It’s the day after Thanksgiving. I suspect that those of us who are NOT revving up our engines for a day of Black Friday shopping will be waking up late, foraging in the fridge for leftovers, slathering gelatinous gravy on cold slabs of turkey that will melt in the microwave into a delectable, re-heated mess—yet another blessing.
And maybe, if you (like me) are preparing to travel hither and yon this holiday season, you might be thankful for some new podcast recommendations. Folks, we live in a great time for audio entertainment, so I present to you “Lend Me Your Ears Part II”: my favorite podcasts of 2018.
What happens when a high-profile cast (Catherine Keener, Oscar Isaac, David Schwimmer, David Cross, and Amy Sedaris) performs a nail-biting psychological podcast thriller about veterans being treated for more than PTSD in a shady convalescent center? Answer: Amazon buys the rights to the story and turns it into a show with even bigger actor fish (like Julia Roberts). I listened to Homecoming about a year ago and COULD NOT STOP! I have yet to see if the Amazon series will be as compelling as the audio original.
Average Time: 30 minutes
The Brits have always produced a steady stream of fictional audio dramas (unlike the Americans, who are rejoining the fun after a hiatus since our Golden Age in the early twentieth century). This new show from across the pond trades in all the classical devices of Jeeves-and-Wooster-style farce. Curmudgeonly mortician Rudyard Funn and his socially maladroit agoraphobe sister, Antigone, are the incompetent proprietors of the only funeral home on the island of Piffling (in the English Channel). That is, until the superhuman genius mortician, Eric Chapman, moves into town. Chaos ensues, quirky characters abound, and emotions run high. Oh, and the whole shebang is narrated by a mouse.
Average Time: 30 minutes
This summer I became a convert to the journalistic podcast miniseries. Maybe this is a sign of my weakening attention span, but I tend to like my nonfiction in thirty-minute installments.
Take for example, the fascinating peek into the Chicago political machinations that enabled Barack Obama’s meteoric rise from community organizer to senator to President of the United States. We tend to overlook local and state politics in the overwhelming drama of the federal shenanigans, but in this telling of Obama’s political coming of age, the city of Chicago is a main character. Mr. Obama himself gives an interview on the podcast and, because the show is from the WBEZ Chicago studios, it draws on a wealth of archived audio to flesh out his story.
7 episodes; Average time 20-50 minutes
Obviously, the rise of ISIS cannot be explained over the course of a podcast miniseries, but Caliphate gave me a great (and riveting) introduction. Rather than tackling large theoretical issues behind the conflict, this podcast follows New York Times reporter Rukmini Callimachi and her team as they investigate individual members of ISIS. They try to figure out why people join and uncover what happens in the initiation process. Their journey covers the recruitment of homegrown terrorists in the U.S., immigration camps in the Middle East, the frontlines in Mosel, and many places in between.
10 episodes; Average time: 30 minutes
Spotaneanation with Paul F. Tompkins
Once a week, comedian Paul F. Tompkins records a conversation with a celebrity and then, with the help of some of his improviser friends, creates a long-form improvised narrative inspired by the conversation. Tompkins is a vivacious host, and you will find yourself laughing along with him and his witty pals. A plus—the whole thing is scored in real time by a pianist, whose evocative plunkings create a fun sound stage for the stories as they unfold.
Average time: 75-90 minutes
A Very Fatal Murder
This goofy, yet shrewd parody from The Onion is for all the Serial, Criminal, and other true crime fans out there with a sense of humor. “David Paschal” (a reporter in the style of Serial’s Sarah Koenig) investigates “the most compelling murder in America”—the death of a “supple young girl” somewhere in middle America. The timing, tone, and catch phrases of David’s voiceovers capture the sound (and self-seriousness) of true crime podcasts with pitch-perfect accuracy, and it’s very, very funny.
8 Episodes; average time 10 minutes
I love movie/TV show podcasts, and right now, I’m particularly charmed by the insightful commentary and winsome chemistry between Paul Scheer, a performer-of-all-trades type, and film critic Amy Nicholson. Amy and Paul are watching all the American Film Institute’s 100 greatest films of all time, offering fun facts, historical context, and repartee along the way. I love the special guests on the show, for example: a stunt guy breaks down the chariot race from Ben Hur, a tap-dancer discusses the legacy of Singin’ in the Rain, or a scientist who studies the possibility of extraterrestrial life gives his take on Spielberg’s E.T.
Average time: 80 minutes
Good Christian Fun
Hosts Kevin T. Porter (of Gilmore Guys fame) and Caroline Ely have created a podcast designed to meet the unique pop culture needs of many of the readers of this blog—people who grew up in some strand of Christian evangelicalism. Kevin and Caroline explore touchstones of Christian pop culture (old and new). Special guests from a variety of faith backgrounds share their “guestimony” and then join Kevin and Caroline for a rollicking conversation about the good, bad, and ugly of Christian media and other special segments, like their ongoing “hunt for the worst Christian song of all time.”
Average time: 60-90 minutes
After a trial-by-fire year as public school substitute teacher and fly-by-night freelancer, Julia will shed the tribulations of the work-world to embark on a MA in art history and museum studies at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, OH. If you are in town, she’ll gladly take you to a local museum. She enjoys walks, leopard print, and good conversation.