We just published a list of 50 of the best podcast episodes of the year, as chosen by the editors of The Timbre, who also produce a weekly podcast roundup that I highly recommend. If you listen to a lot of podcasts yourself, I’m sure you’ve got a few favorites from the year that aren’t included on our list. Here are 10 of mine:
“Sounds Up There” by BBC Radio 4
What do astronauts hear in space? The answer to that question contained in this episode isn’t a classically linear story. You may, on listening, struggle to identify which person’s speaking at any given time. But it was one of the richest, most stimulating thirty minutes of listening I’ve enjoyed in 2015. To get a sense of the mood of this piece, put on a decent pair of headphones, turn the volume up to a comfortable level, and give this three-minute sample a whirl. Close your eyes if you’d like, or pull up a gorgeous looping movie of our blue marble in motion. It’ll stop your thought.
“Stop Calling Me ‘The Homeless Valedictorian’” by Death, Sex & Money
If you’d spoken to me a week ago, my DS&M favorite of the year would have been Anna Sales’s interview with Joy Williams, formerly of the Civil Wars. Then I heard her interview with Rashema Melson, whose extraordinary drive to succeed won her a full-ride scholarship to Georgetown, but also resulted in enough apparently self-imposed pressure that she almost dropped out (but also kept her in the game!). Melson’s telling of her own story and the struggles that come with it is spellbinding, and Sale is a masterful interlocutor. The episode left me with the extraordinary sensation of rooting for Melson, not necessarily to “succeed” in any conventional sense, certainly not to be the protagonist in some modern-day Horatio Alger fable, but to be happy, to be satisfied, with her life and with herself.
“Every Other Fight” by Anxious Machine
It is difficult to make deeply personal stories about oneself and one’s loved ones feel relatable. It’s even harder to make them feel revelatory. But with Anxious Machine, Rob McGinley-Myers reached that bar fairly consistently this year. This story, about a long-ago fistfight and what it reveals about machismo, bravery, and vulnerability, is the episode from a high-caliber run that has stuck with me most.
tUnE-yArDs on Song Exploder
If you get any thrill whatsoever out of hearing how artists approach their work, you’ve gotta put Song Exploder on your list. In every episode, Hrishikesh Hirway sits down with a musical artist and gently guides them through a deconstruction of one of their works. And it is almost always fascinating. My love for this episode can’t fully be disentangled from my love for the tUnE-yArDs song “Water Fountain” (high on my list of weird, great workout music), so if your tastes run in a similar direction, I promise this will be your jam. Otherwise, you can’t go wrong with any of the other stellar episodes Hirway delivered this year: Ghostface Killah on “The Battlefield”! Ramin Djawadi on the Game of Thrones theme! Jeff Tweedy on Wilco’s “Magnetized”! Björk on “Stonemilker”! So much goodness!
“A Confederate Reckoning” by Us & Them
Us & Them, a podcast from West Virginia Public Broadcasting, focuses on a pretty timely theme—polarization. Usually, each episode features host Trey Kay in an even-handed but probing exploration of a divisive topic. In this episode, Kay hands the mics over to two foreign correspondents who ordinarily report on Kenya, but head to Louisiana to cover lingering racial divides. Spoiler alert: they leave challenged and disheartened, but having nonetheless uncovered something valuable. (I almost swapped this one out for another deeply challenging and disheartening episode of Us & Them, on the subject of Islamophobia. Both are eminently worthy of a listen.)
“Where To Hide €50,000, And Other Stories From Greece” by Planet Money
At the nadir of the Greek debt crisis, I found myself wanting to hear fewer stories about what was happening in Greece, and more stories from Greece, featuring the voices of everyday Greek people. Planet Money delivered, with their typical blend of clear explanation, great storytelling, and humor.
“Pearl Bryan” by Criminal
Although Phoebe Judge and the crew of Criminal already got plaudits in our 50-best list, I had to plug at least one of the two episodes featuring the stories behind a couple super-creepy turn-of-the-century murder ballads. You’ve gotta listen till the end, where the band Elephant Micah reinterprets the murder ballads for a contemporary audience, somehow making them even creepier. You won’t sleep for days, and it’s worth it.
“Creed, Men Crying at Movies, and Visceral Responses” and “Labor Pains and Inspirations” by Pop Culture Happy Hour
Disclosures abound here. I’ve been on this podcast, I used to work at NPR, these folks are friends. I am hopelessly biased. But these were some of the most thoughtful and enjoyable explorations of pop culture I came across this year, and my lack of objectivity shouldn’t keep you from enjoying them as well.
“If You Don't Have Anything Nice to Say, SAY IT IN ALL CAPS” by This American Life
I have had so many wonderful experiences facilitated by the Internet that whenever I re-encounter its capacity to amplify the evil in people, I am saddened and floored, again and again. The opening segment to this episode, in which—there’s no other way to say it—Lindy West confronts her troll, is one of the most remarkable encounters I heard captured on tape this year.
“Los Frikis” by Radiolab and Radio Ambulante
This. Story. Is. Wild. Even after I listened, twice, I still wasn’t fully sure I heard what I thought I did. It’s about Cuba in the ‘80s, the explosion of AIDS, hearing Led Zeppelin for the first time, and what it means to be punk. The storytellers somehow manage to delicately leaven the tragedy that hangs over this story with an incredibly vibrant set of characters and sounds.
OK, I know I said 10, but give me just one more:
“Shipped to Timbuktu” by Reply All
The fact that Reply All is mentioned twice in our 50-best list and I still couldn’t resist adding one more should convey how stellar this show has been. When hosts PJ Vogt and Alex Goldman left WNYC to join Gimlet Media, I expected they’d bring their humor, Internet knowledge, and wacky rapport to their new show. But I’ll confess, I didn’t expect stories like this, stories that pull on an interesting thread and follow the string to something deeply unexpected and resonant and powerful, all the way to a concentration camp in China in 1942, and back to a small, beautiful 82-year-old woman in New Jersey today.