Life continues to be unpredictable as we near the end of 2021. There's always a great new show to listen to when you're in the middle of the chaos.
Last year, podcasts gained even more relevance, as one of the only safe ways to make entertainment during the Pandemic and as a type of sorely-needed companion. It was a return to the previous role that podcasting used to fill in our pre-pandemic lives, but also an expansion of the medium's cultural importance.
Maybe you're back to work, or maybe you're still leaning on the internet for company. There are many new gems across every genre, from the mega popularity of true crime to deep-dive investigative reporting and riveting stories.
There are always new things to discover, but we loved these ones the most. Only titles or new seasons that were released this year were considered.
1. Through the cracks.
It's about true crime, systemic racism, injustice, and personal narrative.
In this golden age of true crime, the stories of victims from certain demographic are often left untold. Jonquilyn Hill ensured that the case of 8-year-old Relisha Rudd, who went missing from a D.C. homeless shelter, would never be forgotten again. Less of a whodunit and more of a how-could-we-let-this-happen, Hill covers the case with equal parts journalistic rigor and empathy. Can a single family member be blamed when our society fails to protect Black girls and women from falling through the cracks?
2. How did it happen?
It's about Trump, American politics, and the Capitol riots.
I don't know about you, but I've got a lot more processing to do about everything that happened from 2020 to January 2021. Jonathan Swan is best known on the web for his highly memed Trump interview focusing on his COVID-19 response. The most stunning behind-the-scenes moments with the former president leading up to the Capitol insurrection are covered by Swan. Swan and Axios' reputability speaks for themselves, even though the reporting requires some skepticism and leaps of faith in trusting anonymous sources.
3. Anything for Selena.
Selena, Latinx identity, culture, art, racism, and personal narrative are what it's about.
Selena and Me isn't just about the beloved Mexican-American singer who was tragically murdered at the height of her career. The beating heart of Latin-American identity is touched on in the podcast. The cultural context behind Selena's significance to the community is combined with her own personal narrative by Maria, seeking to understand more about herself through the pop star who helped many who straddle a multicultural background feel so seen. The nine-part series has both an English and Spanish version.
It's about science, mysteries, space, the universe, technology and innovation.
"While Vox is known for explaining complicated ideas in easy to understand ways, its new podcast Unexplainable flips that premise on its head." Unexplainable sits with the most incomprehensible unknowns of all time. Unexplainable shows us that human knowledge has many limits and that we need to get comfortable with that. That's awesome.
5. Your Fantasy is here.
Sex work, true crime, greed, gender politics, corruption, and the '80s are what it's about.
Murder, male strippers, and discussion about female desire in the '80s are things that welcome to your fantasy. This new Gimlet true crime series bares all about the strange, scandalous, seedy, and surprisingly dark origins of the Chippendales dancers, which is all fun, games, and gG-strings until it ends with the awful murder of one of its primary founders.
6. The search for Jermain was stolen.
What it's about is true crime, injustice, Indigenous women and girls, and domestic violence.
We're big fans of the work of the reporter. Her previous true crime show, Missing & Murdered, shone a spotlight on the larger issues behind the disappearance of an Indigenous woman. Walker dives into the murder of Jermain Charlo, a mother who went missing from her home on a Montana reservation, in Stolen. Walker shows the disproportionate amount of violence that Indigenous women in America face, whether from the justice system established by colonizers, their own communities, or their own life partners.
What it's about is digital culture, social media trend and drama.
Slate's new digital culture show ICYMI is here to digest all the latest chaos, trends, and drama from the web so you don't have to. We would like to thank the hosts, Madison and Rachelle. The newest viral main character of social media got into trouble, and this is why it matters. It's always finding a way to cut through the noise of the digital void to find the human side of it all.
8. The Long Island serial killer is notraveled.
It's about true crime, serial killers, police corruption and investigative journalism.
