2016 is the year podcasts went mainstream. What Serial started two years ago has officially been cemented: podcasts are cool, and if you haven’t listened to one yet, you’re missing out on a major cultural phenomenon.
You’re the guy who only started watching Breaking Bad after it hit Netflix. Don’t be that guy.
With the end of the year rapidly approaching, it’s time to recap the wealth of audio entertainment the year gave us. We’ve decided not to mention any podcasts we’ve featured before (though they’re absolutely worth a listen too, so check them out here and here).
Our picks are a mix of fiction and non-fiction, as well as a mix of new and old. Some debuted this year; others continued to be oases of reliable greatness in an ever-expanding sea of mediocre series.
Without further ado, the best podcasts of 2016.
Bad With Money
Picture a money podcast hosted by financial experts who teach you practical steps for maximising your income. Bad With Money is the opposite of that. Host Gaby Dunn is not so much a financial expert as a self-described “bridge-burning livewire” who’s always viewed money as an endless existential crisis. Join Gaby for conversations with comedians, artists, musicians, actors, her parents, a financial psychologist, her boyfriend, and many others about the ways money makes us feel confused, hopeless, and terrified. This is a safe space to admit that you have no idea what you’re doing either.
Alice Isn’t Dead
The team behind oddball hit Welcome To Night Vale returned this year with Alice Isn’t Dead, a new serial fiction podcast that begins with a declaration from the narrator: “This is not a story. It’s a road trip.” A truck driver roams across America searching for the wife she had long assumed was dead. In the course of her quest, she encounters not-quite-human serial murderers, towns literally lost in time, and a conspiracy that goes way beyond one missing woman. Like another Alice, this podcast’s listeners find themselves plunged into a strange and irresistibly intriguing world.
Hosted by Kelly McEvers, NPR’s Embedded takes a story from the news and dives deep. What does it feel like for a father in El Salvador to lie to his daughter about the bodies he saw in the street that day? What does it feel like for a nurse from rural Indiana to shoot up a powerful prescription opioid? Embedded specialises in field reporting from around the world with a reach and perspective only NPR could bring, but with a new emphasis on longform narrative and emotional ideas rarely seen in the regular news cycle. You may have seen headlines about these stories. Embedded takes you to where they’re happening.
Maybe you’ve laid awake imagining how it could have been, but the moment to act was never right. Well, the moment is here and the podcast making it happen is Heavyweight. Join podcasting pro Jonathan Goldstein for road trips, thorny reunions, and difficult conversations as he backpedals his way into the past like a therapist with a time machine. Goldstein guides ordinary guests back to the crucial moment when things went wrong, then helps them confront it and find catharsis so they can move on. Don’t worry, there’s plenty of humour amidst the insight into the human condition.
Death, Sex & Money
Death, Sex & Money gets personal about life’s hardest dilemmas, questions, and choices. Though we all share these challenges, they’re rarely considered part of polite conversation. Host Anna Sale recruits a mix of celebrities and regular folks to chat about the Big Stuff: relationships, money, family, work and making it all count while we’re here. Recent topics include porn, Americans post-election, divorce, sobriety, schizophrenia, virginity, debt, deportation, and near-death experiences.
Science Vs takes on fads, trends, and the opinionated mob to find out what’s fact, what’s not, and what’s somewhere in between. Do women and men have different brains? Is porn changing the way we have sex? Does race exist? Is sugar really that bad for you? Journalist Wendy Zukerman dissects the latest fads framing themselves as scientific fact, wading through the mass of information so you don’t have to. Don’t be fooled by some of the seemingly dull subject matter – Zukerman manages to spice up any topic she covers.
Homecoming may go down as the year’s biggest breakout hit for fictional podcasts. The psychological thriller is Gimlet Media’s first foray into scripted podcasting. Writer Eli Horowitz is behind the story, and a surprisingly big-name cast of actors is behind the voices: Catherine Keener, Oscar Isaac, and David Schwimmer. The series follows a caseworker at a facility that’s using experimental methods to help soldiers integrate back into civilian life. To reveal much more would be a mistake, but expect things to take a sinister turn.
