A.V. Club Most Read

Our favorite podcasts of 2016

Casey Wilson and Danielle Schneider from Bitch Sesh (Image: Matt Winkelmeyer/Getty Images)
Casey Wilson and Danielle Schneider from Bitch Sesh (Image: Matt Winkelmeyer/Getty Images)

Last year, podcasting hit a hot streak, as Barack Obama took to Marc Maron’s garage for one of his most candid interviews, proving that this medium remains dedicated to the sincere, unifying power of the conversation. This year, the focus on politics remained with Hillary Clinton not simply guesting, but rather creating her own podcast, which is rumored to continue post election. And Canada joined the party, too, with The Imposter, Sleepover, and Heavyweight. Podmass is celebrating these achievements by awarding accolades to the best and brightest in this year’s class. Below are The A.V. Club’s Podmass superlatives for 2016:

Most musical: Improv4Humans
Sing A Long Experiment #1

Matt Besser is no stranger to using his podcast to approach improv in different ways. He’s hosted musicians and poets to inspire scenes with their work, used his platform to confront internet trolls head-on, and devoted entire episodes to a single improvised longform narrative. With this experiment he weaves well-known songs like “Living On A Prayer,” “The River,” and “Me And Julio Down By The Schoolyard” throughout improvised scenes, asking a stacked lineup of improvisers (Horatio Sanz, Colton Dunn, Eugene Cordero, and Danielle Schneider) to sing along and use the classic lyrics as inspiration. The result is basically an improvised jukebox musical. Not every note is perfect, but the group fully commits to each beat without making obvious choices, and they pull out plenty other musical references along the way. A scene depicting a rivalry between David Bowie and Prince in the afterlife that leads into a rendition of “Space Oddity” is especially fun. It’s nice for a show to successfully introduce a new concept, and it’s a delight to hear everyone have such a good time doing it. [Brianna Wellen]

Most dramatic: The Real Real Housewives on Bitch Sesh: A Real Housewives Breakdown
Tipsying Point

Casey Wilson and Danielle Schneider dedicate their podcast to covering the drama among the rich women of major cities across the country who have put their lives in front of Bravo cameras. But in a quest to prove that the catty behavior on screen is genuine, in this episode the pair debut “The Real Real Housewives Theatre.” The first in a series of real-life interactions between high-society women is an email chain with the subject line “Next teacher appreciation luncheon committee planning meeting.” Wilson and Schneider put their acting skills to the test in a reading that starts as a simple exchange of information to a committee of 20 women who are honoring their children’s teacher at the end of the school year. It quickly escalates into a condescending, aggressive exchange between two mothers debating the minutiae of the event. Maybe it’s Wilson and Schneider’s colorful characterizations of these women, or it could be the details too ridiculous to be made up, but the lives of the Real Real Housewives are almost more compelling than those of the Real Housewives themselves. [Brianna Wellen]

Best reason to stop doing yoga: My Favorite Murder
Namaste Sexy

Since My Favorite Murder’s first episode, Georgia Hardstark and Karen Kilgariff have proven that there can be humor found in even the most gruesome of true crime stories. But that doesn’t mean that the dark, nitty-gritty details don’t linger, and none are more upsetting than those tied to the cult of Lululemon. It’s hard to look at middle-age, stay-at-home moms in yoga pants the same way after hearing Hardstark and Kilgariff discuss the strange pressure and rules applied to Lululemon employees, and even harder still to look a salesperson in the eye after learning about the grisly murder that took place in one of the stores. This wasn’t the crime of an enlightened yogi—this was the work of a psychopath probably driven crazy by overpriced running shorts and ear warmers. Hardstark and Kilgariff give their own sage advice with each murder in the vein of their signature catchphrase “Stay sexy, and don’t get murdered.” The lesson here? Avoid yoga and all athletics at any cost. [Brianna Wellen]

Most essential post-election leftist listening: Chapo Trap House
We Live In The Zone Now

