About this time last year, I did a piece on the best new podcasts of 2016, highlighting a list of shows that represent the best of what the medium of podcasting can attain: The West Wing Weekly, Craig's List, Matt & Doree's Eggcellent Adventure: An IVF journey, and The Jackie & Laurie Show.
As there are literally hundreds of thousands of podcasts–it would be crazy for a single person to proclaim their list the authoritative official 'best' podcasts; no one could possibly listen to every single show in existence to craft a fully informed opinion. So when I say 'best,' really what I mean is my personal favorites. I try to be an informed consumer, to sample a wide variety of podcasts, and this past year there were a handful of shows that really grabbed me and wouldn't let go.
The 2017 roster includes With Friends Like These, We're No Doctors, Ologies, The Big Ones, and The Old Ones. (Honorable Mention goes to a show that technically began its run in December of 2016–but I wasn't aware of it at the time I wrote last year's list, and The Bechdel Cast merits inclusion on every list of great podcasts.)
Like last year's list, the podcasts on this year's list focus on a wide variety of topics: comedy & media, science & medicine, politics & philosophy. These shows are compelling because of their hosts' emotional connection to the material and to their audiences.
One final note before we jump in: these shows are listed in chronological order from the date their first episode was released. I enjoy each of them too much–and in different ways–to try to pit them against each other in a traditional ranking approach.
So without further ado, here are my favorite podcasts that began releasing episodes in 2017.
'With Friends Like These' With Ana Marie Cox
With Friends Like These is hosted by Ana Marie Cox, a writer, journalist, and pundit, and a veteran of Wonkette, The New York Times Magazine, MTV News, The Daily Beast, Air America, and The Rachel Maddow Show, among many outlets and organizations.
This show is a part of the Crooked Media network, and is well described as "a show that's about listening instead of arguing... whether it’s a conversation about politics or religion, race or gender, or belief itself. "
Born out of a segment of Ana's previous podcast, The Brouhaha, in which she spoke with people across the political spectrum, With Friends Like These continues her mission to bring understanding to disparate social and political groups. One of the big themes of the podcast is allyship, as Ana and her guests strive to find not just common ground, but common values.
Guests on the show have included authors, journalists, artists, professional political operatives, and religious leaders from across the political spectrum. The only universal qualifications they have is their willingness to listen with an open mind, and to accept different points of view from their own as having value.
Ana's friendly and erudite approach to divisive topics allows her guests to engage in calm and productive discussions, sharing valuable information and insights with the listening audience. With Friends Like These is an oasis in the desert of shouted sound bites that comprise much of the news landscape.
'We're No Doctors' With Busy Philipps and Steve Agee
These charismatic hypochondriacs explore everything related to dealing with illnesses and injuries, from diet and fitness, to medications and treatments, to chronic afflictions and emergency conditions.
Steve, Busy, and their guests–who to date have included Janeane Garofalo, Emily Gordon, Nicole Sullivan, and Andy Richter–share everything about their approaches to dealing with medical issues in their everyday lives and their hospital stays.
Naturally captivating and hilarious, Busy and Steve are able to bring to bear their long experience with various diseases and disorders to help the listeners feel better about what they themselves are dealing with, and provide positive examples for the idea that everyone can–and should–be a strong advocate for themselves in the face of an intimidating medical establishment.
Steve and Busy are full of ideas and advice, but always remember: they're no doctors!
'Ologies' With Alie Ward
Alie Ward is an Emmy Award-winning television science correspondent, writer & host, with an innate passion for sharing knowledge in all forms. Each week on her Ologies podcast, Alie speaks to experts in myriad fields of study–paleontology, ornithology, entomology, cosmology, and beyond–using a list of all possible ologies such as this one, as a guide. Clearly, she won't run out of subject matter any time soon.
Every episode of Ologies presents a brief survey of its given Ology throughout the course of the interview: its origins and its historical significance, the highs and the lows of being a professional practitioner of the discipline. Alie’s voice slides in from after the fact, providing a running commentary to dispense valuable context, explanations, and digressions in each meticulously edited episode.
As a host, Alie’s hip silliness and self-deprecation belie her vast reservoir of zeal and dedication as a science communicator. Her joyousness and warmth provide a sweet candy coating as she tackles the most complex of topics, from watchmaking (horology) and carbohydrates (glycobiology,) to death itself (thanatology) – the spoonful of sugar that helps the medicine go down as Ologies explores the breadth of the universe and human experience.
