As much as I love podcasts, and as much as I love year end roundup lists, I didn’t think to pick my top ten until just the other day.
As many of you have heard my sad tale of woe, in a major update from Apple, my podcast app froze and effectively wiped my entire listening history. I recreated the majority of my list in my new podcast app, but I might have missed something in between. (I use and recommend Pocket Cast now!)
While some of these may have come out in years prior to 2021, or are ongoing, I listened to them in 2021, so they are eligible for this countdown.
So here, without much further ado, here are my top ten podcast picks for the year!
Not one person is surprised by this recommendation, surely. I love this podcast and I’m not quiet about it!
Hobbes and Marshall’s ability to pull apart what we think we know and what is surely “true” is equal parts engaging, hilarious, and heartbreaking.
This podcast asks questions of it’s listeners in non judgemental ways, but also has no problem punching up with it’s jokes.
May I Suggest you Start on This Episode: The Challenger Disaster
Formerly What Trump Can Teach us About Con Law, this podcast shows how much of constitutional law is based on assuming the president and members of the senate are behaving appropriately and lawfully.
From grand philosophical ideas to the everyday life of everyday Americans, Roman Mars and Professor Joh walk us through incredibly complex ideas with humanity and curiosity.
May I Suggest you Start on This Episode: Pattern and Practice
This is one of the most unique approaches to a true crime podcast I have ever come across.
Humane but unflinching, this is a scathing look at how our justice system failed an accused person who was also arguably a victim himself.
Where we have an arguable glut of podcasts from the United States, there is value in holding truth to power in the country which you live – as a Canadian, I appreciate this perspective especially.
May I Suggest you Start on This Episode: Part 1: The Eleventh Day
I dismissed this podcast outright when I first heard about it. It felt like a justification, it felt morally wrong, it surely was a tawdry look at a bad woman making bad choice.
However, Josh Baker’s reporting on this family and how they ended up in ISIS is nothing short of remarkable. Every twist and turn is told with as much factual accuracy as possible, and reveals the humanity of a person who I never thought I would be able to understand on any level.
May I Suggest you Start on This Episode: 1. I Love You, I Miss You
This podcast is a little bit about falling in love, a little bit of the madness that comes with making art, a little bit about being young and wild in the city, a little bit about finding or making community, and a huge dollop of a maybe murder mystery. This story is winding but tightly told, and I eagerly awaited each podcast episode as it was released. Genuinely, it sounds like fiction, and I checked a few times to see if this really was a work of non-fiction (it is!).
May I Suggest you Start on This Episode: Who’s Sorry Now?
I was wrong about Lolita. I was wrong about what everyone said about this book. I was wrong and Jaimie Loftus kindly walked her listeners through every single step as to where we went wrong.
This historical perspective, literary criticism, and every other conceivable criticism of what is likely the most misunderstood book ever published all comes together in a podcast that is somehow both incredibly definitive and highly nuanced.
May I Suggest you Start on This Episode: Dolores, Not Lolita
Can animals talk? From cute TikTok videos about dogs pushing talking buttons to parrots using rude language, this podcast looks at animal linguistics with the focus on everyone’s favourite gorilla Koko. From the ethical quandaries to the clever Hans style issues of researcher bias, this podcast delves into the science and the science about the science.
May I Suggest you Start on This Episode: A Talking Gorilla
As someone who worked in various not-for-profits, the We Charity is the other side of the planetary spectrum from my experience with the dirt-under-your-nails, count-your-penny charities with which I am familiar.
I think we have all heard rumours about the We Charity, and I think many people have commented vaguely that something about this charity didn’t pass the smell test, but this deep dive look at the We Charity, their reach, and their ability to make their own rules puts this whole organization in perspective.
May I Suggest you Start on This Episode: The Children’s Crusade
I always felt like the documentary Hell’s Angel comes across as a hit piece. The facts might be true, but to make this argument, there needs to be some compassion.
The Turning is an honest, even handed look at the women who have left Mother Theresa’s order. At it’s core, it is a human story, and holds space for a discussion about the well loved woman who is on her way to becoming a saint.
How do you level criticism about Mother Theresa and her order? With love for others and a commitment to honesty that transcends an agenda, as it turns out.
May I Suggest you Start on This Episode: No Turning Back
Without hesitation, I will say that this is the best podcast I listened to in 2021.
Smart, assumption challenging, both practical and lofty, this podcast looks at our absurd ideas about health and asks us to challenge what we think we know on everything from cleanse diets to toxic positivity.
When it comes to health, in the immortal words of Aubrey Gordon “it’s a little more complicated, my dude!”
May I Suggest you Start on This Episode: Um, all of them? But School Lunches, P-Hacking, and the original “Pizzagate” has something for everyone.
What happens the day after the day that everything changed? Dan Taberski is at his best dissecting and re-examining the aftermath of 9/11. Told with empathy overall and an unwillingness to compromise, this is an exceptional seven part series that will make you reevaluate everything you think you know about what came next.
Walking into most museums in the western world, a question has started to be whispered in the back halls and between guests – how ethical is this stuff?
Marc Fennell looks at every corner of the globe and asks the questions that so many institutions are afraid to ask: was this stolen?
Equal parts heartbreaking, thought provoking, and told also with humour and compassion, this really is an excellent series. You have two seasons to catch up on, luckily!
Plus, Bonus Podcasts: Fiction!
I find there to be fewer fiction podcasts that grab me the same way as the non-fiction ones do. Sometimes fiction podcasts can feel over the top and overplayed, and sometimes they feel too abstract to complete a full narrative. Ultimately, to me, comparing fiction to non-fiction podcasts is a bit like apples and oranges. That being said, I couldn’t let this roundup pass by without including these two awesome podcasts!
There is a truly abysmal plot point early on that seems really dumb, but if you persevere it makes sense looking back.
There is something about the way the wild and almost lyrical storytelling, the roiling self hatred, the love and lust come together in such a unique way – it’s truly chilling and lightly terrifying.
May I Suggest you Start on This Episode: Soft Voice
The CBC came through right at the end of the year with, hands down, the best fiction podcast I heard this year.
Weird and a little unsettling, this series is six standalone stories of technology and people the weird place where they intersect.
May I Suggest you Start on This Episode: We All Hate Greg, Right?
In my opinion, the current state of podcasts are somewhat suffering from everyone jumping on the bandwagon syndrome. The pandemic has effectively created a genre of actors re-watching their old shows and telling us funny stories about being on set, and personally it’s a genre I have not found to add much to the world of podcasting. I am mindful, too, that the increase in the number of podcasts overall means that there are also a number of people who are given a platform to speak who wouldn’t normally be taken seriously. With a good suite of editing software, anyone can sound like they have a good idea. I am mindful of who is reporting, and what the company behind them in terms of fact checking resources. As always, I recommend looking at the biography. For most podcasts you can do so by swiping over the cover art or clicking “read more” under the episode description.
Still, despite my concerns above, as much as the glut of podcasts makes it harder to pick through and find the good ones, there are so many incredible podcasters who are telling previously untold stories and giving perspectives and voices to important issues that were never looked at seriously before. It’s an incredible time to learn more and engage, to be inspired and to look at issues with more nuance and ever more compassion.
Until next roundup, happy listening friends!