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In 2016, podcasts of every stripe had a decision to make: Address the worst aspects of 2016 head-on, or create artful distractions from same. This year, that pattern holds true: Nostalgia-laden podcasts gently guide our gaze the other way while political shows unabashedly call out bullshit where they see it. Below are the Podmass superlatives of 2017, recognizing some of the most noteworthy stuff we heard this year.


Best Use Of Time: The 30-minutes-or-less podcast 

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In the early days of podcasting, the gold standard was the hour-long comedy ’cast. These would often expand, even double as a show’s popularity grew and the comedians’ riffs extended to match. But this year, our writers were drawn to a growing trend, the half-hour (or shorter) podcast. It’s a more realistic commitment that’s perfect for a commute or as a soundtrack to your morning routine. Over the years, there have been early favorites such as 99% Invisible, The Memory Palace, and Song Exploder, but those have since been joined by a slew of newcomers. Notable 2017 debuts that average 30 minutes an episode include The Nod (“an artfully idiosyncratic exploration of the experiences that make up black life in America”), The Polybius Conspiracy (a series about “the most notorious tale” to emerge from an urban legend about an arcade game), and Second Wave (an interesting show with a delightfully varied scope that “investigates how the Vietnam War is still affecting the Vietnamese community”). The best part is that, with the shorter runtimes, they’re easy to catch up on. [Becca James]


Most Problematic: Missing Richard Simmons

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What happened to Richard Simmons? The flamboyant fitness guru ghosted Slimmons, his personal fitness club, and vanished from public life in early 2014, leaving many fans and friends bewildered. Former Slimmons member and Daily Show producer Dan Taberski took it upon himself to unearth Simmons’ whereabouts, assuming the mantle of concerned friend. But what started as an ostensibly compassionate missing-persons story took an invasive tone, especially as evidence mounted that Simmons simply wanted privacy. An early episode follows Taberski on a stakeout of Simmons’ house. Later, a masseur heavily implied to be a Simmons’ ex- relates a fantastical tale of Simmons being imprisoned by his longtime housekeeper, whom he accuses of being a literal witch. Some theories hit dead ends (like Simmons transitioning to female), and Taberski never accomplishes his goal of interviewing his subject. Blowback against Missing Richard Simmons came quickly, with The New York Times calling it “morally suspect” and the New Yorker writing about the Taberski’s “cringeworthy” decisions. Without an appearance by its subject, Missing Richard Simmons couldn’t help but end anticlimactically and leave some listeners feeling uneasy about the whole series. [Zach Brooke]


Best Blast From The Past: Teen Creeps

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We highlighted Feral Audio’s Teen Creeps just a few months ago, and it’s remained a favorite among our writers since. Waxing nostalgic is part and parcel of the podcasting world, but this blast from the past consistently delivers as hosts Kelly Nugent and Lindsay Katai discuss “the YA pulp fiction of their awkward, neon youth.” Expertly infusing humor as they reminisce about titles from teen terror masters such as Diane Hoh, Christopher Pike, and R.L. Stine, the comedians adore the flawed characters while poking fun at the ludicrous plots. A show highlight is when Nugent and Katai read aloud from the novels, especially when they grab cheeseball dialog from the likes of Francine Pascal’s darker entries in the Sweet Valley High oeuvre. (Think The Evil Twin and The Return Of The Evil Twin.) Follow the twists and turns of these bestsellers as you’re transported back in time to discover that what was once spooky is now side-splitting. [Becca James]


Best (And Only) Podcast Dedicated Solely To Cheap Trick: Cheap Talk With Trick Chat

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Cheap Trick is arguably the hardest working band in rock ’n’ roll. Consistently touring since the ’70s, it has cranked out three records since 2016 (including its first Christmas album). Cheap Talk With Trick Chat plays like an audio fanzine, full of passion and encyclopedic knowledge, as guests join hosts Ken Mills and B.J. Kramp to discuss all things Cheap Trick. Sometimes it’s a track-by-track album review; sometimes the crew looks at the careers of the bands that influenced the band. While the early episodes of the show, which began in 2013, focused on track-by-track album reviews and nostalgia for youthful fandom, this year the hosts wrangled some impressive interviews, including original lead singer Randy “Xeno” Hogan and Nazz vocalist Robert “Stewkey” Antoni (who was involved with proto-Trick outfits Sick Man Of Europe and Fuse). The only bad thing about Cheap Talk is that it really doesn’t adhere to a schedule, but it’s always a pleasant surprise when a new episode shows up. [Mike Vanderbilt]


