In Podmass, The A.V. Club sifts through the ever-expanding world of podcasts and recommends 10–15 of the previous week’s best episodes. Have your own favorite? Let us know in the comments or at firstname.lastname@example.org.
The Axe Files
Jon Stewart (Live)
Surveying the political landscape in the nine months following Jon Stewart’s departure from The Daily Show, it seems that Stewart was a dam actively holding the madness at bay. By stepping aside, the waters of incivility and absurdity rushed forth, once again depositing effluvia everywhere. So this week’s episode of The Axe Files provides a necessary, bracing shot in the arm, giving listeners an extended live interview with Stewart as he sifts through the silty bottom of the American political system. Stewart and host David Axelrod do not always see eye to eye, which keeps the discussion from being a mostly partisan GOP hatefest. Stewart pushes back against Axelrod for his status quo opinions on the government, and Axelrod puts much of Stewart’s blue-sky dreams for political change into stark, real-world terms. However, most of the hour is packed with the classic Stewart blend of verve, hilarity, and brutal honesty. Whether it’s his comparison of Hillary Clinton to The Magic Hour (Magic Johnson’s short-lived talk show), or his account of the horrors he experienced lobbying on the behalf of the Zadroga Act to benefit the victims of 9/11, Stewart proves that he’s still one of the most important agitators in America.
Between The Liner Notes
There is a moment in the 1993 movie Demolition Man when Sylvester Stallone’s John Spartan—newly experiencing the future following a period of cryogenic incarceration—listens to an oldies radio station composed entirely of commercial jingles. To the viewer it seems a patently ridiculous idea that the lowly jingle has been somehow misinterpreted as a form of entertainment. But in listening to this week’s installment of the relatively new show Between The Liner Notes, host Matthew Billy takes a deep dive into commercial jingles and points out several times in their history when the songs themselves were as beloved as any other pieces of contemporaneous pop music. The episode provides a thorough and thoroughly engaging history of the jingle’s development, from the etymology of the word—featuring Helen Zaltzman of The Allusionist— to its current function as an impressively bad promotional song for the bathroom odor control spray, Poo-Pourri. The history of these micro compositions affords great insight into the dual life cycles of advertising campaigns and their delivery mechanisms, especially in the case study of Coke vs. Pepsi and their attitudes toward rock ’n’ roll music. In all, it makes for an enjoyable exploration of a fading relic from mid-century advertising.
First Scandal Of The Trudeau Government
In the months since Justin Trudeau became Canada’s prime minister, he’s enjoyed a heretofore unknown level of popularity in the U.S. This, in part, came from Trudeau’s impressively diverse cabinet, as well as his unflappably genial demeanor in nearly every piece of press coverage. It marks a distinct shift from times when the most the average American knew of Stephen Harper might have been his unfortunate photo with Justin Bieber. It is a boon, then, to have a show like CANADALAND providing engaged listeners with an unvarnished look at life in Canada and the inner workings of its political system, beyond the predictable swooning that Trudeau garners. This week, host Jesse Brown talks with reporter Steven Chase of The Globe And Mail about Chase’s reporting on statements made by Trudeau’s Liberal party regarding a divisive arms deal with Saudi Arabia. The show works well, dissecting not just the minutiae of who knew what when, but also how the arms deal could infringe on the very essence of Canada. Brown does an admirable job in his role, bringing an assured intelligence and wry charm reminiscent of fellow independent bullshit slayer Mike Pesca of Slate’s The Gist podcast.
How To Win Games And Beat People
It is a commonly held belief that games exist to help people have fun, and that they can bring people can together to blow off steam and build lasting memories of conviviality. Where the propagators of that fiction grew up remains a mystery. For most people, though, tabletop games like Monopoly and Jenga were the conduit through which brothers, sisters, cousins, and friends were able to express their latent but firmly established animosities toward those they loved most. Advertisement-like laughter and high-fives were exceptions, while frustrated crying and overturning of tables were the rule. In this episode of Freakonomics, Stephen J. Dubner talks to the man who literally wrote the book on the realities of gameplay. Tom Whipple, the author of How To Win Games And Beat People: Demolish Your Family And Friends At Over 30 Classic Games With Advice From An International Array Of Experts recalls the mean-spirited uncle who sent him down his path of glory and shares his acquired knowledge of healthily unsportsmanlike competitiveness with the listeners so that they too can taste not the sweet nectar of victory, but the much sweeter nectar of their opponents’ crushing and embarrassing failure.
