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Podmass’ favorite podcasts of 2014, and a promise for next year

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Much has happened in the world of podcasting this year as the medium continues to find its stride. Diehards can tell you podcasts have been worthwhile since as early as 2004, but thanks to a decade of determination and notable newcomers like U Talkin’ U2 To Me, Serial, and the new podcasting network Wolfpop, 2014 may be remembered as the year podcasts were finally appreciated by the masses. Podmass is commemorating this achievement by awarding accolades to a few of the best and brightest in this year’s class. Below are The A.V. Club’s Podmass superlatives for 2014:


Most Likely To Win A Podmass Superlative:


Garnering unprecedented levels of listening, obsession, amateur sleuthing, and Thursday-morning office discussion, Serial is the late-to-the-game transfer student nobody knows who wins prom king 12 weeks later. How does an unknown rise so quickly through the social ranks to become the most talked-about entity of its genre? By giving the podcast age a good old-fashioned whodunit, minus the part of actually learning who did it. Host Sarah Koenig didn’t solve the mystery of a murder that took place 15 years ago, but in the process of investigating it she gave listeners enough information to form their own theories and opinions. It’s hard not to feel personally invested in her endeavor, and listeners feel like they have a stake in the outcome of Adnan Syed, whether they think he’s innocent, guilty, or somewhere in-between. We may never know what really happened to Hae Min Lee, but with the myriad think pieces, spin-off podcasts (including our own!), Reddit discussion threads, and new information generated thanks to the podcast, we can continue to obsess. Plus, at least two different legal proceedings are in the works that challenge Syed’s outcome. The podcast may be over, but our fixation on the mystery endures. [Caitlin PenzeyMoog]

Cutest Couple:
Adam Scott and Scott Aukerman

It’s not an ordinary love between Scott Aukerman and Adam Scott, and a fresh U2 album release this year meant there was plenty of it to go around. One of the satisfying ironies for “Scott & Scott’s” music commentary show, U Talkin’ U2 To Me?, is that despite all the early criticism it received from iTunes reviewers about being a tangent-prone and unserious platform for music reviews (as Doug Benson once jokingly put it more than an hour into an episode, “Are you going to talk U2 to me?”), it turned out to be one of the few outlets to give the band’s new album, Songs Of Innocence, a fair and thorough shot. While many straight review sites and publications were blinded by the album’s controversial stunt release, Adam Scott and Scott Aukerman gave song-by-song analysis and provided listeners with earnest and unironic personal context. What may have started as an excuse for two exceedingly funny friends to volley jokes has become an in-depth musical conversation that only a podcast can capture. [Dan Jakes]

Least Likely To Download The New U2 Album (But He Did Anyway):
Negativland’s Dave Emory


In the long list of people who would never download—or even listen to—U2’s Songs Of Innocence, Dave Emory would have a well-earned spot at the top. Emory is a member of the experimental music group Negativland, which in the early ’90s was sued by Island Records for copyright infringement after releasing its U2 EP. Featuring raw audio of Casey Kasem studio outtakes over kazoos, U2 samples, and other noise, it was the cover art with “U2” in giant lettering that sent U2’s lawyers after Negativland. The entire ordeal is told brilliantly by Emory’s bandmate Peter Conheim on an episode of The Fogelnest Files. The lawsuit eventually resulted in Negativland pulling the album from store shelves. More than 20 years after the ordeal, Emory’s story about finding Songs Of Innocence on his iPad, which he told on Sound Opinions’ “Fall Records Review,” is resonant not only because it’s a moment of serendipity for music nerds, but also because it highlights the absurdity of a release strategy that forces a record on everyone equally. “Big Bono is watching you,” Emory reminds listeners as he signs off. [Dan Fitchette]

Most Likely To Get Married:
Adnan Syed and Sarah Koenig


Surely a few years from now when people hear how Adnan Syed and Sarah Koenig met, they’ll give the lovebirds a quizzical look. Perhaps over a glass of cabernet sauvignon, Sarah will throw her head back with a slight laugh and say, “Oh, well…. we met on a podcast. I was making one kind of about him.” Over the course of an intense, emotionally draining yearlong investigation into a 1999 Baltimore murder, Serial’s host Sarah Koenig developed an unconventional friendship with Adnan Syed. From the very start, Koenig struggled with Syed’s story, having to remind herself that the kind and charismatic person at the other end of the phone was serving a life sentence in prison for murder. But as the show continued, and untold amount of hours were poured into the story, Sarah found herself increasingly in Adnan’s corner, both factually and personally. Though Syed fought off her advances toward friendship, Koenig has proved time and again that she is not the kind of person to simply give up. Serial is moving onto a new case next season, but it seems unlikely that Koenig will ever forget what she and Syed had. [Matt Kodner]

