We're just about halfway through 2021 and (for many), life continues to be a constant flux of unpredictable changes. But for lovers of well-made audio storytelling, there's one thing that never seems to change: There's always a great new podcast to ground yourself in amid 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 companionship. 2021 is shaping up to be both a return to the previous role podcasting used to fill in our pre-pandemic lives, and also an expansion of the medium's growing cultural importance.
Maybe you're back to commuting, or maybe you're still leaning on podcasts for companionship that's less anxiety-inducing than the return to IRL friendship. Regardless, podcasts continue to thrive, with countless new gems across every genre: from the mega popularity of true crime to deep-dive investigative reporting and riveting storytelling (both fiction and non-fiction).
Though there are always great new podcasts to discover or that one can miss, these are the ones we've loved the most so far in 2021. Only titles or new seasons released this year were considered for inclusion.
1. Through the Cracks
What it's about: True crime, systemic racism, injustice, generational trauma, personal narrative
Why it's great: Even in this golden age of true crime, the stories of victims from certain demographics are still so often left untold. But in this poignant series, host Jonquilyn Hill ensures the case of 8-year-old Relisha Rudd — whose disappearance from a D.C. homeless shelter in 2014 went unnoticed for 18 days — will 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 any single family member be blamed, really, when our entire society has systematically failed to protect Black girls and women from falling through the cracks?
2. How it Happened
What it's about: Trump, American politics, the pandemic, the Capitol riots
Why it's great: 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. That's what the unparalleled reporting of Axios' Jonathan Swan (best known on the web for his highly memed Trump interview focusing on his COVID-19 response). Swan dissects the final days of the Trump administration with incredible in-the-room-where-it-happened details on the most stunning behind-the-scenes moments with the former president leading up to the Capitol insurrection. While the reporting requires some skepticism and leaps of faith in trusting anonymous sources, both Swan and Axios' reputability speak for themselves.
3. Anything For Selena
What it's about: Selena, Latinx identity, culture, art, racism, personal narrative
Why it's great: Selena and Me isn't just about the beloved Mexican-American singer who was tragically murdered at the height of her career. Like Selena's music this podcast touches on the beating heart of Latin-American identity itself. Host Maria Garcia combines the cultural context behind Selena's significance to the community with her own personal narrative, seeking to understand more about herself through the pop star who helped many who straddle a multicultural background feel so seen. As intimate as it is all-encompassing, the nine-part series offers both an English and Spanish version of each episode.
What it's about: Science, mysteries, space, the universe, technology, innovation
Why it's great: "While Vox is known for explaining complicated ideas in easily understandable ways, its new podcast Unexplainable flips that premise on its head. Instead of demystifying the daily information onslaught, Unexplainable sits with the most mystifying unknowns of all time. From questioning whether everything we thought we knew about psychology is wrong to the quest to understand what the hell dark matter is, Unexplainable teaches us to get comfortable with the idea that human knowledge has many limits. And that's kinda awesome." [From our Best Educational Podcasts roundup]
5. Welcome to your Fantasy
What it's about: True crime, sexuality, greed, gender politics, corruption, the '80s, sex work
Why it's great: Murder, male strippers, and discourse about female desire in the '80s—what's not to love about 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. Stolen: The Search for Jermain
What it's about: True crime, injustice, Indigenous women and girls, domestic violence
Why it's great: We're big fans of CBC reporter Connie Walker's work. Her previous true crime podcast Missing Murdered shone a spotlight on not only one Indigenous woman's disappearance but also the larger systemic injustices behind it. In Stolen, Walker similarly dives into the murder of Jermain Charlo, a 28-year-old mother who went missing from her home on a Montana reservation in 2018. But once again, Walker contextualizes her individual case in larger cultural injustices, revealing the disproportionate amount of violence that Indigenous women in America face — whether from the justice system established by colonizers, their own communities, or (in Charlo's case) their own life partners.
