The best podcasts of 2013

The best podcasts of 2013

What happened to podcasts in 2013? As The A.V. Club’s Podmass reviewers convened to parse the year’s best podcasts, a changing of the guard seemed to be afoot: Five of the 11 podcasts that made our best-of list this year weren’t on the 2012 list, and three of them didn’t even exist before last year. All of the shows that slipped from our top 10 are still going strong and doing good work—with the exception of The Pod F. Tompkast, whose return seems less likely every day—but didn’t end up in the best-of list this year for whatever reason. Our reviewers voted for 44 different podcasts this year (we kept our rule against nationally syndicated radio shows that are also released as podcasts), which they submitted via a simple numbered list of one through five. Their first pick earned five points, the second one four, and so forth. We added them all up, eliminated anything from the top 10 that only received a vote from one person, and ended up with the following list. Check the ballots below that for more discussion on a wider list of staff favorites, and don’t forget to vote for yours in our readers’ poll

10. The Fogelnest Files (four points, two votes)
It wouldn’t be a mistake exactly to call The Fogelnest Files a comedy podcast. Jake Fogelnest has comedy chops (his résumé includes jokes on “Weekend Update” and a recent stint on Billy On The Street), and he is all too eager to veer into silliness whenever his guest is down to play. But it also wouldn’t be a complete description of how the show has evolved since its premiere last August. As when he recently sat down with punk elder statesmen Kim Fowley and Don Bolles to chat and share his regular collection of YouTube oddities, Fogelnest has positioned himself at the intersection of several seemingly disparate scenes: alt-comedy, punk, cult cinema, and “weird Twitter,” to name a few. While his largely comedy-oriented live shows continue to be hit-or-miss, he’s rather unbeatable when it comes to the depth and breadth of his cultural niche knowledge. His curatorial enthusiasm is likewise boundless, so much so that even if he has a self-professed bias against a wide swath of contemporary pop music, the show’s cultural mission remains largely unhindered. At its best, The Fogelnest Files isn’t about shining stars; it’s about buried treasure.

Check out: Fogelnest’s recent interview with similarly minded enthusiast Derrick Beckles is a cogent introduction to the kinds of things that get him going. As previously mentioned, the show’s periodic and informal oral histories of punk are entertaining and educational for anybody who’s open to learning more about the scene and can tolerate some posturing. The episodes with documentarians like Josh Johnson, Jeffrey Schwarz, and Rodney Ascher also offer impressively detailed treatments of marginal aspects of the media landscape.

9. Pop Culture Happy Hour (five points, two votes)
All thanks for another stellar year of Pop Culture Happy Hour go to NPR’s Code Switch blog, which injected some new enthusiasm and provided what nobody thought the program needed: new voices. Not that Linda Holmes, Stephen Thompson, Glen Weldon, and Trey Graham need replacing, but the occasional guest rotation that included Code Switch’s Gene Demby and Kat Chow made for delightful episodes throughout the year with people from different parts of NPR’s writing staff. This summer’s glut of explosive blockbuster films clearly wore everyone on the panel down after a few months, but the occasional guest spot picked up the energy right when it was needed. As usual, Holmes’ visit to the TCAs in Los Angeles also yielded another great episode predicting what new shows would survive and what ones would crash and burn.

Check out:Fruitvale Station’ And Yelling At Clouds,”or “12 Years’ And Rites Of Passage,” which both feature members of Code Switch discussing some of the year’s biggest conversation-starting films. Oh, and you may have heard that Glen Weldon’s excellent book on Superman came out this year, so the Man Of Steel episode is worth a listen as well. 

8. Harmontown (seven points, two votes)
The worst thing to happen to Harmontown this year was Kumail Nanjiani’s rise to prominence, which took him away from the show for long stretches of time (for a good reason). Oh, but there was also this other thing that happened… Dan Harmon getting hired back as Community showrunner, and running his mouth all the time about the fourth season. No matter your take on Harmon’s dickishness, this year Harmontown was a consistent comedic force—as expertly detailed back in February by Alex Pappademas at Grantland—with a rabidly dedicated fan base eager to hear Harmon’s unfiltered observations. The demeanor will undoubtedly change once the fifth season of Community starts airing in January, but for now, Harmon is riding high again.

