As we count down the minutes to the new year, we are also counting all of the best stuff that was made in 2021. This week, we’re talking about podcasts. Nick Quah, Vulture’s podcast critic, and Sarah Larson, staff writer at The New Yorker, share their top picks.
Nick Quah’s top 5 podcasts of the year:
In every episode of the podcast Maintenance Phase, hosts Michael Hobbes and Aubrey Gordon use intensive research to debunk health and wellness fads. Nick thinks of Maintenance Phase as a hopeful reminder “to fight,” and that “it is worth remembering that there is something called the truth.”
In Through the Cracks from WAMU and PRX, host and producer Jonquilyn Hill asks what could have been done to prevent the disappearance of 8-year-old Relisha Rudd from a DC homeless shelter in 2014. According to Nick, the show is crafted in a way that gets to large societal issues without losing sight of the “human loss at the center of this failure.”
Anything for Selena from WBUR and Futuro Studios melds the biography of Tejano music legend Selena Quintanilla with the personal storytelling of host Maria Maria Garcia. “She kind of writes and hosts and performs very much with her heart on her sleeve,” Nick said. “I don’t hear that very much these days, or at all.”
In this New York Times Opinion show, “nerd king, policy wonk” Ezra Klein plays with the standard interview podcast format to “get at a larger question of basically like how do we move forward as a country, as people,” Nick said. “He is a fantastic interviewer. He doesn’t ever condescend.”
Nick’s favorite podcast of the year was Aack Cast from iHeartMedia. Creator and host Jamie Loftus explores the long-running comic strip Cathy by Cathy Guisewite. “There is absolutely nobody who sounds like her in this business,” said Nick. “If I ever worked in a creative field in any manner that isn’t writing, I would want a peer like her.”
Sarah Larson’s top 5 podcasts of the year:
9/12 from Pineapple Street Studios and hosted by Dan Taberski is about “the idea” of 9/11 and its aftermath. “It has so many beautiful images in it,” Sarah said. The first episode tells the story of a TV crew that found out about 9/11 while shooting a reality television show in the middle of the ocean without any contact to the outside world. “What an incredible way to introduce that story,” Sarah said.
Suspect is a true crime podcast, but according to Sarah, it is more “enlightened” than many series in the true crime genre. “It would be a page turner if it were a book,” Sarah said. The team, led by Michael Shaer and Eric Benson at Wondery, unspools the murder of Arpana Jinaga, who was killed in her apartment in Redmond, Washington in 2008.
Tyler Mahan Coe is the creator, writer, and producer behind the country music history podcast Cocaine & Rhinestones. “It just blew my mind,” Sarah said. Tyler’s writing is so good that Sarah went as far as comparing it to “pirouetting.”
La Brega from WNYC and Futuro Studios and hosted by Alana Casanova-Burgess was born out of an impulse to tell stories about Puerto Rico that often go under-reported by mainstream media. For many Puerto Ricans, “la brega” represents a challenge or struggle without an easy solution. “It’s got incredible characters, it’s got humor, it’s warm,” Sarah said. It even made Sarah cry (although she will be the first to admit that she is a crier).
Sarah’s favorite podcast of the year was Resistance from Gimlet and Spotify. Host Saidu Tejan-Thomas Jr. tells the stories of people in the movement for Black lives who are fighting for change. “I personally feel very overwhelmed by the scale of the problems we’re facing,” Sarah said, “this is a thing that makes you feel like that’s not necessarily the end.”