There may be other examples of a medium perfecting itself as quickly as the podcast medium has, but it’s hard to think of one. The term “podcasting” is apocryphally credited to Guardian contributor Ben Hammersley, who coined the word in an article as a synonym for audio-blogging back in 2004. In the ensuing 12 years, the world has seen This American Life, #FreeAdnan, WTF and a host of other exquisite interpretations of the form.
Since we’re at 2016’s halfway point, we thought we’d compile a list of our 16 most memorable podcast episodes of the year. We’ve excluded our own podcasts from the list. (That seemed only fair.)
Sacha Baron Cohen is a force of chaotic good — one of the few comedians who can sell a racist, sexist joke as actual commentary instead of just exploiting his audience’s own racism and sexism. Maron is one of America’s great interviewers, and he digs past all easy, Borat-y “very niiiice” topics and gets to Cohen’s deeper, more thoughtful side as an artist.
An emotional episode that features an aspiring comic and voice actor who has lived a pretty tough life. She discusses things like being homeless and becoming a “cam girl” to pay her bills while trying to accomplish her life goals. The premise of the show is that the host (Chris Gethard) only has a couple of rules –– the guest has to stay anonymous, and they only have an hour. This is the episode where both of those rules are broken.
Hamilton is the Broadway success story of the year, if not the decade. On Another Round, Negatu and Claybon get to delve into the exceedingly rare spark of genius contained in the man behind the movement.
Jon Stewart is still occasionally written off as being more style than substance, but this conversation with Axelrod — a man well known for his towering political acumen — proves that Stewart knows exactly what he’s talking about.
The Combat Jack show is the best hip-hop podcast out there right now, featuring great conversations with everyone from Russell Simmons to RZA. But never was the Combat Jack team better than with their fantastic talk with No Malice, who opened up about his early years as one-half of the groundbreaking rap duo Clipse, and the turn to religion that changed his life.
Startup gathered its significant fanbase off of its bracingly honest portrayal of a company trying to figure out how to make it in the post-recession economy. What made this episode so gripping was that it took the everyday, background problems of most companies — grumbling employees, faulty power structure — and brought them into the foreground. What followed is a group of employers and bosses coming to terms with the fact that they’re not as great as they think they are.
Bill Simmons has had an interesting year (If you’ve heard of him, you know. If you haven’t, prepare for a deep dive), but it doesn’t compare to his rollicking, hypnotic conversation with Michael Rapaport.
As a conversationalist, Pete Holmes is without peer, willing to meet his guests on virtually any level. Never have his skills been on finer display than when he invited Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers on to discuss his close encounter of the third kind.
Including a piece from This American Life on a list of best podcast episodes is like including the Beatles on a list of the greatest rock bands of all time. It’s a little obvious, but you have to do it anyway. This American Life perfected the art of audio storytelling back before “podcast” was a word in the general conscious, and they remain the most consistent masters of the artform. Their unique sense of balance and fairness was on full display in this year’s “I Thought I Knew You”, which ended up being largely about the Trump phenomenon, and how his supporters don’t fit into anybody’s neat boxes. Not yours. Not ours. Not even their own.
Perhaps nobody has been able to get closer to what makes Yo-Yo Ma tick than Tippet, who quickly dispenses with dry terms like “classical music” and allows the legendary cellist to discuss his work with as much innovation and inventiveness as he brought to the genre that made him a star.
Radiolab’s first spinoff podcast examines stories about the history and inner workings of the Supreme Court. The whole thing just got started, but it’s already cranked out one of this years’ better listens. “Cruel and Unusual” follows the jaw-dropping history of the lethal injection procedure, from its deeply ironic origins to the modern investigation over just how Constitutional the death penalty is anyway.
Yes, Susan Silverman is related to that Silverman — the comedic firebrand Sarah Silverman, who has recently become nearly as famous for her emotive, idiosyncratic acting as she is for her standup. Susan is Sarah’s older sister, and while the younger Silverman finds meaning in irreverence, Susan has turned to deep reverence. She’s a rabbi, and her thoughts on faith and mental health are as profound as her younger sister’s routines are funny.
You know of two Jeff Daniels. The first is the impressively stupid Harry from the impressively stupid Dumb and Dumber. The second is the impressively intelligent Will from the pompously impressive The Newsroom. But there is another Daniels, and it’s the one the Death, Sex, and Money team explore in their conversation with Daniels’ two journeys towards sobriety.
This story about love — and the lack thereof — after spending over two years in an Iranian prison is as haunting and emotional a story as you could hope to hear from a podcast.
Lots of podcasts say they’re above love and sex, but none of them are quite like The Heart, which is novel in its discussions of frank sexuality in an artful way. In this episode, two women find intimacy through proximity and love through convenience. It’s an affecting exploration of how something we often ascribe to fate is controlled by something as simple as where we happen to find ourselves.
16. Lore: The King
Aaron Mahnke’s bi-weekly exploration of the truths behind our spooky stories expertly mixes cheap thrills, genuine, blood-curdling horror and, frequently, the real human brokenness behind the terror. All of his best talents were on display in this episode, which studies the effects of lonesomeness on the human heart, psyche, and moral principles.
We didn’t include any podcasts from the Gradient Podcast Network because podcast listicle-writing is a classy sport; but if you haven’t delved into the Gradient Podcast Network before and would like to, here’s where to begin.
Gradient’s ICYMI: A quick breakdown of our takes on the week’s top five stories in news, politics, culture, sports, sex, tech, religion, and science.
Animalators: Stories from the world of animation, featuring conversations with the world’s most gifted designers and graphic artists. If you want a place to start, check out their chat with Brooklyn’s Sander van Dijk, and why he switched from carpentry to animation.
It’s a Bird, It’s a Plane, It’s a Podcast: A podcast exploring the infinite connections between the world of superheroes and the world around us. Check out the crew’s deep dive into the long, complex history of The Black Panther.
Sounds Good with Branden Harvey: Exploring the lives and dreams of the happiest people on the internet, and what keeps them upbeat in a world that often tries to get us down. Don’t miss Branden’s talk with Jedediah Jenkins, and his constant pursuit of curiosity.