Hear these: the 32 best podcasts of 2018

Forget binge-watching – it’s all about binge-listening these days, and we’ve prepped your podcasting feast…

29 January 2018
by Stuff Staff

Turn on the radio these days and most of the time you might as well be piping horse manure into your lugholes. But thankfully technology means you don’t ever have to reach for that dial again.

We’re talking about podcasts, of course: basically the best bits of radio cut out and presented to you in a form that you can listen to anywhere at any time.

But with thousands of podcasts around, where do you get started? Right here, that’s where. As it’s still early days in 2018, we’ve picked out our favourite new(ish) pods and bundled them together with some of the long-running must-listens. They might just make the commute your favourite part of the day…

THE BUTTERFLY EFFECT WITH JON RONSON

Best for: Twists and turns

Writer and journalist Jon Ronson’s latest investigative project was initially limited to Audible subscribers. Now freely available on podcatchers everywhere, this one should be top of your to-listen list.

The seven-part series focuses on the porn industry, beginning in Brussels many years ago, with a teenage techie who decided to get rich by giving the world what he suspected it wanted: free pornography.

But that’s just the beginning. As Ronson begins to delve into the titular butterfly effect of this online revolution, he finds himself unravelling a constantly surprising (two words: stamp collection) and at times moving story about people. He’s always curious and never judgmental – the sign of a great documentarian.

Try this episode: Episode 1 – A Nondescript Building in Montreal

KOTAKU SPLITSCREEN

Best for: The gaming lowdown

How many podcasts in your feed can rely on your download each week purely because of the intro music? For us, that’s the case with Kotaku Splitscreen, a gaming podcast featuring Kotaku’s Kirk Hamilton and Jason Schreier. The stupidly catchy theme in question is played by Hamilton himself, who has a background in jazz.

But wait! Before the weird sax-haters move on to the next entry, we should mention that the podcast is pretty great too. The two co-hosts bounce off each other well, and they go pretty deep into lesser known indie gems as well as the big hitters.

Kotaku has always approached video games media a little bit differently to its competitors, and this podcast stands out from the crowd too.

Try this episode: Episode 106 – Fall Mailbag Spectacular

SOUNDTRACKING WITH EDITH BOWMAN

Best for: Musical journeys

Here’s a fact: it’s actually impossible to hear the thunderous intro to Underworld’s ‘Born Slippy’ and not immediately think of a scrawny Ewan McGregor pelting it down Princes Street in the Scottish capital.

When we think about movies, we nearly always think about music too, and this rather excellent pod is all about that marriage. In each episode, Edith Bowman sits down with a different person from the world of film (often it’s a director), who then takes us through their inspirations and creative process when choosing what music to use in their films. Excerpts of the tunes in question are seamlessly weaved into the interview, so you’ll regularly find yourself toe-tapping as you listen.

A standout ep last year saw guest Edgar Wright talking about how he chose the songs featured in Baby Driver, many of which are the original versions of tunes that have since been sampled by chart-topping artists. It’ll make you appreciate the movie even more on your next rewatch.

Try this episode: Episode 47 – Edgar Wright

UNDER THE SKIN

Best for: Knowledge seekers

It’s well-documented that Russell Brand’s proposed political revolution didn’t quite materialise in the way he hoped, but rather than moping around and rewatching his now infamous interview with Ed Miliband on YouTube, he decided to enroll himself into university and inhale the knowledge he felt he lacked.

Think of Under the Skin as his extra-curricular learning. Each week, a different person from the world of academia, pop culture or the arts sits down for a one-on-one with the comedian – but you won’t find many jokes here. Instead, the pair will deep dive into the ideas, systems and philosophies that shape our world, as they try to make sense of why things are, and if they can change.

Former guests have included Al Gore, Yuval Noah Harari, survivalist Ed Stafford, and Professor Brian Cox. It’s highbrow stuff that commands your attention – one for long train journeys rather than scrubbing the bathroom – but you’ll feel smarter for listening.

Try this episode: Episode 43 – With Professor Brian Cox

TRUTH & MOVIES: A LITTLE WHITE LIES PODCAST

Best for: Cinephiles

One weekly James Richardson-featuring podcast not enough for you? We have good news: the man himself also sits in the hosting chair for movie mag Little White Lies’ (the one with the really pretty covers) Truth & Movies.

