Dec 22, 2016

Listmania: The Best Podcasts of 2016 (#1-10)

This year's Listmania kicks off with a countdown of the best podcasts of 2016. It was a year of incredible highs and lows, and the fledgling medium was there to capture and comment on it all. With more shows coming out almost daily, it is impossible to boil it down to only a handful of shows that mattered. So while this is a "Top 20," certain entries were broken down into categories and themes. There's close to 40 between this two day extravaganza, so heat up that subscription button and prepare to have hours and hours of great (and mostly free) entertainment. 

1. You Must Remember This (Panoply)

Over the past few years, few podcasts have exemplified what the medium can do better than Karina Longworth's love letter to Hollywood's first century. While there were less episodes this year, they were centered around two themes: The Blacklist and Joan Crawford. For people who love movie history (and in the case of The Blacklist episodes, just history), it's impossible to find much to hate about this show. The only knock against it is that it's been on hiatus for a few months now. With that said, it's likely to mean that 2017 will bring even more greatness in all things related to the Golden Era of Hollywood. Until then, the back catalog is the perfect dose of entertainment that anyone could need with excellent production values and timeless subjects.

2. WTF with Marc Maron

It almost seems unfair to include Marc Maron in any "Best of" podcast lists. For years now he has become the quintessential interviewer while pulling a strong mix of comedians, actors, musicians, and personalities that define our modern culture. This year was no exception as he managed to pull everyone from directors like William Friedkin and Rob Reiner to stunt performer Steve-O. Add in an amazing interview for his 700th episode in which Louis C.K. shares a detailed account of how Horace & Pete came to be, and you have Maron doing what he does best. He finds the core of his subjects while making them comfortable enough to get a more compelling story. While his actual career is in transition (his series Maron finished its run while his next show G.L.O.W. just wrapped production), his candid opinions about his life remain just as interesting as the interviews themselves. If you're bored with an interview, a better one is coming soon. He's never dull and always passionate. He embodies what podcasting can be in a nutshell. It's why he's always at the top of these lists.

3. Fighting in the War Room

It's the pop culture show that combines some of the finest young minds in film criticism. Made up of writers from Vanity Fair (Katey Rich, sometimes Joanna Robinson), Thrillist (Matt Patches), Rolling Stone & Indiewire (David Ehrlich), and (Da7e Gonzalez), the show has evolved from being strictly criticism to being about how its hosts relate to the media they consume. This year featured personal narratives that included marriages, new children, and how the presidential election effected their views on film. It makes the show feel more personal and endearing on a weekly basis, even as their Friday review segments took a backseat to their changing careers. This isn't just a show that will introduce you to great new entertainment, it will make you bond with the hosts who come across as more earnest than pretentious. This and many other reasons is why it remains a crucial podcast for pop culture enthusiasts. One can only imagine how their lives will change in the year ahead. Listen to find out.

4. Gimlet Media

Shows: Surprisingly Awesome, Science Vs., Reply All, Heavyweight, Undone, Crimetown, Twice Removed, Homecoming, DTR

If there was an award given to the individual achievement by a podcast network in 2016, it would likely go to Gimlet Media. While there are networks with "better" shows (Panoply to name one), there are few whose roster is pretty impenetrable both in quality and diversity. While the past many months could easily have made it place high on this list, the past month has seen several promising new shows crop up dealing with crime (Crimetown), ancestry (Twice Removed), radio theater (Homecoming), dating (DTR), history (Undone), and the great Jonathan Goldstein (Heavyweight). It could be that Gimlet Media has partnered with many great creative types, but they make it hard to pick just one great show out of this line-up. They even have a show featuring a newly certified Oscar winner (Adam McKay, Surprisingly Awesome). It's doubtful that this network is going anywhere. One can only hope that it continues to get the recognition it deserves in the year ahead.

