In the ever-expanding world of podcasts, there are countless options to entertain and inform us. To help narrow down those choices, we have curated a list of the best podcasts in 2021. From thought-provoking documentaries to hilarious comedy shows, there is something for every taste. Whether you're a true crime enthusiast, a music lover, or someone interested in exploring the depths of human emotion, these podcasts will captivate and engage you. So grab your headphones and get ready to dive into a world of audio storytelling like never before.
Criticism Is ObsoleteMuch of the recent analysis of popular culture either becomes unashamedly devoted to fandom or falls into reflexive skepticism. Pelin Ksekin-Liu and Jenny G. Zhang, the hosts of the show, take a more nuanced approach. In each episode, they ponder over seemingly unrelated TV shows, movies, or music they've consumed and uncover unexpected connections between what's currently popular. The Green Knight and The White Lotus, two standout summer releases, may seem worlds apart (Arthurian legend and a ritzy Hawaiian resort, respectively), but Ksekin-Liu and Zhang argue that both works grapple with the anxieties that arise when we step out of our comfort zones. By contextualizing what they and we are watching and listening to within the broader cultural landscape, the hosts identify trends and eloquently frame their critiques through thoughtful conversations. And if you're seeking recommendations, rest assured they have excellent taste.
The SporkfulIf you happen to have a fondness for pasta—and let's face it, who doesn't adore pasta?!—I have an indulgence for you. Frustrated with the current array of pasta shapes available, Dan Pashman, the host of the long-standing and James Beard Award-winning podcast The Sporkful, embarked on a mission to create an innovative pasta shape. The suspenseful and absolutely delightful journey is documented in a mini-series aptly named "Mission Impasta-ble." Pashman meticulously designed the perfect shape, taking into account how well it embraces sauce (sauceability), how effortlessly it can be picked up and retained on a fork (forkability), and how satisfying it feels to sink your teeth into it (toothsinkability). Unsurprisingly, finding a shape that excels in all three categories proved to be an engineering challenge. Pashman even sought the assistance of renowned figures in the culinary world such as Samin Nosrat, Sohla El-Waylly, and Kenji Lopez-Alt to participate in taste tests. This pasta shape even managed to earn a spot on TIME's Best Inventions of 2021 list.
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Straightio LabComedians George Civeris and Sam Taggart invite a guest onto their podcast every week to explore a "fundamental aspect" of straight culture, such as "tabletop roleplaying games," "trust issues," or even "ketchup." These discussions often lead to amusing conjectures about which condiments can be categorized as straight, gay, or bisexual. The premise of the show may be loose, but their jokes, which push the boundaries of absurdity, never fail to induce laughter. One particularly memorable episode features a conversation with Ziwe Fumidoh on the topic of cryptocurrency. She shares her ex-partner's unsuccessful attempts to get her interested in it, rightfully labeling it as extremely hetero male. The conversation takes delightfully bonkers turns in the best way possible.
SpectacleMariah Smith, a columnist for The Cut, passionately argues that reality TV, which is often dismissed as mere trash, is deserving of scholarly examination. This notion shouldn't be radical, especially considering that the president of this country was most renowned for his reality television series. However, reality TV has yet to receive the same level of respect as conventionally scripted television. One episode delves into how an HIV-positive Real World star reshaped the dialogue surrounding the AIDS crisis. Another episode explores how controversial seasons of Survivor, which divided tribes based on ethnicity and income, reflected the deep political divides in America that would only grow wider in the following years. Placed within a historical context, it becomes evident how the seemingly juicy tidbits from these shows actually mirror or even fuel cultural transformations.
POOGComedians and hosts Kate Berlant and Jacqueline Novak are well aware that the notion of achieving one's "best self" is nothing more than a myth. Every diet fad or beauty product that promises to bring us closer to that ideal is nothing but a mirage. Nonetheless, Berlant and Novak immerse themselves so wholeheartedly in the realm of wellness trends that it's often difficult to discern whether they are joking or genuinely pledging allegiance to something as peculiar as face yoga (Hint: it's a bit of both). Our relationship with the multibillion-dollar wellness industry is complex: advertisements for wellness products and the aphorisms propagated by celebrity endorsers aim to elevate us, even as their purveyors profit from our self-doubt. This show captures this complexity by simultaneously parodying companies like goop and revering them, walking that fine line.
