The best podcasts of 2021

“La Brega”
This podcast did not tell a straightforward story of Puerto Rico’s relationship with America, but rather revelled in its complexity. Created by a team of Puerto Rican journalists, the show chronicled the past half-century of history, often through family stories, in which warmth, intimacy and frustration shone through. Episodes were released in both English and Spanish and did not flinch from extended foreign-language clips. Thanks to outstanding writing, “La Brega” gave an impressive sense of the territory’s regional diversity and collective unease.

“Day X”
In 2017 a loaded gun was found in a toilet in Vienna Airport. “Day X”, from the New York Times, investigated who put it there and how the weapon was connected to a wider conspiracy to assassinate German political figures; the podcast was an invaluable study of the far right within the German police and armed forces. Katrin Bennhold, the host, and her team of producers managed to keep an eye on history without becoming backward-looking. The show also lifted the lid on its own editorial choices, such as the decision to include an interview with the man accused of hiding the firearm.

“The Line”
This podcast could have been a straightforward true-crime narrative. It hoped to uncover whether Eddie Gallagher, a Navy seal, committed war crimes by killing a young Islamic State fighter who had been captured as a prisoner of war. It also followed a familiar “murder podcast” path, with witnesses, arrests, court disclosures and, eventually, a trial (at which Mr Gallagher was acquitted of all charges except one—posing for a photo with the body).

But “The Line” stood out from that oversaturated, overexposed genre. The host, Dan Taberski, discussed the role of elite warriors in America’s “forever wars”, using often uncomfortably candid interviews to ask who signs up for such a lifestyle and whether what is asked of them is reasonable.

“The New Bazaar”
Fronted by Cardiff Garcia, the former host of Planet Money’s “The Indicator”, “The New Bazaar” gleefully geeked out on economics policy. The format was not novel—an interview between the host and one or two acclaimed guests—but each episode was fascinating and easy to digest. The show stayed grounded in real-world results rather than floating in theory. With a range of topics, from the history of bubbles to the current debates within the American right, the series demonstrated the scope of economics as a field.

“Spectacle: An Unscripted History of Reality TV”
“Spectacle” traced the history of reality television from its documentary roots in the 1970s to its maximalism today. Although the writing sometimes pinballed between melodramatic and faux-informal (perhaps to mirror the subject matter), the show insightfully highlighted the tension between authenticity and artifice in reality television. It set out how the genre has reflected American culture and, thanks to its huge audience, shaped it too. In one episode Amy Chozick, a journalist for the New York Times, lambasted elites “who brag about never having seen the Kardashians…if you don’t see the interconnectedness between our culture and the presidency—especially now—then you’re missing a major, major story”.

“To The Moon”
When GameStop’s stock rallied improbably in January, people were momentarily transfixed. This account went further, charting a history of amateur investing, changing technology and a fragile but surprisingly earnest community. A five-part series from the Wall Street Journal, “To The Moon” used creative sound design to tell the story of the subreddit where many first-time investors were galvanised to act, and to give a sense of the characters behind the usernames. The podcast told intimate stories of people risking their savings based on questionable advice. Many made hundreds of thousands of dollars overnight—only to then see those gains disappear.

See also:
The best podcasts of 2020
The best podcasts of 2019

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