5. The Cracked Podcast (Earwolf)

See Also: Kurt Vonneguys

The website Cracked has never failed to deliver great content on a daily basis. Their motives include a mix of comedy, current events, pop culture discussions, and deep dives into history. The podcast has come to embody this logic on a weekly basis. Originally billed as "NPR with hip-hop," the show does an excellent job of mixing zeitgeist topics into timely discussions that are meant to entertain as well as forward progressive conversations. Yes, there are times where it could be preachy. However, the show did an excellent job of showing one of the lesser biased takes on the presidential election as it was happening; resulting in a November 9 episode that explained why the election's results weren't so shocking. It's a show that slides between light and heavy subject matter with such excellent frequency that you could ostensibly have a decent idea of what happened in 2016 just by listening to this show. If nothing else, there's a lot of great music recommendations to keep you listening.

6. Presidential History

Shows: Presidential (Washington Post), Whistlestop (Panoply)

While everyone was obsessed with the current presidential election, there were a few shows that took this opportunity to explore presidential history on a weekly basis. Presidential had the novel approach of discussing one president a week leading up to the election. This featured interviews, sound clips, and so much information that the episodes should be added to course curriculum as bite-sized lessons. Whistlestop was more interested in the campaigns that got certain men elected, and others laughed out of the race. Together they help to shape the fervor that surrounds every election season by suggesting that certain aspects aren't new. For history buffs, they are must listens. While Whistlestop has moved onto its "next step" (important duties while in office), it is unseen where Presidential's future will lie. Either way, both are deserving of your time if you ever wanted to expand your knowledge of the people who made this country what it is today.

7. The Smartest Man in the World

How does he do it? How does Greg Proops manage to get up in front of a crowd weekly on average for 90-120 minutes and riff on the world while being funny, insightful, and never boring? Even during his "boring preachy parts" where he explores social themes, he somehow manages to be one of the most engaging voices in podcasts. Considering how conflicting the election was with his worldview (the post-election episode was called his "boringest preachiest"episode ever), it's been interesting to listen to him parse through the information while serving as a passionate voice for social change. He promises to recognize women and non-whites more frequently in his work for the foreseeable future (he already reads selected poetry by authors meeting his criteria). If there's one funnyman to listen to during what may likely be an unsettling 2017, make it Proops. He may be occasionally preachy, but he balances it with so much other culture that if nothing else, you envy him for having great tastes in, well, everything.

8. Serial

While season two technically began in December of 2015, the majority of Serial's journey into Bowe Bergdahl's peculiar incident was released this past year. Along with occasional reports from court cases related to season one, the show managed to improve upon its familiar true crime format with a story that isn't as cut and dry. In doing so, host Sarah Koenig managed to make the podcast into a definitive art form. What is on display here is an excellent example of production values with interviews, research (thanks in part to Zero Dark Thirty writer Mark Boal's collaboration), and crackling writing that hangs each episode on a cliffhanger. While most shows only deal with the kinda redundant and limiting murder stories, Koenig's dive into a more psychological story shows what the future of the medium could be. Here's hoping that season three (whenever that is) continues to show why podcasts are an important part of modern culture.

9. The Dana Gould Hour

Along with creating the funny Stan Against Evil, Dana Gould's podcast has had an excellent year; if just because episodes were released more frequently. While the presidential election was caught in the subtext of certain episodes, the host still managed to produce monthly shows that encapsulated compelling and sometimes downright goofy topics. He's still the go-to voice when it comes to classic Hollywood schlock. If you're passionate about oddball culture, then there's few homes more welcoming than this podcast. If nothing else, he regularly tells some of the most intriguing, disturbing, and sometimes dirty stories of any podcast out there. He's a voice like no other, which is why it takes him usually three hours to knock an episode out of the park.

10. International Waters (Maximumfun)

If there's one fact about podcasts, it's that there's not too many out and out great game shows out there. With that said, few are as funny as International Waters, which has the simple goal of pitting British and American comedians against each other in pop culture trivia. It's as much about learning things as it is doing improv for roughly an hour. In a year full of miserable subjects, the one shining light is this bi-weekly show coming out to make sense of it all with jokes that make the news easier to understand. It may not all be pretty, but few shows give as hopeful a vision of the world's future relations than one that sees Americans and British people laughing together in friendly competition.

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