In the immediate aftermath of the election, the hosts of Chapo Trap House weren’t even sure that they would be able to keep the podcast going. Until then, when they weren’t exploring the deeply weird lives of all their least favorite pundits, they were mostly criticizing the Democratic Party from a progressive perspective, in hopes of nudging conversations about its candidate (who they, just as much as everyone else, fully expected to be elected president) leftward; and then, suddenly, the show had lost in its rudder. After regrouping, though, Will Menaker, Felix Biederman, and Matt Christman returned with a renewed sense of purpose and an episode that serves perfectly both as a balm and an anti-balm: A call by Virgil Texas—who, along with Amber A’Lee Frost, has since been named an addition to the cast of co-hosts—for solidarity in the fight against the oncoming tide of fascism is truly affecting and comforting. It’s preceded by an hour of righteous anger about the election results, as well as an energizing passion for building a new, vital left in the U.S. that stands a real chance of countering Trump and accomplishing substantial progressive goals. It also, in the process, makes a strong case for the show only becoming more and more important over the next four years. [Colin Griffith]

Most controversial discussion of fast-food burgers: Doughboys
Tournament Of Chompions: FINALS – In-N-Out Burger V. Shake Shack

Before Donald Trump was elected president of the United States, the most ridiculous turn of events to transpire in 2016 was easily the Doughboys’ Tournament Of Chompions: Munch Madness: Burger Brawl. The sudden-death elimination challenge pitted some of the nation’s favorite fast-food burgers against each other in an effort to determine which one should be sent to the aliens (it [sort of] makes sense if you listen), and it reached theretofore unprecedented levels of absurdity when it came to its extremely dramatic and shocking conclusion. Evan Susser’s turn as corrupt commissioner is really something special, as is the fact that Wendy’s and Burger King somehow end up back in the competition by the end of it. Mike Mitchell and Nick Wiger were really quite sick of burgers and each other by this point, and the show only gets funnier as two grow more frustrated and despondent. It wouldn’t be Doughboys if the hosts didn’t feel physically ill and weren’t unabashedly pissed off at each other all while assigning asininely specific ratings to $4 hamburgers, and in that sense the tournament (and most especially its ending) is an excellent encapsulation of a consistently excellent podcast. [Colin Griffith]

Best time capsule: Trumpcast
The Morning After

This is one podcast episode that, even if you can’t bring yourself to listen to it, you should probably download, store in an airtight canister, and bury beneath the radiation penetration depth in your backyard. Future generations will be extremely interested in gauging the mood immediately after the 2016 U.S. presidential election. Imagine if somebody had thought to record a podcast the morning after the K-T asteroid struck the Yucatán Peninsula 65 million years ago. That seems like something that would be worth keeping, right? Slate editor Jacob Weisberg was really hoping to conclude his eight-month podcasting project after Election Day three weeks ago. No such luck. In fact, his show has been more vital than ever since the results came in. No longer a smirking look at a political curiosity, Weisberg and his guests are suddenly addressing topics of immense national and global interest. But this episode—this one recorded on November 10, 2016—is the aural equivalent of a freshly exposed nerve. One day, people will think back on the Trump presidency as a historical inevitability of sorts. But this confused and stunned conversation will stand as a record of just how much this occurrence fucked up people’s shit. [Dennis DiClaudio]

Best slumber party we wish we were invited to: Hollywood Handbook
Friends, Our Close Friends

This year saw Hollywood Handbook hosts Sean Clements and Hayes Davenport on opposite coasts for some months, unable to be in the same room to record their show. To say it was a rough patch would be a lie; in fact, they took the long-distance relationship in stride and put out some of their best material yet. But when they finally reunited in this seminal episode, it was a moment in time for the podcast that showcased just why fans stuck around in the first place. After realizing that Davenport wasn’t actually in New York but in the women’s restroom at Earwolf, the two catch up with an after-hours slumber party where they pivot their characters in a way that makes them seem like two teenage girls who just want to chat all night. They describe curling up in sound blankets taken from the studio walls and staring up at glow-in-the-dark stars on the ceiling as they play Fuck, Marry, Kill using Earwolf engineers; discuss which Sklar brother they like best as well as their new favorite shows. It’s an episode that relies wholly on their chemistry, and the slumber-party setup exemplifies everything fans love about them as a duo. [Rebecca Bulnes]

Most likely to lift your spirits: Griffin McElroy, Justin McElroy, Travis McElroy
My Brother, My Brother And Me

