The podcast universe was having a relatively quiet start to the year before, well, the coronavirus threw everything into a tizzy. Before then, the one ambiguous head-turner was a viral standalone episode from an already popular podcast about a song that may or may not exist. Since then, after the lockdowns started kicking in, a good deal of podcast output reorganized itself around that reality — there were a great many podcasts about, inspired, or catalyzed by COVID-19, and then there was everyone else, who had to figure out how to push through and get by somehow.
Now, it feels like podcasting is leveling back out a bit, even as the actual pandemic is far from resolved. For now, though, let’s take a look at some of the year’s best podcasts that have come out so far across this strange and harrowing time.
Articles of Interest season 2
Avery Trufelman’s deep dive into fashion returns, and her trademark genuinely loving but interrogative approach has never been sharper. This season trains its focus on objects of luxury — perfume, high fashion, diamonds, suits — subjects that sit squarely within the force that seems to most drive Trufelman’s critical eye: the tension between beauty and capitalism. The episodes are fun, curious, and filled with fascinating detail, but they also carry the burden of a melancholic question: how do you love something that can be hard to love?
The Cam Chronicles (The Ringer)
A sports documentary that’s well worth your time. Cam Newton, the former Carolina Panther quarterback and newly minted Patriot, is an almost mythologically interesting star athlete. He’s prodigiously talented, but has never won a championship. He aspires to be an icon, but repeatedly courts controversy. The Cam Chronicles is a shrewd and empathetic account of Newton’s legend, closely tracking the QB’s journey from his Atlanta roots to his murky present, ultimately telling a story about the burdens of being an intensely public, wealthy, and prominent Black athlete in America. The series is also noteworthy for the talents of its host, Tyler R. Tynes, who breathes electric life into the work of narration. Energetic, opinionated, funny, and free, Tynes’ approach offers an appealing window into what podcast narration can, and should, be.
Around the turn of the millennium, Connor Ratliff was cast on the critically acclaimed HBO drama Band of Brothers. It was a small role, but for a working actor, all roles are valuable. But before Ratliff could make it to the set, he was called back to re-audition for Tom Hanks, who was an executive producer on the project. He ended up losing the part — later, he would be told Hanks thought he had “dead eyes.” Decades later, Ratliff would create a podcast about the experience. He had pulled together a decent performing career by then, and in the podcast, which he calls Dead Eyes, he sets out to revisit, unpack, and explore that early-career incident, which had left a big impression. The podcast is fascinating and excellent, essentially functioning as a vessel that explores the emotional experience of building a life in show business. Part interview show, part memoir, Dead Eyes is an innovative take on a familiar genre.
Written and hosted by Vann R. Newkirk II, The Atlantic’s revisiting of Hurricane Katrina and the botched federal response that followed is a genuinely illuminating piece that holds extra weight and resonance in the current pandemic context. Beautifully written, deeply reported, and further elevated by outstanding music and sound design, Floodlines is the best audio documentary to come out this year so far, hands down. It can be a really hard time for many to pick up this particular story, but it remains a worthwhile exercise, if one is able, to stare into the abyss, as it can serve as a guide for what’s to come.
When life gives you lemons (or pandemic-induced quarantine), make lemonade (or a podcast about quarantine cooking). Life under lockdown has predictably inspired a considerable number of new COVID-19-related podcasts. Many are news-oriented, dedicated to keeping you up to date on the latest developments. Some, meanwhile, are more unexpected … and perhaps, more welcome. One of the finest from this latter batch is Home Cooking, a quarantine-cooking advice show hosted by Samin Nosrat, the chef and famed food writer, and Hrishikesh Hirway, indie-podcast-producer extraordinaire. Breezy, playful, and rich with puns, Home Cooking is a delightful companion to figure out the puzzle of your pantry. It’s really short, though, playing out across four hour-long episodes that wrapped up in early May, but it’s jammed packed with genuinely helpful tips and ideas that are evergreen.