Check out: Episode #72, Jib Jab Squeeb Squab, features the triumphant return of Kumail Nanjiani after an extended absence. Seriously, he’s the year’s MVP guest not just on Harmontown, but everywhere else too.

7. Welcome To Night Vale (eight points, three votes)
A little podcast about a fictitious small-town public-radio station broadcasting about supernatural events went from an obscure outlet for Commonplace Books to a show rubbing elbows with comedy-podcast heavy-hitters like WTF and Comedy Bang! Bang! in less than two years. That’s the meteoric rise of Welcome To Night Vale, a blend of Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio; Edgar Lee Masters’ Spoon River Anthology; and A Prairie Home Companion, as broadcast from The Twilight Zone. Segments on community politics, school-board meetings, traffic, and weather reports all twist into dark, fantastical narratives—then get resolved after a musical interlude. It’s a distinctly Brooklyn creation, but don’t hold that against Night Vale. This is the best young podcast out there at the moment, and the writers haven’t dipped in quality since the leap in popularity.

Check out: Episode #13, A Story About You. Yes, it’s technically from the very end of 2012, but it’s the first absolute masterstroke episode the show produced. After that, two-part episode “The Sandstorm” shows what the writers can do with a more expansive narrative arc. But really, there are only 35 episodes spanning less than 20 hours, so it’s not a huge commitment to start from the beginning and hop on the bandwagon.

6. Doug Loves Movies (eight points, four votes)
The longevity of Doug Loves Movies, which has been around since 2006, can be attributed to Doug Benson’s commitment to prolificacy and his willingness to change the formula with new games, rules, or in-jokes that become a part of the podcast’s fabric over time. This year, that resulted in both a new game in the rotation (the simple, but usually fun Seth Rogen game) and a new rule that Leonard Maltin Game winners can return the following week. The latter led to a run of episodes featuring Paul F. Tompkins’ Werner Herzog character, which rank among the show’s best. The show lives and dies by its panel of guests, and Benson’s commitment to abundance has resulted in some shows lacking in quality what they possess in quantity. It’s no easy feat booking an all-star panel every week, but DLM still hits far more often than it misses. Benson experienced some blowback a couple months ago when he threatened to stop doing the show after a lackluster turnout at the UCB live taping—a threat he’s since backed off on—but that fan reaction shows that even as DLM settles in to its well-worn groove, it remains a worthwhile listen.

Check out: The aforementioned run of Herzog episodes are all worth a listen, but the standout is the one that pits him against Jon Hamm and a giggly Nick Offerman. And for those who can stomach it, January’s rematch among the show’s three most notoriously annoying guests—Jeff Garlin, Pete Holmes, and TJ Miller—is delightful, horrifying anarchy. 

5. (tie) The Bugle (nine points, two votes)
For the past six years, The Bugle has shown no mercy to anyone Andy Zaltzman and John Oliver deem idiotic. Through a combination of sharp satire, horrible puns, and flights of fancy, the two had a huge year of sending up global crises, economic insecurity, and insane political leaders from far-flung countries. It wasn’t just a big year for the show, though; Oliver soared to new heights when he filled in as host at The Daily Show. Despite the added responsibility, The Bugle managed to chug forward with a slightly erratic schedule, and turned Oliver’s rising profile into show fodder with stories of his quasi-celebrity life. And best of all, this year the duo was introduced to The Iron Sheik’s ballistic Twitter feed, which added yet another level of absurd comic relief to an already wonderfully absurd program.

Check out: The Bugle put out some of its best episodes leading up to Oliver’s run on The Daily Show. Almost any one from April to May is a hit, such as “Rome’s Most Eligible Bachelor,” which saw Zaltzman at the peak of his punning. The following week’s episode, “Cyprus Ready To Go Mad Max,” is also uproarious. More recently, “Nailing The Truth To The Floor“ masterfully juxtaposes absurd slice-of-life beats with the then-developing Typhoon Haiyan situation for an incredibly self-aware episode.