Hosted by comedians Mike Still and Paul Welsh as Mike and Pete Hard, Hard Nation takes the atmosphere of drive-time radio and turns it on its head for some consistently smart and surprisingly refreshing political satire. Mike Hard is on the far right of the political spectrum, while Pete Hard is as left as it gets. Each week they talk to different political figures from both sides, and though it should be tired territory, their spin on things always feels new. This week they present a special archival episode of the show with Eugene Cordero as Franklin D. Roosevelt. The episode hinges on one joke that they heighten throughout: None of them know that the next day, FDR is going to die. Cordero holds nothing back when dropping hints about a “big surprise” he has in store for the war, and declaring repeatedly that he feels invincible and is going to be president for the rest of his life. Welsh and Still expertly drop their characters’ personas into history, as Still repeatedly accuses Welsh of being a Communist. With Cordero playing FDR so animatedly, and the hosts expertly setting him up again and again, Hard Nation performs with flying colors.
Here's The Thing
Anthony Weiner On Term Limits And Text Messages
Here’s The Thing follows all the cliches of an NPR podcast; jazzy music and a whispery-voiced host, with an aspiration to “talk with artists, policy makers and performers, to hear their stories…” But because the host is Alec Baldwin, it somehow doesn’t matter. At the top of this episode, Baldwin reads over a classic Miles Davis track, “My guest today, Anthony Weiner, is the subject of a documentary simply titled Weiner.” What more do you need to get sucked into an episode? Weiner, who famously left Congress due to a 2011 sexting scandal, starts the conversation describing the sort what things would be like if he were the mayor of New York. This episode would be of particular interest for those who love politics, while Weiner’s excited rapid fire talking style about government and past campaigns could be boring to others. Luckily they talk about his dick pic scandal after the break. Baldwin doesn’t play for laughs, instead asking deeper questions about how therapy affected him, and Weiner connects the dots between the compulsive and argumentative nature of politics and the odd wiring in the compulsive habits of his everyday life.
At this point in the show, hosts Hayes Davenport and Sean Clements can run with any type of guest and make it funny. They can and have meshed their characters so expertly with a variety of comedic styles, it’s easy to forget how perfect an episode can be when the guest gets it from start to finish. Alison Rich from Party Over Here instantly clicks with the guys, and is consistently able to keep up with their antics in an episode that is hilariously on brand. When Rich arrives, the three discuss their history with conflicting parties, attempt to categorize different bugs, and talk about their greatest influences. Clements declares, “I was a huge influence on me early on, and continue to be!” while Rich tells the story of a bus driver who only spoke to her once. Rich takes everything the hosts throw at her in stride, and her quick wit paired with the extra layer of persona that Hollywood Handbook has been built upon allows for an episode where no joke goes unfettered.
Carly Rae Jepsen, “When I Needed You”
Carly Rae Jepsen’s third studio album, 2015’s Emotion, achieved an ’80s pop tone equally at home on a Brat Pack soundtrack and within Jepsen’s own maturing discography. She speaks to Song Exploder this week about the fragmentary nature of her songwriting, building each track piece by incidental piece. In the case of the album’s final song, “When I Needed You,” Jepsen and her collaborator Tavish Crowe had indulged in a “too-many-whiskeys jam session” in SoHo and come up with the introspective vocals long before they were given new life as a topline laid disjointedly over peppy instrumentals during a later recording session. Producer Ariel Rechtshaid stitched these elements together with “Jack And Diane”-inspired drum fills and a funk bassline, combining “sweetness and desperation,” he says, to fully flesh out and do justice to Jepsen’s signature sound. In a moment that reflects the dynamic enjoyed by a musician and an able producer, Jepsen recalls how Rechtshaid pinpointed a cathartic, ad-libbed “Hey!” she shouted onto the track and made her self-consciously repeat it for effect. Overall, listeners are treated to a humble dissection of a song that “lived in so many people’s imaginations” before rounding out a stunner of a pop album.
