The Best Podcast Episodes of 2023



I already wrote about the best new podcasts of 2023, and often within those shows were particularly great episodes that stood out from the rest. (The first episode of You Didn’t Say Nothin was one of the best episodes of anything I’ve heard in a while.) But on other shows, there have been standout episodes that will go down in history as some of the best pieces of audio ever created—or at least episodes that are worth revisiting over and over again.


The Grawlix Saves the World: “The Mystery of the Missing Purse”

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Each episode of The Grawlix Saves the World is split up into segments: First, comedians Adam Cayton-Holland, Ben Roy, and Andrew Orvedahl assign each other self-improvement or wellness challenges. Finally, they report back to declare whether or not doing the challenge makes the world a better place. On “The Mystery of the Missing Purse,” producer Ron brings a battered purse he found in his yard and everyone tries to track down the person who owned it. Hearing about what the guys think happened to the purse is hilarious, but then they actually find its owner to get the real story. Sometimes going the extra mile for a single podcast episode isn’t worth it. This time, it was. 


Lights Out: “Dead Ends”

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On Lights Out, Talia Augustidis (famous for her brilliant Everything List for Audio Opportunities, the All Hear newsletter and her Third Coast win for Best Short Documentary) produced “Dead Ends,” a project she’s been working on for almost her entire life. Talia’s mother died tragically when she was three—she was drunk and fell off a cliff. Talia pulls out old tapes from her childhood that documented her mom’s short life, including a haunting clip of her mom warning her to “not go too close to the edge” (of what?) to create a dreamlike soundtrack of memories and moments. It’s, as Talia says, a conversation with a ghost. At the end, she revisits the place her mom died with her dad and sister and tries to capture, with audio, what happened, which would have been an emotional way to cap off this project. Instead, something happens that’s either tragic or absolutely perfect. I think it’s perfect. The whole piece is. 


Search Engine: “Why don’t we eat people?”

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On Search Engine’s episode “Why Don’t We Eat People?,” PJ Vogt (from Reply All) spends an episode answering a very good question from a 4-year-old named Otto: why don’t we eat people? This is a highly researched episode packed with history, a mystery, and even a recipe. Plus, the adorable voice of a 4-year-old who incorrectly uses the word “snowmans” for the plural of snowman. This is broadly an episode on taboo things, and the thing about taboo things is that generally we won’t even go there, not even talk about them. Here, PJ does, and I think we discover that our repulsion to cannibalism is one of those things that makes less and less sense the more we think about it. Is eating human flesh the worst thing we could do, or the most intimate? If this episode doesn’t make you slightly less anti-cannibalistic, I’d be surprised. 


Drifting Off with Joe Pera: “Christmas Tree Lit”

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Drifting Off with Joe Pera is a calming podcast intended to help you fall asleep, and the episode “Christmas Tree Lit” calmed me to the max. Joe talks about finding peace in staring at a Christmas tree, lit up in darkness, while everyone else is sleeping, but I was too in love with the immersive sound and Joe’s storytelling, which feels like a massage, to fall asleep. This episode embodies coziness; listening to it, I felt like I was looking at a lit-up Christmas tree in darkness while everyone else is sleeping, something that Joe says is a theme of his life. (He asks us to consider the themes of our lives, and I want to steal his.) Whitmer Thomas tells Joe a story that feels like it was pulled from A Christmas Story, and Joe then does a perfect and beautiful reading of The Fir Tree by Hans Christian Andersen for a segment that made me feel both warm and sad. I ended it feeling like I understood the sadness of being a fir tree. I wanted to gather my family around the fire on Christmas and make everyone listen to it together.


Louder Than a Riot: “It ain’t trickin’ if you got it”

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On Louder Than a Riot’s “It ain’t trickin’ if you got it,” Sidney Madden and Rodney Carmichael take us to Miami (“one of the only places you can go to the supermarket in nothing but a bikini and not get looked at sideways”) to interview Trina, whose career sparked the “bad bitch” moment of hip-hop, a departure from the old stereotypes of Black women in rap. It all started with Trina, who sounds shy as hell, rapping on a Trick Daddy track, stealing the show and going on to fully spin herself off to become bigger than a verse, breaking the mold with her sophomore release Diamond Princess. There’s this almost cinematic moment of Trina being pushed onto stage at a show where she was greeted by a sea of bad bitches singing her lyrics. She had set hip hop on fire, birthing a universe of bad bitches. But an uncomfortable interview with Trick Daddy reveals he doesn’t want to talk about it and wasn’t happy he’d been eclipsed by the baddest bitch. He may have gotten Trina on mic, but his support ended there. (In his interview, he storms out saying, “I’m Jesus Christ, I created the baddest bitch. If you feel offended, f*ck it and kiss my whole family’s ass.”) This episode feels spicy and important and a celebration of the original bad bitch, and introduces us to someone who was able to center herself and create art that struck a huge chord with people who needed it. We should all be taking notes. 


