Best Podcasts: January 18-24

Each Monday we’ll bring you our take on the most notable and best podcasts of the past week.

BEST IN SHOW

Snap Judgment: “Full Circle”

So often three-act podcasts name their episodes in an effort to connect a loose theme. And, generally speaking, nobody cares if it’s just a title, just an entrypoint, or even just a trick once we’ve settled into a compelling story. This week’s Snap Judgment tells two tales that really don’t need a banner heading beyond, “Listen to these wonderful stories.” And, besides, “full circle” is such a subjective title, it seems ripe to fail. The second act’s narrator, a Vietnam vet who killed a Vietnamese medic in the war relays how he took his victim’s journal after he died, wrapping it in brown paper, and tucking it away only to be forgotten. Uncovering it years later motivated him to return to Vietnam and get the journal back to the medic’s family, where nothing short of a mystical, bizarre, blurry turn of events takes place, giving listeners a first-hand account of what it means to pay the piper. The next segment is narrated by an ex-mountain guide walking with her friend and dog when two beautiful, enormous wolves hunt them down. Both segments are so seductive, you won’t care whether or not they come full circle as promised. In fact, you will not believe that either can; and when the first does, surely, you’ll think, the next one will fall flat. This week’s Snap Judgment’s title adds a layer to the listening experience that goes from solid to magical, twice.

Switched on Pop: “The Life Changing Magic of Music in 2015”

We live an era where studio elves craft beats from their electronic workshops in Norway and Sweden and send them off to American pop singers, who then add their lyrics on their way to superstardom. So, it’s only fitting that Switched on Pop deconstructs a handful of tracks—some of them created in a lab—searching for the why-we-love-certain-songs in “The Life Changing Magic of Music in 2015.” Co-host Charlie Harding kicks off our eternal search for great music by sharing a frustration to which many of us fall victim: WTF do we do with the piles of new music and albums and trends and Spotify-listening so that we’re not entirely overwhelmed? They begin with the opposite of your favorite thing—spreadsheets. And there is one spreadsheet to rule them all, and it belongs to Rob Mitchum, who each year compiles rankings for the best album by using a composite of all the most popular year-end lists, including publications like Rolling Stone, Spin, and Pitchfork. “The Life Changing Magic of Music in 2015” oozes the best kind of fandom, because we can’t have all the magic without a few maniacal lists and a savant overanalyzing every record release. It’s the same kind of balance that makes Switched on Pop work as a podcast. We turn to lists, listicles, and rankings oh my because we want to bask in the joy of music. The reason we alphabetize a record collection and collect vinyl are the same reasons why two guys would produce an addictive podcast about our obsession with music—and we can’t get enough of it.

Reply All: “Raising the Bar”

If the last year has taught us nothing else, it’s that you can always count on the steady workhorse of Reply All. While many podcasts take long breaks or trot out reruns or reprisals and even Serial struggles with consistency, Gimlet’s flagship show continues doing what it does best: churning out top-shelf reporting week after week. In “Raising the Bar,” host Alex Goldman examines the issue of diversity in Silicon Valley. The results are as dismal as you might expect, but what’s surprising is how counterintuitive the whitewash actually is. Not only does the lack of diversity offend our notions of fairness, it’s likely affecting the quality of products delivered by big name software companies. The data writes much of the story itself, but Goldman does the heavy lifting by asking the right questions of former Twitter engineer, Leslie Miley, without holding back his feelings on the problem. If you want to know what separates a show like Reply All from the inoffensive mainstays of public radio past, look no further than the last few minutes of this episode and who gets the final word. Sometimes editing is editorializing.


RUNNERS UP

Modern Love: “Missed Connection”

The New York Times’ popular column, Modern Love, is now a podcast, and its inaugural episode does not disappoint. “Missed Connection” is based on an article of the same title written by Rosemary Counter that chronicles her relationship with a man she met through the Missed Connections section of Craigslist. He wined and dined her, buying her lavish gifts and treating her to several dates a day. But of course this is modern love, not movie love, and things did not go as Counter hoped. Read by Broadway actor and musician Lauren Molina, the column-turned-podcast manages to deliver more than a written rendition of its newspaper counterpart. The show features subtle but slick production, which elevates it beyond the language, and the voice acting is strong. The second half includes an interview with Counter—a behind-the-scenes that listeners have come to expect from podcast performances—but that nonetheless is insightful and entertaining. As an opening effort, it’s solidly entertaining, and the podcast is likely to get even better as it grows into itself.

