The best podcasts of 2021

A close up shot of large white headphones resting on a laptop keyboard.

Better late than never – here are my twelve favourite podcasts I listened to last year.

1. Believe Her

I almost don’t want to put Believe Her at top of my list because it’s absolutely horrifying (this one comes with a huge content warning for domestic abuse and sexual assault), but I think everyone needs to hear Nikki Addimando’s story of ‘criminalised survival’. Journalist Justine van der Leun introduces the concept with one of the most dramatic openers I’ve heard. This podcast was rage-inducing but also riveting – I couldn’t stop listening even when I wanted to. This is the first podcast I’ve listened to from the women-run Lemonada Media and I’m impressed with how the podcast handled such a difficult subject.

Justine van der Leun covers this difficult subject with a sensitivity that’s absent from other podcasts.

2. Welcome to your fantasy

On a lighter note, in Welcome to Your Fantasy, host Natalia Petrzela, documents the history of Chippendales. This isn’t a typical true crime show (even though someone does end up murdered). It’s a great exploration of the feuding founders, troubled dancers and their eccentric manager (who I definitely want to be friends with). I’m a big fan of the Pineapple Street Studio brand of podcast caper – this totally filled the whole left by Wind of Change.

Try and keep a straight face during the discussions about feminism.

3. Suspect

Suspect has one of the best true crime podcast set-ups I’ve ever heard. It’s Hallowe’en and a group of friends living in in Seattle host a party for their apartment block. There are open doors, themed rooms, and everyone is in fancy dress – then one of the hosts gets murdered. It’s like real-life Cluedo, but with a wrongful imprisonment thrown in the mix. This is by far the best Wondery podcast I’ve listened to, though I think that’s mainly down to the Campside Media production team. With the narrative surrounding two central suspects, Suspect reminded me of original Serial – it might actually be better.

Serial fans, this is the true crime podcast we’ve been waiting for.

4. Through the Cracks

This is another tough listen. Through The Cracks examines the case of Relisha Rudd, an 8-year-old girl who disappears from a homeless shelter and isn’t reported missing for a full 18 days. Host Jonquilyn Hill draws you in with that true crime hook, before examining the ways the social system failed Relisha and her family.

This feels like a true crime podcast but is about so much more.

5. 544 Days

In 544 days, journalist Jason Rezaian shares how he came to spend 18 months in an Iranian prison accused of espionage. Jason is surprisingly funny given the subject matter and, along with his wife (and fellow journalist) Yegi, friends, family and officials, shares the herculean efforts it took to get him released. Despite knowing how it ends, the narrative was full of suspense and I totally binged the series. I’m surprised this hasn’t been on more top podcast lists – I think Spotify exclusives sometimes get a bit lost.

I enjoyed this dramatic and funny recounting of host Jason Rezaian’s journey.

6. Stolen: The Search for Jermain

Connie Walker is one of my favourite true crime podcasters. Her incredible reporting on missing and murdered indigenous women stands out in a genre accused of having ‘missing white women syndrome’. In Stolen: The Search for Jermain, we hear the story of Jermain Charlo. It sounds like a straightforward case but, as with many cases involving missing indigenous people, the initial police response was slow, and Jermain’s family are still waiting for answers. This is Walker’s first podcast series since leaving the CBC to work for Gimlet Media and I can’t wait to hear what’s next.

Another incredible series from Connie Walker.

7. Carrie Low VS.

Carrie Low VS. is another series with a big ol’ content warning. Carrie Low reported her sexual assault to the police – she did everything a victim is ‘supposed to do’, but the police still botched the investigation. This podcast documents the many ways she was let down and her fight for justice, with some incredible admissions from police along the way. Don’t expect a satisfying conclusion.

If you’ve just listened to Believe Her, I’d maybe take a break before starting Carrie Low VS.

8. Do you know Mordechai?

I’m enjoying the boom of true crime podcasts about con artists, and Do you know Mordechai? is one of the best. Host Kathleen Goldhar interviews the women Mordechai – whose real name is Marc Ramsden – emotionally conned, and how they teamed up to figure out his lies. We even here from the man himself. If you thought Sweet Bobby was good, then you are going to love this.

Like Sweet Bobby, but better.

9. The Line

In The Line, Dan Teberski investigates whether Navy SEAL Eddie Gallagher is guilty of war crimes for stabbing an ISIS prisoner. Wow, this podcast made me feel naïve – SEALS admitted to practicing medical procedures on prisoners (and various other crimes that reminded me of the Nuremberg Trials). I was also disturbed and weirdly impressed by how Eddie and his marketing expert wife (the “Better Business Babe”) managed to turn actual war crimes into a culture war issue. Dan Taberski is taking on increasingly complex and serious investigations and I am absolutely here for it.

This is a Dan Taberski podcast and that’s all you need to know, really.

10. Mississippi Goddam: The Ballad of Billey Joe

I don’t usually review weekly podcasts like Reveal, but the miniseries Mississippi Goddam: The Ballad of Billey Joe deserves a special mention. In this story about race and justice in America, Billey Joe Johnson, a high school football star, dies under mysterious circumstances during a traffic stop with a white sheriff’s deputy. Host Al Letson inserts himself into the story in a way that’s compelling and genuine. The writing is first class – I loved the historical context and scene setting. And the interviews with the pathologist and original investigator are absolutely peak true crime.

The podcast doesn’t really get to the bottom of what happened, but the sheriff’s story is fishy as hell.

11. Hooked

Hooked is another not-quite-true-crime podcast – it draws you in with the promise of bank heists, before hitting you with a harrowing story of opioid addiction. We hear from Tony Hathaway and his family as their lives fall apart after he’s prescribed OxyContin. This podcast isn’t higher on my list because host Josh Dean can be a bit glib at times, especially at the start, and I found the ending jarring. I can see why Dean wants to be optimistic, having built a relationship with Tony over three years of reporting, but he comes to a conclusion that I don’t totally buy given everything presented in the podcast. Aside from those quibbles, it’s a cracking listen.

Josh Dean asks who is really responsible for what happened to Tony Hathaway and his family.

12. Day X

Day X from the New York Times tells the story of the far-right plot to bring down the German government. This gained more international attention after the insurrection at the US Capitol on Jan 6, but I was totally unfamiliar with ‘Franco A.’ and the backstory presented in this podcast. I find NYT podcasts hit and miss (aside from Serial, obviously) and this one has quite an offbeat narrative style. If/when you get past that, this is an essential listen about domestic terrorism and extremist factions within the military.

Essential listening post-January 6th.

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