Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Graphic: Natalie Peeples

Podcasts simply couldn’t contain themselves in 2018. Beyond setting multiple records (the third season of Serial was its biggest to date, and with a historically large advertising deal), this ever-growing audio medium also saw some of its most acclaimed series leap to television, with Dirty John on Bravo and Homecoming on Amazon Prime. Steal The Stars became a novel, and podcasters hit the stage in droves for live events and multi-day festivals. This proliferation was perhaps inevitable in a year that also saw the rise of scripted audio fiction podcasts (Bubble; The Horror Of Dolores Roach), set new watermarks for investigative reporting (Last Seen; Dr. Death; The Dream), and found shiny new packaging for the stories we thought we already knew (Slow Burn; Trump, Inc.). If the parentheticals didn’t make it clear, there are so many shows we wish we could highlight in our 2018 Podmass Superlatives and simply didn’t have room for. Below is our list of the most noteworthy stuff we heard this year—and in 2019, we’ll continue to seek out the new, surprising, reliable, consistent, moving, and delightful podcasts that deserve your attention.

Series Superlatives

Disgraceland

True crime continues to have its moment, particularly in the podcast realm with hit shows like My Favorite Murder. Disgraceland premiered in February of 2018 and sprinkled the world of profilers and serial killers with a little rock ’n’ roll swagger. Host Jake Brennan mines the pop music landscape and unearths some seriously fascinating stories. Listeners of a certain age can probably tell you where they were when Tupac Shakur was murdered, but the almost unbelievable story of how Jerry Lee Lewis basically got away with murdering his fifth wife in 1983 will have listeners thinking, did that really happen, and how have I never heard about it? There’s no guests, no frills, simply Brennan recounting the stories through meticulous research and an occasionally pitch-black sense of humor. The host describes the show not as “campfire” storytelling, but “slightly buzzed guy at the end of the bar who’s seen some shit” storytelling. The world of rock ’n’ roll is a weird and wild one, so with episodes released every two weeks, it’s doubtful Brennan will run out of material anytime soon. [Mike Vanderbilt]


Getting Curious With Jonathan Van Ness

Educational podcasts can sometimes be slightly pretentious, which is what makes Getting Curious such a welcome addition. Without muting the funny, goofy side of his personality that made him such a hit on Queer Eye, host Jonathan Van Ness chats with experts about all different kinds of social and cultural topics—from the opioid crisis to the broken bail system, Brexit, Renaissance art, Middle Eastern politics, and so much more. In between his more socially conscious episodes, Van Ness also interviews celebrity guests like Reese Witherspoon, Olympic ice skater Mirai Nagasu, and of course, his Queer Eye co-stars. But no matter the topic, Van Ness showcases the kind of vanity-free intellectual curiosity and passion that more of us should aspire to. He’s never afraid to ask basic questions, clarify confusing points, or put something into simple terms to make sure he (and his audience) understands the gist. As Van Ness himself might put it, this podcast is totally gorgeous and well worth checking out. [Caroline Siede]

The Windsor Knot

The ostensibly silly podcast The Windsor Knot became one of our favorites earlier in the year, with co-hosts Daniel Krupa and Joe Skrebels bringing earnestness and joy to a situation that, for most of us, would normally demand passive interest at best, or maybe just empty apathy. But as it turns out, the royal wedding of Prince Harry and Meghan Markle was an event for the ages, with Krupa and Skrebels on hand to guide listeners through the intricacies of wedding security, the inscrutable dress code, and lemon-elderflower cake. With the Duke and Duchess of Sussex expecting their firstborn in a mere four months, is there any duo better suited to preparing a podcast audience for this royal birth? Well, probably, but they wouldn’t be as much fun. [Laura M. Browning]