Lore first rose to fame in 2015, but continued its path to podcast world domination this year. The award-winning, critically-acclaimed show exposes the darker side of life, exploring the creatures, people, and places of your wildest nightmares. Each episode examines a new spooky tale from history in a style similar to campfire storytelling. With nearly 4,800 5-star reviews on iTunes and over 4-million average monthly listens, it’s clear many believe truth is more frightening than fiction
Reply All describes itself as “a show about the internet and trained rats, time travel, celebrity dogs, lovelorn phone scammers, angry flower children, workplace iguanas, and more.” Hosted by PJ Vogt and Alex Goldman, Reply All highlights the symbiotic relationship between humans and the World Wide Web, illuminating the myriad ways each one shapes the other. Though the stories are always rooted, at least loosely, in technology, it’s really the humanity that makes them stellar.
My Dad Wrote A Porno
Imagine if your dad wrote a dirty book. Most people would try to ignore it and pretend it had never happened – but not Jamie Morton. Instead, he’s decided to read his father’s self-published smut to the world in a comedy podcast that’s both gross and gut-wrenchingly hilarious. With the help of his friends, James Cooper and BBC Radio 1’s Alice Levine, Jamie reads a chapter of what could be the most appalling novel ever written each week and discovers more about his father than he ever bargained for. My Dad Wrote A Porno will make you laugh until you cry (and occasionally gag).
Twenty-three-year-old Elizabeth Andes was found dead in her Oxford, Ohio, apartment just days after her December 1978 graduation. Police investigating the city’s first murder in a quarter-century quickly zeroed in on Beth’s boyfriend, Robert Young. After 15 hours of questioning, he confessed to the murder. The cops considered it an open-and-shut case. Two juries disagreed. In Accused, the Cincinnati Enquirer investigates: was the right guy charged, or did a killer walk free?
The Memory Palace
The Memory Palace is practically prehistoric by podcast standards. The show debuted in 2008, the brainchild of public radio producer Nate DiMeo, and is still going strong in 2016. The series focuses on short, surprising stories dug up from the deepest nooks and crannies of history. The tales are sometimes heartbreaking and sometimes hysterical – often a blend of both – and each episode aims to become your most fascinating watercooler story. Dramatising the past is often done poorly, but in DiMeo’s capable hands listeners are fully transported to earlier eras.
Tell Me Something I Don’t Know
Strange facts, curious guests, odd tangents, and witty repartee are the order of the day on Tell Me Something I Don’t Know. TMSIDK is a both a live event and a podcast from host Stephen J. Dubner, author of the Freaknomics book series, in partnership with The New York Times. Equal parts game show, talk show, and brain-tease, the show challenges audience members to present an “IDK” — something that other people might not know — to a panel of celebrities and experts. The panelists then interrogate the guest presenter (gently, of course) and help make us all a bit smarter. It’s the most crackling dinner-party conversation you’ve ever heard, in podcast form.
When you die in the digital age, pieces of you live on forever – in your emails, your social media profiles, the texts and videos you’ve messaged, and for some, in the secret online alter-egos few ever knew about. But what if that digital existence took on a life of its own? Ross, a low level FBI employee, faces that question as he starts conversing online with his wife Charlie, who died eight months ago. As Ross discovers LifeAfter, the program that brought his wife – and countless others – back to life online, he finds himself on a dangerous path that threatens his job, his own life, and maybe even the world. This fictional podcast is the second outing from GE Podcast Theater and Panoply, who previously teamed up to produce last year’s sci-fi hit The Message.
Another top-notch offering from NPR, Hidden Brain helps curious people understand the world and themselves using science and storytelling. Host Shankar Vedantam reveals the unconscious patterns that drive human behaviour, the biases that shape our choices, and the triggers that direct the course of our relationships. Why do mild-mannered people turn into fearsome mama and papa bears? Does the way you park your car say something vital about you? Can hidden biases keep people from finding interesting jobs? Hidden Brain turns to social science research for the answers to those questions and others.