Friday, December 28, 2018

Top 10 Audio Dramas of 2018

2018 was a great year for audio drama! We saw the conclusion of some really great shows, the creation of many more, and a wire array of ingenuity in the way that new stories are being told. It was very difficult narrowing this list down to just 10 shows, but hopefully this helps you find something new to listen to that you'll enjoy.

Before we begin, I'd like to add a disclaimer that shows like Creepy and The NoSleep Podcast, which are not always in an audio drama format, were not included on this list. Both are wonderful podcasts that I highly recommend if you enjoy horror. They are two of my favorite podcasts, and ones I listen to with more regularity than any other. Similarly, shows like The Lucky DieThe Adventure Zone, and Dumbgeons and Dragons, which are Actual Play podcasts were not included as people looking for audio drama would similarly find themselves confused while listening to (really well produced) Dungeons and Dragons games being played.

This list also omits improvised audio dramas (Mission to Zyxx, Hello From the Magic Tavern) and audio dramas that originated as roleplaying games (re-voicing NPC's with voice actors, adding intense sound effects, full music scores, etc) such as End of Time and Other Bothers, Dark Dice, and Liberty: Vigilance. Again, these are also great shows, but they can be a turn off for people looking for 'pure' audio dramas, despite being some of the best works of 2018 in terms of sound design over a very large volume of content. Finally, I ranked shows based on the content that released in 2018. I very much would have liked to have included other shows like one of my all time favorites -  A Scottish Podcast but they've only just begun their second season at the time of writing, and also We're Alive but we're still patiently waiting for the new season to start up. But seriously though, do yourself a favor and consider checking those shows out as well. We're Alive has the best production out of any show I've heard, and it's sustained over 40+ episodes of continuous story.
So, without further delay...

The White Vault Follow the collected records of a repair team sent to Outpost Fristed in the vast white wastes of the Arctic and unravel what lies waiting in the ice below.

Where season 1 of this story was the proverbial Act 1 of this horror story, season 2 picks up right from the high-intensity cliffhanger. The White Vault features a great international cast, top tier sound design, and a very intelligently written story that channels a mix of Lovecraft and M.R. James, with vibes from Carpenter's The Thing. It's really easy to close your eyes and be transported to the arctic with this show, and the horrors repeatedly invoke a sense of fear without resorting to jump scares. As I am involved in this production I felt it was unfair to give it a number within my top 10 list, but none-the-less felt it should be on the list.

10. The Walk - A thriller in which you, the listener, are the hero. The Walk begins in Scotland, and through a case of mistaken identity, you are given a vital package that must be couriered to Edinburgh.

You are the main character in this spy-thriller adventure, delivering a mysterious package to Edinburgh, all the while avoiding terrorists, explosions, and bullets. I've never seen this gimmick (making the listener the main character) pulled off nearly as well and for as long as The Walk. The acting is generally upstanding and it allows you to guess who you can trust, who might be a double (or even triple) agent, and who might be working for the terrorists. While the story meanders some toward the middle of the season, its best moments are interspersed throughout, and the series finishes strong. My favorite episodes are 'Seeing Things', 'Jumping at Shadows', 'Wolves', and the opening episode. For sound design, the show also starts off strong but oddly enough declines in quality as the series continues, suffering from a few low points toward the middle and end of the story, specifically as it pertains to how it communicates the action segments. This is also partly an issue with writing, but generally speaking, the dialogue is strong, regardless of your opinions on the overall plot. Even with these comments it remains one of my favorite shows of 2018 with it's unique charm and characters you can really love (and love to hate). The Walk will always stand out as a show that was different, bold, and quirky.

9. 2298 Years after an invasion nearly destroys Earth, a new society has coalesced around the only thing left: the internet. The Network makes sure Profiles eat right & stay focused but no. 24, thanks to the sudden appearance of a mysterious bird, is finding that difficult.

While I did not initially think much of the semi-abstract, single-voiced  7 minute episodes that were released on a weekly(!) basis, a larger picture slowly began to connect the dots that comprise this story, and it's the show in 2018 that had the biggest rewards for a careful listener. Right from the first episode, 2298 starts off with quality sound design and voice acting, and these elements are maintained all the way through the nail-biting intensity of the final episodes. This podcast contains a great story, partly hidden within mysteries that I personally feel I would have had a better grasp on if I'd been able to hear the entire show in a single sitting... Speaking of which: Listen to the super cut titled 'All Entries' as you can now enjoy the entire story in a single sitting, ad free. 2298 does so many things right that I can't explain in detail for fear of ruining the story elements I enjoyed. Finally, it's worth noting is that the brief nature of this podcast (just under 2 hours for the entire series) also makes it an easy commitment.