It’s a straightforward premise: Richardson and a couple of the magazine’s reviewers sit in a room and discuss the latest releases, and there’s always plenty of lively debate. You’re bound to find yourself passionately disagreeing with some of their opinions, but that’s half the fun of pop culture. Just try not to shout at your phone in the middle of Tesco.

Try this episode: Episode 35 – Star Wars: The Last Jedi/Mountains May Depart/Brick

THE TOTALLY FOOTBALL SHOW

Best for: Footie nuts

The most scandalous news of 2017? Not Bake Off going to Channel 4, but James Richardson walking out on The Guardian Football Weekly to set up The Totally Football Show. With a familiar bi-weekly round-up schtick and similarly turncoat contributors like James Horncastle, Michael Cox and Rafa Honigstein, this is a great pod for getting your fix of Premier League, Champions League and continental football analysis. Jimbo might have jumped ship, but The Totally Football Show is very much more of the same minus Barry and Sid. Yep, that means a cavalcade of side-splitting puns too.

Try this episode: Irish hangovers, Chinese takeovers, and the king of crumbles

HOMECOMING

Best for: Conspiracy theorists

It’s going to be another cracking year for fiction podcasts if this is anything to go by. Homecoming follows a therapist and army veteran, who are thrown together by a new government program that helps soldiers readjust to civilian life.

At least, that’s what the government claims. Without any narration, the series weaves together recorded phone calls and therapy sessions that slowly start to hint at more sinister motives.

This intimate approach, plus some excellent performances and sound design, give it a real authenticity as it starts to muse on the personal cost of erasing traumatic memories. With each episode coming in at a tight 20 minutes, it’s an essential commuting soundtrack. The ‘making of’ segments  are well worth a listen too.

Try this episode: Episode 1 – Mandatory

STRANGLERS

Best for: Your next hit of true crime

True crime podcasts are all the rage right now, and every time you hear a new one being advertised it can be hard to fight the sensation that this is just another boarder of the bandwagon. But to make that assumption about Stranglers would be to miss out on one of the finest new podcasts around.

This is very much in the same mould as Serial and In the Dark, in that it’s a journalistic investigation into a past crime. In this case it’s that of the Boston Strangler – an apparent serial killer who gruesomely assaulted, murdered and bizarrely posed a number of elderly women in their own homes between 1962 and 1964.

This is not pleasant stuff. Graphic, horrifying and frightening, no punches are pulled in the descriptions of the murders, nor in descriptions of the impact on the lives of the victims’ relatives and the residents of Boston as a whole. But it’s also a fascinating insight into criminal investigations before computer databases, CCTV or reliable DNA testing. It’s a brilliant, binge-worthy new series – as long as you’ve got the stomach for it.

Try this episode: Episode 1: Sisters in Death

FOUND

Best for: The perennially nosy

Davy Rothbart is so obsessed with solving the mysteries behind notes, letters, lists and doodles that he finds or, increasingly, gets sent, that he’s set up a whole magazine – and now a podcast – about it.

Each episode documents some of his favourite investigations, as he tries to track down the person whose life he caught a tiny glimpse of via a discarded or lost piece of paper. He tends to get great guest appearances along the way, with Nick Nolte and David Cross giving the excellent second episode a hefty dose of weirdness and humour.

Try this episode: Looking for love

BBC RADIO 4 SERIOUSLY…

Best for: Documentary addicts 

Radio 4’s archives were clearly bursting at the seams with fascinating audio docs, so the BBC released some of the pressure by funneling the best into this new podcast.

Brighter and breezier than the more forensic In Our Time, its covers everything from Roald Dahl to South Korea’s obsession with Starcraft. Whatever your niche hobby, there’s likely to an episode for you.

The lack of a regular presenter or running time (they vary from 30 minutes to an hour) means Seriously… is more like a greatest hits than your favourite album ever. But it’s perfect for coming off the bench when your first choice podcasts need a rest.

Try this episode: The Camera Never Lies

THE HILARIOUS WORLD OF DEPRESSION

Best for: Unexpected mirth 

Podcasts have a special way with taboo subjects that don’t tend to reveal themselves under the glare of TV lights. And so it is with The Hilarious World of Depression, which pokes fun at the illness using one-to-one chats with comedians who’ve learned how to live with it.