My Year in Mensa (Independent)
Let’s say you have an exclusive, insular, and somewhat known group whose membership is defined by “unnatural intelligence.” What would you expect from the group’s internal social dynamics? From the way it views itself? You’ll get those answers from My Year in Mensa, an endlessly fascinating four-part podcast from comedian and writer Jamie Loftus. A semi-adaptation of a sporadic column series, Loftus uses the podcast to recount her year-long experience successfully gaining admission into Mensa, the largest “High IQ society” in the world, and skeptically moving through the community. What results is a vibrant critique of what can be described as “intellectual supremacy,” and the kinds of thinking that can foster. “My Year In Mensa” is ultimately an unsettling story, but it’s told in such a gloriously bold, funny and personal way that you just can't forget.
Oh, Hello: The P’dcast
Gil Faizon and George St. Geegland continue to be at large. Nick Kroll and John Mulaney’s geriatric testaments to failed New York creative ambition reached true heights with its Broadway iteration a few years ago, which was also distributed as a Netflix special. Now, under quarantine, they’ve reprised the characters for a new podcast that gives you basically everything you’d want from the act: mis-emphasized pronunciations, delusions of grandeur, dense rapid-fire joke delivery, tuna — and then some. It’s exponentially more enjoyable for podcast fans, since, as with the Broadway show, the duo mischievously plays with some of the medium’s most common tropes.
Planet Money has many distinctions: arguably the first “true” NPR podcast, longtime stalwart of accessible stories about complex economies, a truly sustainable operation that’s been able to maintain a consistently high quality level even as its actual stable of talent has changed over the years. It also has fascinating roots, originally coming into being off a joint This American Life–NPR reporting venture that covered the 2008 economic crisis. These days, of course, we found ourselves in the depths of another economic calamity — quite possibly the worst ever experienced by this country. And Planet Money has stepped up to cover this new crisis with reliable gusto, in result producing some of the best work that the show’s ever done, almost twelve years into its existence.
Reply All’s “The Case of the Missing Hit”
Obsession runs rampant in this instantly legendary episode of Reply All, already a show with quite a few of them. In “The Case of the Missing Hit,” the team is contacted by a filmmaker looking for help to track down a song that may or may not exist. That song is thought to be a distinct artifact of the late ’90s and early 2000s, a sugary mix of U2 and the Barenaked Ladies, but it simply couldn’t be found in the infinite repositories of the internet. What transpires is a glorious and unexpectedly thrilling caper, one that brings listeners along a wild ride as the filmmaker, supported by Reply All co-host P.J. Vogt, tries their very best to figure out the truth behind the spectral single … all as the song turns into an earworm that deepens its hold in their brains.
Staying In With Emily and Kumail
Staying In is kind of a classic hangout podcast, albeit one with added gravity given how we’re all mostly forced to keep indoors as much as possible under quarantine conditions. All that said, Emily V. Gordon and Kumail Nanjiani are lovely hangs, and the podcast is a pure pleasure. As they note at the outset, Gordon and Nanjiani are no strangers to isolation, or the feeling of being trapped and helpless. You might know this already if you’ve seen The Big Sick, the semi-autobiographical 2017 film that the couple wrote and Nanjiani starred in, which is in part based on Gordon’s experience with a rare disease that nearly killed her and left her immunocompromised. The situation is such that they’ve occasionally had to self-isolate for her health, even before all this. All that background is baked into the feel of Staying In, which comes with a relaxed semi-diaristic quality — there’s a lot of processing in real time — that’s reminiscent of older styles of podcasting. Indeed, it’s actually a return to podcast form for Gordon and Nanjiani, as the two had previously hosted a video game–ish podcast called The Indoor Kids. Some things have carried over. Like The Indoor Kids, Staying In is charming and funny, and it’s reminds us that we’re all in this together.
By the time mid-summer rolls around, us gardeners are looking to enjoy the fruits of our labors. We put in those long hours in early spring to prep, shop, and plant, and now it’s time to kick back and enjoy the season. The veggie patch yield is increasing daily, containers of annuals are established and thriving, and the perennial garden is… well, yikes, it looks kind of tired and needs some help!
With hot, harsh sunlight and dry conditions, mid- to late summer can be tough on our gardens. Many plants suffer from heat stress and struggle without adequate moisture. To avoid the late season, colorless doldrums, choose from our list of the best perennials to add vibrant shades to the late summer garden. Many of these plants are North American natives, and others come from around globe – but all seem to flourish when the heat is on!