If you're a true crime enthusiast, you've probably heard of the Long Island serial killer more than once. The level of investigative work done by co-hosts Billy Jensen and Alexis Linkletter is unparalleled. The two uncover never-before-heard evidence, finding bread crumbs of new information that help chip away at the inexplicable puzzle that is the LISK case. It's a season with twists and turns you won't want to miss, and it's about the police force tasked with solving the murder of 11 victims buried for over a decade on a beach.
9. The experiment was done.
America, history, social inequalities, society, current events are what it's about.
The American experiment is one of the biggest sources of mis education in our country. Julia Longoria applies the ideals of America's past that were held to be self-evident, then measures them up against our current reality in this WNYC Studios and Atlantic collaboration. The experiment can find lessons in trash reality TV shows like 90 Day Fiance, because it brings the high ideals of this country's founding to everyday experiences.
10. The voice is soft.
It's about fiction, women's experiences, consciousness, and mental illness.
It's great, but think again, whatever you think you can expect from QCODE's new Soft Voice fictional podcast, think again. We know that it's an absolute trip, but we're not entirely sure what's going on. It tells the story of Lydia, a woman who lives an ideal life because she listens to Soft Voice, a little dictator inside her head who insists on being perfect. One day, it's gone. We'll leave it at that, but you should listen to the journey with headphones. There is a warning in the beginning about sensitive topics that might be triggering to some.
11. The mode is called depress mode.
Mental well-being, self-care struggles, mental illness, comedy are what it's about.
The Hilarious World of Depression host John Moe is back to talk about and laugh through our pain. Guests talk about their mental state as a larger culture. Often, these guests are well-known comedians, musicians, and actors, who speak candidly about struggles with the oh-so-common yet still taboo issues of depression, anxiety, grief, mental illness, and trauma. Mental health experts are covered in equal measure by Moe.
There are 12. Jo Piazza was under the influence.
What it's about is digital culture, social media, gender inequity, and personal narrative.
For a reason, Jo Piazza is a staple of the podcasting world. In her Under the Influence series, Piazza tackles another under-discussed narrative in media: the power and innovation of mommy bloggers. Through a mixture of personal narrative and a long-awaited deep dive into the oft dismissed billion-dollar industry, it's a podcast about navigating social media's influence on our lives, ambitions, and business. Piazza set out to understand and even become the ideal of a mommy blogger after experiencing job insecurity and disillusionment with her career in media. This isn't a show that seeks to judge or diminish, and it's not just for women. If you're interested in the internet, digital culture, and the impact these unstoppable forces have on us, then this is a must- listen.
13. Ibram X. Kendi is an antiracist.
It's about racism, sexism, ableism, and anti-Blackness.
It's great because you're going to learn about our greatest untold injustices but also find our common humanity with the help of historian Ibram X. Kendi. He tackles all the aspects of what it means to be antiracist in his new podcast, which features both personal narrative and interviews with renowned guests across academia, activism, journalism, and politics. If you've never heard of this term, it's a great guide to help you understand how we can build a world beyond the systems of oppression that keep us from ourselves and each other.
There are 14. There is a spectacle.
Reality TV, society and culture, gender and race politics, media history are what it's about.
We have not even begun to think about the societal shift we're currently experiencing after the golden age of reality TV. Spectacle is a show that unpacks everything from reality TV's most telling history, moments, and stars. With the help of a host of other insightful experts, it leaves no facet of this influential cultural force unexplored.
15. It was a dark history.
It's about true crime, macabre history, and humor.
Bailey Sarian is the host of Dark History and she's a big fan of true crime. She's known for her popular "Murder, Mystery & Makeup" series, in which she does her make-up fabulously but also recaps true crime cases. Sarian's hit show Dark History covers dark and spooky stories from the past that don't fit the typical true crime mold but still have that same itch.
16. Counterclock Season 3 is in progress.
It's about true crime, investigative journalism and murder.