Luckily, that doesn’t mean Jimmy Carr firing glib one-liners at your ears. The ‘hilarious’ tag relates more to the overall approach – using its guests’ comedic eye to jab mental illness in the ribs and so remove some of its power. Whether you’re the owner of a black dog or not, it’s an enlightening listen.

Try this episode: Episode 4 – Dick Cavett Tells Tales of Hollywood’s Secret Shame   

THE ADAM BUXTON PODCAST

Best for: Making you smile

There are two types of people in the world: those who know and love Adam Buxton, and those who lead sad, unfulfilled lives. Once one half of The Adam and Joe Show on telly and Saturday mornings on 6 Music, Adam’s finally launched his own podcast in which he meets up and chats with a pretty diverse bunch of people, from Louis Theroux to Kathy Burke to Jonny Greenwood.

He’s not a ‘proper’ interviewer, but there’s a charm and openness to everything Adam does that makes him great to spend time with. In fact, the intros and outros, recorded while he’s out walking his dog, Rosie, are probably the best bits.

Try this episode: EP. 11 – Joe Cornish

ON THE CONTINENT

Best for: Coffee-sipping football hipsters

If you’re a fan of both podcasts and football, there’s a pretty good chance you’ve come across The Football Ramble. The bulk of podcasts dedicated to the (sometimes) beautiful game are manned by journalists or ex-pros, but the four ramblers, while clearly erudite on all things ball and goal, come across more like a group of mates in the pub – and that’s why it’s so popular. The Premier League’s ridiculous side is the Ramble’s bread and butter.

Spinoff On The Continent is a bit different, in that it does feature journalists (James Horncastle and Andy Brassell), and it focuses entirely on football not played in England. If you want keep bang up to with goings-on in Spain (U Ok Real Madrid?), France (referees kicking players), Germany and Italy, this the podcast to listen to.

Try this episode: Episode 22 – The Teriminator

SHUT UP & SIT DOWN

Best for: Board game buzz

If you think a podcast about board games sounds like the perfect sleep aid for a long haul flight, ‘SU&SD’ will change your mind. Its three mega-informed hosts discuss the design and mechanics of board games with such frenetic enthusiasm that you can’t help but go and pre-order their latest role-playing recommendation.

They have a background in video games too, so expect some fascinating chat about the frequent crossover between the two (and the people who make them). But this is ultimately about the tactile, social joy of the tabletop game, and why it’s good to occasionally switch off your PS4 to revel in a game of Dead of Winter.

Try this episode: Podcast #35: Rebellion in an Airport

CHEAP HEAT

Best for: Peckerheads

Being a wrestling fan is like being a Freemason. You don’t talk about it with other people for fear of them looking at you funny. This means podcasts are the perfect way to share your fandom with like-minded weirdos, and Peter Rosenberg’s Cheap Heat is one of the best around. Blending an unending affection for the WWE while embracing its innate silliness, this show continually serves up top guests such as Bret Hart, Finn Balor and Alexa Bliss. Despite Rosenberg’s status as a WWE contributor, his analysis of the latest feuds, storylines and associated madness is always spot on.

Try this episode: 20 Years of Hell

FINAL GAMES

Best for: Next level gamers

Taking its cue from Desert Island Discs, Final Games puts games industry veterans in a similarly uninhabited but somehow electrically-powered place, and asks them to explain which eight games they’d choose to take with them.

Ex-Rockstar employee Liam Edwards hosts from the floor of his Japanese apartment, talking to journalists and developers across the world about the games that have defined them, influenced them or got them into the games industry in the first place. Key episodes include Bastion designer Greg Kasavin discussing why DOTA 2 is the perfect video game, and the journalist Rich Stanton talking about cult classic God Hand while explaining why a major outlet’s 2/10 review was way off the mark.

Try this episode: Episode 16: Greg Kasavin (Bastion / Transistor)

MY DAD WROTE A PORNO

Best for: Putting your own familial dysfunctionality into perspective

What would you do if your dad suddenly (and seemingly drunkenly) self-published an erotic novel, despite the fact that he’s a pretty terrible writer and evidently has no concept of what’s sexy or even a basic understanding of female anatomy?

