The 50 best podcasts of 2018
The 50 Best Podcasts of 2018
The shows that kept listeners refreshing their apps this year
Laura Jane StandleyEric McQuade
Dec 23, 2018
Katie Martin / The Atlantic
Editor’s Note: Find all of The Atlantic’s “Best of 2018” coverage here.
The word podcast has by now become completely untethered from its namesake—the iPod. Analytics that were once uncapturable have become fairly comprehensive (downloads from Apple Podcasts surpassed 50 billion this year) and specific (Chicago streams more podcasts on Spotify than any other U.S. city does), which has brought new money and possibility to the form. Recipes for how to create a decent series were invented through trial and error, and thousands of producers now understand what makes our ears stand up: cults, cold cases, politics, feminism, and relationships, but most of all: stories.
Last year, S-Town blew our minds by taking a novelistic approach to its fascinating characters, plot, and setting. This year, playwrights and journalists came out from behind the page in droves. Podcasts are now regularly adapted for television (Homecoming, 2 Dope Queens, Pod Save America, and Dirty John, to name a few). They became more niche and even self-referential: The Onion’s A Very Fatal Murder satirizes true-crime podcasts. There’s even a podcast (Before It Had a Theme) about a radio show that is now also a podcast (This American Life). Podcasts, it seems, are the new black hole (a concept that’s explained very well on HumaNature), because they feed and feed on whatever is around them.
More in this series
The Best of 2018
Highlights from the year in culture
The shows on this year’s top-50 list highlight innovation where it collides with craft and entertainment. They are the ones that answer the call “Make it new!” They made space for new voices, ideas, and methods of connecting with and harnessing audiences, the internet, and the material world. They are the ones that don’t require advanced preparation, the ones you’d recommend to your friends. Here’s to the best podcasts of 2018, and to what they’ve made resoundingly clear about digital audio: So much more is yet to come. (As usual, we’ve recused The Atlantic’s shows from the list.)
24. Song Exploder
For the uninitiated to this now old-school podcast, the host, Hrishikesh Hirway, asks musicians to dissect the isolated vocal or instrumental tracks of one of their songs. Beyond the intro and credits, you rarely hear Hirway’s voice; the show is all about the artist and the music, giving diehard fans precious insight into their favorite songs and making fans out of skeptics. Listeners won’t be able to unhear the craps tables in Arcade Fire’s “Put Your Money on Me” after learning that Win Butler’s mom was into gambling. Janelle Monáe’s striking cadence in “So Afraid” transforms from a catchy repetition into a feminist mantra. And Lindsey Buckingham’s lonely vocals and vulnerable storytelling of Fleetwood Mac’s “Go Your Own Way,” inspired by his breakup with Stevie Nicks, makes the classic suddenly new again. Song Exploder started in 2014 and has never changed its tune, but the series manages to stay both evergreen and current by relying on the real core of its inquisition: showing exactly where creativity comes from. It’s a mission that, like Song Exploder, cannot possibly get old.
Gateway Episode: “Arcade Fire—‘Put Your Money On Me’”
"kind of weird: a tribute to the dearly departed from a band that can treat its living like trash"
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