To find the best podcasts of the year, Nerdette host Greta Johnsen talked to two veritable experts in the form: Leah-Simone Bowen, host of Podcast Playlist from the CBC, and Nick Quah, podcast critic for Vulture. In order to make it on their lists this year, both Leah and Nick said shows had to really push the envelope in format or reporting.
“I want something different,” Leah said. “I want something that I maybe haven’t heard before or a story told in a way that I haven’t heard before.”
“I’m also looking for a little bit of weirdness,” Nick added. “I like me some freak, I like me some weird. So that’s something that I actively thought about and was looking for.”
From heavy investigations to a show that Nick calls “cotton candy sprinkled with more cotton candy,” here are the best podcasts of 2023.
🎧 Click the red “listen” button for Greta’s full breakdown with Leah and Nick.
If Books Could Kill (Independent)
Michael Hobbes has made a name for himself in the podcast world. Formerly of You’re Wrong About and current co-host of Maintenance Phase, Hobbes also co-hosts If Books Could Kill with Peter Shamshiri, lawyer and co-host of the podcast 5-4. According to Nick, this show is another example of what Hobbes does best: “Take a scalpel and attack a bunch of preconceived notions that are harmful in society.”
In If Books Could Kill, Hobbes and Shamshiri take aim at so-called “airport books.”
“I am fascinated by this podcast as an intellectual enterprise, which is essentially to wake you up a little bit to how nonsensical and how, frankly, harmful a lot of the existing kind of information power structures there are,” Nick said.
Leah adds that, if nothing else, this show will likely save you from impulse book shopping the next time you’re in an airport.
SHOWS THAT REFRAME THE PAST
The Redemption of Jar Jar Binks (TED Audio Collective)
You don’t have to be a Star Wars fan to enjoy this show – in fact, Leah, who recommended this podcast, had never even seen Jar Jar Binks on screen before listening to this show. Hosted by writer Dylan Marron, this six-part “journey” revisits the experience of actor Ahmed Best, who was cast as Jar Jar. Ride along as Best, certain that his life would change for the better after a big role in an even bigger franchise, becomes the target of widespread mockery and loathing in early-internet fan forums.
“There are so many pieces to the story that will, I think, really break people’s hearts,” Leah said. “I cried during this podcast.” But there are also moments of levity and plenty of insight into our collective experiences online.
* * *
In season eight of Slow Burn, host Joel Anderson dives into the life of Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, tracing his path from youthful radical to conservative icon. Leah admits that, as a Canadian, she did not see herself gravitating toward a podcast that delves into such a specific aspect of American law and history, but the “gripping” and “jaw dropping” storytelling hooked her.
“It’s this really compelling story of what power and racism can do to one’s mind — that really was my takeaway — and how those choices have ultimately impacted the entire country for so long,” she said. “I was really surprised that I liked it so much, but it was … just a really human story of the surprising choices a person can make when given power and when their power in society grows.”
The Retrievals (Serial Productions)
For Nick, this show hosted by longtime This American Life writer and producer Susan Burton, was the one that made him feel the most this year. The five-episode podcast is an investigation into the Yale Fertility Clinic, where a nurse swapped fentanyl with saline, leaving egg-retrieval patients without any pain relief during the procedure. The show explores whose pain is believed and grapples with complicated themes, like how we think about motherhood as a society. Nick warns that this show is a difficult listen, but “does leave a tremendous amount of emotional space for you to breathe.”
* * *
Honorable mention: Bloodlines (CBC)
Hosted by investigative reporter Poonam Taneja, who has covered ISIS for a decade, this seven-part series takes listeners through the search for two-year-old Salmaan, the grandchild of a British citizen who went missing in Syria in 2018.
“It looks at these children who are the children of British. Americans and Canadians who went to fight for ISIS voluntarily and are now in this middle place, being born into detention camps, and just being scattered all over the country because of the war,” Leah said. “Poonam Taneja, the reporting and the risk that she and her team take to get this story is incredible.”
PLAYING WITH FORM
Murder on Sex Island (Independent)
Besides getting Nick’s vote for the best titled show of the year, this show is “whip smart” and “extremely funny.” Written and hosted by writer and comedian Jo Firestone, the audiobook-style fiction podcast, is about a woman who escapes her boring Staten Island life by moonlighting as a private detective named Luella van Horn. She’s a huge fan of a reality dating show called Sex Island and, when she gets a call from one of the producers about a missing contestant, she jumps on the case.
“It’s cotton candy that’s sprinkled with more cotton candy. It’s delicious,” Nick said. “Very few things have made me smile as much as listening to the entirety of this podcast slash audiobook.”
* * *
Everything is Alive Presents: The Animals (Radiotopia)
Continuing in the “fun” category, Leah says this “enchanting” show from Radiotopia “feels like fiction” and is the perfect escape. Hosted by Wait Wait … Don’t Tell Me! producer Ian Chillag, each Everything is Alive episode features an improvised conversation between Chillag and a comedian who embodies the persona of an inanimate object, such as a soda can or a stool. This season is about animals.
One of Leah’s favorite episodes stars comedian Vinny Thomas as Harry the flamingo.
“It’s just so dear and hilarious, but Harry’s born in a zoo, so he has some struggles,” Leah said.
* * *
Honorable mention: Ghost Story (Wondery and Pineapple Street Studios)
Nick described this show as a “conceptual turducken” because it’s a “secret family history that’s stuffed into a murder mystery that’s stuffed into a digital ghost story. And it’s also about a series of coincidences.” If that sounds like a lot, don’t worry — Nick says this show, hosted by journalist Tristan Redman, pays off big in the end.
Greta Johnsen hosts and produces the Nerdette podcast. Anna Bauman also produces Nerdette. Courtney Kueppers is a digital producer/reporter at WBEZ.