth, like a clear-thinking Art Bell who cares a lot about desert conservation. His voice seems to seep up from the ground, or from a Tom Waits who’s tired of rhyming. I prefer to listen to him in the dark.
In “UFOs and the Jungian Desert,” he’s at peak Layne, ranting about our dying planet, and the murky meanings of UFO sightings and what it could all mean. Layne knows how to build a satisfying unease and a feeling that something big must be out there, more things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in your philosophy, without tying himself to any specific belief of what those things are. Try it in your car on a long drive through a hot night.
In the late 20th century, conspiracy theories felt like harmless fun that helped people question authority. But the right-wing theories of the present, like the QAnon theory popular among Trump supporters, are in line with a long tradition of racist and repressive conspiracy theories that actually support the status quo.
American Hysteria’s Chelsey Weber-Smith unpacks the history of the Illuminati, a real Enlightenment group smeared as would-be totalitarians. She shows how reactionary powers use conspiracy theories to discredit outsiders and reformers, and why the apple of conspiracy theories so often hides the razor blade of anti-Semitism.
I’m not a big fan of “chat about the issues” shows; the minute I feel like the hosts of a podcast are overlooking some important aspect of the subject, I get frustrated and I switch off. But Call Your Girlfriend hosts Aminatou Sow and Ann Friedman bring all their political and cultural knowledge to bear on their discussions, giving smart, fair, and funny commentary.
After Refinery 29 published a particularly ill-advised anonymous money diary, the internet went deep into ~discourse~, most of it knee-jerk and stupid, blaming the diary’s subject for the sins of the editors and the surrounding culture. Among the saner voices were Sow and Friedman. They provided a needed cool-down conversation, discussing who really benefits from this sort of internet outrage, how race and class play into our collective conversations, and how we can make those conversations more productive.
Fiction podcasts are still a tiny genre, not even given their own section in the iTunes store, but the genre grew a lot this year. Night Vale Presents, a network from the creators of Welcome to Night Vale, released several new shows this year, including Dreamboy, by musician Dane Terry.
The show is, naturally, dreamlike, and the pilot plays with the divisions between dream and reality, between narrative voice and live action, music and prose. It shows that there’s so much more creative room for podcasts to explore.
Welcome to Night Vale co-creator Jeffrey Cranor believes that podcasts work best when narrated in the second person. Mostly metaphorically, as podcasts are usually consumed through headphones and should hence try to form an intimate connection with the listener. But Night Vale host Cecil Baldwin also literally addresses the listener directly, and the narrators of Within the Wires address everything to the listener—the listener is sometimes a specific character in the fiction.
Unlike Night Vale, Within the Wires has a new narrator, and a new story, every season. In the first, Wires co-creator Janina Matthewson played the voice on a series of guided meditation tapes with an ulterior motive. The second season is a set of art museum audio tours; the third is a series of dictated memos to a secretary. The format makes for exciting revelations and lets an entire serial story play out through soliloquy. The most exciting, though, is finding out what story the creators have chosen for a new season.
This compact, highly designed show explores specific contemporary paranormal stories with respect but without credulity, finding meanings that believers and skeptics can appreciate. I’m one of the latter—no gods, no ghosts—but this episode rattled me. It also smartly demonstrated the value of a cultural sensitivity that goes beyond “can I buy into your beliefs?”
It’s about an African idol and a god who grows inside your dreams. Don’t let your kids hear.
Comedians Demi Adejuyigbe and Miel Bredouw got famous on the internet (you might know Demi for his September 21 videos, Miel for her “I have hemmorhoids” vine). On Punch Up the Jam, among many other things, they pick apart famous songs and punch them up.
The best episodes feature actually classic jams, which Demi and Miel can appreciate while roasting. In the first of the two episodes above, Miel develops an addiction to the Phil Collins drum fill; in the second, Demi buries the “listen to this” riff.
The hosts of the fantasy-comedy show Hello From the Magic Tavern guest star on the fantasy sci-fi show Mission to Zyxx. Look, I’ve already gone on too long about Zyxx, and how it changes the game for comedy podcast production, in an interview with all seven of the show’s creators. This one’s a crowdpleaser, and every sci-fi fan needs to try it.
Speaking of sci-fi humor, Douglas Adams’s 1970s radio comedy (and book series) The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy influenced Doctor Who, Rick and Morty, Galaxy Quest, and the whole field of geeky comedy. And this episode explains how big a deal this show was, what made it so special, and how it incorporated the epic sounds of prog rock and the absurdity of Monty Python.