Here’s the Thing: “The Making of ‘Making a Murderer'”

Sometime around New Year’s Eve, Making of a Murder led every what-are-you-watching-now television conversation, which almost always involves something on Netflix. But this was no run-of-the-mill, of-the-moment show. A documentary shot as a way to highlight the failings of the judicial system, it quickly became 2015’s Serial—yes, Serial now stands as a narrative touchstone that people hold up against television. In this week’s episode of Alec Baldwin’s interview-style podcast, Here’s the Thing, he invites Moira Demos and Laura Ricciardi, the directors of Making of a Murder, to discuss the behind-the-scenes details of the Steven Avery case. Baldwin is an underrated interviewer, who approaches his subjects with respect and a critical eye on art and craft. What makes the episode the perfect companion piece for post-series obsessives is that it embraces the follow-up questions on supporting players and conspiracy theories about which everyone has speculated. Demos and Ricciardi, partners in their personal and professional lives, reveal a few small details about the show you may not know, but mostly this is a chance to understand and appreciate the circumstances in which this  extremely popular documentary was made.

Profiles:NYC: “Larissa” and “Tyquon” and “John Z”

Fans of “Humans of New York” finally have their podcast: Profiles:NYC. Told in one minute—yes, one minute—bites, the show features the voices of people living in New York City. Though entirely unaffiliated with the HONY blog, the podcast trades on the same concept: shining a light on humanity through tiny snapshots of humans. And the effect is quite powerful. Rather than trying to tell someone’s entire story, the show lets people say something about who they are and what they’re doing. With the sounds of street traffic behind them, we meet a man chronicling the changing New York with his camera, a Russian woman who left behind her career as a professional pianist to work in New York at the Stock Exchange, and a plumber who spends his days rapping homespun rhymes to himself as he works. It’s easy, especially as a podcast fanatic, to stuff your earbuds in your ears and shut the world out, but Profiles:NYC reminds listeners to look around and see.


HONORABLE MENTION

Criminal: “Pen & Paper”

Sometimes the best way to learn about an opaque place like the courtroom is to access its world through one of its lesser-known inhabitants. Short narrative works best when it focuses on the personal—the small details of something—to tell the bigger picture. In this case, Criminal studies the work of a courtroom artist, Andy Austin, who once sketched no less a criminal than John Wayne Gacy, who she was instructed to make smile just so the newspaper she was working for could capture it in her drawing. Not surprisingly, Austin’s run-ins with killers, white-collar criminals, judges, and defendants of all stripes have left their mark on her. For example, most murder trials disappoint her since the defendant never talks, and she finds bankruptcy cases more riveting because the drama of people allow themselves to show over minutia. An episode like “Pen & Paper” highlights how Criminal gains insights on true crime through surprising and often unexpected sources. The show isn’t all cops and robbers, or lawyers and the accused. Instead, it’s finding people to tell their stories on the distinctive medium of podcasting.

Hidden Brain: “Why It’s Not Too Late to Make a New Year’s Resolution  

Resolutions are so ingrained in our culture that many of us forge ideas for change at big moments—birthdays for example—without even consciously knowing it. This week’s episode of Hidden Brain tackles our oft-discussed, listed, and dissected New Year’s resolutions. Up until now, Hidden Brain has mostly struck a straightforward formula when discussing its focus of behavioral psychology. Host Shankar Vedantam takes on one specific behavior and then explains it with real-life examples and discussion with experts. “Resolutions” makes an interesting step outside of that model by introducing Max, a coworker of Vedantam’s, who’s quitting smoking. Max reads a series of personal diary entries into his recorder that muse on addiction, cancer, and going cold turkey. It gives a shaggy quality to the show, but in a completely inviting way. Woven in with Hidden Brain‘s analysis of habit-breaking resolutions, Max’s story doesn’t ever seem out of place so much as offer a glimpse of how the show might step back and personalize some of the science-heavy material. As a guide for quitting bad habits, “Resolutions” makes a fine companion for weathering the early days of withdrawal and longing.

Campus: “Forbidden Love”

There is something about Campus, and we don’t know what it is. Maybe it’s the subjects: college coeds who are all at once earnest and awkward and recognizable to all of us who have ever been that age. Maybe it’s the format: a simple Q & A that asks straightforward questions like “How did that feel?” or “What are you thinking?” Or maybe it’s the topics—issues like interracial dating as in “Forbidden Love”—that touch on culture and class and forces far beyond the reach of two dopey kids in love but with which they still must grapple. Still in its infancy, just nine episodes in, Campus reinforces the power of a voice with a story to tell. Chris and Cindy have been secretly dating for nearly four years, and their relationship, while tender and even a little adorable, is fraught with problems because Chris is white and Cindy is Asian. Host Albert Leung draws each of their stories out, gently, so gently he sometimes sounds like a child therapist, but the effect is so damn real, it’s hard to stop listening.

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Author Description

The Timbre brings thoughtful and thought-provoking analysis to podcasts and the larger culture of podcasting.

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