2018 certainly has been a year! Well, actually, I’m convinced it’s been a minimum of seven years, but hey, what is linear time, really?
In the podcasting space, 2018 has been a year of highs and lows. In the lows, we had industry juggernauts shutting down their content departments out of the blue, some typically bad takes on podcasting from traditional media reporting, big money producing some true mediocrity, and The Parsec Awards.
But in 2018, we also had audio fiction finally start to feel like it had place in the wider conversations about podcasting. We got an incredible, 36-page report on audio fiction in the U.S. and U.K. And yes, we got some truly phenomenal podcasting.
So let’s focus on the incredible, beautiful, groundbreaking work 2018 has brought to us in the podcasting space this year. A few quick notes on how I built my lists before we jump in:
- These lists are, of course, only comprised of podcasts I listened to in 2018. I’ve listened to a lot, but there have also been pieces I’ve missed.
- I have five separate lists: best new nonfiction, best fiction, best performances, best production, and my favorite episodes of 2018. Because the nonfiction and fiction lists are specifically for new podcasts–not new series releases on currently-running podcasts–I wanted to talk up Articles of Interest, one of the three runners-up on this list. It’s a phenomenal listen from the 99% Invisible team, namely Avery Trufelman, about clothing and how it affects the world. Don’t worry, though–it’s still going to appear in these lists.
- In my mind, “ambition” is a neutral word. I’ve seen Legally Blonde, for sure, but I’ve also read Macbeth. For me, ambition is only as good as the story it produces; ambition alone doesn’t necessarily impress me.
- This year, stories inspired by certain current events were very difficult for me to fully appreciate. This brings me to another runner-up: The Truth‘s mini-series, “The Off Season,” which was directly inspired my the #MeToo movement. It’s a hard listen, but it’s beautiful, and it shouldn’t be missed.
- True crime is always difficult for me, but it especially was this year. This brings me to my final runner-up: BBC World’s Death in Ice Valley, a gorgeous investigation into a cold case that makes a point of not treading the steps that often make true crime ethically discomforting.
With that, here are my lists of the best podcasting I heard in 2018. And please, leave your favorites in the comments below!
Best in New Nonfiction
In order to be eligible to be listed as a best new nonfiction podcast in 2018, the podcast’s first episode, not including promotional materials/trailers/etc. must have debuted in 2018. New nonfiction series must have debuted in 2018 in their entirety, not just had a new season debut in 2018.
1. The Dream
I wrote on The Dream for Discover Pods, but for those who haven’t listened, this podcast is a look into what makes multi-level marketing schemes so pervasive and nefarious. The reporting is both thorough and intimate, and the podcast does a beautiful job of showing how capitalism preys on people–and specifically, women.
2. This Is Love
Radiotopia’s This Is Love from Criminal creators Phoebe Judge and Lauren Spohrer is a sweet, sometimes heartbreaking look into what makes love tick. What does it mean to experience love, and why do we do what we do when we experience it? This Is Love isn’t afraid to leave questions without answers, but it always asks in the most tender way.
Caliphate is an investigative journalism podcast about how people are radicalized to join ISIS. It’s a difficult, unsettling listen, reported on expertly by journalist Rukmini Callimachi. Just when the podcast seems to lose its footing, it reels the listener back in with fascinating new twists and turns.
4. Silent Waves
Silent Waves is a nonfiction podcast that feels one part investigative journalism, one part personal narrative. As the host unravels the abuse in her past–much of which is chronicled very explicitly, so be warned before listening–she also seeks to unravel the stigma against abuse survivors, and to display exactly how the cycle of abuse works.
Taking its name from the classic basketball court game, HORSE is a podcast about all things NBA except the points. I didn’t know anything about basketball before listening to HORSE, but it wound up being something I always look forward to between releases. It’s hilarious, charming, and absolutely subversive in how sweet and goofy it is.
After leaving WNYC, Note to Self creators Manoush Zomorodi and Jen Poyant started their own business, and their own podcast to go with it: ZigZag, the story of their startup, cryptocurrency, the state of journalism in 2018, and being women in the world of tech entrepreneurship. ZigZag is both informative and riveting, and showed that Zomorodi and Poyany work just as well in the role of protagonists and they do in the role of hosting.
Accession is an art appreciation podcast that shows that anyone can appreciate art. Not only does this podcast break down the ivory tower mindset that often keeps the masses away from art, it does so with such a deep love for each piece discussed (and with some stunning production).
