The year 2019 might reasonably be described as one in which the whole family was now listening to podcasts. Between the iPhone’s most user-friendly podcast interface to date, Spotify’s acquisition of audio powerhouse Gimlet Media, the continued proliferation of TV shows adapted from successful podcast series (Limetown on Facebook Watch), and successful podcast series adapted from successful TV shows (Conan O’Brien Needs A Friend), anyone who claims not to have a passing knowledge of at least a few podcasts is probably just listening to ones they don’t want you to know about.
But now that everyone has arrived at the party, there’s more pressure to set out a fabulous spread. As independent fiction series boomed this year in both quantity and production quality (Moonface, Blackout, Earth Break), there was also increased scrutiny on the nonfiction shows across the aisle, as true crime and history “chatter shows” were brought to task for alleged plagiarism. Basically, everyone has spent the year stepping up their game—and it’s the listeners who reap the benefits. Here are The A.V. Club’s podcast superlatives that cover the best and most representative series from across this year.
Since parting ways with Cracked, Michael Swaim and Abe Epperson, former directors, producers, actors, and writers of the publication’s YouTube series After Hours, have been busy building their own podcast and comedy empire. Once they were no longer confined by the editorial powers that be, Swaim and Epperson sought to provide a ton of bang for little to no buck, launching a Patreon to support the creation of their own pop-talk network. Today, the Small Beans network has churned out hundreds of quality podcasts at a consistent pace, all located on a single feed. And similar to pop culture as a whole, Small Beans has variety. There are film podcasts Frame Rate, The Coen Brothers Brothers, and Directorpiece Theatre; intense video game debates on 1Upsmanship; depression talk with Tales From The Pit; embarrassing stories of the youth with Rough Stuff; sci-fi and sci-fi-adjacent talk on Pop Culture Petri Dish; dinosaur discussion with What Dinosaur Real Good?; a show about race and justice in America with BOLD; and so many others. What’s as impressive as the amount of podcasts Small Beans pumps out is the quality it maintains: each is insightful, fun, hilarious, and a breeze to listen to. With so many great shows, it’s a no-brainer to subscribe to just one feed that has it all. [Kevin Cortez]
What started as a satire of investigative journalism and conspiracy theorists in 2016 has spiraled into its own far-reaching universe of hilarious absurdity. Whatever Happened To Pizza At McDonald’s? is an investigative journalism program (IJP) hosted by journalist Brian Thompson in which he cold-calls various people over the course of 140+ episodes to ask: What happened to pizza at McDonald’s? Although the polite and frankly spoken Thompson receives an official answer to his question within the podcast’s first few episodes, his show still continues diving into different avenues of McDonald’s-related conspiracies. Somehow, through the journey of chasing some sort of entity who can bring back McDonald’s pizza in 2019, Thompson has: attempted to find whoever stole a copy of Willow on DVD from the Burbank Public Library; tried attaining a license to become a private investigator; called both Netflix and the FBI to speak with a profiler; sent a pizza to McDonald’s Chicago headquarters from Domino’s in an attempt to get McDonald’s to purchase the pizza chain; written a sequel to Willow; and published a board game based on his podcast. After three years of hard work, Thompson shows no signs of halting his quest to discover the ultimate answer of what happened to McDonald’s pizza. [Kevin Cortez]
In a medium tailor-made for people to geek out about their obsessions, Second Decade, climate historian Sean Munger’s podcast about the weather during the years 1810 to 1820, must rank among the most niche offerings. Drawn to the period because it contains the “year without summer,” Munger channels equal parts Ken Burns and Al Roker to narrate vivid scenes of humanity amid climate disruption. In 1814, London held its final frost fair, a Midsommar-like nature spectacle occurring whenever the River Thames froze over. Two years later, a cash-strapped Thomas Jefferson fretted in retirement as crop failures pushed him deeper into debt, while in Switzerland, Mary Shelley and her posse of privileged pretty poets sulked in the midst of a rained-out summer vacation that forced them to stay inside telling ghost stories. The cooling crisis was set off by the eruption of an Indonesian volcano, and, Munger argues, a second volcano unknown to the West at that time. Not every episode deals with climate, though. This is the decade of Jane Austen and Napoleon’s Hundred Days, among other events, and such stories are recounted with little commentary on the elements. But weather is never far from imposing on these people’s lives, and its extremes are at the heart of the series, which Munger uses to freely draw parallels to today. [Zach Brooke]