The Flop House (nine points, two votes)
The Flop House has gradually improved the longer it’s been around, but that growth seems to have accelerated over the last year and a half. Thus it only makes sense that 2013 was its best year yet, with nary a misstep—every single episode released this year earned a Best designation in Podmass (that’s no small feat), and rightfully so. On top of that, there was also a fair crop of superlative episodes in the mix that became instant classics. The Flop House hosts took the time to develop their rapport and their singular approach to bad-movie discussion over the podcast’s six-year existence, and consequently it’s now hard to find a podcast that consistently offers so much silliness and pure joy.

Check out: The Original Peaches’ treatment of The Oogieloves, Stolen, and Foodfight! is as good as anything they’ve ever done, both as hilarious building blocks in the mythology of the show and as stand-alone, introductory episodes for new listeners. Many other episodes feature more references to past episodes and such, but still it’s hard to go wrong with any of them.

4. Savage Lovecast (11 points, three votes)
Savage Lovecast stands as an oasis of sanity in a culture built on sex negativity. In addition to serving as a kind of counter-programming to traditional narratives about sexuality, Dan Savage has also managed to create a show that’s funny, smart, and endlessly entertaining. While there are only so many ways to answer questions about the best way to break up with someone or seek a third for a hopeful ménage à trois, Savage’s biting wit and charisma have kept the show fresh for seven years. The podcast expanded in 2013, offering a premium service for listeners who want more Savage and fewer advertisements for urethral electrodes. Even if listeners don’t agree with Savage on every one of his provocative rants or nuggets of wisdom, there’s little doubt he’s responsible for one of the most wonderfully singular visions available for download.

Check out: The chilling Halloween special, which features Dr. Sydnee and Justin McElroy of the Sawbones podcast talking about history’s horrific treatments for sexually transmitted infections. One of the upsides of the program is the low bar necessary for entry; new listeners can jump in at any time with little need for explanation beyond a few acronyms. 

3. The Best Show On WFMU (18 points, four votes)
The Best Show took another page out of the Big Star playbook in 2013 by saving the weirdest for last. If the radio show follows the influential Memphis band’s lead by growing exponentially after its demise, the final year should be analyzed with the same reverence as an unhinged gem like Third. The show, which ends on December 17, will exit the stage with a wonderfully uncompromising year that highlighted Tom Scharpling’s obsessive reinvention of the program. Scharpling found a new way to tell stories with an evolving sound collage that served as a bizarre musical peek into the dark and light in his soul, while his work with Jon Wurster remained as sharp and funny as ever. A 13-year run of consistently excellent moments dwarfs the competition, many of which will likely be forgotten long before The Best Show. The self-proclaimed “King Of Free Entertainment” abandoned the free part of that title in 2013, but the king stayed the king. Long live The Best Show

Check out: The program relied less on guests in 2013, giving Scharpling the time to fully flesh out ideas like his delightful Don Imus-esque apology to grandmothers and threatening message to invading cicadas in this standout installment. For a taste of Scharpling’s sound collages, try this brilliant one in October. And fans of Paul “Jelloman” Vile and fellow Philadelphian “Philly Boy Roy” Ziegler (Wurster) got a delightful double shot here.

2. WTF (27 points, nine votes)
Marc Maron may have had the best and worst year of his life at the same time. His IFC series based on his podcast did well enough to merit a second, expanded season. And this year WTF nabbed insightful and entertaining interviews with comedy legends like Mel Brooks, Carl Reiner, and Dick Van Dyke, as well as guests including Elizabeth Banks, John Darnielle, Kristen Schaal, Cheech And Chong, and Thom Yorke. Although the podcast occasionally suffered from a dearth of compelling guests, this should be remembered as the year Maron proved the first 15 minutes of his show shouldn’t be immediately skipped. Over the summer, he announced his engagement to longtime girlfriend Jess, but by October, Maron made the stunning announcement that his engagement was over, and the monologue attempting to pick up the pieces was by far the best part of the show all year.