Articles of Interest: “The Clueless Closet”

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Avery Trufelman just finished a masterful series on preppy clothes on her podcast Articles of Interest. And then one day last week we got a single beautiful episode dedicated to Cher Horowitz’s Closet, The Clueless Closet. Never would I have realized what a nightmare it was for set directors to make a fantasy closet in a movie. But that iconic closet, the one we have all been coveting since 1995, is also a nightmare to recreate in real life. We got self-driving cars (sort of) before we got Cher’s dream closet? Who’s in charge of this universe, a man? I won’t spoil anything but there’s an interesting reason why we can’t make this closet no matter how hard we try and why, really, we shouldn’t. This episode will make you love your clothes, start shopping in your closet more, and start dressing in a way that might slightly confuse others but ultimately will impress them. 


Sentimental Garbage: “Girls Just Want to Have Fun”

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You have probably heard Cyndi Lauper’s “Girls Just Want to Have Fun” (which was number one on the charts the day I was born) millions of times, but have you thought about it—really thought about it? Sentimental Garbage’s “Girls Just Want to Have Fun” episode covered the song in a sharp, fun, and academic way, which is really what this show does best. It’s an examination of both Cyndi’s and the original version, which was sung by Robert Hazard, who is famously a man. This changes everything if you think about it. And Caroline and guest Tom McInnes think about it. It’s a conversation about fun, what Cyndi means when she’s talking about wanting to walk in the sun and the fortunate ones, and why when you hear “Girls Just Want to Have Fun,” you don’t want to dance to it, you just want to hug yourself. “Girls Just Want to Have Fun” doesn’t have many lyrics, but each one carries more than its weight. 


Decoder Ring: “The slow decline of the slow dance”

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Decoder Ring’s “The slow decline of the slow dance” was unexpectedly brilliant. We get a full history of dancing slow, starting with the waltz, examining how we went from dance chaperones literally pulling awkward teenagers apart on the dance floor to wishing they’d get a little closer. The introduction of grinding is one reason that face-to-face slow dancing is dwindling, but it’s much more than that. Dancing evolves and is a reflection on our culture and how we relate to one another. Teens aren’t slow dancing (they literally aren’t, and it’s not just teens—nobody is) because they aren’t as comfortable engaging in this quite vulnerable tradition. Post-COVID, and with our reliance on social media to maintain our friendships and relationships, it’s not hard to see why. This wasn’t a look at the “good old days” and how life was better when kids were willing to slow dance. It’s a reminder that putting yourself out there to connect with someone in a slow dance is an art we are losing. Slow dancing breaks ice, it challenges us, it makes us more comfortable with our bodies, and other people’s bodies, too. It’s not silly, it’s a crucial part of what it means to be a person in this world. Slow dancing has evolved from waltzing to grinding and it will evolve again. But into what? 


Radio Diaries: “The Unmarked Graveyard: Neil Harris Jr.”

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Somewhere near the western end of Long Island Sound, in northeastern Bronx, lies Hart Island or “potter’s field,” America’s largest public cemetery. (More than a million souls are at rest, with no headstones. Just numbers.) It’s an island full of mysteries, and Radio Diaries is exploring some of them for a short series called The Unmarked Graveyard. The first story, Neil Harris Jr., tells the story of a guy who became known well by locals of Manhattan’s Riverside Park as Stephen, for sitting on the same bench every day. In 2017 an unidentifiable body was found in New York—meanwhile, locals started noticing that Stephen was gone. It took a random park goer to connect the dots and find his true identity. Radio Diaries gets to know Stephen, his real name and identity, the mark he made on New York, and the people he left behind. I listened to this episode with bated breath. It makes you think about every person you pass on the street or see sitting on a park bench. 


Man Thinkers: “Juicy with Will Blunderfield”

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I assumed Man Thinkers would be full of lazy jokes about toxic masculinity, but co-hosts George Collins and Dan Finkelstein lean hard into the bit and the result is laugh-out-loud hilarious. They interview real doctors and experts about testosterone, egg-freezing, and being a better man, all in-character as two Libertarian/incel gross men who were canceled by “liberal” YouTube and have found a place for their voice on a podcast. One of my favorite episodes was Juicy with Will Blunderfield who drinks his own urine, suns his a-hole, and teaches classes in sexual kung-fu. 


You’re Wrong About: “Chris McCandless with Blair Braverman”

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You’re Wrong About’s resident survival correspondent Blair Braverman was back on the show to talk about “Supertramp” Chris McCandless, who once walked into the Alaskan bush and died, maybe because he ate some toxic plants. Chris’s story was the inspiration for Jon Krakauer’s Into the Wild. This was a great conversation because it brought up so many things that were never mentioned in Into the Wild, like familial abuse, the complexities of Chris as a non-perfect, non-evil human being, and how new research can explain how Chris may have died. 


American Hysteria: “Jackass”

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I had no idea how queer Jackass was. American Hysteria has an episode about Jackass that is both an exhaustive history of the franchise that’s one of the best-written episodes of American Hysteria ever—Chelsey reading the list of Jackass stunts is pure poetry. And it’s also super gay. (Jackass believed it was “ridding the world of homophobia.” Jon Waters was a fan and appeared on the show.) The history of Jackass is unusual and surprising: it definitely inspired kids to try an Anaconda Ball Pit, Bungee Wedgie, or Golf Course Air Horn. It’s also a story about American culture, making heterosexual America uncomfortable, beautiful danger, and much more than just a bunch of dudes falling down.

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