This yr, as podcasts continued to proliferate and firms continued to include, the artwork of podcasting additionally continued to evolve—together with into the realm of audiobook production, which has begun to interrupt free of inventive constraints. Many of my steadfast favorites, comparable to “Ear Hustle,” “In Our Time,” “Heavyweight,” “Death, Sex & Money,” and Avery Trufelman’s “Nice Try!” (this season, cleverly focussed on home home equipment), remained transporting; high quality investigative podcasts, comparable to Reveal’s “Mississippi Goddam: The Ballad of Billey Joe” and Gimlet’s “Stolen: The Search for Jermain,” abounded. An extraordinary “Song Exploder” episode, through which John Lennon, through archival audio supplied by his property, elucidates the creation of “God,” pairs splendidly with the continued Paulfest and Beatle-fest that this season has granted us. Here are a number of of the yr’s different items, which introduced magnificence and marvel to our headphones.


Some of my favourite podcasts use the medium to discover the historical past of audio recording, reflecting on our present aural-cultural second in mild of what’s come earlier than. “Radiolab: Mixtape,” a five-episode miniseries, does this with the common-or-garden cassette, presenting tales concerning the methods through which that format, now underappreciated, modified the world. The collection, hosted and produced by Simon Adler, takes us to stunning locations—a Tokyo park in 1979, Bing Crosby’s studio in 1946, nineties South Sudan—to indicate how offering individuals with the power to file, edit, and transport sound has altered our relationship with tradition, politics, historical past, our family members, and actuality itself. It additionally captures dozens of beautiful little moments within the course of. In the primary episode, a bunch of journalists gathers in that Tokyo park, the place Sony executives astound them with what the world would quickly know because the Walkman. Later, we soar to late-nineties China, and the story of how Western pop music from junked American cassette tapes—dakou—“sparked a musical explosion and totally reimagined what rock and roll was.”


There’s a motive that “The Paris Review Podcast” is an trade favourite, beloved by makers of different nice podcasts: in its cocktail of poetry, fiction, archival interviews, music, and subject recordings, it’s an artwork work in itself, an excellent sound tub to luxuriate in as we take in the journal’s literature and concepts. The podcast’s final full season was in 2019, and its return, this fall, had been eagerly anticipated ever since. Its format permits you to float from one aspect to a different, largely unchaperoned however gently oriented—this season by the journal’s new editor, Emily Stokes (previously of The New Yorker). On a latest relisten, being attentive to the sound design (by Helena de Groot, John DeLore, and Hannis Brown, with mastering by Justin Shturtz), I noticed the supply of some of its magic: by flecking in hints of sound from day by day life—wind chimes, piano, background dialog—the manufacturing locates the work extra firmly in the true world, avoiding the preciousness that some literary readings can fall prey to whereas elevating the wonder even additional.


There’s a thriller on the heart of Eric Mennel’s collection “Stay Away from Matthew MaGill” (which Mennel produced with Elliott Adler, for Pineapple Street), a couple of good-looking stranger who moved to a small city on the Georgia-Florida border, opened an exotic-plants nursery, spent many years alienating everybody on the town, and died friendless and alone. The thriller is: Who was this man, and what occurred to him? MaGill left behind particulars from a credulity-straining private backstory—a childhood of privilege, a wedding to a Broadway actress, a authorities investigation, a airplane hijacking, stolen automobiles—and likewise a field of his results, which Mennel opens and investigates. In the course of seven episodes, researched over 5 years, Mennel uncovers MaGill’s truths, and begins to weave in a narrative of his personal, about alienation, secrets and techniques, and tentative reconnection inside Mennel’s household. Like “S-Town,” it strikes an elegiac temper of rumination on a tragic, extraordinary life.


