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26 best podcasts to listen to in 2021

The best podcasts out there have one thing in common: you can listen to them no matter what's going on around you

Andrzej Lukowski
Written by
Anna Rahmanan
&
Andrzej Lukowski
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We’re living through trying times, so it's important we keep our bodies, spirits and minds engaged. And podcasts can help us do just that.

The beauty of the podcast is that it can be listened to while working, showering, cooking or cleaning – and, in addition to entertaining you, most programmes end up teaching us a thing or two about life, politics, science, art and more.

From popular picks that you might not have had time to listen to until now to exciting new shows worthy of all of our attention, here are the best podcasts of 2021 to tune into right now.

Still looking for more? Don’t miss our picks of the best true-crime podcasts, food podcasts and music podcasts out there right now. Plus, we’ve got our very own podcast – ‘your city or mine?’ – in which Time Out Group CEO Julio Bruno talks to thought-leaders and pioneers about the innovations and ideas shaping our cities.

Best podcasts to listen to in 2021

1. Start with This

You know a podcast is making you cleverer when it involves homework. Each episode of ‘Start with This’ (the second brainchild of the creators of ‘Welcome to Night Vale’, a creepy podcast set in an imaginary US town) gives listeners something to consume, and something to create: usually a book or TV show in the first instance, and a writing assignment in the second. The object is to help boost your creativity, and the subjects of the episodes are satisfyingly varied, from ‘Present Tense’ to ‘Non-Lovecraftian Horror’.

2. Philosophy Bites

Sure, your Platos and your Nietzsches are still famous long after their deaths, but most philosophies remain pretty obscure. Had any chats about the importance of metaphysics to our understanding of the world? Know what verificationism is? If you listened to this lovable UK podcast, you absolutely would. ‘Philosophy Bites’ hosts Nigel Warburton and David Edmonds invite guests for great intros to the debates, thinkers and thoughts that have shaped our world.

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3. Serial

Although plenty of folks listened to other shows before Sarah Koenig and Julie Snyder co-created this investigative journalism podcast, ‘Serial’ captured the attention of the world like none before it.

The anthology features three different seasons, each one focused on a different true story. If you haven’t listened to it yet, this is a great (and binge-worthy) introduction to the medium.

4. Decoder Ring

This is a monthly podcast hosted by Willa Paskin, the television critic at Slate. She is an outstanding journalist who examines a single object, habit or cultural question in each episode. Here are some of the questions ‘Decoder Ring’ has explored in the past: why do gay people love Judy Garland so much? Who is afraid of Bart Simpson? How do you start a conspiracy theory?

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5. 1619

At the end of 2019, seeking to shed light on the 400th anniversary of the first slave ship landing on American shores, the New York Times launched the 1619 Project. The effort was a multimedia one, tackling the topic in print, online, television and audio. The latter initiative took the form of a podcast, ‘1619’.

The five episodes (the last one is split into two parts) are hosted by Nikole Hannah-Jones, who interviews the paper’s writers and critics to try and dissect the legacy of slavery in the country.

6. Why Won't You Date Me?

We've all asked ourselves that, haven’t we? Hilarious host Nicole Byer spends each episode of ‘Why Won’t You Date Me’ talking about modern dating, including conversations about apps, open relationships, matchmakers and more. Yes, it is raunchy.

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7. This American Life

This American Life’ originated as a public radio show (which it still is) in the 1990s and eventually took on the podcast format as well. Hosted by the instantly recognisable Ira Glass, each episode of this weekly show has a theme that is explored, usually through first-person narratives, by folks from all walks of life in the US and beyond. Think ‘stories about being little’, the pros and cons of therapy and the tale of a flute player who steals a million dollars’ worth of dead birds.

Given its long history, the podcast boasts a huge library. You can browse through 25 years of episodes right now.

8. The New Yorker Fiction Podcast

Merely looking at a copy of the New Yorker can make you up to 15 percent cleverer, and the same goes for listening to its flagship fiction podcast. A current staffer reads a short story by a former New Yorker writer – often several decades former – and discusses it with the magazine’s fiction editor Deborah Treisman. It’s entertaining, sure, but it’s the delving into the thought processes of a succession of extremely smart Americans – think ZZ Packer, Bryan Washington, Jhumpa Lahiri – that gives it its zing.

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9. How to Do Everything

NPR’s popular podcast wrapped up about four years ago without literally telling us how to do everything. But there’s still a treasure trove of knowledge stored in its archive, as hosts Mike Danforth and Ian Chillag solve problems that you hadn’t previously realised were problems: from mounting an impassioned defence of weasels, to tips on bluffing your way through a conversation about golf. Its 265 episodes are all standing by to help enhance your brainy parts.

10. 10 Things That Scare Me

This one’s pretty self-explanatory. During each episode of this 2021 podcast, a new person will literally sit in a room alone and talk about his or her biggest fears. From cockroaches to death, flying, large crowds and even boredom, the discussions on ‘10 Things That Scare Me’ run from funny to deep and everything in-between.