It's great because it's good for Crime Junkie fans. Audiochuck, hosted by investigative journalist Delia D'Ambra but executive produced by the popular true-crime podcast creator, had a third season. D'Ambra brings the original reporting that some have criticized for lacking, with a year-long probe into the case of the Pelley family. The son of a pastor who was brutally murdered along with most of their other family members was convicted in 2006 and sentenced to life in prison. D'Ambra's own reporting calls into question a lot of what people thought they knew.
17. The internet urban legends.
It's about internet culture, ghosts, murder, conspiracy theories and more.
It's great because another pair of YouTubers are making the leap from the small screen to audio, and they are best known for vlogging about the web's greatest mysteries. They cover everything from the Momo Challenge to Horror TikTok in this new Parcast and Spotify original. If you've ever wondered if something on the internet is real, this is the place to go.
It's about grief, digital culture, stan culture, mental health, suicide, and Britney Spears.
Unread is not for the faint of heart. The mini-series has a determination to cope with grief, trauma, depression, loneliness, and the need to reach across the screen for connection. Chris Stedman takes listeners on a journey as he follows the trail left behind by his friend Alex. Alex died by suicide, but before he died, he sent out emails to his friends that said he would no longer be alive. The internet mystery is a love letter to all of us lost souls who must turn to the internet for acceptance. There is a caveat about covering sensitive topics related to mental health struggles.
19. You must remember Gossip Girls.
Hollywood history, gender and race politics, media history are what it's about.
"You Must Remember This tells the strange and forgotten history of old Hollywood." We wrote in our Best History Podcasts roundup that host and producer Karina Longworth researches the stories deeply and weaves interesting, narrative-driven tales. Longworth dives into the stories of Louella and Hedda Hopper, two celebrity columnists who pioneered the format in the 1940s. The ride will include a lot of feuds, hot (old Hollywood) goss, industry corruption, gender politics, racism, and ultimately the incredible story of how two women on parallel tracks gained unprecedented power in male-dominated Tinsel Town.
20. On our watch.
It's about police corruption, law enforcement, systemic injustice, issues of race and gender.
You probably think you have a good grasp on police corruption. It's clear that this institutional violation to protect and serve violates every citizen's rights, regardless of race, thanks to KQED and NPR's On Our Watch. A recent California law gave journalists like Sukey Lewis access to a mountain of police documents departments never thought would see the light of day, and how the entire justice system evades accountability. The team goes beyond the more widely known forms of police brutality to reveal more endemic issues, ones that intersect with ableism and other types of violence. It's a call for support of investigative reporting that is usually our greatest weapon to demand the truth, and it's also a call for highlighting injustice.
21. Truer crime.
It covers true crime, social justice, criminal justice, racism, sexism, and homophobia.
The Black Lives Matter protests of 2020 made the uglier parts of true crime harder to ignore. Celisia is a wedding photographer, high school debate coach, prison abolitionist, and first-time podcaster. Truer Crime tackles the ethical critiques thrown at the genre and then some. The Jonestown Massacre, in which over 900 members of a predominantly Black civil rights group were forced to poison themselves by their white leader Jim Jones, is one of the classic true crime stories. You have never heard them say this before. The TrueCrimeTok space is helping to make it a less toxic, white-focused space by having a TikTok page. In a genre with too many false narratives, Stanton stands out by revealing the truth of crime in America and getting at the heart of those most victimized by systems that increase violence.
22. Did the Witches do it if I went missing?
What it covers is fiction, humor, satire, true crime, horror, literature, social commentary, racism, sexism, and stories.
If I Go Missing the Witches Did It is one of the best introductions to satire we've ever heard, and it's a woefully under appreciated niche. This genre parody is like if everyone's favorite white lady true crime show met 2020's The Craft remake and the hilarious yet boundary-pushing stylings of Ziwe. A missing Black woman writer is being saved by a white host who is trying to be a True Ally to her by exploiting her voice memos. The show is also a great binge-worthy thriller because of its biting social commentary on racism and sexism in posi-vibes manifest destiny trendy witch influencer culture.
