Tuesday, January 15, 2019

Top 10 Podcasts of 2018

When putting together this list initially, I was a little worried I would end up recapitulating a lot of what I said about the ten best podcasts of 2017. A few of them stopped being produced, and a few new ones came into my rotation, but a list that was over half retreads seemed boring. So I gave myself a stipulation: no retreads. Go read that list; most of what was written there still stands for this last year (Friends at the Table is slightly different; they're back in Hieron for its final season, and holy shit is it good so far). And then read this one and get ten new feeds to subscribe to, maybe.

#10 Black Banner Magic

I'll note at the top that I'm internet friends with one person involved (although I'm not entirely sure how) in this show, and I probably wouldn't have given it a shot without that connection. I almost certainly would have heard about it, since they are affiliated with Revolutionary Left Radio. But the early Dr. Bones guest spot (before he was outed as a predator and a sex pest; at that point I simply actively disliked his politics) and the tagline - a leftist podcast for occultists, an occult podcast for leftists - would likely have left me uninterested.

I dabbled in occult signification in late high school, wearing a pentacle and Libra necklace around, investigating numerology, and engaging with conspiracy theory (without necessarily believing in any of it, per se). It was co-incidental with my transition from a sort of libertarianism to the left, and probably had some influence - though I expect it was more in spite of than due to. The residual hangover of that period is likely part of my own relative distaste for the prevalence of things like astrology and tarot in the left & queer circles that have made up the bulk of my social life for the past six or so years. It's a distaste I try to keep to myself, and one that has attenuated with my understanding of its use as personal narrativization and interpersonal care. The lingering annoyance has more to do with the way it externalizes fault, primarily, but that's not entirely here nor there.

All of which is to say: this is not a podcast for me, necessarily, and I still think it's a pretty interesting one. Dr. Bones(' pirate utopia ass) aside, the guests have largely been very interesting. Hearing them describe the various ways they practice gives me a sense of the way the occult community can function as genuine community, and the host is good enough at both maintaining the flow of conversation and dropping in historical information to keep me paying attention.

It's worth a listen.

#9 Notes from the Back Row

Even more compromising: I'm IRL friends with one of the hosts of this podcast, and have written for the site. That second part isn't the compromising bit, I just wanted to plug my piece about M. Night Shyamalan. I even suggested to my friend that Back Row needed a podcast before they did and offered to help; they went ahead and found a competent professional instead. End of disclosures.

If 2017 was the year I explicitly went out to find left podcasts, 2018 was the year I finally found a groove with film podcasts after years of fits and starts. You'll read about a couple more later, but an honorable mention to The Projection Booth, a podcast that would probably be at the top of this list if I was able to commit more time to following it regularly.

Notes From the Back Row is still finding its identity; episodes come out biweekly and are sometimes roundtable discussions, sometimes three or four segments where each host talks to themself for ten or twenty minutes. I personally prefer the former, but that's my taste across the board with podcasts. Back Row distinguishes itself - like the website - by focusing on the interests of the hosts, which is to say it doesn't keep up with the discourse (in the "not being structured around release schedules" way; they all seem like dope people who care).

Episodes about Heist films, SNL comedies, what constitutes hype and how it affects you, and even a defense of the criminally underwhelming Truth or Dare all give genuine consideration to topics that I might not care deeply about, but am happy to be convinced of. More than anything I'm looking forward to the show developing, and seeing what it turns into.

#8 Spectology

Spectology is a science fiction book club podcast, and it's also the last one on this list that has a co-host with whom I have a passing internet familiarity. I'm not particularly up on literature podcasts (maybe next year?), but I was pleasantly surprised when I gave this one a listen; the co-hosts, Matt and Adrian, do pre-read episodes on Science Fiction novels that are spoiler-free, and post-read episodes that dive deep into the novel. Both tend to feature animated conversations about books I've never read, along with personal anecdotes and serious consideration of the political and generic content of the book. They've consistently surprised me with how on point I find their analysis (based on their summaries at least).

The episode that sold me was on The Sparrow, a book I had never heard of and, based on the pre-read episode, I have zero interest in seeking out. The discussion, though, was excellent. In the pre-read, they talk a lot about religion in science fiction, and both had nuanced, interesting takes that were grounded in reading. And in the post-read episode, they went in on the novel's colonialist underpinnings and how poorly it handled the loss of faith aspects. I'm super into celebrating a shared love of things, but being able to turn that critical edge is what sold me.

As the year went on, they ended up doing a good job of bringing in guests and picking interesting books. I'm not a huge fan of it ideologically, but the episodes with Ellie Bartels on the Ninefox Gambit (the only book I have read from their 2018 run) touches on so much interesting content about the military and gaming's relationship to it. The Gnomon episodes with Max Gladstone were fun conversations between people who were just really excited. And the Binti episodes were compelling enough to convince me to suggest that trilogy as a book for my own book club, which is always nice.