8. Girl in Space - The podcast about a girl in space, doing science stuff while her space ship slowly degrades around her. Then everything changes...

I was initially skeptical and even a bit underwhelmed by the first few episodes of Girl in Space. It suffered from some of the shortcomings of a new audio drama creator, with minimal sound design and a likable lead but secondary characters that were stiff. However, like its protagonist, Girl in Space has grown with each episode, the sound design getting more technical, the actors greatly improving, and the story going in directions I could have never predicted. Its sound design might not be as intense as shows like The Walk but the execution of the sounds it includes are functional, clear, and help to tell the story. Basically this is the purpose of sound design in a nutshell. The lead is a strong actress, and the story is solid. By the start of 2018 I found myself eagerly looking forward to its introduction theme as new episodes popped onto my feed. You might feel the same way, so don't judge this podcast by its first few episodes. Also, this is one of the only kid-friendly shows on my list.

7. The Big Loop - Distinct stories highlighting the strange, wonderful, and often harrowing experiences of those living on the outer edges of the known world. 

As an anthology series, The Big Loop will give you a different experience with each episode, telling a unique story with at least one twist. While not every story is a masterpiece, the majority will keep you on the edge of your seat, achieving the NPR trademark experience where you don't want to leave your car or stop listening until the story concludes. I personally enjoyed the vast majority of what's been released, my favorite story being 'Goodbye Mr. Adams' in season 1. The biggest detractor on the Big Loop, at least in the initial episodes, is the audio quality, especially during FML (which is an otherwise great storytelling experience). Initially I thought that this was because all of the stories were nonfiction (the acting and stories are that good), but I've since learned that it had more to do with the learning curve of being a new production. It's worth mentioning that the sound quality continues to improve and that the show makes uses of little-to-no sound design beyond (very good) music, so it's more an issue of recording technique as opposed to poor sound design that damages the story.  The Big Loop plays to its strengths well and regularly achieves a level of enthralling storytelling without the need for a large cast or sound effects. It tells stories that feel so real and that is why it's frequently discussed as a great bridge between fiction and non-fiction podcasting, and a wonderful entry point for listeners who are new to audio drama.

6. The Phenomenon - When a supernatural threat drives mankind to the point of extinction, survivors around the globe struggle to endure in a world with just three rules: Do not look outside. Do not look at the sky. Do not make noise. 

The Phenomenon will fill you with nervous tension and clutch the darkest parts of your imagination in its first episode. Where many stories lose their luster after the mystique of the initial shock value subsides, the team behind this story do a fantastic job of keeping each new episode as entertaining as the previous one. Based on a book, the core plot itself has a very powerful progression and execution, the dialogue and shifting perspectives are phenomenally pulled off (serious kudos for having such a large and talented international cast!), and the sound design is easily some of the best out there. Where many horror podcasts this year have been criticized for overstaying their welcome and either perpetuating a story for too long or shifting gears in an extreme way, the Phenomenon continues to evolve and tell a very coherent story at the same time without feeling convoluted. It's very easy to get pulled into this podcast, and once you're there you won't want to leave until you've heard the end of season 3... Which they're working on for 2019.

5. The Amelia ProjectThe Amelia Project offers a very special service: Faking its clients' deaths! Its eccentric clientele includes cult leaders, politicians, and porn stars, all desperate to disappear and start over... For how long can the secrecy last?

A new production from a new team stole my heart and instantly became one of my favorite shows. It's very hard not to love the comical dialogue, the cast, the outrageous schemes, and the endless hot chocolate that seems to froth from each episode. This show does something peculiar, in that it never actually showcases the insane plans, heists, or events that the show is about, yet it remains just as entertaining. It instead focuses on the intake interviews for new clients of The Amelia Project. From their iconic (and very catchy) introduction theme and the audio design found in their crossover episode (don't miss it!) it's very clear that the team behind the show can pull off audio action sequences but simply chose not to, as the format of the show doesn't require it to effectively tell the story. That is all part of the magic that is The Amelia Project.