In a short amount of time, actual play podcasts (also known as tabletop role-playing podcasts) have developed into one of the fastest-growing subgenres in podcasting. So much so that every time a new one premieres, a chorus of “Another D&D podcast???” can be heard from the collective listenership. It’s almost impossible to imagine anyone bringing something new to this overcrowded field, snd yet, in fewer than 10 episodes, the crew behind Rude Tales Of Magic has established its own unique voice and kicked off an entertaining adventure to boot. Rude Tales sets itself apart with its balanced tone—equal parts whimsy, dark absurdity, and straight-up bathroom humor—and its cast’s unflinching commitment to staying in character, making the silliest of choices feel real. Because of this, you’re immediately invested in the heroes, including the sensitive but tough anthropomorphic deer, Albee (Carly Monardo); the skeletal aristocrat, Frederick de Bonesby (Christopher Hastings); and the bootlicking perennial sidekick of the gang, Stir-Fry (Tim Platt). Add to that DM Branson Reese’s menagerie of foul-mouthed creations and some excellent sound design, and you’ve got something really special. Yes, it’s another D&D podcast. But it’s one that’s well worth your time. [Dan Neilan]
Moonface has been a quiet triumph, leaving an immediate, lasting mark on every listener since its October debut. First-generation Korean American Paul (Joel Kim Booster) is a gay man, a creator of weird and wonderful audio, and a conflicted young person trying to sort out his future. He lives in Downey with his mother (Esther Moon), waiting tables and attempting to learn Korean the way he didn’t when he was younger in order to communicate on a deeper and more personal level with her. Booster and Moon are incredibly cast within this stilted, still-evolving relationship between mother and son, and they portray the complex realities of a family that doesn’t speak the same language. Moonface is the kind of story that can resonate with a little piece of everyone: those who are closeted; those unable to bridge cultural and linguistic gaps with the ones they love; and anyone stymied by racism and white supremacy, two forces that can keep even your own heritage from you. Paul’s story collides with his mother’s story and his friends’ stories in genuine and authentic ways, drawing the listener in closer through raw, tender sound design. [Elena Fernández Collins]
Mystery writing ain’t what it used to be. What once took Miss Marple or Hercule Poirot an entire novel to suss out can now be pieced together with a couple of hours on social media and a DNA swab. But mystery fandom has hardly waned even as society and tastes have evolved. With a loving yet critical eye, Shedunnit host Caroline Crampton restores the golden age of detective fiction to its former glory one episode at a time. From the expectations placed on authors to bygone social norms to recurring plot devices, Crampton’s incisive observations tease out so much more than the key clues to finding the killers. Her penchant for rooting out patterns among fan favorites doesn’t blind her to instances of inspired experimentation from a slew of authors who largely fell into painting by numbers. If the series skews toward women’s contributions, well, that’s only natural, given who’s responsible for the most enduring golden-age novels and who to this day consumes the most true crime content. A must-listen for murder junkies of all stripes. [Zach Brooke]
There’s been plenty of writing about how sports can be a sort of religion, this great uniter of community, this symbolic narrative of hope and triumph—but sports are also kind of hilarious, especially when it comes to the culture of the NBA. Enter Multitude’s HORSE, hosted by Eric Silver (Join The Party) and Mike Schubert (Potterless). HORSE is a basketball podcast that’s really about everything but the sport itself. Each week, the hosts talk about a different aspect of NBA culture in different segments, using their best-of lists to discuss things like jerseys and nicknames instead of statistically successful players. In fact, the show is so intent on being goofy and accessible to non-fans that Silver and Schubert gamify their rules: If they bring up numbers at all, they have to do math problems as quickly as they can. If they trash-talk a young player, they have to share a truly embarrassing college story. HORSE takes the borderline-holy world of sports culture and turns it on its head, focusing on jokes, kindness, and accessibility instead of numbers, criticisms, or the nitty-gritty. [Wil Williams]
Luminary, a subscription-based podcast platform, debuted this year to some strange and rocky results. The most prominent criticism of Luminary is the monthly fee to access its exclusive podcasts: It costs about $8 per month, which (when compiled with other media subscriptions) can feel like a lot, especially given Luminary’s lack of cohesion or mindful curation in its offerings. If you’re a fan of fiction, though, there’s one clear reason Luminary is worth its cost, and that’s The AM Archives. A sequel to breakout fiction hit The Bright Sessions, The AM Archives is what happens when you give some of the best indie creators the budget they deserve. The story follows the heads of an organization that works with people who have superhuman abilities and confronts the ethics of power, control, and agency. At this point in her career, creator Lauren Shippen has taken her prowess in character writing and compounded it with a sharp eye for raising the stakes. Sound designer Mischa Stanton’s work sounds cinematic without seeming artificial. For fans of The Bright Sessions, it can’t be missed; for those who haven’t listened to fiction podcasts yet, it’s a great place to start. [Wil Williams]