Since the dawn of podcasting in the early aughts, the medium has come to occupy a unique area of real estate within the media realm. For some, it’s a daily commute lifesaver. To others, it’s a primary resource for consuming news. And, for many, podcasting has become the outlet of choice for some of the cringey-est people you know. Covering just about every topic, from sex to true crime, the podcasting world is seemingly neverending.
Amongst the outliers of self-indulgent podcasters are loads of incredibly smart, funny, friendly, and talented voices that deserve to be heard. Whether you’re looking for a way to brush up on some history on the go, want to open your perspective on the world around you, or just want a little extra company throughout your day, there’s almost guaranteed to be a podcast out there that’s right for you. If not just one, a ton of series to binge through.
The beauty of podcasts is that there are infinite ways to listen. And, in our constantly on-the-go society (that will likely be getting back into the swing of commuting and general business soon), podcasts are a great way to make use of in-between time.So, as the world of podcasting steadily unravels to cover more and more of our world’s interests and issues, fret not. We’ve been mapping the best of the best, across a myriad of niches, for our 2021 roundup, with some brand-new gems and tried and true staples for good measure. So plug in those earbuds and get listening.
These are the best podcasts of 2021.
If you’re like just about every human in modern-day society, there’s a good chance you’ve fallen headfirst into the rabbit hole that is the wellness industry. It will chew you up, microneedle you, spit you out, and take you as a probiotic shot before it spits you out again. But fret not: Comedians and best friends Jacqueline Novak and Kate Berlant have been there, too. And they have thoughts. Enter: Poog (like Goop, get it?), Berlant and Novak’s brainchild of hilariously analytical musings about the wellness industry. Put down that vision board and cleanse yourself with the elixir of laughter.
Through the Cracks
Hosted by Jonquilyn Hill, Through the Cracks investigates the unsolved 2014 disappearance of Relisha Rudd – a second grader in Washington D.C., who was not declared a missing person until 18 days after she was last seen at her homeless shelter and at school. Unsatisfied with the unjust handling of Rudd’s disappearance, Through the Cracks asks who our society looks out for, who falls through the cracks, and why.
Spectacle: An Unscripted History of Reality TV
Before you scoff at the near mention of reality TV and its plebeian appeal, hear us out for a second. Whether you like it or not, reality television is arguable one of the most fascinating, and influential, cultural products of American media. And host Mariah Smith is here to give us a whole new perspective on the history and significance of reality TV as we know it in the new series Spectacle. A must-listen for reality TV fans and haters alike, Smith unveils the intersections of politics, culture, and reality TV in an episode-by-episode format that’s as bingeable as Love Island.
The Ezra Klein Show
Vox co-founder Ezra Klein’s beloved biweekly podcast has found a new home at the New York Times this year. The series is, as Klein describes, a “conversation show” where Klein sits down with some of the leading experts in the world to pick their brain on the topics that matter most: from climate change to psychedelics and beyond.
Anything for Selena
Reporter Maria Garcia offers an impactful look at the life, death, and legacy of beloved Mexican-American entertainer Selena in the new series Anything for Selena. Driven by her personal connection to Selena since growing up as a Mexican-American herself, Garcia’s deep reverence for the artist makes for powerful storytelling when matched with investigative reporting on the work and political significance of Selena.
The inspiration for Resistance came to its host Saidu Tejan-Thomas, Jr., in the summer of 2020 amidst worldwide Black Lives Matter protests. Noticing a new generation of activists and organizers emerging, Tejan-Thomas says his first question was, “How are they going to keep this up?” What came from this idea is Resistance, a podcast series driven by first-person narrative experiences of Black and Brown people “refusing to accept things as they are.” Tejan-Thomas and his team bring a deeply personal aspect to today’s news and headlines, incorporating the stories of those on the front lines of social progress—and Tejan-Thomas’s own personal history—into each episode.
Death, Sex, and Money
As the title might imply, Anna Sale’s WNYC series Death, Sex, & Money doesn’t shy from discussing the things we think about the most and talk about the least. From near-death experiences, to one night stands, the student loan crisis, STIs, alcoholism, and whatever else life throws at us, Death, Sex, & Money has a no holds barred approach to its topics. And, with this, comes a deep journey of vulnerability and honesty between Sales and her guests, who range from movie stars to Supreme Court justices to everyday people. It’s messy, freeing, uncomfortable, tender, and, at its core, as human as it gets. If you have a love for storytelling, tend to muse about life, or are in need of a push into more vulnerable conversations, Sales is the perfect guide to get you there.
