The ranking is based on podcast as a series, not as individual episodes. The universe of podcasts is much more sprawling and fractured than television or film. This means that there are probable podcasts that I should be listening to but I am entirely unaware.
Last year’s podcast phenomenon squeaks in with its first episodes of the new season at the tail end of the year. It may still be too early to tell if Serial’s second season is more like Fargo’s or True Detective’s. Even though the end of season 1 ended with reality’s level of ambiguity and closure, the first episode of season 2 was compelling enough to remind me of why Serial was the phenomenon that defined podcasts last year.
Recommended episodes: Dustwun
9. 99% Invisible
Roman Mars has one of the best names in radio. Fortunately, 99% Invisible is also one of the best examples of the use of the podcast format. Episodes are not too long, but also always long enough to dive into a topic and examine it thoroughly. For a show that is primarily about design, taking away the visual element requires more storytelling and succinct analysis. Each episode exposes hidden information about the way that the world works or interesting and hidden pockets of interesting detail.
Recommended episodes: The Sizzle
, Structural Integrity, Rajneeshpuram, From The Sea, Freedom
8. Reconcilable Differences
Perhaps the most meandering and least focused podcast in this list, the longford talker pairs raconteur Merlin Mann with curmudgeon John Siracusa for discussions that are fascinating, intimate and revealing. Both John and Merlin are very self-aware, pay meticulous attention to detail and process. Applying that type of analysis to personal issues is not only interesting, but also entertaining.
Recommended episodes: We All Ruined it Together, Thrown to the Wolves of Puberty, 50 Shades of John
7. The Sporkful
No other writer or journalist thinks about enjoying food and drink as much as Dan Pashman. Applying levels of analytical rigor to enjoying food has helped me to think about maximizing enjoyment in other areas, or applying metrics to enjoyment. Pashman’s bite consistency vs. bite variety framework to think about the relative merits of the stereo and mono versions of The Beatles’ albums. Who else would host a live debate on the question of whether a hot dog is a sandwich?
Recommended episodes: John Hodgman v. Dan Pashman: Are Hot Dogs Sandwiches?, How Do You Eat An Ice Cream Sandwich In The Shower?, A Flavor Chemist Explains Burger Toppings, You Suck At Drinking: A Guide To Buzz Management
6. Judge John Hodgman
Solving what may be petty and ridiculous-sounding disputes helps to find truths about people and relationships. By taking what may be petty issues with absolute seriousness, Judge Hodgkin helps relationships by helping people communicate about the underlying issues. The combination of seriousness and ridiculousness is perfect. Judge Hodgman, Bailiff Jesse and the assorted guest bailiffs take the parties’ feelings seriously but don’t take the courtroom too seriously.
Recommended episodes: Trial by Kombat, I Want My nth TV, Troll-o Contendere, Schnapp Judgment
The most meticulously crafted audioscape of any podcast or radio show today, Radiolab demands more attention than any other podcast on this list, because its episodes are so dense. More than any other show, Radiolab shows the power that sound alone can have on a listener’s emotions. Each episode of Radiolab is an aural treat. But even without the innovative sound design, Abrumrad and Krulwich tell interesting stories about science and society.
Recommended episodes: Darkode, Elements, La Mancha Screwjob, Mau Mau, Smile My Ass
4. Extra Hot Great
EHG may be the most fun show on this list. The television podcast companion for TWOP’s founders, EHG uses recurring segments and fun music to be the best of the regular television discussion podcasts. I don’t think I’ve laughed as much about anything on a podcast as the Nonac induction music. Each episode includes Game Time, which is both fun to play along with and often funny.
Recommended episodes: Less Kissing, More Superpowers, Heading into the Lyon’s Den for Empire, Mini: Casting Lab: The A-Team, Mini: Haunted Bar Rescue
3. This American Life
There’s a reason that This American Life has long been the most-subscribed podcast in iTunes. It sets the standard for longform radio journalism. Whether as direct progeny or through influence, This American Life provides the template for more than half of the other shows on my list. TAL set the standard. What sets This American Life apart from many imitators is that it continues to balance telling personal stories at human scale that expose important truths about society. After twenty years, continues to tell important, interesting and compelling stories week after week.
Recommended episodes: Status Update, Put a Bow on It, The Land of Make Believe, The Problem We All Live With
2. Reply All
Reply All translates internet culture for general understanding. PJ Vogt and Alex Goldman find interesting stories about the intersection of the internet and society. In the Gimlet Media house style, episodes are highly produced, but loose, personal and intimate.
Recommended episodes: Shine On You Crazy Goldman, Exit and Return, Part I, DMV Nation, Taking Power, The Flower Child, The Law That Sticks
1. Mystery Show
Even though the first season of Mystery Show only had six episodes, it is still my favorite podcast of the year. TAL-veteran Starlee Kine dives into solving some of the most important minor mysteries in a way that reveals truths about the people involved in a way that few would expect. Each episode tells a complete story, finds resolution, and is interesting and entertaining. Perhaps what Myster Show does so well is using the podcast medium to be intimate. It feels like Kine is letting listeners in on a secret as she walks through trying to solve these cases. Like Judge John Hodgman, Mystery Show takes trivial issues seriously that a lesser show would belittle. The only drawback to Mystery Show is that the first season only produced six episodes.
Britney, Belt Buckle, Source Code
Welcome to Macintosh tells nicely produced stories about Apple history.
Surprisingly Awesome is the latest from Gimlet Media and pairs Adam Davidson and Adam McKay to reveal the hidden awesomeness in everyday things.
WTF with Marc Maron is deservedly one of the most widely-heard podcasts. Maron uses the intimacy of the podcast medium to bare his neuroses with his audience and is able to get guests to open up. His interviews with Barack Obama and Lorne Michaels were among the best podcast episodes I listened to this year. At its best, WTF is one of the absolute best podcasts around. But the rambling intimacy that is one of WTF’s strengths, is also its greatest weakness. There may be too much WTF. Shorter episodes wouldn’t let WTF be WTF. Fewer episodes per year might make each one more special.
Pop Culture Happy Hour. I am surprised that I didn’t include any NPR podcasts in my top 10. PCHH is the conversation that you want to have every week. PCHH is consistently excellent and comforting. What’s making us happy this week is as good of a segment as any.
All Songs Considered. NPR Music has gone from being a weird place for hyper literate indie and Americana music to one of the most influential tastemakers in music. A large part of that is due to All Songs Considered. I can’t believe how much music host Bob Boilen sees each year.
Planet Money has been explaining complex economic issues for so long, it’s easy to forget how good it is. It is that good.
Startup. I haven’t listened to any of season 2 of Startup, but the Startup episodes about Gimlet Media itself are introverted in the best way.
Ctrl-Walt-Delete picks the brain of the dean of tech journalism, Walt Mossberg.
Song Exploder picks apart songs in delightful detail.
The Americans podcast talks with executive producers Joel Fields and Joe Weisberg and the cast and crew of The Americans, one of the best shows on television.
Better Call Saul Insider is the Better Caul Saul version of the Breaking Bad Insider podcast with editor Kelley Dixon, producers Vince Gilligan and Peter Gould, and assorted cast and crew of Better Call Saul.
Scriptnotes has screenwriters John August and Craig Mazin talking about screenwriting, things interesting to screenwriters, and things interesting to anyone who enjoys film and TV.