The answer probably isn’t read it to the world chapter-by-chapter, but that’s exactly what James Morton did, and he brought his two horrified and bewildered friends along for the ride. The result is a podcast, now into its second season, that’s at turns hilarious and so cringe-inducing it hurts. Who knew the ‘pots and pans’ industry could be so debauched?

Try this episode: Episode 4 – The Maze / The First Client

SONG EXPLODER

Best for: Hardcore musos

Like a director’s commentary for music, Song Exploder’s 15-minute episodes take individual tunes, break them down to their constituent parts and ask the artists responsible to tell the stories behind them. That means it’s not a podcast you’ll necessarily want to listen to every episode of, more likely picking and choosing the ones that feature bands you’re into, but the insight is frequently fascinating.

Whether it’s Joey Bada$$ revealing that his producer finds samples on YouTube, Warpaint sharing an alternative ending to Love Is To Die, or the original guitar-only demo for The National’s Sea of Love, Song Exploder is a music nerd’s dream.

Try this episode: Episode 47: Warpaint – Love Is To Die

ANALOG(UE)

Best for: Tech without the specs

A lot of tech podcasts examine their subject with a surgeon’s knife, delving into specs and release dates, but this one takes a refreshing step back by discussing how it fits into everyday life. Its two hosts also live on either side of the Atlantic (hence the title’s dual spelling), which helps it unearth the subtle differences between how the US and UK use their gadgets.

Not that it’s just about subjects like Instagram versus Twitter – the unstructured feel and range of topics means it fits more into the ‘two guys talking’ genre. But the fact the one is a developer and the other a full-time podcaster means it often returns to subjects like the unexpected benefits of Skype’s fake dialling tone.

Try this episode: Episode 67: Don’t Blame The Coffee, Blame The Moron

THE 2000 AD THRILL CAST

Best for: Comics fiends

Home of grim-faced lawman Judge Dredd, 2000 AD has been flinging oddball British sci-fi your way since the late 1970s. The 2000 AD Thrill-Cast is packed full of insight and interviews, chatting with some of the industry’s biggest creators.

The podcast has a kind of restless energy, and its sometimes lo-fi discussions are frequently entertaining and interesting. Fans will also welcome the chance to win some comic-related bling and get to hear exclusive announcements about upcoming strips and merchandise. Just don’t let Dredd hear you listening, or he’ll hurl you into the Iso Cubes. “Accessing subversive audio casts. Five years, creep!”

Try this episode: The John Wagner Interview: Part One

RADIOLAB

Science and philosophy are the chief concerns of this podcast and radio show from New York public station WNYC, but it’s certainly not dense or exclusive – the idea is to make topics within these areas accessible and approachable.

There’s a lot of talking, obviously, but the tight editing style and use of experimental music keep things moving along swiftly and enhance the stories being told. If you like This American Life, you’ll find Radiolab sits very much in the same category. Thought-provoking and compelling.

Listen to Radiolab

SODAJERKER

Scouse songwriting duo Simon Barber and Brian O’Connor make up Sodajerker, and when they’re not locked in the studio crafting music for movie scores and pop artists they’re making this fascinating podcast about the art of songwriting.

Most episodes feature Sodajerker (the name refers to the person operating the soda fountain in a US drug store, apparently) in conversation with a noted musician, with recent instalments picking the note-filled brains of Loudon Wainwright III, Suzanne Vega, Squeeze’s Chris Difford and Glenn Tilbrook, and Billy Bragg.

Listen to Sodajerker

GUARDIAN FOOTBALL WEEKLY

Best for: Feedback corner

Jimbo may be gone, but Guardian Football Weekly lives on with Max Rushden as host. Fret not, this remains an excellent football pod. If anything, a change in personnel has done the show good, encouraging it bring in new voices such as the excellent Jacqui Oatley and Priya Ramesh. There’s also a greater focus on more topical footballing issues beyond the latest calamitous performances from Arsenal and Liverpool. All in all, this is still essential listening for footie fans.

Try this episode: Viking claps for Iceland, golf claps for the US

FIGHTING TALK

Sticking with sport, this is BBC Radio 5 Live’s weekly panel-show-cum-news-review, in which guests compete for points by dispensing well-informed nuggets of punditry. Ill-informed comments, meanwhile, see them penalised by having points knocked off.

