This was the year that podcasts transitioned from niche media curiosity to mainstream stalwart. Not only do stars like Lena Dunham host their own shows, but also more traditional media brands like the New York Times and MTV are producing new shows at a breakneck pace. Gimlet Media, a podcast network that began with one show (about the creation of Gimlet) and two employees, is now its own kind of media giant. And thanks to the all-consuming election, several podcasts in 2016 became appointment listening. In a year with so much quality podcast programming, it felt impossible choosing the absolute best (there's way too many to listen to all of them), but the following is a list of some of the most essential ones.
The name of this podcast both describes it perfectly and doesn’t do it justice. Yes, comedian Gaby Dunn, who has maybe the most effervescent voice in the podcasting world, has literally created a show about her financial shortcomings, but in exploring that all-too-common anxiety of living paycheck to paycheck and interviewing everyone from her parents to special guests like former child star Mara Wilson, Dunn taps into something far more profound (and entertaining) than a podcast about money and the inability to save it.
If you, like us, had trouble navigating Westworld’s labyrinthine plot (you might even call it maze-like) and multiple timelines, then David Chen and Joanna Robinson’s (her recaps for Vanity Fair are definitive) weekly, in-depth recaps of each episode will do wonders for your understanding—and enjoyment—of this sometimes frustrating but ultimately rewarding show.
When Jonathan Goldstein first had the idea for this podcast—to help people reconcile with the more traumatic, haunting, or regretful moments of their past—it must have been a eureka moment for the Canadian radio host and journalist. It’s a great idea. But to pull that feat off week after week must have presented Goldstein with a unique set of challenges. Well, after listening to this Gimlet show’s astounding first season, Goldstein has met those challenges and even surpassed them. Each episode, filled with warmth, humor, and often melancholy, takes completely unexpected turns, usually ending up at the intersection of revelation and catharsis.
Capitalizing on the true crime craze started by Serial, this gripping account of the 1989 disappearance of Jacob Wetterling—a case that both captivated and terrified the nation—is not so much a whodunit as it is a whodidithappento. That’s because while Peabody Award-winning journalist Madeleine Baran was in the middle of putting together the eight-episode series, Wetterling’s kidnapper and murderer Danny Heinrich confessed to the killing and led police to his burial site. So instead of focusing her time on investigating potential suspects, Baran focused on the human element of the story, from Jacob himself to the law enforcement authorities who let him down.
Politics podcasts popped up in droves this year, but this entertaining series from The Ringer network is the only one to feature former high-level members of the Obama administration as its hosts. Former speechwriters Jon Favreau and Jon Lovett are joined by former communications chief Dan Pfeiffer and former National Security Council spokesman Tommy Vietor as they discuss—with equal parts humor, anger, reason, and disbelief—the insanity that is our current political reality.
When Grantland was unceremoniously shuttered by ESPN back in 2014, it left a dearth of witty and bright pop culture writers without a home. Thankfully, both Molly Lambert and Alex Pappademas landed at MTV News, which is making a big push in the podcast universe. This show might be their crown jewel, as its hosts dissect the ephemeral corners of pop culture, nostalgia, and the world of celebrity with biting aplomb.
A wonderful companion piece to Keepin' It 1600. But whereas that show is unashamedly partisan, openly opposing and criticizing the Trump operation at every turn, the hosts of NPR’s politics podcasts are reporters and, as such, do their best to remain objective, reporting just the facts. And what facts they are.
In a year where Beyoncé, Rihanna, Kanye West, Chance the Rapper, Drake, the Weeknd, Radiohead, and Justin Bieber all dropped major albums, no other popcast has been as astute at breaking them down as this one, which features Times music critics Jon Caramanica and Jon Pareles, as well as music reporter Joe Coscarelli. Their episode on the EDM and the Chainsmokers phenomenon will help you understand.
Season four of the inaugural podcast from Gimlet Media has reached new heights, as journalist Lisa Chow headed to Los Angeles to shadow ousted American Apparel founder and CEO, Dov Charney, as he tries to build a new empire despite a cloud of sexual assault allegations. At first, Charney comes off as charismatic, eccentric, and even likable, but as Chow delves into the many claims that Charney harassed and assaulted employees of his former company, a much darker portrait begins to emerge.
When Wesley Morris joined the New York Times last year as a critic at large, we couldn’t have predicted he’d find his soulmate in New York Times Magazine staff writer Jenna Wortham, but to listen to these two insightfully discuss the day’s vital cultural and political issues together is to listen to two people who not only share a similar POV, but who care deeply for one another. Their episode in the immediate aftermath of the election is both heartbreaking and essential.
In this era of peak TV, it’s important to have voices who can tell you what you should be watching, and then recap those shows for you pretty effortlessly. Two of those people are Andy Greenwald and Chris Ryan, old friends and current writers whose natural rapport is a thing of beauty. Earlier this year, they co-hosted HBO’s official Game of Thrones after-show, After the Thrones, but their conversations on this biweekly podcast cover everything from Atlanta (they loved it) and Westworld (they split on it) to Search Party (loved it). Tune in.
2 Dope Queens
BFFs Phoebe Robinson and Jessica Williams have been doing their thing for a while now, but 2016 saw them reach new heights taking the show in front of a live audience, whose giddy reactions to their feisty banter and whip-smart opinion prove that for these two, television should be the next step. Someone get them their own talk show.