As with all of Podcast Problems’s Best of 2017 posts, links will only be provided for episodes that can be listened to outside of the context of the shows as a whole; audio dramas, for instance, will only have links if the episode mentioned was their first episode. For more thoughts on this year in podcasts, make sure to subscribe to the Podcast Problems newsletter!
1. The Far Meridian, “1.8 A Fine Figure”
For podcast listeners who are not steeped in the community that creates audio dramas, the name Mischa Stanton might not mean much, but it should, and this episode of The Far Merdidian shows exactly why. Stanton works on ars PARADOXICA, The Bright Sessions, as well as others, and The Far Meridian feels like one of their new passion projects. The texture in this episode is tangible. The sense of space established through sound design and production is incredibly immersive: I don’t know how I know what a record played atop a mountain sounds like, but I know it sounds exactly as it does here. I returned to this episode several times just to make note of all of the production work that had been done, and I’m sure there’s still features I missed. It’s just that meticulous. This is how much care Stanton puts into their work, and it always shows.
2. Greater Boston, “Episode 23: On the Advice of Mary Wollstonecraft”
Like Mischa Stanton, Alexander Danner and Jeff Van Dreason are two forces to be reckoned with when it comes to audio drama production. This episode is subtle in its scene setting, letting the audio do all the explanation for where the characters are. This episode also shows off the producers’ knack for using small details–for instance, a phone ringing–to play up the tension in scenes without them being the focus of the scene. This episode has a wide range of emotions, and the production follows suit seamlessly. When the scene is comedic, the production work has some of the best comedic timing in the industry. When characters argue, the cadence is organic: the dialogue is clean, but the characters still talk over each other naturally. It seems like Greater Boston considers production concurrently with the show’s writing–something most audio dramas could learn from.
I’ve discussed my love of What’s the Frequency‘s production, and that love started from the beginning of the first episode. What’s the Frequency has a real love for breaking the idea of what an audio drama “should” sound like, and I’m desperate for this idea to catch on. There’s so much going on in the sound design of What’s the Frequency, and not a single thing feels unnecessary. It’s terrifying, it’s hilarious, and it’s mesmerizing in how it weaves a story together. The show uses texture arguably even more than The Far Meridian does, and uses it to bring a sort of aesthetic to the podcast without ever being explicit about the setting.
The Heart‘s “No” mini-season was a moment in podcasting that stuck out to me as distinctly 2017, and something distinctly The Heart. This episode uses the production pseudo-trope of pitching a voice up to indicate the narrator at a younger age, but when put together with the nostalgic bed music, it feels and sounds like the natural choice to make. The Heart always has a fluidity to it that strikes a perfect balance in pacing. Making the segments–or even the spaces between specific lines–would feel too rushed, but any slower would feel sluggish. There’s silence when there needs to be silence; when the bed music, sound effects, and background dialogue come back, they’re necessary and beautifully produced. Everything adds to the combination of nostalgia, anxiety that are so integral to the story itself. (A note: this episode is very NSFW if you plan on listening.)
Night Vale Presents’s The Orbiting Human Circus (of the Air) is a testament to tenderness and whimsy, a kind-hearted endeavor that felt like such a treasure in such a devastating year. “The 2nd Imaginary Symphony,” a specific passion project by showrunner and indie music darling Julian Koster, is naturally no exception. The “symphony,” which should be listened to straight through versus broken up as episodes, feels exactly like the sort of Burl Ives Christmas specials most of us have grown up watching. The production has the feeling of an old radio show, but without feeling satirical or to twee, even given how genuinely sentimental it is. The production in “The 2nd Imaginary Symphony” transports the listener to a time and place that’s not quite their own past, and not quite their own childhood home, but an idealized version of both, and without the necessity of a specifically religious holiday. Everything about the production work adds to how genuine and kind the special feels.
Station to Station impressed me immediately with its production work–so much so that I wrote about it twice. The show, which takes place on a ship, uses its sound design to convey the setting but also to convey its tone. The deep bass rumble of the ship is subtle, just lying in the background, adding a foreboding undertone to the dialogue. The show also uses its production to switch between protagonist Miranda Quan’s audio journal and what seem to be either her internal monologue or her edited additions from the future. The production doesn’t explicitly tell you which, letting the listener speculate. Like What’s the Frequency, Station to Station has plenty going on in its production, but it never feels distracting. It always adds to the feeling and tension of the show.
7. The Adventure Zone, “Ep. 66. The Stolen Century – Chapter Seven”
Leave it to The Adventure Zone to make something as innocuous as static one of the most emotional, upsetting production features of 2017. What makes the production in The Adventure Zone so notable is both how it builds and how it directly relates to the show’s plot. What started as a very production-light show gradually became something lush and evocative. The use of static not only works to break up vignettes but also as a very specific, incredibly tragic plot device. The show’s use of static is one of the features that exemplifies how The Adventure Zone‘s “Stolen Century” arc set a new bar for audio dramas this year.
8. The Strange Case of Starship Iris, “Episode 1: Violet Liu”
The Strange Case of Starship Iris is part of Procyon, the same network that also houses Station to Station. Like Station to Station, the first episode of The Strange Case of Starship Iris was one of the most impressive episodes I heard this year. The production here has the same scene-setting details that have landed others on this list, but where Starship Iris really soars is in its dialogue. The pacing between the two characters is perfect, bouncing back and forth without feeling too scripted or one-for-one.
9. Join the Party, “8: Political Party I”
Join the Party‘s roduction is usually somewhat light compared to the others on this list, but that restraint is why the production works so well. “8: Political Party I” has more sound design features than other episodes, but those features sneak into and out of the audio gracefully, making sure to set the scene without becoming distracting. The vocal effects on TR8c are always endearing, but adding effects on other characters could risk being too much. Luckily, Join the Party knows when to reel it in. The show feels immersive, but it always lets its actual content be the focus.
10. ars PARADOXICA, “ODAR & You!”
This short episode from ars PARADOXICA is a delightful, old-timey ad for ODAR. The episode is one part humor, one part dark rumination on the intersection between capitalism and propaganda. It’s note-for-note the kind of advertisement you can find in early radio archives without sounding too abrasive. The episode is distinctly different from the rest of ars PARADOXICA, but it fits into the world with ease, enriching it instead of just feeling like a throwaway gag–something inferior production easily could have slipped into.
Which podcasts had your favorite production of 2017? Please leave a comment below! Podcast Problems will be releasing more Best of 2017 lists throughout December. You can find all of the lists here. Make sure to check back throughout the month for more!