Maybe you’re a podcast obsessive, filling every spare moment of your commute to catch up on your favorites. Or a single-subject listener, only keeping up with a subject or issue that means most to you. The beauty of podcasts is that they can cater to completists and dabblers alike.
Regardless of your preferred way to enjoy these stories and conversations, it can be daunting to track the latest from every show. To highlight some of the year’s best, here are 10 quality episodes we suggest adding to your listening queue.
Airdate: March 15th
Why It’s Worth the Listen: In all its various broadcast homes, “The Chris Gethard Show” has been one of the most thrilling weekly experiments on TV. So it makes sense that a Gethard-hosted podcast would have the same comedic blend of empathy and honesty. The show is built on conversations between Gethard and anonymous callers, governed only by two rules: the phone line closes after an hour, but Gethard can’t hang up before then. The host has a keen sense for the unspoken questions, the topics that each caller wants to discuss but can’t quite figure out how to broach. Not afraid to let callers turn the questions onto him, these talks have a way of culminating in a common understanding between strangers, which can be as therapeutic for a listener as it is for the two parties involved. And there’s no better place to start than the premiere, which ends with a moment so cathartic, it’ll make you an instant fan of both the individuals involved.
Listen to These Episodes Next: “2. Passport, Exodus,” “4. The Most Amazing Destruction”
Airdate: March 30th
Why It’s Worth the Listen: As an NPR production, Kelly McEvers and the staff of “Embedded” demonstrate one of the essential values of great journalism: the power to use specific stories to generate empathy for groups of people often discussed in the abstract. “Embedded” is a ground-up approach to documenting various cross-sections of communities, highlighting the individuals to present an alternative to the group characterization that often befalls them. The premiere episode finds McEvers profiling the residents of a shared home in Austin, Indiana, where opioids have become an inescapable addiction for its residence. The details are stark, unsettling and unadorned. Perhaps the best proof of the value of a show like “Embedded” is that the people at the center of these stories don’t end after a half hour: an Austin resident was the subject of their first follow-up story.
Listen to These Episodes Next: “The League”
Airdate: April 26th
Why It’s Worth the Listen: Extra Hot Great has been offering its special brand of TV observations over multiple podcast feed and co-host roster iterations. Now well past 100 episodes into its resurrection, the television discussion show has refined its dependable format, complete with a weekly consideration of a TV episode for induction in their Canon (spoiler alert: they don’t always make it, as is the case with the “30 Rock” episode discussed here). But what sets #114 apart is the episode’s installment of the weekly Game Time feature. The gang plays an round of a listener-submitted game called TV Typos (basically, the round-robin game show version of #ChangeALetterRuinATVShow). What follows is 25 minutes of brilliant, dumb wordplay with enough built-in momentum to have each co-host sobbing by the end. It’s a testament to the co-host’s deep bench of TV minutiae that they’re able to anticipate some of these before they come. The seconds between when you can tell they have the answers and the moment they give them are some of the simplest joys you’ll find anywhere.
Listen to These Episodes Next: “75: Ew Detective,” “103: The People Vs. The People Vs. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story,” “105: Ringing in a New Season of Better Call Saul”
Airdate: February 16th
Why It’s Worth the Listen: Matt Gourley’s interview show takes a biweekly look at the actors on the periphery of some of most beloved films of the past few decades. While the actor interviews give some choice fly-on-the-wall observations from set, the show’s most compelling episode this year is the talk with Martin Casella, who served as Steven Spielberg’s assistant during the production of “Raiders of the Lost Ark.” From impromptu costume decisions to the director’s TV viewing and nutritional regimens, this firsthand account adds a new angle to an established classic. (And for anyone who’s ever obsessed over an Indiana Jones costume, Jeremy Carter’s post-interview discussion of the search for the perfect Indy leather jacket might do the same.)
Listen to These Episodes Next: “Field of Dreams with Dwier Brown,” “Aladdin with Gilbert Gottfried”
Airdate: May 6th
Why It’s Worth the Listen: Amidst an election season that’s alternated between chaotic and soul-crushing in equal measure, it’s been fascinating to filter each week’s craziness through the perspective of two individuals who’ve been buried deep within the past two major presidential cycles. Former speechwriter Jon Favreau and Strategy and Communications Advisor Dan Pfeiffer (both of whom worked on President Obama’s national campaigns and in the White House) are each invested insiders and passionate outside observers of 2016’s descent into madness. A weekly look at the current state of political media, it’s also a dependable repository for great White House anecdotes. Alongside fellow former speechwriter Jon Lovett, the show’s seventh episode featured the trio recounting the choicest lines from the President’s various Correspondents Dinner appearances (particularly those delivered in the immediate wake of ordering the Bin Laden compound strike).
Listen to These Episodes Next: “Ep. 1: Trump and the Media and Rubio’s Missteps,” “Ep. 5: Bill Clinton’s Finger-Wagging and Special Guest Kal Penn,” “Ep. 9: ‘Meet the Press’ Host Chuck Todd, Trump’s ‘Pivot,’ Polling Mayhem, and More”
Airdate: January 28th
Why It’s Worth the Listen: Sarah Paulson’s central role as Marcia Clark was one of the main reasons the “American Crime Story: The People vs. O.J. Simpson” grabbed the public’s attention in the year’s early months. But Paulson also gave another 2016-best performance in a venue where no one could see her face. WBUR’s Modern Love enlists notable performers like Paulson to perform entries from the regular New York Times column that highlights love in all its forms. Paulson reads Amy Seek’s story of navigating an open adoption with a gentleness that conveys the underlying heartbreak without being manipulative. While other episodes usually succeed on the strength of the performance, this one features a conversation with Seek herself, whose recollection of the events she details in her piece and the six years since is a powerful addendum to a story beautifully told.