8. No Bad Ideas
No Bad Ideas is a frenetic, hilarious, often absurd take on a writing podcast. In each episode, one member of the team–made of up Wolf 359‘s Gabriel Urbina, Sarah Shachat, and Zach Valenti–brings a truly bad idea from the internet, and the other hosts have to construct a compelling narrative using the idea as inspiration. While that premise alone is fantastic, the conversation on work and creativity that follows is always lovely, honest, and motivating.
9. An Arm and a Leg
Another podcast I wrote on for Discover Pods, An Arm and a Leg explains the nightmare that is the United States healthcare system, somehow without feeling too anxiety-inducing. It’s often funny, always intriguing, and shows so many sides to healthcare that will be new to just about every listener.
10. The Good Place: The Podcast
A surprising addition to this list, The Good Place: The Podcast is a work I couldn’t help falling in love with. While I do love The Good Place, what I love most about the podcast is how it shows just how much work goes into making a TV show, interviewing not just the actors but the people working in effects, costuming, set dressing, and more. Each episode ends in the guests answering the question, “What’s good?”, sharing a moment of sweetness and optimism so needed in 2018.
Best in New Fiction
In order to be eligible to be listed as a best new fiction podcast in 2018, the podcast’s first episode, not including promotional materials/trailers/etc. must have debuted in 2018. Fiction series must have debuted in 2018 in their entirety, not just had a new season debut in 2018.
1. Everything Is Alive
When I first heard Everything Is Alive, something in me changed a little. The concept is simple and seemingly goofy: the host interviews inanimate objects. And it is goofy, but it’s also moving in a way that’s hard to explain in words; Everything Is Alive is truly an experience, and it’s one of the most beautiful works I’ve heard.
2. The Shadows
The Shadows tells the story of a semi-fictionalized Kaitlin Prest (of The Heart) trying to reconcile her ideas of love with its reality. This podcast is intimate–almost painfully so–and often very explicit, but for a specifically visceral result. It’s an audio fiction that left me in sobs many times, one that I still haven’t fully recovered from, and one that feels absolutely necessary.
StarTripper!! is the newest addition to the Whisperforge lineup, and like its predecessors, it’s beautifully produced, expertly written and acted, and incredibly inventive. A sort of hybrid between Futurama, Galaxy Quest, and Cowboy Bebop, StarTripper!! is a set of episodic adventures in space that are unrepentantly fun.
4. Kalila Stormfire’s Economical Magick Services
Following the titular witch Kalila Stormfire, this audio fiction starts out as a set of case files. In each episode, Kalila discusses a client, their problem, and how she used magic (and usually some psychology) to help them. It’s beautiful on its own, but as Kalila’s own story emerges, it becomes something truly stunning.
Another very explicit listen, Dreamboy is a new Night Vale Presents audio fiction about a listless musician who moves from New York to Cleveland. Heavily inspired by music production, Dreamboy is as rhythmic as it is wistful, as absurd as it is relatable, and as hilarious as it is unsettling.
6. Adventures in New America
Night Vale Presents’s second new audio fiction in 2018, Adventures in New America is a story about an Afrofuturist New New York, following depressive protagonist IA as he turns to desperate measures to pay for his medical treatments. It’s a fun and hilarious listen that’s filled to the brim with cutting social critique.
Arden is a true crime satire that’s also a modern retelling of Romeo and Juliet, after the events of the play have passed. The jokes in early episodes were enough to land it on this list, but its final two episodes are so beautiful, I was left reeling.
Tides follows Dr. Winifred Eurus, a biologist stranded on an alien planet with tidal waves and its own flora and fauna. Tides is not only a riveting space opera but a wonderful depiction of an unreliable narrator.
9. The End of Time and Other Bothers
The End of Time and Other Bothers is the new actual play from the Alba Salix team, following three reluctant adventures who are thrown far back in time. Taking cues from improv comedy and weaving it into some truly phenomenal sound design, Other Bothers is not just impressive, but has also provided some of the most hilarious scenes of the year.
10. We Fix Space Junk
Hearkening works like The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy and Firefly, We Fix Space Junk follows two women who have to take odd jobs around the galaxy thanks to the hyper-capitalist government always watching over them. It’s hilarious, but it’s also an example of brilliant, intense world-building that doesn’t shy away from being silly or being terrifying.
Best in Performances
In order to be eligible to be listed as a best performance in 2018, the performance must have been specifically exemplary in 2018. This means it could be a performance in a new audio fiction, or the performance could have gained depth in episodes specifically within 2018. Performances were not judged based on their history in previous years. All performances are from pieces of audio fiction.
