1. “Belt Buckle” by Mystery Show
In a three-part series, “New York After Rent,” Walker examines a crucial period in New York City’s history: 2008, right after Rent the musical closed and Airbnb began to invade the rental market. While Rent’s title song famously proclaimed, “We’re not gonna pay rent!”, Airbnb led to the commodification of every square inch of the city, making it impossible for many residents to afford to pay rent. Blending fiction, reporting, memoir, and essay, Walker showcases different takes on the changing New York. The pièce de résistance of the series is part two, in which he describes attending an elite Manhattan party in 2008, during the financial collapse, when the city he knows starts to slip from his grasp. The scene unfolds like a fever dream, with a deeply stoned Walker wandering room to room, trying to piece together a reality where advertising and art are interchangeable and artists like him no longer belong. In Walker, the podcasting world has found its Hunter S. Thompson.
3. “The Living Room” by Love + Radio
4. “How to Become Batman” by Invisibilia
Studies show that rats perform better in cognitive tests if their handlers project certain abilities onto them. From this, Lulu Miller and Alix Spiegel build an argument for fundamentally changing the way we treat blind people. Rather than limit their mobility out of a misguided desire to protect them, they should be encouraged to get outside and engage with the world, to climb and touch and tumble—to find new ways to “see.” And this isn’t just feel-good pseudoscience either. After listening to Batman, the idea of a real superhero no longer seems farcical. Meet Daniel Kish, America’s very own Batman, who’s been blind since he was an infant and has developed a click he uses to bounce sound waves off his surroundings. The episode barrels forward, punch-drunk on the possibility of its own suggestions, until listeners find themselves standing on the roof of a building, seeing the world anew.
5. “Shine on, You Crazy Goldman” by Reply All
6. “Najibullah in America” by Home of the Brave
The consummate pro Scott Carrier may be the indie bad boy of the old-school audio world, but that doesn’t mean his outlet Home of the Brave lacks vulnerability in his work or shine on the finish. Quite the opposite. “In Najibullah in America,” which is set up by the episode that precedes it, “Over There,” Carrier helps a young man named Najibullah move to America and enroll in a college near him in Utah. The two met while Carrier was reporting in Afghanistan, and Najibullah became his translator. We not only witness Najibullah’s personal evolution through Carrier’s own, but the story also gives the listener new stakes for pushing past their own limitations. While the episode takes on elements of a fish-out-of-water tale, it merges Carrier’s and Najibullah’s narratives in one of the finest moments in all of 2015’s podcasts: Carrier learning to teach, and Najibullah at last grasping, the lesson of freedom.
7. “Sight Unseen” by Radiolab
8. “Madam Secretary, What’s Good?” by Another Round
Another Round premiered in March 2015 as a “happy hour with friends you haven’t met yet.” Right from the start, the show proved to be whip smart on gender issues and racial politics, and it didn’t take long for hosts Tracy Clayton and Heben Nigatu to turn their podcast into a serious cultural affairs show—all without sacrificing its signature frivolity. The ladies didn’t pump the brakes when they landed an interview with Hillary Clinton, asking her if she thought Bill Clinton “fucked [things] up for black people” during his presidency. You’d be hard-pressed to find another show that does a better job balancing scholarship with laugh-out-loud humor.
9. “DUSTWUN” by Serial
10. “The Problem We All Live With Parts 1 and 2” by This American Life
Much of what the podcasting world loves about the form comes from the style and former employees of This American Life and Ira Glass. But “The Problem We All Live With” was an ambitious undertaking even for TAL, chronicling segregation and integration in public schools. The show gets help from the New York Times reporter Nikole Hannah-Jones, who succinctly shows how racial integration has solved much of the disparities in public schools in the past—and how geographic segregation unravels this hard work. Of special note is an outlandish PTA meeting with parents spewing a subtle brand of racism. Listeners will feel as though they’re seated in the packed gymnasium as one black student breaks down while trying to muster the courage to simply introduce herself to the angry white crowd.
