Reason #489 to love podcasts: no expiration date. Even though some shows thrive on being the entertainment du jour, it’s never too late to catch up with the greats. With scores of new feeds popping up on a weekly basis, this summer had plenty of quality hours from established favorites and newcomers alike.
But if you’ve come to the end of your listening queue after the Labor Day weekend festivities, allow us to recommend some of our favorites from the summer months. (Some of our top episode picks from the halfway point of 2016 dropped in the first week of June, so be sure to check there for other recent favorites.) A few of these are podcast mainstays. The others are well on their way.
Airdate: June 15th
Radio dramas for the podcast age often veer towards either solid writing or engrossing performances. Rare is the show that satisfies on both fronts like “The Bright Sessions,” a show that blends the structural premise of “In Treatment” with a group of characters that harken back to early-run “Heroes.” Fewer shows still are as willing to break from a clearly established format the way that “The Bright Sessions” does, bringing its disparate story threads from out of a special therapist’s office and into the show’s greater universe for its Season 2 finale. (If you haven’t listened yet, best to start at the beginning.) Tales of superpowers can easily get bogged down by an overarching, shadowy government subplot. But here, writer Lauren Shippen never loses sight of the impressive character work that drives the show (the show’s four “atypicals” are consistent, episode-to-episode highlights), even as malevolent forces threaten to drown out the humanity underneath. It’s a gutsy move for a show with a simple hook, but it’s an intriguing setup for a Season 3 that brings these characters back together again.
Airdate: July 12th
“Death, Sex and Money” has a special ability to balance grief with incredible empathy, to capture the full range of emotions that make up their subjects’ stories. For partners Amber Scorah and Lee Towndrow, the loss of their three-month old son was as harrowing as it was unexpected. But rather than a referendum on past decisions, their story is a tale about moving forward and the way that death doesn’t have to lead to disappearance. Under the guidance of host Anna Sale, this episode reflects on tragedy, but it’s equally a celebration of a young life and the warmth of memory. Scorah and Towndrow’s courage to relive that experience for a wide audience is a testament to the power of communal storytelling. Beyond the sorrow, there’s sharing, and we can help in our own way simply by listening.
Airdate: June 23rd
One of the things that “DWITGAOATP” does best is to put artistic achievement in context. Guests come on and give their Top Five Denzel performances. Each film falls on the actor’s unique movie star continuum. For this particular episode, co-hosts W. Kamau Bell and Kevin Avery took their widest view yet, welcoming Dan Kois and Represent host Aisha Harris to discuss Slate’s Black Film Canon. The result is a 90-minute discussion that stays true to the podcast’s title (Denzel Washington’s collaborations with Spike Lee are a central part of the conversation) while also acknowledging the unjustly overlooked work of the great black filmmakers of both the recent and distant past. Toss in the “Fences” primer that came a week after (which also featured a salute to Jesse William’s BET Awards acceptance speech) and you have back-to-back episodes that, while outside of the usual format, still highlight what makes Bell and Avery such an enjoyable duo to follow.
Airdate: August 10th-24th
“Planet Money” is a strong entry in the ever-impressive trove of NPR podcasts, with its lineage traceable back through public radio godfather “This American Life” and down through always-reliable stable of Gimlet Media shows. In the tradition of other overarching series like “The Giant Pool of Money” that helped birth the show, Planet Money gave over five episodes this summer to an investigation of the American oil industry, from producers to buyers to sellers. It blends participatory journalism (co-hosts Robert Smith and Stacey Vanek Smith detail the purchase and sale of 100 barrels of Kansas crude oil, deals that they make themselves), a bigger-picture view of the origins of modern fracking practices and a glimpse of what the world might look without fossil fuels. It might be a simple primer for those well-versed in the industry’s practices. But for those who don’t much about gas beyond prices at the pump, it’s a helpful entry point into an all-encompassing global issue.
Airdate: July 4th
The second of two stories on the 738th (!) episode of “Risk,” JP Michael’s “A Hard Landing” is a tale of love and surprise worthy of any format. An autobiographical recounting of Michael’s experiences overseas in New York City, his tale centers around the woman whose lows and highs quickly came to govern his strange time in a strange, new place. Told without narrative interference, Michael relays an unbelievably tumultuous chapter in his life with the control of a documentarian and the detailed control of a page-turner. Layered with care and perfectly paced, it’s the kind of story that demands complete attention and rewards it in kind. Like any good story worth its twists, both Michael and the episode’s production leave the tiniest of hints to help guide eagle-eared listeners to the truth, long before the story ends up getting there.
