Previous Best Podcast lists: 2017/2018/2019/2020/2021
While the fictional narrative podcasts released this year didn’t leave an impact on me, there were still an overwhelming number of quality podcasts released in 2021. Non-fiction podcasts will only continue to grow as an outlet for story tellers who are frustrated by the barriers in place when publishing a book or creating a television program. Malcolm Gladwell and others have spread the gospel that podcasts enable creators to have a more direct relationship with audiences, and we are the beneficiaries.
Best Podcast Episodes
10. The Letter in the Brown Paper Envelope, The Trojan Horse Affair
This ‘Serial’ podcast featured a pair of investigators with wildly varied experiences and shaping their perspectives, their banter provides a great way to unveil the intrigue of the early episodes.
9. The Fix, Deep Cover: Mob Land
The sleazy mobster lawyer that went undercover for the FBI is compelling, you question the reliability of his account, but so many aspects of his astonishing story are in step with the official court records.
8. ConstitutionDAO, Crypto Island
It’s great to see PJ Vogt once again telling stories to explain the strange underbelly of the internet. This episode opened my eyes to the capabilities and enthusiasm of crypto currency DAOs and provided interesting insights into the chaos involved in the process.
7. Monkey for Mayor, This Day in Esoteric Political History
Tim Hardford provides great historic anecdote and how that contributed to a monkey mascot becoming elected mayor nearly two centuries later. This episode also includes a great twist that make it a poignant political lesson.
6. The Superdollars, The Lazarus Heist
I knew North Korea posed a cyber threat, but this podcast does a great job explaining how they are funding their weapons programs with cyber theft. This episode covers the proliferation of fake US currency and the FBI’s use of a phony wedding and a ‘divorce party’ to lure the conspirators to their arrests.
Top 5 Podcast Episodes:
5. Frankenstein Verses the Volcano, Cautionary Tales
Year after year, Tim Harford is a reliably excellent story teller. This story begins in April 1815 as Mount Tambora unleashed the biggest eruption that has ever been recorded. While the impact should create some dread over the possibility of a super volcano eruption, the focus of the podcast is what happened in Europe on the other side of the Earth. As the ash blocked sunlight across the globe, temperatures plummeted, crops failed, and people suffered. However these conditions also laid the groundwork for massive cultural, technological, and nutritional inventions, including a primitive version of the bicycle and the story of Frankenstein. Harford makes the point that disasters provide us the ability to make changes and highlights some positive outcomes that already resulted from the COVID pandemic. It makes me slightly optimistic that future humans will engineer solutions to whatever massive problems they encounter.
4. Listening to Kenny G, Tig & Cheryl: True Story
This is the least professional podcast I have ever loved. Hooked yet? Tig Nataro and Cheryl Hines discuss a different documentary. In this episode they sing that one Kenny G song that is in your head right now and they discuss how it must feel for Kenny G to be so hated. However as always, discussions on the documentary quickly take a backseat as two hilarious personalities riff on whatever pops in their heads. This is a great showcase for Tig’s comedic timing and Cheryl’s exasperation with having to take commercial breaks never fails to warm my heart. Do they miss important aspects of the documentaries? Yes. Do they repeat stories that they’ve already told? You bet! It’s all part of the charm. At the end of each episode they address the most important questions we all have when watching a documentary: “Who were you attracted to?” and “Did you cry?”
3. Well Someone Had to Do SOMETHING! This American Life
This is always a great podcast, but in this episode all five of the stories were fantastic. The overarching theme of these stories tackles a topic I always find fascinating, ordinary people that unexpectedly find themselves in positions to help. The first story features “The Bike Batman” who became a very awkward vigilante by sniffing out stolen bikes for sale and confronting the thieves. The episode also included great stories involving ordinary Russians caught in a system of lies and Ukrainian zoo employees and animals caught in a war zone. The mood is oddly lightened with a story on funeral confessions, in which a man is repeatedly hired by people on their deathbeds to speak for the deceased. The final story is basically a tribute to the squeaky wheels among us, even if that results in performing impromptu stand-up comedy for a somewhat hostile audience.
2. The Mexico City Games, Legacy of Speed
This podcast from Malcom Gladwell examines the revolutionary track coach at San Jose State that created some of the fastest sprinters in the world. The same coaching philosophies would eventually help Jamaica become the sprinting powerhouse it is today. This episode focuses on the atmosphere of the Mexico City Olympics in 1968 after the mass murder of Mexican student protesters. San Jose State’s “Speed City” athletes were disgusted by the injustice and saw it as a reflection of racial injustice in the United States, therefore after a very dramatic 200 meter final when Speed City placed first and third, they were ready to make a statement. These are the two athletes with their fists raised on the podium in the famous photo. There are so many interesting details about that moment and I had totally misunderstood the position of the white Australian sprinter. This is an important podcast to better understand the political statements made by contemporary athletes.
