I had originally planned to do a top ten, but could not weed out any two, thus a top 12 for your reading pleasure. Picking the best podcast episodes tend to reward those who created something special in the one hit wonder sense, while the true strength of podcasts often comes in consistency, setting a tone and bringing the listener along into the setting the hosts have created. That is why the more storytelling/public radio types get onto this list over shows that I enjoyed more consistently throughout the year. Nonetheless, these were my favorite podcast episodes of the year.
12. U Talkin’ U2 to Me? – U2 Talk 2 U
Scott Aukerman and Adam Scott’s show mostly centered around the band U2 (which placed number 2 on my best podcasts list last year) culminated in the duo actually being able to interview U2. The interview mostly reflects the show’s tangent driven personality and gets the band involved in the show’s mini-shows (like I Love Films). Scott and Scott also provide commentary throughout the show about their interview, giving context to things, and making fun of how bad Adam Scott is at interviewing. It’s definitely not the episode to get started with, but it’s the perfect sort of finale.
11. The Cracked Podcast – The Gun Show
In the wake of another mass shooting (which unfortunately I can’t even remember due to the amount of them that occurred) the guys from Cracked decide to talk over the issue of gun control from all sides. Jason Pargin tells his own history of guns (which includes owning several) but still maintains that an ideology of stricter gun laws is necessary. Beyond any sort of political action however, the crew gets at an underlying narrative that is perhaps more important than any law: heroism and redemptive violence.
10. Planet Money – A Rose on Any Other Day
Planet Money always provides an interesting narrative to economic issues, here they bring the listener into the world of Valentine’s Day roses an illustrious, but often risk-heavy world where one’s entire yearly income can be made or broken due to a slew of uncontrollable factors.
9. About Race – The “A Word” Episode
The About Race group always get at controversial topics while trying to discuss the way the media talks about race. ‘The “A Word” Episode’ is an interesting and often argumentative episode about assimilation. What role does assimilation play in the US and what role should it play? It’s a mind spinning episode about something where there will never really be an easy answer.
Two episodes listed here where improv comedy legend Matt Besser takes his improv podcast on a different track by placing it in a firm narrative. “A i4h Christmas Carol” finds Besser as Ebenezer Scrooge–a fitting choice for Besser’s curmudgeonly reputation–he is then joined by Armen Weitzman in an improvised and insider-y version of A Christmas Carol. “Whiplash” finds Besser again joined by Weitzman, this time as his Whiplash-style protogee.
7. Hidden Brain – Switchtracking
The premier episode of this NPR show is an absolute delight with host Shankar Vedantam seemingly so excited to teach the listener about the “hidden” parts of the brain. The show would end up losing the tone it set with this episode, but “Switchtracking” is pure joy and quite insightful.
6. Radiolab – Nazi Summer Camp
Radiolab’s story of a WWII prisoner camp does what all the great Radiolab episodes do: throw you into an existential crisis about something you had never thought about. I cannot count how many times I went back and forth about what the right approach to treating prisoners in war times should be.
Choosing the special episodes in Comedy Bang Bang is kind of a cheat, because they are essentially all-star episodes (like when SNL brings out all of the alumni + JT), but the “2015 Holiday Spectacular” had me grinning from start to finish. “Mailer Daemon” showcases the brilliance that can come out of the improv character format where Aukerman and Jason Mantzoukas are joined by Nick Kroll who quickly establishes a plethora of characters with complicated backstories all in a matter of moments.
4. Hot Takedown – A Special Stat School Edition
Five Thirty Eight’s sports podcast is all about taking down mainstream media’s “hot takes” and typically revolves around the current week in sports news. In the first of a series of specials, they choose to discuss at length advanced statistical metrics in sports (here it’s hitting in baseball). It’s an absolutely fun and nerdy listen that helps to inform the way the smartest minds are using numbers to determine who the best players are.
3. Surprisingly Awesome – Mold
Gimlet Media’s show about trying to find the fascinating in the mundane opened up with a doozy. Adam Davidson tries to convince Adam McKay that mold is interesting and manages to go above and beyond with some near jaw-dropping moments. The first has to do with almost non-discovery of Penicillin and the second goes back to McKay’s relatives in a revelation that I won’t spoil here.
2. WTF with Marc Maron – President Barack Obama
Maron may seemingly only be doing the biggest of names now, but if that results in him landing the president of the United States I am all for it. Obama is a great interviewee as always and Maron really does offer a unique perspective on the whole thing. It was definitely the podcast event of the year for me.
1.This American Life – The Problem We All Live With Pt. I&II
This two part series from This American Life captured a problem that should probably be dealt with sooner than later–the segregation of our public school system. They look into the studies that say that disintegration drastically improves education results in the lives of minorities and what prevents integration from happening. It’s an often heartbreaking and fascinating look into education and race in America done by what is probably our best public radio shows.
Honorable mention: Black Men Can’t Jump – In the Heat of the Night