There is a new date for this. It was close to death.
It covers death, humor, society and grief.
Nobody likes to think about death. A lot of us need to talk about it after 2020. Talking about death doesn't need to be gruesome or drab. Each week, Close to Death gives a different comedian, reporter, or writer the chance to explore an aspect of death that compelled them. Each episode is a roller coaster of humor, vulnerability, pragmatism and hope, from trying to learn how to write your own obituary, to meeting a witch who claims to connect with the dead, to the ins-and-outs of a human compost farm. It is the perfect way to shift discussions of death away from the unmentionable and into the normal.
24. The Land of Giants: Season 4.
It covers big tech, internet culture, and current events.
Historians will point to a new era in human history when they look back on this time. Tech giants that dominate our culture, economy, and even politics need thorough understanding and investigation. Recode's Land of the Giants explains how powerful companies came to be and how they cost the rest of us. The first and most prevailing emperor of big tech, searching far and wide for the story behind Google, was the topic of the third season.
25. Black Death is a mini-series.
What it covers is true crime, comedy, pandemics, history and death.
You might think you're tired of hearing about global Pandemics in 2021, but you need to try this five-part series from one of our favorite true crime podcasts of all time. The deep dive into the Black Death shows how much we haven't changed in our collective response to mass death from disease. Lessons can be learned from the most catastrophic plague in human history. The approach of the show can make the lessons easier to comprehend, as the hosts trace the plagues seemingly unstoppable tear across the world over centuries, upending society while claiming millions of lives.
What it covers is queerness, humor, culture and society.
It's great because I'm not usually a fan of freewheeling conversations on loose topics, where the main draw is the feeling of hanging out with friends. StraightioLabs is the kind of fun and queer space that many LGBTQ folks crave but struggle to find, thanks to the parasocial friendship of comedians George Civeris and Sam Taggart. It is selling itself as "the only show about straight culture" with a wink and nod. Guests join to bond over the ridiculousness in mainstream and queer culture. It feels like home for a gay agenda-serving show.
27. Your magic.
What it covers is spirituality, witchcraft, alt culture and art.
Those who are down with all things mystical absolutely cannot miss out on Your Magic. It explores personal journeys through the lens of cosmic spirituality, but also is less pretentious than all that. One of the most beginner-friendly shows on our list, every episode centers around a celebrity guest interview, with people like Phoebe Bridgers coming on to discuss their magical practices as well as a tarot reading that digs into whatever they're currently going through. Each week there is a tarot reading from Tea, as well as a spell, affirmation, or manifestations you can try out yourself.
There is a new date for this. Murdaugh Murders is a show.
It covers true crime, investigative reporting, murder, and police corruption.
If you're a member of an online true crime community, you've probably heard a lot about the Murdaugh family in 2021, and the string of suspicious deaths and murder allegations that have surrounded this powerful South Carolina family dynasty. The kind of investigative journalism most true crime podcasts lack is what hostMandy Matney of FITSNews has been reporting on for years, on a complex case full of twists, turns, conspiracies, and corruption. The Murdaugh MurdersPodcast is one of the more ethical and honest approaches to real-time investigative true crime on the internet.
29. Miracle Man Season 3 is about Dr. Death.
It covers true crime, medical malpractice, and thrillers.
The Wondery series released its most fascinating and horrifying season yet with the case of once world- renowned surgeon Dr. Paolo Macchiarini. Benita Alexander is an NBC TV news producer, and Macchiarini was able to convince many people to cross ethical boundaries in his pursuit of a supposedly ground-breaking procedure. Many people were willing to excuse Macchiarini's atrocities in his pathologically ambitious pursuit of inspiring medical innovation. This season adds a personal layer of betrayal that hits especially hard, as Benita Alexander is tricked into compromising her journalistic integrity for the fabulously romantic fairytale Macchiarini spins.
