I have worked professionally in podcasting for over a decade, and I think it’s helpful to know what other people in my field are up to. So I do my best to at least sample any podcast I am recommended, and as a result I am currently subscribed (this is not a joke or exaggeration) to over one hundred shows. Any downtime I have, I’ll throw on a podcast. My wife says that my headphones are how I interact with the world. Anyway, I’ve listened to countless hours of podcasts this year, and these ones are my favorite.
Here is where I should mention that this year my Night Vale co-creator and I came out with the first podcast we’ve created together since Welcome to Night Vale back in 2012. It’s called Unlicensed, and it’s a LA noir detective story set in the fringes of the very real modern day Los Angeles. The entire series is available on Audible right now, and we absolutely poured our hearts and souls into it. It is rare for a show to come out sounding exactly how I had dreamed it would, and I am immensely proud of it.
With that, let’s get to the best podcasts of 2022. These podcasts are organized alphabetically, because I can’t think of any fair way to rank them.
My favorite fiction podcast of the year, Appearances follows the thinly fictionalized alter-ego of writer and star Sharon Mashihi. She uses the show to explore her difficult relationship with her traditional Persian Jewish family (all also voiced by Mashihi) and to test out possible permutations of her own future. Nakedly emotional and deeply personal without being navel gazing, Appearances feels like a podcast version of HBO’s The Rehearsal. It is unapologetically meta and constantly zagging in new directions that we can’t see coming.
Borrasca is based on a popular creepypasta, and the first season suffered for it. It was bogged down with the usual clunky scares that creepypastas tend be overstuffed with, and finished with a cheap shock ending that felt unearned and disconnected from what came before. But the production was good enough that I came back for season 2, and I’m glad I did. Gone are the clumsy creepypasta elements. Instead, the second (and final) season of Borrasca doubles down on the first season’s ending, and in doing so redeems and justifies it. What started out as a campfire story becomes instead a focused character piece, a revenge thriller about the long shadow your childhood and family can cast over your adult life. Borrasca’s second season is the rare follow-up that not only improves on the first season, but makes it better in retrospect.
The podcast I put the most listening hours into by far this year is about cereal (the breakfast kind, not to be confused with Serial). Justin McElroy, better known for the McElroy brother empire, and Dan Goubert, professional cereal journalist, present what they brand “a meditative podcast about cereal.” There are lengthy discussions of the minutia of oat vs corn bases, the shape and texture of marshmallow bits, and philosophical digressions into what exactly counts as a cereal. It is all wonderfully soothing, and I sleep listening to it every night. A single episode might last me for a week, listened to in five minute dreamy bursts.
With so many podcasts in my subscriptions, there are only a few very special shows that I put on the top of my playlist as soon as they come out, and this is one of them. In Just King Things, two academics (a phd in English Literature and a phd in Film Studies) go book by book through Stephen King’s work, in publication order. Their backgrounds make them very good at explaining what works in the books, and also unafraid to really get into what doesn’t work. What sold me on this show was both their ability to name what so completely draws us to King’s work, but also their courage to point out where King falls into racist or misogynist or just plain bad writing in even his most beloved works. It does not come across as academic, it’s a very easy and funny listen. If you are a fan of King or grew up reading him, it might have you looking at familiar books in a new way.
A clever inversion of the Sherlockian myth that asks: what if Moriarty was the good guy, and Sherlock Holmes the ruthless bad guy? I have a phobia of expensive, celebrity filled fiction podcasts, mainly because they usually turn out to be someone’s tv pilot that didn’t work out. But this one feels native to audio: written with care, never muddy even when in the midst of a chaotic action scene, and full of fun references to Sherlock lore that readers of the original stories (or consumers of any of the many permutations of Holmes over the years) won’t see coming.
An unabashed celebration of all things gossip, Normal Gossip gleefully disregards all puritanical scolding against gossip and just gets right down to the satisfying business of spilling dirt. Every episode is a lengthy piece of gossip about an anonymized group of people, whether it is knitting group drama, or hook-ups in a Starbucks stockroom. My wife and I save these for car rides together, so we can gossip about the gossip while we listen.