ANISE HYSSOP (AGASTACHEFOENICULUM) Anise hyssop, also known as butterfly mint, is a fragrant perennial with upright flower spikes that bloom from June to September. Traditional varieties have blue, lavender, or purple blooms, but new ones include bold colors such as orange and red. Native to the plains and prairies of North America, anise hyssop is hardy in USDA Hardiness Zones 4-9. As a perennial, it spreads by rhizomes, and in colder climates it can be grown as a self-seeding annual. It grows easily in soil of average fertility, full sun, and medium to dry moisture conditions. Drought tolerant once established, it’s also deer and rabbit resistant – but very attractive to bees, butterflies, and hummingbirds. You can use cut flowers in fresh and dried arrangements, and the plants make attractive additions to beds and borders, butterfly, herb, and cottage gardens, or in naturalized settings like meadows or wildflower gardens.
AUTUMN JOY STONECROP (HYLOTELEPHIUM ‘HERBSTFREUDE’/SEDUM SPECTABILE ‘AUTUMN JOY’) Blooming from August to October, ‘Autumn Joy’ stonecrop is a clump-forming herbaceous perennial with large, flat heads of tiny, rosy red flowers. Upright stems grow 18 inches to 2 feet tall with succulent, fleshy leaves. Buds first appear pink, change to red as they open, and finally turn a coppery shade as they die. Stonecrop are drought-tolerant natives to Asia, Europe, and North America, hardy in Zones 3-8, and get their name from their habit of growing in stony ledges and rocky outcrops. ‘Autumn Joy’ prefers soil of average to poor fertility, dry to medium moisture, excellent drainage, and full sun. Attractive to bees and butterflies, ‘Autumn Joy’ can be used in the front of beds and borders, grown in alpine or rock gardens, planted en masse, or grown in containers. Left in place, they also add interest to fall and winter gardens.
BALLOON FLOWER (PLATYCODON GRANDIFLORUS) Balloon flower is an eye-catching, clump-forming perennial that gives a cheerful display of color to the late summer garden. Mature clumps grow from 1 to 2.5 feet tall, and young buds swell like balloons before bursting into bell-shaped flowers. Eye-catching in shades of blue, pale pink, and white, they flower from June to August. A native to the slopes and meadows of East Asia, balloon flower is hardy in Zones 3-8 and enjoys a full to partial sun location. Aside from average soil and medium moisture requirements, it’s largely self-sufficient and requires little maintenance. Balloon flower also makes addition to the cutting garden, and it’s deer resistant as well. Use it to best effect in borders, containers, edging, and rockeries.
BEE BALM (MONARDA DIDYMA) Bee balm, or wild bergamot, is a tall, attractive perennial with whorls of tubular flowers that add a bold punch of color to the late summer garden. Fragrant plants grow 2 to 4 feet tall with sassy, mop-top blossoms in colors of burgundy, lavender, pink, red, and white that bloom in July and August. Hardy in Zones 3-9, it’s endemic to moist bottomlands, woods, and streambanks of eastern North America. Bee balm prefers humus-rich, well-draining soil with medium to wet moisture levels in a full to partial sun location. Deer and rabbit resistant, it’s attractive to bees, butterflies, and hummingbirds. Striking when massed in drifts, plant in borders, cottage and rain gardens, and in naturalized plantings.
BLACK-EYED SUSAN (RUDBECKIA HIRTA) Black-eyed Susan is a cheerful wildflower renowned for its showy, daisy-like flowers in shades of orange, red, or sunshine yellow. Floret petals are anchored with a chocolate-brown center disk, and flowers bloom from June to September. Indigenous to central and eastern North America, black-eyed Susans grow best in well-draining or sandy soil enriched with organic compost, medium moisture levels, and a full sun location. Drought resistant once established, they’re hardy in Zones 3-7 and grow from 1 to 3 feet tall. Perfect for the cutting garden, they’re deer resistant, attractive to butterflies, and small songbirds enjoy the seeds in fall. Use their bright color to best effect in beds and borders, cottage or wildflower gardens, large containers, or in mass plantings.
