The best podcasts of 2021
The Week’s pick of must-listen shows in genres including comedy, history, true crime and more from the past year
Warm, witty and entertaining, the St Elwick’s Neighbourhood Association Newsletter Podcast is a “real gem”, said Charlotte Runcie in Prospect. The set-up is that it’s a parish newsletter that has switched to audio format due to budgetary restraints and pandemic restrictions. It’s made by Mike Wozniak, and some of the villagers bear an uncanny resemblance to comedians including Isy Suttie and Romesh Ranganathan.
Made by Derry Girls actress Nicola Coughlan and Camilla Whitehill, Whistle Through The Shamrocks makes glorious comedy of “all the Brit-bashing, potato-munching clichés of rural Ireland”, said The Guardian.
Also superb is Athletico Mince, said GQ. Bob Mortimer and Andy Dawson talk football, but in “only the loosest, most surreal sense”.
And from the QI team of researchers and question-setters there is the addictive No Such Thing As A Fish, said Matthew Chernov in Variety. Each episode features banter, digressions and “joyfully silly” chat based on a particularly interesting, but highly obscure fact. It’s “ingeniously funny” and “endlessly entertaining”.
Any pod-heads still mourning the end of The High Low, the brilliant weekly pop culture fix from Dolly Alderton and Pandora Sykes, should try Fortunately... With Fi and Jane, said Katie Strick in the London Evening Standard. Like the High Low pair, Fiona Glover and Jane Garvey (and their guests) tackle a vast range of issues with wit and humour.
The second series of Louis Theroux’s Grounded is just as “enthralling” as the first, said Miranda Sawyer in The Observer. And in Reasons to be Cheerful, Ed Miliband and Geoff Lloyd discuss some of society’s biggest problems – with a “banter-based chemistry” that makes it remarkably uplifting, said GQ. It’s a “slither of hope that slides through your headphones”. Also recommended: Matthew Syed’s Sideways.
The scandal at the Deepcut camp in Surrey – where four young recruits were found shot dead between 1995 and 2002 – is “the wound that never healed” for the British Army, said Mick Brown in The Daily Telegraph. Death at Deepcut is an essential re-examination of the case, which combines forensic detail and exemplary storytelling with cool anger.
Tim Harford’s terrific series about learning from painful mistakes, Cautionary Tales, returned this year, said The Sunday Times. It remains a stimulating listen, drawing on insights from a range of disciplines including economics and psychology.
Nolan Investigates: Stonewall, from the BBC’s own Stephen Nolan, is an instant classic in the investigative genre, said Charlotte Runcie in The Daily Telegraph: witty, fearless and “masterfully produced”.
An older generation of “LGBTQ+ pioneers” was the subject of Call Me Mother, said Miranda Sawyer in The Guardian. It was a “lovely listen”, full of warmth and wisdom.
From the US, Blocked and Reported offers “good-humoured, common-sense and often entertainingly exasperated” dispatches from the culture wars, said James Marriott in The Times.
Another acclaimed US pod, You’re Wrong About, explores events, people and phenomena that the hosts believe have been miscast or misunderstood in the popular imagination. It’s like “sitting in on a conversation with your smartest friends”, said Ella Mumby in The Guardian.
For outstanding US narrative podcasts, said Hannah Verdier in the same paper, this year’s picks include Welcome to Your Fantasy, a “gripping” look at the history of the Chippendales, which encompasses murder, arson and behind-thescenes orgies; and Death at the Wing, Adam McKay’s “fascinating eight-parter” about the untimely deaths of basketball stars in the 1980s. Also recommended: Louder Than A Riot, about hip hop and prisons, and Spectacle (the story of reality TV).
Tom Holland and Dominic Sandbrook’s engrossing The Rest Is History has established itself as a “must-listen” for “everyone I know”, said James Marriott in The Times. The show has intellectual heft, breadth and agility, and a pleasing element of “friendly competition”.
Iain Dale’s outstanding The Presidents & Prime Ministers features journalists or academics discussing various leaders. Simon Heffer is splendidly opinionated on Gladstone and Disraeli, while Rachel Sylvester delivers an “unsparing prosecution” of Theresa May.
