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‘In The Dark,’ ‘Bear Brook,’ ‘Caliphate’ and more

This is the year I converted to podcasts. True crime, comedy, music, and … Victorian literature? Cold cases. Investigative reporting. Pop culture.

There’s a lot of great stuff out there, so much that I’ve experienced something like listener’s guilt, that feeling that you’re not keeping up with your current pods, not discovering all the great new ones before your friends. There’s probably a cool word for this in German but if you’re a pod nerd like me you surely recognize the feeling.

So I listened, almost exclusively on solo travels in my car, and these are the podcasts that stick in my mind as the best of 2018. They’re not in any particular order (so the numbers don’t imply ranking), but the first one here is the absolute best thing I heard all year. After that, shuffle ’em to your own heart’s delight.

1. In The Dark: In the second season of the Peabody Award-winning podcast, reporter Madeleine Baran and her team moved to Winona, Mississippi to investigate the case of Curtis Flowers, who has spent 21 years on Death Row. Despite having had his conviction overturned or thrown out on appeal, Flowers has been retried by the same prosecutor six times. It’s a story about justice and race, and as Baran and the team from APM Media dig up more and more evidence it appears that Flowers, at a minimum, has not received a fair trial yet – and quite possibly is innocent of the original crime. It’s hard not to be outraged by his case.

2. Gladiator: Former NFL star Aaron Hernandez was convicted of murder and later killed himself in prison, and while his crimes are a tragedy for his victims and their friends and family, it’s also hard not to view the story of Hernandez himself as tragic. Time after time, his ability to play football – for his high school in Connecticut, at the University of Florida, and finally the New England Patriots – allowed him to get away with wrongdoing. He wasn’t stopped and he wasn’t helped, and as the Spotlight Team at the Boston Globe reports here, ultimately it led to his fatal finish.

3. Bear Brook: Two barrels, four bodies, and decades before anyone discovered the identity of the serial killer who left them there. This podcast from New Hampshire Public Radio reporter Jason Moon works backward from the bodies, tracking leads to another murder in the East Bay – and a tantalizing suggestion of a possible murder in Orange County – in which police and genealogical researchers used a new DNA technique to solve the whodunit in the New Hampshire woods.

4. Cocaine & Rhinestones: The History of Country Music: This podcast by Tyler Mahan Coe arrived in fall 2017, but it ran into 2018 to get on the list. These are stories of the hardscrabble, hard-living side of country in the 20th century, none of that country pop that dominates the radio today. So you get Merle Haggard and Buck Owens and the Bakersfield sound, the feminism of stars such as Loretta Lynn, and a lot of figures who are now mostly forgotten like the rise and bizarre fall of Spade Cooley, once was the king of country in Southern California.

5. R U Talkin’ R.E.M. RE: ME?: Comedian and all-around entertainer Scott Aukerman and actor Adam Scott returned this year with their second start-to-finish podcast on a favorite band, this trip through R.E.M.’s catalog following the equally absurdly named U Talkin’ U2 to Me? about the band U2. The episodes typically involve Adam and Scott riffing on their fandom, slipping into side podcasts as the improvisational spirit moves them, and yes, eventually going track by track through every R.E.M. release.

6. My Dad Wrote a Porno: When Jamie Morton learned his dad planned to spend his retirement writing and self-publishing amateur erotica set in an English cookware corporation, he was appalled. But then he invited his best friends James Cooper and Alice Levine to co-host this podcast in which Jamie reads a chapter and they all make fun of how bad the sex and grammar is, and a worldwide phenomenon was launched. Celebrities clamored to be a part of it – this season’s included actresses Emma Thompson and Hayley Atwell – and it will be an HBO comedy special in 2019. Completely inappropriate, absolutely hilarious.

7. Serial: Some of my podcast nerd friends didn’t take to the third season of Serial, which instead of focusing on a single case as the first two seasons did, told a story about the criminal justice system through the defendants and lawyers, courtrooms and police departments in and around Cleveland, Ohio. I strongly disagree. Host Sarah Koenig and the Serial team embedded themselves there for a year, and by linking a variety of stories paint a picture of dysfunctional justice that is certainly the same in jurisdictions all around the country.

8. Caliphate: New York Times reporter Rukmini Callimachi covers the rise and fall of the Islamic State by means that include tracking down a former ISIS member from Canada who is willing to talk about his experiences and traveling to Mosul as that city was about to fall to anti-ISIS forces. To say she is a brave reporter is an understatement. A thoroughly fascinating close-range look at a group that feels terrifying in part because we don’t know that much about it.

9. Headlong: Surviving Y2K: Remember that time every computer in the world shut down as the calendar turned over to Jan. 1, 2000 and civilization ended? Yeah, didn’t happen, but a whole lot of weird stuff did, and Dan Taberski’s new podcast tells the stories of that weird time and some of the people who part of it in Surviving Y2K. It’s funny and fascinating and the characters he meets along the way are often unforgettable – as is his own part of the story.

10. Obscure with Michael Ian Black: Listen along as comedian-actor Michael Ian Black reads “Jude the Obscure” by the English Victorian novelist Thomas Hardy and riffs on it as he goes. Yes, it’s weird, yes it’s not for everyone, but it’s strange in a good way, and oddly compelling, too. If you had trouble getting through this in your Victorian Lit class in college – I’m raising my hand here – this is how to revisit and enjoy one of Hardy’s classics.

11. Someone Knows Something: In the fifth season of this Canadian podcast, David Ridgen digs into the unsolved murder of a teenage girl in the mid-’80s, taking listeners into the homes of family members and suspects alike. Ridgen is a terrific storyteller whose warm presence is comforting no matter what results he turns up. This is one you take for the journey, which, like life, doesn’t always end with everything tied up in a bow.

12. Slow Burn: Twenty years after the impeachment of President Bill Clinton for lying about his relationship with a former intern named Monica Lewinsky, this in-depth look at what happened and why is a newly timely story. You think you know the story, but as with this Slate team’s first season, a look at the Watergate scandal that toppled President Richard M. Nixon, you don’t know or remember as much as you think you do.

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