The Just Enough FamilyFans of Succession will find themselves enthralled by this captivating series that delves into the ascent and downfall of the Steinberg family, a prominent fixture in New York's upper echelons of society. Ariel Levy, host and writer for The New Yorker, guides listeners through the labyrinthine dynamics of corporate raider Saul Steinberg and his relatives, though empathizing with them may prove to be a challenging endeavor. (The podcast's name alludes to one family member's fantasy of growing up poorer than they actually were, just to avoid the constant bickering over the family fortune.) Levy's relationship with Steinberg's niece, heiress and maternity wear mogul Liz Lange, grants her unique access to unguarded conversations with Lange and other family members. Brimming with eccentric characters and devious plots, this tale highlights how wealth corrodes the bonds of kinship.
Fighting in the War RoomThe remarkable culture conversation podcast Fighting in the War Room has held a consistently cherished spot in my weekly podcast rotation for years. However, during the pandemic, it has served as a true source of solace, as the hosts ingeniously covered the shifts in our viewing habits and incorporated delightful segments like "Would this character be vaccinated?" With 11 years on the air, friends and culture critics Katey Rich, Matt Patches, David Ehrlich, and Dave Gonzales have cultivated an irresistible on-air chemistry, playfully debating the latest superhero films or lamenting Emmy snubs. Their tastes span the entire spectrum, so whether you're a superhero enthusiast, a connoisseur of Criterion collection gems, or both, you'll find someone firmly in your corner. The meticulously selected music played between segments adds an extra spark, uplifting my dishwashing routine. This show truly inherits the enchanting squabbles between Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert.
SwayIt's quite challenging to get excited about yet another interview podcast—every conceivable format has seemingly been explored, every trick deployed. However, Kara Swisher's straight-shooting approach to conversations perfectly suits this show, which proudly proclaims itself as a series of interviews about power. Swisher gained recognition through her productive and confrontational discussions with Silicon Valley's elite. But in this podcast, she extends her reach beyond figures like Tim Cook and Elon Musk to the realms of media, business, and politics. Her ability to hold candidates accountable for evasive answers is impeccably demonstrated. Swisher is one of the few journalists with the credibility and courage to challenge the vagueness and grandiosity of political aspirants such as Andrew Yang and Matthew McConaughey while lining up an impressive roster of guests for the next episode.
S***hole CountryThe narrator of S***hole Country, though using a pseudonym, exhibits remarkable storytelling prowess and emerges as one of the most promising voices in podcasting. This new audio memoir revolves around a difficult decision confronting the Ghanaian-American host: whether to remain in the U.S., where she has lost her job as a copywriter along with vital necessities like healthcare and the ability to pay rent, or relocate to Ghana, where her parents have generously offered her a rent-free apartment. The host's splendid narration of her travels to her parents' homeland, complete with extravagant celebrations, dismantles the portrayal of African nations by certain Americans. (The title of the podcast is an allusion to Donald Trump's infamous derogatory remarks.) However, the core of this series lies in the host's personal struggle with her identity as a child of immigrants. Her experience of not fully assimilating into the Black American narrative while remaining steeped in American pop culture and language makes for a relatable yet deeply personal tale of belonging.
Unfortunate RealityA remarkable combination of a prophetic narrative and unparalleled access to the individuals at its core, the collaboration between Wondery and Novel was a revelation. Miriam Rivera, the transgender woman whose true identity lay concealed during the controversial 2003 reality series There's Something About Miriam, now takes center stage. In this thought-provoking series, the perpetrators and participants of the original show grapple with their own complicity and innocence, confronting the problematic aspects of the series head-on.
The Bias DiagnosisCan one's race truly impact their outcomes within the British medical system? Dr. Ivan Beckley delved into the shocking disparities present in the healthcare system, ranging from misdiagnosed or dangerously delayed conditions to racially-biased stereotypes leading some clinicians to underestimate their patients' pain. Through a sobering lens void of sensationalism, this standout series vividly portrayed the horrifying reality of prejudice.
A serendipitously timed examination of Britney Spears's plight... Pieces of Britney. Photograph: Mario Anzuoni/ReutersThis fortuitous podcast, launched in July shortly after Spears's court appearance challenging her conservatorship, not only provided much-needed clarification on her complex legal situation, but also expertly contextualized the struggles faced by the pop star. Amidst archival recordings and dramatizations of pivotal events, host Pandora Sykes offered a succinct historical overview of the disturbing ways in which 2000s celebrity culture preyed upon young female icons.