What it's about: Digital culture, social media trend and drama, influencers, society, tech
Why it's great: Slate's new digital culture podcast ICYMI is here to digest all the latest chaos, trends, and #drama from the web — so you don't have to. And for that, we thank hosts Madison Malone Kircher and Rachelle Hampton for their service. This bi-weekly podcast goes beyond the surface of our screens, covering not only what trouble the newest viral main character of social media got into, but also why it matters. It's incisive, insightful, and miraculously always finds a way to cut through the static noise of the digital void to find the human side of it all.
8. Unraveled: Long Island Serial Killer
What it's about: True crime, serial killers, police corruption, investigative journalism
Why it's great: If you're a true crime aficionado, you've probably heard of the Long Island Serial Killer (aka LISK) more than enough times. But no other podcast has done the level of rigorous investigative work that cohosts Alexis Linkletter and Billy Jensen bring to the table. In the latest thrilling season of Unraveled, 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. Digging through mountains of unknowns to reveal a pattern of evidence that could potentially implicate the very police force tasked with solving the murder of 11 victims buried for over a decade on a beach, it's a season with twists and turns you won't want to miss.
9. The Experiment
What it's about: America, history, social inequalities, society, current events
Why it's great: "The American experiment, often repackaged as the American dream, is one of the biggest sources of miseducation in our country. In this WNYC Studios and Atlantic collaboration, host Julia Longoria applies the ideals of America's past that were held to be self-evident, then measures them up against our current reality. Bringing the high ideals of this country's founding to everyday experiences, The Experiment can even find lessons in trash reality TV shows like 90 Day Fiance." [From our Best Educational Podcasts roundup]
10. Soft Voice
What it's about: Fiction, women's experiences, consciousness, mental illness
Why it's great: Whatever you think you can expect from QCODE's new Soft Voice fictional podcast, think again. Several episodes in, we're still not entirely sure what's going on, but we know that it's an absolute trip. Featuring a trifecta of British talent you'll probably recognize (Naomi Scott, Olivia Cooke, and Bel Powley) it tells the story of Lydia, who lives what seems to be an ideal life because she always listens to Soft Voice, the controlling little dictator inside her head insisting on perfection and conformity. Then, one day, it's gone. We'll leave it at that, but buckle up for a wild, sapphic, and mind-melting journey best listened to with headphones. Do note the disclaimer in the beginning, though, which warns of sensitive topics broached that might be triggering to some.
11. Depresh Mode
What it's about: Mental well-being, self-care struggles, mental illness, comedy
Why it's great: John Moe, host of the popular podcast The Hilarious World of Depression, is once again back to talk about and laugh through our pain. Every week guests talk about both their personal and our collective mental state as a larger culture. Often, these guests are well-known comedians, musicians, and actors like Patton Oswalt, who speak candidly about struggles with the oh-so-common yet still taboo issues of depression, anxiety, grief, mental illness, and trauma. But Moe makes equal room for mental health experts, covering everything from post-COVID PTSD to burnout.
12. Under the Influence with Jo Piazza
What it's about: Digital culture, influencer economy, social media, gender inequity, motherhood, work culture, personal narrative
Why it's great: Jo Piazza is a staple of the podcasting world for a reason. Host of Committed, 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-overdue deep dive into the oft dismissed billion-dollar industry, it's a podcast about navigating social media's influence on our lives, aspirations, self-worth, and business. After experiencing job insecurity and disillusionment with her career in media, Piazza sets out to both understand and even become the Instagram-perfect (and financially dependent) ideal of a mommy blogger. But this isn't a podcast that seeks to judge or diminish, and it is certainly not just "for women." If you have any interest in the internet, digital culture, the influencer economy, and wrestling with the impact these unstoppable forces have on us, then this is a must-listen.
13. Be Antiracist with Ibram X. Kendi
What it's about: Inequity and inequality, racism, sexism, ableism, anti-Blackness, politics, society, education
Why it's great: When historian and author Ibram X. Kendi is involved, you know you're in for a journey of learning about our greatest untold injustices but also finding our common humanity. In his new podcast — which features both personal narrative and interviews with renowned guests across academia, activism, journalism, and politics — he tackles all the facets of what it means to be antiracist. A term you might've heard but never fully understood, this highly accessible guide is an invaluable resource to all (no matter your race, ethnicity, class, or gender) on how we can build a world beyond the systems of oppression that alienate us from ourselves and each other.
