Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
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PodmassPodmassIn Podmass, The A.V. Club sifts through the ever-expanding world of podcasts and recommends the previous week’s best episodes. Have your own favorite? Let us know in the comments or at podmass@avclub.com.

It’s been 15 years since the word “podcast” was first attached to downloadable audio files, but don’t worry; this is not any sort of retrospective on the medium. This is a snapshot of where podcasts are right now, halfway through 2019, and if the landscape could be defined by any particular trends this year, it’s been the proliferation of every one of its subgenres, a tidal wave of content for even the most specific and discerning audio tastes. With infinite selection comes infinite selectivity, and to help you wade past series with 17 co-hosts and series where the guests were clearly not researched beforehand and series whose hosts attempt to hold their phone up to the mic to play a relevant movie clip directly from YouTube for the listeners at home and series that just plain aren’t that interesting, The A.V. Club presents our list of the best podcasts of the year so far, sorted into 12 very official categories. Here’s hoping you find your next Spontaneanation among them.

With podcasts always growing in popularity, it’s no surprise that many celebrities have jumped at the chance to get involved. While many of them have chosen the interview format, many have been known to lend their voices to audio fiction, a natural extension of their work onscreen. There have been impressive fictional podcasts featuring celebrities in past years, such as Homecoming, starring Catherine Keener and David Schwimmer, and The Orbiting Human Circus by Night Vale Presents, featuring Tim Robbins and Mandy Patinkin. The transition to pure audio turns out better for some actors than others, but Oscar winner Rami Malek has raised the bar to exceptional heights in Blackout. He does not just lend his voice; he becomes the small town radio DJ Simon Itani, pulling in listeners with both his words and his hopeless silences. He builds suspense in the way his voice tremors and stutters authentically in times of shock. Malek makes listeners feel as though they just happened to flip over to his broadcast and are along for the harrowing journey as a small town descends into chaos. [Nichole Williams]

In a world that can feel dystopian and grim at the best of times, writing speculative fiction that truly scares its audience isn’t an easy task, but it’s one The Deca Tapes has accomplished with the series’ eight stellar episodes. What starts as a simple but intriguing mystery slowly unravels to reveal layer upon layer of messed-up and unethical capitalist abominations, thanks to its effective and to-the-point writing; The Deca Tapes makes it clear the audience wasn’t intended to gain access to the stories they’re being told, and it’s precisely this voyeuristic relationship with the series that makes it so remarkable. The audio format helps drive the point home that much more, because the audience can hear the characters’ distress and emotions in the found footage that serves as the podcast’s framing device, and many crucial elements are left to the imagination, which makes the setting even scarier. According to the meta in-universe corporation DECA, we were never meant to hear The Deca Tapes, but what a waste that would have been. [Alma Roda-Gil]

In 1961, when President John F. Kennedy stood before Congress and proposed that the United States commit itself to landing a man on the moon by the end of the decade, such a mission was not even within the realm of possibility for NASA engineers. Less than 10 years later, however, the world witnessed the Apollo 11 lunar module safely make its 13-minute descent from orbit to the surface of the Moon. How this astounding, seemingly impossible feat was accomplished is the subject of the BBC’s new documentary miniseries, 13 Minutes To The Moon. Using a mix of archival audio, interviews with the surviving NASA engineers, scientists, and astronauts, and a soaring score composed by Hans Zimmer, host Dr. Kevin Fong explores the various moving parts of the Apollo program, each of which contributed to the 11th mission’s crucial success. Most notable of any of the incredible tidbits Fong brings to light is the fact that the average age of people working in Mission Control during the Moon landing was 27. Imagining these fresh-faced college graduates accomplishing something no human being thought possible for most of recorded history is deeply inspiring to say the least. [Dan Neilan]

Don’t let this superlative fool you: “Best Podcast No One Asked For” is a category we hold in the highest esteem. The Ron Burgundy Podcast is based on and hosted by Will Ferrell’s beloved Ron Burgundy character, now 15 years on from 2004’s Anchorman. While the film became a cult classic since its release, to say that the world was waiting with bated breath for this podcast would be an overstatement. However, that doesn’t mean its arrival wasn’t welcomed with open arms. In the crowded podcast landscape, even A-listers have had trouble setting themselves apart, but luckily, Will Ferrell isn’t your average A-lister. This podcast is an unexpected breath of fresh air, and as absurd as the idea is, Ferrell somehow manages to pull off the absurdity in a way that constantly engages and delights listeners. Not quite comedy, or self-help, or advice, but somehow a mixture of it all, one episode might feature poetry with the legendary Peter Dinklage while another raises awareness of bullying. The Ron Burgundy Podcast is one we might not have asked for, but the one we all needed. [Vannessa Jackson]

