I am that person you see on the street who constantly has her headphones in. I have a professional excuse: every spring and fall, I’m bingeing as many podcasts as possible to curate a biannual list of the best shows.
Typically, I am vigilant about including “hard news” podcasts, political podcasts, and journalistic investigations on the list. And I tried to do that again this year. But as we barrel toward the end of 2022, I find myself more fatigued than ever. Talking to friends and colleagues—and reviewing a survey created by TIME to capture the national mood—I don’t think I’m alone. The vibes were bad. So when I popped in my earbuds, I sought shows that brought me joy.
And I filled this list with podcasts that I wanted to recommend to people, not the ones I felt I should recommend to people. Truthfully, the podcasting experience is deeply personal. I spent some time in London this summer, and as a result have possibly over-indexed on the number of British shows on this list. I am a big chicken when it comes to horror films, and fell in love with a show that spoils scary movies in a funny way. And after obsessing about various celebrity kerfuffles at work (looking at you, Don’t Worry Darling campaign), I allowed myself to indulge in gossip-themed, mildly voyeuristic shows.
There are some shows that deal with serious topics, like a scandal that fueled racism in the U.K., and a history show covering wars and dictatorships. But mostly this is a list of shows that find ways to lighten even the most serious topics. These are shows I eagerly awaited and that left me smiling. Largely speaking, the vibes were good.
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10. Valley Heat
This is the only fiction podcast that has ever made me laugh out loud. Set in Burbank, Calif., the drama kicks off when freelance insurance adjuster Doug Duguay (voiced by comedian Christian Duguay) begins to suspect that his pool guy is conducting drug drops in his garbage can but feels too socially awkward to confront the man. Instead, he decides to investigate and document his misadventures on a podcast. In the process, Doug falls into petty squabbles with a DEA agent who takes his mom on stakeouts, his optometrist neighbor who up-sold his son on transition lenses, and even the band overzealously scoring his podcast.
The funniest bits of Valley Heat are the commercials for local businesses, like a motorcycle shop that will heighten the handle bars of your bike for cool-factor. New episodes drop on a totally unpredictable schedule. But I had such a delightful time listening that I thought it was worth nonetheless including on this list.
Ruined is the podcast I never knew I needed. I’m a scaredy cat who cannot watch horror films. But I always Wikipedia the plots of zeitgeist-y movies like It Follows and The Black Phone to keep up with the cultural conversation. The spoiler strategy leaves much to be desired in terms of entertainment value. Enter, Ruined.
Each week, comedian and horror movie aficionado Halle Kiefer describes the entire plot of a scary movie to her frightened friend and co-host, writer Alison Leiby. Kiefer challenges Leiby to guess the twists and who will survive, inviting the listener to play along. It manages to stay spooky without ever becoming too scary. Around Halloween, I dug deep into the archives to catch up on classic films like Nightmare on Elm Street and The Amityville Horror. I now have a much better understanding of various Stranger Things references. The episodes are perfectly scored with a silly yet haunting theme. The duo has almost convinced me that I would like horror films. Almost.
8. Short History Of…
Sometimes you’re in the mood for a deep dive into one specific period of history, like the Russian Revolution or World War I. But sometimes one episode on the topic is enough. Short History Of… delves with impressive depth into a different subject each week—Cleopatra, The Titanic, The Hindenburg. This year, the show produced a series on Queen Elizabeth II charting her indelible mark on world history.
What truly stands out about this show is actor John Hopkins’ narration. His dulcet tones could make a grocery store list sound interesting. With high production values, the show immerses the listener in a sonic bath until they feel transported to the time in question, interrupting the illusion only to occasionally introduce talking heads, a hodgepodge of renowned historians.
7. The Tennis Podcast
With two of the greatest athletes of all time, Serena Williams and Roger Federer, retiring from tennis, the sport finds itself in at a moment of transition. The decade-old Tennis Podcast has played a crucial role in stoking excitement for the next generation of stars like Carlos Alcaraz and Frances Tiafoe. Hosted by British tennis enthusiasts David Law, Catherine Whitaker, and Matthew Roberts—who also work as commentators for the BBC, Amazon Prime Video, and other outlets—The Tennis Podcast drops weekly, except during Grand Slam tournaments, during which co-hosts manage to churn out a show every single day.
Law, Whitaker, and Roberts make up an intergenerational panel who often clash on player and style preferences, making for a robust conversation. Charmingly, all three become rather frustrated by anything that distracts from the tennis itself—including, this year, Djokovic’s Australian court case and Nick Kyrgios’ off-court antics. Their dedication to the sport has earned the respect of legends like Billie Jean King. When Pam Shriver came forward with sexual abuse allegations against her longtime coach, Don Candy, she gave her first interview to The Tennis Podcast.
6. Scam Goddess
I hesitate to call Scam Goddess a true crime comedy podcast since that genre has devolved into craven explorations of bloody murder. But you can indulge in this show without feeling icky. The cons that the Scam Goddess herself, Laci Mosley, covers each week with a different guest are (relatively) low stakes: They include famous frauds like the Bling Ring but also smaller, lesser known cons you missed, like that time a teenager in England hacked the director of the C.I.A.