11. “The Hurricane” by The Heart
12. “Terry Gross to Marc Maron: ‘Life Is Harder Than Radio’” by Fresh Air
A public-radio professional meets a casual Friday podcaster in this conversation between Fresh Air’s Terry Gross and Marc Maron of WTF. Gross is famously elusive with a low-key style that opens up her subjects without requiring her to share too much of herself; Maron is brash and irreverent, often turning interviews into something akin to confessionals between friends. Rather than clash, their two styles make for a marvelous 96-minute game of cat-and-mouse with Maron as host playfully pursuing Gross’s private persona, spinning the interview into a discussion about the interview. These two are in top form for this charmed occasion.
13. “695BGK” by Criminal
14. “Welcome to Millennial” by Millennial
Millennial could not be more … millennial—it’s entrepreneurial, digital, indie, and, essentially, a series of selfies. But its producer, Megan Tan, is far from shallow. On the debut episode, Tan introduces herself as a 20-something fresh out of college, jobless, and uncertain of the next step. That the next step will be to create the very podcast we’re hearing might be obvious, but Tan so thoroughly translates a sense of herself—and is so darn likable—that listeners will want to follow her story to see how she fares. Serialized podcasts are still relatively rare, especially memoir-style ones like these, and especially ones that are this good. Be warned: You’re going to want to binge season one.
15. “Taylor Negron: Portrait of an Artist as an Answering Machine” by Fugitive Waves
16. “An American Life” by Rumble Strip Vermont
In March 1968, a 118-pound barber named Vaughn Hood answered his draft board and reported to boot camp. As a non-ideologue who fretted over violence, Hood didn’t fit the mold of a hard-charging grunt. In “An American Life,” the host Erica Heilman collects Hood’s Vietnam War on tape. The conversation goes beyond the melancholic, coming-of-age, war-as-hell narrative. All the horrors of Vietnam are here, sure, but it’s the dignity of one man and that his voice still trembles at the mention of his service decades later that demands attention.
17. “Why is Mason Reese Crying?” by WireTap
18. “Episode 7” by The Message
Fiction, despite its long tradition on airwaves, isn’t the norm in today’s podcasting scene. Decent writing and sound engineering are a tall order in the low-budget state of affairs, let alone employing talented voice actors. Enter General Electric to turn it all around, with money to burn in the branded-content arena and a history in audio storytelling (GE created General Electric Theater in the 1950s, starring Ronald Reagan). The Message follows the protagonist Nicky Tomalin as she and a team of scientists decipher and decode a 70-year-old message from outer space that infects people with a deadly illness after they hear it. Listeners won’t understand the seventh episode without starting from the beginning, but it’s the penultimate installment that most demonstrates that imagination and solid writing—art and craft—can come directly from sponsors.
19. “In the Left Pocket, by My Heart” by ARRVLS
20. “I Want My MTV” by Between the Liner Notes
Finding great indie podcasts can be a head-scratching challenge to listeners combing through the thousands of iTunes offerings. Between the Liner Notes is the succulent fruit of that labor. Taking us from the rough-and-tumble, pre-launch MTV into its iconic 1980s heyday, “I Want My MTV” pinpoints decisive moments that led to the birth of Music Television, with the host Matthew Billy interviewing key players from the network’s origin story. MTV once reigned over youth culture with nothing more than four-minute videos, and now, there’s a great documentary-style podcast to show for it.
21. “A Red Dot” by Love + Radio
The chance to try on another person’s consciousness keeps many on the hunt for the next great podcast, but “A Red Dot” transports listeners into a headspace they have no desire to occupy. Spoilers will take away from Love + Radio’s brilliant craft choices, particularly in its first few minutes, which bait you into venturing down an unpalatable path. The discomfort comes mostly from the fact that it challenges listeners to contemplate controversial realities that nobody wants to consider, from a person nobody wants to acknowledge. The subject matter is heavy, the flourishes of language intriguing, and the questions hard. Suffice it to say, the producers know the listener needs to be bent into an unnatural sympathy in order to give this particular outlier an ear. “A Red Dot” forces its listeners to rise to the occassion, whether they like it or not. It’s one of the most infuriating and masterful pieces to date.
