Here are the 50 best podcast series of 2018, with a brief explanation of why each show blew the competition away. For more on my review mentality, see this page about how I review podcasts, and this article extolling my qualifications for writing a best-of list (slightly tongue-in-cheek).
A few caveats and notes: you’ll probably notice I’m not into true crime as much as some are–I didn’t listen to some of the big series this year like Believed and West Cork. I did listen to other high-profile series but they just didn’t make it onto my best-of list. The true crime expectation bar is pretty high in my view: when you have shows that dedicate their reporting to making a difference or exposing something the government isn’t doing, I consider that to be far more compelling than a show just telling me about a crime.
I also favor laughing and crying, and a good story. Therefore, many of my picks are shows that just made me feel a hell of a lot of feelings. I’ve included a short write-up of each show that will hopefully help you decide whether you might add it to your list. This year I included where the show was produced, and you can see it’s mostly U.S., Canada, and Australia-centered, so send me your recommendations of podcasts from elsewhere in the world.
Finally, thank you so much to all of the people who created these shows. So much dedication and passion goes into these projects – it’s why the ones on this list are on the list in the first place. I admire your innovation and creativity!
12/26/18 Edit: I’ve created a Podchaser playlist of all of these shows.
In the Dark (APM, United States // investigative journalism, crime): Two years ago I said that In the Dark was, hands down, the best podcast of the year. Madeleine Baran’s team’s sophomore effort was just as excellent and it was again the best thing I listened to this year. The debacle in Winona, Mississippi that put Curtis Flowers on trial six times deserved to be investigated and the team answered the call, literally digging through decades-old boxes to find clues in the case of the Tardy Furniture murders. They didn’t solve it, but certainly raised a lot of reasonable doubt and cast a spotlight again on law enforcement officials who don’t seem to be held accountable when they don’t follow the law. Furthermore, the investigation is actually being cited in Flowers’ appeal, which will be heard by the U.S. Supreme Court. This is the gold standard for an investigative reporting podcast. (2016 review of season 1)
Someone Knows Something (CBC, Canada // investigative journalism, storytelling, crime): SKS put out two seasons this year – that is a phenomenal amount of work. Again, the focus of this “true crime” podcast is not on the gory details of a crime, but the stories of the people who surround the victim whose case has gone cold, and what they might know. David Ridgen’s gentle nature when talking with witnesses, people of interest, and even potential suspects is so disarming – you can hear people get comfortable with him so easily. (2016 review of season 1)
Missing and Murdered: Finding Cleo (CBC, Canada // investigative journalism, crime, storytelling): A heartbreaking story about a young indigenous girl who was separated from her family at the suggestion of the government and adopted by a family in the United States. There is mystery surrounding her death as a teenager, but there’s a deeper story here, of the multi-generational consequences faced by indigenous people in Canada because the government thought it was “doing the right thing” for them. Phenomenal, caring, relentless reporting by Connie Walker.
Reveal (Center for Investigative Reporting, United States // investigative journalism): Reveal, hosted by Al Letson and reported by dozens of reporters around the U.S., represents another gold standard when it comes to investigation. Episodes are usually about an hour (except for the shorter, excellently irreverent Al Letson Reveals segments) and uncover at best, leaders who don’t follow procedures and policies in government, companies, and organizations. At worst, criminals are getting away with dangerous crime due to those leaders’ incompetence. An excellent example of this is the two-part series called Case Cleared. (2018 review)
The Assassination (BBC, United Kingdom // history, politics, investigative journalism, crime): Benazir Bhutto was killed in 2007, but no one has been convicted of her murder to date. Owen Bennett Jones reported on Bhutto during her tenure as Prime Minister of Pakistan and knew her personally. The podcast definitely suggests a cover-up, which is fascinating to unfold.
Last Seen (WBUR/Boston Globe, United States // investigative journalism, crime): The Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum was robbed in 1991, and the 13 pieces of art that were stolen have never been recovered and no one has ever been arrested in connection with the case. I was fortunate enough to interview Kelly Horan, the host, earlier this month, and we talked about the emotional connection people feel when they can hear someone’s voice that they’ve read about in print – it adds so much more to the story. There was a tremendous amount of reporting done to inspect the many angles of this case.
The Dream (Stitcher, United States // investigative journalism): This hit show is about multi-level marketing: how it started, why it has thrived for so long, and the emotional mind-f**ks played within the pyramids. Episode 8, where the team reported from a MLM conference/training, was particularly outstanding.
