Best Fiction Podcasts | My Top 10 Audio Dramas for 2020
Need podcasts that are immersive, emotionally stimulating and intellectually satisfying?
As 2020 unspools before you, you'll need good stories to inspire and keep you company. Using the term “best” to describe anything, particularly “best fiction podcasts,” is a dangerous proposition. For a fiction podcast to be the “best,” not only does it have to have excellent sound production, acting, and writing, but also it has to meet the taste of a lot of people. As has been said before, you can't please all of the people all of the time. Let's not think of these as the “best fiction” podcasts. Let's think of this as “outstanding, independent fiction podcasts for 2020.”
Why independent podcasts?
It would be simple enough to grab the ten top-ranked podcasts from Apple, Spotify and Podchaser, and consider this article done. This is problematic, for many reasons. Most of those podcasts are the product of studios with full-time professional staff, not only to produce, but also to promote them. It's much harder for a podcast to be unique, excellent, and discoverable, when the creator is working alone, and probably has a day job and takes care of their family to boot. It requires more innovation in terms of time, effort, and resources.
I listen to a lot of podcasts, both fiction and nonfiction. It's easy to get jaded. The ones I mention here are high enough in quality to make me forget my surroundings, invest emotionally, and want more when they were over. Distinguished gentlefolk, I bring you the “best” fiction podcasts to sustain and lift you in 2020.
In Caravan, a young, queer, Desi-American guy stumbles into a canyon, and finds himself on the adventure of a lifetime. Creator Tau Zaman (Ars Paradoxica) weaves a world of cowboys, demons, sexytimes and self-acceptance. Produced by The Whisperforge (The Far Meridian, Ars Paradoxica) with a multi-layered soundscape by Mischa Stanton (LeVar Burton Reads, Marvels) and infectious voice acting, this “Weird-West adventure about going through hell with the people you love” will have you on the edge of your seat and all warm and fuzzy inside.
Dashing Onions‘ style perfectly exemplifies Theatre of The Absurd. Creator Fiona Thraille's “podcast miniseries and one-off absurd, creepy dramas with elements of the supernatural, myth, and comedy” not only thrill and amuse, but also make you question contemporary life as we know it. The mini-series “When We Were Two” leads with a sci-fi fear of cloning. The deeper textual layers, about identity, loneliness, class issues, and poverty vs. hope, are necessary storytelling for 2019's political worries.
Feeling anxious about the climate crisis and culture clashes? Jarnsaxa wanted to watch the world burn, but in season 2, she changes tactics. This limited-run revenge tragedy shows Norse mythology dropped into a dystopian future of corporate crime. Energy resource wars, fighting Nazis, Thor and Loki are just some of the elements to expect in this adventure.
Early in Moonface, protagonist Paul mentions that he studied “sound art” in college. It's clear from the multifaceted, immersive soundscape that not only does Moonface's creator, James Kim, truly love audio, but that Paul holds onto sound like a magic lodestone to make sense of a troubling world. The coming out and coming of age story is a staple of late 20th and early 21st century art in general. Adding the layers of culture and ethnicity enrich and personalize these tales. Kim elevates the theme with sound design that stirs the listener's emotions in the way Paul's are pushed. Paul's mother is a bird trapped in a cage of language, struggling to connect meaningfully with her son. The Korean-English dialogue dance they share will light up your synapses. James Kim is doing the world a service with this poignant and intricately woven audio tapestry.
If When We Were Two provides a hard look at contemporary Britain, Outliers gives us a softer, though no less nuanced, view. Rusty Quill's (Magnus Archives) series of monologues from characters just outside the spotlight of history immerses us in intimate moments. Historic locations aren't cold dusty rooms, they're environments where secrets are shared, mischief is wrought and excitement is incited. The series includes interviews with each monologue's author, illuminating their creative process as well as history.
Looking at the future through the lens of the past has long been an entertainment staple: think steampunk, Bioshock, Blade Runner. In Quid Pro Euro‘s series of audio captured from found videotapes from 1998, we find a rosy view of a 21st-century European Union, intended for government employees. The aged quality of the sound gives the experience a dreamlike quality, as if seeing a colorful utopia's landscape, warped and stained with acid rain. This dream (or acid trip) is the brainchild of Felix Trench (Wooden Overcoats) and Zachary Fortais-Gomm (The Orphans), as unearthly and yet relevant to a real environment as What's The Frequency is to Los Angeles.
The study in contrasts in A Scottish Podcast never fails to surprise and amuse me. In Season 2, Lee and Dougie went way down a rabbit hole of conspiracy horror. Then, they came up for air with a season finale of heartbreaking minimalism. If you enjoy multi-layered sound, horror and complex, gritty characters, this one's for you. The bonus holiday episode is a bracing sip of bitter to contrast Yuletide sweetness.
If you like workplace situation comedies like Parks & Recreation and The Office, hold onto your headphones. Gavin Gaddis brings you a love letter to the art form… IN SPACE! Standard Docking Procedure will remind you of everything you love about sitcoms, with voice acting that satisfies. In particular, Graham Rowat (Red Dead Redemption, Meteor Shower) provides a standout star turn as the growling level boss you can't get enough of.
Tin Can Audio (Middle: Below)'s latest audio drama miniseries is deceptively simple. A woman decides to climb a tower. Her phone calls from various stops are for her what footholds are for rock-climbers. On her travels, she unravels a mystery. The Tower‘s story moves like a watercolor painting, understanding spreading through its details like color across water. It makes the most of multilayered sound productions and only a very few characters. Its silences speak volumes.
The first time that I listened to Unwell, I went back and re-listened to the last seven minutes of the second episode three times. The multi-layered sound design by Eli McIlveen (Alba Salix), multifaceted characters, complex script and distinct voices make a petty family argument, and subsequent silent-treatment tension, as rich as a symphony. HartLife NFP (Our Fair City) weaves a Midwestern Gothic tale of a family at odds with each other, a small town whose main claim to fame is celery soda, and ghosts both literal and emotional. You won't be able to stop humming the celery soda jingle, or wondering what's beneath the layers of this story.
Best Fiction Podcasts – Honorable Mention:
Some parts of series pushed the boundaries of what's good in acting, sound design, and story crafting. Wooden Overcoats produced mini-episodes to promote their Final Season's Kickstarter campaign. The beauty is in the brevity, in these highly concentrated doses of Funn. Victoriocity‘s Season 2 lifted listeners to an aerial circus. Quirky Voices Presents celebrated the 50th anniversary of the moon landing with The Moonologue Sessions.
There's a common thread running through these “best fiction podcasts” that shows us a lot about not only 2019 and 2020, but also the human condition. We're all struggling to find our place in this world. We're all feeling the hurt of divided cultures. We're keeping secrets, while uncovering others. The reality is that while culture is dominated by superhero stories, many folks are taking time to listen to what others are actually feeling.
What Did We Miss?
Are we missing your favorite audio dramas(s)? Let us know what you love and why in the comments below, or mention us in your #AudioDramaSunday recommended listens on Twitter.
And if you'd like to check out The Podcast Host's own effort in the world of audio drama, have a listen to Hostile Worlds. It's a space exploration series that combines fiction with science documentary elements!
The Fiction Podcast Weekly
Fiction Podcast Weekly is an email newsletter, bringing you the latest from the world of audio fiction, audio drama, and sound storytelling.
Are you involved in the medium in any way? Whether that's as a writer, producer, voice actor, curator, or even just a hardcore listener who loves the ‘behind the scenes' stuff. Whoever you are, whatever you do, this is a great way of staying up-to-date with the latest happenings and opportunities in the fiction podcasting realm!