Due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, many of us have been at home a lot more often, and that’s meant finding ways to work, connect and entertain ourselves, largely with the help of screens. In the wake of Zoom happy hours and Netflix marathon after marathon, you probably took a much-needed screen break — and, if you’re anything like us, that meant you queued up some podcasts. From immersive audio dramas and pop culture-focused comedy pods to incisive cultural critiques, insightful interviews and top-notch investigative journalism, these podcasts not only stood out in a year full of content, but they also helped us weather an incredibly challenging and isolating year.
Editor’s Note: we’ve compiled a list of the 10 podcasts that got us through 2021.
1. Code Switch
“The fearless conversations about race that you’ve been waiting for” is how NPR describes its popular podcast, Code Switch. Although the hosts of Code Switch have spent years interrogating race and how it impacts everything from pop culture to history, the podcast reached a few significant milestones just this year. That is, the show hit No. 1 on Apple’s charts, and, in June, there was a 270% surge in downloads.
For co-host Shereen Marisol Meraji, who leads the podcast alongside Gene Demby, the success was conflicting because it came in the wake of the murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and Ahmaud Arbery. On the whole, however, Meraji, Demby and the show’s rotating contributors are glad that the show has resonated — and reached such a wide audience. “We’re talking to people who have been marginalized and underrepresented for so long,” Meraji notes, “[people] who are so hungry to see themselves represented fully and with nuance and complexity.”
Without a doubt, Code Switch is ever-relevant, funny and educational, but it also provides access to stories the mainstream media might not normally cover — told by folks who have lived those experiences. Now, it’s up to listeners to keep supporting Code Switch, to keep confronting oppression and racism — not just when it’s trending on Apple’s charts.
2. This Land
What do the 1839 assassination of a Cherokee leader and a 1999 murder case have in common? For one, they’re the “backbone” of a “2020 Supreme Court decision that determined the fate of five tribes and nearly half the land in Oklahoma.” It’s likely that you only heard about this monumental case and its ties to native land rights and tribal sovereignty once SCOTUS reached its verdict earlier this year, but getting the full picture is essential to understanding just how landmark the ruling is for Indigenous folks.
“Our sovereignty is boxed in through the creation of reservations,” This Land host Rebecca Nagle, an Oklahoma journalist and citizen of the Cherokee Nation, told Outside. “But the U.S. doesn’t even respect that box.” If you’ve been paying attention, then you’ll recall that the July 2020 SCOTUS ruling led to the largest restoration of tribal land in the history of the U.S. However, knowing the outcome of the case isn’t enough: With This Land, listeners can delve deeper into specific events, and the ways they intersect, in order to learn just how much continues to be at stake when it comes to tribal sovereignty and the larger Land Back movement.
Hosted by queer standup comic Cameron Esposito, Queery allows listeners to sit in on hour-long conversations between Esposito and her interviewees. What connects Esposito’s guests is that (with a few exceptions) they are all part of the LGBTQ+ community, meaning that identity, queerness, gender and other topics are prioritized and explored with much more nuance and intimacy than a straight host could manage. Up top, Esposito notes that the show is “about individual experience and personal identity,” which means one guest’s particular experience of queerness — or the language they use — might not always align with yours.
In that vein, Queery feels like media that was created for queer folx — as opposed to something like the Queer Eye reboot, which feels like it was made to be both palatable and accessible for straight/cis viewers. There’s a time and place for both approaches, and centering not just queer guests, but also queer listeners, is refreshing — and necessary. For Esposito, the podcast was a way to “[reinvest] in the queer community,” and while we love her humorous takes and tangents, we also love the way she’s leveraging her platform and resources as a white and cis queer person to amplify the stories and voices of queer and trans folx.
4. Keep It
If there’s one podcast that mixes incisive political and cultural commentary with pop culture references and ever-Tweet-able quotes, it’s Keep It, a show started a few years ago by writer Ira Madison III. Flood Magazine describes the origin of the podcast’s title best, noting that it’s “named after a cheeky phrase Ira coined with his prodigious Twitter presence, always in reference to some film, book, collab, political candidate, act of artificial wokeness, or anything, really, that he simply doesn’t have time for and would rather not exist.” Honestly, same.
What really elevates Keep It is the conversational energy its charismatic, witty — and consistently laugh-out-loud funny — hosts bring to each episode. Joining Madison are pop culture-, Oscars- and Karen Carpenter-enthusiast Louis Virtel and Big Mouth writer Aida Osman, who just celebrated a year on the podcast. The chemistry, the bickering, the stanning, the lovable tangents — this show has it all. In fact, Keep It is unequivocally our favorite weekly podcast from Crooked Media — and, yes, keep that, Lovett or Leave It.