All the Feels
Terrible, Thanks for Asking (APM, United States // storytelling, personal journal, mental health): Terrible, Thanks for Asking has been consistently making me feel all the feelings since it came out. The show is about how sometimes, life is really shitty and it’s okay to say that and feel that way. I really loved the episode about stuttering from this fall.
This is Love (Radiotopia, United States // storytelling, love): This show has the greatest hit rate on my Delicious Ingredients list of any show I listen to, meaning its production and content are just outstanding nearly every episode. No surprise, as this is from the women who brought us Criminal. This is Love reminds us that love takes so many forms and is tender and lovely wherever and whenever it appears, whether you are Prince or a snail.
No Feeling is Final (ABC Radio, Australia // storytelling, personal journal, mental health): Mental health awareness and improvement starts with talking about it. No one wants to feel like they’re totally alone, that they’re the only person feeling the way they do, that there isn’t hope for them. This podcast explores that so honestly and gently.
Alone: A Love Story (CBC, Canada // storytelling, personal journal, love): In the second season of Alone: A Love Story, host Michelle Parise gets her sexiness back and has a very therapeutic time exploring being “alone.” Parise’s audio journal is full of extremes, though – there is sadness in this season, too. It’s an excellent binge listen for a day when you can be alone with yourself, contemplating what love means for you and what it means both to be in and out of a relationship.
Making the World a Better Place
Scene on Radio (Center for Documentary Studies at Duke, United States // history, society & culture): Scene on Radio’s experiment with a multi-part extended series on one topic (Seeing White in 2017) was repeated again this year with a series on masculinity, simply called “Men.” Host John Biewen was joined by the exquisite Celeste Headlee this year to present a series of investigations into our societal appraisals of masculinity, sexual harassment, violence, and raising boys. I loved the Himpathy, American Made, and Juggernaut episodes. (2017 review)
Other Men Need Help (Independent, United States // society & culture, storytelling): Other Men Need Help is about masculinity, told in short playful documentary or narrative pieces. It examines some of the problems with how men view and handle their manhood, but always in a warm, enjoyable way – there’s no man-hating here. I loved every single episode I heard this year; it was one of my absolute favorite shows of the year.
Ladies, We Need to Talk (ABC Radio, Australia // advice, society & culture, feminism): Yumi Stynes and her guests talk about things women should be talking about, but don’t, because we’re too afraid that we might be the weird outlier or that other women will judge us. Whenever I listen to the show, I think, I’m not alone and I’m not a weirdo for thinking some of the things I’m hearing these other women say out loud. Ladies, We Need to Talk explores questions like is it okay to “settle” for average? And what the hell is perimenopause? Multiple perspectives are always shared, meaning you’re bound to identify with something at least one person says each episode. (2017 review)
Inflection Point with Lauren Schiller (KALW, United States // business, advice, feminism, interview): Lauren Schiller has great guests on who have all risen up and changed their workplace, community, or organization for the better, with regard to how women are treated. These are courageous women who step forward at times when others would stay put, allowing injustice or mistreatment to replicate and proliferate. This is the podcast that I find myself nodding my head to vigorously because I’m agreeing with so many of the things I hear. Check out the episode with Erin Maye Quade about how she spoke up about how she was treated in the Minnesota state government. (2016 review)
Bodies (KCRW, United States // storytelling, feminism, society & culture): Terrific new show from KCRW and Alison Behringer about questions we have about our bodies that have been difficult to answer. For example, why does sex hurt? What is an abnormal amount of period bleeding? Women are often gaslit by doctors who shame them into feeling like they’re crazy for bringing up a medical concern. This show is so empowering and can help women own their bodies, because we know better than anyone when our bodies aren’t working correctly.
Learning While Laughing
The Allusionist (Radiotopia, United Kingdom // humor, language): Host Helen Zaltzman spent quite a bit of time this year in the hospital, so I’m very impressed that she was able to keep the show going on a nearly normal schedule. Luckily she is enjoying some time off before The Allusionist restarts in a short while. For those who haven’t listened, The Allusionist is about language and why we use the words we do. There was a great mini-series about the names we have and how some people change their names for a very specific reason. The Allusionist can truly do no wrong, it’s a must-listen for me every time there is a new episode. (2015 review)
Varmints! (Blazing Caribou Studios, United States // humor, animals): Varmints! is a show about animals – most often, but not exclusively, ones we’d describe as varmints. The show has several recurring segments with awesome segues recorded by the hosts’ family members and fellow indie podcasters. Some of the segments are hilarious – two I look forward to every week is a nominal rating given to each varmint about how smart it is and the pop culture connection for each varmint. Hosts Paul Csomo and Donna Hume dig up some pretty hilarious stuff and they have great chemistry as hosts. This is a family-friendly show, also.
