The 20 best podcasts of 2020

We went down a YouTube rabbit hole, Alan Partridge made a triumphant return and a singular look at cold war espionage came with an irresistible earworm. Plus more of the year’s best pods

This list is compiled from votes by Guardian culture writers: each votes for their Top 20 shows, with points allocated for every placing that are then tallied to create this order.

20
Hunting Ghislaine

As an alleged accomplice to Jeffrey Epstein, socialite Ghislaine Maxwell is awaiting trial for charges related to the late financier and sex offender. Investigative reporter John Sweeney helms a podcast on events described by its makers as “melancholic and macabre”, deftly delving into connections with a number of insalubrious sorts – and a familiar member of the British royal family.
Available on Spotify and Apple Podcasts

19
United Zingdom

Vice journalist Zing Tsjeng was born in Singapore, but has lived in London since she was in her teens. But should she trade her Singaporean passport in for a British one, and what does being British mean anyway? This riveting roadtrip – in the company of the sweet, slightly sardonic Tsjeng – offers wonderful, human tales from Newcastle, Glasgow, Essex and beyond, bringing some regional intrigue to the often London-centric podcast world.
Available on BBC Sounds

Zing Tsjeng
Riveting roadtrip … Zing Tsjeng. Photograph: Emmanuel Robert

18
The Isolation Tapes

Honesty has long been the policy of this charmingly filterless show from standups Elis James and John Robins – and it paid dividends during the pandemic. This year saw the pair supplement their weekly BBC Radio 5 Live broadcast with extra podcast episodes that drilled down into the tedium, melancholy and anxiety of lockdown with kindness and giddy humour – public service broadcasting at its most restorative.
Available on BBC Sounds

17
Off Menu

In 2020, James Acaster and Ed Gamble’s dream restaurant – a place where guests can magically summon their favourite three-course meal – was among the few culinary establishments consistently open, tirelessly churning out dishes ridiculous and sublime. This year, David O’Doherty indulged in canal-dredged chowder, Romesh Ranganathan got his Gobi 65 fix and Jo Brand feasted on Birds Eye potato waffle coleslaw, their foodie fantasies invariably accompanied by a hearty side of banter.
Available on Spotify and Apple Podcasts

16
The Nobody Zone

A grim listen, this co-production between Ireland’s national broadcaster RTÉ and Denmark’s Third Ear podcast unpicks the story of Kieran Patrick Kelly, the “London Underground serial killer” who preyed on some of society’s most vulnerable people – fellow members of south London’s homeless community. Rumours, suspicions, and new evidence come together in a thoroughly researched crime saga.

What we said: Teasing music, intricate sound design and an old cassette tape of one of the police interviews set the scene nicely. But the real genius is in the scripting.
Available on Spotify and Apple Podcasts

15
The Heart

An “audio art project about power and love” from US/Canadian podcasters Mermaid Palace, The Heart is where you’re as likely to hear personal tales from transgender creators and consumers of porn as you are a monologue on holiday romance from a queer Asian man or a miniseries about tackling white supremacy. It is powerful, often emotional and unapologetically inclusive. This show about connections shines at a time when we’ve been pondering them the most.
Available on Spotify and Apple Podcasts

The Heart team.
Power play … The Heart team. Photograph: The Heart

14
The Sink

This comedy-horror series takes a slightly different tack than the meditation, ASMR and sleep shows around, instead offering help for those with “difficult toes”, a “callous attitude to wrists” and “overwhelming dread”. This disquieting dream exploration by Natasha Hodgson might not actually, as it claims, banish the “bad smell” from your brain (can anything in 2020?) but it is deliciously bizarre, in a Blue Jam kind of way.
Available on BBC Sounds

13
Rabbit Hole

Fans of the Netflix doc The Social Dilemma can find more insights into the internet’s mind-warping effects in this highly unnerving New York Times series. It’s a deep dive into YouTube, and features CEO Susan Wojcicki, superstar creator PewDiePie and those who were “radicalised” by the platform. Taking in QAnon, white supremacy and terrorist attacks, it doubles as a stark warning against letting the site’s algorithm dictate the contents of your next binge.

What we said: If you’ve not yet fallen down the rabbit hole that is the Rabbit Hole podcast prepare to be enlightened and a little freaked out.
Available on Spotify, the New York Times website and Apple Podcasts

12
The Adam Buxton Podcast

“I added one more podcast to the giant podcast bin”: so goes the theme tune to the cult ramble-chat show. If the pod market seemed crowded in 2015 when this endearing series debuted, it is positively heaving now – which makes Buxton’s continued ubiquity especially impressive. This year has featured some quality repeat guests (Zadie Smith, Natasia Demetriou) and seen Buxton speak movingly about his mother’s death with old friend Joe Cornish.

What we said: These conversations are the opposite of Twitter: kind and curious.
Available on Spotify and Apple Podcasts

11
The Daily

This was the year that the news went into overdrive, with Covid, Brexit, Trump, and Black Lives Matter dominating headlines. As such, the existing glut of news podcasts only increased, though few were as incisive and thoroughly reported as this journalist-led flagship show from the New York Times. Plus: bonus points for Michael Barbaro, and his unique way of letting us know what else we need to “NoTuhDay”.

