I’ve been doing an annual list of best podcasts for a few years now, and every year it changes a little bit. I like to think that the list evolves along with the medium, beginning as “best true crime” podcasts and now basically coming to encompass any serialized non-fiction (I’m not quite at a point where I can listen to fiction podcasts, maybe someday). For the most part, I just want a compelling story to listen to while I’m driving, cooking, gardening, etc. Sometimes that still means a murder mystery, but not always.
Which is to say, these are admittedly somewhat arbitrary parameters. They exclude a lot of great podcasts I listen to regularly (not to mention my own, not that they’d make the list anyway): Reply All, Chapo Trap House, Hardcore History, etc, and of course Uproxx’s podcasts, People’s Party and Indiecast. I don’t include those kinds of podcasts on the list simply because I wouldn’t want to just recite my same favorite handful of things every year. This is more a place for new, single-story podcasts, preferably with a beginning, middle, and end. Like a list of best movies, only for best podcasts, essentially.
A couple that didn’t make the list that I also enjoyed were The Gravy Train, about Toronto’s crack-smoking ex-mayor Rob Ford (I always wanted to know more about that story), which I couldn’t put on the list because it came out last year. Ditto the also-very-good Stay Free: The Story of The Clash, narrated by Chuck D from Public Enemy. That was a must-listen that somehow slipped under my radar when it came out. The first season of Uncover, Escaping NXIVM, came out in 2018, but I only heard about it this year, right in that sweet spot between having gotten entirely fed up enough with The Vow but before I stopped craving NXIVM content entirely. That was indispensable (I’ve heard Seduced is great but I don’t have Starz), not necessarily a top 10 podcast, but perfect for anyone who was getting really fed up with Mark Vicente’s bullshit.
Where was I? Oh right, the list. Fine, I’m finished prefacing.
Hurricane Katrina is one of those stories I assumed I knew but quickly realized I didn’t. Floodlines, hosted by Van R. Newkirk II, does a wonderful job of not just telling stories from in and around Hurricane Katrina (though it does do that) but trying to synthesize them into a fuller understanding of what actually happened, and what it means in the context of history. Just from an entertainment standpoint, it also mixes a bunch of different kinds of audio — host narration, interviews, music, period audio, diegetic sound — in a way that’s interesting, but doesn’t feel like the kind of too-busy soundscapes you get in some of the pulpier podcasts. You know, the ones that just kind of throw every relevant sound effect at the wall, where you enter the word “hatchet murder” to get a discount on Dude Wipes or whatever. Floodlines doesn’t “cheat,” in that way. In fact, it feels almost conspicuously non-cheatery, if that makes any sense. Performatively above cheap titillation, say. Floodlines is, essentially, the beau ideal of a public radio show.
If I remember correctly, some podcasting app recommended this season’s Slow Burn to me after I listed to The Gravy Train, and it was dead on. If Rob Ford was Canada’s early harbinger of Donald Trump’s brand of media circus populism, David Duke was an early harbinger of insurgent, white-washed white supremacy. It’s also another one of those stories you think you know but most likely only understand in the broadest strokes. Hosted by Slate’s national editor and a native Louisianan, Josh Levin, it comes in a very bingeable eight 50-ish minute episodes.
You know that scene in Fight Club where Edward Norton is at the cancer support group meeting and the bald lady gets up and says “I’m so close to the end and all I want to do is get laid one last time?” Dying For Sex is basically that, as a podcast. If only Chloe from Fight Club had had Tinder she might’ve found a use for all that lube and amyl nitrate. Hosted by Nikki Boyer, Dying For Sex is about Nikki’s best friend Molly’s sex life, and all the ways it grows and transforms as she gets closer to death and stops giving a shit (to reference a different 1999 movie, it’s a little like Office Space in that way). I had a friend and podcast co-host of my own die of cancer a few years back and Dying of Sex did occasionally get too real for me (not to mention making me wonder if I was a bad friend for not having nearly so many introspective conversations with my own friend), but for the most part, it’s personal in the best way, a podcast that goes where it goes because the hosts are who they are. Plus, who doesn’t want to hear weird stories about a stranger’s sex life?
It’s consistently mind-blowing that people who spearheaded and cheerleaded the Iraq War are still regularly showing up as cable news pundits. And usually in the guise of “responsible adult.” Hey, uh… didn’t you help kill like half a million people? Short of putting those people in jail, the least you can do is remember their crimes, and for that we have Blowback, one of those “why the hell didn’t this exist before now” podcasts. Brendan James and Noah Kulwin deliver a thoroughly-researched, yet somehow non-didactic retelling of the 2003 invasion, its origins, aftermath, key players, and historical relevance. Very few podcasts combine historical and conversational, but Blowback manages it. If I have one criticism, it’s that they can be overly thorough in editing out silences, such that it can feel like an overwhelming torrent of information at times. It could “breathe” a little more. Anyway, I’m glad it exists and it should be required listening.