Ologies (Independent, United States // humor, science): Ologies appeared on my Delicious Ingredients many, many times this year. I would have never thought I could get into some of these topics – kalology, for example, is the study of beauty (seriously?) – but sometimes those are the best Ologies episodes. Alie Ward totally makes the show, it wouldn’t be the same with another host. She is very funny and I enjoy all of her dad jokes. I’m sure the interviews with various scientists are cut up and remixed quite a bit, but it always feels seamless to me.
The Sugar Baby Confessionals (Fable Gazers, United Kingdom // personal journal, sex-positive): I am highly addicted to this show right now – I started listening a few weeks ago, so it was a late entry into the 2018 best-of competition, but I just love it. It’s about two friends: a sugar baby (someone who has intimate relationships with a rich, usually older, person in exchange for gifts) and her close friend, who asks all the questions you would want to ask a sugar baby, right down to Brazilian waxes and exactly how they are compensated.
The Competition (Independent, United States // storytelling, sex-positive): The second season of The Competition was about the Mr. Los Angeles Leather 2018 contest – quite a departure from season one, which was about the Van Cliburn classical piano competition. Mr. Los Angeles Leather proved to have phenomenal contestants with compelling back stories, and I loved host James Kim’s personal connection to the leather scene. (2018 interview with James Kim)
Welcome to L.A. (KCRW, United States // storytelling): This one flew under my radar when it first came out, and at first I wasn’t sure if I could relate to the L.A. I had seen in most media – glitzy, rich, not me … but this podcast is about the back alleys and random parties and grifters of the real L.A. I love stories from the fringe, the periphery, and these were very well told and highly entertaining.
Between Us Girls (Independent, United States // humor, chat): These are my hometown ladies from Houston who I have been lucky enough to get to know personally. Sometimes they get serious, like in an episode from this year about co-parenting, and there’s always an empowering message to be found within, but most of the hour-long show is full of laughs and real talk about stuff we should be talking about more with our friends. Oh, and there’s lots of swearing.
PLAYLIST Podcast (Our Americana, United States // music): PLAYLIST has introduced me to tons of good music. It features a rotating panel of podcasters who each pick two songs on a theme that they recommend, and the other panelists usually either lambast the selection or ooh and aah over the amazing new addition to their library. Host Josh Hallmark also continues to do an excellent job engaging his listening community on social media by polling listeners after each episode about which songs they liked the most. (2017 review)
Exeter (Sundance Now, United States // crime): I listened to this as an audio-only podcast, but apparently there is also additional content available to Sundance Now subscribers, called “dynamic captioning, a process by which visual elements are added to underscore emotion and enhance the tension of this gripping crime mystery.” I don’t need that, because I thought the story was excellent without any visual cues or additions. Jeanne Tripplehorn was excellent, right down to taking a drag on a cigarette so subtly. The pacing was excellent, making it a great binge listen.
Everything is Alive (Radiotopia, United States // humor): Radiotopia is known for taking risks on shows that don’t necessarily fit in to a traditional, NPR-ish network, and I love that. I found myself laughing out loud many times while listening to creator Ian Chillag interview inanimate objects – especially Maeve Higgins as a lamppost. Can you imagine pitching this show? “I want to interview a subway seat. No, really, that’s the premise of the show.” It’s weird, but it really works.
600 Second Saga (Independent, United States // sci-fi, fantasy short story): Mariah Avix reads sci-fi short stories from around the world. Each story is less than 10 minutes and many are uncomfortably closer to real than fantasy. It’s a great escape for just a few minutes a week and I enjoy Avix’s calm, warm voice deliberately narrating these tales. I also love that anyone can submit a story for consideration through the website.
