Digging out from an avalanche of audio delights
While working through a spreadsheet recently, attempting to wrangle all of the shows in my feed to make this list, I was startled to find that more than 500 shows had released new episodes in the past ten days. It’s kind of nuts, frankly, and encapsulates a sense of fatigue I’ve felt over the months. As a critic paying attention to the entire medium, it feels like I’ve decided to try and catch a river in a bag. Even approaching the kind of listening that the site’s title implies, there’s honestly no way for one person to keep up with everything going on it the world of podcasting. Even still, I’ve gone back through the 1200 odd shows in my feed to try and find the shows that are pushing things forward for the medium. I hope that you enjoy!
As with last year, in order to make this a bit more egalitarian, I’ve split things up into different groups: Best Episodes highlights entries of programs that made a lasting impact; Best Shows is broken into two categories: Ongoing and Limited Series, as the particular constraints one has in producing weekly versus a more concentrated, considered approach ought to be taken into account. Finally, Best Overall will be given for the show that dominated the year for me, in terms of scope, production, and impact. There’s also a list of excellent shows that were a big part of my year in the Honorable Mentions as well as a Farewell section,.
As always, I am not the lone arbiter of taste in this or any arena. In creating this list I seek merely to give recognition to the podcasts which moved me. I therefore encourage you to let me know what were your top shows of 2018.
Episode 4: The Great Divide
There may be no more surprising episode of a podcast produced this year. In the middle of Meribah Knight’s thoroughly engrossing exploration of public housing in America through the lens of a Nashville low-income housing development and its residents, comes this episode which packs an absolute shocker. I can’t say much about what happens, it’s best experienced unspoiled. I will say this, it encapsulates a certain hopelessness brought on by life’s unpredictability. As with most episode recommendations, the entire series is a deserving listen, but this is one hell of a standalone entry.
Special Episode: To My Heart
After the collective year that the world has had, I think that everyone could use dose of hope and a reminder that life and love persist, even in the worst conditions. This episode of the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation podcast Love Me—which I covered extensively earlier this year—is a triumph. Consisting entirely of an interview with former Guantanamo Bay inmate Mansoor Adayfi, It is a testament to the enduring power of human connection and romantic desire. Adayfi unspools his tale of being wrongly held n vibrant fashion, detailing the life that he and his fellow prisoners developed to beat back the crushing bleakness of their time in confinement.
Awful Grace, Or The Tolling Of The Void Bell
Some podcasts only release three episodes a year because they don’t care enough, and some only release three episodes a year because they care a whole hell of a lot. Producer Robert Andersson falls into the latter camp, as the works he creates for his podcast Awful Grace are singularly electric works that a clear labors of a passionately driven mind. Elaborate sound collages, free from narration, the show displays such a jazz mindset that it makes other shows sound like Muzak by comparison. This episode works best with no explanation of what the listener is to hear—something I often find the best episodes to benefit from. Suffice it to say it functions as an excoriation of American obsessions with media and violence, as well as a transportive history lesson.
The Boring Talks
Boring Talks #14 – Name Change
James Ward’s BBC podcast The Boring Talks is a total delight, giving people a platform to indulge in their most pedantic, mundane, and/or narrowly focused desires, delivering miniature presentations on why others should care as well. It’s like the reverse of a TED Talk. What’s most fascinating is how gripping the minutiae can be, whether it be on Danish Public Information Films, the languages on a warning in Kinder Surprise Eggs, wooden pallets, and almost anywhere in between. But the show reached a Kafkaesque high point with this episode, in which Ward considers the curious nature of human naming and, as a result, attempts to legally change his name to confirm his identity, but finds himself stopped at every juncture. I found a great deal of heart in what sometimes sounds like a lost cut from a Monty Python record. Very much not boring and definitely worth a listen.
Showcase from Radiotopia
Errthang #5 – How to Slowly Kill Yourself and Others in America
Showcase is such an excellent platform for podcasting, with its revolving short-run series format providing a place for experimentation without the fear of overextension. This past year saw a number of excellent programs slide into that space, but few felt as fresh and wondrous as Al Letson and Willie Evans Jr.’s relaunch of Errthang. This episode in particular, which finds Letson turning a piece from writer Kiese Laymon into a rich work of audio art. There are many layers to the episode’s success, in particular the thought provoking resonance in the knowledge that the cast is composed of young men who Letson used to mentor some years before.