It’s nice that even in an era of mass consolidation in podcasting world, we can still get a podcast like Death In The West, a story about the 1917 murder of labor leader Frank Little in Butte, Montana. Death In The West, narrated by Zach Dundas and produced by a team of actual Montanans, is true crime, broadly speaking, but it’s also about the history of labor in the US and the history of the American West as a whole. Not so much the cowboys and Indians part, but about industrialization, predatory corporations, and local corruption. I don’t know how to say this in a way that doesn’t sound insufferably pretentious, but it also feels like Montana, aurally, in some way. It’s spare and straightforward, honest and forthright, and never “gilds the lily” with too many sound effects or attempts to overdramatize itself like so many podcasts do (I’ll never forget the time the host of Invisibilia made her interview subject shout “you don’t need eyes to see!” I stopped listening immediately and never went back). Granted I’m a sucker for the era of western populism, but Death In The West offers not only the facts of history, but the flavor too.
The Satanic Panic? Yes, please. What a bizarre thing to have happened. While it’s cute to relive a very strange pop-culture phenomenon that many of us vaguely remember, and replay old Geraldo clips of media types fretting over something that so plainly didn’t exist, Conviction: American Panic introduces us to a whole cast of people whose lives were actually ruined by this very stupid thing. American Panic is lurid in the obvious ways, but also: how do mass delusions happen? It’s worth understanding.
There are few things more compelling than a podcast about a con man (see: Dirty John, et al), and in Chameleon, hosts Vanessa Grigoriadis and Josh Dean have found a doozy of a subject: it seems someone out there has been impersonating powerful women in the entertainment industry and luring gig crew members to Indonesia on their own dime with promises of a fake movie that never pan out. The victims are out weeks of their time and thousands of dollars of their money and the weirdest part is, no one can figure out whether the perpetrator of this fraud is even personally profiting from it. Chameleon comes armed with a hell of a weird story and plenty of recorded audio of the con-person at work, but the best part is, they set out to unmask a fraudster and by the final episode, they actually accomplish it. I’ve come to learn how rare that is in podcasting. It’s the podcast equivalent of calling your shot like Babe Ruth.
I know, I know, Dolly Parton’s America *technically* came out in 2019 and I’m breaking my own rule by including it. But give me a break, the last episode went up on December 31st, no way was I going to finish it by last year’s deadline! Logistics aside, Dolly Parton’s America is simply a wonderful listen. As a person who is generally skeeved out by celebrity worship (look, I’m sure Keanu Reeves is great, but I’m not going to shit my pants every time he drops an incendiary truthbomb like “I love movies” in public), I was shocked at how much Jad Abumrad made me fall in love with Dolly Parton, a person about whom I previously knew very little. Now I’m thoroughly convinced that she’s one of our finest Americans.
Every year I make this list it seems I include at least one lurid tale from the world of porn. The surprising thing is that until now, no one had attempted to tell the most famously scandalous tale in the history of porn. That is, in 1986, the discovery that the most famous porn star in the world, Traci Lords, had been using a fake ID and had actually been underage during the filming of all of her movies — except for one. And that one, the only one it was still legal to sell and distribute, was the one that just so happened to have been shot by Lords’ own newly-created production company. Was Lord the innocent victim of the predatory porn industry the Meese commission made her out to be, or the calculating careerist who didn’t care who she stepped on along the way to fame that the porn industry made her out to be?
It can be hard to find porn industry reporting that isn’t biased in one of those two basic ways, but hosts Lili Anolik and Ashley West seem to make a pretty good-faith effort at it. They talk to everyone they can who was there at the time (all characters, as you might imagine), in a podcast that manages to be both seedy and romantic in a nostalgic way. The style of it can be overwhelming at times (the attempt at noir, the faux-extemporaneous dialogue between hosts), but I’ve never heard anyone give porn its proper due as an influence on pop culture, or connect porn’s influence to the rise of everyone from Kim Kardashian to Donald Trump. Once Upon A Time In The Valley is entertaining storytelling, but also smart analysis.
Okay, I admit it, for all my talk of “it’s not just about true-crime anymore,” my top choice is a podcast with a classic “young dead body in a small town” hook. In 2016, a popular high school kid disappeared the night before Thanksgiving from Canadian, a small town in West Texas. At first, there isn’t even a body.
That sounds like fairly standard true crime fodder, so what makes Tom Brown’s Body, from Texas Monthly and Skip Hollandsworth, so endlessly engrossing? It’s probably the fact that every character seems to have a couple of layers of hidden weirdness. Tom Brown’s Body quickly becomes more than just a whodunnit, evolving into a wildly entertaining small-town noir where no one is quite on the level. That includes two key figures in the story: the town Sheriff, who seems to believe, against all logic, that Tom Brown has somehow killed and disappeared his own body, and the Sheriff’s nemesis, a fame-hungry private detective hired by the Browns, who manages to seem wildly untrustworthy even as he does what seem like the right things. It’s quite a journey, the rare podcast that I burned through as fast as I could and couldn’t stop thinking about even after it was over.