Culture, society, politics, racism, America are covered.
It's hard to remember how much 9/11 changed the U.S., but Pineapple Street Studios' 9/12 is all about examining all the new realities people found themselves in. There are a lot of things we need to remember in this 20th anniversary year of 9/11. Re-processing the narratives we were fed for decades is more important than anything else.
31. Deathbed confessions.
It covers true crime, murder, conspiracy, mystery and thrillers.
It's great because life is too short to die with secrets, which is why the deathbed can often become like a religious confessional, unburdening souls of what they promised to take to the crave. The stories of the most dramatic final reveals of people's lives, with lifelong held secrets that may help uncover everything from the truth of an unsolved Hollywood murder to Jimmy Hoffa's infamous "disappearance," are told in this Parcast. A good bit of scandalizing fun is the combination of gossip with true crime and human drama.
32. It sounds like a cult.
What it covers is pop culture, society, sociology, celebrity, internet culture, modern Zeitgeist.
If you haven't been paying attention, cult mentality has casually seeped into an unprecedented amount of mainstream culture. Sounds Like a Cult is a way to tell the difference between a cult and a legit cult. The culty warning flags in everything from soul cycle to stan culture to the cult of personality driving the rise of the influential are different from most other recent podcasts diving into the topic of conspiracy and cults. The author of Cultish, Isabela Medina, and documentarian/comedian are non-judgmental in their approach to analyzing the variety of fanatical subgroups we all find ourselves in today.
33. Nice try! The second season of the interior.
What it covers is society, sociology, history, psychology, domesticity, and women's issues.
The host of Nice Try!, Avery Trufelman, explored the many different ways humans have sought utopia across the world. Trufelman explores one of the most universal visions of utopia still being universally sought today, that is sure to hit close to home. Trufelman talks to historians and experts about the impact of inventions like the doorbell and vacuum on the interiors of our homes. She is looking at what the home and lifestyle tech that seeks to improve our interiors say about contemporary society.
34. Not past it.
It covers: History, society, culture, America, injustice, racism, and sexism.
Each week, this Gimlet podcast revisits a historical event that happened in the past on the same week. Simone Polanen brings that compelling je ne sais quoi needed which truly connects history to the now in a way that makes it come alive for modern audiences. Not Past It focuses on the part of America's past that it would rather forget, from the racist atrocities that really haunt Lake Lanier to the immigrant woman who was tried as a witch in 1930s Detroit. There is a reason why so many want to make sure these stories are not repeated in the future.
35. I am not a monster.
Politics, war, family, and the terrorist organization, the Islamic State, are what it covers.
This investigative podcast tells the shocking story of how one American family wound up in the heart of the Islamic State. Journalist Josh Baker's four-year journey investigating an American mother who moved to Syria led to a now-infamous video of her 10-year-old son training to be a soldier and threatening then President Trump. Baker has direct access to the family and can tell a story filled with unanswered questions.
36. The verse is called Slit.
It covers fiction, horror, fantasy and immersing stories.
If you're a fan of expansive, unsettling podcasts fiction in the tradition of Tanis or Welcome to Nightvale, then the Slit Verses will be right up your alley. A self-proclaimed "folks horror" audio journey, it builds its alternate fantasy world slowly and deliberately, starting small with two characters on a mysterious mission before expanding out. It is sure to get your heart racing and keep you hypnotized.
37. Human resources.
What it doesn't cover: British culture.
History is often removed from the humanity of the people who lived through it and inherit its consequences. The conflicts of the past are still very present in day-to-day life for host Moya Lothian-McLean, a British journalist who is also descended from enslaved Black Africans and their white oppressors. In the series, Lothian-McLean talks to historians and experts to understand the full scope and human cost of British participation in the slave trade. The tradition of country manors, chocolate production, and other aspects of British culture are all covered in Lothian-McLean.
This post was published in June of 2021. It was updated with more recommendations.