Check out: Episode #432, featuring the aforementioned monologue about the end of Maron’s engagement, followed by a standout interview with Orange Is The New Black’s Natasha Lyonne. Alternately, check out the Brooks-Reiner-Van Dyke trilogy for a triple dose of comedy history.

1. Comedy Bang! Bang! (29 points, seven votes)
Since The A.V. Club started doing a “podcasts of the year” article in 2010, Comedy Bang! Bang! has lurked near the top, usually edged out by Marc Maron’s career-redefining WTF. But 2013 is the year CBB finally comes out on top, and with good reason: Nothing surpasses Scott Aukerman’s program in the cloistered world of comedy podcasts. Last year, the show suffered a bit when Aukerman struggled to balance the podcast and its televised sibling, but that wasn’t a problem in 2013, even with double the number of TV episodes on Aukerman’s plate. More impressive is its 53-9 record for Best and Rest so far this year. Let this be the final word: If you like comedy and like podcasts, but aren’t listening to Comedy Bang! Bang!, you’re doing it wrong.

Check out: Any episode with Paul F. Tompkins works (ditto Andy Daly), and Tompkins’ hilarious take on filmmaker Werner Herzog is always delightful. Pair him with fan favorite Ben Schwartz, and it’s one of the best episodes of the year. That honor is a toss-up between this installment and the one with Nick Kroll and John “Juan Jamón” Hamm, so listen to them both.

BALLOTS

David Anthony
1. Nothing To Write Home About
2. WTF
3. 100 Words Or Less
4. Jonah Raydio
5. The Mental Illness Happy Hour

Austin Bernhardt
1. The Bugle
2. Comedy Bang! Bang!
3. WTF
4. Stop Podcasting Yourself
5. You Made It Weird

Trip Cook
1. The Best Show On WFMU
2. Savage Lovecast
3. Old School Wrestling Podcast
Professional wrestling falls just above competitive eating on the mainstream’s pop-culture totem pole, so the number of smart people who are willing to talk openly about their fandom is understandably small. The hosts of Old School Wrestling Podcast use pseudonyms (Black Cat and Dre) to hide their identities, but there’s no reason to feel sheepish about this quick-witted podcast on a topic that’s frequently absurd and occasionally thrilling. Black Cat and Dre rise above typical nostalgia-hocking podcasts by discussing the dumb, fun spectacle without excessive pining for the past or a need to prove that they’re smarter than their source material. It’s a delightful approach that should be a biweekly staple for anyone who loves (secretly or otherwise) classic professional wrestling. 
4. Hang Up And Listen
5. Adjust Your Tracking
While podcasting has become riddled with programs with unsustainable or gimmicky premises, this hidden gem from the Northwest Film Center Newsroom is a wonderful example of a simple show done right. The well-paced film discussion show features likable hosts Joe von Appen and Erik McClanahan tackling everything from classic film noir to modern horror remakes with real insight and enthusiasm. There are countless film-discussion podcasts, but few with more incisive conversation about recent and classic releases from two lovers of film. It’s the kind of passionate cinephile conversation that will likely deepen listeners’ love for films or genres, while inspiring searches for others. 

Dennis DiClaudio
1. Savage Lovecast
Many, many podcasts have come and gone from my iTunes, but this one has been there since almost the beginning, and I think the reason is the humanity in Dan Savage’s advice. Although he’s more than outspoken about his world views, his advice for callers never seems to be rooted in politics or agenda, but in the belief that all people deserve some happiness in this world, with or without a strap-on.
2. Judge John Hodgman
This is the newest of my podcast obsessions. In the past month, I’ve listened to the last year and a half of its run. For all the elitist bluster that makes up his public persona, John Hodgman seems to be a genuinely decent and fair-minded person. While each episode leans heavily on humor, the judgments dispensed are based in a real attempt to find a common ground and carry with them a real wisdom. Although the disputes are often trivial, the final verdict can usually be applied to life in general. Plus, Hodgman is unapologetic in his nerdism.
3. Scriptnotes
I will probably never realize my dream of becoming an under-appreciated, overworked Hollywood screenwriter. So, this podcast kind of allows me to indulge that fantasy and pretend like I’m actually going to finish that script about the undead substitute teacher for about an hour a week. 
4. Filmspotting
These guys watch really good movies and have intense, thoughtful discussions about their merits so I don’t have to. I’m then free to co-opt whichever of their opinions I feel would make me seem smarter to all the people I’d like to impress at all the dinner parties I never go to.
5. The Todd Glass Show
At its best, it’s a bunch of friends hanging out and being goofy together. At its worst, it’s the same song played over and over and over until you really can’t keep listening. But so far the positives outweigh the negatives, and it remains close to the top of my list of favorites.

