As lockdowns have come and gone over the past 18 months, few things have been as reassuring as tuning into the familiar voices on your go-to podcast. And now, as we tentatively begin commuting again—or just need something to listen to while making our morning coffee at home—there’s never been a better time to dive into the year’s best offerings.
The sheer number of podcasts out there right now can feel overwhelming, but worry not: here, Vogue has you covered with our round-up of the best podcasts of 2021. From deep dives into the Iraq War and the music of the ’90s, to humorous takes on wellness culture and women from history, to meticulously researched tributes to hip-hop stars and Latinx icons, these are the most informative (and addictive) podcasts to listen to now.
Hosted by comedians Kate Berlant and Jacqueline Novak, Poog offers a sideways take on health and mindfulness today as riotously funny as it is unexpectedly reverential. (The name, in case you hadn’t noticed, is “Goop” spelled backwards.) While Berlant and Novak worship at the altar of face creams, meditation, and green smoothies, they’re always ready to poke fun at their own all-consuming obsessions with the weird and wonderful world of wellness. A particular highlight is the pair’s (often surprisingly convincing) efforts to square up the promises offered by these products with philosophy and critical theory, whether Jung or Julia Kristeva. If that sounds forbiddingly highbrow, it isn’t at all. Instead, the hosts, or self-described “hags,” freely admit that at the end of the day, their primary objective in launching the podcast was simply to get free products. What could be more relatable than that?
If the tried and tested true-crime podcast formula feels well-worn to you by now, consider Welcome to Your Fantasy, an uproarious and deliciously campy deep dive into the infamous male striptease group the Chippendales. Over the course of the podcast, it turns out that the group was infamous for more reasons than one—but to find out all the grisly details, you’ll just have to listen to historian Natalia Petrzela’s meticulously researched nine-episode series. It would be unfair to spoil any of its shocking, salacious secrets.
As the makers of this endlessly fascinating NPR podcast summarize it: “Rhyme and punishment go hand in hand in America.” Charting the correlation between hip-hop’s absorption into popular culture and mass incarceration, Louder Than a Riot’s deep dives into the stories of rappers like Mac Phipps and the late Nipsey Hussle are as riveting as they are important. But it’s hosts Rodney Carmichael and Sidney Madden’s ability to link these specific cases with the bigger picture of how the U.S. justice system, racism, and rap culture are all depressingly entwined that makes Louder Than a Riot required listening.
You’re Wrong About might have started in 2018, but to this day, the podcast still hasn’t missed a beat. With each episode revisiting a person or pop-cultural moment that has been misunderstood or unfairly maligned—everyone from Courtney Love to Catherine the Great to the woman who sued McDonald’s for spilling hot coffee on her lap—the forensic research of the show’s hosts, writers Michael Hobbes and Sarah Marshall, never fails to impress. Still, it’s perhaps their humor and radical empathy that shines brightest, especially given that the stories they tell are often so awful that if you didn’t laugh, you’d cry.
Launched in January, Anything for Selena feels perfectly timed to the resurgence of interest in legendary Tejano singer Selena Quintanilla, who would have turned 50 this year. Yet for its host, Maria Garcia, the exercise of making the podcast was just as much about charting the life of Quintanilla and her tragic 1995 murder as it was about exploring the personal significance she had to a generation of Latina women. It serves as an informative, heartfelt, and richly realized window into the life of a talent gone too soon—and her enduring legacy.
Hosted by longtime friends Carrie Plitt, a literary agent, and Octavia Bright, a writer and ex-academic, Literary Friction is a podcast about books that is as congenial as it is cerebral. Part of the podcast’s appeal is its starry line-up of literary-world guests—Maggie Nelson, Deborah Levy, Raven Leilani, Carmen Maria Machado, and Garth Greenwell all within the past few months alone—but Plitt and Bright’s warmth and humor brings these endlessly fascinating conversations to vivid life. Reading lists published on the NTS site after each show also offer plenty more material on each episode’s topic or author. Consider it your new favorite book club.
For reality TV junkies, there’s little more thrilling than getting a peek behind the curtain—and Spectacle: An Unscripted History of Reality TV, which launched in January of this year, offers that and much more. Hosted by writer, comedian, and self-described “pop culture truther” Mariah Smith, the show tracks the history and evolution of the medium from The Real World to Keeping Up With the Kardashians with wit and insight. Indeed, just as fascinating as Smith’s investigations into behind-the-scenes hi-jinks are her explorations of the impact reality TV—and the numerous stars it has spawned—has had on U.S. culture more broadly, changing conversations around gender dynamics, wealth, and race.
9/12 (Pineapple Street Studios and Wondery)
Released to coincide with the 20th anniversary of 9/11, 9/12 looks at the impact that seismic event had on American culture, asking the not-so-simple question: “How did 9/11 the day become 9/11 the idea?” Lead by the award-winning host Dan Taberski, whose voice you might recognize from previous hits Missing Richard Simmons and Surviving Y2K, the limited-series podcast examines seven different people and groups affected by 9/11. Amid the glut of content revisiting the events this year, 9/12 stands out as the most compelling and unique offering.
Hosted by poet and writer Saidu Tejan-Thomas Jr., Resistance debuted as a Spotify original in the wake of 2020’s massive Black Lives Matter protests. While some of its most important episodes focus on the instances of police brutality that spurred the world into long overdue action, others take a look at communities of color pushing back against other forms of injustice, from Nigeria’s #EndSARS movement to the Gullah people of the South Carolina resisting efforts to displace them from their historic homeland. With Tejan-Thomas Jr. at the helm, the podcast manages to be both educational and profoundly inspiring.
Across its five seasons, the runaway hit Slow Burn has delved into American scandals as wide-ranging as Watergate, the Clinton-Lewinsky affair, and the murders of The Notorious B.I.G. and Tupac, uncovering anecdotes and lesser-known subplots to these events that cast them in a new light. For its latest season, the podcast delved into the Iraq War, exploring the historical backstory that led to that disastrous conflict and the incompetence of the Bush administration in determining what a post-war Iraq might actually look like. It offers fascinating insights into the various factors that made the war a near inevitability, all expressed with the podcast’s signature flair for gripping storytelling. And with a sixth season exploring Rodney King and the L.A. Riots debuting next month, there’ll be plenty more Slow Burn to sink your teeth into soon.
You needn’t have grown up in the 1990s to enjoy 60 Songs That Explain the ’90s, but if you did, it will serve as the perfect nostalgia trip. More than that, though, the podcast provides a window into how music wasn’t just a product of the decade’s culture, but also actively shaped it. Hosted by music critic Rob Narvilla, recent episodes have explored everything from the explosion of pop-punk through the lens of Blink-182’s “What’s My Name…