Ross Sutherland is the most exciting writer working in fiction podcasting today, and Imaginary Advice is a showcase of whatever strange and wonderful story has caught his interest on any given month. Sutherland is a big believer in writing games, and most episodes of Imaginary Advice spring from some simple but absurdist prompt. This year saw him writing a heist story that’s characters were real people randomly drawn from Wikipedia, a Choose Your Own Adventure that didn’t allow you to skip around, forcing you to hear every possible permutation in a chaotic random order, an Agatha Christie mystery that’s solution involved time travel, and an episode performed entirely in Italian that was specifically designed to be listened to by people who don’t understand Italian. Every episode is different, and every episode swings for the fences.
The first of two podcasts on this list by the new studio Wolf at the Door, who are definitely ones to watch. The Imperfection is the story of a group of patients with a rare condition that causes them to hallucinate, each in their own specific way. They are drawn into a mystery against their wills when their doctor, the preeminent specialist in this condition, disappears, and soon the patients are fleeing secret societies, stumbling on a second hidden New York City underneath the East River, and learning that their hallucinations might not be hallucinations at all. Simultaneously dreamlike and focused, The Imperfection is the kind of story you could never do on television simply because there would be no way to visually depict many of its bizarre scenarios, but in audio we are allowed to be immersed in this strange other version of NYC.
The project of composer and sound designer Disparition (disclosure: Disparition has worked on all of my own shows and is a friend of mine), In A Walled City is exactly what I’m always searching for: someone doing something radically new with podcasting. Billed as “a guide to navigating the coming phases of human existence”, In A Walled City is a mix of music, poetry, and storytelling about a possible future California, a patchwork of warring city states after the collapse of both the country and the climate.
Each episode goes a very different direction. One is a detective story set in a future Los Angeles in which the Americana Mall has become a walled city state. Others might be sermons, or call-in radio shows, or travel narratives, giving us glimpses of a world where everything has ended and yet humans keep on living.
Disparition simply doesn’t make podcasts the way anyone else in the business is doing it. He gives the music as much weight as the text, and uses the human voice as much for its sound and texture as for its ability to form words. There is just nothing else in the vast field of podcasting that sounds anything like this.
The least likely podcast to make a list like this, The Integral Principles of the Structural Dynamics of Flow is an informal spin-off of the little-watched but beautiful Amazon tv show Patriot. If you have never seen Patriot, I cannot recommend it enough. A weird and funny story about a depressed spy trying to hold it together during a disastrous mission in Luxemburg, Patriot is one of those shows that should have been a huge hit and instead disappeared after two seasons.
Now the creator of the tv series is back with a podcast that takes the form of an audiobook from within the world of Patriot, nominally a textbook on the logistics of the piping industry. Stay with me here. This is an impeccably written podcast, with scripts and performances that are just rich and wonderful to listen to, as the fictional author of this fiction piping book fills us in on his childhood attempt to make the world’s largest sangria, or the time he broke out of and then back into a Wisconsin prison. This one won’t be for everyone, but those who it is for will love it. You don’t have to have watched the show to enjoy it, but you should watch the show anyway.
Another banger from Wolf at the Door studios, in collaboration with the fiction podcast company Realm, Modes of Thought takes the form of a Harvard class about an advanced ancient civilization that is hundreds of thousands of years older than previously known advanced civilizations. Except even in the show’s world, no one other than the professor has heard of this civilization and there is nothing about it on the internet. Much of the show hinges around the question: is this civilization even real? And if not, why is a Harvard professor teaching an entire class about it? The show plays well with the format of a college lecture, painting the picture of a fascinating ancient civilization while questioning the reality of that civilization at the same time. Oh, and there’s also possibly a big conspiracy involved of course.
A man sits in his living room in Burbank and tells you about the latest neighborhood news while reading a few advertisements for local businesses. That is the set-up for one of the most memorable podcasts in recent years. The version of Burbank he is narrating is fictional, and the neighborhood news includes a hapless DEA agent trying to land the bust of his career while simultaneously driving his mother on her errands, a dangerous foosball club that often devolves into all out brawls, and the new exciting hobby of freeway roller-skating.
Valley Heat is podcasting at its most gleefully independent, with the kind of premise that would be very difficult to pitch to an executive, but that is impossible to stop listening to. Our hapless but endearing narrator finds himself in a series of increasingly difficult dilemmas with his neighbors and family, almost always as a result of his own stupid choices. Give it a try and you too will become heavily invested in the dramas of the Rancho Equestrian neighborhood of Burbank, and all the weirdos who live there.