Stuff You Missed In History Class
Hercules Mulligan, Spy On The Inside
As can easily be imagined, the Stuff You Missed In History Class inbox has been awash in suggestions for American Revolution-themed episodes since the ascent of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s musical Hamilton as a bona fide cultural phenomenon. Oddly enough, according to co-hosts Tracy V. Wilson and Holly Frey, the one person or event featured in that Tony-nominated show for which no one seems to have requested supplemental information is tailor and patriot spy Hercules Mulligan. This is crazy, considering the larger-than-life introduction Okieriete Onaodowan provides for him on stage. (Brrrah! Brrrah!) Still, his story of tailoring, carousing, and espionage excited the imaginations of Wilson and Frey enough for them to devote a two-part episode to the man who very likely incited seditious fervor in his young friend Alexander Hamilton. It’s said by historians that Mulligan saved George Washington’s life not once, but twice, and there are a number of times in this hour-long discussion when it becomes unsettlingly clear what a different world we might be living in today had this Irish-born U.S. patriot not risked his life and sacrificed his career for the colonial cause. An entertaining and edifying listen even for people who are sick of hearing about the play.
Who Stole What?
Girly Man Singing: Falsetto Explained
We come upon it all the time, but we hardly think anything of it—men flaunting their virility and masculinity on stage while their singing voices soar in a register that few of their female fans could ever hope to reach. That’s falsetto at work, and it’s been a part of the Western musical tradition since perhaps the 13th century. Most music listeners take its use for granted, without granting much consideration to the physiological process by which the ligamentous edges of the singer’s vocal cords are manipulated to produce incongruously high-pitched intonation. In this succinct special musicology episode of Who Stole What?, Tristan and Rory Shields give an excellent introductory course on this vocal technique, explaining what it is and what it is not, how it’s achieved and its place in musical history. While it’s doubtful that many listeners were asking the questions that get answered here, any who take the time to listen to this 14-minute explainer will likely appreciate the edification and may well return to their own music collections with a slightly better understanding how their building blocks. Doubly so if their collections are heavy on ’80s hair metal.
Hawk Vs. Dove
Hosts Ian Belknap and Lindsay Muscato describe Write Club as “literature as bloodsport,” where they assign two opposing topics to two opposing writers. The talent must then spar in front of a live audience by reading their essays—each defending their designated subject—out loud. The latest episode, “Hawk Vs. Dove,” finds two performers from Chicago’s Neo-Futurists each going to the mat for one of the birds in the title. Bob Stockfish takes the offensive, spending more time trashing the dove than praising the hawk, mostly through a story from his childhood that involves his grandparents’ dove farm and a milkshake filled with blood and feathers. His opponent, Jessica Anne, gets more abstract, using several colorfully worded metaphors, anecdotes, and fables to reveal the dove’s humility, strength, and perseverance. While Stockfish’s essay is stronger for its linear narrative and clarity, Belknap and Muscato make a point not to reveal who won the live event, urging listeners to designate a champion in their own mind. This only adds to the appeal of Write Club, an already fresh spin on the well-treaded concept of the storytelling podcast.
We see what you said there
“I don’t even know that Donald Trump is eligible to be president. And that’s not a “birther” thing, that’s just… look, I’m not a constitutional scholar, so I can’t necessarily say, but are you eligible to run if you are a man-baby?” —Jon Stewart on Donald Trump’s true nature, considering Trump’s tiny hands and propensity for tantrums, The Axe Files
“So, spiders is bugs and insects is bugs, too. Ticks is spiders in a way because of how much legs.”—Sean Clements categorizing bugs, Hollywood Handbook
“You know why Prince didn’t sing a song about hawks crying? Because hawks don’t cry! Hawks hunt. Hawks kill. Hawks prey. And a lot of the time, they prey on doves. Because doves suck. They name soap and bad chocolate after doves.”—Bob Stockfish defending the hawk, Write Club