Of all the arbitrary lists that I do in this season, this feels like the most arbitrary of them all. Podcasts used to be more straightforward, but in the current podcast boon, coming up with a best of list feels stupid. There are plenty of shows here that released 50+ episodes that were each an hour and a half, while there are others that released a one-off season of 6 episodes that were only a half-hour. That’s a difference of over a hundred hours; but they both appear on lists of the best podcasts. Some shows are improvised, others meticulously scripted. Some I’ve listened to for 7+ years, while others produced something that will only exist for this year. At certain points they’re barely the same medium.
This being said, I’ve decided in the future to change up the way I do this. Maybe I’ll only include new shows (either to me or brand new). Maybe it’ll be only doing the best episodes (though this takes a meticulousness that’s difficult to maintain). Either way, this exercise has become too futile to continue beyond this year, so enjoy this list in its finale.
Here are the best podcasts of the year:
18. Culture Kings – One of my favorite shows of the year that dually hurt itself by moving to three episodes a week, while also losing co-host Carl Tart along the way. Co-hosts Jacquis Neal and Edgar Momnsplair are a great duo, but I am personally oversaturated with podcast content and can barely keep up with one episode a week let alone two.
17. Caliphate – An intense and informative journalistic look into Isis, featuring interviews with current and former members. It’s worth listening to in order to expand an understanding of the ever-ubiquitous Middle East. There’s also a kind of surprise twist at the end of this that I was not expecting.
16. Spontaneanation – Paul F. Tompkins continues to release improv gold, his ability to introduce audiences to a diverse group of young comedians is one reason alone you should listen to it.
15. The Watch – The Watch is as much about keeping up with pop culture as it is about Chris Ryan and Andy Greenwald’s friendship which goes back a decade before they started podcasting at Grantland. The conversations they have and their ability to catch each other’s references is any pop culture nerd’s dream.
14. Threedom – The Scott Aukerman, Lauren Lapkus, Paul F. Tompkins Stitcher Premium collaboration was the most inevitable thing to happen in comedy podcasting and it actually lives up to the hype quite well. It’s a general chat show, where the hosts goof around for an hour, but is earned by their past repoire. Will it work for those unfamiliar with the three of them? I’m not sure, but I found myself smiling in public quite often while listening.
13. Rob Has a Podcast – Rob Cesternino seemingly increases podcast output every year, making close to an episode a day about reality television and pop culture happenings. He’s consistently great (I’ve been a listener since he started the podcast in 2010) and it feels absurd to try to rank what he does in comparison to other shows on this list. If you like reality TV shows like Survivor and Big Brother he’s offers an essential blend of humor and strategy that you have to check out.
12. Future Perfect – Dylan Matthews introduced me to the concept of effective altruism–using Moneyball style logic to solve the world’s problems–through this podcast, a newsletter, and a segment of programming on Vox, opening up a whole new world of insight for me. Future Perfect the podcast presents out-of-the-box ideas that have proved highly effective for solving world problems (cooling the planet, the border crisis, animal cruelty, etc…) but have not been implemented. These are fascinating thought experiments, ones that with enough organizing could be the way of the future.
11. Good Food – I jumped on board with Good Food after having attended an event they put on. Host Evan Kleiman brings on what is really a spectacular slew of guests and segments surrounding food news and interests. Kleiman is a warming host whose experience running restaurants and industry involvement add to her natural public radio cadence.
10. Yo Is This Racist? – I always thought this show, which features Andrew Ti answering listener voicemails as to if something is racist or not, sounded interesting, but they released episodes five days-a-week and if you’re learning anything about me from this list, it’s that I just don’t have time for that. When the show consolidated to once a week and added Earwolf rising star and Bajillion Dollar Propertie$ alum Tawny Newsome, I knew it was time to dive in. Ti and Newsome have quickly gained chemistry, using comedic chops and their life experiences to offer advice at navigating our increasingly multicultural world.
9. The Weeds – The Weeds was another show that made the jump from two episodes a week to three during the busy political season of this year’s midterms, forcing me to filter through episodes by topic every couple of weeks. Nonetheless, their rotating crew of policy obsessives continue to offer intelligent policy and political analysis that’s way more academic than your average pundit.
