Podcasting is a particularly cumulative art. Whether you listen to learn, to escape, or to discover, each episode has a way of building on the ones that come before.
It’s what makes picking out a particular number of selections to highlight feel like a self-defeating task. There’s such an existing wealth that focusing just on the latest releases gets tougher and tougher with each passing year.
But then again, the discoveries add up over time, too. New series, new chapters, new ideas, all presented in an audio format where the best stories ask your imagination to meet them halfway.
Those who’ve turned to podcasts as a preferred escape mode over recent months have found plenty of new stories that wrestle with things as they are, as they were, and what they can be. In picking some of the year’s best, we’ve tried to include a cross-section of subjects from different points on the calendar and the different realities each brought with them.
Of course there’s the obligatory disclaimer that rankings are arbitrary and subjective and that each of these episodes deserve your attention for any disparate number of reasons. And this list doesn’t even include the great work being down on shows we’ve highlighted plenty of times in the past (including in our 2019 wrap-up): “Reply All” digging for the truth behind a one-hit wonder that may or may not exist; “Blank Check” closing out its fantastic Jonathan Demme series; “Slow Burn” tackling the legacy of David Duke; “Fiasco” reevaluating the echoes of the Iran-Contra scandal; ”The Memory Palace” celebrating the under-acclaimed figures of American history like Ann Lowe. There’s always more to find.
In that spirit, below you’ll find half a hundred installments that are great places to look. Throughout the rest of this week, we’ll have some in-depth conversations with a few of the creative forces behind some of these shows. But for now, here are 50 podcast episodes from 2020’s first six months that speak to all the forms that life has taken so far this year.