My Dad Wrote a Porno (Independent, United Kingdom // humor, sex): I’m so late to the party on this one but I had so many laughs from season 4 of My Dad Wrote a Porno that I am going to have to go back and listen to the two seasons I missed (2 & 3). I am not surprised at all that the show is being adapted into an HBO special. I have to listen to the three-part Christmas special soon. I don’t think anything else made me laugh as much as MDWAP this year – there were tears running down my face several times as the trio described threesomes, bathroom stall sex and masks being ripped off old lady faces to reveal (of course) yet another person Belinda should have sex with. And the fact that the pots and pans company is still the backdrop just makes it that much more hilarious.
Staying in the Loop, or “What the Hell is Going on in This Insane World?”
Still Processing (WNYC, United States // news, technology, society & culture): I don’t know why I didn’t listen to Still Processing before this year, and I’m thrilled it’s about to return in January. There was a great two-part series on Asian Americans and racism earlier this year. Hosts Jenna Wortham and Wesley Morris have great chemistry and keep me in the loop about culture from their unique point of view.
Today, Explained (Vox, United States // news, politics, society & culture): I do listen to more than one “news” podcast, but this is usually my go-to, because as it’s probably been established, I enjoy laughing while listening to pretty much any podcast genre. Today, Explained isn’t funny often, but I feel like they are talking to me when they break down one big story of the day, like they’ve read my mind that I was fuzzy on the details of Scott Pruitt’s indiscretions or what the hell was going on with Facebook this year. I even semi-enjoy the ad reads on Today, Explained.
Latino USA (Futuro Media Group, United States // news, politics, society & culture, storytelling): Latino USA is very similar to This American Life, sharing documentary-style episodes focusing on one person, place, or story – sometimes it’s real-time news-ish, and other times I’ve learned about general Latino culture. It’s extremely well done and I will be a subscriber for as long as I listen to podcasts.
Reply All (Gimlet Media, United States // technology): Reply All had a really good year. Although the show is becoming less about the internet than ever, our lives are so entrenched with the internet that I don’t mind the shift in focus from deciphering what internet terminology means and what these crazy apps or online forums are about. INVCEL, The Crime Machine, and The Snapchat Thief were standout episodes this year.
Nocturne (KCRW, United States // storytelling): I feel so warm and comfortable when I listen to Nocturne. I can feel myself sinking down into whatever chair or bed I’m sitting on and I let myself calm down and be in the story with the storyteller. Each person describes something that happened to them in the night. The sound is excellent, never overdone.
Carruth (The Charlotte Observer/McClatchy Studios, United States // storytelling, sports, crime): This podcast was just excellent as a binge listen – it was about Rae Carruth, an NFL football player who was convicted in connection with his girlfriend’s death. His girlfriend was pregnant at the time, and the baby survived the shooting. That baby’s grandmother is central to this story of loss and forgiveness.
How to Be a Girl (Independent, United States // storytelling, society & culture, gender): This was a big year of change for Marlo Mack and her daughter, as they moved in with a new person and to a new location. Moving to a new location means the question comes up often – should the family tell people Mack’s daughter is transgender? Or leave it unspoken? (2016 review)
30 For 30 Podcasts (ESPN, United States // storytelling, sports): ESPN does sports storytelling very well, no doubt in large part due to Jody Avirgan’s involvement. You don’t need to love sports to love this show. I wanted so badly to write a review of the Bikram season this year, but I didn’t have time – I thought it was fantastic. The personal connection to yoga was evident but not overdone. All In and Juiced were two excellent standalone episodes from the fourth season, which debuted this fall.
Criminal (Radiotopia, United States // storytelling, crime): Criminal continues to be outstanding. It tells stories about crime in a completely non-crime-y way – it’s just Phoebe Judge, the person she’s talking about the crime with, and you. Just having a casual conversation about the witness protection program or death by lethal injection. This is storytelling at its finest. (2015 review)
Rumble Strip (Independent, United States // storytelling, society & culture): I loved the spotlight shined by Erica Heilman on mental health and the ways we treat it (or not) with public health resources: there was a standout episode in January called Emergency, about ER nurses and how they deal with mental health cases, and a seven-part series this fall called They Are Us, about people who really are just like us who have mental health concerns and who struggle with how to get help.
Gladiator (Wondery Media, United States // storytelling, sports, crime): Another sports-related binge listen recommendation – Gladiator was a pointed indictment of the NFL and the role it played in ignoring and enabling Aaron Hernandez’s behavior off-field. I couldn’t believe all that Hernandez went through and the blind eye turned by the Patriots organization. Great chronological storytelling of who Hernandez started out as and some clues as to how he became the person who ultimately died of suicide in prison.
