CULTURE & ARTS
11/29/2018 04:23 pm ET

We Listened To A Lot Of Podcasts In 2018. Here Are 31 We Loved.

From the infuriating to the inspirational, these are the best series that earbuds had to offer this year.

“We’re not experts.”

It’s a necessary disclaimer that comes, in some form or another, at the start of so many podcasts that dip into beauty or legal or medical advice. The hosts of “Forever 35,” a show that’s more personal reflections on self-care than a WebMD-like lifestyle resource, offer such a caveat before each episode kicks into gear.

“We’re just two friends who like to talk about serums,” they remind their unseen audience.

Some of the best podcasts make us feel like that — like you’re tuning in to a conversation between cool friends who happen to be great at producing regular, compelling content. They don’t have to tackle hard news, and they don’t have to be leading authorities in their fields. But they do have to provide good company.

And hey, we’re not experts either. So consider the following list ― composed of podcast series that began or released new seasons during the 2018 calendar year ― to be a friendly resource created by casual podcast listeners across the HuffPost newsroom. From “Doctor Death” to “Personal Best” to “Halloween Unmasked,” these are the shows that kept us company this year.

Personal Best
"Personal Best" (Curiosities)
I've never heard anything quite like "Personal Best," which falls in a strange middle ground between satirizing the self-improvement genre and earnestly helping people fulfill their dreams. Each episode focuses on helping someone achieve a goal -- often a relatively silly goal, like learning to birth a calf. The comedy comes from the ridiculous training journey that hosts Andrew Norton and Rob Norman create to help their guests achieve these goals. (The calf episode involved someone wearing a cow suit in a bathtub, while the guest mimicked what to do during a birth.) In life, the hard work required to achieve goals can be scary at the onset. But by diving so deep into the absurd, "Personal Best" makes the whole process seem magical. — Todd Van Luling
Where Should We Begin?
"Where Should We Begin?" (Personal)
Each episode of "Where Should We Begin?" is a real couples therapy session moderated by psychotherapist Esther Perel. Couples sign up to see Perel — whose TED Talks have been viewed over 11 million times — for a variety of reasons, from infidelity to infertility, sexual dispassion to unwieldy fetishes. It's thrilling to have access to such a private arena, where strangers share their most intimate feelings and fears, often for the first time. And Perel — a whip-smart emotional savant who pierces through human defenses with the efficiency of a surgeon — is a wonder to behold. Her superpower is her ability to parse out the narratives her clients cling to, offering them other, more productive ways to understand their love story. While listeners might not identify with the particular details of each client's experience, the underlying themes of longing, insecurity, past trauma, obstinance, fear and hope resonate, hard. Plus, Perel's soothing French accent is my version of ASMR. — Priscilla Frank
Slow Burn
"Slow Burn" (History)
"Slow Burn" Season 1 was all about Richard Nixon — specifically, how the Watergate scandal of the 1970s played out in real time during his presidency. Season 2 turns to Bill Clinton and how the scandal leading to his impeachment gripped the American people and press in the '90s. If you're looking for a podcast that will distract you from the historical nightmare that is 2018, with its sexual harassment accusations and thorny media narratives ... "Slow Burn" is not it. (Sen. Chuck Grassley, is that you again?) But there is something sobering about the series. Every moment is a reminder of how cyclical politics can be, of how not unique our present moment really is. — Katherine Brooks
Dr. Death
"Dr. Death" (Investigative)
"Dr. Death" is a wild and addictive podcast from Wondery about Christopher Duntsch, a former neurosurgeon whose botched surgeries left more than 30 people hurt, paralyzed or dead in Texas. The story is shocking, often leaving you not only wondering how this man got away with what he did for so long but enraged over the shortcomings of the medical system. Rich with interviews and in-depth reporting, this podcast was impossible to stop listening to. And terrifying. — Jamie Feldman
Forever35
"Forever35" (Beauty)