If Hitchhiker’s isn’t your thing, look through Rule of Three for something that is. There are episodes on Python, Trading Places, The Big Lebowski, The Wonder Years, A Charlie Brown Christmas, Tom Lehrer, Darkplace, and more. Hosts Jason Hazeley and Joel Morris and their guests are all comedy professionals who don’t just praise their subjects, but analyze what makes them so good.
Good One also analyzes comedy, mostly standup, as Vulture’s Jesse David Fox interviews a comedian about their career, a specific special or set, and one joke within that set. Some episodes get more analytical, some more emotional, but they’re all more focused than more famous comedian-interview shows like Maron or You Made It Weird. Cameron Esposito talks about technical choices as well as the larger reason for building a whole set around rape jokes.
I’ve already written about this show, in which NPR producer Ian Chillag interviews people playing inanimate objects, but the standout episode is Maeve Higgins as a lamppost and a big fan of Singin’ in the Rain. Other highlights are Ana Fabrega as an elevator, Ayo Edebiri as a balloon, and Louis Kornfeld as a can of cola. But this show has no weak episodes.
While I appreciated the way The Crime Machine Part I and Part II exposed the deterioration of a reform project into another tool of police corruption and prejudice, I had a lot more fun listening to producer Anna Foley explain the drama of YouTube makeup stars, and how it ties into Alex Jones confronting Marco Rubio.
Both stories highlight the bizarre nature of fame, particularly modern internet-enabled fame, which brings a context collapse as everyone gets involved with everyone else. Witnessing Alex Jones actually talk to top politicians feels like watching Who Framed Roger Rabbit, like the cartoons have escaped into the real world. And when YouTube stars deliver fake apologies for past racist comments to keep from hemorrhaging followers, it feels like an on-the-nose indictment of the ways we enable people by giving them our attention.
And all these stories reach us through in-jokes, tweets, memes, and cultural ephemera that come with prerequisites. This context collapse means constantly asking, “Wait, what is this a reference to?” That’s the premise of Reply All’s recurring “Yes Yes No” segment, which takes over this entire episode, and could easily become its own show.
This New York Times docuseries about ISIS incorporates the process of war reporting, as Rukmini Callimachi shows how difficult it is to trust sources, see through agendas, and stay safe while reporting in the immediate aftermath of a battle. And while some of this show’s sound design tricks eventually feel repetitive, in the first episode they still feel fresh as a slap in the face.
A decade ago I saw a copy of Heeb, the irreverent Jewish lifestyle magazine, and wanted something similar for those of us who grew up surrounded by Christian pop culture like Jars of Clay, VeggieTales, devotional Bibles, and Relevant. And here it is, as a very silly chat show. Caroline Ely and Kevin T. Porter look at Christian pop culture from the 1990s to today, and the occasional “secular” work that heavily incorporates Christianity.
This episode centers on the latter, so it’s not totally representative, but it was very helpful to those of us who saw the extremely long trailer for the CBS pilot of Good Christian Fun and wanted to know, “lol what?” As always, the hosts really take their time hanging out with the guest, but they’re actually good at banter. This is the most casual, “laugh while you wash the dishes” episode on the list.
The most aurally satisfying show I heard this year, the six-episode miniseries The Shadows will trigger your ASMR. It burrows into your ears, makes you empathize with characters at their worst, and takes creative risks and does the work to make sure they pay off. Episode 3 is narrated by a sweater and the sweater has a crush on a human and it works.
But in the context of the show, the greatest episode—the greatest podcast episode I heard all year—is “Decision.” It builds on everything up to that point, trusting you to piece together conflicting narratives and figure out who’s lying to whom and why, and judge the characters’ actions on your own. It does all this through a sophisticated production, hyper-real acting, and the kind of artistic collage I haven’t seen since Eternal Sunshine and Synecdoche, NY.
Speaking of Charlie Kaufman movies, now that I’ve explained why this show is good, I can finally tell you that it’s about the love lives of struggling Canadian puppeteers. Trust me, it is worth your time.
This was a breathtaking year for podcasts, especially fiction podcasts. (Hell, I even launched my own scripted horror-comedy.) But I still feel like I’ve barely tasted what’s out there. Give me more exceptional episodes to try—especially the weird and the artistic—so I can get my queue back above 500.