We may not have reached peak podcast yet, but we can’t be too far off. With so many new downloads to wade through, putting together a definitive list of this year’s best seemed an impossible task. And do you really need us to tell you that the new season of “Serial” returns the show to its excellent, addictive heights? (For the record, it does.) Instead, we asked our critics to crack open their phones and share the shows that truly clicked with them this year.
THE SONIC DEEP DIVE
Most great art refuses to let your appreciation hit bottom. The bottomlessness is part of what lures you back. That painting, movie, play, book, star never stops giving. But Cole Cuchna’s album podcast, “Dissect,” actually attempts to bottom out, close-reading great records with college-lecture authority and autograph-hound zeal. Season one unpacked Kendrick Lamar’s “To Pimp a Butterfly.” Season two dismantled Kanye West’s “My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy.” It’s this most recent third season, though — oriented around most of Frank Ocean’s discography — that really let the show flash its forensic plumage.
See, Cuchna is more than a music nerd. He’s a scuba artist, deep-diving into Ocean’s art and emerging with little bits of treasure, which he delivers in a congested monotone. It isn’t just Cuchna’s assumed assertion that Ocean’s work is as bountifully ornate as Lamar’s or West’s. It’s that the show, which is now being produced by Spotify, thrives as an achievement of contemplative audio.
The show’s time with Ocean’s debut, “Channel Orange,” makes leaps of interpretive wonder, followed by long stretches of corroborating music clips. Maybe the allusions to color on a song like “Pink Matter” mean this. Or maybe they mean that. Sometimes the combination of insights adds up to one possibility. But what’s especially revelatory about the Frank Ocean episodes — but, really, Cuchna’s entire project — is the way all this sleuthing isn’t about finding a final answer or a means to an end. It’s actually just another opening. No art or artist is ever fixed. And so the show still lets some of Ocean’s mystery be. — WESLEY MORRIS
THE TRUE-CRIME SURPRISE
In some ways this is the stuff Chicago crime stories are typically made of: the mob, corrupt politicians, greed. But the first season of “The City,” a new long-form podcast series from USA Today, is far more surprising than that, also encompassing themes of class, gentrification and environmental racism.
The show’s creator and host, Robin Amer, plus a team of investigative journalists, dig into the story of North Lawndale, a predominantly black working-class neighborhood that became the site of illegal waste dumping in the early 1990s. Over the course of 10 episodes, “The City” details the many ways residents tried to force politicians to address the issue, and the many ways they were routinely ignored or dismissed. As the accounts of severe health problems resulting from the waste build up, and the narrative zooms out to include the F.B.I. and then-Mayor Richard M. Daley, it’s both an infuriating and mesmerizing listen. — AISHA HARRIS
smart girl talk
‘The Cut on Tuesdays’
In the growing ecosystem of podcasts for women, a few typical forms have crystallized. There is the panel of feminist thinkers; the interview with a lady boss; the conversation between friends. “The Cut on Tuesdays,” a new show from New York Magazine’s women’s site, “The Cut,” offers a surprise: It is a wide-ranging critical essay in podcast form.
Shepherded by the host Molly Fischer, who is a natural, this show has inherited the impeccable taste of its parent site. It’s informed by feminism but not hamstrung by ideology. It’s self-aware but not indulgent. It is clever enough to avoid the rhetorical traps that lay about the women’s content business: It seems uninterested in either one-note outrage or hyper-positive empowerment.
All of this helps it make even an old saw feel sharp. Recently the show took on a debate that’s been raging among feminists for 40 years — pubic hair, or the lack thereof — and capably argued that for all the popular discussion of its symbolism, there is precious little talk about the stuff itself. So it convened a diverse group of women — some expert, some anonymous — to talk about their own. “The Cut” is a rare thing: a pure pleasure, not at all a guilty one. — AMANDA HESS
‘Lethal Lit: A Tig Torres Mystery’
Tig Torres, a high school junior, has a true crime podcast. Its purpose: To discover the true identity of the Lit Killer, the well-read murderer who terrorized Tig’s hometown, Hollow Falls, a decade ago. Trouble is, the Lit Killer is listening in. And he or she wants Tig on permanent hiatus. This never happens to Sarah Koenig! A digital-native Nancy Drew bristling with wit, snark and vocal fry, Tig is the creation of comics writers Alex Segura and Monica Gallagher. Each episode (there are six in the first season of “Lethal Lit”) is structured as a podcast within a podcast as Tig and her classmates narrate their investigations, searching for clues in battered copies of “Lord of the Flies” and “The Great Gatsby.” Call it nerd-pride noir. The vocal talent is variable, but the writing is savvy, the nods to genre are droll and the cliffhangers — don’t go into the abandoned amusement park, Tig! — just about unbearable. — ALEXIS SOLOSKI
THE courthouse saga
‘In the Dark’
The injustices within the justice system are manifold, and Season 2 of “In the Dark” examines a case whose specifics defy both belief and morality. A Mississippi man named Curtis Flowers has been tried for the same crime six times, despite a lack of credible evidence against him, and this podcast methodically examines each facet of his case. The thoroughness of the reporting here is extraordinary. The show’s host and lead reporter, Madeleine Baran, brings the same clarity of purpose and vision to sifting through thousands of documents in an abandoned warehouse as she does to dismantling common misconceptions about ballistics. This isn’t a whodunit but rather an examination of power and the people who wield it, and it’s fascinating and devastating. — MARGARET LYONS
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