1. The Battle for the Mural – and the Future of Belarus, The Daily
What would you do if you found yourself ruled by a repressive regime, would you risk your comforts to do what is right? Would you risk your life? Sarah Topol creates a captivating story about a group of neighbors heroically fighting against the system. Once the stakes are established it becomes easy to understand how spray painting near a playground can be a symbolic blow to the dictator of Belarus. The thrills, the sorrows, and the paranoia felt by the people in this story are likely the same emotions encountered by protesters years ago in Hong Kong or by protesters today in Iran. And as everything these days relates back to Ukraine, I wonder what would have happened if the protesters didn’t insist on non-violence. Belarus has supported Putin throughout the war, allowing Russia to surround Ukraine on three sides. With some luck, maybe the ”tenants of the yard” will still make an impact on their country. The world will be watching, and I will be hoping I never find myself in their situation.
Best Overall Podcasts
Runner Up: Frog of the Week
5. Not Lost
Brendan Francis Newnan hosts a pretty modest travel podcast, but his deep questions, great humor, and slick editing make this a great experience. For those of us who don’t get to travel as much as we would like, this podcast provides insights into life in far away places. This podcast features a comical obsession with getting invited to dinner parties, however, Newnan’s drive to create meaningful connections with strangers is laudable. His self-deprecating humor and fun non-standard tourist stops make this podcast a very pleasant listen. However, Newnan will have harsh words for you if you do not fully appreciate the greatness of his favorite soup.
Years ago I was an avid listener to BBC News: World Service. I loved the global perspectives and the ability to highlight important stories from parts of the world that are too often ignored. BBC is one of the few news organizations that actually has the budget to staff the far-flung reporters needed to investigate diverse topics such as pop songs that contained secret messages in Columbia, the Indian man who was fighting government bureaucracy for years to prove that he was not deceased, or how websites manipulate our behavior. They did an eye opening report on human’s dependance on energy, with origins in fire and how its use enabled the development of our brains. In addition, this podcast has been a valuable resource for better understanding the war in Ukraine from the high-level geopolitics to the ordinary Ukrainians and Russians caught up in the conflict.
Only ten episodes long, the podcast is great entertainment for a small time investment. The season is bookended with two fantastic episodes. The first episode features a chance encounter with Paul Rudd that changes lives and sends Rogen on an investigation tracing back a legacy of decency with a hilarious conclusion. The last episode is a harrowing tale of a grizzly bear attack that includes the best real-life action movie line that I’ve ever heard. It is very enjoyable to listen to these stories through Rogen’s open hearted perspective. And I’m glad that they leave in some of the things that make Rogen great, like his misunderstanding of where the flank is on the human body. This podcast has some great editing that enhances the comedy and the overall listening experience.
Noah Forman and Michael Antonucci aka the “Cozy Brothers” welcome you to their upstate cabin, where they unleash their dry humor with dulcet tones. It is like a compressed and heavily edited version of a Hollywood Handbook episode, with great attention paid to timing. Their interviews are a highlight with some great awkward interactions and purposeful mistakes that elevate the jokes. The podcast lampoons bad investigators that refuse to change their preconceptions despite overwhelming evidence telling them that they are wrong. They do some amazing mental gymnastics to defend their position that upstate New York is the cultural center of the world. Were Neil Armstrong’s first words on the moon actually a plug for the upcoming upstate New York Woodstock music festival? Who can say for sure? Forman was a writer for the Chris Gethard show and he brings some of that same great offbeat wit with this podcast.
This podcast features an amazing diversity of topics all discussed with knowledgeable experts that provide insights into complicated topics. Topics this year have included: cryptocurrencies, the worldwide rise of the Far Right, an interview with Nick Offerman, and an episode titled: “Time is Way Weirder Than You Think.” Klein demonstrates an impressive ability to comprehend the issues and challenge his guests on their perspectives with probing questions, allowing the listeners to understand more than one side of an issue. As some of my earlier picks indicate, the war in Ukraine has been a focus of mine and I have found the episodes dedicated to that topic in this podcast illuminating. For example, Klein interviews Ukrainian philosopher and editor Volodymyr Yermolenko, who speaks to the clear importance of democracy for the survival of his country. In response, Klein seized on how we Americans often forget about the power and importance of democracy because it is easy to get overly focused on the banal implementation of our flawed systems.
I’m on twitter: @5DollarWrench