Good Christian Fun

Having made a name for himself in the podcasting world with his popular Gilmore Guys series, Kevin T. Porter took a rather unexpected swerve for his next venture: a podcast about Christianity! Specifically, Porter and co-host Caroline Ely examine the wild and frequently wacky world of Christian pop culture—the movies, music, and TV shows made by Christians for Christians. Both Porter and Ely were raised in Christian households and have a nostalgic affection for a lot of the stuff they cover, which they balance with a more progressive, critical eye. Ely, in particular, is passionate about interrogating the sexism embedded in a lot of Christian culture. Each episode features a new topic and a new guest, who starts by sharing their own connection to religion, if they have one. Those changes keep the podcast fresh and lively, as does the mix of goofy conversations and strong production values that made Gilmore Guys such a success. Whether you’re interested in Christianity specifically, religion in general, or just weird American subcultures, Good Christian Fun has plenty to offer to both spiritual and agnostic listeners. [Caroline Siede]


#GoodMuslimBadMuslim

For all the highbrow academic talk about intersectionality trickling down into wider discourse, this beautiful show embodies the concept effortlessly. Taz and Zahra are the coolest women who let you sit at their lunch table as they talk religion, sex, beauty, politics, and culture. Nothing is forced, all their takes are funny or profound, and listening to them hammers home the absence of female Muslim perspectives in the broader cultural conversation, even as “Muslim-ish” entertainers are more prominent than ever. Earlier episodes are molded around both news from the Muslim world and Muslim-American response to developments outside the culture, with tongue-in-cheek segments dedicated to creeping sharia (a.k.a. Muslim trends), issuing fatwahs (airing grievances), and the awkward ask-a-Muslim, which speaks for itself. Lately the show has evolved to include more This American Life–style personal essays that speak to the experiences of a Muslim diaspora in a way that also embodies universal American commensality, and it’s here that the pair flex their artistic chops. Zahra’s story about her family spending every Thanksgiving with the first other Muslim family they found in America is as moving a piece of audio as you’re likely to hear all year. [Zach Brooke]

StangerBot, Action Boyz

In hindsight, it’s wild to remember that StangerBot—comedian Ryan Stanger’s hydraulic, Halloween-obsessed, kleptomaniac alter-ego—was originally born out of a desire to keep the action movie commentary podcast he co-hosts with Jon Gabrus and Ben Rodgers on track. What started as a joke that poked fun at Rodgers’ robotlike dedication to moving plot summaries along has evolved over nearly 100 episodes into a recurring segment that includes a sulfuric-smelling, social-cue-missing Gorgon and a lengthy, sweaty summoning process, usually just so he can announce a studio card and leave. Even funnier than the bit itself is Gabrus’ and Rodgers’ lack of amusement, which is manifested in merciless roasts of their friend and their unsuccessful attempts at unceremoniously killing the character off-mic. “Oh, did you hear the news?” Rodgers asks out of the blue during one episode. “StangerBot died. [Dan Jakes]

I Only Listen To The Mountain Goats

“I’m hanging my head, because I don’t know how personal to get. You never know how far to take people.”—John Darnielle, “Episode 16: Steal Smoked Fish (Live)”

There’s one thing Mountain Goats fans never tire of, and that’s hearing John Darnielle talk. Talk about his music, yes, but really just talk about anything. The prolific singer-songwriter with well over a dozen albums to his name has a unique talent for observing specifics of the human condition and brings a sense of energy and immediacy to even the most pedestrian topics. So, when Welcome To Night Vale creator Joseph Fink announced that he would be doing a song-by-song breakdown of every Mountain Goats record with Darnielle as his co-host, fans were rightfully excited. Each episode of this first season includes more John Darnielle talking per minute than you can get anywhere else, and every second is a damn delight. This includes anecdotes from the making of 2002’s All Hail West Texas, never-before-heard insights into Darnielle’s songwriting process, and plenty of heady discussions about more abstract concepts like religion, creativity, and the importance of things that don’t last. It’s John Darnielle at his most relaxed, his most open, his most Darnielle. And it’s every fan’s dream. [Dan Neilan]