4. EOS 10 - The stories of two maladjusted doctors and their medical team aboard an intergalactic travel hub on the edges of deep space; along with a deposed prince who's claimed the foodcourt kitchen as his new throne. 

EOS 10 is a podcast that is one part comedy, one part drama. It went on a three year hiatus in 2015, and it was a total surprise when they announced a new season for 2018! The season opens by poking fun at itself for being absent for so long and then picks up where the action left off - with witty writing, strong acting, and generally good sound design. EOS 10 starts off as a carefree comedy that gradually delves into deeper issues, making you have feelings about the characters and what's happening. It also has a greater overall story arc that beautifully ties the adventures together. EOS 10 has very sharp writing, and I only recently realized that one of my favorite characters on the show (Dr. Asalong) never actually appears on the show, yet he somehow is a completely developed character who strikes me as part of the main cast and whose sense of humor I enjoy. It's moments like these that will leave you with a smile long after you've finished an episode or season... and thankfully they appear to already be working on Season 4.

3. MarsfallAssisted by the artificial intelligence unit ANDI, a team of colonists strive to make a home on the Red Planet while exploring its deeper mysteries in the year 2047. 

Another new show from a new team - Marsfall starts with a bang and keeps tensions high as the story progresses, as a team of colonists struggle to make Mars habitable. Marsfall has some of the best sound design in any podcast I've heard (even in its first episode), and they are one of the few shows that uses music throughout the show that I'm not bothered by. Also, it's a great soundtrack! Marsfall balances light humor with some very bleak situations and, in addition to an enjoyable plot, has very natural dialogue. You will not hear instance of "Hey, Jim, Pass me the blue space-wrench so I can continue to fix this object I'm hitting with a shovel" and you will still be able to understand everything that's taking place. It helps that Marsfall has a great cast and crew bringing all of these components together. Marsfall does what I wish more shows would do. It makes us feel like we are truly somewhere else. For maximum effect, listen to Marsfall with a headset when you're not operating a motor vehicle!

2. Alba Salix, Royal Physician - In a fantasy realm, the Royal Physician (aka the public healthcare of the realm) has her work cut out for her with an endless lineup of patients, magical illnesses, and problems caused by her assistants: an aspiring surgeon and an accident‐prone fairy.

After almost four years Alba Salix, the royal physician, has returned with a fantastic second season! This endlessly creative high-fantasy comedy is a joy to listen to, and it's one of the only shows I can think of that is regularly recommended for children (Think PG / PG-13). Alba Salix is the marriage of great storytelling, witty dialogue, and quality sound design. The story captures the spark of childish imagination mixed with adult practicality (do centaurs have spinal coverage under the healthcare plan?) while the cast do a great job of making each character culturally and tonally distinct. It is very clear that a lot of love went into the creation of each episode and the universe itself is also now expanded further through the creative team's other shows: The Axe and Crown and End of the Time and Other Bothers.

1. Wooden OvercoatsRudyard Funn and his equally miserable sister Antigone run a funeral home on the Island of Piffling. It used to be the only one. It isn't anymore...

Who knew that death could be the start of something so fun? Wooden Overcoats is the best English comedy in audio drama. Top notch acting, functional sound design, great music, razor sharp dialogue, witty writing, laugh out loud jokes in every episode, and something very magical hidden within (no, it's not Antigone's special scented embalming fluid... but that's nice too!). It has true character depth. Somewhere mid-way through the first season I found that I truly connected with the characters and their plights. In season two this came up again as they were placed in a potentially dangerous situation and my mood for the entire day drastically changed (it ended on a cliffhanger). Then somewhere in Season 3 something magical happened... The show made me actually cry. I'm not alone in this, and those who have found themselves enjoying Wooden Overcoats will attest that it contends with network television and corporate-backed podcast in every regard. This show will make you laugh and cry, and puts the FUN in Funeral.

Don't know how to download a podcast? Go to the 'App Store' on your phone and download 'Himalaya' for free. It's a great podcast app you can use to 'Search' for these shows. Be sure to 'Subscribe' to them too, so you can get all the latest episodes as they're released!

Didn't see a show you love on this list? Make your own list! 

1 comment:

  1. This list of recommendation is refreshing. Thank you so much.