5. Nice White Parents
“I don’t think I’ll be forgetting the first episode of Nice White Parents anytime soon,” Nicholas Quah wrote in a review for Vulture. That’s quite the introduction to the New York Times and Serial collaboration, but it’s also not hyperbole. Hosted and reported by This American Life vet Chana Joffe-Walt, Nice White Parents shines a spotlight on the “60-year relationship between white parents and the public school down the block.”
The thesis at hand? That even well-meaning white parents are preventing “school integration and a more equitable distribution of resources.” Quah elaborates, writing that Joffe-Walt “substantiates your gut feeling with vivid documentation, giving flesh to what was previously skeletal suspicion.” That is, if you think you know, dig deeper — learn more about how this ultimately oppressive and unequal system operates. In the end, it’s white people, especially wealthy and straight and cis white people, who benefit the most from maintaing the system that’s in place — and those are the same people who need to listen to this podcast the most.
6. Back Issue
New York Times writer Sandra E. Garcia called the Back Issue hosts’ “encyclopedic memory of pop culture moments…a balm in trying times.” Each episode, hosts Tracy Clayton, best known for hosting Netflix’s Strong Black Legends, and Josh Gwynn, a Pineapple Street Studios producer, take a look at some of the biggest badgering questions that crop up in pop culture history. For them, it’s all about investigating why certain moments stick — or why certain words, trends and moments became so popular — because “nostalgia is more than just a feeling.”
In addition to the hosts’ clear chemistry and a slate of great guests, Back Issue stands out because, unlike other pop culture podcasts, it never centers a discussion on current entertainment offerings. Speaking to Garcia about the podcast’s focus on nostalgic pop culture versus new releases, Gwynn noted that “There is a reason these moments stuck with us and why they are so fundamental.” In many ways, pop culture shapes us, but it can also have the same calming effect as a hot cup of tea. And that kind of comfort was invaluable during a challenging year like 2020.
7. Beautiful Anonymous
Hosted by Chris Gethard, Beautiful Anonymous takes everything you once loved — or, maybe, could’ve loved — about a late-night talk radio show and updates it for podcast listeners. The concept is straightforward, but also genius. Guests call into the show, and Gethard is obligated to stay on the phone with them for an hour and chat about whatever comes up. The caller, on the other hand, can hang up at any time — though they generally don’t.
Since callers don’t reveal their names or other identifying information, things stay anonymous, which means callers often get quite vulnerable and share otherwise difficult or uncomfortable experiences, feelings, opinions and confessions with Gethard. While Gethard’s standup training equips him with some great on-the-spot comedy chops, he’s also such a compelling host when it comes to discussing the heavier stuff, too. In his own special, Career Suicide, Gethard discussed his experiences of depression, death by suicide attempts and alcoholism, and, perhaps because of his own lived experiences, the ever-caring Gethard really reaches callers (and listeners) in a poignant way old-school radio hosts only dreamed of.
8. The Left Right Game
This year, the QCode media collective has released several incredible audio dramas, but one of the best is The Left Right Game, which was written by Jack Anderson, produced by its star Tessa Thompson and based off of a story post on Reddit’s r/nosleep. For those who don’t know, every story posted on r/nosleep is considered true, even if it’s fictional, so if you comment on said story, the subreddit’s gimmick is that you play along and stay in character. All of this has led to the rise of a kind of internet-based urban-legend-meets-campfire-horror-story genre. And let’s just say it works amazingly well in podcast form.
The podcast centers on two different, but interrelated, stories. In one thread, a man named Tom (Aml Ameen) is searching for a journalist named Alice Sharman (Thompson); no one seems to believe that she exists — and Tom is the only one who seems to remember her. Meanwhile, seemingly a little while before the start of Tom’s story, Alice heads to the U.S. to investigate a strange phenomenon called The Left Right Game. The game, which simply involves going for a drive and taking a left turn and then a right turn and then a left and so on, takes a paranormal turn. The audio drama is made all the more unsettling thanks to QCode’s use of audio panning to create an incredibly immersive, surround sound experience.
9. Staying In With Emily and Kumail
Unsurprisingly, the pandemic caused some podcasters to take a break from weekly uploads, but, for others, being stuck at home meant finding new creative outlets and ways to connect. Married couple Emily V. Gordon and Kumail Nanjiani definitely fell into the second category of creatives, and their short-lived Staying In podcast brought us so much joy. The first episode, fittingly titled “Fumbling for Normalcy,” was released on the heels of early pandemic phenomena, like Tiger King, and saw the duo discussing how to keep from catching cabin fever while sheltering in place.
Lighthearted enough to take your mind off of all the stressful COVID-19 stuff but real and vulnerable enough to feel like a genuine boost (unlike, say, the infamous celeb “Imagine” video), listening to Emily and Kumail on a weekly basis felt like connecting with pals. From discussing a thrilling Final Fantasy VII Remake playthrough to reminiscing about bursting into tears while baking bread, no stone was left untouched. The bottom line: This one was incredibly relatable, and it all helped us feel a little less alone during that first moment of irrevocable change.