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11. Beautiful Stories From Anonymous People

Comedian Chris Gethard spends one hour on the phone with an anonymous caller – on the air. On ‘Beautiful Stories From Anonymous People’, no topic is off-limits, which leads to surprisingly interesting conversations – including one with a mass-shooting survivor who called to share his experience.

12. Cocaine and Rhinestones

Did you know that Loretta Lynn’s 1975 song about birth control, ‘The Pill’, was banned from radio stations when first released? These are the kinds of factoids you'll learn about when listening to ‘Cocaine and Rhinestones, a fascinating dive into the history of twentieth-century country music. And if you’re not into country, don’t worry – there are awesome music podcasts out there for all tastes.

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13. Conan O’Brien Needs a Friend

When in need of some laughs, tune into ‘Conan O’Brien Needs a Friend’. In each episode, the late-night host interviews a funny celebrity, including Ali Wong, Will Arnett, Judd Apatow, Sarah Silverman and plenty more.

14. The Dropout

Elizabeth Holmes is the disgraced founder of Theranos, a blood-testing technology that she claimed would revolutionise the medical industry. The story of her lies and fall has been chronicled in a book, an HBO documentary and now, in gripping form, as ‘The Dropout’ podcast.

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15. The Hamilcast

Gillian Pensavalle’s ‘The Hamilcast’ really is a weekly podcast devoted to Lin-Manuel Miranda’s smash-hit musical ‘Hamilton’, and it really is now coming up on its two hundred and fiftieth episode. Having long ago interviewed Miranda himself and all the iconic original cast members, it remains a gloriously enthusiastic affair in which ultra-likeable superfan Pensavalle dials up a cast member or creative from one of the many, many productions of the show from around the world and basically just gossips with them for a bit. It's kind of gone beyond talking about ‘Hamilton’, and is instead a fascinating and fun insight into what it's like to work in musical theatre.

16. You’re Wrong About…

Each week on ‘You’re Wrong About’, journalists Sarah Marshall and Michael Hobbes select a major historical moment – say, the OJ Simpson trial – and analyze why it’s been ‘miscast in the public imagination'. The results of this 2021 podcast are invariably fascinating and surprising.

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17. The Sporkful

There are plenty of food podcasts out there, but ‘The Sporkful’ is the pièce de la resistance – it has even won a prestigious James Beard award. Creator and host Dan Pashman approaches ‘food from many angles’, including Q&As with chefs and restaurateurs, the role that culture plays in eating, scientific notes, thoughts on identity and more.

18. Modern Love

Modern Love’ is a popular New York Times column that was also turned into a highly rated anthology series on Amazon. The podcast, which landed before the TV production ever did, features notable personalities reading the popular columns. At the end of each episode, the hosts interview the original essayists to discuss post-column life.

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19. The Daily

Another one by the New York Times, ‘The Daily is the paper's, well, daily news podcast. It has gained an almost cult-like following thanks to host Michael Barbaro, who interviews the publication’s journalists about the top stories of the day. Barbaro’s soothing tone and his ability to truly break down an issue in 20 to 30 minutes have catapulted him to fame.

20. Dolly Parton's America

There must be a reason Dolly Parton is so famous – and ‘Dolly Parton’s America’ sheds light on just that. You’ll take a walk through Dollyverse, learning all about the artist’s life, the significance of her hit ‘Jolene’ and, of course, hear about the Dollywood theme park. But you’ll also hear about how Ms Parton has shaped American culture as we know it.

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21. Safe for Work

We all struggle with proper work-life balance, and hosts Rico Gagliano and Liz Dolan know that. In short, ‘Safe for Work’ explores our relationship with our job and the demands of corporate life. Yes, it’s safe to tune into this at work!

22. Wooden Overcoats

Here are a few things you should know about ‘Wooden Overcoats’: it aired from 2015 to 2019, it's narrated by a mouse, it’s about two competing funeral homes set up in the same small English village, and it’s a side-splitting fictional comedy. You’ll laugh, you’ll cry, you’ll be confused but, most importantly, you’ll be thoroughly entertained.

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23. Motherhood Sessions

Mums aren’t the only ones who will enjoy ‘Motherhood Sessions’, hosted by reproductive psychiatrist Alexandra Sacks. Expect to get emotional while listening to guests talk about the many facets that make motherhood one of the most complicated, rewarding, confusing and deep aspects of life.

24. Switched on Pop

This is a podcast about music. More specifically, this is a podcast that dissects how a song is made and why it gets stuck in our heads. Every episode is worth a listen, but if you're looking for something specific (for example: why do we love Prince so much?), you can search for a certain artist, theme or music genre on the ‘Switched on Pop’ website. You're guaranteed to land on something interesting.

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25. Judge John Hodgman

Guests present their disputes – both petty and serious – to Judge John Hodgman. No, he is not an actual judge, but enough of an impartial comedian to try and solve issues. Warning: there will be laughs.

26. Sawbones

The subtitle of this comedic medical podcast is ‘A Marital Tour of Misguided Medicine’. Dr Sydnee McElroy and husband Justin are basically a tag team: in each episode of ‘Sawbones’, she brings up the history of a certain medical practice while he views it through a comedic lens.

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