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'Floodlines,' The Story Of Hurricane Katrina, Tops The List Of 2020's Best Podcasts

TERRY GROSS, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. As cinemas closed and TV productions took a pause because of the pandemic, it seems that a lot of people turned to podcasts in 2020. We asked podcast critic Nick Quah to tell us about the podcasts he thinks were the best of the year.

NICK QUAH: In a year filled with struggle and heartbreak, I place a premium on podcasts that help me maintain a relationship with positive human feelings - to remember joy, community and what it feels like to be in the presence of beauty. One of the best podcasts this year, "Lost Notes: 1980," also happens to be the most consistently gorgeous. "Lost Notes" is an anthology series dedicated to forgotten stories from the music business. As the subtitle indicates, this past season, the show's third, draws all its stories from the year 1980. And it was entirely curated and hosted by Hanif Abdurraqib, an essayist, cultural critic and poet.

Poets do well in podcasting, as they do in radio, their intimacy with the economy of language contributing to their ability to conjure vivid imagery with just a few simple words. Consider the following clip from an episode about the South African musicians and activists Miriam Makeba and Hugh Masekela's 1980 concert in Lesotho.

(SOUNDBITE OF PODCAST, "LOST NOTES: 1980")

HANIF ABDURRAQIB: Lesotho ran out of food, drink and hotel space. People parked cars at the border and sat atop them, hoping to catch some sounds echoing out from the stadium. During the weekend, there were people who slept unbothered on the sidewalks, who crammed themselves into the doorways of stores. There were emergency supplies sent in from nearby South African towns. The weekend itself was a celebration.

QUAH: Other stories in the season touch on John Lennon, Darby Crash, Minnie Riperton and Stevie Wonder. And throughout, Abdurraqib consistently returns to grand, old questions about art, artists and the human experience. How are we remembered? And what does it mean to be remembered?

"Reply All" has long been a staple in my pocket's rotation. And mere weeks before the lockdowns, the show released an episode that became a genuine phenomenon. "The Case Of The Missing Hit" centers on a relatively inconsequential mystery. A man has a pop song stuck in his head that he swears is real but can't seem to find any trace of its existence. "Reply All" excels in capturing the fun and quiet horror of modern technological life, usually at the same time. "The Case Of The Missing Hit" is no different. Things start out as a wild romp, but as is often the case with "Reply All," nothing is ever what it seems. Eventually, the quest leads co-host PJ Vogt down a rabbit hole to strange, uncanny places.

(SOUNDBITE OF PODCAST, "REPLY ALL")

PJ VOGT: (Singing, unintelligible).

I have an obsessive brain. I'm used to obsessing over things. This was uniquely bad. It was just a melody - a melody and this question, which was starting to feel, frankly, infuriating. How on God's green Earth can you have a hit radio song that actually just gets vaporized from history?

QUAH: Fun, frivolous and full of life, "The Case Of The Missing Hit" evokes the fizzy innocence of early 2000s pop music, nowadays thought to be among the more disposable eras of pop music history. But listening back to the episode in the last days of 2020 also carries further weight. It feels like an innocent postcard from a whole other universe.

Similarly fun, though laced with significantly more acid, is "My Year In Mensa" from the writer-comedian Jamie Loftus. In this tightly constructed gonzo series, Loftus walks listeners through her experience getting into Mensa, the so-called high-IQ society. She applies for membership mostly as a joke. But when she unexpectedly gains entry, Loftus proceeds to move through the community with a skeptical eye. What she finds is unsettling - a community that's toxic, built on a premise that should be questioned.

(SOUNDBITE OF PODCAST, "MY YEAR IN MENSA")

JAMIE LOFTUS: It definitely did start as a dumb joke on my part, but people unfortunately contain multitudes - awful. And so what I'm going to do is take you through the story via my experiences and then go back in time to trace the history of these organizations and ultimately figure out what the [expletive] point of any of it was in the first place.

QUAH: There's a lot to admire about "The Year In Mensa" (ph). It's basically a long monologue punctuated by barebone sound effects, and it showcases Loftus's gift as a writer-comedian and also as a shrewd observer of human behavior. But what's ultimately lasting about the series is how it critiques the human thirst for hierarchies, the notion of high-IQ societies and the damage that comes when certain groups endeavor to hold themselves superior to others.

Finally, let's talk about the best podcast of the year. Under the apocalyptic conditions of 2020, I found it hard to stick with shows that dealt in heavy subjects and themes. The one standout exception, though, was "Floodlines," which was, by far, the best thing I heard all year and the podcast I returned to the most. Produced by The Atlantic and hosted by Vann Newkirk II, the series revisits the legacy of Hurricane Katrina 15 years later. And much of what Newkirk finds are realities, ideas and dynamics that are equally applicable to our current circumstances.

The immense failure of the federal response to Katrina feels uncannily like a road map for the response to the pandemic, which has now claimed hundreds of thousands of lives. Part of what makes "Floodlines" so effective and so eminently re-listenable is the fact that it's so well made. It's fantastically written, tightly composed and it sounds like a million bucks. The sound design by David Herman and music by Christian Scott aTunde Adjuah does a whole lot to elevate what could be a straightforward documentary into a vivid, evocative experience.

(SOUNDBITE OF PODCAST, "FLOODLINES")

VANN NEWKIRK II: The rain picked up late Sunday and never stopped. And in those high-rise buildings in downtown New Orleans, the winds started getting dangerous.

GARLAND ROBINETTE: The wind started hitting, and it started howling a little bit.

NEWKIRK: That giant window behind Garland started rattling.

ROBINETTE: It sounded like whoop, whoop, whoop, pop - just exploded.

QUAH: In many ways, Katrina is a disaster that never ended. And it's very likely that the pandemic we now live in will be endless in much the same way. In his reporting, Newkirk gives us the space to process the next logical series of questions - what does healing, repair and accountability look like in the wake of all this? Even based on that inquiry alone, "Floodlines" is the best podcast of the year.

GROSS: Nick Quah is podcast critic for New York Magazine and Vulture. He's the host of the podcast "Servant Of Pod" from LAist Studios, and he writes the "Hot Pod" newsletter. After we take a short break, we'll talk about how COVID changed the movie world this year with our film critic Justin Chang, who will also have his 10-best list. This is FRESH AIR. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.