Most Likely To Win An Emmy:
Nick Kroll’s “R. Shrift”


If FX’s recent hit Wilfred proved anything, it was that Australian TV is ripe for adapting. Kath & Kim may not have fared as well on network television, but if a channel like AMC or HBO took a chance on R. Shrift, we’d be looking at the first Emmy winner to take home every single award of the night. Known for his multiple-decades-spanning series, R. Shrift has long been Australia’s most dedicated television actor, director, line producer, sausage cooker, and practically everything else. However, folks in the United States likely weren’t aware of his amazing career until he wandered into the Comedy Bang! Bang! “Tony Macaroni” episode. Played with a snarl by fan-favorite Nick Kroll, R. Shrift is one of the most unexpectedly hilarious characters to grace Earwolf Studios. In a seriously off-the-cuff final act, Kroll transforms an episode centered on a preposterous book tour into a gloriously inconsistent biography of an artistic genius. With 900-plus episodes of Man-chine (tagline: “Part man, part machine… ALL JUSTICE.”) and Lace Ventura: Rubbish Burglar Detective under his belt, Shrift is ready to take American airwaves by storm and sweep next year’s Emmys. [Matt Kodner]

Most Likely To Succeed:
Matt Gourley


iTunes queues overflowed last month with the arrival of the Wolfpop network, a new podcast repository that arrived with 13 shows in tow, many helmed by huge names in both comedy (Paul Scheer, W. Kamau Bell, Zachary Levi) and culture (Susan Orlean, Leonard Maltin, Devin Faraci). But among so much prestige emerged Matt Gourley, a seasoned podcaster whose I Was There Too emerged as the most fully formed of its contemporaries. In each episode, Gourley interviews an actor who played a minor role in an iconic film, a deliciously simple concept that’s somehow as broad as it is specific. And though interviews with comedians Paul F. Tompkins and Greg Proops reveal ample insight, it’s Gourley’s chat with actor Ricco Ross that stands out. Alongside Sigourney Weaver, Michael Biehn, and Paul Reiser, Ross played the doomed Private Frost in Aliens, and his behind-the-scenes anecdotes and insight into the production offer a glimpse at the kind of low-key career actor we don’t often see in interviews. And that’s a shame, because, unlike most podcast guests, Ross’ perspective is rooted in craft, not comedy. I Was There Too has the potential to shine a light on so many similar actors, illuminating the talented workhorses who, like Gourley, are so often overshadowed by their more famous friends. [Randall Colburn]

Best Advocates For Marijuana Legalization:
Improv4Humans ensemble


Most podcasters—in comedy, at least, though who wouldn’t want to pass around a joint with Jad Abumrad and Ira Glass?—aren’t shy when it comes to discussing their pot use. Between riffs and hyper-articulate wordplay, comics like Sarah Silverman or Rob Huebel might casually mention having smoked before the show, or will take a toke of a vaporizer pen while sounding otherwise indiscernible from someone completely sober. On this year’s Improv4Humans “4/20” special, on the other hand, Matt Besser and his ensemble sound, frankly, like most people probably do when they’re stoned: like puddles of giggling non sequiturs. Even though they’re blazed to the sky, Horatio Sanz, Mike Still, Jon Gabrus, and John Gemberling perform one of the sharpest, highest laughs-per-minute episodes to date, albeit over the sounds of rustling chip bags. A sentient Roku plays the dating field, a nerd unwraps a video game to way too much fanfare, and a bait house catches children trying to lure innocent predators. The sets, per usual, are fantastic, but it’s the banter between them that make the episode a classic. Besser’s personal and hilarious story about getting robbed in Chicago is enough to give listeners a contact high. [Dan Jakes]