2016 was a complicated and tough year, but every week, three voices came together to create a beacon of light that made it all better, and those were the sweet sounds of the McElroy brothers. Griffin, Justin, and Travis are three of podcasting’s goofiest hosts, and they’ve created a community that is uniquely warm and inviting, and this year My Brother, My Brother And Me (just one of many McElroy productions) provided a world where fans could be swept away for an hour or so to a place where the only priority is to laugh and have a good time. The show is a prime example of their unwavering charm and never fails to put you in a good mood. Take, for example, an episode like “Coyotes Ate Our Dad,” in which the three plot out a movie about a coyote named Kyle who just wants to be a father, or “Which One Vapes?” where they create the best game ever and bring with them their infectious joy. The McElroys are committed to having fun and making the best of any situation, and even just as a listener, it’s hard not to do the same. [Rebecca Bulnes]

Best use of minimalism: Casefile

When Casefile debuted in January 2016, there was little on its surface that distinguished it from the spate of other popular true crime podcasts available. As the months went on, though, the podcast’s deliberately sparse production value became its strongest asset, plunging listeners into a pool of ambient silence with a host neither named nor contextualized. The crimes revisited in Casefile are carefully selected to be relative unknowns, their horrors all the more chilling for the fact that you don’t know what’s coming. And though some of these cases were (or still are) notorious regionally, the podcast does not go the typical route of parading listeners through a montage of primary source material like evening news reports or interviews with now-wizened investigators; instead, the stories are unfolded slowly and methodically by the anonymous host, with just enough editorializing to make it feel like a friend or a witness is relaying the tale. Turning the volume way up yields a ghostly set of tinkling musical notes beneath the narration, adding a sinister layer to a production that already seems to echo from the depths of an old evidence locker. [Marnie Shure]

Finest craftsman in the art of self-deprecation: Jonathan Goldstein
Heavyweight

Jonathan Goldstein’s Heavyweight slipped into Gimlet Media’s slate of fall offerings, fully formed and gorgeous, in September 2016. Its eight-episode run unfurled like an act-riddled This American Life episode (indeed, Goldstein is a longtime contributor), and presented this question: Which moments in your life would you revisit and revise if you could? Each week saw a fresh subject embarking on their own nostalgic rewrite, with Goldstein ostensibly serving as a narrator to their self-discovery. But, being a self-aware Canadian Jew with a flair for self-flagellation, Goldstein instead treats us to a rich collage of petty insults delightfully leveled against himself: “Even though they’re in their 80s, Sheldon and Buzz still possess voices suited to shouting out Brooklyn tenement windows,” Goldstein says, “while my voice is best suited to asking a waitress if there will be a sharing charge.” His baldness, his softness, his timidity, his lack of conviction—all of these add stage dressing to Heavyweight, jabs honed by a lifetime of self-scrutiny. But in this, too, we see a moving vulnerability. Even as he helps others find their footing, he admits, “I’m still surprised by how precarious my sense of stability can be.” [Marnie Shure]

Best (semi-)reversal of mission: We Hate Movies
Pet Sematary II

Make no mistake—We Hate Movies won’t be changing its name to We Love Movies anytime soon, as the gang still takes pleasure in disemboweling the most rancid of cinematic turkeys from time to time. But there’s a reason why they sometimes jokingly use the inverse of their regular title. As any lover of trash knows, bad movies fall into two distinct categories: “so bad it’s good” and “so bad it’s torturous.” And as the podcast has grown over the years, the hosts have become increasingly interested in the former, marveling at batshit acting, writing, and directorial choices with a glee that borders on admiration. Case in point: their Halloween Spooktacular dissection of Pet Sematary II, which essentially becomes a tribute to Clancy Brown’s scenery-chewing performance as a murderous, reanimated sheriff. Like Brown, the guys of WHM revel in camp, recognizing that embracing the awfulness of a film is often a lot more rewarding than taking it down with snark. That excitement became infectious in 2016, a year when We Hate Movies proved that, in the overcrowded world of bad-movie podcasts, it’s not always enough to just make fun of something. [Dan Caffrey]

Directors’ hall of fame: Bret Easton Ellis Podcast
Karyn Kusama

Although Bret Easton Ellis has featured a wide variety of artists on his podcast (his first guest back in 2013 was Kanye West), film has always been his conversation topic of choice. The medium feels especially prevalent when considering all the powerhouse directors he interviewed on his show in 2016, from ’70s auteurs such as Peter Bogdanovich to unhinged provocateurs like Larry Clark. But his most fascinating talk took place with a director who’s much younger: Karyn Kusama, who helmed Girlfight, Jennifer’s Body, The Invitation, and the doomed live-action version of Æon Flux. Her journey from successful indie darling to franchise hopeful and back gives her a unique perspective that few directors have—old enough to have been involved with several midlevel indie films yet young enough to have felt the death knell of that particular brand of movie. She’s also one of the few guests to call Ellis out on some of his more controversial viewpoints, though not combatively so. In that way, the Kusama interview is a microcosm of all the things that make the Bret Easton Ellis Podcast great: constructive disagreement, a discussion of cinematic ideology versus cinematic aesthetic, and reflections from someone who’s seen many, many different sides of Hollywood. [Dan Caffrey]