Articles Of Interest Miniseries
All six episodes are best found right here. Producer Avery Truefelman’s exploration of fashion and the ways that it has changed over time, as well as how it has changed us as a result, made for decidedly engrossing listening this year. This six-part miniseries, from Radiotopia’s beloved design podcast 99% Invisible, “Articles Of Interest” excels in causing the listener to consider all of the aspects of our clothes that we’ve long taken for granted, from the Hawaiian shirt to plaid, as well as the development of the classic punk aesthetic and an engrossing history of pockets. The entire series is representative of one of the best aspects in podcasting, causing listeners to be pulled out of their everyday routine to see the world in a totally different light for just a moment. It is radical, entertaining, accessible pedagogy.
#21 || A Survivor And Her Perpetrator Find Justice
Reckonings producer and host Stephanie Lepp has a knack for accessing stories that no one else can. It’s her podcast’s entire stock in trade, getting people who have seen the light on an important issue and changed their tack to speak openly and honestly about that moment. Even with that in mind, this episode is a stunner. It features interviews with two people on either side of a sexual assault, and their shared journey along a path of restorative justice. It is the kind of conversation that one hears precisely nowhere, but given Lepp’s profile in the arena it is almost unsurprising to find it right here on Reckonings. The story, along with the conversation it sparks, is one of great import, and the episode handles it with great care and respect.
Me Vs. The Spar (Parts 1–7)
I think that I have a crush on Ross Sutherland’s brain. As the sole creative force behind Imaginary Advice, the Scottish poet and writer continues to push podcasting into new and wonderful places mostly. I had listened to the show before, but it was this episode from March that really found me totally smitten. In it, Sutherland revisits a single moment of rather mundane regret from seven different perspectives, reexamining the scenario with greater and greater results every time. Like David Mitchell’s nesting-doll novel Cloud Atlas, Sutherland plays with different genres as a means to understand this moment in his life, from poetic rumination to bank heist to grime-rap, before culminating with an erudite, scholarly analysis of the story’s subtext and allusions. It’s the kind of thing which shows great care and ingenuity in every level of its production, the very thing that more podcasts could benefit from. But even then, they’s still be sorely lacking Sutherland’s dexterously clever mind.
The Constant: A History Of Getting Things Wrong
Sometimes the best method of reaching an audience is through the parable, wherein listeners are able to come to their own conclusions about how one story might directly relate to their lives. This standout episode of Mark Chrisler’s excellent historical examination show utilizes that rhetorical device to great effect, examining a story of how a dramatic increase in English shipwrecks between the 17th and 19th centuries led one man to propose sweeping shipping reforms. Chrisler manages to avoid dry pedantry by deftly turning this tale of maritime malfeasance into an allegory of vital importance for a modern audience. As with many of the other episodes on this list, I won’t say to much, other than to highlight that Chrisler’s storytelling prowess makes this episode a masterful slow burn, patiently explicating its narrative before building to a resonant emotional climax. This one is hard to shake.
Beef And Dairy Network
Audio fiction, whether it be comedy or drama, often has a barrier to its enjoyment, a layer of remove that is a cousin to the uncanny valley phenomenon. I’d call it extra-perceptible deception where, absent any other sensory cues, listeners’ ears can’t help but hear the false nature of a performance. There is often too much earnestness in an attempt to sell what neither performer or listener can see. The show that consistently elicits the most surprisingly honest and believable performances might also be the most wonderfully ridiculous as well. That honor goes to The Beef And Dairy Network Podcast, Benjamin Partridge’s Pythonesque comedy program about a world that is totally obsessed with, well, it’s right there in the title of the show. It certainly helps that the writing is tack sharp, fleshing out the show’s narrative in a grounded fashion and endowing it with a sense of history. This is the kind of show that nails the sound of radio broadcast so well it could easily pass for non-fiction, outside of the utterly batshit beef-centric stories being told. Hilarious, imaginative, and a totally singular work.
