The 25 best podcasts of 2018
Our picks for the best of the year
In no particular order, here are some of our team's picks for the best podcasts from 2018. We've included new releases as well as older shows that are still going strong. We sat down as a team and together came up with this list of our top 25 podcasts of the year. Our criteria was podcasts that launched in 2018 or existing podcasts that did some outstanding new work or were so consistently excellent, we just couldn't leave them off the list.
Keep It was the surprising hit of my personal playlist this year. I love the format of panel shows, digging into the week's pop culture — but Keep It knocks the whole concept up a notch with smart cultural analysis sweetened with irreverent humour. Ira Madison III, Kara Brown and Louis Virtel are so likeable, it has that magical podcast effect of feeling like a weekly meeting with your smartest besties.
- Lindsay Michael, Senior Producer and Host, Podcast Playlist
The Off Season
This four-part series from The Truth accomplished an incredible feat: audio fiction inspired by the #MeToo movement that is gripping, authentic and keeps the listener on the edge of their seat. And it still manages not to come across as preachy, precious or heavy handed. From a sound perspective it's equally well-executed. Not overly produced (a common trouble area for audio fiction) with strong acting performances. Truly a work of art.
- Kate Evans, Associate Producer, Podcast Playlist
This five-part series from Canadaland aims to answer the question: What the heck is going on in Thunder Bay? And the timing could hardly be better, in light of recent news about police racism coming out of that city. Host Ryan McMahon comes to the story from the perspective of someone who grew up in a remote Anishinaabe community, for whom Thunder Bay was the "big city." From the mysterious deaths of Indigenous high school students to hate crimes to allegations of corruption, McMahon explores the sense of tragedy and fear that defines this city for so many Indigenous people in Ontario. It's a kind of storytelling we don't hear enough of in Canada.
- Julian Uzielli, Associate Producer, Podcast Playlist
KCRW's Bodies podcast delves into the uncomfortable and unspoken territory of the human body. Nothing is off limits. In its first season host Allison Behringer explores everything from painful sex and menopause to anxiety and beauty standards. What makes this podcast so special is the care Behringer brings to every story. She understands and respects the vulnerability of each person and masterfully guides the listener through a private world.
-T.K. Matunda, Associate Producer, Podcast Playlist
If you're still on the Harry hype train and in the mood for a refresher on the series, this podcast is your ticket. Listening feels like re-reading the books, but without all the work. And with some witty friends by your side! The hosts' thorough analysis may well change your relationship to the text. I certainly never thought I'd become so invested in Professor McGonagall's possible side-hustle as a Quidditch better, or in the untimely death of obscure extended universe character Eloise Mintumble! There's just so much to sift through in J.K. Rowling's universe, and this podcast is an excellent guide.
- Elena Hudgins Lyle, Associate Producer, Podcast Playlist
Gimlet as a whole (along with the podcast The Truth) has really set the standard for solid audio fiction, in my opinion. The Horror of Dolores Roach is their best effort yet. From the story to the performances, to the detailed and rich world they create, this podcast was engrossing from start to finish. You will not find a single, hokey, old-timey radio sound effect or trope (which is my nightmare as a listener). There were a lot of new releases from Gimlet this year — don't let this one get lost in the shuffle. It's a serial, so make sure you start at the beginning.
Everyone has cherished family recipes, and every one of those recipes has a story to go with it. Home Cooked tells those stories. Partly about cooking and partly about human relationships, the show explores why we put such importance on these recipes, and how we pass them on to our loved ones. Each episode focuses on one dish and the family it belongs to, and as a tasty bonus, they put the full recipe online so you can try it at home.
Serial made a serious comeback in Season 3. The concept of carefully observing a Cleveland courthouse made for a surprisingly gripping listen as the team uncovered systemic issues in the justice system. The fly-on-the-wall perspective on real cases was almost as addictive as a narrative podcast following one character, but at times held so much more purpose.
