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15 Best Podcasts of 2021
There is a podcast for everything these days. No, literally. If you hop on any major platform—Apple, Spotify, Stitcher—you can get lost in the library of podcasts covering everything from sex to true crime. Sometimes sex in true crime. Point being, it’s niche as hell and you can get as deep or as superficial as you want. For 2021, we find ourselves in the position of recommending the best of what’s out there. The Esquire editors came together and made a roundup of our favorites—some old, some new, some borrowed. Wait. That’s weddings.
The list below is partly that though: a dash of some old favorites and a touch of new outings that have drawn our attention in the first few months of 2021. A bit of something for the golf enthusiast. A listen for the film obsessed. And, of course, the soothing sounds of Laverne Cox, discussing personal matters. It’s a regular Who’s Who of “Oh, that’s comforting to listen to.”
So peep our suggestions. Give a listen to a show you’ve never heard of before—it’s not like your houseplant isn’t going to be there to talk to, if you don’t love how it shakes out. And keep an eye on this list as the year goes on. We’ll be on the lookout for new shows that emerge. All you have to do is keep one AirPod in and relax
The Laverne Cox Show
Looking to become a better person? Expand your mind? Listen to the hypnotic voice of Laverne Cox? You can accomplish all three of those things in one place: The Laverne Cox Show. The new podcast from Shondaland and iHeartMedia lets Cox take the reins, allowing her to facilitate conversations around topics ranging from fatphobia to dating in mid-life. Fearless and candid, Cox mixes charm with candor on a podcast where nothing is off limits. – Justin Kirkland
30 For 30
ESPN’s 30 for 30 documentary series needs no introduction. Here’s one anyway: Since what feels like the dawn of time, ESPN has put out unforgettable films about the greatest—and sometimes, worst—moments, teams, and players in sports history. (Recently: Be Water, a breathtaking Bruce Lee retrospective.) Well, you guessed it, ESPN spun off the series into podcast form. The stories are just as good. Ramona Shelburne’s “The Sterling Affairs” is a masterclass in reporting. But you might want to subscribe to catch the recently-release March 11, which chronicles the day the pandemic wiped out sports. – Brady Langmann
This might be sacrilege to say, but sometimes—in my heart of hearts—I think reading The New York Times’s “Modern Love” column feels like reading a bad diary entry. There’s something about digesting someone’s love and loss and crushes and blushes in print that sends me straight back to the days I’d scribble regrettable tales of heartbreak (and only heartbreak!) in my own notebook. Enter the podcast. The Times hires a bunch of celebrities to read the columns aloud. Ah. There it is. Much better. Feels closer to a poetry night. -BL
You might notice that CC Sabathia co-hosts this particular podcast. Former all-star baseball pitcher CC Sabathia. Do NOT back away, sports fan who likes everything but baseball in the same way as the person who says they listen to everything but country. R2C2 is more of a smart, freewheeling sports podcast—just with a lean toward our great game, that’s all. All the SportsCenter-ticker-news reacts you want will be there. Plus, CC is a national treasure—and his chemistry with Ruocco makes R2C2 a must-listen. Seriously: What other pod could score Rapinoe and Bird as guests on the same episode? – BL
My Favorite Murder
Karen Kilgariff and Georgia Hardstark have been doing this for five years now, but the idea still feels as taboo and sketchy as the title suggests, but like… you know when you get together with that one friend? And y’all start talking about your favorite horrific true crime story? And then everyone else feels weird because you’re in the gory details and this was supposed to be a really nice dinner party? Put that in podcast form and that’s what you have here. Just a couple of cool ladies who love to get into the particulars of homicide. It’s casual. – JK
You Must Remember This
Karina Longworth’s podcast feels like listening to a secret—half because of her perfectly mysterious and dramatic narrative voice, and half because the show explores the “secret and/or forgotten” histories of Hollywood in the 20th century. Longworth dives deep into the Hollywood history you never really knew about, like Jayne Mansfield’s connection to the Church of Satan or the context behind the Hays Code, a set of “morality” guidelines strictly applied to films from the 1930s to the late ‘60s. A good place to start listening is the multi-part series Charles Manson’s Hollywood. – Anna Lee
You’re Wrong About
Pop culture nerds and history lovers, this is the show for you. Each week, journalists Michael Hobbes and Sarah Marshall reconsider a historical event—from the Stanford Prison Experiment, to the murder of Kitty Genovese and the bystander effect, to (my personal favorite) Newsies and the real newsboys’ strike of 1899—that has been misunderstood by the public for years. Come for the thorough research and thoughtful analysis, and stay for the funny digressions and repartee. – AL
How Did This Get Made?