As a podcast critic I have a tough time getting into news podcasts, primarily because I feel like the medium is primed for better uses. But for every rule there is an exception waiting in the wings, and in this case there is The Europeans. This independent program hosted by two expat Brits—Paris-based AFP reporter Katy Lee, and opera singing Amsterdammer Dominic Kraemer—is something of a different animal entirely. Focused on diving deeper into often overlooked news items affecting Europe, Kraemer and Lee approach their work with a certain jovial zest otherwise missing from more buttoned-up outlets. It is this non-standard journalistic style which creates continually engaging conversations, going in sometimes more revealing directions than a straightforward approach might yield. The pair also manage to get as close to the stories as possible, interviewing everyone from Olympians to Michelin-starred chefs, journalists to activists, and all points in between. The Europeans is the kind of show that continues to amaze, a podcast that feels like new wave pirate radio, filling a hole and broadcasting the sorts of stories otherwise overlooked by traditional media.
Food 4 Thot
When was the last time that you listened to a podcast and felt extremely privileged to be party to the conversations had on the recording? I get that feeling every single time I put on an episode of Food 4 Thot. This weekly chat show featuring an intersectional panel of queer men is like sitting at a modern-day Algonquin round table, sharing a couple of bottles of rosé with your four most acerbically brilliant friends. Hosts Tommy “Teebs” Pico, Joseph Osmundson, Fran Tirado, and Dennis Norris II have a palpable sense of familial closeness that their presence is instantly endearing. Representing very different worlds and upbringings, each of the four have so much to add to whatever topic they happen to be discussing. The show’s structure is loosely modeled after a dinner party, opening with an amuse bouche of some fun and ribald games—for example, an episode earlier this year featured a round of “Microbrew Or Gay Porn?”—which set the stage for the meatier discussion of the episode’s main course. The show tackles all kinds of important discussions within this section and does not do so lightly, as each host brings their particular experiences and expertise to the fore. It is this ability to shift tones so deftly which helps to make the show a remarkable work. In the span of a single episode one can find themselves laughing, crying, and newly enlightened, before ending things on a high note once more. These guys are the real deal and deserve to be heard.
Out Of The Blocks
In a time of increasing insularity and cultural homogeneity, Baltimore-based audio producers Aaron Henkin and Wendell Patrick have made it their mission to discover the life and minor histories blossoming on every corner in their city which is all too often other overlooked. Henkin conducts the interviews—with everyone from residents, shop owners, cultural institutions, and passers-by—while Patrick creates a languid jazzy score that actively intertwines with the tape, commenting upon and bolstering every story. The resulting podcast is a beautifully crafted documentary work that elevates everyday experiences to a deserved place of importance. It is this curiosity with the details that are often taken for granted which makes the show so unique, there is nothing else like it. About halfway through the year the show announced that it would be expanding its scope beyond the city of Baltimore, releasing episodes from Seattle, Detroit, and Atlanta. In listening to those episodes one gets a sense of how wonderful it would be to see this format adopted on a wider scale.
Punch Up The Jam
In June of this year I wrote a piece for The A.V. Club opining that Punch Up The Jam was the best evolution of the comedy podcast formula, and six months later I am steadfast in that belief. The show, which seeks to break apart pop songs and analyze what works and what doesn’t, before rebuilding them into “better” fully produced versions, is just a breath of fresh air. Hosts Demi Adejuyibe and Miel Bredouw have an instantly winning rapport and their show’s concept is simply perfect. No song is sacred, whether it be generally agreed upon hits like Guns N Roses’ “Welcome To The Jungle” and Phil Collins’ “In The Air Tonight,” justly maligned tracks like Limp Bizkit’s “Nookie,” or even untouchable numbers like “The Star-Spangled Banner.” It is the pair’s willingness to take every part of a song at face value that often produces the most transcendent moments. It would seem that the first rule for enjoying pop music is to be actively allergic to close listening, and this is where Adejuyigbe and Bredouw shine, as they love to parse every line, performance, and sound at a granular level, showcasing the utter ridiculousness of the genre. The resulting punch-ups are almost always eye-wateringly funny and astute reworkings of each week’s song, providing a platform for the real musical and comedic talents of both Adejuyigbe and Bredow to shine. This show is a total shot in the arm, for no matter what ails you.