The Upright Citizen’s Brigade alum is light on her feet and quick with a joke. She often approaches the scammer in question with gleeful reverence rather than cynicism or outrage—though she rightfully calls out billionaire swindlers for their exploitation of the poor. She has quickly cultivated a loving relationship with her audience, or her “con-gregation,” who send her stories of low key scams in their lives, like a burger joint that lost its Burger King franchise but continued to operate anyway. Funny and gasp-inducing, Scam Goddess is a new classic.
5. Borderline Salty
I was quite sad when the Bon Appetit Test Kitchen YouTube series imploded several years ago, and most of its stars left the publication. So when Test Kitchen alumni and cookbook authors Carla Lalli Music and Rick Martínez announced that they were launching a podcast, I immediately hit “subscribe.” They prove to be as warm and joyful as they were on that old show. (Each also now has their own YouTube programs.)
The bulk of the show is dedicated to answering caller questions about kitchen conundrums. Is it so wrong to use salted butter while baking? How can you spare yourself from jalapeño hands? They bookend these questions with smaller segments, like inviting a famous food world guest to share their worst kitchen nightmare story or analyzing TikTok food trends. I always learn something new; this show has helped me become a better cook.
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4. This Is Dating
This Is Dating is a grand experiment in attraction that allows you to eavesdrop on strangers’ first dates. Each week, show producers Jesse Baker and Hiwote Getaneh try to find a love match for participants on the show. After the date is over, behavioral scientist Logan Ury debriefs with the singles to point out patterns of behavior that might be hampering their search for a partner. Ury and the hosts discuss how queerness, race, gender politics, religion, and other factors impact the participants’ love lives. They explain pop psych theories about love and communication that listeners will no doubt use to analyze their own relationships.
Even when the dates implode, the show is able to maintain a hopeful vibe. The first season was recorded when everyone was stuck at home, and my guess is nowadays people are sick of Zoom dates. But I am eager to see This Is Dating can evolve into a post-pandemic podcast.
3. The Trojan Horse Affair
Serial Productions knows how to produce a good mystery, and The Trojan Horse Affair is no exception. In 2014, an anonymous letter that claimed there was an Islamist conspiracy at a school in Birmingham leaked to the U.K. Press. The alleged covert operation’s name? Operation Trojan Horse. Though clues pointed toward the letter being forged, its publication jumpstarted a national panic. The government altered school curricula and passed counter-terrorism measures that many believe to be racist.
Hamza Syed, a journalism student when this story begins, approached S-Town host and podcasting vet Brian Reed about investigating who wrote the letter, and they spent several years on the project. At some point, the podcast shifts its focus away from the mystery to how the two men approach the same journalistic mission in radically different ways. Reed clings to an old-school notion of “objectivity” in each interview, whereas Syed advocates for the important of challenging people’s explicit or implicit biases. They bump up against each other until finally they sit down and talk about what those approaches mean for journalism at large. Anyone who complains about media bias—in one direction or the other—should listen to this show and wrestle with the complex questions investigative journalists like Syed and Reed struggle with every day.
2. The Superhero Complex
In the early 2000s, over a dozen costumed do-gooders were running around real-life Seattle trying to stop crime. Their ringleader Phoenix Jones (not his real name) filmed his encounters for a YouTube channel, which helped him build an avid following—until he was arrested for drug dealing. The debate over whether Phoenix and his cohort did more harm than good is complicated by Phoenix’s penchant to exaggerate the truth, feuds he ignited within the vigilante community, and the fact that Phoenix is a Black man who says he donned the superhero costume so that cops wouldn’t shoot him on sight.
The fallen Phoenix Jones proves a fascinating subject. Journalist David Weinberg (of Welcome to L.A. fame) tracks him down and tries to untangle his exaggerated tales from the reality, exploring the larger world of vigilantism in the process. The excellent sound design evokes The Dark Knight and builds tension into a wild true story that’s more fraught and fascinating than any superhero movie ever could be.
1. Normal Gossip
In just its first year of production, Normal Gossip has become my favorite podcast. The concept is simple: Host Kelsey McKinney shares an anonymized piece of gossip about a friend of a friend or—more recently—listeners’ friends of friends. The hour-long stories are often set in fascinating niche communities, like a knitting group embroiled in scandal or the Facebook page for parents of a preschool soccer team. Even the stories that seem straightforward on their face—a COVID-era breakup or an illicit workplace affair—take unexpected turns.
Strangely, it doesn’t matter that you don’t know the subjects of the gossip. Our lizard brains just want to hear about drama. But what makes Normal Gossip a work of genius is the way McKinney dispatches the story, as if presenting her guest with a “choose your own adventure” tale. As she spins her narrative, she stops at pivotal moments for the main character and asks her guest, “What would you do here?” Would you expose this hypocrite in your friend group? Go on a trip with a new boyfriend’s family? Buy a home next to suspicious neighbors? The structure forces the listener to consider the question themselves and invest further into the story. There are revelations in this podcast that made me squeal with delight. I think we could all use a little gossip in our lives right now.
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