The most notable podcasts of 2020

Illustration for article titled The most notable podcasts of 2020
Graphic: Karl Gustafson

There was almost no week of 2020 that didn’t present podcast creators with a series of challenges both technical and emotional, and every series was forced to solve for an onslaught of unknowns. Chatter shows of all stripes had to ask, “Am I contributing to the discourse in a meaningful way?”—a question that they might never have had to confront before. When the nation is marching in protest of police brutality, do you stick a disclaimer on your prerecorded TV recap podcast, or do you power through with the assumption that your audience comes to your series to escape? When a global pandemic forces recording studio closures, how do you account for the distance between hosts? In spite of seemingly insurmountable obstacles, our favorite podcasts, just like the listeners who downloaded them, somehow made it through 2020. Here, we call out some of the series that offered comfort, catharsis, and enlightenment in this most unusual year.

Marnie Shure is editor in chief of The Takeout.

Cinematic Antihero

pop-culture critic, multi-disciplinary artist, playwright @ Columbia University, they/them

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Biggest shoo-in For “Best Podcasts Of The Year” coverage: Reply All, “The Case of the Missing Hit”

Biggest shoo-in For “Best Podcasts Of The Year” coverage: Reply All, “The Case of the Missing Hit”

Illustration for article titled The most notable podcasts of 2020
Graphic: Natalie Peeples

What praise is yet left unspoken for Reply All’s March episode that goes all-in on helping some rando identify the earworm devouring his brain, a late-’90sish piece of pop rock that no one else can remember? Here we have a show that merges two of the most popular topics in podcasting, mysteries and the music industry, to form a perfect story in that it is:

a. Definitively resolved
b. Not exploitative
c. Contained within a single episode

Host PJ Vogt says the team really enjoyed making this show, and it shows, as he turns out a truly inspired effort as researcher and entertainer. (“Hey, a cameo from the Barenaked Ladies guy!”) He also scores a huge assist from his client, Tyler Gillet, filmmaker by day, who aids the search with crucial, uh, forensic evidence. Underneath all the good times is a spooky weirdness that adds heft to the proceedings by constantly asking, “Seriously, though, why is this so hard?” Perhaps all that is left to say, if it hasn’t been said already, is that Reply All is more than a great podcast, it’s the best show going on internet culture in any medium, and this specific episode is better than the cherry on a whipped cream sundae. [Zach Brooke]

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Most reliable serotonin boost: Matt, Joel And The Next Elle Woods

Most reliable serotonin boost: Matt, Joel And The Next Elle Woods

Illustration for article titled The most notable podcasts of 2020
Graphic: Natalie Peeples

The fun of revisiting early cycles of America’s Next Top Model, which became available on Amazon Prime earlier this year, is at least a little dampened by our collective hindsight clarity that the show was largely a malicious gauntlet full of appalling messages run by gaslighting despots. The production behind MTV’s 2008 single-season elimination competition series Legally Blonde: The Musical—The Search For Elle Woods, on the other hand, wasn’t mean-spirited, necessarily; it was just charmingly incompetent. Using a low-resolution, fan-uploaded rip of the show on YouTube—2000s Drew Barrymore LashBlast mascara ads included—comedians and podcaster extraordinaires Joel Kim Booster and Matt Rodgers broke down The Search For Elle Woods episode by episode in one of the most reliably funny new podcasts of 2020. Every part of the series, from Patti Harrison’s earwormy theme jingle to the S-tier guests to the recurring segments like “Cousin Of The Week” (given to the contestant who gave off the most ill-defined “cousin energy”) and asking guests “What Are Your Triple Threats?” (eliciting responses like “hair,” and “good at math”) highlighted what makes the niche-embracing medium of podcasting comedy so singular and special. Rodgers’ and Booster’s nine-episode series is like a Fruit Gusher full of dopamine, and better yet—as it was created as a Patreon charity effort—managed to pull together serious dough for the Eviction Defense Network. [Dan Jakes]

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Fondest farewell: Nancy, “Nancy Was Here”

Fondest farewell: Nancy, “Nancy Was Here”

Illustration for article titled The most notable podcasts of 2020
Graphic: Natalie Peeples

After three phenomenal years talking queer life, art, and culture, WNYC’s Nancy was canceled in 2020. Hosted by Tobin Low and Kathy Tu, Nancy has been an undeniable force of good in many queer listeners’ lives. The podcast not only helped connect audiences through shared histories, experiences, and jokes; it also literally connected queer people with its Gaggle project, giving listeners an opportunity and prompts to meet each other in real life and make friends. (Yes, in the Before Times, don’t worry.) In “Nancy Was Here,” clips from some of the most memorable Nancy episodes run alongside audience members’ audio notes about how those episodes impacted them. The finale does, of course, culminate in the two hosts tearfully thanking each other for their collaboration and friendship while working on the show. It all makes for an achingly fond farewell to a beautiful podcast, the kind of series sendoff so sweet, so earnest, and so tender, it would drive Mike Schur up the wall wishing he could deliver as hard. Is it sappy? Yes. Does it have every right to be? Yes. We queer folks don’t mess around when something deserves ceremony, and Nancy always has. [Wil Williams]

