It’s been a strange and harrowing year, and the podcasts have mostly followed suit.
The podcast universe was having a relatively quiet start to the year before, well, the coronavirus threw everything into a tizzy. Before then, the one ambiguous head-turner was a viral standalone episode from an already popular podcast about a song that may or may not exist. Since then, after the lockdowns started kicking in, a good deal of podcast output reorganized itself around that reality — there were a great many podcasts about, inspired, or catalyzed by COVID-19, and then there was everyone else, who had to figure out how to push through and get by somehow.
As of this writing, it feels like podcasting is leveling back out a bit, even as the actual pandemic is far from resolved. For now, though, let’s take a look at some of the year’s best podcasts that have come out so far across this strange and harrowing time.
She sure seems interested.
Photo: 99% Invisible
Avery Trufelman’s deep dive into fashion returns, and her trademark genuinely loving but interrogative approach has never been sharper. This season trains its focus on objects of luxury — perfume, high fashion, diamonds, suits — subjects that sit squarely within the force that seems to most drive Trufelman’s critical eye: the tension between beauty and capitalism. The episodes are fun, curious, and filled with fascinating detail, but they also carry the burden of a melancholic question: how do you love something that can be hard to love?
A sports documentary that’s well worth your time. Cam Newton, the former Carolina Panther quarterback and newly minted Patriot, is an almost mythologically interesting star athlete. He’s prodigiously talented, but has never won a championship. He aspires to be an icon, but repeatedly courts controversy. The Cam Chronicles is a shrewd and empathetic account of Newton’s legend, closely tracking the QB’s journey from his Atlanta roots to his murky present, ultimately telling a story about the burdens of being an intensely public, wealthy, and prominent Black athlete in America. The series is also noteworthy for the talents of its host, Tyler R. Tynes, who breathes electric life into the work of narration. Energetic, opinionated, funny, and free, Tynes’ approach offers an appealing window into what podcast narration can, and should, be.
Around the turn of the millennium, Connor Ratliff was cast on the critically acclaimed HBO drama Band of Brothers. It was a small role, but for a working actor, all roles are valuable. But before Ratliff could make it to the set, he was called back to re-audition for Tom Hanks, who was an executive producer on the project. He ended up losing the part — later, he would be told Hanks thought he had “dead eyes.” Decades later, Ratliff would create a podcast about the experience. He had pulled together a decent performing career by then, and in the podcast, which he calls Dead Eyes, he sets out to revisit, unpack, and explore that early-career incident, which had left a big impression. The podcast is fascinating and excellent, essentially functioning as a vessel that explores the emotional experience of building a life in show business. Part interview show, part memoir, Dead Eyes is an innovative take on a familiar genre.
Written and hosted by Vann R. Newkirk II, The Atlantic’s revisiting of Hurricane Katrina and the botched federal response that followed is a genuinely illuminating piece that holds extra weight and resonance in the current pandemic context. Beautifully written, deeply reported, and further elevated by outstanding music and sound design, Floodlines is the best audio documentary to come out this year so far, hands down. It can be a really hard time for many to pick up this particular story, but it remains a worthwhile exercise, if one is able, to stare into the abyss, as it can serve as a guide for what’s to come.
When life gives you lemons (or pandemic-induced quarantine), make lemonade (or a podcast about quarantine cooking). Life under lockdown has predictably inspired a considerable number of new COVID-19-related podcasts. Many are news-oriented, dedicated to keeping you up to date on the latest developments. Some, meanwhile, are more unexpected … and perhaps, more welcome. One of the finest from this latter batch is Home Cooking, a quarantine-cooking advice show hosted by Samin Nosrat, the chef and famed food writer, and Hrishikesh Hirway, indie-podcast-producer extraordinaire. Breezy, playful, and rich with puns, Home Cooking is a delightful companion to figure out the puzzle of your pantry. It’s really short, though, playing out across four hour-long episodes that wrapped up in early May, but it’s jammed packed with genuinely helpful tips and ideas that are evergreen.
Let’s say you have an exclusive, insular, and somewhat known group whose membership is defined by “unnatural intelligence.” What would you expect from the group’s internal social dynamics? From the way it views itself? You’ll get those answers from My Year in Mensa, an endlessly fascinating four-part podcast from comedian and writer Jamie Loftus. A semi-adaptation of a sporadic column series, Loftus uses the podcast to recount her year-long experience successfully gaining admission into Mensa, the largest “High IQ society” in the world, and skeptically moving through the community. What results is a vibrant critique of what can be described as “intellectual supremacy,” and the kinds of thinking that can foster. “My Year In Mensa” is ultimately an unsettling story, but it’s told in such a gloriously bold, funny, and personal way that you just can’t forget.
Gil Faizon and George St. Geegland continue to be at large. Nick Kroll and John Mulaney’s geriatric testaments to failed New York creative ambition reached true heights with its Broadway iteration a few years ago, which was also distributed as a Netflix special. Now, under quarantine, they’ve reprised the characters for a new podcast that gives you basically everything you’d want from the act: mis-emphasized pronunciations, delusions of grandeur, dense rapid-fire joke delivery, tuna — and then some. It’s exponentially more enjoyable for podcast fans, since, as with the Broadway show, the duo mischievously plays with some of the medium’s most common tropes.
Planet Money has many distinctions: arguably the first “true” NPR podcast, longtime stalwart of accessible stories about complex economies, a truly sustainable operation that’s been able to maintain a consistently high quality level even as its actual stable of talent has changed over the years. It also has fascinating roots, originally coming into being off a joint This American Life–NPR reporting venture that covered the 2008 economic crisis. These days, of course, we found ourselves in the depths of another economic calamity — quite possibly the worst ever experienced by this country. And Planet Money has stepped up to cover this new crisis with reliable gusto, in result producing some of the best work that the show’s ever done, almost twelve years into its existence.