It might be weighted more towards being entertaining and amusing than being an all-knowing look at the world of professional sport, but it’s nevertheless a lighthearted way to keep up to date with the past seven days’ of sporting happenings.

Listen to Fighting Talk

FREAKONOMICS

The podcast of the radio show of the bestselling book, Freakonomics digs into the world from an economist’s point of view.

What do we mean by that? Well, we mean that it examines and analyses interesting subjects by applying economic theory to them – and often comes close to explaining them in ways that may not have occurred to you. Religion, child-rearing, diet, tipping, foibles of human behaviour – when put through Stephen Dubner and Steven Levitt’s witty, entertaining prism, these subjects become all the more enthralling.

Listen to Freakonomics

STUFF YOU SHOULD KNOW

Did you know that the Male Pillow Octopus will sometimes break off one of his arms and use it as a sword to defend himself against bigger fishes? Have you ever wondered about the chemical properties in Play-Doh?

We didn’t, until we started listening to Stuff You Should Know, a twice-weekly podcast by American bloggers Josh Clark and Chuck Bryant, who like to talk about absolutely everything under the sun. Affiliated with website Howstuffworks.com, this podcast is wonderfully easy listening, and packed full of information you’d never learn otherwise. There are 600+ SYSK podcasts to get stuck into.

Listen to Stuff You Should Know

POP CULTURE HAPPY HOUR

Do you like pop culture? Of course you do (or you probably wouldn’t be perusing this list) – and therefore you should consider becoming a regular listener to this podcast from NPR (essentially America’s answer to the BBC).

Looking at mainstream films, television, books, music and more with a level of erudition, depth and intelligence rarely found on US broadcast media (there’s very little shouting going on here), it’s a fantastic way to keep up with what “da kidz” are into.

Listen to Pop Culture Happy Hour

THE MOTH

Quite simply, this podcast consists of stories. True stories to be exact, told to a roomful of strangers by a single person standing under a single light (hence the podcast’s name) and recorded for everyone else in the world to listen to.

Sometimes short, sometimes long, sometimes hilarious, sometimes heart-wrenching (and sometimes both) – but almost always totally gripping. The storytellers are a diverse bunch: some are famous, some are ordinary people, but all have extraordinary tales to tell.

Listen to The Moth

THE FLOP HOUSE

There’s not exactly a shortage of geeks-making-fun-of-terrible-movies stuff on the web, but The Flop House stands out from the pack due to its presenters, a trio of friends whose quick-fire interactions with each other immediately make you feel like you’re part of the group.

They know a lot about terrible movies, too. Each of the 150+ episodes concentrates on one bad film, generally a new release – and dissects its awfulness in hilarious fashion.

Listen to The Flop House

RETRONAUTS

Again, there’s plenty of retro gaming-related content available on the web, thanks largely to YouTube “Let’s Play” videos, but if you can’t or don’t want to stare at some form of screen for an hour and half, it’s good to know that there’s a podcast that’ll cater for your 8- and 16-bit needs.

And Retronauts is that podcast. For better or worse, its indepth-ness verges on the nerdy at times, and it’s lengthy – but as an exploration of brilliant games from a bygone era, there’s nothing to beat it.

Listen to Retronauts

WELCOME TO NIGHT VALE

More stories – but this time certainly fictional. Welcome to Night Vale is an episodic tale told through the medium of a community radio broadcast. Drily, darkly humorous, its fortnightly instalments of news, weather and bizarre adverts create a vivid picture of a small American desert town where weirdness is commonplace. If you loved Twin Peaks, you’ll appreciate its offbeat tone. And you can keep up to date with town goings-on between episodes through the podcast’s Twitter feed.

Listen to Welcome to Night Vale

ALICE ISN’T DEAD

Best for: Creeping yourself out

You want weird? You’ve got weird! This is the story of one woman driving a truck across the United States in search of a wife she previously thought dead. On the way she encounters some sort of deadly man/creature who seems intent on stopping her and apparently has the police on his side.

The whole story is narrated by the woman via the truck’s CB radio, which enhances the already eerie, other-worldly nature of the events described. Probably one to listen to during the commute rather than in bed – assuming you want to avoid the chills.

Try this episode: 1: Omelet

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