Radiotopia’s The Truth branched back into serialized fiction this spring with “The Body Genius,” a miniseries about a Hollywood personal trainer who has to help solve the murder of a celebrity. Basically, imagine if Brad Pitt’s character from Burn After Reading took over for Sarah Koenig on Serial and really, really wanted to solve the murder himself. What ensues is a hilarious true crime parody with the protagonist, Chris Cafero’s Evan, narrating alongside his investigation. The plot is a perfect combination of dumb luck and character growth, but most importantly, it does what every successful parody must: it works well not just as a comedy, but as a “true” crime mystery. There have been plenty of true crime parodies, but The Body Geniusis one of the only works so far that really commits to its bit, allowing the comedy to come through the characters versus just making jokes about the form. The twists and turns are as worthwhile as the laughs, and the ending makes relistens even better. The five-part series can be listened to on The Truth’s feed. [Wil Williams]

Earlier this year, journalist Jon Mooallem, best known for his writing on nature conservation efforts, premiered a new project, stepping away from the familiar. Whereas most podcasts might invite guests on their show to talk about, say, the concept, history, or benefits of using their two legs to move forward, The WALKING Podcast is not about the topic of walking—it’s a recording of it. No talking. Just the sounds of Mooallem’s feet, his keys dangling from his body, and occasional light breathing. There are also birds chirping, planes flying overhead, leaves crunching, the noises of a shoe slightly pivoting over gravel. In one episode, you can hear Mooallem replying with a kind “hello” to an approaching stranger. In another, a seal barks off at a distance. He falls in episode three. But overall, The WALKING Podcast is a simplistic, brilliant piece of passive recording that provides a break from constant digital overstimulation by way of an auditory nature experience. This is pure meditative bliss that sits somewhere between ASMR and amateur field recordings. [Kevin Cortez]

After the whole pussy-hat moment came a deluge of feminist podcasts, some of whose politics were more evolved than others, some voices and identities amplified more than others, and some voices missing entirely. All My Relations, hosted by visual storyteller Matika Wilbur (Swinomish and Tulalip) and writer/activist Adrienne Keene (Cherokee Nation), expands this conversation by joining forces with other Native artists, organizers, and scholars. By facilitating exacting/fun/accessible conversations about being Native and fostering a relationship with the land and each other, we learn along with the hosts, becoming accomplices or comrades or allies. From exploring food sovereignty with The Muckleshoot Food Sovereignty Project, to gushing over Louboutins hand-beaded by J. Okuma, to examining what it means to be indigiqueer, All My Relations illuminates what being Native looks like today and how all of our liberation is tied to each other. Wildly generous and commanding, Wilbur and Keene model feminism at its best, a holistic investment in our relationships with each other and with the earth. For indigenous folx that want more access to community or non-Native people who want to listen and learn, this podcast changes how you view Indigeneity and the inclusiveness of your feminism. [Morgan McNaught]

In little more than five minutes, the speakers who add to 10 Things That Scare Me’s growing catalogue of fears reveal so much of themselves just by mentioning what scares them. Guests come from all corners of society, and it’s true that some fears are hyper-specific to certain lifestyles. Novelist Marlon James, for instance, fears writing a book that will lead to his death, while former Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano fears a nationwide cyberattack. But listen to a handful of episodes and it’s clear that more parallels than divergences exist between the anonymous and the affluent. A Toronto butcher’s apprentice’s fear of being cheated on, for example, mirrors Samin Nosrat’s fear of never finding a romantic partner. And Anthony Scaramucci doesn’t come off as a man eager to meditate on his vulnerabilities in public, so listening to him worry aloud about the impact divorce proceedings will have on his children exposes a bit of the Mooch present in private moments. Stripped of power-player status, the universal humanity of these participants emerges in mutual concerns over illness, death, and the fate of loved ones. We might try to define ourselves through bravery, but our fears are what unite us. [Zach Brooke]