No podcast is “more interesting” and “more impishly good fun” than Revisionist History from Malcolm Gladwell, now in its sixth series, said Marriott. Dan Taberski’s superb Wondery podcast 9/12 explores the “ripple effect” of the 9/11 terror attacks on US culture, said Miranda Sawyer in The Observer.
And Slow Burn: The Road to the Iraq War, is a superb “deep dive” from the online magazine Slate, said The Guardian.
Arts and music
“Podcast addiction” has become “a thing”, said Dolly Alderton in The Sunday Times – and one I can’t resist is Literary Friction, an intelligent but “easy-to-listento” books podcast hosted by literary agent Carrie Plitt and writer Octavia Bright. I also love Soul Music, about people for whom particular songs hold great personal significance. “Warning – you’ll cry.”
My obsessions include Andrew Hickey’s brilliant A History of Rock Music in 500 Songs, said Shaun Keaveny in The Guardian. Each episode features one great song, starting in 1939, and explores its significance.
Laura Barton’s “beautiful, intimate speaking voice” is an aural treat in itself, said Miranda Sawyer in The Observer, and it is deployed to great effect in Laura Barton’s Notes on Music, an engrossing BBC series on the enduring appeal and purpose of pop music.
Finding Natasha – based on the true story of a promising young British ballet dancer who had to escape from Leningrad in the 1970s – is a dramatic and atmospheric tale about the “weird world of Soviet ballet”, said Fiona Sturges in the FT, and also about memory and family history.
Listening to Nathan Filer’s superb Why Do I Feel? is like “havingaheart-to-heart with a slightly anxious but emotionally articulate friend”, said Fiona Sturges in the FT. In each episode Filer, a psychiatric nurse and author, explores a single feeling (such as anger, guilt or envy) with delicacy and humour. It’s riveting and enlightening.
Philippa Perry’s podcast Families in Crisis was sometimes “too sad to bear”, said James Marriott in The Times. Her new one exploring sibling relationships, Siblings in Session, is just as “brilliant” but an easier listen. As ever, Perry is “thoughtful, probing and disconcertingly reliable in her emotional intuitions”.
The MP Jess Phillips has the “charisma of sincerity”: she is one of those people “you meet one moment and in the next you’re blubbing to them about your dead grandmother”. Yours Sincerely, in which she talks to well-known figures about their emotional lives and family relationships, is insightful and moving. Also recommended: How Do You Cope?, and Michael Mosley’s Just One Thing.
In Bad Women: The Ripper Retold, historian Hallie Rubenhold brilliantly reframes the Jack the Ripper murders from the perspective of the victims, said Graham Falk in The Scotsman. It explores the way women were treated in the 1880s, and “overturns the accepted Ripper story”.
Over My Dead Body is a vastly popular anthology series about people who are “pushed beyond their limits and do unspeakable things”. Four years in the making, the superb I’m Not A Monster tells the story of Sam Sally, an Indiana woman jailed for travelling to Syria to join Isis with her ten-year-old son. It’s a tense and gripping story, said Fiona Sturges in the FT – “worthy of a dark Hollywood thriller”.
Prison Bag was an acclaimed podcast in which Josie Bevan charted the impact on her family of her husband being jailed for fraud. Its follow-up, Prison Break, continues the story, said Hannah J. Davies in The Guardian, and gives a broader perspective of the justice system. Also recommended: The Dropout, The Lazarus Heist and The Missing.
Danny Robins established himself as “the audio hero of all things spooky” with The Battersea Poltergeist, a “hugely entertaining” telling of a 1950s real-life mystery, said Miranda Sawyer in The Observer. His next one, Uncanny, examines supernatural experiences submitted by listeners, and is just as good.
In their “wonderfully witty” Off Menu podcast, comedians James Acaster and Ed Gamble “blend humour and food to create an entirely new genre”, said Matthew Chernov in Variety. Table Manners with Jessie and Lennie Ware and The Food Chain, from the BBC World Service, are also superb.
Teach Me A Lesson, from Greg James and Bella Mackie, converts learning into a pleasure for teenagers and grown-ups alike, said Toby Moses in The Guardian.