As American society is continually learning, food is political. Whether it be through stories of gentrification, cultural appropriation, or outright erasure, the conversation around the subject has never been more relevant than it is today. Thankfully there exists Racist Sandwich, the lovingly made independent podcast fixated on exploring, honoring, and elevating the perspectives of marginalized communities within the world of food and dining. The beauty of the program, beyond the necessity of its conversations, is its flexibility. Hosts Soleil Ho and Zahir Janmohamed, along with producers Stephanie Kuo and Juan Diego Ramirez are willing to take the show in all directions, from conversational interviews with chefs, authors, and food writers, to narrative documentary works, and even artful works of poetry and prose. This should be the go-to podcast for food lovers everywhere, as it isn’t just about appreciating different dishes and cuisines, but honoring the culture which begat them while having the often difficult but illuminating conversations around them.
Thirst Aid Kit
The sexual agency of women—that of women of color in particular—is something that has been policed by society since time immemorial, but thankfully the tides are turning. To that end, the BuzzFeed (for now at least) podcast Thirst Aid Kit acts as something like a second moon, exerting an enormous gravitational pull on the topic. A deliciously defiant act of desire, hosts Bim Adewunmi and Nichole Perkins spend each episode discussing a different celebrity whom they find particularly attractive, whether that be for physical reasons or otherwise. The pair’s conversations about their chosen thirst objects are always a rollicking delight, buzzing with hilarious rapport and peals of fevered laughter when things get a little too real. The real cherry on top of this subversive sundae is its closing segment, wherein Adewunmi and Perkins read their own bits of lightly smutty fanfic featuring each week’s objets d’amour. Their individual drabble writing skills are beyond superb, turning this from just a steamy reading into a full-on rowdy and ribald contest, with listeners voting online to crown the winning entry. The show strikes all of the right notes at a particularly necessary time, reversing the ubiquitous male gaze after many lifetimes of that flawed paradigm. Like a perfectly baked croissant, this show might feel like a light treat, but I assure you it has many layers.
A show about revisiting the American Film Institute’s Top 100 movies of all time could have simply been a breathless recitation of their plots and precious little else. But Unspooled is anything but that, riding high on the combined gifts of its hosts, Amy Nicholson and Paul Scheer. The pair bring such vibrant rapport and novel formatting that it makes something potential leaden float like gossamer. Like a mashup of all the best elements from their respective shows The Canon and How Did This Get Made?, Unspooled is a remarkably kinetic show, long enough to be satisfying, but fleet enough as to feel quite lively. Various segments help give a more complete understanding of each film, including listener participation—in the form of an engaging weekly voicemail question—and deep-dive analysis of the film, from both Nicholson’s critical standpoint as well as Scheer’s well-researched layperson view. Episodes also feature an interview segment with a tangentially related guest (i.e., a zookeeper caring for primates on their King Kong episode), and contextual information about life contemporaneous to the film’s release. With a hard out at 100 episodes, the only question for listeners is, where will Nicholson and Scheer go next?
Best Shows: Limited Series
The Amelia Project
Can you ever believe me that the genius of this program is its framing device? Narrative audio fiction podcasts work best within tight constraints, given the audience’s need for clarity of setting, personae, and action. This inventive new show manages that with aplomb and then some, turning what might be a handicap for some into its greatest strength. Centering on top secret company—Amelia—whose mission is to help its clientele start new lives by faking their deaths in spectacular Rube Goldbergian fashion. Every episode consists of so many similar beats that listeners are more easily pulled into the machinations going on below the surface, absent any worry about missing some crucial detail. This allows for a show of incredible imagination without the risk of alienation. Each episode becomes something of a miniature puzzle, teasing out the backstory of each new client and finding a means to terminate their current existence and successfully enter their new life. Written and directed by Philip Thorne and Øystein Brager, The Amelia Project works thanks to its pervading sense of composure, even as the events of its episodes go seemingly off the rails.
A Very Fatal Murder
This podcast might say it is from The Onion, but its comic sensibilities are more in line with that publication’s sister site, Clickhole, and perhaps it is all the better for it. This sendup of true crime podcasts isn’t beholden to the buttoned up, broadsheet aping aesthetic of its namesake origin. Instead it functions like an audio update to the classic Zucker, Abrahams, and Zucker model, fluently speaking the language of absurd unreality without ever winking at the listener. Every aspect of true crime podcasting is wonderfully satirized, from the condescending tone of its East coast know-it-all host to the ridiculousness tonal shift of its ad reads in the middle of somber moments. In all the program features an enjoyably unhinged narrative that it also a nicely acerbic comment on the entire medium as well.