#7 The Next Picture Show

A part of the Filmspotting family of podcasts (the only part other than the flagship now, I believe; RIP to Filmspotting: SVU, which is what dragged me into the whole thing), The Next Picture Show is a group of former-Dissolve critics who talk about an old movie in conjunction with a new release. It's a little headier in construction than in practice; basically one week you get a discussion of an older film and some feedback, then the next you get a brief review of a new film, a comparison between the two, and some other recommendations. Rinse and repeat.

I love the idea of this format, and often love it in practice. It can lead to some weirdness though, where I end up not listening for a month or more at a time.

If you're interested in a 2018 pairing, I think the discussion of Putney Swope and Sorry to Bother You is probably the most interesting. They also paired Isle of Dogs (a movie I have negative interest in seeing) with Chicken Run for an interesting conversation about animation. The hosts have a pretty set dynamic which, like almost all podcasts, they talk about as much as they enact, so if you don't get along with their banter it can be a bit difficult, as I sometimes don't. Mostly, though, it's a genuinely interesting premise executed on successfully.

#6 All Systems Goku

I finally have some idea of what happens in the Buu saga. And the Cell saga. I think I dropped off before that was really airing on Cartoon Network back in the day. And that's kind of nice.

All Systems Goku is Giant Bomb's Jeff Gerstmann and Dan Ryckert's first foray into anime, done by recapping five or so episodes of Dragon Ball Z Kai at a time. There's really very little to say; they are total amateurs in knowledge, but they're very professional at hosting podcasts. The content is an enjoyable thing with no real value. It's a pleasure to listen to.

#5 Filmspotting

The most annoying thing about Filmspotting is that the co-host I most agree with, in terms of both arguments and general taste, is an old Christian dad who loves the films of Wes Anderson. I couldn't identify less, and yet. He's often right, and even when he's very wrong, it's usually for compelling reasons. It's so frustrating.

Filmspotting is a weekly film podcast, of the discussion variety, that usually talks about a new movie and then does some sort of top 5 list about a related topic. They play games and talk about local Chicago stuff. It's a pleasant thing, and though the public radio format makes the conversations often feel rushed, both Adam and (the afore described) Josh have a good sense of how to quickly make their points clearly and, if not convincingly then at least coherently.

My favorite thing from this year was probably the Vincente Minnelli marathon they did; I've only seen Meet Me in St. Louis and that was quite some time ago. I doubt I'll end up seeing most of the films they discussed, but I'm glad to have some basic knowledge about that director.

#4 Game Studies Study Buddies

I guess I kind of lied. If I'm counting Adrian from Spectology as an internet acquaintance, then I should say that I've had brief interactions with both Cameron Kunzelman and Michael Lutz on Twitter over the last handful of years. Mostly, though, that's why I know about this, not why I listened or loved it. Because I'm woefully underexposed to what Game Studies actually looks like, having only seen it from blowups around Bogost and a handful of other critics. And hey, this is a podcast that seeks to remedy that, in some way, so I was all in as soon as I heard the concept.

Their monthly episodes each dive into one text from the broader Game Studies canon (or a little outside it), taking it on chapter by chapter. A big part of the draw is that both Cameron and Michael are thoughtful, engaged readers and conversationalists who come at the text from different disciplinary backgrounds that aren't incompatible. It leads to interesting, edifying conversations.

Episode five, on Caillois' Man, Play, and Games is probably the most interesting conversation so far, for my money.

#3 Cocaine & Rhinestones

Most of Cocaine & Rhinestones was published in 2017. I didn't discover it until this year, and enough of it was released in 2018 that I feel comfortable putting it on this list. Even if it was the kind of podcast that got covered in the New York Times or wherever. I think I heard about it a few times, but I remember it clicking around when I listened to this episode of the Trillbilly Worker's Party podcast.

Without this show, I probably wouldn't know that Bobby Gentry's "Ode to Billie Joe" is one of the greatest songs ever written, or about how great "Harper Valley PTA" is. That's enough to put it on any list. On top of that, though, it's the only NPR-style podcast I've ever been able to stomach. I'm much more about the conversational ones.

If you're at all interested in country music, it's probably a must-listen kind of thing at this point. Not because it's some exhaustive thing, but because Tyler Mahan Coe weaves an interesting narrative out of what might be considered ephemera, and does so while exposing you to some cool shit. I'm glad I listened to it.

#2 Got it Memorized

2018 was the year I got into Kingdom Hearts. I played the first game way back in the day, and I honestly can't tell how much I played of the second. I have vague memories. Which is appropriate, I guess. I had a fondness for the series based on that first game - there is something about rote action games that really hits home for me, and something about convoluted messes that does the same - but I couldn't really say why.

