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Podcast Post: Nine essential shows from 2017

From true crime and psychological thrillers to romantic science-fiction capers and pop culture deep-dives, here are the best of the year

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9. Dirty John

A six-part true-crime story narrated by the Pulitzer-nominated investigative journalist Christopher Goffard of the Los Angeles Times, Dirty John was perhaps this year’s second most talked about podcast, after S-Town. Part cautionary tale, part horror story, Dirty John centres around a well-to-do family and their relationship to the show’s namesake: a con man who leeches off wealthy women. It’s a chilling story that brings to life the many uncertainties and unique challenges of modern living and the ways we find love. It also throws into sharp relief how an overconfident man, inflated by blind ego and unchallenged authority, can wreck the lives of naive individuals. The show could have, however, benefited from a more linear structure and stricter editing, also losing some of its power to a silly background score.

8. Steal the Stars

In a year that saw everyone and their grandmother making an audio drama, Steal the Stars brought much happiness in the second half of 2017. A romantic drama disguised as science fiction, Steal the Stars is the story of two government officials working on a top-secret, off-the-books research laboratory. They have been instructed in no uncertain terms that the four-letter word starting with L is strictly forbidden between co-workers, but end up falling in exactly that. An alien gets stolen at some moment, and things spiral out of control until the show’s dizzying climax. We enjoyed the show for its smaller moments: the tenderness between two lovers who have an insurmountable obstacle in front of them, the irrational squabbles and the making up after. Presented by Gideon Media and Tor Labs, Steal the Stars is exactly the kind of story we’re looking to hear more of.

7. Under the Skin with Russel Brand

A show that shook me for its surprisingly insightful and rigorous introspection of what lies beneath or motivates human behaviour, creation and existence, Under the Skin also surprises because of its colourful host Russell Brand. Currently pursuing an MA in religion and politics, the actor-comedian perhaps reinstates the value of the education system; because in this podcast, we find a sombre, reflective and sharply intelligent man, in contrast to his earlier attention-seeking high jinx. Each episode asks a question or presents a statement or conundrum (‘Is Humanity Finished?’, ‘Science vs God’, ‘Is Trump Better for Black America than Barack Obama?’, ‘Gender Fluidity — Is it Time to Abandon All Labels’?), and then uses a Q&A model with the help of a guest academic or field professional to unspool these questions and ideas. It’s an enriching listen, and a vastly entertaining one at that.

6. Homecoming

The most excellent road trip companion to have been found this year: Homecoming is a psychological thriller that dropped its second season this summer. Starring Oscar Isaac, David Schwimmer and Catherine Keener, Homecoming unravels into deeper and darker mysteries, tightly written to keep the listener hooked at every moment. Unfolding in the confines of a soldier rehabilitation programme, the audio drama explores the many forms memories can take and the cost of repressing painful incidents. There’s also a TV show starring Julia Roberts, Bobby Cannavale and Stephan James in the making.

5. LeVar Burton Reads

If you’re a Star Trek fan (The Next Generation) or an ’80s child who loved books (PBS’ Reading Rainbow), you’ll know LeVar Burton, the man with the voice of an angel. In LeVar Burton Reads, the award-winning actor, director and writer uses his soothing, magical voice to bring to life stories by, both, unknown and famous authors, such as Haruki Murakami, Bruce McAllister, Neil Gaiman and James McBride. A celebration of the short story format, think of the episodes also as bedtime stories for adults: a safe space where you can find wonder in the little things again.

4. Ear Hustle

Two inmates from San Quentin State Prison — co-host Earlonne Woods and the 29-year-old sound designer Antwan Williams — work with artist and co-host Nigel Poor to bring intimate stories from inside the US prison system. From stories about cell mates and conjugal visits to solitary confinement, race and how it affects life in prison and the parole hearing process, Ear Hustle is a sociological and psychological study of the lives of the incarcerated done with sensitivity and heart-wrenching openness. And for a show made without internet access, Ear Hustle is a masterclass in production.

3. Binge Mode

The most ambitious of all the Game of Thrones podcasts floating in the universe this year, Binge Mode is more than just pop culture criticism. In the wake of the seventh season of the HBO fantasy show approaching our television screens, hosts Mallory Rubin and Jason Concepcion of The Ringer, broke down every single episode that had come before, in what can only be described as an achievement of pure commitment, passion and an unhealthy dose of crazy. They didn’t stop there, of course: Each new episode of season seven was then further dissected, every fan theory closely examined and the world of Westeros was turned on its head to find crucial insights into George R R Martin’s masterpiece. For the diehard fans, this podcast is an excellent companion until 2019.

2. 36 Questions

A few years ago, The New York Times published an article titled, “To Fall in Love with Anyone, Do This”. The essay was about the famed 36 Questions that lead to love, formulated by psychologist Arthur Aron. And this laid the foundation for the first ever podcast musical, 36 Questions, starring the voice talents of Mindhunter’s Jonathan Groff and multi-talented stage performer Jessie Shelton. The three-episode series from the guys at Two-Up tells the touching tale of a couple trying to mend their relationship from a point where seemingly there’s no return. And while the pay-off is not the best, 36 Questions gives us foot-tapping ear worms and a show that pushes the limits of what a podcast can be. Plus, there’s a duck.

1. S-Town

This podcast managed to transcend its true-crime sensibilities to capture the life of, in what was host Brian Reed’s own words, “the remarkableness of what might be called an unremarkable life.” In S-Town, Reed, who is a senior producer at This American Life, begins to investigate the story of a murder in Woodstock after being contacted by John, an eccentric Woodstock local. The son of a wealthy family has allegedly committed a murder, and is announcing the news to everyone in town. Reed’s curiosity is piqued and he begins to investigate the story. But around the tail end of the second episode, the story of S-Town takes the kind of unpredictable turn only real life can conjure up. What follows is one of the most human tales to be discovered this year.