Louder Than a Riot
Since its arrival in 2020, Louder Than A Riot’s urgency has grown louder than ever before, with hosts Rodney Carmichael and Sidney Madden delivering some of the most incisive and pertinent investigative journalism in the podcast game. Using the lens of hip-hop to analyze the mass incarceration in America, each episode reflects upon a different hip-hop artist’s story in order to dig deeper into the criminal justice system. The series comes complete with a playlist of the songs used in each episode as a tool for analysis, and features an inside look at the music industry, prison industrial complex, and their intersections in a way that is as thoughtful as it is impactful.
As any intellectual will tell you, we don’t give straight culture enough attention. Sure, many would say we live in a heteronormative society where straightness is baked into the very infrastructure of our world … but, what even is being straight? What does it look like? What do we talk about when we talk about being straight? Self-identified “smart comedians” George Civeris and Sam Taggart have stepped up to fill this gaping hole in the hetero-canon with the ethnography that is StraightioLab: a series that aims to “unpack the rich, multi-colored tapestry of straight culture.” One scroll through its episode titles packs comedic effect in itself, with everything from “Pictures with Siblings,” to “Wearing PJs to Run Errands,” and, of course, “Reading” making their way onto the list of all things straight. With a roundup of beloved alt-comedy guests, and segments like “Straight Shooters,” StraightioLab is the perfect series to listen, learn, and laugh your way to becoming a straight culture aficionado.
The Laverne Cox Show
Looking to become a better person? Expand your mind? Listen to the hypnotic voice of Laverne Cox? You can accomplish all three of those things in one place: The Laverne Cox Show. The new podcast from Shondaland and iHeartMedia lets Cox take the reins, allowing her to facilitate conversations around topics ranging from fatphobia to dating in mid-life. Fearless and candid, Cox mixes charm with candor on a podcast where nothing is off limits. – Justin Kirkland
30 For 30
ESPN’s 30 for 30 documentary series needs no introduction. Here’s one anyway: Since what feels like the dawn of time, ESPN has put out unforgettable films about the greatest—and sometimes, worst—moments, teams, and players in sports history. (Recently: Be Water, a breathtaking Bruce Lee retrospective.) Well, you guessed it, ESPN spun off the series into podcast form. The stories are just as good. Ramona Shelburne’s “The Sterling Affairs” is a masterclass in reporting. But you might want to subscribe to catch the recently-release March 11, which chronicles the day the pandemic wiped out sports. – Brady Langmann
This might be sacrilege to say, but sometimes—in my heart of hearts—I think reading The New York Times’s “Modern Love” column feels like reading a bad diary entry. There’s something about digesting someone’s love and loss and crushes and blushes in print that sends me straight back to the days I’d scribble regrettable tales of heartbreak (and only heartbreak!) in my own notebook. Enter the podcast. The Times hires a bunch of celebrities to read the columns aloud. Ah. There it is. Much better. Feels closer to a poetry night. -BL
You might notice that CC Sabathia co-hosts this particular podcast. Former all-star baseball pitcher CC Sabathia. Do NOT back away, sports fan who likes everything but baseball in the same way as the person who says they listen to everything but country. R2C2 is more of a smart, freewheeling sports podcast—just with a lean toward our great game, that’s all. All the SportsCenter-ticker-news reacts you want will be there. Plus, CC is a national treasure—and his chemistry with Ruocco makes R2C2 a must-listen. Seriously: What other pod could score Rapinoe and Bird as guests on the same episode? – BL
My Favorite Murder
Karen Kilgariff and Georgia Hardstark have been doing this for five years now, but the idea still feels as taboo and sketchy as the title suggests, but like… you know when you get together with that one friend? And y’all start talking about your favorite horrific true crime story? And then everyone else feels weird because you’re in the gory details and this was supposed to be a really nice dinner party? Put that in podcast form and that’s what you have here. Just a couple of cool ladies who love to get into the particulars of homicide. It’s casual. – JK
You Must Remember This
Karina Longworth’s podcast feels like listening to a secret—half because of her perfectly mysterious and dramatic narrative voice, and half because the show explores the “secret and/or forgotten” histories of Hollywood in the 20th century. Longworth dives deep into the Hollywood history you never really knew about, like Jayne Mansfield’s connection to the Church of Satan or the context behind the Hays Code, a set of “morality” guidelines strictly applied to films from the 1930s to the late ‘60s. A good place to start listening is the multi-part series Charles Manson’s Hollywood. – Anna Lee
You’re Wrong About
Pop culture nerds and history lovers, this is the show for you. Each week, journalists Michael Hobbes and Sarah Marshall reconsider a historical event—from the Stanford Prison Experiment, to the murder of Kitty Genovese and the bystander effect, to (my personal favorite) Newsies and the real newsboys’ strike of 1899—that has been misunderstood by the public for years. Come for the thorough research and thoughtful analysis, and stay for the funny digressions and repartee. – AL
How Did This Get Made?