1. Briggon Snow, The Big Loop, “Goodbye Mr. Adams”
Coming in at the very beginning of 2018, Briggon Snow’s performance of The Big Loop created more buzz than any performance in audio fiction before, and for good reason. Like almost every episode of The Big Loop, the story is told as a monologue, framed as an interview, meaning Snow carries the entire runtime, and the emotional depth he consistently hits are genuinely moving.
2. Mayumi Yoshida, The Big Loop, “Surfacing”
The Big Loop‘s structure and writing necessitates some phenomenal performances, and this is shown best through not only Snow, but also Mayumi Yoshida’s performance in the season two opener, “Surfacing.” Yoshida’s work in the episode is subtle, gentle, and still heartbreaking. Like “Goodbye Mr. Adams,” the writing is beautiful, but the performance adds another layer of so much meaning.
3. Ian McQuown, StarTripper!!
Known best for his role as the straight-laced, rule-loving Agent Green in The Bright Sessions, hearing McQuown’s performance as StarTripper!! protagonist Feston Pyxis was one of the most delightful surprises of the year. McQuown’s comedic timing is unbeatable, his levels of chaotic energy astounding, and his charisma absolutely infectious and endearing.
4. Julia Schifini, Tides
2018 was the year Julia Schifini truly became an iconic of audio fiction performance, landing roles in almost countless productions–but her starring role in Tides is a feat of showing versus telling, a concept usually reserved for writing, but here, displayed perfectly in acting. Schifini manages to play a Dr. Eurus who is not only an unreliable narrator the audience, but also to herself: with each scathing retort to a colleague, you can still hear her pain, her embarrassment, and her loneliness underneath.
5. Lisette Alvarez, Kalila Stormfire’s Economical Magick Services
Kalila Stormfire is a personal story for creator Lisette Alvarez, which comes through not just in their writing but their acting. Alvarez’s performance is often appropriately restrained as Kalila begins each case file, but as Kalila becomes more emotionally involved in each story, Alvarez elegantly allows their performance to open up, embodying each character and moment in a way that feels shockingly immersive.
6. Lee LeBreton, Within the Wires
LeBreton’s performance of Within the Wires‘s Michael Witten is perfectly complemented by the jazz that underscores many of the season’s episodes. LeBreton’s timing is hypnotic, perfectly conveying both the laid-back and staccato rhythms of 1950’s confidence without feeling like an impression. But LeBreton isn’t all confidence here; in their quietest moments, LeBreton makes Witten one of the most sympathetic, compelling protagonists Within the Wires has given listeners to date.
7. James Oliva, Greater Boston
Like Julia Schifini, James Oliva is another wildly prolific voice actor in audio fiction. In Greater Boston, Oliva plays Michael, a character who’s changed dramatically over the seasons while still remaining fundamentally exactly who he is. In 2018, the writing allowed Oliva to explore so many more sides of Michael, pulling him through dramatically different moods, tones, and timing–all of which Oliva’s performance wove through masterfully.
8. Tracey Sayed, Arden
One of the two leads in Arden, Tracey Sayed plays Brenda Bentley, an ex-cop who’s more inspired by the phenomenon of true crime than the journalistic work of investigative reporting. Sayed’s performance is absolutely hilarious, played with such distracted, self-interested confidence without feeling too overboard or hammy (unless it’s being so on purpose, to great effect).
9. Eli Barraza, The Far Meridian
Eli Barraza’s performance as The Far Meridian‘s Peri has always been unparalleled in its tenderness, but in 2018, the listener got to hear different sides of Peri: her silly humor, her frustration, her exhaustion, and her ability to stand up for herself. Barraza’s performance balances not just Peri’s emotions, but also toes the line perfectly between conveying Peri’s strength and keeping Peri true to her quiet, introverted nature.
10. Morgan Givens, Flyest Fables
Akin to an audiobook–but with much more production value and sound design–Flyest Fables tells lovely, fantastical stories, read (and written) in their entirety by Morgan Givens. As the narrator, Givens reflects both modern audio fiction conventions and classic bedtime stories. Givens juggles standard narration with a full gamut of character voices, bringing a lovely range to each episode.
Best in Production
In order to be eligible to be listed as a best production (which I’m using as a term to include editing and sound design) in 2018, the production must have been specifically exemplary in 2018. This means it could be production in a new podcast, or the production could have gained excellency in episodes specifically within 2018. Production was not judged based on the podcast’s history in previous years.
The Whisperforge has been at the forefront for production in audio fiction since the debut of its first podcast, ars PARADOXICA, and has only gotten better. With StarTripper!!, producer and sound designer Mischa Stanton, as well as Whisperforge newcomer Anna Rodriguez, convey alien planets that not only sound silly and fun, but also shockingly realistic and lived-in.