In a year teeming with crime podcasts, none feels as representative of the genre’s maturation than New Hampshire Public Radio’s Bear Brook. Where many shows approach crime stories with a certain perverse thrill, Bear Brook adopted a more sober approach, celebrating instead the kind of dedicated, needle-in-a-haystack detective work which helped to stitch together a number of disparate crimes stretching across the United States, and the way that it has forever changed the process of criminal investigation in the process. Host Jason Moon provides a charming alternative to the icy performances more common of the genre and it goes a long way in elevating the tone of the show. Too often these shows feel like implicit acts of heroism on the part of their creators, taking on the mantle of hard boiled P.I. and relaying a story with more gravitas than is required. Bear Brook is none of those things. It is a tale of a mystery most improbably solved, and one which offers up depth, humanity, and understanding.
As podcasting has become ever more popular some producers have sought to turn it into something of a new-era dime novel, foregoing nuance in favor of lurid true crime tales. It is then a big risk to center an entire season of a series on something as mundane as illegal dumping of construction waste, but The City manages to turn this into a truly gripping and incisive exploration. Perhaps it is because this production—from USA Today and Wondery—feels akin to the sorts of stories that David Simon tells in his television work. That is to say, The City is an intensely local program, focused on the minutiae of life in Chicago, politically, socially, and personally with a narrative approach is lateral rather than horizontal. The latter aspect especially helps to make plain the tangled web of corruption and indifference at the heart of the story. The result is a remarkably mature program, one full of intrigue, the mob, and deeply ingrained racial injustice, that never attempts to sensationalize the material.
Irish podcast network HeadStuff is known primarily for their wonderful comedic offerings like The Allison Spittle Show and Dubland, but this program really helped to enrich their already excellent portfolio by going in a very different direction. Ahead of the country’s historic vote to overturn its constitutional amendment banning abortion, producer Ciara O’Connor set about attempting to gauge the feelings on all sides of the debate. The resulting show is an incredibly moving and thoughtful examination of a nation grappling with its identity and whether or not women have a position of power within that identity. Podcasting as a medium has sense of innate intimacy, and that quality is used to wonderful effect, making The Eighth a wonderful work of compassionate understanding.
Empire On Blood
This narrative documentary didn’t get the praise it deserved upon release. Maybe it was the title? It surely isn’t the show its name implies. Like S-Town if it had been written by Elmore Leonard, Empire On Blood features some of the most flamboyantly colorful personalities captured on tape and a truly twisty narrative. Following reporter Steve Fishman’s decade long relationship with incarcerated drug dealer Calvin Buari, the podcast is a thrilling tale of wrongful conviction and a search for clemency. What really engages the listener is that this isn’t a clear-cut case of right and wrong. There is a pervading sense that everyone in the narrative is using one another for their own ends, coloring the entire affair a decidedly immoral shade of grey. In addition, the show is full of vivid, assured storytelling and heart, making it a worthy successor to last year’s smash S-Town.
No Feeling Is Final
This Australian production from Honor Eastly and the Australian Broadcasting Corporation is an incredibly frank and personal examination of depression and mental health that gets at something other productions seem to miss out on. Namely, that life isn’t monochromatic, and operates instead on a sort of quantum plane with infinitely vast experiences and emotions occurring simultaneously. Eastly’s struggles with depression and suicidal ideation aren’t treated with excess pathos. It is rife with humor, warmth, and a continual reminder that mental illness isn’t an all-encompassing disorder, that those afflicted are more than their diagnosis and to think of them in any other way is to rob them of their individual agency. This program excels thanks to Eastly’s unique point of view and the standout production, which blends non-diegetic sounds, audio diaries, and original songs into the narrative, making for a fully realized and enveloping journey.