22. “Source Code” by Mystery Show
23. “The Facts” by How to Be a Girl
“The Facts” stars a 5-year-old transgender girl, whose maturity belies her age, and her mother, who dives headfirst into the subject of gender identity while recording under the name Marlo Mack. At first, Mack resists her child presenting as a girl, but after months of difficult conversations aimed at changing her daughter’s mind, she considers the possibility of acceptance. How to Be a Girl demonstrates how, if you can’t rely on your interpretation of gender—this is a 5-year old baring her soul, after all—then you’re left with trusting that the person standing before you knows her own heart. And the child here survives an emotional gut-check that would level most 30-year-olds. “The Facts” distills the essentials of the How to Be a Girl series into a primer of sorts, the perfect starting point for newcomers who want to find someone under the age of 6 who can give them a master class in personal growth.
24. “Rukmini Callimachi” by Longform Podcast
25. “Rebel Yell” by Home of the Brave
No other podcast sounds like Home of the Brave, and “Rebel Yell” is an especially rollicking episode that dares to be funny, dangerous, and immediate. Scott Carrier invades New York with drops of blotter acid and a plan to cover the Republican National Convention. But he never makes it to the main event, because he’s too busying protesting “the enemy” and then smooth-talking his way into a Kid Rock concert brimming with young conservatives. He immerses himself in the open bar, fist-pumps with Republicans, and delivers a gonzo-style belly laugh, all in a taut 13 minutes. By the end, you won’t believe who Carrier is endorsing for president.
26. “Milk Carton Kids” by 99% Invisible
27. “Instaserfs” by Benjamen Walker’s Theory of Everything
Following up on his success examining Airbnb in “New York After Rent,” Benjamen Walker once again takes aim at the sharing economy in another three-part series, “Instaserfs.” To explore the world of Uber drivers and Task Rabbits, he partners with a 25-year-old San Francisco native, Andrew Callaway (who turns out to be pure radio gold), as Callaway dives into life as an independent contractor. Callaway races around the city, delivering groceries and chauffeuring coked-up venture capitalists, often spending more on gas than he makes in tips. Walker doesn’t offer any pat conclusions about the share worker economy, but after riding along with Callaway for three episodes, listeners will realize this is not the route to milk and honey.
28. “Birthstory” by Radiolab & Israel Story
29. “Every Night Ever” by The Memory Palace
The Memory Palace makes its bones digging out small, forgotten moments in history and breathing new life into them. On “Every Night Ever,” the host Nate DiMeo describes a night in 1953 when something strange visited the sleepy town of Austell, Georgia. It’s an interesting enough little story, but it’s the quiet, wistful scoring and careful attention to detail that elevates this account from a textbook footnote to a timeless tale about the human desire to find meaning in our lives.
30. “No Place Like Home” by Criminal
It’s fun to listen to people talk about kiting checks and living double lives, especially when you know that person got busted, but this particular episode of Criminal takes a turn that sits outside the realm of possibility for the listener. Those who haven’t read Neil White’s memoir, In the Sanctuary of Outcasts, will find themselves especially seduced in the first moments of the show. White-collar criminals on the East Coast used to be sent to a place that housed a different type of inmate, one that, unlike White and his nonviolent inmates, had no desire to get out. The perspective the listener gets from these disparate populations coexisting, how they influence one another, will make you want to hug your mother, or at the very least, reach out and touch someone.
31. “Soundtracker” by Generation Anthropocene
32. “Today’s the Day” by Reply All
Perhaps the most impressive aspect of Reply All’s “Today’s the Day” is that, on paper, it has all the makings of a dud. It features the hosts Alex Goldman and P.J. Vogt recording themselves riding roller coasters and performing karaoke under the simple guise of the idea that sometimes you need to get outside. Yet the effect is inexplicably magical as listeners tag along on a day where the subtext has more to do with friendship than cabin fever. The podcast should come with a “don’t try this at home” warning, as few producers can pull off such a carefully crafted show while maintaining a freewheeling sense of joy. That the episode also features a cameo by a goat living near an abandoned building in Brooklyn is just a bonus.
33. “Greetings From Suicide Bridge” by The Light in the Attic Podcast
34. “Entanglement” by Invisibilia
The show hosts Lulu Miller and Alix Spiegel shatter all the known rules of the universe in the first 10 minutes of “Entanglement,” proving the interconnected nature of the world, down to the atom level. Everything is one thing, according to their indisputable, sometimes inexplicable, findings. For people generally cast aside as paranoid wackadoos for believing that one day people will download others’ thoughts from a cloud, “Entanglement” all but confirms such a future reality. The hosts call in science, stand-up, and even something called mirror-touch synesthesia for evidential support.