2. What’s the Frequency
What’s the Frequency is a groundbreaking piece of audio that dismantles so much of what the blueprint of audio fiction suggests the medium “should” sound like. In 2018, producers Alexander Danner and James Oliva worked the seams of the production to simultaneously come apart and tighten more, culminating in a finale that is audio fiction’s best parallel to the closing scenes in 2001: A Space Odyssey.
3. Wolverine: The Long Night
I was wary about a big-name company like Marvel entering the world of audio fiction, expecting the company’s successful name to carry a mediocre production. It’s hard to express just how I wrong I was when it comes to Wolverine: The Long Night‘s production. The sound design is stunning, so immersive and believable that I would often look around to see the source of a design asset, forgetting I was listening to a fictional space.
4. The End of Time and Other Bothers
A good deal of Other Bothers‘s comedy comes from its players’ improvisation and timing, but a good deal is also carried by the production work. Sound designed like a traditional audio fiction, taking after other actual plays like Join the Party, Other Bothers has rich sound design that not only puts the listener in the scene, but also renders things like kitchenware absolutely hilarious.
5. Greater Boston
Greater Boston is meticulously designed by creators Alexander Danner and Jeff Van Dreason, and while you could point to its use of music, its transitions, or its blending of the real and surreal, Greater Boston shines most in the moments you won’t necessarily notice unless you’re listening for them: the way each character moves, the way you can visualize what they’re doing without any dialogue explaining the action, the way the fictionalized Boston really feels through its sounds.
6. Janus Descending
Janus Descending is a new horror audio fiction sound designed by Julia Schifini, and though it’s Schifini’s first foray into design, it doesn’t show; Janus Descending is truly terrifying and fantastically textured. Something Janus Descending has done better than almost any other audio fiction is convey the tremendous weight of something in sound, and the results are chilling.
Like everything in Accession, the production in this podcast is treated with such genuine care. Each episode of Accession uses bed music that helps convey not just the feeling of the narration, but the feeling of the painting as well. Actors are used to read letters, writings, or other auxiliary sources in each episode, and sound effects are used to add some texture and transition. Still, none of these features feels distracting or unnecessary; instead, each add to how comforting and transportative each episode feels.
8. Kane and Feels: Paranormal Investigators
Kane and Feels is a surreal supernatural podcast that’s always had enrapturing production, but its two-part “Wonderland” series was particularly inventive. Following the plot-relevant intoxicants in the episodes, their production is likewise intoxicating as the listener is pulled through each scene. Kane and Feels is a masterclass in distance, too; you can hear exactly how big each room is supposed to be, exactly how far apart the characters are supposed to be, in each scene.
Like Kane and Feels, Dreamboy is surreal and strange, but it’s specifically dreamlike and musical. The scores sometimes come in with a bang only to drop down as the narration comes in like percussive punctuation, or creeps in underneath the actors so subtley you don’t even know it’s there until you know. Each aspect of production feels so perfectly placed and timed in the mix that each episode feels like one organic piece versus various layers of audio.
The production in Tides is usually subtle, but the more you listen, the more you notice such specific details in each scene. Each place on Fons has its own texture and feeling, and each character moves in such specific ways (including, sometimes, accidentally running past a room only to backtrack).
My Favorite Episodes of 2018
This category had the least specifications. The episode had to drop in 2018, and is based comprehensively not just on how technically proficient or innovative it is, but just how much I personally enjoyed them. Individual episodes are linked except for serial audio fiction; those should be listened to in order.
1. Everything Is Alive, “Louis, Can of Cola”
The first time I heard “Louis, Can of Cola,” I was in the car with my husband on the way to work. I didn’t know what to expect; I was familiar with Ian Chillag’s previous work, so I knew it’d be funny, but I also know the Radiotopia brand, so I knew there would be some kind of depth.
Nothing could have prepared me for what the episode contained–fitting, given its protagonist is both a container and its contents.
The episode was so captivating that at a very pivotal moment, I saw a Coke truck and said, out loud, “Read the room!” without a shred of irony.
“Louis, Can of Cola” is not just one of my favorite episodes of the year, but one of my favorite episodes. Of anything. I felt fundamentally understood by it somehow, while also feeling like it opened my eyes–the same feeling I got when I first listened to What’s the Frequency. It’s funny, it’s strange, and it’s absolutely beautiful.