Cocaine & Rhinestones

Podcasts are an ideal medium to engage seminal musical retrospectives, yet few could predict that a show about 20th-century country music would dominate podcast charts for the year. There’s a genuine love and intimacy in Tyler Mahan Coe’s scripts that rival the early broadcasts of the Grand Ole Opry as he relates the foundational myths of an industry steeped in sanitized heritage: the drunken bitterness that drove Ernest Tubb to take a shot at a rival, Unhinged superstar Spade Cooley’s brutal murder of his spouse, Ira Louvin’s hair-trigger fuse. The level of backstory is unrivaled. Three of the show’s first, 14-episode season focuses on “Harper Valley P.T.A.,” telling the stories of the singer, songwriter, and producer of the landmark single. A fourth episode devoted to Bobbie Gentry’s “Ode To Billie Joe” functions as prologue. Yet Coe’s obsession with the full story never veers far from the mainstream narrative. These are all huge stories about gigantic figures; it’s just that popular culture’s (and Nashville’s) current break from the breadth of its early country roots buried much of what deserves to be remembered. [Zach Brooke]

Thirst Aid Kit

Toxic fan bases are some of the worst of what the internet has to offer—but that just makes the earnest and supportive ones even more vital. BuzzFeed’s Thirst Aid Kit, hosted by Bim Adewunmi and Nichole Perkins, thrives on several levels, but the key to the show’s ongoing success is the way it taps into a community of so-called Thirst Buckets who all come together in a judgement-free space to get good and giddy about the objects of their lust. Interactive podcast segments like Thirst Sommelier (where listeners can call in for recommendations on whom to crush on next) and live events like their Thirsty Movies screening of Magic Mike XXL foster a camaraderie that is rare across this audio medium, where listeners are often far-flung, solitary, and passive consumers of the product. Meanwhile, the bonds forged by Thirst Aid Kit are uniquely and concretely felt, infusing one’s day with new and measurable joy. Begin your journey as a Thirst Bucket today, and soon you’ll be chatting with all your friends (IRL and online) about the hosts’ latest fan fic and the vast appeal of Dev Patel. And Chris Evans. And Ryan Coogler. And Bob Belcher. And... Winnie The Pooh? Just join us already. [Marnie Shure]

Episode Superlatives

Black Men Can’t Jump In Hollywood, “BlacKkKlansman

With Spike Lee’s BlacKkKlansman a major contender in this year’s awards season, conversations about the movie are guaranteed to continue well into the New Year. And one great conversation to add to the mix is this episode of Black Men Can’t Jump In Hollywood. Hosts Jonathan Braylock, Jerah Milligan, and James III are actors, writers, and comedians who aim to bring a different perspective from traditional film critics. They review films starring black actors or other actors of color and focus on how those films handle issues of race. Unsurprisingly, BlacKkKlansman gives them plenty to discuss over the course of this two-and-a-half-hour episode. After a lighter intro (the review itself starts about 12 minutes in), the hosts delve into an impassioned discussion about why they feel the film is so important and so effective. Whatever your opinion on BlacKkKlansman, this episode is a welcome companion piece to the film and a compelling discussion in its own right. [Caroline Siede]

Hollywood Handbook: Pro Version, “Teaser Freezers With Bosch

Bosch is a dog. Specifically, he’s Hollywood Handbook host Sean Clements’ dog. He’s a big sweetie, a notorious good boy, and for the better part of a year he’s been the unofficial third host of the podcast (apologies to Chef Kevin), loudly chomping on bones and squeaky toys in the corner of the studio. But, for this very special episode, Sean and Hayes decided it was finally time to get Bosch fully on mic so he could take part in one of show’s classic bits. The result is one of the funniest episodes of the Pro Version and perhaps one of the most joyous episodes of the show as a whole. Bosch (who, to be clear, is being voiced by an increasingly embarrassed Sean) brings a refreshingly positive perspective to the irony-rich proceedings. In place of snarky comments about how bad a new movie or show looks, he’s got fun catchphrases like “That dog’s funny!” and “Damn, this looks good!” It’s the exact kind of insular silliness that, much like this review, won’t make much sense to people unfamiliar with the show. But usually that’s when the boys are at their best. [Dan Neilan]