35. “The Worst Part About Our Sport” by The Season
On its face, The Season is about the 2015 Columbia University Lions—a notoriously underperforming Ivy League football team with a famously long losing streak. Though the podcast remains true to its promise, following the team and cataloging the final scores of games over a 10-episode season, its purpose deepens as the show evolves. In “The Worst Part About Our Sport,” the reporter Ilya Marritz probes the ugly side of the game, considering the devastating head injuries and inherent violence endemic to football. Though he owns up to his initial indifference to the sport, Marritz doesn’t take the easy way out here and condemn football; instead, he grapples with its contradictions, even defending the illogical devotion the game inspires, proving to listeners this is a podcast that has loftier ambitions than tidy conclusions.
36. “Unforgiven” by Snap Judgment
37. “House on the Hill” by HOME: Stories from L.A.
Home: Stories from L.A. launched in 2015 as an anthropological study of the people who created the dreamscapes and mythologies of southern California. In its first installment, “House on the Hill,” Bill Barol drenches his story in the Golden Age of Hollywood as seen through the weird, beautiful, and sometimes macabre orchestra of Herman Stein, a composer of dozens of monster-movie and sci-fi soundtracks. To understand Stein, Barol, a journalist-turned-podcaster, chases ghosts in the cavernous home to which the composer retired after he grew disillusioned with the business. While “House on the Hill” charms you on the surface with Hollywood lore, it’s actually an understated love story about Stein’s tender devotion to his wife Anita.
38. “I Am in Here” by Rumble Strip Vermont
39. “Joe Frank: Downfall” by UnFictional
To understand “Downfall,” you’ll have to put down your devices, stop cleaning the bathroom, and avert your gaze from the world. The legendary Joe Frank made poetry in this episode of UnFictional, through an audio collage that stitched together peculiar soundbites, including an interview with a corrupted mayor and voiceover work from David Cross. It’s hard to pinpoint the takeaway—the listener must do some of the heavy lifting to that end—but it’s not clear if that even matters. Certainly natural disaster intersecting with the limitations of man creates enough engaging satire for listeners to give it one, if not a few, go rounds.
40. “The Accidental Gay Parents” by The Longest Shortest Time
41. “Splash” by Awful Grace
The Sunshine Skyway Bridge in Florida has the unfortunate distinction of serving as one of the country’s most popular places to commit suicide. “Splash” explores the romance and reality of this grim site, examining it through hotline operators, rescue workers, and a man who tracks the yearly suicides—each with a unique understanding of the fragile contract some people make with life. We also hear from Hanns Jones, a jumper who survived, about what it’s like to stare down into that blue water and then step out, into the abyss.
42. “The Last Place: Diary of a Retirement Home” by Radio Diaries
Long before podcast was a word and streaming audio a reality, the team at Radio Diaries was helping people tell their stories by giving them recorders and editing their tape. Decades later, the formula still works. In “The Last Place: Diary of a Retirement Home,” we hear from the residents of The Presbyterian Home in Evanston, Illinois, who describe their frustrations with their failing bodies and their secrets to aging (one woman eats a regimented diet of gin-soaked raisins every day). But for them life isn’t merely reduced to the art of growing old—these are people with opinions and memories and plans.
43. “Burnout” by StartUp
44. Entire “Charles Manson’s Hollywood” series, highlighting “Charles Manson’s Hollywood Part 3: The Beach Boys, Dennis Wilson, and Manson the Songwriter” by You Must Remember This
You Must Remember This gives listeners an outlet for indulging in the Golden Age of Hollywood. With Karina Longworth at the helm, the “Charles Manson’s Hollywood” series doesn’t feel like scholarship because it’s too gripping, too addictive, and too easy to follow. The series is a slow reveal of Manson’s ego, influence, and crimes, chock-full of details that sharpen the well-known events. Of particular fascination is part three of the series, which describes Manson’s relationship with the Beach Boys’ Dennis Wilson, a man who was easy prey for Manson. The revival of this little-known relationship translates into equal parts nostalgia and terror.
