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The 20 Best Podcast Episodes from Summer 2017

From improvised musicals to marches against fascists to conversations with internet trolls, the summer months brought some fascinating stories from the podcast world.

Best Podcast Episodes Summer 2017

“The Dollop” — “283: The Worst Supreme Court Justice Ever (Live in DC)”

There’s nothing like hearing a well-established podcast find a different energy in front of a live audience. “The Dollop” has had plenty of live episodes before, but hearing the DC crowd respond to the tumultuous, horrific career of James McReynolds adds another layer to the show. As with so many other memorable Dollops, hearing the unspoken parallels between past and present slowly creep into the discussion is a helpful way to laugh through uncertain times. (For a companion piece in the annals of DC horror stories, check out their recent episode on the brutal caning of abolitionist Senator Charles Sumner.)

“Everyone Else” — “100”

Discussions of fascism and the proper conduct in the face of a dangerous ideology came to dominate the culture at various points over the summer. With a perspective from across the Atlantic, this British series featured a woman with firsthand experience marching against Nazi forces…in World War II. At 100 years old, she discusses her memories of demonstrations and seeing unity in the face of a common foe. With nearly a century of perspective, it’s one woman’s proof that the past doesn’t (and shouldn’t) stay in the past.

“It’s Been a Minute” — “Inside ‘The Onion'”

Not merely the standard “is satire Dead?” approach to comedy in 2017, Sam Sanders’ peek inside the editorial inner workings of America’s most notable comedy newspaper focuses on the decidedly unglamorous side of making people laugh. From the morning headline pitch meeting through the daily reworking, it’s a clinical examination of how the best Onion jokes are finessed into existence. Outside the confines of their Chicago offices, Sanders’ piece also looks into the ways that these headlines can take on a life of their own after their released.

“Levar Burton Reads” — “Episode 7: ‘Chivalry’ by Neil Gaiman”

We wrote about this episode when it was released back in July, but it’s worth reiterating here: There’s a reason that LeVar Burton has become synonymous with reading. Whether it’s in the intro to the episode or his actual performance, you can practically feel the passion for the words on the page radiating through your headphones. For genre fans and for people who love hearing a captivating tale well told, there are few places better to hear the best of both. (And for more LeVar Burton podcast magic, check out his appearance on “Another Round.”)

“Locked Up Abroad” — “1 | Midnight Express”

The Oliver Stone-written 1978 movie of the same name is a gut-wrenching experience, a dramatized chronicle of an American student caught up in the consequences of an international drug trafficking operation. Billy Hayes has shared his real-life story in other venues, but it doesn’t make this start-to-finish retelling any less harrowing. To kick off this podcast’s companion series to the long-running National Geographic show, “Locked Up Abroad” presents an unencumbered version of his time spent in a Turkish prison and the lingering effects of that period that he still feels today.

“Love Me” — “Old Wounds”

A bittersweet overview of the beauty and power of love, told in two parts. The first, a true story of intimacy, healing and adaptation, told through the voices of two lovers learning to cope with an unusual medical companion. The second, a piercing short tale of faraway pining, filtered through a recipe for heartbreak, delivered by the very funny and talented Seth Morris. Much like the show presents wildly different but connected ideas of what love is, what it can be, and how it shapes our lives, this pairing of reality and a heightened sense of the truth makes for a lovely, abstract ball of emotions.

“Off Book: The Improvised Musical” — “Shrugging Destiny (w/ Paul F. Tompkins)”

It’s not just that Jessica McKenna, Zach Reino, and their assorted guests are able to create lightning-strike show tunes on the fly. It’s that they somehow manage to take wildly diverging story ideas connecting these crazy songs and make them make sense. By the law of improv averages, the longer these episodes go, the more likely they are to careen into out-of-body zaniness — to hear them barely stifle their own laughs is a joy all to itself. But even from the confines of a studio, without an audience to play off of, it doesn’t take much to get hooked by some of the most impressive spontaneous comedy you’ll hear anywhere in podcast land.

“Part-Time Genius” — “Are We Really Breathing Julius Caesar’s Last Breath?”

Poring over the basics of a long-standing philosophical/scientific puzzle like the lingering molecules from Julius Caesar’s last breath would be enough to fill an entire podcast episode. The way that “Part Time Genius” co-hosts Will Pearson and Mangesh Hattikudur fill an episode with plenty of other air-related historical anecdotes shows how much there is to know and learn about the world around us and the individuals who helped shape our understanding of it. The puns might be a little goofy, but Will and Mango pack each episode with enough disparate tidbits for amateur scientists and trivia hoarders to each take away something meaningful.

“Revisionist History” — “State v. Johnson”/“Mr. Hollowell Didn’t Like That”

Like many of the chapters in Malcolm Gladwell’s ongoing series, this two-parter about the efforts of civil rights attorneys in the American south in the middle of the 20th century is all about testing perceptions and assumptions. Tracing the stories of multiple black men whose defenses meant taking on an entire entrenched system, “Revisionist History” illustrates the many different modes of power swirling within these respective trials. And as usual, Gladwell shows his skill bringing the detail and flair of a storyteller to a philosophical examination of history. This season has brought some rich insight to unexpected places, but these are the kinds of stories where this creative team shines.

“Screw It, We’re Just Gonna Talk About the Beatles” — “18 – Sgt. Pepper’s Remix”

Overall, “Screw It” makes the perfect case for why this band has stayed relevant for half a century. After a rare bit of fresh Beatles output, Will Hines and the regular devotees assembled to parse through the recently released 50th anniversary remaster of the seminal “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.” Aside from being a helpful intro into the finer points of stereo vs. mono mixing, it’s another episode of this show that finds small joys in the finer details of the songs themselves, like listening to “She’s Leaving Home” in a different key or the prominence of Ringo’s drum fills.

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