For those of us for whom the holidays mean one thing—gathering our immediate family members and corralling them into a vehicle pointed back to the old familiar homestead—what comes out of the speakers of that vehicle can be very, very important. The radio, if you’ve listened recently, seems to play only the same 10 songs over and over again, and chances are they are by the same seven people, and chances are that whoever you are driving with will, at one point, punch at the dial in frustration, and you may feel like punching them, because you were finally—finally!—going to match Ariana Grande’s high C. These are desperate times, these wintry days of warm family get-togethers and carefully obscure conversations about what’s going on in the world, and who is happy at their job, and who is getting married and having kids, or not getting married and having kids, or neither, and why are you always talking about kids?! And ideally, you’ll all arrive and then return in one piece, with a slight hangover from all that family cheer, and too many presents, and at the very least a resounding food coma.
So for your holiday travel, whether it’s by car, train, or plane (and if the latter two, please wear earbuds, for Pete’s sake), let us recommend that in lieu of a Top 20 countdown, the deeply depressing reality check that is the news, or Howard Stern’s particular brand of perv-tastic celebrity interrogation, this time around you listen to a podcast. They pack none of the subconsciously mood-altering sway of music, you don’t have to talk, and you come away feeling extremely clever, occasionally even optimistic, and definitely full of lots of good ideas for small talk for the holiday parties ahead.
Without further ado: the 15 best podcasts for your travels this week, from the intentionally lighthearted to the entirely educational—because we could all use a bit of both, from time to time.
When You Really Don’t Want to Hear About Trump, But You Don’t Mind Thinking About Politics in the Larger Sense: Slow Burn, Season 2
The excellent first season of Leon Neyfakh’s podcast for Slate focused on the Watergate scandal; the second surpasses its predecessor and finds its focus in the saga surrounding President Bill Clinton’s impeachment in the 1990s. It’s a good reminder that it’s not just 2016-on—politics have always been pretty nuts.
For the Person Who Secretly Kind of Loves Bad Movies (But Still Thinks They Have Better Taste in Movies Than Their Friends): How Did This Get Made?
“Have you ever seen a movie so bad that it’s amazing?” That’s the tagline for HDTGM, which is basically like listening in as a handful of hilarious people—that’d be comedians Paul Scheer, June Diane Raphael, and Jason Mantzoukas, along with their funniest friends—rip apart ridiculous movies from recent history.
For a Guilty Pleasure: Dirty John
Los Angeles Times–Wondery collaboration Dirty John tells the story of Debra, a normal, happy woman who goes on a date with a handsome, wealthy doctor named John, who ends up wreaking havoc on her life. It’s an epic story involving several generations of two families, with an incredibly juicy ending. For a podcast, you’ll be as hooked as if you were watching the new American Crime Story or a documentary as crazy as The Jinx. And even better, you’ll be priming yourself for the TV series, starring Connie Britton and Eric Bana.
When You Want to Laugh: Who? Weekly
Ever looked at the topics trending on Twitter or opened a tabloid only to think: Who even are these people? Then Who? Weekly is for you! Bobby Finger and Lindsey Weber are the best kind of hosts—chummy, clever, and in on the joke—and this is the epitome of easy, fun listening. Extra points if you could pick Bella Thorne out of a lineup, though it’s certainly not required. (You probably should have listened to this before you tried to talk to your 10-year-old niece.)
Okay, but What About for Actual Celebrities? The Read
Bloggers, friends, and recent New York transplants Kid Fury and Crissle give a weekly “read” of hip-hop and pop culture’s “most trying stars.” You don’t want to miss it.
To Prep You for the Inevitable Current Events Discussion at the Dinner Table: The Daily
The Daily is Michael Barbaro’s morning podcast at The New York Times, and each short episode serves as a mini deep dive into the topics of the day, from Donald Trump’s latest antics to the reality of the “migrant caravan.” Barbaro has a soft-spoken delivery (it’s a morning show, after all!) so it’ll be great practice for some of your not-so-soothing dinner guests or relatives at Thanksgiving dinner. Brush up on the events of the last week, so you can win debates and sound like you actually know what you’re talking about.
