If you don't have that insufferable friend who is constantly talking about what mind-expanding insight they've received from a podcast recently, then that friend is probably you. In which case, you're in the right place.
Podcast fans know the new wave of audio storytelling is only growing.; today, over a quarter of Americans say they listen to podcasts, compared to less than 10 percent a decade ago. They have helped launch the careers of Jessica Williams and Phoebe Robinson, whose 2 Dope Queens earned them a series of four specials on HBO, and rejuvenate old ones like Marc Maron, who famously interviewed President Obama in 2015. This year has been a great one for podcasts, and our staff has collected some of the best shows we heard in the last 12 months. These series will transport you inside prisons, churches, and to the frontlines of the culture war. You'll hear about bigfoots, Gwyneth Paltrow, Nazi war criminals and everything in between. If your podcast queue is looking barren, here's a chance to refresh and try some new shows. But this is a list for the haters, too. If you haven't taken the podcast plunge yet, here are some great places to start.
For those of us who find most true crime podcasts to be voyeuristic and grim, Criminal is a breath of fresh air. Hosted by Phoebe Judge, it explores the world of lawbreaking and wrongdoing from all sorts of unexpected angles, making it annoyingly difficult to summarize. One episode this year was about sexual abuse at a prestigious choir school. Another profiled a lawyer who prosecuted Nazi war criminals when he was just 27 years old. In another, listeners followed a woman private eye who got her start investigating the murder of her college roommate. While some episodes are chilling in their gruesome details, it also features charming characters, like a man who has gone streaking at hundreds of sporting events, or a cop who got a robber to freeze up during a chase by imitating a dog. Judge has a talent for gently prying her subjects until they open their lives up, and each episode reveals a new world. -Harry Cheadle
Pop culture is a veritable minefield, where a hot take delivered with scathing wit can blow your ass back so hard Kylie Jenner’s old face feels it. Every day there’s some wild outfit, wilder problematic comment, and general celebrity messiness for us to feed on, and Ira Madison III, Kara Brown, and Louis Virtel are here to spoon that tea right into our gossip-parched gullets. On Keep It, released by Crooked Media, the three hosts drop irreverent drag after irreverent drag on the likes of Sarah Huckabee Sanders, Stacey Dash, Taylor Swift, Alec Baldwin, and countless others, while also dropping references to Karen Carpenter, Dynasty, hits of Broadway yore, and poppers. Their hysterical shit talk would be more than enough to carry a show. I mean, Wendy Williams does it, as does Fox News. But Madison, Brown, and Virtel are something people often refer to as journalists, and thus have been able to expertly and organically weave those blistering drags with insightful and illuminating cultural criticism and commentary. Sometimes it’s done with love, sometimes not so much, but it’s always real, hilarious, and brings sharp focus to discussions around identity, culture, and the state of our society, especially by spotlighting black, LGBTQ, and other marginalized communities. As Brown often frustratingly asserts into her mic, “people need to read.” They also need to be read. These hosts do just that. -Alex Zaragoza
When this podcast launched last year it got some hype for its unique premise: It is recorded and produced inside San Quentin Prison, with help from co-host Nigel Poor, a visual artist who teaches classes in the California facility. The first season was mostly a window into the unique aspects of prison life, from solitary confinement to cellmates to the visiting room. Since then, the show has spread its wings and told more ambitious stories that grapple with love, immigration, loss, and redemption. Last month brought big news for the podcast, when California Governor Jerry Brown commuted the sentence of co-host Earlonne Woods, who had been serving a three-decade sentence on a robbery charge. That’s going to change the format of the podcast, but it seems increasingly ambitious—the first post-commutation episode featured Woods interviewing his incarcerated brother about the heartbreak of trying to parent from prison. It’s one of those listens that occasionally makes you cry on your commute.-Harry Cheadle
Serial (Season 3)
I was born and raised in Cleveland. My parents are two black retired police officers. So I was a little skeptical that the latest season of Serial, which explores the interworking of the courts in Cuyahoga County, could tell me anything I didn’t already know about my hometown or the American justice system. And yet, from stories of a judge clearly drunk on the power of holding plaintiffs “on paper,” to the threat victims of police brutality live under when they report what’s happened to them, the show solidified things I knew instinctively, but could not put into words. Some people have written off the latest season because it didn’t tell one major, confounding story. Instead, Season 3 told smaller stories that are much more typical of the average American’s interaction with the law. To me this is a tremendous strength. If a working justice system is typified by sending an innocent woman to jail for four days, as the show highlights in the first episode, that faulty logic needs to be exposed and interrogated again and again. Because next time around, that innocent person could very easily be me or you. -Wilbert Cooper
