2021: This year’s best podcasts!

This posts contains links to Apple Podcasts and Spotify, which may or may not attempt to open the respective apps on your device if you click or tap them. You can find all listed podcast titles not just on Apple Podcasts or Spotify, but also on Stitcher, Google Play, Amazon Music or pretty much any other podcasting app or streaming service. (Personally I tend to use Overcast as my preferred podcasting app nowadays.)

The global COVID-19 pandemic saw an explosion of podcasts, but on a personal level… I don’t listen as much to podcasts as I used to. I guess I fell out of love with the medium somewhat. Overall, I did listen to more podcasts in 2021 than I did 2020, but still… not as much as before 2020.

The best podcasts of 2021 (in my opinion)

  • Stuff The British Stole
    I was late to discover this one, since the first season was already published in 2020. The first season was produced by Australian broadcaster ABC and the second season, which came out this year, is a co-production of theirs with Canadian broadcaster CBC. This is a history podcast highlighting how objects from the British Empire and elsewhere were taken elsewhere; mostly to British museums. What I think is so excellent about this podcast is its approach and presentation: This is some heavy subject matter with ugly histories that need telling, but the way this podcast brings them is just brilliant: Without making light of the topics, presenter Marc Fennell just comes across as the most likeable, down-to-earth guy who is genuinely interested in the people he speaks to and the stories they have to tell; as a listener, I felt as respected and as at ease as he appeared to make his guests feel. So this podcast is a history lesson presented in a sublimely accessible fashion.

  • Harsh Reality: The Story of Miriam Rivera
    Before this podcast, I had not heard of Miriam Rivera, or the reality TV show(s) that she took part in. The podcast takes us listeners back to nearly 20 years ago, when someone pitched a TV dating show to Sky with a twist and Sky loved it so much they commissioned it: A dating show where men have to compete for the love of a beautiful woman (nothing ground-breaking there) but without telling the men upfront that this beautiful woman called Miriam Rivera is trans. How anyone thought of this as a great idea at the time… goodness knows, but people did, the show was made, the fallout was ugly, and while I think the creators set out to humiliate everyone involved, the ugly fallout seamed particularly aimed at the woman put at the centre rather than the people behind the scenes who probably should have known better… and the neither the story nor the humiliation Miriam Rivera was made to endure ended there.
    As different as this podcast is to Stuff The British Stole both these podcasts revolve around jaw-dropping histories that needed telling, brought to us in the shape of excellent productions that are superb to listen to.

  • Slahi: 14 Jahre Guantanamo
    So… this podcast is in German, so you may have trouble following it if you don’t understand the language (although the interviews are mostly conducted in English). This is a production by German journalist Bastian Berbner and American journalist (but also fluent German speaker) John Goetz for German broadcaster NDR. If you do not understand German, excerpts of this 12-part series were also featured in an episode of renowned podcast This American Life and John Goetz also made a documentary feature film about this story.
    (And if you do understand German and find yourself liking this podcast, then don’t hesitate to check out this other podcast Bastian Berbner made back in 2019.)

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Other podcast highlights in 2021

Podcasts that didn’t make my top three favourites of the year but are too good not to be given a special mention here:

  • A Death in Cryptoland delves into the story of QuadrigaCX founder and crypto tycoon Gerald Cotton, whose sudden death on honeymoon in India leaves tens of thousands of people locked out of their bitcoin wallets worth millions of dollars, and speculating whether Cotton really died.
  • Astray investigates the stories of Westerners travelling to India to seek spiritual enlightenment and some of them never being seen alive again.
  • Cheat features a fascinating variety of characters, each of whom tried to cheat on games, systems or other people in one way or another.
  • If the history of the rise and fall of Theranos and its founder and CEO Elizabeth Holmes interests you like it does me, you probably know that lauded French-American journalist John Carreyrou was the one to write and publish the initial exposé for the Wall Street Journal. He subsequently published a phenomenally in-depth book about it (in my opinion the as yet definitive work if you want to learn the full story). This year, as Holmes’s case finally made it into court, Carreyrou followed up on his book Bad Blood: Secrets and Lies in a Silicon Valley Startup with a podcast called Bad Blood: The Final Chapter. New episodes are released as the Holmes’s court case progresses, and presumably more may follow in 2022, when former COO Ramesh ‘Sunny’ Balwani is expected to appear in court.
    While I firmly believe John Carreyrou to be the authority on the topic of Theranos, and the journalist who did the heaviest lifting in terms of researching and exposing what was going on at the startup, he was, of course, not the first to release a podcast about it. The Dropout originally launched in 2019 and returned this year to report on the court case.
    Of course the two podcasts overlap to great extent, but they’re great to listen to side by side to get the full picture of everything surrounding Theranos, Holmes, and Balwani.