Doree Shafrir and Kate Spencer may have come together as friends who like to talk about serums, but since its start in early 2018, their podcast has grown to envelop all kinds of self-care, from exercise to face masks to more existential questions like your life’s purpose. The two hosts invite a guest each week, often an influential woman in the arts or beauty space (Eva Chen, Nicole Chung and Rebecca Traister were recent guests). This is a pod that truly sounds like you’re eavesdropping on a conversation between your friends. — Jillian Capewell
Ear Hustle
"Ear Hustle" (Interviews)
This podcast from California's San Quentin State Prison continues to tell unexpected stories about life behind bars in its third season. Each episode revolves around interviews with inmates, many of whom are surprisingly open about their past and their current challenges. The third season explores surviving prison lockdowns, the challenges that immigrants face when they are released, love behind bars and more. Co-host Earlonne Woods was a prisoner at San Quentin through the first two-and-a-half seasons, but after 21 years behind bars he saw his sentence commuted by Gov. Jerry Brown just before Thanksgiving. The podcast has said it will now hire Woods, and he will share his journey of re-entering society in future episodes. He and co-host Nigel Poor, a visual artist who volunteers at the prison, have a relaxed banter, even when discussing uncomfortable situations, and it will be interesting to see how the podcast evolves after his release. Revisit earlier seasons to hear about prison pets, parenting while incarcerated and LGBTQ inmates. — Sara Bondioli
Uncover: Escaping Nxivm
"Uncover: Escaping NXIVM" (Investigative)
Imagine you ran into a high school classmate you hadn't seen in forever. When you ask how they've been, they respond, "I just escaped from a cult." That's what happened to Josh Bloch, who narrates the CBC investigative podcast "Uncover: Escaping NXIVM." The podcast retraces the path of Bloch's former friend Sarah Edmondson as she rose through the ranks in a cult that clucked about empowering women while asserting control over her every move. You might have heard about NXIVM, which attracted celebrity clientele like heiress Claire Bronfman and "Smallville" actress Allison Mack, and was known for branding its members with the initials of leader Keith Raniere. But Edmondson offers a deeply personal account, focusing on how a normal person could overlook all the red flags and find her world turned inside out. — Priscilla Frank
Wild Thing
"Wild Thing" (Investigative)
From the first episode of this podcast, journalist Laura Krantz understands listeners might be skeptical about a deep dive into Bigfoot — something her late distant cousin, a professor and noted scholar of Sasquatch studies, also had to contend with. Surely, if a creature like this existed, we'd have proof by now. But while there is no definitive evidence that Bigfoot is anything more than myth, there are still scores of people who believe. Krantz digs into her cousin's work, meets with today's believers and explores our cultural obsession with an otherworldly creature. Krantz wasn't going to find definitive proof in her comparatively short investigation — seriously, people have been looking for decades — but what she does bring to the table is accessible, interesting and a welcome diversion into the unknown. — Jillian Capewell
Halloween unmasked
"Halloween Unmasked" (Movies)
Michael Myers stalked his way back into our hearts this fall, but do you know all there is to know about Hollywood's most influential serial killer? You will after listening to "Halloween Unmasked." Film critic Amy Nicholson, who also hosts the entertaining movie podcast "Unspooled," walks us through the legacy of the 40-year-old "Halloween" franchise, including Michael's psychology (with an assist from a real serial-killer expert), how it influenced the horror genre at large, and what went into the saga's most recent feminist rebirth. John Carpenter, Jamie Lee Curtis, David Gordon Green, Danny McBride and many more assorted players from Haddonfield's past and present appear throughout the eight "Unmasked" episodes, serving up astute insights about a series that continues to haunt us. — Matthew Jacobs
Cover-Up
"Cover-Up" (Investigative)
On July 18, 1969, Sen. Ted Kennedy drove his black Oldsmobile off a bridge and into a pond on Chappaquiddick, an island near Martha’s Vineyard where he’d hosted a party for campaign staffers who’d worked for his late brother Robert. Kennedy escaped the accident. Ten hours later, he told police. But he had not been alone in the car — and the accident had taken the life of 28-year-old Mary Jo Kopechne.

