The 20 best podcasts of 2021

Celebrities’ bizarre snacking habits, a true crime tale about stripping troupe The Chippendales, and the realisation that there’s no such thing as too much Louis Theroux: it’s the pods of the year


20

Harsh Reality

Combining a prescient story with unparalleled access to the people at its heart, Wondery and Novel’s co-production was a revelation. Miriam Rivera – the trans woman whose identity was the secret at the heart of the 2003 reality series There’s Something About Miriam – is no longer the object but rather the subject here, as the perpetrators and participants of the original, highly problematic, series wrestle with their complicity and naivety.

19

The Bias Diagnosis

Does your race really affect your outcomes in the British medical system? Dr Ivan Beckley investigated the shocking inequalities in the health system, from conditions diagnosed incorrectly or perilously late, to the racist stereotypes which lead some clinicians to underestimate their patients’ pain. Without blood, guts or a hint of sensationalism, this standout series painted a horrifying picture of prejudice.

18

Pieces of Britney

Pieces of Britney was a fortuitously timed looked at Spears’s plight.
A fortuitously timed looked at Spears’s plight ... Pieces of Britney. Photograph: Mario Anzuoni/Reuters

This fortuitously-timed podcast (it launched in July, days after Spears appeared in court protesting her conservatorship) didn’t simply act as a much-needed explainer for a complex legal situation – it also did a great job of contextualising the popstar’s plight. Amid archive recordings and the dramatisation of key events, host Pandora Sykes offered a potted history of the disturbing ways 00s celebrity culture preyed on young female stars.

17

Teach Me a Lesson

Bella Mackie and Greg James – media personalities, married couple, keen students – grew a devoted audience with their series about getting to grips with the lessons they didn’t learn at school. Is love at first sight real? Are people born evil? And, er, did exploding rodents help Britain win the second world war? There was never a dull moment.

16

Dear Me

Hosted by comics Katy Wix and Adam Drake, this gentle, meandering travel miniseries returns comedian guests to their childhood homes to commune with their former selves. Liam Williams thoughtfully reflects on 00s life in Leeds, the reliably daffy Lou Sanders travels to Broadstairs to surprise an old pal, and Wix’s Stath Lets Flats co-star Kiell Smith-Bynoe takes a trip back to London’s East Ham.

15

Death at the Wing

Adam McKay (Vice, The Big Short, Succession) hosted this look at the US basketball stars of the 80s and 90s who shone brightly but whose lives were cut short, tying in individual tragedies to wider societal issues in Reagan’s America. From drugs to gun violence and the pressures of celebrity, each chapter smartly weaved the personal with the political to devastating effect.

14

The Line

Apple’s gripping non-fiction series explored the controversial war crime trial against former US Navy Seal Eddie Gallagher. Was Gallagher – accused by his colleagues of erratic, aggressive behaviour – responsible for killing an Iraqi prisoner in Mosul in 2017? And what does the case tell us about the conflict at large? Dan Taberski (Missing Richard Simmons) was our guide to this most murky of cases.

13

Prison Break

When Josie Bevan’s husband was convicted of fraud and sentenced to nine years in jail, prison – previously a barely-considered prospect – became her new obsession. Upon Rob’s release, Bevan interrogates the very foundations our justice system is predicated on. Is prison a cure? A deterrent? A safety measure? If not, then what exactly is it for? This thoughtful, personal and empathetic podcast investigates.

12

The 33 ⅓ Podcast

This companion podcast to the literary series of the same name – a collection of brief, insightful books on era-defining albums – sees producer Prince Paul (best known for De La Soul’s seminal debut, 3 Feet High and Rising) dissect the same records with a roster of musician guests. Hole’s Patty Schemel examines Metallica’s Metallica, Danny Brown surveys Bowie’s Low, and Victoria Monét celebrates Janet Jackson’s The Velvet Rope. Nerdy insight and enthusiasm unite in a succession of fascinating deep dives.

11

The Battersea Poltergeist

During the making of his ghost story podcast Haunted, Danny Robins stumbled upon this extraordinary story of a violent, 12-year haunting in 1950s London. Amazingly, the teenage girl at its centre, Shirley Hitchings, is alive to tell the tale. Alongside her testimony, re-enacted with the help of actors Toby Jones and Alice Lowe, Robins tries his damnedest to offer a rational explanation with the help of sceptics and scientists – but it turns out to be no easy task.

