America

Best Podcasts of 2022

I tend to think of this list not as an objective ranking (as if such a thing were possible) but as a kind of tip sheet — more Michelin Guide than the World’s 50 Best Restaurants. These were shows, presented here in alphabetical order, that excelled at the mission they set for themselves, whether it was dissecting the week in news and culture, changing the way we think about our wardrobes, or traveling the world to capture the sound of wanderlust. Casual and avid podcast listeners alike should walk away with a clear sense of what the medium can do.

‘Articles of Interest: American Ivy’

The writer, producer and host Avery Trufelman has a grand theory about why the same basic clothing items — oxford button-downs, chunky sweaters, pressed chinos — have remained wardrobe staples for the last half-century. In this fascinating and heroically researched seven-part series, she pursues it from the campus of Princeton before World War II, to Meiji-era Japan, to the Civil Rights demonstrations of the 1960s, among other sartorially significant ports of call. Trufelman, a former producer and reporter for the podcast “99% Invisible,” has enough passion and verve to stitch even unruly threads of race, sex and class into place. (Listen to “Articles of Interest: American Ivy” from Avery Trufelman and Radiotopia.)

‘I Was Never There’

The mother-daughter duo and hosts Karen and Jamie Zelermyer bring a personal lens to this homespun investigation into the mysterious disappearance of their friend Marsha Ferber in 1988. The Zelermyers lived with Ferber on a commune she ran in West Virginia in the late 1970s and early ’80s, during the twilight of the Back to the Land movement. Excavating that vibrant milieu (Ferber supported the clan in part by selling illicit marijuana and running a rock club where the Dead Kennedys and the Red Hot Chili Peppers performed) doubles as an opportunity for the hosts to exhume their own buried history. (Listen to “I Was Never There” from Wonder Media Network.)

‘Legacy of Speed’

Malcolm Gladwell is at his best when he’s deep in the weeds on a pet subject, and this limited series about the famous Black Power protest at the 1968 Olympic Games in Mexico City — made in partnership with the running brand Tracksmith — features his finest and most vital work in years. The image of the American sprinters Tommie Smith and John Carlos standing on a podium, black-gloved fists raised high in the air, will be seared into history books forever. But Gladwell makes a convincing case that the story of how they got there and what came after — winding through intersecting revolutions in sports and politics that still rage to this day — is even more astonishing. (Listen to “Legacy of Speed” from Pushkin Industries and Tracksmith.)

‘Not Lost’

The travel show isn’t an obvious genre for podcasts — trips for pleasure are often about the visuals, especially in the Instagram Age — but this innovative new series captures the magic of both its category and its medium. Brendan Francis Newnam, the host, and a rotating cast of partners (in many of the best episodes, the writer Danielle Henderson) parachute into a new place — Mexico City, Montreal, Bozeman, Mont. — and try to make friends. The social imperative — Newnam’s semiformal objective in each locale is to get invited to someone’s home for dinner — steers the show into unexpectedly suspenseful territory. With the help of creatively deployed sound design, episodes simulate the alternately alienating and sublime experience of inhabiting a strange land. (Listen to “Not Lost” from Pushkin Industries, Topic Studios and iHeartMedia.)

‘Pivot’

In podcasting, as in love, chemistry sometimes strikes in surprising places. Exhibit A is this twice-weekly talk show hosted by two charismatic business analysts — the maverick tech journalist Kara Swisher and the lascivious marketing professor and entrepreneur Scott Galloway — who banter like ex-spouses at a wedding reception. Their often insightful and frequently profane dialogues about billionaires behaving badly were appointment listening even before Elon Musk (a longtime source of Swisher’s) decided to buy Twitter. (Listen to “Pivot” from the Vox Media Podcast Network.)

‘Reveal: After Ayotzinapa’

After a devastating, mass kidnapping incident in rural, southwest Mexico was left unsolved by local and federal officials in 2014, the reporters Anayansi Diaz-Cortes and Kate Doyle traced the case’s aftershocks from a rural mountain village to the suburbs of Chicago to a luxury apartment in Israel for this haunting, four-episode series from the Center for Investigative Reporting. Diaz-Cortes and Doyle’s jaw-dropping account implicates authorities at the highest level — including Mexico’s attorney general and federal investigations chief — in a plot that unfolds like a harrowing spy thriller. Jim Briggs’s and Fernando Arruda’s otherworldly original score mirrors the unsettled grief of those the disappeared left behind. (Listen to “Reveal: After Ayotzinapa” from the Center for Investigative Reporting and PRX.)

‘Rumble Strip’

This majestic, long-running and hard-to-classify series is ostensibly about the everyday lives of everyday residents of the state of Vermont. But although that description is perfectly accurate — Erica Heilman, the show’s creator and host, is first and foremost a local journalist — the emotional truths captured in many episodes are as big and varied as life itself. To listen to Heilman’s lyrical yet matter-of-fact reporting on a teenage student-body president who took his own life, or a lifelong dairy farmer’s 11-year friendship with a black bear, or the adolescence of a neighbor as recorded over seven years of conversations, is to imagine a better world in which her clones are dispatched to every town, state and country. (Listen to “Rumble Strip” from Erica Heilman and Hub & Spoke.)

‘Unexplainable’

Where did the moon come from? What sounds did dinosaurs make? Does anyone know how smell receptors actually work? In this weekly science series, Noam Hassenfeld, Brian Resnick, Meradith Hoddinott and the explainers at Vox devote their attention to the basic facts of life we don’t understand, which, as anyone who’s spent time with a five-year-old knows, is a longer list than you might think. Always artfully scored and produced — especially in mini-series about human senses and the solar system — “Unexplainable” never feels like homework. At a time when many people see profit in false or oversimplified claims about reality, it’s refreshing to be reminded of what the search for truth really sounds like. (Listen to “Unexplainable” from the Vox Media Podcast Network.)

‘Vibe Check’

The author and poet Saeed Jones, the audio journalist Sam Sanders and the theater producer Zach Stafford bring their real-life friendship — and group chat transcripts — to this thoughtful and endearing talk show. Conversations about hot topics in pop culture, race, sexuality and politics (or, as in an episode about Rihanna’s pending performance at the Super Bowl, all four at once) are rigorously argued and rarely predictable. Equal opportunity teasing among the hosts and a baseline spirit of generosity help a wide range of subjects go down smoothly. (Listen to “Vibe Check” from Saeed Jones, Zach Stafford, Sam Sanders and Stitcher.)

‘Welcome to Provincetown’

Mitra Kaboli’s 10-part documentary series chronicling one summer in Massachusetts’s gay, beach-side mecca is filled with intimate scenes and unforgettable characters. Kaboli, a P-Town neophyte and listener surrogate, embedded for months with seven of the tens of thousands of seasonal residents who arrive annually in search of romance, fame or sanctuary. Their stories — supported with evocative sound design and editing — paint a transporting portrait of a sun-kissed community struggling to make its future as bright as its past. (Listen to “Welcome to Provincetown” from Room Tone, Rococo Punch and Stitcher..)

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