The 15 Most Essential Podcasts of 2015
2015 was the year podcasts went mainstream. The audio-obsessed were no longer dorky torch-carriers of an antisocial hobby, but cutting-edge kids championing storytelling, journalism, and art. If you're not one of those people -- or you're desperately trying to play catch up -- we've got you covered. You're familiar with a little podcast phenomenon known as Serial, but the required listening for budding podcast-listeners grows ever greater. The shows challenge assumptions, endeavor to entertain, and prize listeners’ time above all. The following list of 2015 podcasts all fit the bill, and will help you lead the pack next year:
1. WTF with Marc Maron, "President Obama"Data shows that only one in three people have listened to a podcast, but anyone unaware of President Obama's appearance on WTF with Marc Maron spent 2015 under a rock. This was classic Maron toe-to-toe with one of the best-known figures on the planet. The podcast host's signature move is to disarm his guests and guide them into territory they wouldn't otherwise venture. Despite some nerves -- there was a sniper sitting on the recording studio roof, to be fair -- Maron still manages to squeeze out Obama’s authenticity for a few precious moments. Obama recounts the various ways he tried to be cool as a kid, and how he lived down the street from where the two sat talking. He laughs like nobody’s listening. Which couldn't have been easy. The massacre in Charleston had occurred days before, and the topic of American mass shootings dominated the conversation, like a State of the Union podcast. The show was a milestone for Maron and the medium he's called home for years.
2. Radiolab, "The Rhino Hunter"Remember Cecil the lion, and the explosion of passion surrounding his murder? Well, Radiolab, a major player in the investigative-journalism game -- one of the OGs of podcasting -- was two years into investigating big-game hunting before the story broke. “The Rhino Hunter,” which dropped some weeks after the Cecil story did, became a pivotal part of the conservation conversation. The big-game basics, as reported by Radiolab: people pay large sums of money to buy a tag to hunt otherwise protected animals with the funds earmarked for preservation. Essentially, in order to protect endangered species, a handful need to be set aside for hunters. “The Rhino Hunter,” like so many Radiolab episodes, explores a gray area.
3. Another Round, "What’s on Your Reparations Tab?"Podcast loyalists know a secret: to slip into another's consciousness, listeners need only to pop in earbuds and press play. When the queued-up podcast is BuzzFeed's Another Round, this means listening in on Tracy Clayton and Heben Nigatu, two acerbic and brilliant black women, as they assess and articulate American culture through their distinctive perspectives. The podcast began as a wisecracking happy hour and quickly evolved into a tour de force about multiculturalism, feminism, and mental health. While there are a slew of other podcasts devoted to the African-American experience, Another Round captures a complex reality without taking itself too seriously. Clayton and Nigatu invite listeners of all stripes to eavesdrop on their conversations. When they sit down with MacArthur Genius Grant winner Ta-Nehisi Coates to interrogate the difference between hope and struggle in the American black experience, while still taking time to tally up what is on their reparations tab, Another Round is at its best. The scholarship and tomfoolery made it one of the most talked-about podcasts of 2015.
5. Love + Radio: "The Living Room"As part of the original Radiotopia network lineup, Love + Radio survived the lean days of podcasting, nurturing stories long before analysts predicted the platform's world domination. Love + Radio’s episodes are crafted audio documentaries, and creator Nick van der Kolk’s labor of love shined this past year in “The Living Room.” On the episode, guest Diane Weipert’s apartment obsession, and her neighbors’ opened curtains, launch a tangled first-person mystery that listeners still haven’t unraveled. A meditation about Weipert’s irresistible spying on her baby-skinned, over-sexed, 20-something neighbors, this episode describes an unlikely co-dependency. That her neighbors opened up their living room to her makes it that much more painful when the drama takes a turn for the worse.
6. The Message, "Episode 1"Like television, podcasts adopted serialization in 2015. And trying it in fiction requires planning, patience, time, and great skill (not to mention solid actors and a dramatic score). The Message, the story of a team of scientists decoding a 70-year-old message from outer space that infiltrates the body of anyone who hears it, was able to afford such luxuries. "How" is the subject of some controversy, at least for those committed to preserving the innocence of the form. General Electric commissioned The Message, gave it a budget, pulled together a team, and apparently, didn’t ask that its creators beat listeners over the head with its brand -- no overt GE endorsements interrupt the plot. The Message stands out as a singular narrative risk; it throws sci-fi tropes out the window and plays with scene-setting instead of wall-to-wall monologues. The show, especially the pilot, is creepy. Whether or not it’s just a tool for GE brainwashing remains to be seen.
