The 10 best podcasts of 2021
By The Star Staff
It would be impossible for anyone to listen to each of the hundreds of thousands of podcasts that published new episodes in 2021, let alone rank them. But even within that distressingly bountiful landscape, these shows — personal and ambitious, argumentative and entertaining — were worth a detour.
It’s not easy to find something new to say about Sept. 11, which is what makes this provocative and creatively reported series from Dan Taberski (“Missing Richard Simmons,” “Running from Cops”) such a striking listening experience. The show begins with a crew of reality show contestants who set sail on a six-week, 18th century-themed voyage in August 2001. The sailors’ relative inability to engage with the wider world initially prevented them from forming hard impressions of the attacks, a state of innocence that Taberski sets out to re-create. Backed by a stunning score from jazz composer Daniel Herskedal, “9/12” uses little-memorialized stories from the “war on terror” years (a Pakistani grocery store owner in New York who advocates for his detained and desperate neighbors; the staff of The Onion versus a climate of anti-humor) to challenge conventional wisdom about what it all meant.
‘Forever Is a Long Time’
Ian Coss’ five-part meditation on the improbability of lifelong commitment couldn’t have been more personal. Motivated by lingering doubts about the durability of his own marriage, he interviewed divorced members of his family and their former spouses about why theirs fell apart. Each episode tells a different love story from beginning to end, with Coss gathering evidence like a single-minded detective. The details he uncovers — and, at the end of each episode, sets to music in an original song inspired by the couple — quietly reflect the irreducible mysteries of human intimacy.
Loosely translated as “the hustle” or “the struggle,” the concept of “la brega” is a point of common heritage and a point of departure in this expansive story collection and love letter to Puerto Rico. Produced in English and Spanish by a collective of Puerto Rican journalists and hosted by Alana Casanova-Burgess, each episode of “La Brega” creates a transporting sense of place. Rich and underexamined American histories abound in its stories of pothole fillers, political activists and basketball heroes who navigate their own versions of the struggle, many of which trace back to the very idea of a self-governing territory in the United States.
‘The Midnight Miracle’
Sound-rich, unpredictable and borderline hypnotic, this star-studded conversation show from Dave Chappelle, Yasiin Bey and Talib Kweli is much more than a celebrity podcast. The three hosts, longtime friends and collaborators, are joined by a revolving cast of funny and thoughtful guests (David Letterman, Chris Rock, Jon Stewart) who wax extemporaneously about subjects falling generally under the banners of art, philosophy and politics. Inventive sound design — voices and scoring seamlessly enter and exit the central conversation — makes it feel like the world’s most interesting dinner party.
‘One Year: 1977’
Produced and hosted by Josh Levin, a former host of “Slow Burn,” “One Year” takes that show’s forensic historical lens and zooms both in and out, attempting to capture a year of life in America by focusing on its distinctive icons, manias and controversies. As with all good history, its most haunting episodes — including one focusing on a quack treatment for cancer that became a deadly phenomenon among celebrities and science skeptics — resonate uncannily with the present.
‘The Plot Thickens: The Devil’s Candy’
Julie Salamon unearthed a trove of half-forgotten tape recordings to make this podcast adaptation of “The Devil’s Candy,” her classic book on Hollywood filmmaking. That book, first published in 1991, showed readers the doomed production of Brian De Palma’s “The Bonfire of the Vanities”; the podcast puts listeners in the middle of it. On-set interviews with De Palma, Tom Hanks, Bruce Willis, Melanie Griffith and a small army of assistants and crafts people resurrect a quixotic effort to mingle high art and dizzying commerce.
Born in the aftermath of the global Black Lives Matter protests in the summer of 2020, “Resistance” is more interested in revolutions of a much smaller scale. The host, Saidu Tejan-Thomas Jr., and the producer-reporters Salifu Sesay Mack, Bethel Habte and Aaron Randle find hard-to-shake stories in the circumstances that push individuals off the tram lines of their day-to-day existence. Lesser-known miscarriages of justice are made personal and palpable, as in one episode about a woman fighting to free her incarcerated partner and co-parent, and another about the plunder of an early 20th century oasis for the Black bathers of Manhattan Beach.
‘Rough Translation: Home/Front’
The latest season of “Rough Translation,” Gregory Warner’s podcast about the ways cultural conflicts abroad mirror and reframe our own, focused exclusively on an American schism — the “Civ-Mil divide” between civilians and the members of the military who fight on their behalf. Quil Lawrence, NPR’s longtime veterans correspondent, shows how this binary obscures fundamentally human acts of compassion and sacrifice on both sides. His patient eye and ear capture a cast of unforgettable characters, including Alicia and Matt Lammers, whose civ-mil marriage buckles under the weight of compounding trauma, and Marla Ruzicka, an irrepressible aid worker who changed the way the Pentagon handles civilian casualties.
‘The Sporkful: Mission Impastable’
Dan Pashman, a longtime food critic and the host of “The Sporkful,” spent much of his career dreaming of something most people wouldn’t think to imagine: the perfect pasta shape. His three-year quest to not only design that shape (he doesn’t think it exists, and he might convince you) but also get it manufactured unfolds like the overachieving love child of earlier audio capers from “Radiolab,” “StartUp” and “Planet Money.” The emotional roller coaster Pashman endures will be familiar to anyone who has ever tried to make a hit — edible or otherwise.
‘Welcome to Your Fantasy’
Natalia Petrzela’s sweeping account of the rise and fall of Chippendales — the traveling male strip show that became a global phenomenon in the spandex-clad ’80s — manages to transcend its noisy keywords: sex, true crime, hidden history. Those things are served, of course, in good measure. But what distinguishes the show is its evocative mood, characters and story. And what a story it is. The stranger-than-fiction odyssey of the troupe’s founder, Steve Banerjee — from immigrant small-business owner to green-eyed sex industry titan to murderous racketeer — is a true American classic.