NPR’s Book of the Day and 9 More Podcasts Worth Trying

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Photo-Illustration: Vulture

One quick thing before we get started: Seeing as how we’re about to roll into October — Halloween month, a.k.a. Spooky Season — I’d love to run more creepy podcast picks over the next few issues. So tell me about the various scary/horror-themed podcasts you’ve enjoyed over the years! If I get enough of these, I’ll run them as a mass reader pick.

And also, as always, tell me what you’re listening to more generally. Find me on Twitter or reach me over email: nicholas.quah@vulture.com.

A music podcast of bookish proportions. 
Available as an exclusive on Spotify. Listen here.

Let’s start with some background. The 33 1/3 book series, nowadays published by Bloomsbury, specializes in releasing music criticism in the form of short books, where each entry goes deep on a specific celebrated album. I’ve inexplicably acquired about a dozen of those little books over the years. Well, maybe a little more than that; I keep discovering others whenever I clean out my home office. Anyway, a big part of what speaks to me about 33 1/3, I suspect, has to do with the somewhat eclectic nature of the people who get to write them. You have music critics, of course, along with music scholars and scholars in training. But you also get the occasional writer-musician — the Mountain Goats’ John Darnielle, for example, wrote an entry on Black Sabbath’s Master of Reality in 2008. Generally speaking, the books are hit-or-miss, but as someone who knows close to jack all about music, I always find them to be informative at the very least.

This is all to say that I paid fairly close attention to the launch of The 33 1/3 Podcast earlier this month. The show comes from Spotify Studios, where it joins a growing stable of music podcasts developed by the company presumably meant to capitalize on its pre-existing base of music consumers, and it features the hosting talents of Prince Paul, the music producer and DJ.

The 33 1/3 Podcast is less an adaptation than an effort to build a new VH1-esque music-variety program on the back of the book series. There’s a fairly intriguing concept underlying the show here: Each episode revolves around a different book in the series, which is paired with special celebrity guests who are somehow connected to the album in question. They may have been contemporaries in the era of the album or simply inspired by it. The typical flow of an episode is structured around a conversation between Paul and the guest, with narrated excerpts from the book that give the conversationalists something to respond to from time to time.

I’ll admit: I was disappointed by the conceit. Aren’t there enough platforms for famous music-industry types to recall stories about their time in the business? I suppose I was hoping for something less celebrity-centric and for something that played up the book series’ roots as a font for criticism.

And then I listened to the podcast’s second episode, which paired the music critic Eric Weisbard’s book on Guns N’ Roses’ Use Your Illusion I and II with two individuals who were around in the era and on the scene: Skid Row’s Sebastian Bach and former MTV host Riki Rachtman. Sparks flew, as Weisbard’s arguments came into direct conflict with the perspectives of Bach and Rachtman.

A moment that stood to me:

Narrated excerpt: Part of the mythology of rock and roll is that it opened genteel culture to new outside voices: African Americans, working-class southerners, and Brits. But the story I have experienced or consumed is a lot dicier. For what about those — their numbers pumped by affluence, education, and sheltered young adulthood — who fell in the ignoble gap between elite and exotic?

Rachtman: Well, first of all, I gotta comment on what I just heard, because that was just a lot of ca-ca.

The contentious vibe stretches all throughout the episode: An excerpt gets played, then Bach and Rachtman protest aggressively. Of course, Weisbard isn’t present in the recording to defend his arguments or clarify what he meant by any of the excerpts, as the show makes the choice to present the book excerpts absent the critics themselves, which is a bit of a bummer. But it’s a captivating listen nevertheless. By the end of the episode, Bach and Rachtman have so totally exhausted their punches on Weisbard’s arguments — are they punching up? Punching down? Unclear — that the very concept of the show feels burnt to a crisp.

It’s likely that this Guns N’ Roses episode is merely an exceptional instance in what is meant to be a more straightforward show. The other two episodes that are out now feel significantly more chill, each piece of the show more aligned. But the sparks in that second episode gesture toward what could be the most interesting thing about this show: how it could serve as a space where subjects could directly engage with pieces of criticism about their work.

A clinical investigative true-crime podcast. 
Available on all platforms. Listen here.

I still don’t quite know what to make of Suspect.

On the one hand, the investigative true-crime podcast from Campside Media and Wondery is so straightforward, clinical, and competent in its delivery as to almost be anonymous. When I try describing the show to someone else, I often end up focusing exclusively on the details of the case being investigated rather than on any aspect of what’s distinct about the show or what it’s trying to say.

On the other hand, I’m pretty sure this show is going to make my top-ten list for the year, and I compulsively inhaled each of the five episodes currently available for wide release. (The entire season, by the way, is out for members of Wondery+, the Amazon Music–owned podcast company’s premium subscription program.)

I’ll deal with that tension later in a more comprehensive review. For now, the details: Suspect takes up the unresolved murder of Arpana Jinaga, who was killed the night of a Halloween party at her Redmond, Washington, apartment complex in 2008. The fact that there was a party and that there weren’t any witnesses renders the case a true whodunit, one that relies purely on circumstantial and DNA evidence — which, a senior county prosecutor tells the Suspect team in the fifth episode, is apparently something that just isn’t very common anymore.

For all intents and purposes, the series is a reinvestigation of the case, rather than a mere discussion of it, with the team, led by Matthew Shaer and Eric Benson (both magazine journalists turned crime podcasters who previously collaborated on Over My Dead Body), scouring the Redmond area to re-interview suspects, speak with experts, file records requests, and pull archival tape. I’m sticking with this one to the end.

➽  By the way, if you’re really into true-crime podcasts, consider this a periodic reminder that we also publish a regular “This Week in True-Crime Podcasts” feature over on the site. This week’s picks from the contributors: “cult-adjacency” on DIE-ALOGUE, New England vampire on Morbid (do the folks on What We Do in the Shadows count?), and Impostors: The Commander. 

➽  This might be an incongruous recommendation for…

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