What it's about: Reality TV, society and culture, gender and race politics, media history
Why it's great: We have not even begun to reckon with the enormous societal shift we're currently experiencing after the golden age of early 2000s reality TV. That is what host Mariah Smith sets out to do with Spectacle, unpacking 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 unturned.
15. Dark History
What it's about: True crime, macabre history, humor
Why it's great: If you're big into true crime and YouTube, you definitely know Dark History's fabulous host Bailey Sarian. She's known for her popular "Murder, Mystery Makeup" series, in which she not only does her make-up fabulously but simultaneously recaps true crime cases. Sarian brings all that personality and humor that made her a vlogging hit to Dark History, which covers dark and spooky stories from the past that don't necessarily fit the typical true crime mold but scratch that same itch.
16. Counterclock Season 3
What it's about: True crime, investigative journalism, murder
Why it's great: Crime Junkie fans, you know the drill. This Audiochuck podcast, hosted by investigative journalist Delia D'Ambra but executive produced by the popular true-crime podcast creator Ashley Flowers, had a whirlwind of a third season. D'Ambra brings the original reporting that some have criticized podcasts like Crime Junkie for lacking, with a year-long probe into the infamous case of the Pelley family. In 2006, police convicted Jeff Pelley, the very son of the Floridian pastor who was brutally murdered along with most of their other family members. But new evidence — and D'Ambra's own reporting — calls a lot of what folks thought they knew into question.
17. Internet Urban Legends
What it's about: Paranormal, internet culture, social media, ghosts, murder, true crime, conspiracy theories
Why it's great: Another pair of YouTubers making the leap from the small screen to audio, Loey Lane and Eleanor Snitchery are probably best known for vlogging about the web's greatest mysteries. In this new Parcast and Spotify original, they take their vast knowledge of spooky online culture to the airwaves, covering everything from the Momo Challenge to Horror TikTok (which we actually also did a deep dive on). If you've ever come across something scary on the web and wondered "is this real?" this podcast is here to try and find the answer.
What it's about: Grief, digital culture, stan culture, mental health, suicide, Britney Spears, personal narrative
Why it's great: Unread is not for the faint of heart. The mini-series has an unflinching determination to cope with grief, trauma, depression, loneliness, and the need to reach across the screen for connection. Host Chris Stedman takes listeners on his personal journey as he follows the breadcrumbs left behind by his enigmatic, Brittany Spears-loving friend Alex. In 2019, Alex died by suicide, but not before sending out emails to all his friends that started with: “i am writing to let you know that when you receive this scheduled email, i will no longer be alive.” As much a loving eulogy as it is an internet mystery, the podcast is really an ode to all of us lost souls who must turn to the internet for acceptance. Note the disclaimer up top about covering sensitive topics related to mental health struggles, though.
19. You Must Remember This: Gossip Girls
What it's about: Hollywood history, gender and race politics, media history
Why it's great: "You Must Remember This tells the strange and forgotten history of old Hollywood. Host and producer Karina Longworth researches the stories deeply and weaves interesting, narrative-driven tales," we wrote in our Best History Podcasts roundup. In the latest 'Gossip Girls' series, the inimitable Longworth dives into the stories of Louella Parsons and Hedda Hopper, two celebrity columnists who pioneered the format in the 1940s. Come along for a hell of a ride full 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
What it's about: Police corruption, law enforcement, systemic injustice, issues of race and gender
Why it's great: At this point, you probably think you have quite a good grasp on police corruption. But KQED and NPR's On Our Watch reveals just how bottomless law enforcement misconduct really goes, making it clear (if it wasn't already) just how this institutional violation to protect and serve infringes upon every citizen's rights, regardless of race. After a recent California law gave journalists like host Sukey Lewis access to a mountain of police documents departments never thought would see the light of day, they're shining a light on the fuller picture of these "bad apples" rot, and how the entire justice system evades accountability. With essential and fearlessly rigorous reporting, 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 such as sexual harassment and assault. It's as much a podcast highlighting injustice as it is a call for supporting the investigative (especially local) reporting that is usually our greatest (sometimes only) weapon to demand the truth.