8. Done – I’m almost always searching through various podcast databases, looking for the next big thing I can sink my teeth into. Rarely do new shows capture my attention as quickly as Done did when I started listening to it earlier this year. On its face, it’s a slew of comedy podcast cliches: two hosts invite a guest comedian on to discuss some previously decided thing–in this case things the guest is done with. Dara Katz and Betsy Kenney have such great chemistry (another radio cliche) that despite easily falling into all of these podcast traps the show has become one of my favorites. Katz and Kenney easily shift back and forth between sincere opinions about their very New York comedian lives to playing elevated characters of themselves that mock their very New York comedian lives. When you listen to podcasts, you begin to fall in love with the ways certain people say things or phrases they often go to, listening to Betsy Kenney wryly say “now listen here, honey” has become one of those things for me.
7. Embedded – Embedded only existed for a few short seasons this year, but the seasons they released, about Donald Trump and coal country, were must listens to understand the context of our modern world.
6. Slow Burn – Season two of Slow Burn jumps forward a few decades from the Nixon controversy to examine the Clinton impeachment. I may be biased because I was young enough to experience the entire saga, without fulling understanding what was happening, but to hear the layers peeled back by the people involved all these years later was, in a way, thrilling. Slow Burn tells the story through a modern lens, a much different cultural landscape than the mid-90s, questioning Clinton’s actions through 2018 liberal wokeness which is much less forgiving than the 90s. I wish host Leon Neyfakh had spent even more time examining his own personal feelings, but Slow Burn managed to create an entertaining, questioning, and essential piece of podcasting this year.
5. Halloween Unmasked – The Ringer may have created a new genre of podcast in its unpacking of John Carpenter’s Halloween. Across eight episodes host Amy Nicholson discusses the influential horror film, its making, its themes, and the obsessive following it’s inspired over the years. It’s the best new use of the serialized podcast format, digging into a movie like an Empire Magazine retrospective. It’s cultural introspection at its very best.
4. Comedy Bang Bang – Scott Aukerman seemed to rely on bringing in new voices to his character-driven comedy show this year, an almost necessary step to keep the show fresh. This allowed up and comers like Shaun Diston (Rudi North!), Edi Patterson (Bean Dip!), and Ego Nwodim to create new favorites that we will hopefully be able to enjoy for years to come.
3. Doughboys – Nick Wiger and Mike Mitchell survived another year! The duo often jokes about quitting the podcast or eating themselves to death, but has managed to continue making their hit podcast. I choose to listen to this podcast Friday mornings and consider it an absolute treat every time I listen, smiling while driving into work. Their banter, puns, and review of chain restaurants bring me so much joy.
2. Serial – After season 2 flopped (I think it’s good, but just didn’t keep up with people’s expectations of it, lucky for those people there’s more than a slew of true crime available for them now), it was interesting to think about where Serial would go next. It launched podcasts and the true crime genre into major popularity. After a couple years off, we now have season 3, a work that’s at least more important (if not better) than its first season. Exploring the justice system, Serial tackles a rotating cast of stories, each highlighting the amount of injustice that exists with American courts. It’s a capital F FEAT in journalism and maintains the highest levels of storytelling capabilities even if I had to motivate myself to listen to it at times (it’s a pretty crushing show).
1. Good Christian Fun – I don’t think there was any other podcast I had as much fun listening to in 2018 than Good Christian Fun. Hosted by Kevin Porter (Gilmore Guys) and Caroline Ely, two Christian-ish hosts dissecting all the worst (and occasional best) bits of Christian culture from the past to the present. They are typically joined by a guest comedian to discuss the topic, getting their “Guestimony”, where the guests discuss their experiences with religion. The whole show often whips back and forth between frank discussions of religious experience to hilarious discussions about the topic at hand with interspersed segments lead by Porter’s knack for cheesy puns and apt control over the soundboard. The guest intro to Amy Grant’s “Sing Your Praise to the Lord” is the most ingenious use of the podcast format in the last two years, apologies to Serial’s invesgative look at the US judicial system, this song is comin’ HOT.