HumaNature (Wyoming Public Media, United States // storytelling, nature): These are stories about our connection with the outdoors. They’re sound-rich, beautifully told in first person, and edited to just the right length with perfect pacing. Junk and The Hunt were standout episodes for me this year.
Neighbors (Nashville Public Radio, United States // society & culture, storytelling): Neighbors has just ended after four years, but I appreciate the care that went into sharing the neighbors of Nashville with the audience. The three-part series Matt Got Shot, about a man who was shot and then went to a bar to get help, was lovely, as was Back Home on Short Mountain, which featured a man whose land was seized by the government but who returned to live on it and see it flourish in an all-new way. (2017 review)
The Leap (KQED, United States // storytelling): The Leap is a storytelling show about people who take big leaps in life – each episode is a self-contained story. Her Double Life was one of my favorite episodes, about a woman who keeps her true personal life from her parents for many years and then ultimately decides to open up.
The Promise (WPLN, United States // society & culture, storytelling): The Promise was a short, limited-run series about the projects in Nashville and a plan to renew and refresh the area. The rich meet the poor and they embark on an amazing journey together to revitalize the neighborhood – and there’s an unexpected twist midway through the series.
Errthang, via Showcase from Radiotopia (Radiotopia, United States // variety, politics, society & culture, music, fiction): I’ve declared my love for all things Al Letson many times before, so this should be no surprise. Errthang is his variety show that was featured on Radiotopia’s Showcase series this year. I loved that Letson took a risk and produced episodes from multiple genres, all within one season of a show – there was fiction, music, personal reflection, and more. (2018 review)
Love Me (CBC, Canada // poetry, storytelling): Love Me has been really intense this season (which just started in the fall). The producers release that tension by using poetry, music, and short pieces between longer narratives, and it works so well – I feel like I’m totally in the zone throughout the whole episode. Excellent work.
Dear Young Rocker (Independent, United States // storytelling, personal journal, music): What a lovely little hidden gem. Dear Young Rocker is a personal diary/advice podcast about the insanely awkward years of a teenage girl growing up and not really fitting in, but finding solace in a rock band. Original music and great sound effects are interspersed throughout the show, and each episode ends with a “dear young rocker” letter to anyone who’s ever been in that awkward phase of life. (2018 review)
Here Be Monsters (KCRW, United States // storytelling): Here Be Monsters is another of my long-standing favorites. It is about things that make us feel uncomfortable – taxidermy, insects, things that happen in the night. The premise alone is creative, but then producers Jeff Emtman and Bethany Denton mix in a great soundtrack. Feed the Queen was my favorite episode this year. (2016 review)
Interviewers Who Ask the Best Questions
How to Be Amazing with Michael Ian Black (PRX, United States // interview): Long-time readers will know I’ve been listening to and featuring Michael Ian Black’s How to Be Amazing since I started writing the blog back in 2015. Its quality has stood the test of time. Black interviews with a playful, fun style that makes the guests feel at ease. His interview with Terry Gross in December of this year was a standout. (2016 review)
Latina to Latina (Lantigua Williams & Company, United States // interview): So many of Latina to Latina’s episodes have ended up on Delicious Ingredients lists this year – I am really impressed by host Alicia Menendez’s interview style. She asks such insightful questions that often make the subject pause just a bit, after which I feel I as the listener am getting the most honest answer.
Sooo Many White Guys (WNYC, United States // interview): I think SMWG gets forgotten on some end-of-year lists because it usually airs in the very beginning of the year. I’m not sure whether it’s coming back for another season due to host Phoebe Robinson’s enormous success in the last couple of years, but it’s always been one of my favorites. Robinson interviews non-white guys (mostly) and the questions she asks are meant to showcase the realness of some of the funniest and most interesting celebrities. This year I particularly loved the interviews with Buck Angel, Zoe Kravitz, and Awkwafina.
A Pint with Seaniebee, Lost in Larrimah, StartUp, Death, Sex & Money, Silent Waves, Outside/In, Caliphate, This American Life, Serial, ArtCurious Podcast, Call Your Girlfriend, Unladylike, Tara and George, Code Switch, Probably True Podcast, The Habitat
What did you think of this year’s list? Notable omissions? Want to recommend something to me that you don’t see here? Drop me a line on my contact page. I also have a newsletter which is slightly more editorial/opinionated and comes out roughly every two to three weeks.