In December 2020, How Did This Get Made celebrated its tenth anniversary. A decade feels like a lifetime—especially in podcast years. And HDTGM remains a podcast classic thanks to an unbeatable formula: Three hilarious comedians discuss some truly horrible films. Paul Scheer, June Diane Raphael, and Jason Mantzoukas have trudged through the worst of what Hollywood has to offer over the years, but this podcast isn’t just about dunking on Bad Films. They’ve built a weird and beautiful community that has bonded over their love of watching shitty movies together. – Matt Miller
Twenty-one years ago, actor/comedian Connor Ratliff was fired by Tom Hanks from the 2001 HBO miniseries Band of Brothers. He was told the reason he was let go from this small speaking role is because America’s Dad thought Ratliff had “dead eyes.” In 2020, Ratliff debuted this podcast investigation into the circumstances of his firing. But, in the year since he launched this podcast, it has turned into a much more human and universal story. Through interviews with actors in his and Tom Hanks’s orbit, Ratliff explores not just the ups and downs of show business, but the more deeply human experience of dealing with personal and professional failure. And more importantly, how we move on, learn, and grow from it. -MM
If there’s a music story everyone on the internet is talking about, it’s only a matter of time before Jon Caramanica and company are cooking up a lengthy discussion on it. As headlines come and go, I tend to retreat into the Popcast world to hear Caramanica and friends dive deep into the history and modern context of the story of the moment. But that’s not all they’re covering. From jazz revivals to forgotten artists and the business of the industry, Popcast’s long list of episodes live on well beyond the news cycle, providing an archive of music criticism and commentary filled with talking points you’ll be eager to pass on to your friends. – Ben Boskovich
The Golfer’s Journal Podcast
There are a ton of golf podcasts out there right now. The game’s rising popularity, and its slow emergence into the zeitgeist, has made for plenty of conversation. The Golfer’s Journal podcast, though, doesn’t bother with wading into all of that. TGJ is all about the art of golf. A recent episode detailed writer Tom Coyne’s journey to sobriety, golf’s relationship with alcohol, and the sober friends he formed a golf league with. It’s a conversation about substance abuse and redemption, wrapped in golf glory. That’s what you get with this podcast. Never on the nose, always a shot through the heart. If you love golf–like love it love it–this is the pod for you. – BB
Welcome to Your Fantasy
If you like true crime, Welcome to Your Fantasy will scratch that itch while it brings you a little-known sexy, seedy 80s history lesson, too. This eight-part storytelling deep-dive by historian Natalia Petrzela explores how an immigrant from India and a children’s TV producer from New Jersey built the notorious male exotic dancers empire known as Chippendales, and the greed and corruption that ultimately led to a dark, deadly downfall. With 80s L.A. nightlife and murder abound, prepare to be both scandalized and enraptured. – Lauren Kranc
Let’s Talk About Myths, Baby
There are horse girls, and then there are mythology girls. As a child, I was the latter: an insufferable little nerd who stuffed her brain with sanitized versions of ancient myths. Then I became an insufferable little preteen who leveled up to the real Homeric deal. For grown-up mythology nuts like me who still can’t get enough, there’s Let’s Talk About Myths, Baby, a twice-weekly podcast covering ancient Greek and Roman myths. Host Liv Albert, the author of a forthcoming book about Greek mythology, recounts ancient stories while examining them through a modern lens, considering the place of women, trans, and non-binary people in ancient narratives. – AW
On the Media
In this Peabody Award-winning series from WNYC, veteran journalists Brooke Gladstone and Bob Garfield shepherd listeners through weekly dissections of how the media we consume shapes our worldview. Stories are often centered on the week’s current events, with journalists phoning in to dissect and defend media coverage. Expertly guided by Gladstone and Garfield, these conversations tackle everything from net neutrality to First Amendment issues, as well as media consolidation to how publications can serve special interests. If you spend a lot of time thinking about the failings of cable news and how it’s rotting Americans’ brains, OTM is the show for you. But don’t get it twisted—OTM is bipartisan and civil, as only public radio can be. – AW
My Brother, My Brother, and Me
Have you ever found yourself wondering “Is it considered cheating if you sleep with the demon that is possessing your Wife or Girlfriend?” or maybe “What is Obama’s Playstation network Username?” These are the pressing questions you can expect the McElroy brothers to answer. These brothers are the boy kings of podcasting and have one of the funniest podcasts out there. It’s the most absurd advice show out there. They even bring in some big guests like Jimmy Buffet or Lin Manuel Miranda, consistently. MBMBAM is a fantastic podcast for someone needing a pick me up or a care free fun hour sandwiched into their day. – Cam Sherrill
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