In pods we trust: The best podcasts of 2018
Year in Culture Review: ‘Mothers of Invention’ is what you should listen to as the world changes
The best podcasts of 2018
In 2018, I have listened to a new podcast, or two, every week. The medium is at a point where it is cresting – something beyond just playing out forms and structure that grew from radio.
I’ve developed a vocabulary, a keener ear, a critical understanding of how the form operates: a keen and quick sense of what is good, or less good, or outright bad, regardless of my own personal taste. So now that we’re in the season of the best of lists, I’m able to clearly look back and note some of the most outstanding podcasts I’ve listened to this year – ones I know I will be listening to for years to come, ones I re-listen to habitually when I’m waiting for new episodes, or when seasons end.
It’s clear, too, that we’re in the last days of podcasts being punk-rock: we’re watching YouTube and other creative digital platforms being turned into packaged production-lines, the way the music industry has been. So, while some of my favourites are high budget, produced and mixed with money almost audible in them, the scrappy independent ones where the love and passion for making is what a listener can hear will always have higher value for me.
Podcasts are an intimate medium, it’s just you and the headphones, so taste has a lot to answer for – but here are the shows that this year, I have recommend to people at parties. The ones I promise they’ll like.
In terms of shows that focus around extended and in-depth conversation, I loved Taranoia – brewed with love here in Ireland, an intimate and hilarious show. The work that Maeve Higgins and Mary Robinson are doing with Mothers of Invention in their conversations around climate change and feminism is vital – this is what you should be listening to as the world changes rapidly around us.
I still go to the Adam Buxton Podcast for a sense of easy company – and Alright Mary: A Rupaul’s Drag Race Podcast when I need to laugh (the hosts, Colin and Johnny, are whip smart social commentators). Griefcast, hosted by Cariad Loyd, is also vital human listening.
For fiction, I loved Wooden Overcoats, a comedy about a fictitious island in the English Channel in which two funeral homes, and their funeral directors, compete for popularity within their community. It is most often the first podcast I recommend to people: funny and strange and exquisitely written and performed: and importantly, entirely independent.
There have been highly funded fiction productions this year that have fallen entirely short of what the Wooden Overcoats cast and team produce on a modest, Kickstarter budget. Dreamboy, from Night Vale Presents, is poetic and moving and remarkably easy to listen to, given how abstract and far-reaching the themes are, and has some of the finest soundscape work and music I’ve heard in the medium. This Sounds Serious, a not-even-that-loving true crime satire, made me laugh so much I had to pause the track to catch my breath before continuing.
All of the above go to lengths to redefine what worlds are possible to create within the boundaries of headphones, and retexture the world a little as you listen
In terms of documentary, I really enjoyed Alison Behringer’s Bodies – gruelling and earnest and informative in one breath. Last Seen, which deals with an art heist, is the only crime investigation podcast I’ve truly enjoyed – non-exploitative of its subjects and utterly fascinating, it follows the theft of a set of paintings from a Boston museum. The Allusionist is not necessarily a documentary, but more an educational podcast about language, has also remained firmly in my regularly listened to shows: it is warm and funny and interesting, and holds that great power where it leaves the listener viewing the world, and language, a little differently after listening.
In science, my standout favourite is The Habitat, which features the intimate goings on day-to-day of a group of people living in an artificial Mars environment in rural Hawaii. It had that rare impact on me where I wasn’t sure if it was true, or written as fiction – a gripping listen, beginning to end.
These are just some of my audio highlights and discoveries of the year – I still return to gems from years gone past, such as Alice Isn’t Dead, Within The Wires, and Limetown, exemplary works of fiction in the medium which are thankfully continuing their seasonal runs year after year. All of the above go to lengths to redefine what worlds are possible to create within the boundaries of headphones, and retexture the world a little as you listen.
It has been a strong year in the form, and 2019 promises more – however, I know that the shows I discovered and loved this year will be ones I return to again and again.