Both Apple and Spotify announced this year that they will roll out premium subscription tools. NPR is reportedly planning to launch a similar service. The model mirrors the burgeoning businesses of Patreon and Substack, where readers pay to get access to the work of a specific content creator they love. The streaming wars in TV are, similarly, dividing viewers into smaller subgroups of subscribers. While this new way of consuming content will cater to our particular interests, we may continue to lose out on water-cooler experiences, the way everyone used to talk about the same episode of Game of Thrones or a twist in Serial all at once.
But the mainstream podcast isn’t a thing of yesteryear yet, and podcast controversies can still get Twitter chirping. This winter, Reply All’s probe into reported racism at Bon Appetit stirred up a firestorm about bias in Reply All’s own ranks, resulting in two producers stepping down and a mea culpa from the other hosts. And uber-popular podcaster Joe Rogan’s totally unscientific comments on the coronavirus vaccine this spring solicited an admonishment from the White House. (Rogan has since apologized).
With billion-dollar companies jockeying for position in the forthcoming podcast wars and some of the most famous shows courting controversy, it can be hard to distinguish the truly great shows from the noise. But there’s plenty to love out there. Here are some of the best series we’ve listened to this year (in alphabetical order).
Anything for Selena
There are plenty of great podcasts dedicated to specific fandoms, but Anything for Selena aims to be more of a reported show. Host Maria Garcia is a diehard fan of Selena Quintanilla, the pop star who was shot and killed by one of her fans at just 23 years old. I was initially skeptical of the tone, worried that Garcia’s perspective might lead her to pull punches with interviewees. But the host’s love for the singer is an asset, not a distraction—she asks the hard questions. More importantly, she drives home Selena’s impact not just as a performer but a potent political symbol by sharing her own personal story. When Garcia, a Mexican immigrant, felt caught between two worlds, she looked to Selena, a Latina woman conquering the American music scene, as inspiration.
Death at the Wing
By now you’re familiar with Adam McKay’s style. His dramedies both explain and cast a critical eye on capitalism, from the 2008 crash in The Big Short to the rise of moguls like Rupert Murdoch in Succession. Some critics have judged McKay’s touch a bit too light when it comes to serious material. But he strikes the right balance of somberness and entertainment as host and executive producer of Death at the Wing. In the miniseries, McKay argues that Reagan policies led directly to gun violence, drug addiction and mental health crises, particularly in the Black community, and inevitably to the deaths of a generation of rising NBA stars. One episode chronicles the story of Len Bias, a young man with Michael Jordan-level talent who died of a cocaine overdose in 1986. McKay contextualizes the overdose in the “greed is good” ethos of the era and explains how Bias became, as a Boston Globe writer put it at the time, the Archduke Franz Ferdinand in the war on drugs. If you expected an apolitical sports podcast from McKay, well, know that he recently called Aaron Sorkin—the scribe behind liberal fantasy show The West Wing—a “right-wing version” of himself.
The Ezra Klein Show
Ezra Klein has moved his interview podcast from his old home at Vox to the New York Times, and his early guests since the show relaunched in January have been spectacular. Yes, he snags interviews with the likes of Bernie Sanders and Chuck Schumer. But Klein’s best episodes revolve less around people than topics. Among the highlights: what’s good and bad about cancel culture, according to journalists who have been canceled; how a Brown psychiatry professor believes we can unlearn anxious behavior as we emerge from anxiety-producing times; and what options are left if politicians fail to slow climate change. Klein’s conversations leave room for nuance in a Twitter-driven media environment that often refuses to permit shades of gray.
In Slate’s new show, hosts Madison Malone Kircher and Rachelle Hampton tackle Internet culture. For those of us who would prefer to spend a little less time on our phones trying to figure out what the heck the latest TikTok dance controversy is about or why the far right is up in arms about a Lil Nas X music video, this show is a godsend. (They’ve helped this millennial understand TikTok at least a little better.) But the best episodes explain what the latest viral trends and online blow-ups say about the culture at large. Their conversations on why the phrase “body positivity” has lost all real meaning, or why the latest Bachelor drama is all an engine for the spon-con bubble on Instagram, elucidate the commercial and political interests that capitalize on our Internet obsessions—for better or, usually, worse.
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Jamie Loftus of My Year in Mensa fame tackles another controversial topic in her latest podcast: Vladimir Nabokov’s beautiful and disturbing novel Lolita. Some critics hail the book as a masterpiece, others outright dismiss the story, which is told from the point of view of a pedophile. Often lost in the conversation—and the film adaptations of the book—is the fact that the predator Humbert Humbert is a notoriously unreliable narrator: the book often contradicts his descriptions of his captive Dolores as a nubile seductress to remind the audience that she is, in fact, a vulnerable child. Alongside Nabokov scholars, Loftus scrutinizes the work, its many onscreen adaptations and Nabokov’s fascinating life story. She rejects reductive analyses for a rich debate that will engross any avid reader.
