If there’s a common thread in all my favorite podcasts of 2018, it was seeing another side of something I thought I knew. And if there’s one question I have a hard time answering for myself, even with a trip down a good old Google rabbit hole, it’s, “Where should I start with this new-to-me podcast?”
My list will help you most if you gravitate toward interviews with authors and other creative people, narrative nonfiction about relationships, families, parenting, and feminism, and in-depth reporting on design, business, pop culture, art, music, and history. If that’s your lane, then this list is for you.
If you’re more into sci-fi fantasy fiction, daily newscasts, weekly politics, lots of murder, or freeform, loosely edited discussions, then this list maybe isn’t the BEST place for you to find suggestions. These episodes aren’t the ONLY great entry points into these shows, but they represent the style and subject and show off what these shows do best.
Beautiful/Anonymous: Basement Infidelity
This one is a perfect example of how this format, where an anonymous caller talks to Chris Gethard for an hour, lets people open up, lets the story get more complicated, and lets the caller figure some tough things out for herself as she talks. This one is about a lot of tough things, but the caller has a resilience we could all use more of.
Rashomon: The Chapman Family
I love how the family members’ stories are edited in this episode, how Cecily, the woman telling the story, has this infectious balance of compassion and understanding, and absurdist humor when she talks about her teenage self and the way she saw the world, and how as the story unfolds it both gets so much worse and shows so much of how much this family loves each other.
The Longest Shortest Time: I’ll Be Watching You
I have a special place in my heart for podcasts where people do experiments with their own lives so I don’t have to. I have no desire to document every waking moment of my own kids’ lives, but this episode on a guy who does is fascinating and such a conversation starter.
Death, Sex & Money: Tayari Jones
This interview and Anna Sale’s interview with Lena Waithe looks at “sudden” fame and creative success through a similar lens. Both women are so candid about how their success was actually anything but sudden, how money changes everything (and what it hasn’t changed yet), and how they see their roles as public, influential figures now.
No Man’s Land by The Wing: Sylvia Plath
I loved the mix of perspectives in this podcast: Host and The Wing’s in-house historian and host Alexis Coe, one of Plath’s lifelong friends, recordings of Plath’s own voice, contemporary author Megan Abbott, and experts in Plath’s life and work are woven together in a way that’s revelatory and an addicting listen. Fans of The History Chicks, Unladylike, and Stuff Mom Never Told You will love this podcast.
Household Name: The Last Blockbuster
The reporter in this episode went to Alaska twice to do this story, and that extra time and reporting is really important to get the story right, to give the people in this town the time to open up, to take this thing that had five seconds of fame on John Oliver’s HBO show, ask some more important questions about it, and give the real people behind it the time and space to answer. This podcast is so good at showing you something you thought you knew in a way that will change how you see it forever.
Pop Culture Happy Hour: Pop Culture Serotonin
I listen to PCHH every single week, and while their topics are usually full of timely movie and TV recommendations, their evergreen episodes like this one are always some of my favorites of the year. They’re all over the place, they’re serendipitous, and they include a Spotify playlist called Katie is in the Car, a Will Smith Instagram feed, AND local news bloopers.
The Dream: Series
If you’re a lady with a Facebook account, multilevel marketing, of everything from makeup to leggings, is a part of your life. I wondered why I couldn’t seem to click on “hide” when a girl I went to a bachelorette party with ten years ago started hawking Beachbody. There were episodes of this series that made me audibly gasp, I can’t stop recommending it, and if we ever hang out please listen so I have someone outside of the internet to ask, “So, did you know Madeline Albright was really into Amway?” (Listen to this whole series in order, starting with episode one.)
Serial: Season 3
That JUDGE, that WEED case, that BAR FIGHT, those MOTHERS, those reverberations through a city of the one of the saddest stories I’ve ever heard. The sentences, the fines, the defense attorneys, the prosecutors, the families, the communities, the silence, the is-this-real juvenile system. The immersive, top of their game reporting. And knowing they could have literally made a whole series just like this in so many other cities. This series is also best if you listen in order.
99% Invisible: Articles of Interest Series
Who said, out loud, alone, “Ooooooh, I’m SO GLAD THEY DID ONE ON POCKETS!”? The Podcastmom! Who is always here for nuanced, say it with me again, deep dives into stories about things in your everyday life that tell a bigger story? Me again! This series is: addicting, thoughtful, and full of an infectious energy of discovery that host Avery Trufelman evokes. And in this episode, pockets! Unlike Serial and The Dream, you can listen to these in any order!
By The Book: The Five Love Languages
This show is at its best when the hosts walk the line of true interest in an aspect of a self-help book work and skepticism about the parts that seem too weird/sexist/misogynist/old-fashioned/hippie for them, and there’s a special humor and reality-show feel to it when the husbands are involved in an episode. I also love when they take on books that are as well-known as this one and interrogate the ways it’s become part of the culture and conversation whether you realized it or not.
But That’s Another Story: Julie Buntin
This show really hits its stride when it gets people talking about moments of transition and crisis, discovery and transformation, through the lens of a favorite book. I’ll remember the way Marlena author Julie Buntin talks about reading Lorrie Moore as a teenager for a long time. By letting people start their stories in their childhoods, this show opens up a space for self-discovery through the lens of books and reading that’s so rare, and the editing makes this feel like one of the most intimate podcasts in my queue.
Song Exploder: I Miss Those Days
It’s always up to the artist how much to talk about the story and state of mind behind a song and how much to focus on the mechanics of putting it together in Song Exploder, and Jack Antonoff walks the line between the two with such honesty and candor in this episode. I have a special place in my heart for happy-sounding songs about loss and Bruce Springsteen-esque saxophone, and this episode has both.
Getting Curious: What Makes a Cult a Cult?
This episode showcases that special JVN rhythm, humor, and absolute glee when he discovers something new or redefines something when he learns about it more. He makes his usually-thorough preparation look easy, lets himself rant and focus on what he’s most obsessed with, and always puts his guest so at ease and in their zone that you can’t help but feel their badassery and enthusiasm through your earbuds.
Unladylike: How to Nanny Up
The best episodes of Unladylike distill the economic, political, social, and personal into a few big questions, and then they answer them with nuance, humor, and some of the most thorough research in all of podcasting.
This Is Love: Always Tomorrow
If you don’t feel every human emotion while listening to romance author Brenda Jackson tell the story of how she wrote 120 books, all about her first romance, then you have a heart of stone and should just go back to murder podcasts forever and never come back. I love Brenda Jackson’s open-hearted honesty, I love this episode, and I love the whole idea of an entire series about the different ways to understand love. Check out episode one as another entry point, about a whale and a teenage swimmer (sounds weird, I promise it’s hypnotic and amazing), if you’re new to this one!