You’re walking home alone when a cool October wind blows your hair around your face. The sun is setting earlier tonight, you notice, and you zip up your jacket as the evening autumn weather gives you goosebumps.
Or . . . is there something else giving you a chill?
You slow down, listening to the night air over the sound of your shoes scuffing pavement. Could there be more footsteps than just your own?
You can’t shake the feeling that something is following you.
Luckily, you can pop your headphones into your phone and dive into your new favorite podcast to brush away that Halloween-fueled paranoia. For all your nighttime promenade needs, I’ve selected the best podcasts of 2017.
Biggest Pop Culture Phenomenon: Missing Richard Simmons
Other podcasts on this list have stronger critical reviews, but “Missing Richard Simmons” had the bigger impact on pop culture in 2017 — and the life of its subject. Dan Taberski, a filmmaker and self-proclaimed friend of the flamboyant fitness guru, describes Richard Simmons’s public and personal characters and investigates his disappearance. The podcast received criticism for invading Simmons’ privacy, but Taberski comes
across as a fan and friend who is baffled by an uncharacteristic reclusive behavior. How could a man so affectionate and intimately attached to his fans suddenly stop contacting his closest friends and family?
In response, Simmons called into The Today Show to deny allegations from the show in spring of this year. Yet the heartwarming response from concerned fans because of “Missing Richard Simmons” is worth listening to the whole podcast.
Download this! Episode 3: The Maid and the Masseuse
Best Educational: Stuff You Missed in History Class
Most other lists would give this award to “Stuff You Should Know,” another well-made podcast from HowStuffWorks.com. But “Stuff You Miss in History Class,” hosted by Tracy V. Wilson and Holly Frey, is more organized and easier to follow than its more famous sister podcast.
Download This! Mongolian Princess Khutulun
And while we’re on the subject of history . . .
Best Film History: You Must Remember This
Here’s the tagline for this storytelling podcast: “You Must Remember This is about the secret and/or forgotten histories of Hollywood’s first century.” And true, there is plenty of salacious dirt about the icons from classical Hollywood cinema that their “fixers” wouldn’t want you to know. Yet “You Must Remember This” uses character profiles to illustrate what the zeitgeist in America was when those actors were at the height of their careers.
Every few months, the podcast’s show runner Karina Longworth introduces a new topic for a cycle. 2017’s included “Dead Blondes,” “Jean & Jane” (that would be Jean Seberg from Breathless and Jane Fonda), and “Bela & Boris” (Lugosi and Karloff of monster movie fame). The show portrays these actors as fascinating antiheroes, with thoughtful intentions, flaws, and personal values. But what makes “You Must Remember This” great is when it situates those icons within their historical context, like how the public responded to Barbarella-era Jane Fonda contrasted with Hanoi Jane. Come for the celebrity gossip; stay for the American history lessons.
Download this! Episode 99: Marilyn Monroe: The Persona (Dead Blondes Part 7)
Best TV Recap: A Cast of Kings — A Game of Thrones Podcast
Picking this entry is largely dependent on your taste in television. For example, my love for Dance Moms doesn’t make the recap podcasts about the show any good, but I still devour them. It’s also tricky finding quality podcasts about new television and not nostalgic reviews of shows that have long since been off the air.
What works about the two-person discussion format for “A Cast of Kings” is that David Chen admits he hasn’t read most of the books while his co-host Joanna Robinson is an expert in both the books and the TV series. This caters to the disparate factions of viewers for the show; Chen voices the questions that non-book-readers have and Robinson provides the literary context without spoiling potential plot points for future episodes. And best of all, they can balance having chemistry with each other without bantering off-topic too long.
Download this! A Cast of Kings S7E03 – The Queen’s Justice
Best Film/TV/Book/Music/Etc. Reviews: Pop Culture Happy Hour
“Pop Culture Happy Hour” has been producing episodes for years, but this NPR podcast still as fresh and insightful as its first year. “PCHH” features host Linda Holmes, who writes and edits NPR’s entertainment section; Stephen Thompson, an editor for NPR Music; Glen Weldon, an NPR writer who specializes in comic books and movies; and a rotating fourth chair, depending on the topic or the medium they’re reviewing.
If I were selecting this based on the thoughtfulness and clarity of their reviews, I would still give “PCHH” this category’s award. On top of that, though, they rotate their fourth chair to represent the topic’s intended audience and bring diversity to their discussions. Although in the past couple weeks they have changed their format to shorter biweekly episodes, their original format was gold. A review of film, album, or something else released that week filled the first 15-20 minutes, then a related B-topic about trends in popular culture really explored what we find important in our entertainment.
Download this! Baby Driver and When Auteurs meet Film Franchises
Best New Podcast: S-Town
Desperate to fill the hole left behind from “Serial,” I was happy to read that This American Life was producing a new true-story narrative. The first episode suggests that “S-Town” — which gets its name from the locals’ flippant term “s- – – town”— might follow the true-crime investigative format that “Serial” famously used with its first season. However, the narrative abruptly changes by the next episode. “S-Town” is a well-written fish-out-of-water story about a man with big ideas who blames the inclusivity of a rural town in the deep South for his misfortune. Host Brian Reed is sympathetic and observant with characters who would test anyone’s patience, and the result is a podcast that echoes our insecurities about purpose and a sense of belonging.
Download this! Chapter II