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The best podcasts of 2019 (so far)

From off-the-cuff chatter to tightly wound fiction, we’ve heard and logged it all

A recent calculation tallied the number of currently running podcast series at around 660,000. The sheer volume of audio entertainment makes it hard to figure out where to start; if you hear about a great podcast people love, you might dig it up and find 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.

Don’t throw your phone across the room just yet: we’re here to help. This year has already given us some fantastic new podcasts worth recommending, ranging from talk shows to comedy to narrative fiction. Plus, throughout the year, Polygon will chronologically catalogue the best podcast releases of 2019 — based on their first episode, not trailer, premier date — so you can check out the best of the best without feeling left behind.

Gay Future

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Gay Future is a six-part, comedy mini-series based on a “recently discovered, unpublished YA novel by Mike Pence,” the show purports.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.

Loveville High

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.

Arcs

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.

The Dropout

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.

Caravan

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.

Unwell

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.


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.