D.X. Ferris
1. Fat Man On Batman
2. WTF
3. The Steve Austin Show—Unleashed!
4. Nerdist Writers Panel
5. Nerdist 

Dan Fitchette
1. The Best Show On WFMU
2. The Flop House
3. The Fogelnest Files
4. How Was Your Week?
5. Doodie Calls With Doug Mand
Doug Mand’s weekly foray into the world of bathroom emergencies is one of the more consistently funny podcasts out there. It’s not just the poop jokes that make Doodie Calls so great (though, let’s be honest, it’s hard for a good pants-shitting story to miss); rather, it’s how Mand and co-host Jack Dolgen understand that tales of humiliation and panic reveal something about human behavior at its most primal level. 

Colin Griffith
1. The Flop House
2. Comedy Bang! Bang!
3. WTF
4. Topics With Michael Ian Black And Michael Showalter
5. The Fogelnest Files

Nowah Jacobs
1. The Best Show On WFMU
2. Bullseye
3. On The Media
4. Roderick On The Line
5. Topics With Michael Ian Black And Michael Showalter 

Dan Jakes
1. Doug Loves Movies
2. Comedy Bang! Bang!
3. Sklarbro Country
4. How Did This Get Made?
5. WTF 

Tim Karan
1. Harmontown
2. Comedy Bang! Bang!
3. WTF
4. Welcome To Night Vale
5. Doug Loves Movies 

Matt Kodner
1. Improv4Humans 
It’s a shame Improv4Humans didn’t crack the list, because week after week Matt Besser delivers comedy gold to the Earwolf masses. With a rotating guest list, Besser and three others improvise long-form scenes based on off-the-cuff anecdotes. The storytelling aspect is often underplayed, but is one of the reasons nearly every episode is so successful. At times, Besser takes a more experimental approach, and the improv takes a back seat to “Case Closed” roundtable discussions, like “Ironic Hitler Teapot,” which dug into artistic intent in a fascinating way, or the unforgettable bestiality debate of “Hands In The Air,” which must be heard to be believed. For a more traditional front-to-back hilarious episode, check out “I Pet A Tiger!” or “Authentic Redneck Dialect.
2. The Bugle 
3. Comedy Bang! Bang! 
4. Art Of Wrestling 
5. You Made It Weird 
Pete Holmes is a skilled at drawing deep, personal stories out of comedians, but with a much breezier composition than Marc Maron. Nowhere is this better on display than Holmes’ chat with Chris Gethard, who tells genuinely spooky story after genuinely spooky story. If you’re not listening regularly, it’s a great place to start. 

Genevieve Koski
1. Comedy Bang! Bang!
2. 99% Invisible
3. WTF
4. Doug Loves Movies
5. Pop Culture Happy Hour

Kevin McFarland
1. Welcome To Night Vale
2. Pop Culture Happy Hour
3. WTF
4. Harmontown
5. Filmspotting

Kyle Ryan
1. Comedy Bang! Bang!
2. Never Not Funny
Comedy-podcast fans, Never Not Funny should be required listening. The subscription cost translates to about $1 per episode—100 pennies for 90 minutes or more of entertainment. It’s worth it.
3. WTF
4. Savage Love
5. Welcome To Night Vale

Holes in my podcasting heart that may never be filled again:
The Pod F. Tompkast
Mike And Tom Eat Snacks

Dan Telfer
1. The Dana Gould Hour
2. Nerd Poker
3. The Best Show On WFMU
4. The Smartest Man In The World
5. Stuff You Should Know

Illustration by Dan Henrick and Kate OLeary  

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