Everything is Alive is a magic blend of whimsy, information and emotion. Host Ian Chillag chats with an ordinary object and they always go to surprising (and delightful) places. This podcast dares you to imagine a world where inanimate objects have colourful histories and profound opinions — and they are ready to share their truths.
The past few years I've really been gravitating toward the comedy genre. Anything that can make me laugh I see as content that adds value to my life. Punch Up the Jam is hosted by Demi Adejuyigbe (who you may remember from Gilmore Guys) and Miel Bredouw. These two have this incredible slap-happy energy that is really infectious and wonderful to listen to. In each episode they critique a popular song, and attempt to "fix" any problematic aspects (and WOW can pop music be problematic). Their banter is well-researched and their guests are super game to play along. It's a great premise done really, really well. Start with L.A. Woman with Paul F. Tompkins or Semi-Charmed Life with Mara Wilson.
On a remote Hawaii mountainside, six explorers are living in small, cramped quarters. For a full year they have very limited contact with the outside world and need to rely on each other to survive. They are trying to help NASA answer a crucial question: What will life be like for astronauts on Mars? In The Habitat, host Lynn Levy gives us an answer. By exchanging audio recordings with the "astronauts" over the course of their year-long exile, she reconstructs the drama, drudgery and challenges of living in such difficult conditions. It's a little bit like a reality TV show, except not trashy and with really high stakes.
Why Won't You Date Me?
When was the last time your cried from laughter? For me, it's become a weekly ritual when I listen to Nicole Byer's Why Won't You Date Me? Byer is a comedian, who you may know as the host of Nailed It! on Netflix.
This podcast is ridiculous. I laughed so much while listening to the first episode, multiple people interrupted to ask me what it was I had in my headphones.
In each episode, Nicole interviews people that she used to date (and friends, and admirers...) and asks them the eponymous question. She is so genuine and disarming, her guests feel comfortable enough to be truly candid. The results are funny, awkward and frequently poignant. Listening to the last 55 (!) episodes, I've become super engrossed in Nicole's romantic life. I love hearing her views on modern romance evolve throughout the ongoing discussions with her guests. I cannot recommend this show enough. In fact I think it changed my life.
Start with Episode 1: Tinder Troubles (with Will Hines).
Headlong: Surviving Y2K
Surviving Y2K is a sharply written examination of Y2K and its aftermath. The documentarian Dan Taberski tries to figure out why the world didn't end on December 31, 1999, while exploring the events that followed. This podcast is part end of the world reverie, part portrait of human life and part whodunnit mystery.
Editor's Note, December 18th, 2020:
Following an internal investigation, a substantial editors note has been published by the New York Times retracting core elements of the podcast Caliphate. It acknowledges that segments of Caliphate did not meet the New York Times standards for accuracy or fact-checking.
Regular readers of the New York Times know Rukmini Callimachi as their resident ISIS reporter. Her sources and connections grant extraordinary insight into the way the organization operates, and as a result, she routinely produces incredibly compelling stories. As the host of Caliphate, Callimachi brings us into those stories with her. It's a journey into the world of ISIS, beginning with an interview with a returned Canadian ISIS fighter and taking us to the battlefields of Mosul, with all the suspense and drama that entails.
We went back and forth on whether we should include The Daily on our list — but how could we not? It continues to be the gold standard in news storytelling, they keep surprising us with excellent episodes and they are so unbelievably consistent in their quality. We are constantly impressed by their team's amazing work.
Jonathan Van Ness is my favourite part of Netflix's hit Queer Eye, and fans of the show will recognize his exuberance and warmth immediately on Getting Curious. As an interviewer, his (highly underrated) thoughtfulness and intellect also get to shine. The podcast's subject matter is all over the place — in a good way! Nowhere else will you find conversations about astronomy, Brexit, sexism in film scoring, what makes a cult a cult, and Kim Kardashian all in one podcast. It's the perfect quick listen, whether you need to turn your brain off or on.