Poet turned podcast host Saidu Tejan-Thomas Jr. set out to explore the human stories behind the Black Lives Matter protests last year: the people he interviews didn’t start out as activists, and most reporting on the movement doesn’t dive into their lives beyond the protests. One episode centers on a woman who was reunited with an old flame, only to suddenly find herself the supportive partner of a man shot and arrested by police. The storytelling balances moments of tragedy with romance and unexpected humor. In another episode, titled “F Your Fountain,” Tejan-Thomas’ team turns its attention on a forebear of today’s protesters, tracking down the now-adult man featured in an iconic image of a Black teenager drinking at a “Whites Only” fountain. This episode, and other vignettes about civil rights activists, give way to many more fascinating tales of resistance. The stories are intimate and sometimes personal for the host: Tejan-Thomas lost a friend to police violence and explores his own feelings on the topic. In a podcast landscape that’s still overwhelmingly white, Resistance offers a crucial alternative to similar stories told through a white lens. The podcast proves an instant classic.
Puzzlingly, even though we recently watched a man most famous for his reality television series ascend to the presidency, it feels as if the culture still doesn’t take reality TV—and its impact on America—seriously. Spectacle host and Cut columnist Mariah Smith offers a 10-episode brief history of the genre and argues that reality TV has reflected and shaped some of the biggest cultural shifts in our country, from an HIV-positive Real World star jumpstarting a more public conversation about the AIDS crisis to Survivor dividing tribes by ethnicity on a controversial season. It’s also just good fun to relive some of the greatest and most shocking moments in TV history, from the groundbreaking 1970s docuseries American Family to familiar favorites of our own era like Keeping Up With the Kardashians and The Circle.
Look, sometimes the best is just the best. I’ve recommended Still Processing before. I will probably recommend it again. Spending time listening to New York Times Magazine writers Jenna Wortham and Wesley Morris talk about the capital-C “Culture” continues to be a privilege, like eavesdropping on your smartest friends. They kicked off the new season with a serious reflection on internal strife at the Times, grappling with their own feelings about the “N Word.” They’ve been responding real-time to anti-Asian hate in their conversations. And even the smallest, poppiest topics are fertile ground for a larger cultural conversation, like how a recent discussion about Olivia Rodrigo’s hit song “Drivers License” allowed Morris to analyze the mysterious disappearance of bridges from songs and gave Wortham the chance to analyze how TikTok is shaping music. A dive into how Disney took over the culture evolves into an examination of the company’s checkered past with racist tropes and their attempts to atone for their sins. Thank goodness they’re back. We need their sage podcast now more than ever.
Under the Influence
At the beginning of Under the Influence, host and journalist Jo Piazza argues that mainstream media and business reporting has ignored the rise of mommy influencers largely because they are women and thus not worthy of being taken seriously. She has a point. The mommy influencer space is worth billions of dollars. Moms who Instagram their well-coiffed children in bright white and inexplicably spotless homes, patiently waiting for their home-blended baby food, can make a living posting just one photo a day. In some cases, their husbands have quit their jobs to support their wives’ Instagramming endeavors. The space is empowering women—after all, the ones who succeed can become work-from-home entrepreneurs. But it’s also driving many more mothers on the receiving end of their social media posts, trying to replicate the often staged and unrealistic lifestyles they promote by buying the products they shill, insane. In a funny and fascinating show, Piazza digs into who is really benefitting from these sponcon deals and dips her own toe into mommy influencing to see if she can achieve a #blessed life.
Welcome to Your Fantasy
Remember Chippendales? The male strip club franchise that maybe, possibly, probably inspired Magic Mike and one of the most beloved (and controversial) SNL sketches of all time? Well, turns out the story of Chippendales is bonkers and totally enthralling. This podcast operates kind of like a murder mystery—one of Chippendales’ founders was killed—and will scratch that true crime itch for listeners. But really it’s a history podcast: hosted by historian Natalia Mehlman Petrzela, Welcome to Your Fantasy is more interested in Chippendales as a prism for an era defined by excess and evolving sexual mores than it is in stripping in particular. Though, don’t worry, there are plenty of laugh-out-loud stories of men stumbling their way through early routines before the founders of Chippendales figured out what women wanted. And listeners who finish the podcast wanting more can look forward to a recently announced TV version of the Chippendales saga starring Kumail Nanjiani as the sordid strip club’s founder.
Listen on Spotify
Read the rest of TIME’s best-of 2021 so far coverage:
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Write to Eliana Dockterman at firstname.lastname@example.org