High And Mighty, “Being Fat w/Mike Mitchell” & “Being Fat Follow-Up w/Mike Mitchell

At the beginning of the year, comedians Jon Gabrus and Mike Mitchell (Doughboys) sat down to talk about what it’s like to weigh over 300 pounds. It was a hilarious, self-deprecating, brutally honest discussion about their individual struggles and experiences as plus-size men in the industry. At the end of the episode, they make a pact to check in later in the year and, in the interim, do their best to get under 300. We won’t spoil the results of the follow-up episode, but it’s safe to say their second discussion picks up right where they left off, digging even deeper into the psychological and social pressures that make it so difficult to lose weight. These episodes stand out not only because you get to hear two hilarious guys set aside bits for a second and get real, but because by the end of each episode you feel yourself truly rooting for them. You want them to get healthy. You want them to feel good about themselves. Yes, for their own sake, but also, selfishly, because you want them to be around to make more of the stuff that you love so much. Here’s hoping for a positive part three in 2019. [Dan Neilan]

Amazon Book Club, “Fat Vampire 2

With apologies to Last Podcast On The Left’s gnostic-gospel-psychedelia-themed alien abduction, The Dollop’s coverage of addiction recovery repurposed into cult worship, and the callipygous hallucinations of Chuck Tingle, the weirdest chunk of primary source material on the internet is the continuing saga of a fat vampire, as read by the Amazon Book Club podcast. Reginald Baskin is an overweight treadmill salesman. He’s bitten by an undead coworker, and according to the rules of this universe, he’s locked into his current physique for eternity, unless the council of svelte, body-shaming vampires can kill him for making them look bad. Our intrepid hosts shuffle between liking and loathing the whole enterprise, calling it mean-spirited at first before warming to the absurdist gibberish at hand, especially around the time Charles Barkley turns up not only as Reginald’s afterlife coach but also, for reasons known only to the author, a bestiality fan. The whole literary atrocity is delightfully normalized by the wheezy, sadsack interpretation of Reginald’s lines by Ganesh Sarma, the Groucho-esque one-liners by Austin Hannah, and Shane Burklow’s confused everyman. If art reflects life, let this work stand as evidence of our batshit year. [Zach Brooke]

Believed, “The Parents

The most important thing about Believed isn’t in the body of its podcast, it’s in its title: the explicit assumption that women and girls are telling the truth about their sexual assaults. For several decades, former sports doctor Larry Nassar systematically assaulted girls and women, many under the guise of medical treatment. When those women spoke up, they weren’t believed—by their parents, their counselors, their school administrators. Reporters Kate Wells and Lindsey Smith start from the presumption of belief and document the case against Nassar, resulting in a story radically different from anything we read in papers or saw on the news after Nassar’s arrest in December 2016. Although each episode begins with a suggestion to start from the beginning of the series, episode six, “The Parents,” can almost stand alone for its clear-headed untangling of an emotionally knotty narrative. Wells and Smith talk to the parents of girls and women who were sexually assaulted by Nassar and answer the question, how the hell did this even happen? It’s the question that everybody asks, nobody understands, and one whose answer might help us prevent future Larry Nassars from getting away with so much, for so long. Wells and Smith are unflinching in their reportage, which results in surprisingly empathetic portraits of parents whose children had been abused, sometimes literally in front of their own eyes, without deflecting blame. Believed is a gutting listen but, by working from that seemingly simple presumption of believing women, is also the best, and maybe most important, news coverage of 2018. [Laura M. Browning]

Podmass will be back in January 2019. Let us know what we should cover in the new year, either in the comments or by emailing us at podmass@avclub.com.

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