15 of the Year’s Greatest Podcast Episodes

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Even though podcasting has been around for more than a decade, 2015 may go down as the year the medium truly erupted.

In the wake of Serial’s astoundingly popular first season, this year we saw a wave of new podcasts addressing everything from secret codes to reality TV to sleep-inducing boredom. (As I write this, 33 of iTunes’ top 100 podcasts are shows that launched this year.) 

Below is my list of favorite 2015 episodes. It’s subjective, of course—no one can listen to everything—but perhaps you’ll find a few shows worth downloading before your holiday travels: 

1. “The Rhino Hunter” // Radiolab (September 7)

Anyone who refuses to take podcasting seriously should hear this compelling episode, in which producer Simon Adler interviews a hunter who paid $350,000 to kill an endangered species in Namibia. Once it ends, listeners may be surprised by how they feel.

Also worth hearing:Los Frikis” shares a riveting story about Cuban punk rockers during the height of the AIDS crisis; “Darkode” sheds light on cyber-crime; “American Football” traces the history and complexities of the sport. 

2. “Harmony Korine” // WTF with Marc Maron (August 3)

It wasn’t his most publicized interview, but Maron’s chat with the writer and director (Spring Breakers, Gummo, Kids) stuck with me. Both men share a rebellious spirit, and it’s always refreshing to hear a guest talking about life and art rather than promoting something.

Also notable: Maron resolves some personal issues with Lorne Michaels; he fanboys out with Keith Richards; and, of course, there was the time President Barack Obama visited his garage.

3. “Quentin Tarantino” // Bret Easton Ellis Podcast (December 7)

Though I don’t agree with all of Ellis’s opinions, I appreciate that he’s bold enough to share them without apology. (One thing I do always agree with: his killer music taste.) This two-hour interview includes so much delicious discussion of moviemaking and recent releases that I wish Q.T. and B.E.E. would launch a weekly film podcast of their own.

Also worth hearing: Ellis catches up with Brat Packers Judd Nelson and Molly Ringwald; he talks frankly with Shirley Manson and Kim Gordon about the music industry (and Madonna!); he discusses craft and current events with Jonathan Ames

4. “Shine on You Crazy Goldman” // Reply All (November 5)

Experimentation thrives in podcasting, as proven by this gonzo episode, in which one of the hosts secretly doses himself with LSD and tests whether his co-workers will notice.

Also worth hearing:The Writing on the Wall” and “Yik Yak Returns” uncover the dark side of an app; “DMV Nation” asks why government websites are so cruddy; “Did Errol Morris’ Brother Invent Email?” delves into just that. 

5. “Belt Buckle” // Mystery Show (June 18)

All six episodes of Starlee Kine’s new podcast are worth hearing, but this one is most likely to make you cry. In it, Kine tries to track down the mysterious owner of a belt buckle misplaced decades ago.

Also worth hearing:Britney” divulges Britney Spears’s reading habits; “Vanity Plate” tracks down the owner of a shocking license plate; “Kotter” follows a retro lunchbox mystery. 

6. “U2 Talk 2 U” // U Talkin’ U2 to Me? (Aug. 6)

When Scott Aukerman and Adam Scott started a U2 podcast, they didn’t expect to actually meet U2. Not only does it happen in this episode, the hosts are given a sit-down interview in which nothing is off-limits. Their questions are informed and funny, and their nervousness is palpable.

Also worth hearing: In the show’s penultimate episode, the Scotts talk about seeing U2’s Innocence + Experience tour (and getting into the VIP lounge). 

7. “The Living Room” // Love + Radio (March 3)

When I started listening to this episode about a woman who watched her neighbors through the window, I expected something salacious and a little silly. Instead, I got a profoundly moving story about love and loss.

Also worth hearing:Thank You, Princess” profiles an online “humiliatrix”; “Greetings from Coney Island” uncovers an intriguing art project. 

8. “In New Orleans: Big Freedia Bounces Back” // Death, Sex & Money (August 19)

This podcast delivered several New Orleans episodes this year, but my favorite was a frank conversation with “Queen of Bounce” Big Freedia, a musician who has survived getting shot, Hurricane Katrina, and a pile of other obstacles to get where she is today.

Also worth hearing: Sesame Street’s Sonia Manzano talks about becoming Maria in “From Chaos to Sesame Street”; listeners share compelling personal stories in “Cheating Happens.” 

9. “Carol Burnett” // Here’s the Thing (October 13)

Not only can Alec Baldwin score A-list talent for his show, he knows how to talk to them. In this charming chat, Baldwin’s reverence for the comedy legend shines through. (I agree there isn't, and will never be, a better Miss Hannigan.)

Also worth hearing: Baldwin converses with notables Amy Schumer, Dan Rather, and Paul Simon.

10. “Making the Case” // Slate’s Amicus with Dahlia Lithwick (May 2)

In this memorable episode of Slate’s Supreme Court podcast, Lithwick walks us through the highly publicized gay marriage case Obergefell v. Hodges and spotlights some of the emotional stories behind it.

Also worth hearing: In “Sandra and Ruth,” we learn about Justices Sandra Day O’Connor and Ruth Bader Ginsburg and their very different paths to the Supreme Court.

11. “Burroughs 101” // This American Life (January 30)

OK, so this isn’t a conventional episode; it’s actually a rebroadcast of a BBC documentary about William Burroughs. But thank goodness host Ira Glass brings it to our attention; it’s expertly constructed, features fine narration by Iggy Pop, and details the writer’s genius and peculiarities.

Also worth hearing: The two-part “The Problem We All Live With” examines integration in schools;  “Put a Bow on It” goes inside Hardee’s headquarters; online harassment is featured in “If You Don’t Have Anything Nice to Say, SAY IT IN ALL CAPS.

12. “Comic Ron Funches’s Autistic Son Loves Oreos with Bacon” // The Sporkful (April 20) 

The Sporkful delivered a buffet of delightful episodes this year, but I’m partial to host Dan Pashman’s interview with Funches—conducted while lying on the floor—in which the comedian talks about handling his autistic son’s food preferences.

Also worth hearing:What Makes a Sandwich a Sandwich?” tries to define the food; “True Confessions of a Ballpark Food Vendor” teaches essential Cracker Jack lessons; “Not Your Mom’s Pot Brownies” explores the world of marijuana-infused foods. 

13. “The Rock Fan’s Guide to Jazz” // Sound Opinions (April 24) 

Sure, hosts Greg Kot and Jim DeRogatis know rock ‘n’ roll, but here, the Chicago-based critics compile an informative jazz primer. Listeners should come away with a newfound appreciation of the genre … and a long list of records to hear.

Also worth hearing: The hosts conduct sharp interviews with Mary J. Blige, Alice Cooper, and Kate Pierson; a 500th episode special reflects on Sound history.

14. “Cindy Crawford” // Off Camera with Sam Jones (April 20) 

Though I’ve heard almost every episode of Jones’ podcast, my 2015 pick is his chat with Crawford, a personality most of us have seen much more than we’ve heard. The two touch on modeling, parenthood and Crawford’s business sense, which she says has often been overlooked.

Also worth hearing: Jones engages in lengthy conversations with Will Ferrell, Orphan Black’s Tatiana Maslany, and Kevin Bacon

15. “DUSTWUN” // Serial (Dec. 10)

Any doubts about whether Serial’s second season could deliver the goods were muted by last week’s premiere. The topic: Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl’s disappearance from a U.S. Army outpost in Afghanistan.

Also worth hearing: Do I really need to tell you to listen to Season 1?

Want to catch up on more amazing podcasts you missed this year? Visit the archive.