Bella Mackie and Greg James, esteemed media personalities and a married couple, captivated their dedicated audience with a series tackling the unexplored subjects they missed during their schooling years. Does love at first sight truly exist? Are individuals inherently evil? And, uh, did rodents that explode actually contribute to Britain's victory in the second world war? These thought-provoking discussions never failed to entertain.
A Letter to MyselfHosted by comedians Katy Wix and Adam Drake, this introspective travel miniseries transports comedian guests back to their childhood homes, allowing them to reconnect with their former selves. Liam Williams thoughtfully reflects on life in 2000s Leeds, the delightfully eccentric Lou Sanders travels to Broadstairs for a surprise visit to an old friend, while Kiell Smith-Bynoe, Wix's co-star on Stath Lets Flats, embarks on a journey back to London's East Ham.
Tragedy on the CourtAdam McKay, the brilliant mind behind Vice, The Big Short, and Succession, takes on the role of host in this exploration of the lives of 1980s and 1990s basketball stars whose brilliance was abruptly extinguished. Each chapter skillfully intertwines individual tragedies with larger societal issues during the Reagan era, including drug abuse, gun violence, and the pressures of fame. This series artfully combines the personal and the political, leaving a lasting impact.
The VerdictApple's gripping non-fiction series dives deep into the controversial war crime trial of former US Navy Seal Eddie Gallagher. Was Gallagher, accused by his fellow servicemen of erratic and aggressive behavior, truly responsible for the death of an Iraqi prisoner in Mosul in 2017? And what does this case reveal about the wider conflict at large? Dan Taberski, known for his work on Missing Richard Simmons, serves as our expert guide through the murky complexities of this trial.
Escaping the Prison Life
Discover the unfiltered truth about being a 'prison wife'... Josie Bevan's Prison Break. Photograph: Josie BevanWhen Josie Bevan's husband was convicted of fraud and sentenced to nine years in prison, the concept of incarceration became her all-consuming obsession. Following her husband's release, Bevan delved into the very foundations upon which our justice system is built. Is prison a remedy? A deterrent? A protective measure? And if not, then what purpose does it truly serve? This thought-provoking, intimate, and empathetic podcast seeks to investigate these questions.
In-depth Album ExplorationThis podcast serves as a companion to the literary series of the same name, featuring concise and insightful books documenting era-defining albums. Renowned producer Prince Paul (famous for De La Soul's groundbreaking debut, 3 Feet High and Rising) meticulously dissects these iconic records alongside a diverse array of musician guests. Hole's Patty Schemel examines Metallica's Metallica, Danny Brown explores Bowie's Low, and Victoria Monét celebrates Janet Jackson's The Velvet Rope. Through a combination of nerdy expertise and unwavering enthusiasm, each episode offers a captivating deep dive.
The Enigmatic HauntingWhile producing her ghost story podcast Haunted, Danny Robins serendipitously stumbles upon an extraordinary tale of a violent poltergeist haunting that unfolded in 1950s London. Astonishingly, the central figure in this chilling story, Shirley Hitchings, remains alive to recount her experiences. Through powerful reenactments brought to life by actors Toby Jones and Alice Lowe, Robins painstakingly attempts to uncover a rational explanation, enlisting the help of skeptics and scientists. Yet, as it turns out, unraveling this enigmatic case proves to be a daunting challenge.
Testimony from the ShadowsIn 2005, Joseph "Joey" O'Callaghan became the youngest person in Ireland to enter witness protection after providing testimony that led to the conviction of two gang members for murder. At the tender age of 19, O'Callaghan embarked on a harrowing journey amidst Dublin's criminal underworld, a path he started down at just 11 years old. This captivating series allows O'Callaghan to shed light on his deeply traumatic experiences.
Cultural observer... Jon Ronson, host of Things Fell Apart. Photograph: Christopher Lane/The GuardianA true cultural oracle, Jon Ronson, already demonstrated his prowess with his 2015 book, So You've Been Publicly Shamed, which flawlessly anticipated the rise of social media cancel culture. In this enthralling podcast, Ronson explores the root causes behind America's current internet-driven culture wars, delving into the individual protests that became entangled with the Christian right, spawning mass hysteria in the process.
A Daily DoseMichael Barbaro and the esteemed team at the New York Times maintain their standard of excellence, navigating another year filled with pandemic drama and evolving news agendas. The Daily's comprehensive reporting, whether on individuals such as Ghislaine Maxwell or Britney Spears, leaves a lasting impression. The podcast's abundance of Covid analysis is evident, as demonstrated in an episode that delves into the scientific questions raised by the emergence of the Omicron variant.
