The sheer number of podcasts being made right now, it can be hard figuring out where to start. If you hear about a great podcast people love, you might find it has a daunting number of episodes--which is especially worrisome if the podcast is fiction, meaning you have to start at the beginning and listen in order.
Luckily, 2019 gave us some fantastic new shows to listen to during the end of the year traveling and long commutes ahead. To make things easy, we’ve chronologically catalogued the best podcast releases of 2019 — based on their first episode — so you can check out the best of the best based on timeliness.
Premiere date: Jan. 2
Genre: Serialized fiction, comedy
Gay Future is a six-part, comedy mini-series based on a “recently discovered, unpublished YA novel by Mike Pence,” the show purports. In a future where everyone is gay, the story’s protagonist comes to a terrifying realization: he’s straight, and it’s up to him to lead the straight rebellion. Gay Future is a fantastic work of satire, using its lightning-speed comedy and over-the-top performances and sound design to hammer in how truly buckwild Pence’s “story” is — and, by proxy, how so much homophobic rhetoric is, too. It’s a hilarious, zany rollercoaster that you’ll need to listen to repeatedly just to make sure you catch every joke as they zoom by.
Premiere date: Jan. 6
Genre: Episodic fiction, musical, slice-of-life
Loveville High is the story of one high school prom from the perspective of different students, all told as a musical. Another mini-series, each of its nine episodes is a self-contained episode of one character’s prom night. The podcast looks into the life and story of high schoolers from different backgrounds, and carves out a surprising amount of depth, using gorgeous songs, each within about 10 minutes. The performances are all portrayed by actual musical theatre professionals, which means you know you’re going to get some astounding acting and singing.
Premiere date: Jan. 7
Genre: Serialized fiction, actual play, comedy
A new show from Atypical Artists, the production collective that gave us The Bright Sessions, Arcs is an actual-play Dungeons & Dragons 5th Edition podcast following adventurers Larkin, a young human wizard played by Lauren Shippen; Jackson, a half-giant who is “big, round, and not very good at things” played by Nathan Stanz; and Barri, a half-orc bard with “mischievous gay energy” played by Briggon Snow. DM Jordan Adika wrangles the shockingly chaotic party into a series of hijinks that’s hilarious, but also masterfully crafted. Full sound design work and original music adds to the dynamic between the hosts, whose timing and performances prove they’re polished podcast professionals.
Premiere date: Jan. 21
Genre: Serialized nonfiction, investigative journalism, mini series
The Dropout is the surreal, fascinating story of Elizabeth Holmes, the founder and former CEO of the health-care startup, Theranos. The docu-series is the perfect podcast follow-up to the dual Fyre documentaries, a similar narrative structure leading us through the windy path of a wealth-motivated manipulator who convinces others to, not only trust her, but invest millions of dollars in her half-baked company. The difference here is that Theranos wasn’t a party for Instagram influencers, but a medical technology company that real patients relied on for medical procedures. This mini-series interviews people affected by Theranos in different ways, including the employees who came forward about the company’s dangerous fraud.
Premiere date: Jan. 24
Genre: Serialized fiction, drama, comedy, weird west
Caravan is the story of Samir, a queer Desi man who falls into a canyon while camping with his best friend only to wind up in a surreal, parallel world. Caravan blends genre at every turn: it’s as intimate and dramatic as it is goofy and hilarious, and the weird Wild West setting is filled with ghosts, demons, banshees, “unicorns,” and cowboys. The world is meticulously built, and creator Tau Zaman integrates their education in political science throughout. Beyond the adventure and coming-of-age story, the series probes the notion of people who wield power and how that power is used. A product of The Whisperforge, the studio behind audio fiction standouts like The Far Meridian and StarTripper!!, Caravan sounds incredible, offering an immersive audio experience.
Julie: The Unwinding of a Miracle
Premiere date: Jan. 24th
Genre: Serialized nonfiction, personal narrative, mini series
Julie Yip-Williams documented the process of preparing for death in her posthumous novel, The Unwinding of the Miracle, and in this podcast. Diagnosed with terminal colon cancer, Yip-Williams wanted to record all of her preparations for death, including recounting stories from her life, connecting with her young daughters, finding the truth behind secrets, and coming to accept that her life was ending. The podcast is a deeply emotional, moving, heart-wrenching story that reminds listeners that everything is fleeting, and we need to make most of all of our time alive.
Premiere date: Feb. 19th
Genre: Serialized fiction, drama, horror, midwestern gothic
Unwell is a Midwestern Gothic story about a bristly, frustrated woman who returns to her small hometown to take care of her mother after an injury. Following the current tonal trend of contemplative, quiet, slow-build horror found in works like Hereditary or The Haunting of Hill House, Unwell finds most of its unsettling moments not through big reveals or noisy jumpscares but uncomfortable quiet and stillness. There’s something ominous happening in the town of Mt. Absalom, and dark history between protagonist Lily and her mother, Dot, but listeners will tread in discomfort before anything is revealed. There are some great jokes about the Midwest in its first episodes, but even they help paint the picture of how truly bizarre everything in the town can be.
