2017 was Year of the Podcast for me. I dived into the medium and tried to sample as many as possible while keeping up with my favorites. Success was limited – I’m certainly not the most knowledgeable about what the medium has to offer – but I found some great creators and stories. At the new year, I tweeted out a rough top 10 list and mused that I might expand on it in a blog post. Well, this is that post, with a revamped list and honorable mentions.
10. Pod Save America
Part of the Crooked Media family of podcasts, the pod is hosted by four former aides to President Obama. Every Monday and Thursday, Jon Favreau, Tommy Vietor, Dan Pfeiffer, and Jon Lovett take about an hour to discuss the latest updates in American politics. Their nuanced discussion runs through context on current debates, political strategies, Congressional process, and suggestions on how to support the progressive movement. As a bonus, they have some of the funniest ad reads in the business.
Written by Joseph Fink and performed by Jasika Nicole as part of the Night Vale family of podcasts, Alice Isn’t Dead’s second season ended in August and is ferociously horrifying. Keisha drives across the country searching for answers about her missing wife and the supernatural shadow war playing out in the backroads and truck stops of America. There are mysteries and threats. The tension creeps until it bursts all at once. Violence, when it occurs, is visceral and froze me in place on several occasions. You never know who you’re going to find on a road trip across America. And you never know what will find you.
Another Night Vale Presents podcast, and my favorite of their collection. The two seasons available lean hard into the medium, with season 1 presented as guided meditation tapes in a facility called the Institute and season 2 as art museum audio guides. Within the Wires is character-centric, each season focusing heavily on the relationship between two women, with details of the dystopian world sprinkled in to heighten tension and plant seeds of unease. Nonetheless, the two seasons offer very different arcs. Where the first season builds up to a burst of action and liberation, the second season immerses itself in coping with loss and grief. The writing (Jeffrey Cranor and Janina Matthewson) is intricate and the performances from Janina Matthewson and Rima Te Wiata breathtaking, making this a podcast I want to get lost in again and again.
7. The Moth
The Moth podcast is the product of a wider organization, devoted to storytelling around the world. They hold workshops to help people shape stories from their personal lives and host a variety of events where people let down their guard to tell those tales, from humorous to heartfelt, mundane to supernatural (there’s at least one ghost story that I’ve heard). The podcast is developed from recordings of these events. The Moth emphasizes connection and compassion, growing empathy from the shared and singular nature of human experience and fallibility. While episodes of the podcast explore a variety of themes, you can always count on sincerity and emotion.
6. 36 Questions
36 Questions is a miniseries musical podcast written by Christopher Littler and Ellen Winter, told in three 45-minutes-to-an-hour long episodes. The plot is emotionally gripping, the songs are catchy, Jonathan Groff sounds angelic, and Jessie Shelton’s performance captures a hundred nuances while sounding amazing. The musical, based on the 36 questions to fall in love, follows a couple with a marriage in free fall who use the questions as a final lifeline before it falls apart entirely. The show addresses themes of betrayal and healing with respect, and reflects the messiness of life and love. Plus, there’s a whole song about the symbolic burning of things that I won’t link to because spoilers, but it’s beautiful.
Greater Boston is like a really good crackfic, but for a city. A subway line becomes a self-governing city, people unironically refer to an event known as the Baked Bean Fiasco, and a man regularly changes his name on the advice of his spirit guide, Mary Wollstonecraft. Writers Jeff van Dreason and Alexander Danner run a tightly-wound bit of nonsense that bounces between ridiculous hallucination and achingly real character struggles, with the occasional bumper of dark comedy. Greater Boston falls solidly into the category “I don’t think this should work, but it’s one of my favorite bits of narrative anyway,” and now I have feelings about the numbers on the face of a clock and stress balls.
Wooden Overcoats is another comedy podcast and one of the best things on the internet. Hyperbolic? Perhaps, but the antics of Antigone and Rudyard Funn, siblings and proprietors of Funn Funerals, lead to regular fits of laughter as they go toe-to-toe with the despicable, awful, beautiful, heinously charming newcomer Eric Chapman when he opens the only other funeral parlor on Piffling Vale. Beth Eyre’s Antigone is possibly my favorite performance in podcasting, somewhere between eccentric, misunderstood genius and socially inept neurotic mess. Felix Trench as Rudyard is smarmy and pitiable. Ciara Baxendale voices Georgie Crusoe, the Funn’s sarcastic assistant who could probably rule all of Piffling with a little effort. Tom Crowley as Eric Chapman has the voice of a perfect heroic protagonist, glowing with charm and hinting at a mysterious past, which only makes his position as confused antagonist more delicious. Wooden Overcoats mixes playfully arranged tropes with stellar talent, balanced artfully by lead writer David K. Barnes and directors Andy Goddard and John Wakefield. Listen to it.
Each episode of Homophilia sees hosts Dave Holmes and Matt McConkey bring in a new LGBTQ celebrity guest for questioning on what (and who) they are passionate about. Energetic and witty, they somehow capture the sensation of gossiping with a bunch of your friends while still dropping thought-provoking insight and advice on living and thriving as queer people in America. While I’m not up-to-date on the podcast, my introductory episode featured Mara Wilson, and I was immediately hooked. That being said, the first two episodes, with Cameron Esposito and Eliot Glazer, are home runs, so really you should just listen to every episode.
The Sewers of Paris is founded on one question: What is the entertainment that changed the lives of gay men? Each week, host Matt Baume interviews a new guest in a deep and thoughtful exploration of the small, large, and profound ways that lives are changed by the entertainment we latch onto. From the opera to game shows, monster movies to literary classics, the variety and richness of the discussion will uplift you and make you wish you had a spreadsheet of all the gems that get mentioned. Baume himself is a master of weaving themes from seemingly disparate media to create a through line in each episode that intersects with his guest’s personal stories. The Sewers of Paris are a great place for introspection, and you’ll find marvelous company down there. And if you’re intimidated by the number of episodes, I suggest episodes 114 with Anthony Oliveira and 107 with Guy Branum as starters.
This is the podcast that inspired me to finally get on Patreon to throw money at things. The Bright Sessions is about teens and young adults with special abilities (yes, they’re superpowers) attending therapy to learn how to cope with a variety of mental health issues, control their abilities, and navigate the world. It is one of the best explorations of society and humanity through the lens of superpowers that I know of. Writer and actor Lauren Shippen sets a creeping conspiracy against the nuanced relationships of an ensemble cast and carefully mixes in critiques of toxic masculinity and gender stereotypes. There is heartfelt queer romance and healing, learning when to let go and when to dig in. While the plot rumbles forward with tension and action, the show is at its best when it’s exploring what it means for the characters to connect and build a family with each other. If there were space to sing the praises of all the actors and their characters individually, I would, but know that this is the podcast I recommend most often.
Honorable Mentions: First, Limetown, from the same production company as 36 Questions, but instead of music and romance there’s a missing town, an investigative reporter, and fear. It’s getting a second season this year, so get caught up. Second, The Big Loop, a serial fiction podcast that prides itself on unpredictability. The best way to prepare is to assume you’ll be some level of heartbroken and then sigh when it happens anyway. And third, Flash Forward, a futurist podcast that predicts and explores what the future could be like under various circumstances. These futures range from the serious, like a failed census, to the fantastic, a la space pirates, but they are always well-researched and fascinating.