Listen to These Episodes Next: “7: In Darkness and In Light,” “9: Seesawing Libidos”
Airdate: June 1st
Why It’s Worth the Listen: Some of the best new podcasts of the year have focused on institutions, whether they’re more abstract (American Public Media’s The Uncertain Hour focuses on policies and practice within America’s welfare system) or more defined, as with More Perfect’s close examination of the Supreme Court. In its pilot episode, this Radiolab presentation trains its microphones on the pivotal individuals at the center of multiple states’ capital punishment programs. Layered with the trademark attention to atmospheric sound design that makes its parent podcast such a reliable listen, More Perfect should provide a healthy perspective amidst a judicial branch currently in flux.
Listen to These Episodes Next: Once you’ve listened to this and Episode 2, “The Political Thicket,” go back and listen to the Podcast Hall-of-Fame-worthy Radiolab episode “Stochasticity.”
Airdate: May 11th-June 9th
Why It’s Worth the Listen: This Gimlet show has been the best podcast in existence for the better part of a year now, so to pick just one standout episode is particularly difficult. But the edge goes to the four-episode arc centered on Paul Modrowski, whose blog written from inside prison (where he’s currently serving a life sentence) first attracted the attention of producer Sruthi Pinnamaneni last year. What begins as an investigation of the logistics behind the posting of Modrowski’s expansive online diary eventually uncovers questions surrounding his incarceration. Like the best true crime stories, it balances the details of the central murder cases with a careful consideration of the individuals who allegedly inhabited its timeline. Most popular true crime podcasts keep the perspective of a single narrator, but Pinnamaneni sprinkles in just enough input from regular hosts Alex Goldman and PJ Vogt to add a conversational, illustrative layer to Modrowski’s story. Pinnamaneni’s reporting is extensive and forthright, the kind that will make you want to do your own outside research as soon as the last chapter ends.
Listen to These Episodes Next: “#3 We Know What You Did,” “#44 Shine on You Crazy Goldman,” “#56 Zardulu”
Airdate: May 12th
Why It’s Worth the Listen: Amy Nicholson’s first-person podcast for MTV News is an intriguing blend of below-the-line education and critical insight. Between her forgotten film history written intros and the specificity of her interview subjects, Nicholson helps Skillset feel more like a series of audio profiles than regular taped conversations. These episodes highlight movies not just as a vital art form, but a gateway to the rest of what the world has to offer. (How many other film podcasts would have jazz trumpeter Ambrose Akinmusire as their inaugural guest?) This particular episode features a window into the practical, unenhanced feline training that let the cats of “Keanu” steal the spotlight against some comedic heavyweights. And if you’re wondering what a real punk band thought of Jeremy Saulnier’s latest genre triumph “Green Room,” Nicholson enlists The Muffs for some authentic opinions. It’s this kind of extra-layer digging that has this fresh batch of MTV shows (“The Stakes” takes a similarly fascinating route to addressing the unspoken side of politics) already off and running at full speed.
Listen to These Episodes Next: All six episodes so far all have quality hooks, but the Sharlto Copley episode from the pilot is particularly worth a listen.
Airdate: May 12th
Why It’s Worth the Listen: Season 1 of Start Up was a rare glimpse inside the creation of its podcasting parent company Gimlet Media, right as the medium was becoming mainstream. Season 2 stayed nested inside a company’s origin story, this time as an outside observer of a dating site’s early months. For their most recent set of episodes, Start Up managed to compress the roller coaster of entrepreneurship in a more compact form. Profiling the unexpected rise and publicly unceremonious end of Grooveshark, Eric Mennel reports on the music streaming site’s early troubles, serendipitous success and eventual replacement in the entrepreneurial space. It’s a familiar arc for the biographies of these kinds of businesses, but through the Start Up lens, these triumphs and tragedies reach further toward each pole than you might expect.
Listen to These Episodes Next: Season 1 launched the entire company, but Season 2’s 10-episode arc on Dating Ring is still great.
Honorable Listens also highly worthy of your time: the aforementioned The Uncertain Hour and The Stakes; 99% Invisible’s ode to trash truck tunes; Mortified’s tale of pining after the vice principal; Lauren Lapkus helps to tackle kids’ impossible questions on The Longest Shortest Time; Candidate Confessional talks to the recipient of one of local politics’ most infamous viral booing sessions; Five Thirty Eight Politics’ audio doc on the Rev. Jeremiah Wright week of the ’08 presidential campaign; the episode of the Washington Post’s Presidential that proves James Monroe was everywhere in early American history; Making the Sausage’s in-depth conversation about music licensing; The First Annual Blank Check Awards (one of the best 2015 year-end wrap-ups you’ll hear); the ongoing You Must Remember This series chronicling the Hollywood Blacklist is a given for a list like this; The Dollop’s overview of the truly unbelievable Fed Ex Flight 705; Buzzfeed’s Internet Explorer compendium of workplace email/chat catastrophes; You’re the Expert’s hilarious panel show with a leading psychologist who studies nightmares; the Planet Money profile of an infuriating-yet-textbook Internet scamming scheme; The Memory Palace’s cryptic look at an American pariah-turned-wrestler; a careful consideration of the future of animation/CGI via Fighting in the War Room; The Gist and Chris Molanphy remember Prince.