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Best reminder of just how savage the music industry is: Tie—What Had Happened Was / Jacked: The Rise Of The New Jack Sound 

Best reminder of just how savage the music industry is: Tie—What Had Happened Was / Jacked: The Rise Of The New Jack Sound 

Illustration for article titled The most notable podcasts of 2020
Graphic: Natalie Peeples

For 12 glorious weeks, rapper/podcaster Open Mike Eagle chopped it up with hip-hop producer Prince Paul about Paul’s amazing career on What Had Happened Was. And even though it’s been a career filled with impressive, trailblazing high points (like producing De La Soul’s first three acclaimed albums and Chris Rock’s Grammy-winning comedy albums), it’s also littered with lousy record deals, rappers shafting the man out of money, and having his hopes and dreams generally squashed. Meanwhile, Jacked: The Rise Of The New Jack Sound tells the story of how aspiring musician Timmy Gatling got kicked out of ’80s soul group Guy—the band he founded—right when they were on the cusp of launching a Black-music revolution that melded hip-hop with R&B and made stars out of Bobby Brown, Bell Biv DeVoe, and, yes, Guy. After hearing these accounts of music industry savagery, is it any wonder why a lot of contemporary performers just drop their shit on SoundCloud and hope for the best? [Craig D. Lindsey]

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Most soulful history of Black America: Driving The Green Book 

Most soulful history of Black America: Driving The Green Book 

Illustration for article titled The most notable podcasts of 2020
Graphic: Natalie Peeples

The Negro Motorist Green Book reentered the pop-culture conversation via two routes: the 2018 film Green Book and 2020’s Lovecraft Country on HBO. But if you want the real history, listen to Driving The Green Book, a 10-episode Macmillan podcast hosted by award-winning BBC broadcaster Alvin Hall and social justice trainer Janée Woods Weber. It’s a veritable anthology of the Black experience during the Jim Crow era, a road trip that retraces the points recommended by the 1960s travel guide for Black motorists looking for safe places to rest, eat, and sleep. As Hall and Woods Weber drive those 2,021 miles, visiting the sites highlighted in the book and interviewing the folks who relied on its listings, they capture a living, breathing testimony to resilience and community. Driving The Green Book also embodies the many stark Jim Crow parallels to modern America: Why is it still so dangerous to drive while Black? The simple act of preserving the stories of those who drove the Green Book make this podcast a radical contribution to Black history, but the fact that it does so in a way that allows for messiness, joy, and horror to exist without judgement is what makes the series so stellar. [Morgan McNaught]

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Best narration: The Daily, “The Sunday Read: ‘Weird Al Yankovic’s Weirdly Enduring Appeal’”

Best narration: The Daily, “The Sunday Read: ‘Weird Al Yankovic’s Weirdly Enduring Appeal’”

Illustration for article titled The most notable podcasts of 2020
Graphic: Natalie Peeples

You don’t hit play on a one-off podcast episode about the man who wrote “White & Nerdy” with the expectation that you’ll be crying by the end, and you especially don’t anticipate that you’ll be eagerly recommending it to all your friends thereafter—but, like Weird Al’s music itself, this episode of The Daily comes with a confident caveat: Just trust me on this. Technically, it’s not a podcast episode so much as a brief audiobook; The New York Times recently acquired Audm, a company that “turns longform journalism into audio content,” and now releases articles from The New York Times Magazine weekly via The Daily’s podcast feed. What sets Audm’s service apart is the quality of its narrators: seasoned professionals who either benefit from expert direction or who inherently understand the weight and beauty of the source material, or both. Actor and Audie Award winner Edoardo Ballerini lifts staff writer Sam Anderson’s deep dive on Weird Al to unimaginable emotional heights, quietly unfurling the details of the parody singer’s improbable life with all due time and respect. “Alfred Yankovic wanted desperately to escape his room and live in this world,” Ballerini says almost breathlessly, describing how a young, lonely boy felt when he first heard Dr. Demento on the radio. “It would not be long before he heard his own voice coming back at him out of the speakers.” Behold, the transformative power of audio. [Marnie Shure]

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Marnie Shure is editor in chief of The Takeout.

Cinematic Antihero

pop-culture critic, multi-disciplinary artist, playwright @ Columbia University, they/them