BLUE CARDINAL FLOWER (LOBELIA SIPHILITICA) Blue cardinal flower is a clump-forming, herbaceous perennial with stiff, unbranched stems 2 to 3 feet in height. The stems are topped with terminal racemes of tubular flowers in shades of light to dark blue that bloom from July to September. Native to moist low meadows, woodlands, and stream and spring banks of central and eastern North America, it’s hardy in Zones 4-9. It requires a full sun to part shade site, humus-rich soil, and medium to wet moisture conditions. Deer resistant, blue cardinal flower is well-suited to beds and borders, rain gardens, perennial beds, native and woodland settings, and moist areas, like beside ponds or streams.
CHRYSANTHEMUM (CHRYSANTHEMUM) For reliable late season performance, chrysanthemums are available in a huge selection of colors, forms, and sizes. Blooming from August to November, flowers have ray florets, with numerous cultivars bred for multiple rows of florets in different shapes – from tubular to fringed. Colors are almost unlimited and come in shades of lavender, orange, red, white, and yellow. A native of China, this herbaceous perennial has been cultivated for millennia. It grows best in fertile, humus-rich and well-draining soil, with consistent moisture and full sun exposure. Hardy in Zones 5-9, mums appreciate a winter mulch in colder regions. Chrysanthemums attract butterflies, and are deer and rabbit resistant. They are most effective in mass plantings, at the front of mixed and perennial beds and borders, and in containers or windowboxes.
DAHLIA (DAHLIA) Dahlias are tuberous rooted perennials with a large variety of colors, shapes, and sizes ranging from 1 to 6 feet tall. They flower from July to September. The pinwheel-shaped blossoms are categorized into 10 different groups to distinguish among the many flower types, such as cactus, decorative, pompon, and waterlily. Sizes vary greatly as well, from compact patio cultivars to ones with huge, dinner-plate-sized blooms. Native to Mexico and Central America, dahlias are hardy in Zones 8-11. In colder regions, the tubers need to be dug up in the fall and stored, then planted in the spring and grown as annuals. Dahlias enjoy full sun with some afternoon shade in hot regions. Plant in well-draining, compost-rich soil, with a medium moisture level. Dahlias make an outstanding option for cut arrangements, and are well-suited for beds, borders, containers, and window boxes.
ECHINACEA / CONEFLOWER (ECHINACEA PURPUREA)Echinacea, also called coneflower, is a clump-forming perennial with purple, daisy-like flowers that put on a showy display from June to September. It grows 2 to 5 feet tall and reblooms readily, with blossoms forming on stiff, multi-branched stems clad with broad, dark green leaves. Indigenous to eastern North America, echinacea is hardy in Zones 3-9 and easily grown in well-draining soil of average fertility, dry to medium moisture, and a full to part sun location. However, this plant is wonderfully adaptable and tolerant of harsh conditions, including drought, heat, humidity, and poor soil. Echinacea is a good choice for freshly cut or dried flowers. Deer and rabbit resistant, it’s also attractive to butterflies and other beneficial creepy-crawlies, and migrating songbirds will visit seedheads in fall and winter. It makes an attractive addition in mixed and perennial beds and borders as well as native or naturalized areas, and is stunning when planted in masses with yellow black-eyed Susans.
HELENIUM (HELENIUM AUTUMNALE)If it’s vibrant, warm colors you want, helenium produces masses of daisy-like blooms in rich shades of orange, red, and yellow. Sun lovers, these erect, clump-forming plants that are also known as sneezeweed grow 3 to 4 feet tall, adding terrific interest from August to October. Native to Central and North America, helenium grows best in soil of average fertility amended with organic material, medium to wet moisture, and full sun. Hardy in Zones 3-8, it is intolerant of dry soils. It also benefits from being cut back in late spring to encourage branching and more flowers. Helenium attracts butterflies, and winter birds enjoy the seedheads, but deer avoid it. Use it in mixed and perennial beds and borders, cottage gardens, naturalized areas, and in areas with moist soil.
There are so many great books coming out through the fall, including a number from big-name authors. This month’s selections include a few of those along with books by writers you likely haven’t heard of before. It would be difficult to decide which group is better. Best not to try; just read them all.