Among the many things that have become clear in my time covering podcasts, I can offer you this: any show released by CANADALAND is going to be worth your time. While Jesse Brown and his crew primarily cover Canadian media and politics, their coverage is almost always illuminating and full of new voices and perspectives which one doesn’t encounter in traditional media. Thunder Bay, the network’s first foray into serialized reportage, is a truly staggering work, at times literally: caveat emptor, this is not an easy listen. Hosted by comedian Ryan McMahon, creator of the indigenous podcast network Indian & Cowboy and the show Red Man Laughing, the show investigates the sort of spiritual corrpution which has turned Thunder Bay into the murder capital of Canada as well as a crucible for thousands of the country’s indigenous population as they make the transition into city life for education. Over just six episodes McMahon dives headlong into pitch dark territory, disabusing listeners of any notion that human nature is essentially good. There is much good to be found in the program for bringing these events to a wider audience, and one hopes that it will spark real change in the titular city.
Tai Asks Why
A moment of honesty: I find myself somewhat impervious to the idea of children’s podcasting, despite its obvious merits. It’s not that I’m some humbug, but as a critic with several hundred new episodes awaiting me each week, they become hard to prioritize over a myriad other important listening opportunities. That said, I’m ever so glad that I took a moment to check out Tai Asks Why, an almost endlessly endearing CBC podcast built around preternaturally precocious 11 year-old seeking answers for some of life’s toughest questions. The resulting show is a total gem, with Poole interviewing a host of noted professionals working within his fields of inquiry, including scientists, researchers, and authors. This is just one trick in his arsenal, as Poole also converses with the public to get their take on the answers to his topics, and even closes every episode by singing an original song whose lyrics encapsulate his findings. It’s really amazing stuff, fun for kids (I can only presume) as it is for adults.
Taking the temperature of the podcast medium over 2018 proves to be a rather difficult task, and one which shows its surprisingly varied artistic growth compared to years previous. This is evidenced by the lack of any one solitary program dominating the conversation, as we saw last year with a show like S-Town. If one were to consider themselves a podcast listener, they simply had to listen. With the proliferation of productions in this current moment there is more fragmentation in the podcast listener base.
There is one through line that I continually see in high profile programs, and that is a decided interest in American criminal justice reform. This year alone saw the release of such lauded examinations on the theme as WBEZ’s16 Shots, WNYC’s Caught, and American Public Media’s In The Dark. The latter in particular has had such a real world impact that its subject’s case might soon be tried in front of the Supreme Court. Two programs have stood out more than the others though, and they are the third seasons of Serial and Ear Hustle. For the former, I found Sarah Koenig and Emmanuel Dzotsi’s deepening of the series’ formula to be extremely effective, choosing to focus on the entire criminal courts of Cleveland, Ohio. This change from a single investigation into how the system could have failed one person, to instead focus on the way it is potentially failing an entire country is the sign of a very wise production team. While the resulting show was a bit more fragmented than past seasons, the end product becomes like an archipelago of stories cleaving together to make a moving whole. This was not the Serial which anyone expected, and that is precisely why the show hit the mark for me. As the show which set the tone for podcasting’s mainstream moment, evolution is necessary to continue pushing the medium forward.
As for Ear Hustle, I have found myself continually ensnared in the charms of this most unique of podcasts. It landed on my Best Of 2017 list after its initial season, and this year dropped two whole seasons—an enormity of episodes for a show being made inside of a prison. The world of San Quentin State Prison But it was the topics that the show chose to cover which helped to keep it at the top of my list all year long. From LGBTQ issues, to the joys and struggles of parenting while behind bars, to human trafficking and immigration issues. Ear Hustle honors the perspective of its subjects and handles the task of telling these important stories with grace, humanit, and charm. But the show is at a turning point now, a happy consequence of its own fame and quality. Along with Nigel Poor, the show has been co-hosted since its inception by inmate Earlonne Woods. However, Woods’ sentence was commuted at the end of 2018, in part due to his work on the show. In the final episode of the show’s third season we hear from Woods upon his release, and how his role with the show will now change. It seems only fitting to give the show this top honor as it goes back into the chrysalis for awhile. I can’t wait to see what comes next for it, and for Woods’ new life outside of San Quentin for the first time in two decades.
- Death In Ice Valley
- Pounded In The Butt By My Own Podcast
- Personal Best
- Scene On Radio
- Silent Waves
- Welcome To L.A.
2018 ushered in a wild number of shows, but it also lost some great ones (and people) along the way. Consider this our “In Memoriam” segment of the column. Also, gone but not actually gone, because you can, and should, hop onto their feeds and listen to their back catalogue.