'The Big Ones' With Maria Blasucci and Amanda Lund
Would you kill your own baby to save a village? Would you eat muffins for the rest of your life, if it meant you wouldn't have to go to school?
Moral choices such as these are tackled each week on The Big Ones with Maria Blasucci and Amanda Lund. Amanda and Maria–comedy writers, actors and improvisers by vocation–discuss issues like infidelity, plagiarism, friendship, criminal justice, and the nature of reality itself.
Who would you rather be able to talk to: animals, the dead, or your younger self? Would you kick a horse to death to cure obesity?
Though the show features discussion of age-old ethical dilemmas like The Trolley Problem and The Brain in the Jar, the podcast never becomes a dry, academic discussion because the hosts are naturally, effervescently, brilliant and hilarious.
The key to the success of this show is that while Maria and Amanda clearly take the production of their show seriously, they don't always treat the subject matter the same way. They improvise scenes around each scenario, jumping in and out of character to explore every aspect of each moral question, and make the podcast a lot of fun along the way.
Would you shrink your sweetheart six inches for six million dollars? Would you rather be 20 percent more beautiful or 20 percent smarter?
Alongside guests like Paul F. Tompkins, Derek Waters, Taran Killam, and their Pistol Shrimps teammates Stephanie Allynne, Melissa Stetten, and Molly Hawkey, Amanda and Maria dissect quandaries both comedic and horrific.
The Big Ones invites you to test the boundaries of interpersonal relationships, social mores, and your own convictions.
'The Old Ones' With Mike Birbiglia
The Old Ones is a podcast that Mike Birbiglia created to celebrate his new standup comedy tour "The New One" by looking back on the work that brought him to the place he is in his life and career. This fun experiment chronicles Mike's journey from "a lonely young man [with] no idea what he's doing," through writing and directing the feature films Sleepwalk with Me and Don't Think Twice, to becoming a husband and a father.
In this five-episode limited series, Mike spoke with Ira Glass, fellow comedians Judd Apatow, Pete Holmes, and John Mulaney, Mike's wife Jennifer Stein, and his brother Joe Birbiglia.
Each episode of the podcast covers one of Mike's albums or specials:
- Two Drink Mike (2005)
- My Secret Public Journal Live (2007)
- Sleepwalk with Me (2011)
- My Girlfriend's Boyfriend (2013)
- Thank God for Jokes (2017)
Along the way, Mike and his guests discuss not just his own processes and comedic sensibilities, but larger issues of society, family, friendship, and spirituality.
This podcast could have been merely an exercise in self indulgence–an artist inviting friends along to revel in their own successes–but is saved by something that has been the cornerstone of Mike's career for decades: his unvarnished honesty and forthrightness.
As a comedian and a filmmaker, Mike has never shied away from sharing with his audience stories about failed relationships, his ongoing struggles with a chronic sleep disorder, and the bad ideas we all have in everyday life.
'The Bechdel Cast' With Caitlin Durante and Jaime Loftus
As I mentioned in the introduction, The Bechdel Cast premiered in December of 2016, not in 2017, as the rest of the podcasts on this list did.
However, I am including it anyway, because The Bechdel Cast is not just fun and informative, but makes one think differently about classic films, and dearly held personal favorites.
The podcast is hosted by standup comedians Caitlin Durante (who has a Master's Degree) and Jaime Loftus (who is also a talented illustrator) who discuss the portrayal of women in media using The Bechdel Test as a guide. While there are multiple versions and stipulations of the test itself, Caitlin and Jaime use the following three (and a half) rules:
In order for a movie to pass the Bechdel Cast Test, that movie must
- Have more than one female character (with a name)
- Who talk to each other
- About something other than a male character.
While this standard seems simple enough, it has proven surprisingly challenging to find movies that pass it, especially amongst the venerated films of yesteryear. Also important to note: passing the Bechdel Test doesn't make a movie good automatically, this is merely a springboard for discussion about representation both in front of & behind the camera.
Caitlin and Jaime never allow their show to resemble the thousands of other movie review podcasts around. They are constantly pushing the boundaries of film analysis, with a true twenty-first century framework that includes discussion of intersectional feminism, queer representation, and masculinity in all forms (the most prestigious form of course being Alfred Molina.)
The critical scrutiny that The Bechdel Cast applies always comes from a place of loving movies and wanting them to be better, and Caitlin and Jamie never forget to make sure that the audience is having fun along the way.