7. Mystery Show, "Britney"In Mystery Show, host Starlee Kine creates a blueprint for the podcast host as a detective. A 21st-century private eye, Kine tinkers with the noir genre, hitting the sweet spot between page-turning thriller and Pixar-like entertainment. Pedigree created anticipation for Mystery Show -- Kine is a This American Life vet -- and it still managed to take people by surprise. Out of season one's six episodes, “Britney,” a 50-minute long search for Britney Spears herself, is the place to start. Spears holds the answer to a mystery plaguing writer Andrea Seigel: why was Britney Spears photographed slipping out the back door of a Malibu restaurant in a white dress and cowboy boots and holding a copy of Seigel’s not-so-bestseller, To Feel Stuff? Kine swears off cases that the Internet can help solve, so puzzling out Spears’ reading list became a priority. In “Britney,” Kine plunges into the underground world of pop star fangirldom, searching for the biggest fish in the whole of pop iconography.
11. With Special Guest Lauren Lapkus, "James Adomian: The Tom Leykis Radio Program"Lauren Lapkus stands out in a field of hundreds of podcasting comedians because of her improv genius. Unlike other shows that require a huge investment by binging their back catalog, With Special Guest Lauren Lapkus is an entirely new beast each episode. Each episode, Lapkus invites a comedian to play the juicy part of host, who sets the tone on her show. Lapkus, in turn, improvises a character to play against the persona of her guest. If you're a little unsure of the format the first time you listen, you're not alone. You’ll also rewind the intro a half-dozen times to bask in its infectious jingle. Not only is it healthy; it’s proof that you’ve arrived at your desired location. In “James Adomian: The Tom Leykis Radio Program,” Lapkus’ guest James Adomian is already mouth-breathing into the mic when the show kicks off. With "Tom Leykis" in studio, the decibel level hits full bro. Pushing against Adomian, Leykis is a manchild who shares the sexual appetites and gender politics of a 16th-century king. Rather than go toe to toe with Leykis, Lapkus uses her wit and willing-to-go-anywhere playfulness to jab at the many soft spots in his shock-jock armor. This is a comedy podcast that doesn’t slow down, with an ending that proves you can pen a million jokes, but two top-notch improvisers offer next-level magic.
13. Reveal, "Inside America’s Coldest Cases"Reveal recorded a staggering amount of tape this past year to shine light on corruption, pollution, water mismanagement, human suffering, and criminal wrongdoing. “Inside America’s Coldest Cases,” a four-part series about missing and unidentified persons, sets it apart as an investigative-reporting podcast par excellence. Missing-persons cases can plod along. Terrible legislative gaps exist and force bodies that could be exhumed and DNA that could be tested to lay in graves for decades. In other episodes from the series, the unsung heroes, amateur detectives who pursue leads for cold cases on their own dime, talk about the hurry-up-and-wait mentality of a crime fighter. And there are some heartbreaking details about missing women and immigrants who die of thirst and heat stroke crossing the Mexico-Texas border. Outside of a few larger budgeted outfits like This American Life, you won’t find a podcast as tireless and willing to invest in low-to-the-ground projects. Al Letson is America’s single most underrated podcast host. Anyone in second place isn't close -- no one goes this deep.
15. Invisibilia, "The Secret History of Thoughts"Invisibilia premiered at the top of the charts earlier this year with a clear, transparent thesis: to examine the invisible wonders that control human behavior. Unlike most shows filed under the category of "learning" or "natural sciences," nothing about Alix Spiegel's or Lulu Miller's approach feels like a spoonful of sugar to help the medicine go down. This is medicinal confection. Spiegel and Miller explore avant-garde topics in an inclusive way. In the season premiere, “The Secret History of Thoughts,” they tapped the topic on the nose. Often times, arm-chair psychologists throw around words like mindfulness, an abstract that makes pragmatic folk tailspin into fits of eye-rolling. But Invisibilia plays both the part of your New Age friend, the one who bristles at anything having to do with energy and meditation. The show broke records and then broke through listener consciousness in 2015. And we’re out of our minds waiting for season two.
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Eric McQuade, Laura Standley, and Devon Taylor run The Timbre, a site dedicated to the emerging art of podcasts. Follow the site on Twitter: @timbretweet.