This year, podcasts got funnier, sharper, and even more niche. Our recommendations here pass a vigorous audio smell test. First, the arrival of a new podcast episode must send you into an ethical quandary: How do I get out of at least some of my obligations today to listen to this? Second, you must be able to recommend this to a colleague with the knowledge that your reputation is at stake. A podcast that teaches you how to prepare your taxes by hand might blow your hair back, but it’s doubtful you’ll recommend it to anyone aside from your accountant. Third, we recused ourselves from ranking any podcasts produced by The Atlantic, including Radio Atlantic and The Atlantic Interview. Finally, the podcast world, like any other sphere, is about what have you done for me lately. The best shows don’t paint themselves into a corner. They evolve and progress or risk their listeners hitting “unsubscribe.” Podcasts, like cowboys, shouldn’t get fenced in. These shows generated maximum buzz, kept us refreshing our apps, broke boundaries, and made our future selves romanticize the golden years of podcasting.
With decades of producing under her belt, the Alone host Michelle Parise knows how to shape and deliver a story that will keep you coming back for more—all with the indulgent, delightful tone of a Lifetime movie. In 10 chapters, she takes listeners through the rise and fall of her marriage, and the bizarro choices she and her ex-husband made in its aftermath—like intentionally buying houses across the street from each other—will have you double-checking whether or not this actually is a memoir. (It is.) Her decision-making leads her to the edge of cliché but is also immensely relatable. You won’t leave Alone with new insights on what it means to be reentering the dating pool at almost 40 or having witnessed a brilliant epiphany, but you will feel like someone delivered you chicken soup on a cold day—and if you’re single, that can go a long way.