All My Relations
Premiere date: Feb. 25
Genre: Nonfiction episodic, conversation, culture
All My Relations is a conversation podcast hosted by Matika Wilbur and Dr. Adrienne Keene that focuses on the lives and cultures of Native American peoples. Native American peoples are some of the marginalized voices that rarely get discussed in conversations about race, and All My Relations aims to fill in those gaps with profound ruminations, but also a good amount of jokes. The dynamic between the hosts is contemplative but casual, easily weaving between serious topics, personal anecdotes, laughter, and tears.
Start with This
Premiere date: March 22
Genre: Nonfiction episodic, conversation, arts
Night Vale Presents’ most recent foray into nonfiction, Start with This, offers conversations between the Welcome to Night Vale creators about a specific aspect of the creative process. Aimed to help aspiring podcasters make their first podcast, the conversations are sure to be beneficial to anyone who wants to work on any creative project. For the first 20 minutes, the hosts discuss something like creative restrictions or the merits of collaboration. Then, they give the listener a related, interesting, and very specific prompt to write on. The listener is then invited to share their progress, work, and responses in a forum of other listeners.
Nicy Try!: Utopian
Premiere date: May 30th
Genre: Nonfiction episodic, deep dive
[Ed. note: Nice Try! is a project from Polygon’s sister site Curbed, but comes recommended independently by Wil.]
Hosted by Avery Trufelman of 99% Invisible and spinoff Articles of Interest, Nice Try!: Utopian is a look back at history’s attempts at building utopias, ranging from a Third Reich airport to Disney World. Trufelman chronicles each utopian plot, and then the eventual collapse, interviewing experts and weaving together the narratives with elegant structure. Nice Try!: Utopian is a combination of journalism and creative nonfiction at its finest, focusing on both what the “utopia” says about how humans work and the granular details of what actually made it anything but a utopia. Trufelman’s insights are sharp and exciting, connecting points to a greater web of how societies work.
Premiere date: June 17th
Genre: Nonfiction episodic, deep dive
There’s something to be said about schadenfreude in 2019, and Spectacular Failures brings a very specific catharsis to the listener by asking, “How could something with so much potential go so wrong?” Host Lauren Ober examines some of the biggest failures in business, like Moviepass or Toys “R” Us, with a balance of sardonic humor in delivery and relative neutrality in writing — it’s just that the facts are almost always hilarious. Without Ober at the helm, Spectacular Failures could be a standard deep-dive podcast educating the listener; with the host’s often incredulous tone, it’s usually as funny as it is informative.
Premiere date: Aug. 23rd
Genre: Nonfiction episodic, mini series, history, personal narratives
1619 is the New York Times’ examination of how slavery shaped America, and still shapes it to this day, 400 years after men and women were first brought from Africa to what were then the English colonies. Hosted by Nikole Hannah-Jones, each of the six episodes reveals how slavery informed the decisions and structures of the early United States, and how those decisions and structures remain today. 1619 doesn’t exist to comfort or hold the listener’s hand during tough moments: there are frank discussions of Abraham Lincoln’s explicit racism, the problems and built-in paradoxes with black land ownership, and the black musicians at the heart of essentially every piece of American music. Often, the stories of how slavery has affected the United States ties back to a personal narrative, showing how much the history of American slavery has impacted the country on every level: institutional, political, economic, cultural, and individual.
Premiere date: Sept. 16
Genre: Serialized fiction, mystery, drama
From audio-drama veterans Lauren Shippen (The Bright Sessions, ARCS, The AM Archives) and John Dryden (Tumanbay, LifeAfter) and distributed by Radiotopia, Passenger List is a mysterious fiction podcast revolving around the disappearance of a plane on a transatlantic flight. Starring The Last Jedi’s Kelly Marie Tran as protagonist Kaitlin Le, Passenger List toys with the line between science fiction and conspiracy-theory thriller. But while the plot moves to raise stakes and ask more questions, Kaitlin Le’s experience as a woman grieving over her missing twin develops as the true focus. She’s arguably motivated to a fault, but definitely complicated, asking the listener to root for her while also questioning her methods and tactics.
Premiere date: Oct. 9th
Genre: Serialized fiction, mini-series, realistic fiction, drama
Moonface is the story of Korean-American man, Paul, and his struggles to come out as gay to his mother. The problem isn’t just because the act of coming out can be terrifying, especially with traditional parents; it’s also because he and his mother do not speak the same language, literally. Scored by pop songs, Moonface feels both like the indie coming-of-age movies of the early 2000s and quiet, intimate art films like LadyBird or Moonlight. Worth noting: the series isn’t very not safe for work, so be sure to listen when you can comfortably and responsibly engage in something explicitly sexual.
Wil Williams writes, listens, and loves podcasts. She runs the website Wil Williams Writes, co-hosts the podcast Tuned In Dialed up, and has work featured in Discover Pods and Bello Collective. She is afraid of whales and suspicious of dolphins.