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The best of 2020

As said before, I didn’t listen much to podcasts in 2020, because I had temporarily fallen out of love with them. That said, one of the few podcasts that I did listen to turned out to be the best podcast I’d heard in a long time and became one of my favourites of all time.

So in case you missed me raving about this podcast on Twitter, I’m going to give it an honourable mention here, in case you haven’t listened to it yet, because I really think you should:

Wind of Change takes its name from the 1990 rock ballad by German band The Scorpions, but I promise you, you don’t have to like that song to love this podcast. It is a phenomenal production, Patrick Radden Keefe does a fabulous job not just at telling the story but also at interviewing a great array of guests… don’t skip anything to get to them more quickly, because you may miss key bits, but the interviews with Scorpions’ frontman Klaus Meine and music manager Doc McGhee are a delight: both men are great storytellers, Meine is charming and engaging, McGhee charismatic and colourful, and all of the descriptors I’ve just used here are understatements so you are really going to have to listen to hear what I mean.

“Cold War? What? Do I need to bring a fur coat?”
For me as a teenager in the 1980s/90s hair metal became the soundtrack to at least part of my youth. That’s somewhat cringey to admit to today, because most of the hair metal music (and associated fashion!) has not withstood the test of time particularly well. Listening to it now, it doesn’t particularly tickle my fancy anymore, but back then, for some time, it meant everything to me. So I was familiar with at least some of the rumours surrounding music manager Doc McGhee and the loose link between hair metal and the defrosting of the Cold War by way of the Moscow Music Peace Festival; my wonderful secondary school English teacher at the time even allowed me to use that as my chosen topic to pass my English oral exam on. But I had absolutely no idea of the fabulous conspiracy theory explored in this podcast series, involving the Scorpions’ song Wind of Change and the CIA – it’s outrageous and far-fetched but it makes for some glorious listening.

Please note: While for every other podcast in this post I’ve shared the Apple Podcasts link, I strongly suggest that you listen to this particular podcast on Spotify because it was created as a Spotify Original Series and there are unmissable bonus episodes that are only available on Spotify and not on any of the other podcasting apps/services.

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Long-running podcasts that continued to be great in 2021

  • Pretend has been going since 2017, focusing on people either deliberately or subconsciously pretending to be someone or something else. This is an indie podcast with the production value of a major podcast studio and I love it.
  • Darknet Diaries is another gem of an indie podcast. If you want to learn more about cyber crime, data breaches, hacking and so on… this is the OG podcast on the subject.
  • Gangster Capitalism returned in 2021 with a shocking deep dive into Jerry Falwell Jr. and Liberty University. Previous seasons dug into the college admissions scandal and the NRA respectively. Each episode presents meticulous investigative journalism.

More podcast recommendations

You probably already know this, but over the years I’ve listened to over 300 podcast series, most of which I collated and sorted by genre right here on Pinterest (I’ve left out any podcasts that I listened to but wouldn’t recommend to others).

Finally…

Posts like this take time and effort to create. If you like the recommendations I’ve given you here and would like to express your appreciation, consider buying me a coffee on BuyMeACoffee.com or Ko-fi.

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  • (Audio) Books I liked or loved

    Dave Grohl - The Storyteller: Tales of Life and Music Fiona Hill - There Is Nothing For You Here: Finding Opportunity in the 21st Century James Felton - 52 Times Britain Was a Bellend: The History You Didn't Get Taught At School Adam Kay - This Is Going to Hurt: Secret Diaries of a Junior Doctor The Secret Barrister - The Secret Barrister: Stories of the Law and How It's Broken Flea - Acid for the Children Ronan Farrow - Catch and Kill: Lies, Spies and a Conspiracy to Protect Predators John Carreyrou - Bad Blood: Secrets and Lies in a Silicon Valley Startup Bob Woodward - Fear: Trump in the White House Mark Manson - The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck: A Counterintuitive Approach to Living a Good Life Tiffany Haddish - The Last Black Unicorn Darryl 'DMC' McDaniels - Ten Ways Not To Commit Suicide: A Memoir Ronald Reng - A Life Too Short: The Tragedy of Robert Enke Danny Wallace - Charlotte Street

    Tony Schumacher - An Army of One | A John Rossett Novel (3/3) Tony Schumacher - The British Lion | A John Rossett Novel (2/3) Tony Schumacher - The Darkest Hour | A John Rossett Novel (1/3) Benjamin Hoff, Lao Tse - The Tao of Pooh
    (These are affiliate links - See Disclaimer)

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