In our recent list of the year’s best podcasts, limited series largely came out on top. There’s good reason for this: a single season can be wide-ranging and impactful in a way that most recurring shows have trouble matching week for week. That said, it’s also true that a great individual episode is where podcasting as a medium can uniquely excel. In the span of twenty minutes or a single hour, an excellent episode can touch hearts and change minds. With that, here are our 25 favorite episodes of 2018.
Still Processing: “We Don’t Know Where We Are”
Wesley Morris and Jenna Wortham have the rare must-listen conversation podcast. Around the time of the Oscars, the pair took on the not-quite-right setting of Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, and why so many recent movies and TV shows have felt placeless.
The Bill Simmons Podcast: “Charles Oakley Tells MJ Stories, Explains Why LeBron Will Leave, and Remembers His Favorite Fights”
Bill Simmons’ interview with NBA legend, enforcer, and personality Charles Oakley is the best I heard this year. Oakley tells the type of stories that are never supposed to see the light of day, and recounts which admired NBA players past and present weren’t really that tough. But one tidbit Oakley shares shines above, one that should inspire us all to ignore conventional scientific wisdom: during his playing career, Michael Jordan slept 2-3 hours a night. Nobody go to bed!
99% Invisible: “The House that Came in the Mail”
Sears was a predecessor to Amazon and, as it turns out, IKEA. As this excellent episode explains, Sears actually once sold assemble-it-yourself property. For adults. Seriously, life-size homes. And a surprising amount are still around.
Revisionist History: “The Hug Heard Round the World”
What does it mean to shed your identity? And to what extent is it even possible? Malcolm Gladwell ponders over these big questions in this mini-biography about the complex life of Sammy Davis Jr. The episode is worth it for the history alone, especially if you’ve heard the name of the famous singer without any real historical context.
The Nod: “Josephine and the Amazing Technicolor Rainbow Tribe”
The team behind The Nod consistently produce complex and captivating portraits of Black life from every angle. In “Josephine and the Amazing Technicolor Rainbow Tribe,” producer Emanuele Berry explores Josephine Baker’s radical endeavor to build a racial utopia in the south of France by adopting children from multiple continents.
Love Me: “What Can You Hear?”
You can count on CBC’s Love Me for luscious soundscapes and intimate encounters. But this podcast about the “messiness of human connection” isn’t just about romantic love and difficult breakups. In this episode, the best of the show’s third season, we hear volunteers on a suicide prevention hotline explain their methods for hearing out callers. Their responses are heard back-to-back, nearly overlapping, and we learn – through the juxtaposition of silence and siloed human speech – how important it is to listen, and how powerful it is to be heard.
Broken Record: “Rick Rubin”
On Broken Record’s debut episode, Malcolm Gladwell interviews his co-host Rick Rubin, the legendary producer behind such records as the Beastie Boys’ Licensed to Ill, Kanye West’s Yeezus, and over a hundred albums in between. Gladwell is an excitable interviewer, eager to dive into his friend’s storied career. And Rubin, a kind of Zen master, walks us through each phase of his life with a calm and constant wisdom. In an age where venues for thoughtful music discussion seem fewer and fewer, conversations like this one – deep and wide-ranging, with an appreciation for musical history – are needed more than ever.
Reply All: “The Crime Machine, Parts 1 & 2”
This impressive documentary brings a dujour issue into focus, exploring how the phenomenon of modern over-policing came to be. The two-parter digs up the innovative and well-intentioned iconoclast who birthed a system now running wildly outside his original vision, and connects two pictures of New York City across four decades.
Decoder Ring: “The Incunabula Papers”
On Decoder Ring, critic Willa Paskin and producer Benjamin Frisch examine integral aspects of culture that escape the bounds of a traditional review. On “The Incunabula Papers,” the show’s most ambitious episode to date, the duo executes a mesmerizing crossover from straightforward audio reporting to performative auteurism. The episode is about the original alternate reality game (ARG), and it drives home the idea that crafting such a thing could be a new form of literary art.
Embedded: “The Red Line”
Combining vulnerable moments from Kelly McEvers and a former Obama staffer, “The Red Line” dives into key behind-the-scenes events that drove the US’s response to Syria’s use of chemical weapons in 2013. This episode examines the world as it is and not as we might will it to be, demystifying the machinations of governments and laying bare the complexity of responding to a global conflict.
Errthang: “The Good Guy Myth”
Al Letson’s Errthang was easily the most innovative thing featured on Radiotopia’s Showcase this year, combining the celebrated host’s glut of talent in a variety show format. The content runs from zany to deeply serious, and “The Good Guy Myth” definitely lands on the more solemn end of the spectrum. Letson conveys the inescapable horrors of masculinity that have manifested in countless headlines, all in a novel and deeply personal way.
Tomorrow’s World: “Is This the Real Life?”