In December 2020, How Did This Get Made celebrated its tenth anniversary. A decade feels like a lifetime—especially in podcast years. And HDTGM has remains a podcast classic thanks to an unbeatable formula: Three hilarious comedians discuss some truly horrible films. Paul Scheer, June Diane Raphael, and Jason Mantzoukas have trudged through the worst of what Hollywood has to offer over the years, but this podcast isn’t just about dunking on Bad Films. They’ve built a weird and beautiful community that has bonded over their love of watching shitty movies together. – Matt Miller
Twenty-one years ago, actor/comedian Connor Ratliff was fired by Tom Hanks from the 2001 HBO miniseries Band of Brothers. He was told the reason he was let go from this small speaking role is because America’s Dad thought Ratliff had “dead eyes.” In 2020, Ratliff debuted this podcast investigation into the circumstances of his firing. But, in the year since he launched this podcast, it has turned into a much more human and universal story. Through interviews with actors in his and Tom Hanks’s orbit, Ratliff explores not just the ups and downs of show business, but the more deeply human experience of dealing with personal and professional failure. And more importantly, how we move on, learn, and grow from it. -MM
If there’s a music story everyone on the internet is talking about, it’s only a matter of time before Jon Caramanica and company are cooking up a lengthy discussion on it. As headlines come and go, I tend to retreat into the Popcast world to hear Caramanica and friends dive deep into the history and modern context of the story of the moment. But that’s not all they’re covering. From jazz revivals to forgotten artists and the business of the industry, Popcast’s long list of episodes live on well beyond the news cycle, providing an archive of music criticism and commentary filled with talking points you’ll be eager to pass on to your friends. – Ben Boskovich
The Golfer’s Journal Podcast
There are a ton of golf podcasts out there right now. The game’s rising popularity, and its slow emergence into the zeitgeist, has made for plenty of conversation. The Golfer’s Journal podcast, though, doesn’t bother with wading into all of that. TGJ is all about the art of golf. A recent episode detailed writer Tom Coyne’s journey to sobriety, golf’s relationship with alcohol, and the sober friends he formed a golf league with. It’s a conversation about substance abuse and redemption, wrapped in golf glory. That’s what you get with this podcast. Never on the nose, always a shot through the heart. If you love golf–like love it love it–this is the pod for you. – BB
Welcome to Your Fantasy
If you like true crime, Welcome to Your Fantasy will scratch that itch while it brings you a little-known sexy, seedy 80s history lesson, too. This eight-part storytelling deep-dive by historian Natalia Petrzela explores how an immigrant from India and a children’s TV producer from New Jersey built the notorious male exotic dancers empire known as Chippendales, and the greed and corruption that ultimately led to a dark, deadly downfall. With 80s L.A. nightlife and murder abound, prepare to be both scandalized and enraptured. – Lauren Kranc
Let’s Talk About Myths, Baby
There are horse girls, and then there are mythology girls. As a child, I was the latter: an insufferable little nerd who stuffed her brain with sanitized versions of ancient myths. Then I became an insufferable little preteen who leveled up to the real Homeric deal. For grown-up mythology nuts like me who still can’t get enough, there’s Let’s Talk About Myths, Baby, a twice-weekly podcast covering ancient Greek and Roman myths. Host Liv Albert, the author of a forthcoming book about Greek mythology, recounts ancient stories while examining them through a modern lens, considering the place of women, trans, and non-binary people in ancient narratives. – AW
On the Media
In this Peabody Award-winning series from WNYC, veteran journalists Brooke Gladstone and Bob Garfield shepherd listeners through weekly dissections of how the media we consume shapes our worldview. Stories are often centered on the week’s current events, with journalists phoning in to dissect and defend media coverage. Expertly guided by Gladstone and Garfield, these conversations tackle everything from net neutrality to First Amendment issues, as well as media consolidation to how publications can serve special interests. If you spend a lot of time thinking about the failings of cable news and how it’s rotting Americans’ brains, OTM is the show for you. But don’t get it twisted—OTM is bipartisan and civil, as only public radio can be. – AW
My Brother, My Brother, and Me
Have you ever found yourself wondering “Is it considered cheating if you sleep with the demon that is possessing your Wife or Girlfriend?” or maybe “What is Obama’s Playstation network Username?” These are the pressing questions you can expect the McElroy brothers to answer. These brothers are the boy kings of podcasting and have one of the funniest podcasts out there. It’s the most absurd advice show out there. They even bring in some big guests like Jimmy Buffet or Lin Manuel Miranda, consistently. MBMBAM is a fantastic podcast for someone needing a pick me up or a care free fun hour sandwiched into their day. – Cam Sherrill
Justin Kirkland is a writer for Esquire, where he focuses on entertainment, television, and pop culture.
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