Good reporting uncovers the truth, but the best reporting provides clear context, solid data, and synthesis that sticks in your gut. In this regard, Drilled is a complete meal: full of complexity, but digestible. The show sets its sights on one of the most sophisticated social influence campaigns of all time: Exxon’s insidious and largely successful attempt to deny science, manipulate facts, and create a culture of climate change denial that halted legislation and alternative energy markets for decades. Host and climate journalist Amy Westervelt (The Guardian, The Wall Street Journal) is here for it, digging into long-lost internal company documents, creepy Koch-funded think tanks, and even the psychology of denial itself, interviewing scientists, engineers, whistleblowers, attorneys, former oil execs, and yes, actual climate deniers. The second season puts a face to all these corporate shenanigans, covering the story of a group of crab fishermen suing the oil industry for livelihoods lost by climate change effects such as algae blooms. We all know by now that Big Oil is evil, but it’s worth knowing (and trying to learn from) the details, and Drilled reminds us that it’s worth staying mad as hell, too. [Amber Cortes]

There’s still a lot about Elizabeth Holmes that remains shrouded in mystery, but one thing’s for sure: The people she used to work with are not her biggest fans. ABC’s podcast miniseries The Dropout stands out for its thorough treatment of the rise and fall of Holmes and her fraudulent healthcare startup Theranos. Holmes created and maintained a strange but impeccable public character, sparking debate over what was “real” about her and what was fake—a debate that was never divorced from her status as a successful woman, albeit one who was also a criminal. The Dropout’s numerous interviews with people who mentored Holmes, worked for her, or invested in her company deflate that mystique entirely. The people who knew her best, it turns out, are mostly just frustrated with her. With the public’s interest in scams currently at its peak, the scammer has become a reified figure. It can feel just as exciting to hear about someone getting away with fraud as it can feel cathartic to hear about them getting caught. But for all its testimonials from former colleagues, The Dropout stops short of concluding that Elizabeth Holmes was a robot or a supervillain. She might just be a manipulative screwup who was a little too easy to believe in. [Adrian Jade Matias Bell]

Let 2019 be known as the year that podcasting embraced its rowdy, thirsty, steamy side, because if there’s one thing CARAVAN excels at, it’s that perfect blend of delayed gratification and climax. Essentially, tie together the heat of True Blood and the deeply emotional and adventurous storytelling of Pyre, and then hang on to your hats. Protagonist Samir goes on a journey through this literal hell, a canyon he remembers falling into, to save the people of the Canyon and get himself back up to his own world. On the way, Samir meets larger-than-life heroes and demons, people jacked with supernatural abilities and creatures so familiar he can’t help but want to know everything about them, and grows into the parts of himself he didn’t believe existed. Every part of Samir’s journey is charged with the desire to live in the best, brightest, sexiest way he believes in. Creator Tau Zaman understands the complexity of sexual and emotional intimacy, especially when paired with defying death and fighting through hell, and embraces that intricacy by including Samir’s internal monologue. CARAVAN provides answers to what it means to love even when everything around you is on fire. [Elena Fernández Collins]

The efforts undertaken by Crackdown host Garth Mullins and his team will save lives. It’s just that simple. The show approaches the topic of drug use and addiction honestly and sympathetically, outlining the ways that individuals and governments can address the current overdose crisis. This series seeks to destigmatize and humanize drug use, lending credence to the experiences of those in its grip. Mullins—a writer, documentarian, and activist living in Vancouver—is himself a current opioid user, and his aim with the show is to present the story of the War on Drugs as told by those fighting on the front lines. Drug users as war correspondents. It is incredibly powerful stuff, the kind of show that shakes listeners out of the somnambulance cultivated by decades of prohibitionist government rhetoric. While narrative nonfiction podcasting has drawn criticism in the past for its imbalance—crafting compelling documentaries from the misfortunes of others for largely affluent audiences—Crackdown flips that notion on its head. This is a show created by and for its own community, while also using the platform as a megaphone to call for policy change and a more humane understanding of the realities at play. Crackdown exemplifies the many virtues of this constantly surprising medium. [Ben Cannon]

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