“Life of A Klansman: A Family History in White Supremacy,” by Edward Ball (Aug. 4)
Ball’s latest memoir is about his great-great-grandfather Constant Lecorgne, a white French Creole who became a member of the Ku Klux Klan. Ball approached descendants of the African American people who were victims of Lecorgne and his cohort to share their narratives. A powerful, relevant and personal story about how we look at the word “heritage.”
“Luster: A Novel,” by Raven Leilani (Aug. 4)
“You are a desirable woman. You are not a dozen gerbils in a skin casing,” the protagonist of this novel tells herself early in this strange, hilarious, important debut. Edie wants to be a painter, but she’s young, black and depressive, with no clue how to get what she wants. After falling for the much-older Eric, Edie finds herself part of his open marriage and an unwilling role model for his daughter. But what happens when their family flailing inspires her art?
“Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents,” by Isabel Wilkerson (Aug. 4) In “The Warmth of Other Suns,” Wilkerson, a Pulitzer Prize winner, explained how the Great Migration changed our country forever. In “Caste,” Wilkerson shows the distinctions between race, class and caste, the latter a means of ensuring that there is always a “bottom rung” for humans to supposedly rise above. Yet that deep rut has many costs, and not just for those consigned to remain there.
“On Corruption in America: And What Is at Stake,” by Sarah Chayes (Aug. 11)
Chayes, whose “Thieves of State: Why Corruption Threatens Global Security” won the 2016 Los Angeles Times Book Prize, once worked as a special assistant on corruption to the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. She understands the corrosive nature of malfeasance, and she has examples from plenty of presidential administrations to remind us what absolute power does.
“The New Wilderness: A Novel,” by Diane Cook (Aug. 11)
In a near-future America, the only natural area that remains is called the Wilderness State. When the government asks for volunteers to live there without any modern tools or amenities, a family of three agrees despite the rigid rules — no staying in one place longer than seven days, for example — and the rangers who enforce them. More than a version of “Survivor: Woodlands,” this novel asks tough questions about love and sustainability.
“Reaganland: America’s Right Turn 1976-1980,” by Rick Perlstein (Aug. 18)
The author of “Nixonland” and “The Invisible Bridge” returns with the finale of his trilogy about American conservatism. Readers can decide for themselves whether Perlstein deserves to be called “the hypercaffeinated Herodotus of the American century,” as the Nation magazine dubbed him, but there’s no doubt his energetic writing takes his topic to an engaging level.
“Black Bottom Saints: A Novel,” by Alice Randall (Aug. 18)
In Detroit’s celebrated Black Bottom neighborhood, Joseph “Ziggy” Johnson writes about gossip, emcees a night club, runs a theater school and keeps tabs on the city’s elite, including Count Basie and Ethel Waters. As he lies in a hospital dying, he curates a list of “52 Saints” and tells their stories — oh, and he provides cocktail recipes, too.
“Winter Counts: A Novel,” by David Heska Wanbli Weiden (Aug. 25)
The first in a planned series set on the Rosebud Indian Reservation in South Dakota, “Winter Counts” is a first-rate thriller that also delivers first-rate commentary on our nation’s colonial crimes. Virgil Wounded Horse, Rosebud’s local enforcer, needs to stop the flow of heroin into his community, and into his nephew’s veins. That quest will take him on the road, with his ex-girlfriend, to confront terrifying enemies.
“Squeeze Me: A Novel,” by Carl Hiaasen (Aug. 25) Leave it to Hiaasen to lampoon what is going on in Washington with a socialite’s murder in Palm Beach. Kiki Pew, a founding member of the POTUSSIES, women dedicated to the president, disappears from a charity gala and is found in a concrete grave. The president declares she’s been killed by “immigrant hordes,” but wildlife wrangler Angie Armstrong senses something closer to the White House is responsible.
“Vesper Flights: Essays,” by Helen MacDonald (Aug. 25)
If you haven’t read “H Is for Hawk,” MacDonald’s splendid 2015 memoir about raising a goshawk while grieving her father’s death, please put that title on top of your TBR pile, with this one directly beneath it. The essays in “Vesper Flights” prove that the author is a nature writer on par with Annie Dillard, one whose keen observations about everything from migrations to mushrooms intertwine with a compassionate perspective on her fellow humans.