Class Clown:
Norm MacDonald


“Norm fucks with people.” And with four words, comedian Todd Glass presents an ironclad thesis for Norm MacDonald Live’s episode “Todd Glass.” Because no, Norm does not interview his guests—not in any traditional way, at least—he fucks with them. The audience, too. Bits go nowhere, others are (hilariously) run into the ground (“My doctor told me to open my mouth and say ‘oink!’”), and lovable co-host Adam Eget is so clumsy on the microphone that his role as the show’s “trusty sidekick” feels like a running joke with no punchline. Of course, those are Norm’s favorite kind of jokes, and as his “ain’t I a stinker” persona alternates between gleeful absurdity, somberness, and faux outrage it becomes easy for guest and audience alike to question what’s Norm and what’s “Norm.” Glass, as smart and good-natured as he is sensitive, is no different, and he can’t help but be egged on by the show’s default absurdity. His many insightful thoughts on comedy, censorship, and writing are repeatedly interrupted as Norm goes back and forth between labeling Eget a Holocaust denier and accusing Glass of being stoned (Glass asserts Norm tricked him into smoking weed before the taping). It’s despicable, honestly, the kind of behavior that forces sponsors to take back their money. But it’s also hilarious, and sometimes the only thing that gets you through the school day (or work week). [Randall Colburn]

Best Demonic Conduit:
Paul F. Tompkins’ “Buddy Valastro”


Sure, one could make an argument for the foul-mouthed suicidal ghouls at 1122 Boogie Woogie Avenue, but without “Buddy Valastro’s” (Paul F. Tompkins) demonic possession in the Comedy Bang! Bang! episode “The Exorcism Of Cake Boss,” listeners wouldn’t have gotten to enjoy Matt Gourley’s delightfully weird and absolutely hilarious take on Swiss Alien art designer H.R. Giger. Nor would they have gotten to hear Tompkins, arguably the show’s most reliable and diverse character improvisor, do double duty as a rambling pastor sent to perform his own exorcism. Even in Comedy Bang! Bang!’s absurd universe, the high concepts that the ensemble push here weave narrative complexity and silliness, and they still manage to keep it all straight and mine increasingly bizarre threads for comedy gold. Cake Boss has been a hit for years, and he’s had his share of supernatural run-ins. Cake bug bites aside, this year’s crisis might be the best. The attention to detail, like Valastro’s devotion to squeezing in a “Cake Boss!” from another realm upon hearing his name, illustrate what makes Comedy Bang! Bang! such an unabashedly self-referential, fan-serving show. [Dan Jakes]

Most Spirited:
Kefin Mahon, Adam Bibilo, and Billy Keable


I wish I loved anything as much as the hosts of The Attitude Era Podcast love wrestling. For the last year and a half, Kefin Mahon, Adam Bibilo, and Billy Keable—likely wearing wrestling shirts and big foam fingers—have been powering through the WWE’s Attitude Era, a time from roughly 1998 to 2002 when shock, awe, and sexy were the status quo. With a comedian’s charisma and the precision of a seasoned sports announcer, Mahon guides us from match to promo to match with a breakdown of the bout’s highlights and a depth of critical and cultural commentary that posits the trio as the Harold Bloom of turn-of-the-century wrestling. The Attitude Era Podcast “Royal Rumble 2000” episode featured some of the era’s best matches—Triple H vs. Cactus Jack, The Hardy Boyz vs. The Dudley Boyz, the Rumble itself—as well as some of its most misguided attempts at comedy: A 77-year-old Mae Young revealed her “puppies” during a groan-worthy bikini contest. Accompanied by high-quality audio clips of promo packages and commentary, Majon, Bibilo, and Keable take the good with the bad, heaping ample praise on the athleticism while hilariously eviscerating the era’s casual racism and misogyny (and there was much). Far from being the shouting drunkards at your local sports bar, the boys combine a genuine love of the sport (and it is a sport) with wit, humor, and the best Jerry Lawler impression on the podcast circuit. [Randall Colburn]

Best Celebrity Impression:
John Oliver’s “Rihanna”


Not “most accurate,” certainly. In fact, it’s not even close. John Oliver’s attempted likeness of the “Diamonds” singer, whom he’s understandably infatuated with after meeting at a Washington Mall concert, more closely resembles Warwick Davis in Leprechaun. In The Bugle’s “SpaceCats: The Search For Merch” he’s so tickled, though, that he can’t stop repeating the one lyric of hers he knows: “Shine bright like a diamond.” It’s like listening to a giddy little boy meeting an idol, and it’s absolutely adorable. And why shouldn’t he be tickled? Even if 2014 wasn’t a great year for Bugle fans (though Andy Zaltzman’s “Satirist For Hire” summer clip shows were certainly a good fill-in), it was a great year for Oliver, as Last Week Tonight grew to be a major critical hit. Even though it’s now intercontinental, Oliver and Zaltzman have been back to new episodes, and the timing was perfect. As American politics continue to steep in cynicism, it’s refreshing to have an upbeat, irreverent satirical comedy to poke fun from the outside and show that things can be just as messy across the pond. [Dan Jakes]