Unexplored TerritoryIn 2019, writer and university professor Chris Stedman received a scheduled email from his late friend Alex, informing him of his tragic suicide. The message included recordings of a woman bearing a striking resemblance to Britney Spears, whom Alex had encountered on a fan forum. In this profoundly moving series, Stedman embarks on a journey to uncover the significance of this mysterious woman, all while contemplating themes of grief, friendship, fan culture, and the life of his departed friend.
Uncovering HistorySlate's acclaimed podcast released not one, but two series in 2021, each offering an in-depth exploration of lesser-known aspects of significant events in US history. Noreen Malone presents a thought-provoking analysis of the morally questionable judgments that led to the Iraq war, while Joel Anderson expertly delves into the ripple effects of Rodney King's brutal beating by the LAPD, dedicating an entire series to the LA riots.
Soothing Comfort with Grace Dent
Delightful and intriguing... Comfort Eating with Grace Dent. Photograph: Ilka & Franz/The Guardian. Food stylist: Lucy-Ruth Hathaway. Hair and makeup: Sarah Cherry using NARS Cosmetics. Set build: Lost Boys. Food assistant: Valeria Soledad RussoAs both a renowned restaurant critic for the Guardian and a guest judge on Masterchef, Grace Dent possesses extensive knowledge of cutting-edge cuisine. However, her delightful interview podcast challenges Dent with a whole new dimension of culinary experimentation. From Scarlett Moffatt's unconventional Wotsit-sprinkled toast to Laura Whitmore's raw mushroom-and-mayo combination, the eccentric snacking habits of celebrities serve as the perfect conversation catalyst, leading to engaging discussions on even weightier topics.
Welcome to SensationalismThe Chippendales unexpectedly became a source of inspiration in pop culture during 2021, inspiring an Amazon docuseries, an upcoming Hulu drama, and this podcast from Pineapple Street Studios and Gimlet, hosted by historian Natalia Petrzela. Welcome to Your Fantasy skillfully strikes a balance between the campy chaos of this "Disneyland for adults" and the dark underbelly of a true crime story.
Twenty Thousand HertzDid you know that the now iconic Netflix "tudum" sound was nearly a bleating goat? Or that the beloved HBO pre-movie theme from your youth continues to make appearances in unexpected ways? Have you ever pondered the origins of McDonald's timeless jingle, "I'm Lovin' It" (and the controversy surrounding Pusha T's alleged involvement)? This podcast delves into the untold stories behind the most recognizable sounds in pop culture, while also exploring auditory curiosities like synesthesia, the concept of perfect pitch, and more. Prepare to be armed with captivating conversation starters for your next social gathering. —Patrick Gomez
A Glimpse into BenningtonBennington College, renowned for its exclusivity, exorbitant price tag, and breathtaking Vermont scenery, served as a launchpad for esteemed literary minds such as Donna Tartt, Bret Easton Ellis, and Jonathan Lethem. Once Upon a Time... at Bennington College, an immersive deep dive by writer Lili Anolik, offers an exploration of the class of '86, which included Tartt, Ellis, and Lethem. Through interviews with classmates, professors, and even Ellis and Lethem themselves, Anolik constructs a narrative juicier and more entertaining than any work of fan fiction. Though not without its controversies—Tartt declined an interview and takes issue with the entire premise—the podcast delivers exactly what we anticipate (and crave) when examining the real-life inspiration behind The Secret History. —Seija Rankin
Definitely NotComedian Heather McMahan's podcast is essentially a show about everything and nothing all at once. The stated purpose is to provide a platform for listeners to anonymously confess their grievances about the people or situations troubling them, whether it be a challenging mother-in-law, a difficult roommate, an overbearing boss, or a rude customer encountered at the grocery store. However, as the pandemic persisted into its second year, the podcast's focus shifted toward the still-controversial notion that it's acceptable not to be okay. There is no toxic positivity present, only hilarious rants about the experience of moving back in with one's mother, postponing a wedding multiple times, attempting to sell a television show over Zoom (from a mom's basement), going through the process of freezing eggs, freezing them again, and crying inexplicably on a daily basis. The podcast serves as a clever reminder that even though most of us may be a bit of a mess, we're all in this together. —S.R.