10

The Witness

In 2005, Joseph “Joey” O’Callaghan became the youngest person to enter witness protection in Ireland when his testimony put two gang members behind bars for murder. He was 19 at the time, and has now spent nearly two decades with a new identity. This striking series saw O’Callaghan outline his harrowing experiences in Dublin’s criminal underworld, which began when he was just 11 years old.

9

Things Fell Apart

With his 2015 book, So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed, Jon Ronson proved himself a cultural oracle, anticipating the way social media cancellations would soon grip the public imagination. In this typically fascinating show, the documentarian traces some of the root causes of America’s current internet-based culture wars: namely, the individual – and often surprisingly arbitrary – protests that became tangled up with the Christian right, prompting mass hysteria in the process.

8

The Daily

Michael Barbaro and the New York Times team kept the bar high through another year of pandemic drama and ever-changing news agendas. The Daily’s in-depth reporting on everyone from Ghislaine Maxwell to Britney Spears has been impressive, alongside copious amounts of Covid analysis – recently evidenced in an episode dedicated to the scientific questions provoked by Omicron.

7
Grounded with Louis Theroux

Multiple books, TV shows, merch, podcasts: it can sometimes feel as if the bespectacled documentary-maker has saturated pop culture on all fronts. But Grounded, his Zoom-conducted interview series, proved once again that you can never have too much Louis Theroux. This second outing hosted everyone from zeitgeisty cultural figures (Michaela Coel) to past rivals (Ruby Wax), overlooked TV mainstays (Rylan) and family members (Justin Theroux), each conversation as revelatory as the last.

6

Unread

In 2019, writer and university professor Chris Stedman received a scheduled email from his friend Alex, informing him that he had killed himself. The message also contained a link to some recordings of a Britney sound-alike Alex had met on one of the popstar’s fan forums. In this incredibly moving series, Stedman attempts to uncover the woman’s significance, all the while meditating on grief, friendship, fan culture and his friend’s life.

5
Day X

A loaded gun found in a toilet in Vienna in 2017 led to the discovery of a military officer with a dramatic double life, as told in this chillingly brilliant show from the New York Times. “Franco A” assumed the identity of a Syrian refugee, seemingly looking to place the blame for an upcoming attack on his false persona. How deep into the German military did such far right influences extend?

4

Slow Burn

Not one but two series of Slate’s acclaimed podcast were released in 2021, zooming in once again on little-known aspects of major events in US history. Noreen Malone hosted a smart look at the shaky moral judgments that led to the Iraq war, while Joel Anderson expertly examined the events triggered by Rodney King’s beating by the LAPD in a series dedicated to the LA riots.

3

Comfort Eating with Grace Dent

In her capacity as the Guardian’s restaurant critic and Masterchef guest judge, Grace Dent is well-versed in cutting-edge cookery – but here she is confronted with culinary experimentation like never before. From Scarlett Moffatt’s Wotsit-sprinkled toast to Laura Whitmore’s raw mushroom-and-mayo combo, celebrities’ bizarre snacking habits prove the perfect conversation-starter in this charming interview podcast, which journeys onwards into (even) more serious topics.

2

Welcome to Your Fantasy

The Chippendales were an unlikely source of pop culture inspiration in 2021, with the male strippers inspiring an Amazon docuseries, a Hulu drama (currently in development) and this podcast from Pineapple Street Studios and Gimlet, hosted by historian Natalia Petrzela. Welcome to Your Fantasy deftly balanced the camp mayhem of this “Disneyland for adults” and its colourful cast of characters, with the insalubrious true crime story behind it all.

1

Sweet Bobby

Catfishing – the act of misleading somebody with a fake internet persona – is a well-known phenomenon, but as our lives move ever more online, it remains far too little understood. This initially shocking, consistently riveting series chronicles one such outrageous deception, in which a woman genuinely believed herself to be in a decade-long relationship with a non-existent man. Once the perpetrator is revealed, host Alexi Mostrous begins conducting his own investigation into the catfisher’s motivations – as well as the seemingly lacklustre police response to this disturbing and distinctly modern criminal activity.

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