Best Bromance:
Elliott Kalan, Dan McCoy, and Stuart Wellington


The podcasting format had its forebears, but for several reasons it remains a singular medium. In many cases the level of intimacy between host and listener is unparalleled, and that’s truer of The Flop House than most any other podcast around. Listening to The Flop House one feels much more like an equal—a peer—to the Original Peaches than a lowly listener. That’s not the case, obviously, but that fact is easy to overlook when each episode feels just like spending 75 minutes not only with three good friends, but with your three best friends—friends who have all the same reference points, senses of humor, and passion for bad movies—and that’s due entirely to the utterly perfect dynamic between hosts Dan McCoy, Elliott Kalan, and Stuart Wellington. They’re never not having fun when they on-mic, and it’s almost hard to believe just how well they play off each other at times. 2013 was The Flop House’s breakout year, but 2014 was just as strong, especially with episodes like #152, which flows over with sheer silliness, signature tangents, and more Ghostbusters II references than you can count. It’s not only one of the best episodes of the year, but one of the Floppers’ best ever. [Colin Griffith]

Theme Song Most Likely To Get Stuck In Your Head:
With Special Guest Lauren Lapkus


2014 will likely go down as the year in which podcasts finally broke big, with Serial’s debut being celebrated on no less a major platform than The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon. With their continued ascent, ever more attention has been paid to overall production quality. This is evident in the rise of popularity of the bespoke theme song. While most podcasts are content opening with music that can generously be described as “Creative Commons,” recent intros have ventured beyond. Nick Thorburn’s spare, plinking piano tune that intros Serial is unshakeable, just as Crybabies’ Jill Sobule-sung theme is catchy. But one rises above the rest, for its brevity, hilarity and instant-earworm status, and that is Michael Malarkey’s composition for With Special Guest Lauren Lapkus. Arguably one of the highest-concept comedy podcasts, With Special Guest… sees perpetual podcast guest Lauren Lapkus get her own show only to be sidelined, as her guests play the role of host and she their guest. And the show got just the nutty theme song it deserved. With lyrics by Lapkus, pleasantly sung by Allison Bosma, the tune pulls off the feat of conveying the concept in under 30 seconds with a jaunty fashion. [Ben Cannon]


Best Dressed Meets Best Hair (Or Lack Thereof):
Michael Davies and Roger Bennett


The world of podcasting has almost never been synonymous with sartorial style, and given its primarily audio-only nature, hosts and guests needn’t bedeck themselves in their finery for recording purposes. So, it’s rare to find two hosts committed to looking their best at the helm of a sports podcast, a realm long thought to be exclusively peopled by blue-jeaned everymen. But Roger Bennett and Michael Davies, hosts of NBC Sports’ soccer podcast, Men In Blazers, have subverted this trope from moment one. It’s not simply that the pair record every episode in their titular blazers, with custom blazer patches adorning breast pockets, but that clothing and fashion are perennial topics of conversation for them. As the winter has lain its icy mitts on the country the Men have taken solace in their rallying cry to “Move To Tweed,” switching out linen fabrics for heartier woolen blazers. The little things matter to them, from sneakers to lucky socks to power cuffs and everywhere in between. Earlier this year they even struck a partnership with General Knot & Co. to produce a line of fine ties. That Bennett and Davies also take home superlative honors for hair here is not a piss-take; though both are balding, the pair wear it with earnest aplomb, and it frankly serves to make their look even more distinguished. Though, they would likely argue that they themselves are anything but. [Ben Cannon]

Most Likely To Be Included in Podmass 2015:
The Dollop, We Hate Movies, and Tofop

The readers have spoken, and it looks like The Dollop, a weekly podcast hosted by Dave Anthony and Gareth Reynolds, which discusses one topic from American history at length; We Hate Movies, a comedy podcast that uses bad, awful, and terrible films as jumping-off points for comedic fodder; and Tofop, a weekly Australian comedy podcast created and hosted by Wil Anderson and Charlie Clausen, will receive some love in 2015. It’s been a special year not just for podcasts, but also for Podmass, which was reformatted for the first time since its creation. So, thank you for sticking with us and keep sending your coverage suggestions to podmass@avclub.com. Happy Holidays. We’ll catch you on January 5, 2015. [Becca James]