Airdate: August 8th
Who’d have guessed that Stephen Lang’s terrifying turn as the visually impaired villain in “Don’t Breathe” wouldn’t even be his finest work of the summer? Trading in the bad-guy grizzle for a tender narrator’s touch, he deftly brings to life Stephen King’s short story “Batman and Robin Have an Altercation” in the debut episode for this offshoot of the WNYC series “Selected Shorts.” Lang’s switching between characters never feels forced, and you can feel the silent tension in the Symphony Space along every well-paced step to the story’s conclusion. Hosted by the very funny Aparna Nancherla, the show also takes time to give context for each story, here speaking with King enthusiast Stu Tinker. In the wake of the farewell episode of Reading Aloud (happy trails, one of our favorites), it’s nice to know that podcast listeners still have a well-produced place to catch up on comedian-hosted, short-story reading goodness.
Airdate: August 4th
Hrishikesh Hirway’s musical dissection show is one of the best podcasts at leaving the audience wanting more. Never overstaying its welcome, there’s a conciseness to the way that Hirway gets his guests to dispense their pearls of behind-the-scenes wisdom. Sometimes, the truth punctures the myth of artistic genius, or at least comes up with a much simpler explanation for musical greatness than inspirational osmosis. But this episode, tracking the genesis of the Netflix animated series’ theme music finds the show’s happy convergence of simple truths and fresh insight (sometimes the greatest inspiration is just looking around at what’s on the wall in your office). If you’ve ever had those saxophone riffs lodged in your brain for hours and days after catching up with a few “BoJack Horseman” episodes, here’s the tale of how they were born. (We expanded a little on this episode here.)
Airdate: June 24th
Over the course of “Strangers,” host Lea Thau has chronicled her own life and ceded the floor to those in search of (or in the midst of) story-worthy human connection. For the show’s “Summer of Love” series, Thau brought us an episode that merges the two, telling the history of Jo and Fayaz, two friends from Thau’s time in Kashmir. A stirring romance that saw the couple married just a week after meeting each other, their story quickly turns to one of perseverance, resilience and understanding. With Fayaz’s relatives in India and Jo’s back in Germany, their marriage encounters indicative struggles of building a family across cultures and, eventually, national boundaries. Thau addresses, but doesn’t overemphasize this episode’s value: stories like Jo and Fayaz’s are vital, human antidotes to the anti-immigrant paranoia of a post-Brexit world.
Airdate: July 13th
There’s something special about an interview show that levels the host-guest dynamic so quickly and efficiently. After launching in April, Sam Fragoso’s guest list has ranged from Robert Forster to Sherman Alexie to NBA Hall-of-Famer Spencer Haywood. But it’s this particular chat with comedian Eric Andre that’s an early standout. Almost instantaneously confrontational, the conversation eventually reaches an equilibrium as the two trade barbs and family anecdotes. Part career overview, part verbal duel, it’s fascinating to hear two ideas of conversational control do battle. It’s been a standard bizarre summer for Andre, highlighted by a crashing of the RNC and the fourth season of his singularly subversive Adult Swim show. This half hour interview is a window into why and how all of Andre’s pursuits somehow stay in sync.
Airdate: July 18th
One of the greatest joys of a podcast is finding something that can only exist in this medium. The latest effort from “Welcome to Nightvale” and “Alice Isn’t Dead” co-writer Jeffrey Cranor doesn’t feel like a holdover of old radio dramas or a repurposing of public radio programming. Instead, it seems like a happy accident, like stumbling along a radio cassette at a garage sale and slowly discovering the sinister secret inside. Later episodes build out the mystery of where these mysterious tapes are meant to have come from (and who they might be their intended audience). But the beginning episodes are an off-kilter delight, with co-writer Janina Matthewson’s hypnotic performance sneaking in tiny indicative details underneath an innocuous delivery system. “Within the Wires” even manages to make the end-of-tape messages something singularly spooky, a blown-out harbinger of the danger that might be right around the corner.