The producer, musician, and sound designer Ian Coss (“Ways of Hearing,” “Over the Road”) describes this collection as being about divorce; it’s equally about love, household, and understanding. As it begins, Coss, who has been married for a number of years, explains that each residing relative of his who has been married additionally bought divorced, and, in an effort to know all of it, he units out to interview them. In an early episode, a easy trick of modifying—layering collectively his long-divorced mother and father’ account of how they met—is beautiful in its mild magnificence and energy. Later, a very considerate uncle, who has labored as a firefighter, compares the failure of a wedding to a medical emergency. “It’s usually five or six things that are going wrong,” he says—irregular lab work, which no one checked out, then the affected person bought dehydrated, and so forth. “You have to keep an eye on the things that are stacking up.” As the episodes proceed, they accumulate that means, the interviewees changing into extra fascinating in relation to at least one one other, like characters in a multigenerational novel. Coss ends every episode by performing an authentic music impressed by its interviews. (“Maybe in another life,” he sings.)


One of essentially the most devastating podcasts that I listened to this yr, “Southlake,” about turmoil in an prosperous and previously collegial suburb of Dallas, zeroes in on an all too acquainted scenario. The NBC News reporters Mike Hixenbaugh and Antonia Hylton reveal the story of how a wrestle for racial justice, spurred by a highschool’s insufficient dealing with of a 2018 video of white college students chanting the N-word, was reframed as being racist itself, ultimately inflaming the passions of mother and father and voters (to not point out Fox News) and finally affecting native elections, faculty boards, employment, and curricula. The collection—produced by Frannie Kelley, with professional sound design by Seth Samuel and authentic music by Ali Shaheed Muhammad—treats an overheated state of affairs with persistence and care. It incorporates audio of faculty directors, neighborhood conferences, mother and father, lecturers, and college students, and its quiet moments—comparable to a dialog between a queer, nonbinary teen and their faculty principal a couple of bullying incident, which he retains calling “a debate”—are as highly effective as its loud ones.


Dan Taberski, the maker of reliably nice documentary podcasts comparable to “Surviving Y2K” and “Running from COPS”—whose narration, by him, usually units my enamel on edge—did it once more this yr (and once more, with “The Line,” concerning the Eddie Gallagher case). It’s a testomony to his ability that he can write stuff like “how we turned 9/11 the day into 9/11 the idea,” ship it with so-podcast-it-hurts conversational patness, and nonetheless be completely terrific. “9/12”—produced by Courtney Harrell, for Pineapple Street (with Amazon Music and Wondery)—tells a number of evocative tales barely other than the tragedy itself: forged and crew members on a reproduction eighteenth-century explorer ship, filming a BBC collection, who be taught of the occasion whereas at sea; Onion staffers who attempt to deal with comedy; a Pakistani American businessman, in Brooklyn, who turns his cloth retailer into an investigation workplace after his neighbors begin disappearing; Hollywood screenwriters who’re secretly referred to as upon by the federal government to assist brainstorm different potential terrorist threats. The ensuing mosaic evokes particulars of post-9/11 life that we would have forgotten—for instance, {that a} Red Sox fan may get kicked out of Yankee Stadium, in 2008, for attempting to get to the lads’s room throughout “God Bless America”—and prompts insights concerning the world we misplaced and the world we tailored to.


The greatness of “Suspect”—a criminal offense podcast, distributed by Wondery, involving a homicide on Halloween—may startle listeners aware of Wondery’s work, which tends towards a sure degree of pulp. But its sensitivity and seriousness are evident from the start, and its energy builds with every episode. Matthew Shaer and Eric Benson, who wrote the collection and produced it with Natalia Winkelman for Campside Media, had entry to all of the foremost figures—suspects, witnesses, cops, jurors, the accused—in a 2008 homicide investigation in Redmond, Washington, close to Seattle, that resulted in doubtful expenses. The sufferer was Arpana Jinaga, an excellent, beloved, and motorcycle-riding twenty-four-year-old software program engineer, who helped throw a large Halloween social gathering in her residence advanced, referred to as the Valley View, and was murdered later that evening. Shaer, who hosts, has studied the misuse of contact DNA in forensic evaluation, and he painstakingly analyzes the main points, re-creating the social gathering scene, the investigation, and the trial by way of the voices of the individuals concerned. The collection raises important questions on police process, DNA evaluation, and affirmation bias, and does so organically, in a gripping, character-driven story that at all times foregrounds the humanity of its topics, most of whom we empathize with and respect. It’s additionally a grasp class in tone, focussing on justice forthrightly with out patting itself on the again.


