Best Podcasts of 2021

Previous Best Podcast lists: 2017/2018/2019/2020

The rumors are true, I’ve been tempted by that podcast siren known as “1.5 speed.” While I am no longer a part of the resistance, my betrayal did allow me to normalize people speaking very fast and it enabled me to listen to way more brilliant and hilarious podcasts this year. As a result of this efficiency I have expanded my list!

Best Podcast Episodes

Runner Up: “Jessica Meir” – Smartless

10. This is Uncomfortable, Meet the Scammer

It’s like a real life episode of Better Call Saul with clever cons, dramatic developments, and questionable morals.

9. Lightning Bugs, Collaboration in Comedy and How to Be a Dynamic Entertainer

Okay, this is really on here because of the last 8 minutes when Ben Folds takes us step-by-step how to build a song out of Bob Saget thinking about his prostate.

8. Invisibilia, An Unlikely Superpower

A touching story of a woman whose smelling is so nuanced that she can detect diseases that could not yet be diagnosed by the medical community. 

7. Rough Translation, Marla’s War

An idealistic civilian with an amazing ability to work with different groups of people provided essential services to the civilian victims in Afghanistan and reframed how the United States conducted waged a war.

6. Hollywood Handbook, Chris Gethard, Our Beautifully Being Anonymous Friend

Combining the bone-dry wit of “The Boys” with the comedic sensarity of Gethard running an absurd version of Beautiful/Anonymous created something fantastic.

Top 5 Podcast Episodes:

5. Memory Palace, Betty Robinson
Nate DiMeo’s historical podcast is still fantastic and this episode epitomizes what makes it so great. This episode features a fascinating story of a now obscure olympian. The story is masterfully told, showcasing DiMeo’s ability to provide rich details full of authentic human emotions that brings the historical figure to life. As DiMeo says in the episode, it is crazy that nobody has made a movie about Betty Robinson, but if someone does, they should use the framework from this episode to provide a compelling glimpse into the chapters of her life.

How to Save a Planet: the podcast exploring climate change ...

4. How to Save a Planet, Kelp Farming, for the Climate
The premise of this podcast is to provide listeners with actionable steps to help reduce the worst effects of the climate crisis. This episode is particularly interesting, possibly because the interviewee (Bren Smith) is a great storyteller and takes us through his fascinating life, providing interesting insights into fishing conservation, oyster farming, selling drugs from a college golf course, and then finally kelp farming. They explain all the ways growing kelp is practical and beneficial for the environment. But the true hurdle for kelp farmers is getting people to eat it or convince companies to include kelp as an additive (similar to soy). 

3. The Last Archive, It Came from Outer Space/Hush Rush
Jill Lepore makes a compelling argument that the Apollo 11 mission created a feeling among the public that scientists had gone too far, and were no longer to be trusted. This sentiment breeds conspiracy theories and paranoia that persists today. Which led to the episode Hush Rush, where firebrands like Rush Limbaugh take advantage of the population’s mistrust to indoctrinate a massive audience. Lepore identifies Limbaugh’s successes as a necessary part of Newt Gingrich’s efforts to polarize the American political landscape. A great podcast to listen to if you find yourself wondering how society has become so divided.

Roger Ebert and Gene Siskel Would Give Brian Raftery Two ...

2. Gene and Roger, I Must Destroy Him 
This episode lays the groundwork for Siskel and Ebert’s journey from adversaries to lifelong friends and how their desire to win arguments drove them to keep improving until they found a way to effectively communicate art to a massive audience. While the whole season was great, the first episode provided Brian Raftery‘s thesis and included some great insights about the duo. For example, the two became more than film critics and led the charge on many progressive issues tangentially connected to the film industry (including highlighting the work of minority directors, creating a more diverse voting block for the Academy Awards, and slackening rigid censorship rules).

I Spy | Listen to Podcasts On Demand Free | TuneIn

1. I Spy, Cassandra
These two episodes give a taste of what it was like to be in Saigon in the weeks prior to the end of the Vietnam war: the denials, the chaos, the missed opportunities to save lives and to help those in need. The elaborate plans and the complicated relationships forged in a war-torn country are expertly depicted. The episodes came out just months before the US pulled out of Afghanistan, when we saw history repeating itself. The insights into the CIA’s source in the Viet Cong inner circle is gripping by itself, but the fact that his reports mostly fell on deaf ears makes the source a tragic figure. 

Best Overall Podcasts

Runner Ups: 544 Days and 9/12

Day X | Podcast on Spotify

5. Day X
After a fake terrorist plot to turn public sentiment against Syrian refugees is discovered, investigators find that far-right and neo-Nazi personnel inside German military are potentially planning to topple the German government. While that is fascinating on its own, it also provides insights into issues closer to home. Sometimes learning about the political conflict of a different country can put domestic issues into a new perspective. The inability of nationalists to recognize the mistakes of their ancestors is clearly not just an American phenomenon.

4. 365 Stories I Want To Tell You Before We Both Die
As the name implies, Caveh Zahedi tells a story every day of the year. I like to think of him as the deranged version of Ira Glass, he has the same great ability to tell stories but he often makes horrible personnel decisions. The way he lives his life, open for anything and with his heart on his sleeve makes these episodes very interesting and often comical. After listening to hundreds of stories, the indie filmmaker provides some insights into his complicated feelings on what concessions artists are forced to make and which times artists need to fight for their authenticity. There is something really refreshing about a podcast with no format, no standard length, no sponsorships, no introduction, just that day’s story.

American Scandal by Wondery on Apple Podcasts

3. American Scandal
Creator Lindsay Graham uses the innovative storytelling method of recreating a series of conversations during pivotal moments in our history. This approach, combined with great production value creates a very compelling listen while providing insights into how famous scandals unfolded. I was captivated by the McCarthy episodes, learning how the communist witch-hunt fit in the larger political landscape of the time and the cause of McCarthy’s eventual downfall. With many connections to recent events, it was fascinating to hear about how Eisenhower and many other Republicans hated McCarthy but knew he had a populist following and they didn’t want to lose the votes. However in the 50s, enough selfless Republicans stood up for what was best for the country and put a stop to the destruction. Some of the other most fascinating topics from this season covered Bernie Madoff, Lance Armstrong, the lobotomy, and the Attica riots.

The Final Chapters of Richard Brown White: Podcast Gets ...

2. The Final Chapters of Richard Brown Winters 
The fictional story follows a strange cast of characters that go find a George R. R. Martin-type figure who had disappeared. Much like Kevin Moffett’s last podcast “Sandra” the characters are very well written and the story has some fantastic twists and turns. They brought in some major voice acting talents with Catherine Keener, Parker Posey, Bobby Cannavale, Sam Waterston all delivering hilarious (and sometimes emotional) performances. Along with the humor are potent themes on finding our life’s passions and adjusting to diminishing skills as we age.

NEW: No Stupid Questions - Podcast Business Journal

1. No Stupid Questions
Two friends, one phychatrist (Angela Duckworth) and one journalist researcher (Steven Dubner of Freakanomics fame), created a fantastic combination of concepts and opinions that promote better living and helps answer life’s deep questions. They deliver consistently interesting and humorous conversations regarding strategies for navigating relationships, building personnel incentives, and thinking about our place in the world. A strangely great feature is the thorough fact checking segment at the end of each episode that always provides a satisfying cap to the conversation. And it might have the best intro/outro song of any podcast with The Talking Heads classic “And She Was.” The only criticism I have is that I don’t think I’ve heard them discuss anything that could possibly be considered a stupid question, so in summary: a fantastic podcast with a stupid name.

I’m on twitter: @5DollarWrench

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