6 podcasts for a musical deep dive
By Emma Dibdin
These shows offer emotional escape with explorations of mysterious cultural moments, soothing soundscapes and stories about petty interpersonal drama.
‘Nothing Is Real’
There’s an unsurprisingly huge selection of Beatles podcasts to choose from, and also not surprisingly, some can seem redundant. This Irish gem avoids that pitfall by going well beyond the traditional boundaries of biography or oral history, instead examining the band’s body of work in microscopic detail. In each episode, the two hosts, Jason Carty and Steven Cockcroft, go deep on a small segment of Beatles canon — often a specific year, song or incident — and contextualize it within the band’s broader history. Carty and Cockcroft possess impressive Beatles expertise, and there’s no detail too esoteric for their attention. Alongside the expected analysis of musical eras and interpersonal dramas, they’ve also dedicated episodes to the much-contested title of “fifth Beatle”; the band’s complex relationship with their spiritual guru, Maharishi Mahesh Yogi; and a possibly ill-advised marathon of Ringo Starr’s acting filmography.
Starter episode: “I Want to Hold Your Hand”
‘Louder Than a Riot’
This powerful NPR series focuses on the complex history of an entire genre. Season One, which premiered in 2020, offered a nuanced examination of the links between hip-hop and mass incarceration in America. The hosts, Rodney Carmichael and Sidney Madden, chronicle the experiences of several Black rap artists within the prison system — including McKinley Phipps Jr., known as Mac, who served more than 20 years of a 30-year sentence for a crime he says he did not commit, before he was granted clemency and released in 2021 after new evidence came to light. In March, “Louder Than a Riot” returned for a second season, its first episode pegged to the assault trial of Tory Lanez, an event that encapsulated the overlapping sexist and racist abuse that Black female rappers such as Megan Thee Stallion say they face. Its second and final season explores how hip-hop has perpetuated the oppression of marginalized groups, despite the genre’s genesis as a voice for the unheard.
Starter episode: “The Conspiracy Against Hip-Hop”
‘Every Single Album: Taylor Swift’
No superlative can do justice to Taylor Swift’s stardom, which has been turbocharged by her blockbuster Eras Tour and the continuation of her artful rerecording project. As her tour concept indicates, Swift’s career has been defined by sonic reinvention, which makes her back catalog ideal fodder for multichapter analysis. This passionate and incisive series from The Ringer delves into each album, exploring Swift’s evolving career and public persona. The show’s hosts, Nora Princiotti and Nathan Hubbard, are die-hard “Swifties” but of different stripes: Princiotti, a sports writer, grew up alongside Swift, while Hubbard is a music executive (and a former CEO of Ticketmaster) with insight into Swift’s savvy business strategies. Their warm rapport and ability to balance veneration with critique should impress even the most devoted fan.
Starter episode: “Midnights”
‘No Dogs in Space’
Each season of this fun and deeply researched music history show from the Last Podcast Network deals with a different genre — punk, alternative and experimental music, so far — through the lens of the bands that define it. Hosted by the husband-and-wife duo of Marcus Parks (widely known for the true-crime hit “Last Podcast on the Left”) and Carolina Hidalgo, “No Dogs in Space” dedicates several episodes to the back catalog of each artist — spotlighting not just heavy hitters such as Joy Division and the Velvet Underground, but also more obscure acts. Some subjects get five or six episodes, while others receive just one, but all of the installments are packed with insight, anecdotes and facts, showing how music is shaped by its societal context.
Starter episode: “The Stooges Part 1”
Contemporary music analysis doesn’t get much more granular than in this aptly titled podcast, where each season is dedicated to a single album, one song per episode. There’s something luxurious about the listening experience of “Dissect,” which encourages the listener to chronologically savor an album cover to cover. The series has featured modern classics including Kendrick Lamar’s “To Pimp a Butterfly,” Beyoncé’s “Lemonade” and Kanye West’s “My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy.” Cole Cuchna, who has a degree in music composition, has said he began the show in 2016 to see if he could take the technical academic analysis usually reserved for classical music and apply it to hip-hop. The results speak for themselves.
Starter episode: “Compton, K Dot, and Kendrick Lamar”
‘Dolly Parton’s America’
Dolly Parton has long maintained devoted fan bases on both sides of the political aisle, which isn’t something many country stars can claim. It was that unifying quality that inspired Jad Abumrad, creator and a former host of the public radio mainstay “Radiolab,” to create a podcast in which he could pay tribute to Parton’s enduring appeal and try to define what she signifies as an American icon. Featuring candid interviews with Parton and her collaborators, the nine-episode series for WNYC Studios chronicles her life and career, including close reads on some of her biggest hits and a reexamination of some forgotten chapters (including an early “sad, gothic” phase). But what really elevates “Dolly Parton’s America” is the personal touch — such as Parton’s unlikely friendship with Abumrad’s surgeon father, prompting some compelling, unexpected parallels between her music and his family’s experience as Lebanese immigrants in Nashville, Tennessee.
Starter episode: “I Will Always Leave You”