“Cover-Up,” which is somehow People magazine’s first podcast, dusts off the scandal that was shoved into a neglected corner of history as Kennedy’s service in the U.S. Senate stretched past four decades. Over seven episodes, journalist Elizabeth McNeil interviews surviving witnesses, law enforcement and family members in an attempt to truly expose this ugly blight on a powerful family’s legacy. Why did it take so long to call police? What were Kennedy and Kopechne doing out together? Did Kennedy try to save his passenger? Did he even know she was in the car? Did she drown … or did she suffocate? — Sara Boboltz
How to Build a Nation in 15 Weeks
"How to Build a Nation in 15 Weeks" (History)
This nerdy history podcast created by a law firm in New York provides a detailed dive into the Constitutional Convention of 1787. It goes week by week examining what was debated at the convention that made the U.S. Although the podcast includes some discussion of how portions of the Constitution are viewed today, it largely focuses on actual events back then, drawing from a number of historical texts and records to reveal the convention delegates' opinions and motivations. It's a hidden gem for any "Hamilton" fans (or history buffs) who want to delve into this period a bit more. The 15 weeks ended in September, but you can still relive them — and the crew is planning a Season 2, which will focus on topics such as ratification and the Bill of Rights. — Sara Bondioli
Bodies
"Bodies" (Personal)
Allison Behringer didn’t know what was “wrong” with her. Suddenly, it hurt for her to have sex. She couldn’t figure out the cause; online searches weren’t fruitful and her doctor told her it would simply go away. In the first episode of her podcast “Bodies,” she documents her quest to figure out what was going on, and along the way touches on the politics of sexual health and the chronic disbelief in women’s pain. The series moves beyond Behringer as well, with each additional episode focusing on another woman’s medical mystery. The stories are compelling from both an investigative and a personal standpoint — you’ll want to know if the problems presented in each episode are resolved, and whether the broken system in which they exist can be changed. — Jillian Capewell
Getting Curious
"Getting Curious with Jonathan Van Ness" (Interviews)
You probably know Van Ness as the silken-haired grooming guru on the "Queer Eye" reboot, which he brightens with his supernatural whimsy and warmth. But Van Ness' best asset — his delightfully sharp curiosity — can't be fully appreciated in that setting. He's better in his podcast, in which he goes deep to interview experts about a wide variety of random topics, ranging from medical marijuana to Saudi Arabian politics to how to execute a triple axel. His interview style is stream-of-conscious, humble and quirky, and you'll put down your earbuds having learned a lot of amazing conversation starters to take to your next party. — Kristen Aiken
Making Obama podcast.
"Making Obama" (History)
From WBEZ Chicago, reporter Jenn White and producer Colin McNulty’s six-part series on former President Barack Obama’s political rise stands out in two major ways: It centers the story on Obama’s nascent career in Chicago, and it features a wide range of figures, who encouraged the idealistic community organizer-turned-law professor to enter public life but were much more clear-eyed about the steep climb ahead.

So many of the narratives about Obama tend to focus on the apex of his career. But by documenting some of his lowest points, “Making Obama” provides a fresh and more nuanced take on the man. The podcast’s many engaging interviewees make the biggest one — Obama himself — almost unnecessary. — Marina Fang
FAQ NYC
"FAQ NYC" (Investigative)
From the very beginning, "FAQ NYC" billed itself as “The New Yorkest” podcast. That kind of chutzpah easily grabs attention, but rarely does it command respect. "FAQ NYC" is the exception. The show brings a New York tabloid reporter’s notebook to life, with distinct, at times hypnotic, audio mixing and unapologetically serious interviews with major political players. In the third episode, the hosts — New York Daily News columnist Harry Siegel, political scientist Christina Greer, and journalist and show producer Alex Brook Lynn — press Mayor Bill de Blasio on his wars with the press. In the 11th, they question the Republican gubernatorial candidate on how he could actually beat Gov. Andrew Cuomo. The latest episode takes a detailed look at New York’s deeply flawed election system. It’s witty, fact-rich and clear-eyed, a resource for anyone who wants know more about the nation’s biggest and most economically influential city than restaurant suggestions. — Alexander Kaufman
The RFK Tapes
"The RFK Tapes" (History)
This look into the 1968 assassination of Robert F. Kennedy focuses on conspiracy theories surrounding the shooting and subsequent investigation. Was hypnosis involved? Was there a woman in a polka-dot dress? The podcast, which comes from the creators of "Crimetown," vacillates between a deep dive into conspiracy and a matter-of-fact look at the rushed investigation. At times, it veers a bit too far in one direction or the other. But overall, it's a fascinating exploration of what really happened — and whether what we think we know is the whole truth. — Sara Bondioli
Household Name
"Household Name" (Curiosities)
There is nothing I love more than deep dives into odd things that were right in front of my face the whole time, and this podcast from Business Insider delivers. It takes well-known brands — think Waffle House, Disney, Mattress Firm and Starbucks, among others — and tackles some quirky aspect of them. (Did anyone else think the excess of Mattress Firm stores around the country was part of a huge conspiracy?) It pulls back the curtain on the familiar, revealing surprising and pleasingly weird aspects of the products and brands we interact with nearly every day. — Jillian Capewell
The Dream
"The Dream" (Investigative)
If you’ve ever been solicited over Facebook about an “exciting opportunity” that would allow you to work from home, spend more time with family and make money in your sleep, you’re likely familiar with multi-level marketing companies. Focusing on what is sometimes called “direct sales,” they often require a startup investment from new salespeople and focus on recruiting those salespeople over actually selling the product. “The Dream” examines these companies from their beginnings to today. One producer even joins up with such a business, attending a conference where she finds that many of the salespeople — largely women — aren't doing it for the promise of luxury cars and extravagant vacations, but for things as simple as paying the rent or buying a tombstone for a parent. It's an eye-opening look at the economic realities that push people into these predatory companies and how difficult it can be to get out. — Jillian Capewell
Decoder Ring
"Decoder Ring" (Curiosities)
Since its launch in April, "Decoder Ring" has impressed me, but for the most part I didn't find it that exciting. Each episode dives into a recognizable but mundane cultural phenomenon — such as laugh tracks or hotel art — and provides information that rarely elicited more than a "huh, that's kind of interesting" reaction. This changed with an October episode called "The Incunabula Papers." While looking at a popular conspiracy theory from the 1980s, the hosts wove in a new mystery of their own — one that pointed to a mysterious website that had a puzzle to be solved. I fear this might have just been a one-off Halloween project, but that would be a shame. The episode expanded my idea of what a podcast can accomplish, and I hope "Decoder Ring" tries more projects like that instead of contenting itself with highlighting ephemera. — Todd Van Luling
In the Dark
"In the Dark" (Investigative)
Peak podcast has given us a glut of shows that have all the trappings of hard-hitting journalism — archival courtroom audio! ambient noise from a road near the crime scene! — but none of the impact. The antidote is "In The Dark," which dedicated its second season to investigating an unbelievable death row case and, in doing so, delivered the year's most jaw-dropping exposé on the criminal justice system.