10. The Bechdel Cast
Named after cartoonist Alison Bechdel, the Bechdel test is a way to measure the representation of women in fiction. Although Bechdel credits her friend Liz Wallace and the writings of Virginia Woolf with the idea for the test, it first appeared in the cartoonist’s seminal work Dykes to Watch Out For (1985). The basic idea? In order to pass the test, two women must talk to each other about something other than a man. Ideally, the two women should also have names, because the bar is absolutely on the floor.
If those sound like easy requirements to hit, think again. Of 8,076 movies surveyed only 57.6% hit all the marks. And that’s where something like the The Bechdel Cast comes in. Hosted by comedians Caitlin Durante and Jamie Loftus, the feminist comedy podcast takes a look at a different movie each week and delves into its depiction of women — among other things (and long-running in-jokes). “[It’s] the symbiosis between Durante’s scholastic, organized mind and Loftus’s filthy, absurdist one that have kept afloat this silly-salty show…,” Vulture‘s Sean Malin writes. “[…From] its inception [the show] has earnestly considered the representation of women in film while also talking sh-t about it.”
Another Crooked Media gem, Hysteria is a weekly podcast that sees political commentator and comedy writer Erin Ryan — and her “bicoastal squad of funny, opinionated women,” including folks like Ziwe Fumudoh and Alyssa Mastromonaco — taking on politics, current events and pop culture happenings. Without a doubt, Hysteria shines in a sea of political, news-centric podcasts. Why? Well, writing for Cosmopolitan about the show, Hannah Smothers notes, “The smartest thing Crooked Media’s male founders have done: hire so many women and let them do their thing.”
Yes, that seems obvious, but, at the time when the show first launched, Crooked didn’t really have any women-helmed podcasts. And whether Hysteria is centering on trending news stories or rom-com tropes, the host and her colleagues are looking at topics that impact women and filtering them through their own lived experiences. “It’s not about impressing the people you’re having a conversation with if you’re doing a podcast,” Ryan explained in that Cosmo article. “I really wanted Hysteria to be a show that made our listeners think that talking about politics was something they can and should be doing, even if they’re not professional political-opinion-havers.”
12. Still Processing
Still Processing is a New York Times culture podcast that’s hosted by Jenna Wortham, staff writer for The New York Times Magazine and co-editor of Black Futures, and Pulitzer Prize-winning Times critic-at-large Wesley Morris. Formatted as a discussion between the co-hosts — and often punctuated by interviews, guests’ insight and soundbites from media — Still Processing takes on everything from current events to works of art and pop culture, and it does so with a tone The Atlantic called “sharp and intellectual, goofy and raw.”
Whether the hosts are putting Toni Morrison’s Beloved and Jordan Peele’s Us (2019) into conversation or interrogating how works of dystopian and utopian fiction can help us imagine a better world, Wortham and Morris have a comfortable, energizing chemistry. As they get excited about where their conversation leads, you feel that, too. “Perhaps now more than ever,” Thomas Curry writes in AnOther magazine, “Still Processing‘s return, with Morris and Wortham’s blend of familiar intimacy and incisive criticism, is a welcome comfort.”
Relatively new to the scene, QCode’s narrative dramas are often produced, in part, by a big-name star, and Borrasca is no exception. Here, Riverdale‘s Cole Sprouse plays Sam Walker, a man who, after years of personal struggle and keeping things pent up, tells his parole officer, Leah Dixon (Lisa Edelstein), about a disturbing series of events that occurred in his childhood after his family moved to the small town of Drisking, Missouri. Each episode begins and ends with a session between Sam and Leah, but sandwiched in between are flashbacks that highlight key moments in Sam’s past.
In the first episode, a young Sam befriends two other Drisking kids, Kyle (Daniel Webber) and Kimber (Sarah Yarkin). While on a bike ride, a horrifying sound known as the “Borrasca Scream” tears through the forest. Kyle and Kimber explain that no one knows the origins of the scream — it’s just something that happens — and, in its aftermath, the older teens in town throw a Borrasca party at a creepy treehouse in the woods. Sam finds his world upended when his own sister, Whitney (Peyton Kennedy), vanishes at one of these parties. Although his parents choose to believe that Whitney simply ran away, Sam is convinced that something more nefarious is going on — and that it connects to Borrasca, this place of legend.
Written by Rebecca Klingel, this horror podcast started as a multi-part short story that Klingel (a.k.a. CK Walker) posted on Reddit’s r/nosleep community, where it won the subreddit’s award for Scariest Story in 2015. Pro tip: As is the case with The Left Right Game, definitely listen to this dark, disturbing and all-consuming audio drama with headphones — the sound design is unparalleled and only adds to the immersive atmosphere.