If You Love Prestige Dramas on TV: Homecoming
Homecoming is a psychological thriller so good that Mr. Robot creator Sam Esmail made it into a binge-worthy TV series starring Julia Roberts. Get ahead of the curve by going back to where it all began: the podcast’s excellent storytelling, and even better cast (Catherine Keener is a caseworker at a mysterious government facility assigned to treat a soldier, Oscar Isaac, with a menacing David Schwimmer as her boss).
When You’d Really Rather Be Watching Sex and the City: Origins With James Andrew Miller: Sex and the City
Miller’s latest deep-dive podcast chapter explores the beloved HBO series (is there ever enough SATC?) in an oral history–style set of three episodes. SJP, Cynthia Nixon, Candace Bushnell, Chris Noth, and Kristin Davis all make an appearance—so, everyone except you-know-who. Which makes sense: The last episode delves into the drama-filled and doomed third Sex and the City film, in which Kim Cattrall and Parker supposedly went head-to-head. Get Parker’s take in the third and final episode, but don’t skip on the rest!
If You Love True Crime: S-Town
The next iteration of Serial, S-town is a sad, bizarre, beautiful, and very binge-able story about an Alabama man named John B. McLemore, who approached a team of journalists to investigate an alleged crime and widespread corruption in his town. What they got instead was a harrowing Southern Gothic, with a very complex story about a man that seems almost too cinematic to be real. Listen from beginning to end, and bring tissues.
When You Want to Pretend You’re With Your Friends: 2 Dope Queens
Phoebe Robinson and Jessica Williams (the two dope queens in question) use their podcast as a way to share the love with up-and-coming comedy talent, often recorded at live shows at different venues. With topics ranging from sex, romance, race, and hair, to living in New York and being obsessed with Bono, if there’s an easier way to spend an hour, I don’t know it.
When You Want to Learn Something: Hidden Brain
Shankar Vedantam’s podcast for NPR aims to “help curious people understand the world—and themselves,” which translates into topics as far-ranging as narcissism, facial blindness, the secret lives of billionaires, and how the “broken windows” theory led to the stop-and-frisk campaign, against the wishes of its creator. Plus, Vedantam has an incredibly engaging voice that’s also very easy to listen to, which counts for a lot on a long car ride.
To Get Ready for Everyone Asking About Your Love Life: Why Oh Why
For single people, Thanksgiving can be a nightmare of prying questions and not-so-subtle scolding looks. Get ready to face the onslaught with Why Oh Why from Andrea Silenzi, who takes on the modern dating world in hilarious and thoughtful ways. Ghosting, swiping, end-of-the-world sex: Everything is covered. You can maybe even direct some of your more critical relatives to the podcast in lieu of answering them about your own dating life.
When You’re Looking Forward to Nipping That Football Conversation Right in the Bud: Gladiator
The Boston Globe’s Spotlight team (famous for its investigation of the sexual abuse scandal inside the Catholic Church) takes on the crisis facing the NFL. The podcast focuses on the violent, turbulent life of Aaron Hernandez, the former New England Patriots star who committed suicide in April 2017 while in prison serving a life sentence for murder. Gladiator looks at the varying factors that could have contributed to his downfall, from the role that brain damage brought on by the sport could have had on his behavior, to the possible secrets he kept about his sexuality amidst the ultramasculine culture of professional sports, to the elite coaches and teams who looked the other way as Hernandez began to spiral out of control. It’ll put Thursday’s big game in an entirely different perspective.
When You’re in the Car With Your Significant Other Who Doesn’t Like Podcasts: Radiolab
People who listen to Radiolab really love Radiolab. The Peabody Award–winning series is a delight. Start with “Falling,” an episode which manages to touch on love, Niagara Falls, and the science of cats surviving after jumping out of windows, and also has both Brian Greene and Neil deGrasse Tyson as guests. From there, try “The Good Show,” and “Sleep.” And from there, the whole world is your oyster.
Already Listened to Radiolab, and Loved It? Try More Perfect
This Radiolab-produced miniseries focuses solely on the history of the Supreme Court. Sounds snoozy, but is in actuality fascinating—and more and more important to know about. Plus, with two seasons, you can binge on the way there and back.