The show unravels the case against Curtis Flowers, a black man who has been tried for the same crime, a horrific multiple homicide, six different times. Host Madeleine Baran subjects the prosecutor's case to relentless scrutiny and lays out in painstaking detail how racist, corrupt policing doomed the investigation from the start. If that sounds like just another true crime podcast, it's not. "In The Dark" is never speculative and never treats reporting like a license to gawk at private tragedies. It’s journalism at its best: unflinching, accountable and infuriating. — Molly Redden
Change Agent
"Change Agent" (Personal)
There are plenty of advice podcasts to choose from, but few that tackle its subjects' problems this inventively. This limited series from The New York Times takes an issue someone is having (say, being unable to stop shopping) and tries to solve it using methods typically aimed at a wildly different problem (say, holding your breath for three minutes). What results is an oddly inspirational podcast that feels encouraging even if you don’t share the same problems as the episodes’ subjects. It’s a reminder that, sometimes, the least obvious solution to a problem is one worth exploring. — Jillian Capewell
30 for 30 podcast
"30 for 30: Bikram Yoga" (Investigative)
Julia Lowrie Henderson was into Bikram yoga — so into it that, at one point, she managed a studio devoted to its teachings. She was among the tens of thousands around the world who followed the grueling physical practice espoused by its founder, Bikram Choudhury, who became a guru-like figure for his followers. But beginning in 2011, formal complaints and lawsuits against Choudhury emerged, accusing him of inappropriate behavior, harassment and rape. In the third season of ESPN’s “30 for 30” podcast, Henderson grapples with Choudhury’s public downfall, her own experiences with the fitness leader and how followers have moved forward. — Jillian Capewell
Dear Franklin Jones
"Dear Franklin Jones" (Personal)
Cults and gurus are maybe second only to murder when it comes to podcast fixations. That’s the obvious appeal of “Dear Franklin Jones,” hosted by Jonathan Hirsch. He was raised to follow Franklin Jones, a New Age leader who required complete devotion from his followers. Hirsch's family left after nearly two decades, but questions remained for Hirsch himself. The resulting series is as much family history as it is cultural exploration — a fascinating, at times disturbing, personal account of a truly unusual upbringing. — Jillian Capewell
Love Letters
"Love Letters" (Personal)
The Boston Globe's Meredith Goldstein takes the wisdom she's amassed over years of doling out advice to readers of her "Love Letters" column to answer a burning question: What's the best way to deal with a breakup? That's the subject of the entire first season of the newspaper's newest podcast. In answering it, nothing feels off limits. We don't just hear from Goldstein or experts., Sometimes it's her sister or ex who lend their voice, and that makes the whole listening experience more authentic and relatable. — Kyna Doles
Acast
"My Dad Wrote A Porno" (Comedy)
Each episode of "My Dad Wrote A Porno" is more or less the same. Two of the three hosts -- James Cooper and Alice Levin -- listen as the title's implied son, Jamie Morton, reads aloud from one of several rather erotic novels that his father self-published. Morton doesn't ever get far in his recitations, because Cooper and Levin are never not floored by the explicit content spewing from their perpetually distressed friend's mouth. Season 4 doesn't disappoint. Belinda is back in chapters titled "Zachariah's Magic Wand" and "Clit Talk," which revolve around characteristically smutty and quizzically worded narratives involving people like "The Special One." It's beautiful garbage that makes you laugh out loud on the subway. What more can you want? -- Katherine Brooks
Harry Potter and the Sacred Text
"Harry Potter and the Sacred Text" (Curiosities)
