2017 was a strong year for podcasts. Although the medium is yet to reproduce the mainstream success of the first season of Serial, this year saw the release of a wide range of high quality and listenable content. Two networks in particular, Gimlet (Crimetown, Homecoming, Mogul: The Life and Death of Chris Lighty, Reply All) and Radiotopia (99% Invisible, Criminal, Ear Hustle, Song Exploder), came out with a lot of successful and critically-appreciated content, while a number of ‘traditional’ media outlets (from the BBC to the FT and the New York Times) launched new podcast offerings.
Podcasting is an intimate medium — for some, it is the new talk radio. Despite the presence of multi-show networks, most podcasts are still idiosyncratic, and idiosyncratically-produced, creations of a small group of amateurs. In terms of content, the medium works particularly well for two main sorts of shows. First, there is the ‘serial’ story. This is the tale told week-by-week by a narrator who often takes on the position of actively investigating the story and who frequently puts themselves into the story at various points. From true crime to history to sports, these sorts of podcasts continue to be addictive and engaging listens. Especially if you’re wearing earphones, the story feels told from very close to your ears.
The second sort of show that I find fills up my podcast app is the ‘hangout’ podcast. This is where a group of experts or friends (or both) get together to discuss a topic, often with a guest who brings in a new perspective. Many popular politics podcasts fit this bill. These shows work best when they don’t feel the need to reach any specific conclusions, and allow different points and arguments to bounce off each other.
So, this is my list of the best podcasts of 2017. Like all end of year lists, it’s completely personal (while garbed in objective justifications for the choices) and biased towards things that I listened to in the final months of 2017 (and so can remember).
(5) The Organist
The most unpredictable podcast I listened to this year, as befitting an experimental arts-and-culture podcast affiliated to McSweeney’s and The Believer magazine. From a strangely hypnotic list of unclaimed dot com addresses to an experimental translation of Antigone, The Organist
(4) Dirty John
The story of a swindler told from the point of view of the family he targets, with excellent production values and (not to give it away) a surprising ending.
(3) Age of Napoleon
The Age of Napoleon is a long-form account of the Napoleonic era of European history. There’s such a great eye for humour and detail, and a real understanding of the parts of Napoleon’s story that are exciting for listeners, that episodes like ‘A Guide to the Infantry of the Napoleon Era’ manage to be engaging while exploring forces of the class struggle underlying Napoleon’s rise. Almost closer to an audiobook in that it’s just a listener, a narrator, and a historical narrative.
Easily the biggest podcast success of 2017, S-Town is the often moving story of John B. McLemore and his Alabama hometown, and the closest thing to classic Serial (i.e. season 1) that came out this year.
(1) Chapo Trap House
Chapo remains the most listenable and interesting left-wing politics/comedy podcast out there. Closely aligned with the DSA, and seemingly pulled towards an engagement with Marxism by increasingly frequent contributor Amber A’Lee Frost, Chapo is starting to move away from its ‘Bernie Bro’ starting point. There were also some extremely funny episodes in 2017 featuring a tabletop RPG, insightful criticism of Zack Snyder’s filmmaking, and repeated guest Sebastian Gorka.
I really enjoyed Homecoming, a classic radio play featuring the voices of Catherine Keener, Oscar Isaacs and David Schwimmer, and Butterfly Effect (John Ronson’s investigation into the porn business). Little White Lies’ Truth and Movies podcast was great for considered film reviews. Finally the n+1 podcast was excellent… but only released three episodes this year (with the last in August).
Finally, a podcast that can’t be on the list (because I’m on it) is global politics podcast Aufhebunga Bunga. We try to put forward a broadly Marxist view of global politics and culture every other week.