You can tell a lot about a person based on their list of favorite podcasts.
There are usually a few true crime series, some newsy listens and maybe a serialized drama or two. The best podcasts I listened to this year adhere to those descriptions brought new elements to my ears that blew me away.
Podcasting has been around for years, but the industry continues to boom and expand the art of storytelling and push the boundaries of journalism. The most impactful series draw the listener into stories of intimacy, rawness and mind-boggling truth that stay with us long after we take the earbuds out.
When looking at my favorite podcasts this year, it's clear I was drawn to captivating storytelling, stellar audio production and series that enhanced my understanding of people and history. I was also weirdly obsessed with series about cults. More on that later.
How I chose my top picks: The series had to debut this year, and I had to have listened to them, obviously. There are numerous podcasts that should also be on everyone's best-of lists (Missing Richard Simmons, Nancy, Ear Hustle, Slow Burn, Binge Mode). But in the era of peak pop culture, it's virtually impossible to listen to everything thoroughly.
I'm sure going to keep trying, though.
For lack of a better superlative, Dirty John was the Serial of 2017. Everyone was talking about it and I'd be surprised if it didn't rope more people into the world of podcasts. What began as a somewhat typical crime story for Los Angeles Times reporter Christopher Goffard quickly turned into deep dive into the past and mind of a person whose qualities can only be described as evil. Goffard's 6-episode podcast and accompanying print series tells the story of John Meehan and the people whose lives he ruined. Dirty John is ultimately a story about deception, forgiveness and survival.
An obvious choice on almost every other best-of list, but S-Town was one of the most captivating listens this year. The series, from the creators of Serial and This American Life and reported by Brian Reed, quickly twists itself into the vein of a mysterious, and ultimately heartbreaking southern gothic narrative. On first listen, you'll think it's about the shady goings-on of a small Alabama town. But by the end you'll start to see the short, 7-episode series is really about "the remarkableness of what might be called an unremarkable life," as Reed explained to Vulture.
As a big history nerd, I was totally on board for this new Gimlet series that promised untold stories from the Civil War. It ended up being an unapologetically frank series that had me saying "whoa" at least once an episode. Some of my favorite episodes: "The Soldiers," where hosts Jack Hitt and Chenjerai Kumanyika explore the hundreds of women who disguised themselves as men so they could fight; and "The Deed," where they talk about the broken promise of "40 acres and a mule." The most impactful and jaw-dropping episode hits home: "The Spin," where the two hosts promise to take the myth of The Lost Cause and "punch it in the face."
Kristen Bell voices an uppity 1950s housewife whose only concern is making sure her dinner party goes smoothly despite the number of dead bodies piling up in her mansion. Yes, please. Bell voices Veronica alongside Denis O'Hare as her husband, who are hosting a dinner party before a violent snowstorm traps them and their guests inside. Then guests start getting killed off one by one. It's like a mix of Clue and Murder on the Orient Express. If the murder-mystery aspect doesn't hook you, the audio quality will. The seamless sound will make you jump and send chills down your spine. And just look at the rest of the all-star voice cast: Anna Chlumsky, RuPaul, LeVar Burton and Alisha Boe.
I'm utterly fascinated by American history and what makes our country tick, and the Washington Post's new series Constitutional provided something I didn't know I wanted — an almost line-by-line exploration of the Constitution. Lillian Cunningham, the same voice behind the Post's Presidential, guides listeners through every word of our nation's founding document from "We the people" to the Articles and into the Amendments. She also stops along the way to get insight from historians and government experts and makes sure we understand how this over 230-year-old document has changed over the hundreds of years.
The people behind Tanis and The Black Tapes debuted Rabbits this year with the same type of storytelling that instantly hooks and terrifies you. The story sounds like something that could almost be true: A young woman tries to find her missing friend and dives into the world of a secret alternate reality game with real-life consequences. Based on the little clues left by her friend, she has to solve riddles and track down people involved both in the real world and on the deep web. There are also plenty of intriguing bits of nostalgia and conspiracy theories to keep you questioning your own reality.
This series isn't an easy listen, but it's immensely fascinating. Learning about cults and their infamous leaders is bread and butter for true crime fans. And the network behind popular series Unsolved Murder, Serial Killers and Haunted Places adds more juicy crime stories with Cults. Every week the two hosts do a deep dive into a notorious cult through two-part episodes — the first delving into the founder's past and the second about their followers. They first explores Charles Manson and his Family, of course, but moves on to lesser-known cults like Anne Hamilton Byrne's The Family, the Movement for the Restoration of the Ten Commandments of God and The Ant Hill Kids in Canada. They're all equally fascinating and deeply disturbing.
This podcast had me at Jonathan Groff, but I stuck around for a heartfelt story about two people rediscovering one another. This one isn't just a podcast, it's a podcast musical. The story is about a couple (voiced by Groff and Jessie Shelton) who are trying to save their marriage using the 36 Questions, which are purportedly designed to help askers fall in love. While the podcast is only 3 parts, it's beautiful and haunting without feeling like there are too many unanswered questions, pun intended. Groff and Shelton have stunning voices and the audio quality puts you in the rooms with them as they fight, laugh and ultimately rediscover one another over time.
Contact Chelsea Tatham at [email protected] Follow @chelseatatham.