45. “Paul Thomas Anderson” by WTF With Marc Maron
If a championship belt were awarded to best podcast interviewer every year, Maron would have defended his title in 2015 with this showing. As a standup comedian-turned-podcaster, Maron doesn’t just enhance how a guest and host communicate, he creates a new form of human expression, one where he filters his guest through his own neuroses to arrive at what makes a person successful. When the filmmaker Paul Thomas Anderson kicks open the door to Maron’s garage-turned-recording-studio, the host may have finally met his match. Anderson’s appearance on WTF places everything that is compelling about Maron’s podcast in a box with a floppy bow: conversation as a manic tug-of-war tell-all, and Maron’s compulsive plunge into what drives a person to pursue an artist’s life.
46. “Grace of the Sea” by UnFictional
UnFictional is no stranger to a story that burrows inside you and takes up residence in your head, pushing aside the clutter and white noise. “Grace of the Sea” is all about the memories people hold most dear. It taps into the intoxicating days of youth as seen through the seascaped daydreams of Luis Gutierez Sanchez, a man from small-town Mexico who moved to Cozumel and worked in a drag show under the name Grace of the Sea. Hypnotic and nostalgic, this episode finds its cadence in the rhythm of Caribbean waves off the coast of Mexico.
47. “Terrible Parents” by Black List Table Reads
Into a field crowded with documentary-style reporting enters The Black List Table Reads, a fiction podcast built around real Hollywood screenplays and performed by professional actors. Hosted by Franklin Leonard, the man behind the legendary collection of unproduced screenplays known as the Black List, the show gambles on the idea that these scripts can come to life through solid voice acting. Though not the only show attempting to tell fictionalized stories, it’s one of the most ambitious, with episodes clocking in at feature-film length. “Terrible Parents” is a comedy about two parents who are hell-bent on ensuring their young son’s success, to the point that they fail to notice what nightmares they’ve become. The “movie” paints its scenes so vividly that you’ll quickly forget you’re hearing a table read.
48. “Pete Davidson” by You Made It Weird With Pete Holmes
The comedian Pete Holmes aims for an unconscionable two hours per episode and hopes to “make it weird” by talking about life after death, ayahuasca, astrophysical travel, and the like. By controlling his interviews, in a loose way and with extraordinary playfulness and total lack of judgment, he often creates unguarded conversation that can captivate listeners who don’t buy into New Age ideas. Pair him with someone like Saturday Night Live’s ingenue, Pete Davidson—a straight shooter whose father died working as a firefighter in the aftermath of the attacks on September 11—and You Made It Weird can’t fail. Davidson, 21, is inexplicably mature for his age and demonstrates the value of dark humor. The unsavory throat-clearing up top redeems itself—stick with it for a handsome reward.
49. “Lionel Shriver Reads T.C. Boyle” by The New Yorker’s Fiction
There’s nothing groundbreaking about this podcast’s premise in which authors are invited to read and discuss a short story from The New Yorker’s archive. But that doesn’t mean it isn’t occasionally exceptional. Take this episode, in which Lionel Shriver reads T.C. Boyle’s “Chicxulub,” an unsettling story about a tragic accident involving a teenage girl. It’s a story that sneaks up and offers a gut punch, and while the reading is enough to make this a must-listen, it’s the ensuing conversation between Shriver and the host Deborah Treisman that seals the day. The discussion extends beyond the pages of the story, to grief and empathy and humanity’s shared, collective fate.
50. “Take a Little Ride With Coors Light” by Pitch
The producers at Pitch comb through music in search of a narrative, but they also look underneath and around the industry, scouring the bit players and rainmakers dishing out records and fulfilling rock and roll dreams. In its best installment of 2015, Pitch explores how some hits by songwriters double as jingles for their corporate sponsors. As you hear the host Alex Kapelman tell it in “Take a Little Ride With Coors Light,” product placement sneaks its way onto more albums than you might recognize. Pitch finds a story in a Nashville backroom, where the songwriters in Jason Aldean’s 2012 hit “Take a Little Ride” tweaked the lyrics to include a shoutout to Coors Light, helping the country rocker perform the double duty of topping the pop charts and pleasing his corporate overlords.