The Forbidden Romance
Back in 1951, the town was abuzz with the news of the shooting of Joan Bennett's agent (and lover), Jennings Lang, by her husband, Walter Wanger, a scandal that shook the world of Hollywood. However, today, very few are familiar with this notorious incident. In this captivating podcast, host Karina Longworth, along with filmmaker Vanessa Hope, who is also the granddaughter of Bennett and Wanger, delves into their lives and the criminal act that forever changed them. While some of the voice acting could use improvement (Jon Hamm nails the role of Wanger, but Zooey Deschanel's portrayal of Bennett feels more like an SNL skit), the extensive research and Hope's personal reflections humanize a story that goes far beyond the sensational headlines. —Maureen Lee Lenker
The Presidents Unveiled
Prepare to have your understanding of American history turned upside down! Co-hosts Matt Christman and Chris Wade take listeners on an enlightening and humorous journey through the lives of U.S. presidents. They explore how each president navigated the political and economic challenges of their time and their varying degrees of success in representing their era. Be prepared to discover fascinating insights into lesser-known presidents like Millard Fillmore and Martin Van Buren, while gaining a fresh perspective on iconic figures such as Abraham Lincoln and Richard Nixon. —Christian Holub
An Intriguing Tale: Lucy's Story Unraveled
For over two decades, Turner Classic Movies has masterfully blended Hollywood glamour with historical context. Their podcast continues this tradition, with season 3 dedicated to the legendary Lucille Ball. As Ball's popularity surges due to the release of "Being the Ricardos" and the 70th anniversary of "I Love Lucy," this show offers the most comprehensive and insightful exploration of her life and turbulent romance with Desi Arnaz. Boasting a wealth of new interviews, archival recordings, and unprecedented knowledge, TCM provides an impassioned portrait of an American icon as fiery as her iconic red hair. —M.L.L.
Marvel's Wastelanders: Old Star-Lord
Enter the twilight years of an Avenger in this star-studded, humorous, and surprisingly poetic audio play. In this "alternate future," a graying Peter Quill (Timothy Busfield) and Rocket (Chris Elliott) are the last surviving Guardians of the Galaxy. Their mission: to locate a powerful cosmic artifact. However, there's a catch. The Collector (Quincy Tyler Bernstine) has equipped them with collars set to extinguish their lives if they fail to return with the coveted prize. Adding to the urgency, Rocket battles a ticking clock, with each involuntary cough bringing him closer to his demise. "Star-Lord" is part of an anthology series, with a season dedicated to "Hawkeye" already released and more aged Avengers to come. —P.G.
While there is no shortage of X-Men podcasts, "Cerebro" stands out for its unique premise and execution. Hosted by Connor Goldsmith, this podcast delves deep into the history of these extraordinary beings. Goldsmith, along with his guests, playfully explores the many allegories that can be drawn between the X-Men and queer experiences. With an impressive backlog of episodes, listeners can delve into lesser-known characters and stories, such as Mystique and Lady Mastermind, expanding their understanding of this colorful universe. —C.H.
A Tribute to Selena
Released in January, "Anything for Selena" perfectly captures the renewed interest in the iconic Tejano singer Selena Quintanilla, who would have celebrated her 50th birthday this year. Host Maria Garcia goes beyond chronicling Quintanilla's life and tragic murder in 1995. She delves into the personal significance Quintanilla held for a generation of Latina women. This podcast serves as an informative and heartfelt window into Quintanilla's life and enduring legacy, appealing to both dedicated fans and those discovering her music for the first time.
Literary Fireworks (NTS)
"Literary Friction," hosted by long-time friends Carrie Plitt and Octavia Bright, is a podcast that combines intellectual depth with warm camaraderie. These literary aficionados invite a star-studded lineup of guests from the literary world, including Maggie Nelson, Deborah Levy, Raven Leilani, Carmen Maria Machado, and Garth Greenwell. Plitt and Bright infuse these thought-provoking conversations with their own warmth and humor, bringing the topics and authors to life. The NTS website also provides reading lists to further satisfy your literary appetite. Consider this podcast your new go-to book club.
As we dive headfirst into 2021, the world of podcasts continues to provide an endless stream of captivating and thought-provoking content. From immersive storytelling to hilarious and insightful conversations, this year's lineup does not disappoint. Whether you're a true crime enthusiast, a history buff, or simply looking for a dose of inspiration, there's a podcast out there that's sure to grab your attention. So sit back, plug in your earbuds, and get ready to explore the best podcasts of 2021 – a collection of enlightening, entertaining, and engaging audio experiences that are bound to keep you hooked from start to finish.