Strangest range of guests: Talk Is Jericho
Inside The Benoit Family Tragedy

Chris Jericho has been having a helluva late-career renaissance on WWE television as of late, having put a new spin on his entitled-heel persona that’s dovetailed gorgeously with guests like rising stars Kevin Owens and Dean Ambrose. He’s also making moves behind the scenes. His long-running podcast, Talk Is Jericho, has spent 2016 further establishing itself as a rarity in its own genre: a wrestling podcast that isn’t bound to wrestling. Sure, Jericho has access to WWE’s top talent (Seth Rollins, Shinsuke Nakamura, Bayley), as well as outside superstars (Matt Hardy, The Young Bucks), but he also indulges his own interests, which run the gamut from heavy metal and horror to conspiracy, porn, and comedy. Often, he interviews the less obvious, people with answers to questions you’d never thought to ask. One such example is his interview with Sandra Toffoloni, who provides previously untapped insight into the death of her sister and nephew at the hands of her brother-in-law, WWE superstar Chris Benoit. It’s an interview that’s as cathartic as it is visceral. As always, Jericho is apt, engaged, and empathetic. No matter the topic, his approach is enthusiastic and open-minded. Jericho’s podcast is its own kind of safe space. He wants to hear his guest’s truth, no matter how alienating or controversial. Pretty impressive for a guy whose onscreen character is known for calling the audience “stupid idiots.” [Randall Colburn]

When you need a friend: We Hate Movies
Anaconda

We Hate Movies is a Podmass regular for a number of reasons. It’s consistently funny, rarely navel-gazing, and constantly creative in a genre of podcasting (“bad movies”) that’s too often content to retreat into cliché or lazy mockery. But there’s also something to its hosts—Andrew Jupin, Stephen Sajdak, Eric Szyszka, and Chris Cabin aren’t L.A. celebs who moonlight as podcasters, nor is this just an extension of their brand. On a larger scale, We Hate Movies represents your average cinematic obsessive, the kind of person who revels in trash as much as they do high art. Picking any individual episode of We Hate Movies is tough, as each episode has its highlight, whether it be a bit, discovery, or unique take; but this year’s episode on 1997’s Anaconda stands out for the team’s endless riffs on Jon Voight’s Cajun snake hunter, resulting in one of their best impressions since they watched Wilford Brimley fuck around with Ewoks. To follow We Hate Movies is a long-term relationship; there’s something comforting about each new episode, like you’ve just arrived at the bar for a night of riffing with your funniest friends. Some podcasts exist for discovery, others for insight. We Hate Movies is one of the rare few that exists truly as a hangout. Sometimes you really just wanna hang out. [Randall Colburn]

Keepin’ us sane: Keepin’ It 1600
The Day After

Keepin’ It 1600 is The Ringer’s left-leaning political podcast. It’s hosted by former Obama aides Jon Favreau, Dan Pfeiffer, Jon Lovett, and Tommy Vietor. It’s smart, informed, funny, and kibble for progressives who like a side of logic with their liberalism. Unfortunately, for all its strengths, Keepin’ It 1600 was overconfident in the months leading up to the election. Its central foursome was hubristic in its surety of a Clinton presidency. That smugness can be heard in their “The Night Before Election Day” episode, but their bold, confident course correction in the following entry, “The Day After,” is rife with humility, introspection, and action. The podcast began as a way to explore policy but soon got caught up, like most news networks, in Trump gaffes and horse races. Sure, it kept lefties sane, but it also kept them a touch complacent. That complacency is gone now. The latest batch of episodes burn with a renewed sense of fire and purpose, but what’s perhaps more important are the level heads at the helm. There’s no panic here, no outrage; what we have now is politically savvy policy talk to ensure that listeners are approaching a Trump presidency with knowledge, insight, and context rather than blind rage. [Randall Colburn]