Once in a great while a mind-altering idea comes along. Sometimes this happens at the end of a substance-induced haze, other times at the foot of an altar — and now, we’re happy to proclaim, this type of wisdom is sometimes carried forth by a podcast. Now the caveat: the idea will sound fairly insane to anyone in their right mind, possibly to the extent that many listeners won’t even entertain its discussion. But hang in there and suspend your disbelief, because “Is This The Real Life?” has the potential to change the way you see the world.
This American Life: “Before the Next One”
This may be the most shocking episode of This American Life, due to the access the podcast giant affords its listeners to those present during the Parkland High School shooting. The scope of the show is appropriately big-picture, dealing with methods of preventing school shootings and approaching families in the wake of these tragedies, but there’s also an overwhelming intimacy here.
Love + Radio: “Such is the Way to the Stars”
This strange documentary from Love + Radio breaks from the show’s solo-narrative-culled-from-interview format, but retains its trademark voyeurism. The episode is a rambly yet coherent mishmash centered on the city of Richmond, Virginia, and reminds one of a more produced version of Reply All’s marathon call-in shows. One of the most novel episodes released all year.
The Organist: “The Secret Life of Plants”
In the most recent season of The Organist, host Andrew Leland started several episodes with essays on pop culture, often intertwining his own experiences going blind. On this episode, Leland discusses Donald Glover, Atlanta, Stevie Wonder, and Wonder’s love of film, which led him to score the pseudoscientific 1979 documentary The Secret Life of Plants. The Organist continues to produce exciting and surprising work, maintaining a spot for high-quality experimental radio.
The Joe Rogan Experience: “#1169 – Elon Musk”
Almost three hours of unexpectedly revealing conversation with the Tesla and SpaceX CEO, led down fascinating paths by Rogan’s wide-ranging questioning. On comfortable topics – tech, innovation, the future – Musk speaks with visionary conviction. At other points, he sounds awkward and vulnerable. And then Musk smokes weed with Rogan, causing Tesla’s share price to plunge.
Reply All: “The Snapchat Thief”
You’ve no doubt heard that securing your digital identity is incredibly important. And yet, you might still not be compelled to do anything. What’s that? You need a vivid narrative to spur you to act? This is it. Host Alex Goldman puts a lot on the line to make possible a meeting between a scared teen and the thief that preyed on her, going so far as to compromise his phone number in the name of justice and super tech support.
Bodies: “Sex Hurts”
Allison Behringer opens Bodies with her quest to find out why having sex suddenly started hurting. The narrative’s raw, homemade sound is reminiscent of The Heart, and the way Behringer writes about sex is frank and unembarrassed, but not salacious.
You Must Remember This: “Will Hays and ‘Pre-Code’ Hollywood (Fake News: Fact-Checking Hollywood Babylon Episode 7)”
Karina Longworth’s season-long retelling of the great early Hollywood scandals is an incredible primer on 1910-20s American cultural norms, and no episode sums them all up better than her investigation into the Hays Code. Religious zealots and Hollywood studio heads go to war over the morality of movies, and one constantly-compromising politician is stuck in the middle of it all.
Ear Hustle: “The Big No No”
Ear Hustle’s best work this year, this episode follows Erin, an inmate at San Quentin, through his love story with Lisa, a prison volunteer. It’s a compassionate and patient story, but when I heard the end I was so shocked that I (quite literally) fell off my bike.
Breakaway: “Command (Damian Lillard)”
The point of Rob Mahoney’s show is to understand the specific role a given player or coach fits within an NBA system. Damian Lillard is his most famous and exciting guest to date, and over the course of the episode the Blazers star reveals his heartening and simple approach to NBA leadership: treat people well.
What Really Happened?: “Anatomy of a Box Office Flop”
Andrew Jenks investigates what happened with Disney’s $250 million budget film John Carter. It was directed by Academy Award winner Andrew Stanton, so why did this movie flop? Jenks sympathetically uncovers a fascinating history of all the pieces and players that helped shape one of the biggest box-office disasters of all time.
Citations Needed: “Fake ISIS Plots and the Selling of Forever War”
In each episode of Citations Needed, media critics Nima Shirazi and Adam Johnson analyze a pattern or obsession in American mainstream media, and position it within a socio-historical context. Shirazi and Johnson often focus on widely-consumed media such as local news and popular culture, and in this episode they use both to examine how it can often feel like ISIS is everywhere, when, in reality, there have been very few attempted attacks in the US since 2014.
Talkhouse Podcast: “Guillermo Del Toro with William Friedkin”
The artist-interviews-artist podcast is at its best when it matches talents from different generations. Here, Del Toro nails down the moment in history when movies were perfect and Friedkin tells predictably-terrifying exorcism stories.
FiveThirtyEight Politics: “The Gerrymandering Project”
This episode-by-episode mini-series illuminates America’s baroque (and often unfair) methods of drawing congressional districts, then explains why there’s no clear path to reform. In the era of the simplistic hot take, this series is a deeply-reported primer on a significant electoral issue, one whose moral and logistical complexity isn’t well understood.