At the beginning of the year, I replayed the first game. Then I started in on the remake of the second, re:Chain of Memories, for the first time. It took me months; the game's action is insufferable in so many ways, swapping out the rote action for a messy card-battle system. The story, though, grabbed me really hard. It's about Sora losing his memories in this castle, and having them replaced with false ones, and about how he maintains his bonds of friendship through that experience and even forges new ones because of it. It's such a precious thing. Then I went on to play Kingdom Hearts 2, in full for (almost definitely) the first time. And then 358/2 Days, Birth by Sleep, and re:Coded. I'm currently most of the way through Dream Drop Distance, and plan on playing through 0.2 Birth by Sleep ~a fragmentary passage~ and watching the HD movie of Unchained X. I'll probably end up playing Kingdom Hearts 3 as well, once that's out. Maybe not, though, who knows.

Because of how long re:Chain of Memories took, I wanted something to supplement with while getting into the more story-focused, Disney-lite games that came after. Which is when I found Got it Memorized, which is a Kingdom Hearts recap podcast. The hosts, Wheels and Jo, go through each game piece by piece, wrapping up what happens and tying it into the broader narrative as it stands. It's a nice way to keep things straight in your head, and to get a slightly different perspective on a series that is notorious for the ways in which it is confusing.

Playing through the games, with the help of Got it Memorized, has made me realize that sense of re:Chain of Memories I had was only a part of the reason the games grab me. Because at their core, this is a series about identity. Friendship is crucial, there, because what the fuck is friendship without identity? Sora's answer is that it's a promise kept, maybe. The series' is a little harder to pin down.

Here's one reason I think it's about identity: all of the stuff that is actually confusing about the game is confusing because it is problematizing identity. The prime example: Ansem. Ansem is the boss of the first game; he's also a wise old man who researched the Heartless. The boss of Kingdom Hearts 2 is Xemnas; he is Ansem's Nobody (a body without a heart). Ansem is still around, though, masquerading as DiZ, because the person who became the boss of the first two games was actually Xehanort. Xehanort is this old fuckbag who stole a man's body, lost his memories and identified himself as Ansem before splitting into those two.

The parts about Heartless and Nobodies is fairly boilerplate fantasy fare, constructed systems that feed into themselves in order to achieve particular goals. All the real questions about the game are "who is" questions. Who is Ansem, who is Xehanort, who is Sora. And each of those is meant in two ways. Who is Sora? As in, what kind of person is he, what is his identity. But also, who is Sora? As in, which of these characters is Sora, or is in part Sora, or is in Sora? The answer to that last one includes Roxas and Ventus at least.

So these games about identity, in the sense of who is the I and also in whom is the I, kind of took over my year. For material reasons, partially; it's a year that I really started working through my own identity in a real way. Having some other folks talk about the particulars of what was happening in this game that mirrored my own experience was helpful. So thanks to those folks. Also play Kingdom Hearts, that shit rules.

#1 Waypoint Radio

Waypoint's podcast game exploded in 2018. The Monday/Friday episodes of Waypoint Radio got formalized - Monday is hosted by Austin Walker and is about games of the moment, Friday by Danielle Riendeau and revolves around a specific topic. They also launched Waypoints, a Thursday podcast hosted by Rob Zacny that takes up media outside of games, and Be Good and Rewatch It, a film and TV podcast hosted by Patrick Klepek. They also continued the occasional Waypoint 101 series, which dives into a specific, slightly older game, and the occasional Article Read series, where one of the staff reads an article they wrote and has a discussion with another staff member afterwards. Waypoint Radio, in other words, became a podcast network in its own right. And every iteration is really solid.

As a games-focused focused podcast, Waypoint Radio has continued to be really astute on questions of labor practices in the games industry and unafraid to discuss issues of representation, exploitation, and politics in general. Plus a lot of football, sometimes. It's different from almost all of the other gaming podcasts I follow - not because none of them tackle either end of the industry, but because of how it synthesizes the smaller podcasts I tend to listen to with the larger ones. It's easy to forget, especially when you listen to as many podcasts as I do and prefer more conversational ones like I do, how much work and talent go into making a conversation interesting for listeners while not disappearing into toothless chatter.

The fact that they make what might be the best possible gaming podcast is then coupled with the fact that the staff shares enough of my taste that I can actually take their recommendations, which is basically unheard of for me. Channel Zero, in particular, would have gone completely under my radar and I would have missed my favorite season of television from 2018 without this show. More than that, though, I might have checked out of games news-style podcasts entirely; the Giant Bombcast and the Beastcast each had rough patches where I considered dropping them out of my rotation entirely (and the Bombcast is the reason I got into podcasts to begin with back around 2013), and those are basically the only other ones I go to (I'm an occasional unsubscriber/resubscriber to Kotaku Splitscreen, which I'm back on since Maddy Myers rejoined). Which probably would've been better for me in a lot of ways, but hey. Waypoint's that good.

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