2. The Bright Sessions, “50 – Rose”
“50 – Rose” is a case in which ambition truly does pay off. Taking cues from classic musical episodes of TV shows like Buffy the Vampire Slayer, “50 – Rose” is a full musical, featuring songs from each of the protagonists’ perspectives. Like any great musical, each song is catchy and begs you singing along, but they’re also sweet, funny, and heartbreaking. The musical structure here doesn’t feel like it was put in just for fluff or fan service (not to suggest fans weren’t absolutely begging for a musical episode)–instead, each song conveys thoughts and feelings the characters wouldn’t otherwise be able to process, which carries over into the next episodes. The episode feels both like a gift and like something that was necessary to the story as a whole. It also features one of the single best sound effects of 2018: the shimmering “shoooom-thwip!” of travelling between dreams.
3. What’s the Frequency, “39.71 Mhz.”
As mentioned above, this first season finale for What’s the Frequency has a passage that can only really be compared to the final moments of 2001: A Space Odyssey–but that’s not all it has. As the plotlines of the show (yes, they exist, and they are many) convene, things go from bad to worse, and the listener is left on a devastating cliffhanger that made me gasp out loud and openly weep. It’s a finale that, like the show as a whole, breaks genre and form not just to show they can, but to tell one of the most interesting, innovative stories in audio fiction to date.
4. Articles of Interest (via 99% Invisible), “Hawaiian Shirts: Articles of Interest #4”
99% Invisible is one of the podcasts I reference most in daily conversation because it’s so filled with interesting information that has a way of coming up naturally. Discussions about the history of Hawaiian shirts, however, do not usually happen naturally–but that did not stop me. This episode was so interesting, so strange, and so informative, I found any excuse to bring it up in conversation because it refused to leave my brain. In typical 99% Invisible fashion–pun intended, don’t @ me–it also sounds incredible, with crisp editing and a keen sense of narrative.
5. Tides, “8. Get Kraken”
In its first season finale, Tides opens with a simple hummed and sang rendition of “Show Me the Way to Go Home.” After a season of the protagonist trying to be saved from the tumultuous alien planet on which she’d been stranded, a season of the protagonist being so guarded and performatively hardened, it was a moment of raw honesty that set the foundation for the remainder of the episode in the perfect way.
6. Arden, “The Monsters Who Did It”
“The Monsters Who Did It” is, in many ways, the episode that functions as the most direct adaptation of Romeo and Juliet. Broken up into acts, this episode finally gives the listeners the answers about what happened to Julie Capsom, the starlet who suddenly went missing. It’s initially clear that the listener will be given these answers, and the mystery that’s carried the series is suddenly shattered, which is initially confusing–until the true suspense and stakes of the episode are revealed.
7. The Big Loop, “Surfacing”
The Big Loop‘s “Surfacing” follows the story of an Ama diver, a woman who dives for pearls without any diving equipment. While the story initially feels realistic, almost hauntingly realistic, The Big Loop always contains a facet of the supernatural, paranormal, or otherwise magical, and as the story progresses, that magic manifests in so many ways. “Surfacing” is ultimately a story of love, sacrifice, memory, and how in some way, those words are all synonymous.
8. Everything is Alive, “Chioke, Grain of Sand”
After “Louis, Can of Cola,” it was hard to know whether Everything Is Alive would be a one-off moment of near perfection or if each episode would continue to be as lovely. Luckily, each episode so far has been great, but none comes closer to that first episode than “Chioke, Grain of Sand.” As the title suggests, Chioke is just that, a grain of sand–but the way he experiences his own plurality versus individuality is brilliant. The episode ends in a rumination on low-level constant anxiety that was shockingly poignant and has stuck with me ever since.
9. Hit the Bricks, “Episode 0: Lost”
This pilot episode for an upcoming audio fiction set in the world of Oz was one of the most truly kindhearted, whimsical, nostalgic pieces from 2018, wrapped up in lovely music and earnest performances. Setting a story in the world of Oz could have skewed too twee, too saccharine, or too ironic. Instead, this pilot for Hit the Bricks feels like podcasting’s companion to Steven Universe or Over the Garden Wall. It has such a clear sense of place and feeling, allowing itself to exist sweetly and without a shred of irony. In 2018, it felt so needed.
10. The Dream, “And That’s When I Woke Up”
Another season finale, “And That’s When I Woke Up” features an interview with the head of the Direct Selling Association, and it is absolutely beguiling. After a season of analyzing the rhetoric of multi-level marketing, hearing it in realtime is astounding and borderline nauseating. But the episode also references how the podcast started in the first place: an intimate story from the host about her own experiences with multi-level marketing in her hometown, a reminder of just how common the problem is.