Best Pranksters: Hollywood Handbook

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For four years, Hollywood Handbook has bitten the show business hand that feeds, gleefully mocking the industry while talking to friends who have figured out a way to make a living in it. Irony runs thick through each episode, so it’s not surprising that Hollywood Handbook occasionally veers from puckish to straight-up pranking. That was the case with episode 200, which hosts Sean Clements and Hayes Davenport proclaimed would be their last, after months of joking about it. They even made a memorial poster—still available for purchase—as they vowed to go out with a guest-packed finale. But no one showed up except for Chef Kevin, Engineer Brett, and, via phone, Tom Scharpling. The guys also “realized” that their contract forbade them from ending the show at that time. Maybe it was a cruel trick to play on Hollywood Handbook’s devoted fanbase, but diehard listeners wouldn’t have it any other way. [Rebecca Bulnes]


Geekiest Star Wars Podcast In A Galaxy Of Geeky Star Wars Podcasts: Blast Points

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Fans have pored over even the minute details of Star Wars for more than 40 years, but Blast Points continues to show a nerdy attention to detail that is impressive...most impressive. In episode 91, for instance, hosts Jason Gibner and Gabe Bott examined the differences between original mono mix of Star Wars and the Dolby Stereo one. Star Wars creator George Lucas considered the mono mix definitive; this was the version that would end up playing on television, and in the words of sound designer Ben Burtt, it was “more important archivally.” Dolby Stereo was a new thing that, according to Original Trilogy, would be “a novelty that only select audiences would be treated to during a brief theatrical run.” The hosts also compare different line readings from Aunt Beru as well as extra dialogue given to Imperial Stormtroopers and C-3PO. As podcasts go, this is peak otaku. [Mike Vanderbilt]


Best Dispatch From A More Innocent Time: Girl Friday

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“Donald Trump is a total question mark.” Those are the first words of a special episode of Girl Friday recorded in Washington, D.C., mere hours after the historic January 21 Women’s March. Eleven months later, Trump is really more of an interrobang, but this document of a specific moment is worth revisiting nonetheless. Here are the first few glimmers of hope after several weeks of nauseating dread. There’s buoyant excitement and cautious optimism in the voices Erin Gloria Ryan, Amanda Duarte, and Briana Haynie as they detail their experiences from a day spent walking through D.C. amongst a sea of fellow women less than 24 hours after a sexual predator’s inauguration. The world has shifted on its axis since then, and sadly, Girl Friday—an essential resource for anti-patriarchal venting and scat humor—has since ended. [Dennis DiClaudio]


Most Likely To Launch 1,000 Imitators: S-Town

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Things in the podcast landscape haven’t been the same since 2014. In the three years since Serial’s debut, there has been a marked uptick in the number of programs focused on true crime and participant-journalist investigations. None, however, has adequately recaptured Serial’s lightning in a bottle. That new podcasts still attempt to fill the void between seasons by dropping sub-Dateline-level intrigue pieces further demonstrates how difficult it is to do well. To that end, S-Town—from the same team that made Serial and This American Life—is the latest podcast whose core strengths will be clumsily emulated over the coming years. Brian Reed’s patient, sensitive, literary approach to the story of a small-town eccentric is a landmark for podcasting, full stop. It’s a paragon of dedication, curiosity, and empathy, and wholly original. Unfortunately, it may also prove to be the podcast equivalent of Pulp Fiction or On The Road—capable of inspiring greatness from some, but more likely to witness a tide of half-hearted imitators, each unaware of just what makes the original worth celebrating. [Ben Cannon]


Most Passive-Aggressive Reading Of Ad Copy: Pod Save America

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Television journalists and pundits have the privilege of keeping at arm’s length the commercials that keep the lights on. That isn’t so for podcasters, who tend to recite ad scripts prepared by sponsors and punch them up with anecdotes, personal testimonials, and jokes. For marketers, the clear upside is having ad copy delivered to listeners in the trustworthy voices and personalities of the hosts. On the downside, poorly written copy—especially when put in the hands of opinionated former presidential speechwriters—gets unabashedly mocked. The gentlemen at Crooked Media are refreshingly more blunt than their podcasting peers in pointing out inscrutable taglines, typos, and hyperbolic claims. When overzealous companies call their product, say, the “Apple, Warby Parker, and Tesla of toothbrushes,” Jon Favreau rolls his eyes hard enough to be picked up on mic. Even more entertaining is Jon Lovett’s habit of using ad time to air unconnected grievances. (Don’t ask him about “prestige television.”) [Dan Jakes]


Podmass will be back in January 2018. Let us know what we should cover in the new year, either in the comments or by emailing us at podmass@avclub.com.

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