It started out as research, like it always does. I found out Goop had a podcast, likely around the time that Gwyneth Paltrow’s impending marriage was blanketing every facet of the media I consume. I was curious: would her captivating, delusional, and potentially harmful media empire translate to audio? I went back to the beginning, in March, which starts with Oprah (about as good a place to start as you can). Here is Gwyneth interviewing Oprah. Later, here is Gwyneth interviewing her mother. Later still, Janet Mock. Sarah Jessica Parker. Herself, in conversation, Goop’s Chief Content Officer Elise Loehnen, another host of the podcast, whose episodes I do not listen to (sorry Elise). Recently, Chrissy Teigen. Stella McCartney. Julia freakin’ Roberts. Ashley Graham. A few weeks ago, Misty Copeland. Regardless of the guest, I find that I only have ears for Gwyneth, her crisp (yet somehow so light, as if they are sitting on a cloud!) patrician tones so soothing that I find myself not fast-forwarding through the commercials for things I will never buy, such as pea milk or Mini-Coopers or children’s clothing. This is a world where serious problems (racism, sexism, homophobia, classism) are solved with laughter, where gaffs are barely touched on, where Gwyneth’s fascination with her own self-described intimacy issues and new marriage come up in practically every interview, regardless of subject or topic. And yet here I am too, this gauzy world of pure inspirational women fed to me on a basis that’s regular, but not regular enough that I’m always guessing when I’ll get it next. Can I actually recommend you listen to The Goop Podcast? No. But I will.-Kate Dries
The Whorible Decision podcast is a lot of different things at once. It’s kinky, it’s funny, it’s black as fuck, and it’s feminist. But what kept me tuning in all 2018 was the contentious, yet kinetic chemistry shared by the show’s hosts, Mandii B and WeezyWTF. Their relationship, which can be as endearing as it is volatile, is the secret sauce that elevates the show above the myriad of other podcasts that touch on pegging and period-play. One of the wildest episodes this year wasn’t even about sex at all. Instead, it featured a therapist mediating between the two hosts as they worked out their myriad of differences, which go all the way back to when they were just “young blossoming hos” kicking it in South Florida in the early 2000s. This deep friendship makes them more than just co-hosts—they’re like sisters. And that sisterhood makes for one spicy-ass podcast. -Wilbert Cooper
A podcast about Silicon Valley-style startup businesses sounds at first like yawn-central, but This American Life vet Alex Blumburg’s podcasting company Gimlet usually delivers the goods. They’ve covered the man who made a fortune buying domains like Porn.com, Dov Charney’s attempted comeback after getting jettisoned from American Apparel, and how the best cup of coffee in the world had its roots in war-torn Yemen. This series on how a new generation of young churches are learning to grow from startup culture has been one of the most personally transformative stories I’ve heard all year. I think about it all the time. Framed through the host’s own journey to and from Christianity, it dives into the frontline of the battle for America’s soul. A single listen will verse you in the crisis facing one of America’s oldest institutions, and the surprising solutions churches are finding. Hint: the answer isn’t “become more liberal.”-Beckett Mufson
You never know how essential a podcast is to your daily functioning until it takes a break between seasons. Still Processing must be up there with sunlight and queer parties because I can’t really say I’m managing well over its four-month sabbatical. But when it is on, New York Times culture writers Jenna Wortham and Wesley Morris analyze the big and the tangential cultural phenomenons they think tell us something important about the times we’re living in, giving everyone something to chew on. They tease each other, admire each other, and artfully pivot off of one another’s ideas to get the audience from point A to Z, unpacking everything from Aretha Franklin’s legacy, to the slang term “aunty,” to Janelle Monae’s visual album Dirty Computer, to the end of Craigslist personal ads. Each episode feels like an on-the-fly exploration of their ideas but the conversation’s usually structured in a way that brings together disparate topics by the end for a broader conclusion. And they’ll often send a few pop culture recommendations or healthy living tips your way too. Between Morris’ movie critic background and Wortham’s observant perspective, the two blend together in a fabulously queer, POC gabfest that was just what the dark times of 2018 needed.-Taylor Hosking
Every two weeks I wait restlessly for The Adventure Zone to appear in my podcast queue. The First Family of Nerddom, the McElroys, have spent years honing their craft as, among other things, Real Play Dungeons and Dragons audio drama hosts. This means that they write a story and fill in the dialogue and some plot points with improvisation and dice-based gameplay.
That sounds like a bunch of nerd shit, but the result is a really unpredictable story and the feeling of hanging out with a group of your closest friends, without having to do any of the work. In January, Griffin, Justin, Clint, and Travis McElroy ditched the swords and sorcery story they’d been playing out since 2014 and started hunting bigfoots and other cryptids in a series called Amnesty. There’s legit puzzling mysteries, dramatic irony, big fireballs, talking goat people. It’s perfect popcorn listening and the ideal weapon to kill your commute.-Beckett Mufson
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