If you love the "Harry Potter" series and want to spend 30 minutes a week thinking about how to live a more ethical life, this is the podcast for you. It was started by three Harvard Divinity School students who decided to apply to Rowling’s books the same reading practices they’d been applying to the world’s most sacred works. Every week, they read the next chapter in the series — this year's Season 5 appropriately focuses on the fifth book, The Order of the Phoenix — through the lens of a different theme. Recent episodes have been about humility, gratitude, compassion and grief. The hosts are funny, thoughtful and, most importantly, defiantly earnest about what they love and why they love it. Come for the big questions about how to live a good life; stay for the many jokes about the failed pedagogy of Hogwarts. — Chloe Angyal
A24
"The A24 Podcast" (Movies)
The upstart indie movie studio behind a lot of critical favorites over the last few years (“Moonlight,” “Lady Bird,” “The Lobster,” “Room,” among others) launched a podcast this year as part of its slate of offbeat promotional tools, which also include swag and ‘zines connected to new releases. Demonstrating that the studio knows its audience, "The A24 Podcast" manages to be not simply a commercial for the movies, but also a forum for film lovers. Some highlights: the inaugural episode, featuring a conversation between “Moonlight” director Barry Jenkins and “Lady Bird” director Greta Gerwig on making movies about their hometowns, and a recent episode with the genius pairing of “Eighth Grade” breakout star Elsie Fisher and ‘80s movie icon Molly Ringwald, comparing notes on adolescence and growing up on screen. — Marina Fang
Caliphate
"Caliphate" (Investigative)
It’s rare, especially in the Trump era, to find examples of reporters adding great value to a story by inserting themselves. That’s what makes "Caliphate" stand out. The show follows star Times reporter Rukmini Callimachi as she tracks an apparent former Islamic State fighter who has returned to Canada. The story veers unflinchingly into gory details, but does so in the service of better understanding the men who traveled from the West to Syria to fight and kill. Along the way, the show travels with Callimachi to Iraq, where she scours former ISIS strongholds and finds a trove of official ISIS documents that later becomes a blockbuster scoop. The show is a haunting masterpiece of gonzo journalism, at once an empathetic examination of the allure of revolution and an unsparing chronicle of performatively depraved violence. — Alexander Kaufman
A Very Fatal Murder
"A Very Fatal Murder" (Comedy)
True crime and podcasting go hand-in-hand, whether it’s in the investigative format like “Serial” or “Up and Vanished” or in grisly retellings like “My Favorite Murder” or “Sword & Scale.” A parody of the genre was all but foretold, and it's in capable hands with this project, released in January. Reporter David Pascall, working for Onion Public Radio, is on a mission to find the perfect murder that he can spin into an award-winning, piano-soundtracked podcast, going so far as to set up Google Alerts for “decapitation.” With the help of his virtual assistant, he finds his subject: “a murder in which a really hot white girl dies.” What results is a wry, morbid send-up of the moral quandaries associated with spinning tragedy into entertainment for the masses. — Jillian Capewell
Heavyweight
"Heavyweight" (Personal)
Host Jonathan Goldstein acts as a guide for people filled with varying regrets. Each of his guests wishes to right some perceived wrong from the past and Goldstein pushes them to fulfill that goal. Besides the engaging stories that come with humans confronting their darkest demons, Goldstein's unique charm turns what could be adventures of gloom into hilarious romps. Also, "Heavyweight" made a special "animated episode" this year that featured my former HuffPost colleague (and current friend) Chanel Parks. That episode made me cry and smile a lot. — Todd Van Luling
Cocaine & Rhinestones
"Cocaine & Rhinestones" (History)
Country music is so much more than what you see onstage at the CMAs (no shade, though). Tyler Mahan Coe, who describes himself as a “lifelong veteran of country music and its mythology,” shares some of that rich, fascinating history in this podcast. Learn about the contentious reception of Loretta Lynn’s groundbreaking song “The Pill” or the tale of Spade Cooley, believed to be the only convicted killer with a star on Hollywood’s Walk of Fame. The research and detail in each episode make this podcast a standout. Fans of “You Must Remember This” especially shouldn’t miss this one. — Jillian Capewell
CONVERSATIONS