Photo: Courtesy of Gimlet
Obsession runs rampant in this instantly legendary episode of Reply All, already a show with quite a few of them. In “The Case of the Missing Hit,” the team is contacted by a filmmaker looking for help to track down a song that may or may not exist. That song is thought to be a distinct artifact of the late ’90s and early 2000s, a sugary mix of U2 and the Barenaked Ladies, but it simply couldn’t be found in the infinite repositories of the internet. What transpires is a glorious and unexpectedly thrilling caper, one that brings listeners along a wild ride as the filmmaker, supported by Reply All co-host P.J. Vogt, tries their very best to figure out the truth behind the spectral single … all as the song turns into an earworm that deepens its hold in their brains.
There is an insidious system sitting in plain sight that preys on the extremely vulnerable, stripping them of their humanity and forcing them into indentured servitude. American Rehab is the first serialized production from Reveal, the investigative journalism stalwart, and it digs deep into a shadowy system of rehab facilities that takes advantage of those seeking treatment for addiction and exploits them as free labor under the guise of “work therapy.” Rooted in a cult, forged by capitalism, and promoted by corrupt politicians, the organization at the heart of this story — Cenikor — is a maximalist product of runaway American capitalism, and one walks away from each episode of American Rehab with a sense of grotesque, surreal horror. Perhaps the most unsettling and infuriating listen in a long while.
Staying In is kind of a classic hangout podcast, albeit one with added gravity given how we’re all mostly forced to keep indoors as much as possible under quarantine conditions. All that said, Emily V. Gordon and Kumail Nanjiani are lovely hangs, and the podcast is a pure pleasure. As they note at the outset, Gordon and Nanjiani are no strangers to isolation, or the feeling of being trapped and helpless. You might know this already if you’ve seen The Big Sick, the semi-autobiographical 2017 film that the couple wrote and Nanjiani starred in, which is in part based on Gordon’s experience with a rare disease that nearly killed her and left her immunocompromised. The situation is such that they’ve occasionally had to self-isolate for her health, even before all this. All that background is baked into the feel of Staying In, which comes with a relaxed semi-diaristic quality — there’s a lot of processing in real time — that’s reminiscent of older styles of podcasting. Indeed, it’s actually a return to podcast form for Gordon and Nanjiani, as the two had previously hosted a video game–ish podcast called The Indoor Kids. Some things have carried over. Like The Indoor Kids, Staying In is charming and funny, and it’s reminds us that we’re all in this together.
I’ll be honest: I was a little disappointed when I heard that Slow Burn was heading back to politics for its fourth season, after the podcast successfully expanded the idea of what it could be with Joel Anderson’s fantastic revisiting of the Biggie-Tupac saga. And yet, the return to politics has been nothing short of an absolute scorcher. Hosted by Josh Levin, this season traces the political rise of David Duke, the former Klansman, in the late ’80s and early ’90s, and the result is an eerie, robust, and constantly surprising documentary. It’s piercing in its resonance, committed to a fundamental truth: White supremacy continues to find purchase in these United States and, given enough oxygen, it will always come roaring back.
What if “Wind of Change,” the sorta corny but kinda great 1990 power ballad by the Scorpions, was actually written by the CIA? And what if the creation of that song was secretly part of a covert campaign by the West to expand its soft power against the Soviet Union during the Cold War? That’s the divinely sticky premise of this narrative podcast by the journalist Patrick Radden Keefe, which goes on to be a fun house romp that’s especially compelling for folks already into stories of spycraft. It’s a solid dive into Cold War history that’s well worth the price of admission.
Drake is one of the most well-known musicians in the world right now, so why would you want to tell a story that’s already been told a million times over? That’s the kindle that lights this CBC production, which uses Drake as a lens to explore the broader history of hip-hop. This Is Not a Drake Podcast’s effectiveness lies in its construction. Each installment is built around a big idea: One focuses on the role of Toronto as a hip-hop city, one is about rap’s relationship to R&B, another grapples with gender and the genre. Led and hosted by Ty Harper, a storyteller who has chronicled the Toronto hip-hop scene for decades, this podcast is a work of love and art.
I can’t overstate how much I love this show. Written and produced by David Weinberg, Welcome to LA is essentially a series of love letters to the City of Angels, with each story — some reported, some as memoir — capturing something fundamental about the nature and feeling of that place. There’s an episode set in an old restaurant that stretches out across time and space. Another weaves together a few different lives across time to tell a story about redlining in Southern California. One is simply about the thrill of Friday nights. There’s something deeply traditional about Welcome to LA, whose classically composed stories are reminiscent of much older stuff in the KCRW/late-night L.A.-radio tradition. And yet it feels gloriously modern, like the podcast has figured out how to extract fresh new sounds from an age-old instrument. This is a miracle of a show, and I hope it keeps going forever.
There’s something going on with this show. Hosted by journalists Michael Hobbes and Sarah Marshall, You’re Wrong About is a podcast committed to reevaluating a person or event from the past — which isn’t the most original of conceits. (See: Slow Burn, 30 for 30, Throughline, and so on.) But it’s definitely been one of the most addictive, fueled by its prolific output, the stunning depth of research, and sheer range of topics. This is the kind of show where you get deep dives into the D.C. Sniper, the 2000 election, and Courtney Love. It’s also remarkably thoughtful and driven by a spirit of genuine, playful inquiry, which is a balm in a podcast landscape filled with sensationalist treatments. You’re Wrong About has been around since 2018, but it’s become A Thing over the past year, and deservedly so: It’s the kind of podcast that people who love podcasts can’t get enough of.