Tyler Mahan Coe’s ardour venture and one-man present, this exhaustively researched, feverishly delivered history-of-country-music podcast was an on the spot cult hit amongst music obsessives when its first season got here out, in 2017. Coe spent the subsequent few years creating the second season, a wildly formidable, and wildly lengthy, epic about George Jones. In telling the nice singer’s story, Coe zooms out and in to incorporate the event of the Nashville sound, the historical past of pinball, the invention of ice cream, the Medicis, the manufacturing of moonshine, Martin Luther’s opposition to the Roman Catholic Church, Jones’s alcoholism, Tammy Wynette’s affair with Burt Reynolds, the historical past of drag and masquerade balls—and, fairly deftly, cocaine and rhinestones. Coe, an autodidact and the son of the outlaw-country musician David Allan Coe, relishes his position as scholar-enthusiast-gadfly, and his zeal is the present’s animating pressure. It’s at its most chic when he delves into the songs themselves: “The song ‘White Lightning’ isn’t exactly about outrunning the law with a trunkful of moonshine, but you wouldn’t know it from the music,” he says, enjoying a bit of the monitor. “Buddy Killen’s standup bass turns over like an engine, and all of a sudden you’re chugging down a mountain, Pig Robbins’s piano tinkling around somewhere in the back with all the glass jars, and Floyd Robinson’s guitar lines whipping by the windows faster than passing tree trunks.”


This seven-episode collection about la brega (the wrestle, or the hustle) of life in Puerto Rico, created by a crew of Puerto Rican journalists and hosted and produced by Alana Casanova-Burgess, seems like a step ahead within the podcast medium—and never simply because it’s produced in each Spanish and English variations, accessible in the identical feed. Elegantly written, grounded in sensate element, and stunning at each flip, “La Brega,” co-produced by Futuro Studios and WNYC, begins with an unforgettable picture: a photograph that Casanova-Burgess sees of a water truck being subsumed by an enormous pothole in Caguas, Puerto Rico. “It looked as if the asphalt had opened a gaping mouth and was trying to swallow the truck,” Casanova-Burgess says. Potholes are a rampant drawback in Puerto Rico; this one was attributable to a damaged water pipe; the truck was bringing potable water to a neighborhood that wanted it. “And lastly, as if adding insult to injury, the water in the truck was lost to the pothole,” Casanova-Burgess says. “It was a bit on the nose.” She talks to a person who has began an Adopt a Pothole program—la brega in motion—and proceeds, in subsequent episodes, to discover the historical past of Levittown, Puerto Rico; a decades-long citizen-surveillance program; an impassioned basketball rivalry with the U.S.; and the legacy of Hurricane Maria. A by way of line is a extra geopolitical wrestle: the commonwealth’s relationship with the United States.


Saidu Tejan-Thomas, Jr., co-created and hosts this Gimlet collection, about “refusing to accept things as they are”; it began in October, 2020, with a vivid multi-episode portrait of the Black Lives Matter collective Warriors within the Garden. This yr, the present has continued to provide lovely work about acts of resistance giant and small, with a concentrate on Black American life. In “My Somebody,” a love story turns right into a fighting-for-justice love story; in “Jesus Was an Enemy of the State,” a pair explores liberation theology; in “Bushwick and the Beast,” Modesto Flako Jimenez leads a “full-on black-box theatre on wheels” about gentrification; and, in “F Your Water Fountain,” a fifties {photograph} of the civil-rights pioneer Cecil Williams ingesting from a water fountain marked “White Only” evokes a collection about individuals with comparable “fuck-your-water-fountain energy.” The present’s writing is muscular, smart, and humorous; Tejan-Thomas, a twenty-nine-year-old poet and author who labored on the podcasts “Mogul” and “Conviction,” has a eager ear for language, as do the present’s producers, together with Salifu Sesay Mack, Bethel Habte, and Aaron Randle. In the Bushwick episode, Tejan-Thomas appreciates some extent of Flako’s about graffiti, respect, and gentrification, and observes, “Even though there are hundreds of tags crowding each other on this wall, and there’s new tags being thrown up all the time, being able to see the tags underneath other ones—blues under greens, reds on whites, browns over oranges—these artists have figured something out: you can claim your spot without having to erase someone else’s.”


2021 in Review



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