After four years, Reply All is well-established as a consistently good show. But this year it seemed like the podcast took an extra-big leap forward. Just about every episode has been outstanding, compelling and expertly told. Whether they're exposing the shady world of Snapchat hackers or the inner workings of a phone scam operation in India, Reply All is able to consistently produce gripping stories with the journalism to back them up. And thanks to the unique comedic chemistry between hosts Alex Goldman and P.J. Vogt, they manage to do it all while making you feel like you're hanging out with friends, swapping stories and jokes over beers.
The Big Story
Podcasting has seen a massive influx of daily news podcasts due to the success of The Daily. Finally we got one from the Canadian news perspective. I've been really impressed with the variety and breadth of their episodes so far. In a world where the news cycle moves so fast it's really nice to dive deeper into a headline and get the necessary context to make sense of it all. Plus, it's nice to explore some other areas of current events that aren't as Trump-focused as some of the American daily shows.
In historical terms, the Clinton-Lewinsky affair was not that long ago, but after two decades a lot of the key players and events get sidelined as the historical narrative takes shape. For its second season, Slow Burn revisited the story and told it slowly, the way it unfolded. Host Leon Nayfakh was able to interview some of the main characters of the saga, and their commentary lends invaluable insight and context to an event whose echoes we can still hear today.
30 for 30: Bikram
This podcast is harrowing. With top-notch reporting from Julia Lowrie Henderson, this five-part series digs deep into the problematic rise and fall of Bikram Choudhury, the founder of his own style of hot yoga performed in a series of 26 postures. In 2014, survivors began coming forward with accounts of how Choudhury had sexually assaulted them at teacher training sessions. As someone who not only practiced Bikram, but ran her own studio for a time, Lowrie Henderson brings expertise and empathy to a story that is not easy to tell.
Plus, we wanted to share our team's favourite CBC Podcasts from the last year. Here are our picks:
This was probably my #1 podcast this year. This podcast is an incredible piece of reporting that looks at the impact that the Sixties Scoop had. It has been lauded by critics and won the inaugural award for best serialized story at the Third Coast International Audio Festival in Chicago. I just think it's such an emotional, intense and important podcast. It's definitely worth listening to, if you haven't yet.
At long last, this fall the CBC entered the daily news podcast game with Front Burner. Every weekday morning, the show tackles one issue in the news, breaking it down for those of us who don't have time to follow every single story of the day. Comparisons to The Daily are inevitable, but well-earned. Host Jayme Poisson, a podcasting rookie, is a natural behind the mic, and she and her team have been consistently generating thoughtful and informative daily shows. It's refreshing to have a podcast like this that can draw on the resources of one of Canada's premiere news organizations — not that I'm biased or anything.
Personal Best is a self-improvement podcast that "helps you be your best you, given the constraints." From waking up on time to being more decisive, the Personal Best team uses creative and often hilarious thinking to help their guests do their personal best to varying degrees of success. It's is heartwarming without being schmaltzy — funny without being mean. A refreshing change from our often hypercritical world.
Hosts Leah Simone Bowen and Falen Johnson have some of the best chemistry and host dynamics I've ever heard. Each week they explore stories from Canada's history that you've probably never heard or know little about. The show is well-produced, entertaining and bound to stoke your curiosity about the complexities of Canadian history.
Other People's Problems
Out of all the new podcasts I heard this year, I think this one has stayed with me the most. With Other People's Problems, host and therapist Hillary McBride brings the taboo topic of therapy out into the open by recording real-life therapy sessions with her real-life clients. Each episode features a different client struggling with a different issue, from grief to depression to abuse, and throughout each session McBride will cut in with narration to help give us context for what we're hearing. Listening to this podcast almost feels like you're eavesdropping on something you're not supposed to hear. It's heartfelt and captivating.