What we said: The Daily’s investigation into child sexual abuse imagery is hugely powerful, encapsulating why narrative news and audio are such a powerful combination.
Available on Spotify and Apple Podcasts

Black Lives Matter was just one big issue The Daily covered this year.
Black Lives Matter was just one big issue The Daily covered this year. Photograph: Anadolu Agency/Getty Images

10
You’re Wrong About

Modern myths, moral panics and media storms are dissected and (usually) debunked by journalists Michael Hobbes and Sarah Marshall in this sensationally clever podcast. With topics ranging from the still ubiquitous (Princess Diana, Marie Antoinette) to the largely forgotten (the Tuskegee syphilis study, the disappearance of Chandra Levy), the podcast sees the smart and funny pair uproot lazy assumptions, interrogate prejudices and uncover crucial facts buried beneath public misconception.

What we said: The journey is equal parts entertaining and interesting, with an unforced and easy chemistry between the hosts, driven by Marshall’s sharp intellect with Hobbes’s more fun-loving side.
Available on Spotify and Apple Podcasts

9
Twenty Twenty

Journalists Simran Hans and Tara Joshi were in primary school during that brief, blissful moment when children could legitimately say to their friends: “See you next millennium!” In this podcast, they return to crunch the pop culture they unthinkingly embraced at the time – from Craig David to Faking It to The Sims – with sharpened critical faculties and a keen sense of the enduring influence of these not-so-trivial artefacts.

What we said: Its hosts have a serious love for 2000s pop culture and, having grown up with the boundaries between supposedly high and low culture coming down, know how to expertly shift between funny and profound.
Available on Spotify and Apple Podcasts

8
Slow Burn

Another year, another series of Slate’s hit podcast, which has previously covered the deaths of Tupac and the Notorious BIG, the Watergate scandal and Bill Clinton’s impeachment. This time around, the focus was on the white supremacist leader-turned-politician David Duke, as host Josh Levin brought together troubling archive clips with prescient analysis. Two more series – on the run-up to the Iraq war and the 1992 LA riots – are on the way.

What we said: It’s hard to ignore the sense of foreboding eeriness that comes as you start to realise – through clever scripting and use of archive – that the story of a white man getting to power by making himself “a cause” for the disenfranchised isn’t a historical one.
Available on Spotify and Apple Podcasts

7
From the Oasthouse: The Alan Partridge podcast

Opinionated, minutiae-obsessed and a big fan of the sound of his own voice: Alan Partridge isn’t justperfect for local radio, he’s also the platonic ideal of a podcast host. From the Oasthouse sees him soliloquise for seven hours on topics including his love of corporate gigs and his estrangement from his grandchildren. It’s testament to Steve Coogan and co’s lack of preciousness that Partridge keeps moving with the times. This latest troll-besieged iteration is an unbridled joy.

What we said: A triumphant return, with Partridge segueing from his own Blue Monday to a complaint about ravers ruining service stations, “the essential haven for the weary traveller”.
Available on Audible

Steve Coogan returned as Alan Partridge in From the Oasthouse.
Steve Coogan returned as Alan Partridge in From the Oasthouse. Photograph: PR Handout

6
Katherine Ryan: Telling Everybody Everything

While most podcasts thrive on the back-and-forth between co-hosts and/or guests, this series from comedian Katherine Ryan is essentially a series of extended monologues that take in a slew of disparate subjects: potty training, miscarriage, cancel culture, showbiz sexism. With her spellbinding self-assurance and suffer-no-fools attitude, Telling Everybody Everything elevates Ryan to inspirational figure status, her pod sermons full of striking candour and hard-won wisdom.

What we said: Ryan’s acerbic one-liners are in full flow in a podcast that covers a lot of ground, including Tiger King, her daughter Violet and getting romantic in lockdown.
Available on Spotify and Apple Podcasts

5
Where is George Gibney?

This BBC podcast saw reporter Mark Horgan travel across Ireland, the US and the UK in search of Irish Olympic swimming coach George Gibney, who was charged with child sex offences in 1994 but vanished before he could stand trial. Devastating but essential and with disturbing content, the show centres on sensitively covered accounts from victims and those who had been under Gibney’s tutelage.

What we said: Unlike a lot of true crime, the focus is skewed towards the survivors and their stories, which makes it seem a lot more valuable than some of the gore-centric entities of the genre.
Available on BBC Sounds

4
Nice White Parents

In the face of a global reckoning triggered by the murder of George Floyd, podcasts about racial inequality took on new relevance. Rising above the docuseries surfeit, Nice White Parents asked whether the actions of well-meaning but overbearing, clueless, and sometimes cowardly, white parents had in fact made the US school system a worse place to be for black students over the past 60 years.

What we said: Chana Joffe-Walt presents what is an intriguing look at “arguably the most powerful force” in the US public school system and continued role of segregation in US education, with a hefty accompanying reading list available online.
Available on Spotify and Apple Podcasts

3
Grounded With Louis Theroux

When lockdown left him unable to film his immersive documentaries, Theroux pivoted to podcasting, taking the opportunity to corner some of the most interesting names in showbiz while they were also under house arrest. Despite the matey overtones (Helena Bonham Carter reminisces about the pair’s schooldays; Sia recalls writing him fan mail), Theroux pulls no punches interview wise, and is unafraid to ask awkward questions.

What we said: Theroux is a skilful listener rather than an interrupter and guests such as Boy George, Lenny Henry and Miriam Margolyes promise to be interview gold.
Available on BBC Sounds

2
Dear Joan and Jericha

Incest, bestiality, public defecation and snaring prospective sexual partners with a big net: the advice of Julia Davis and Vicki Pepperdine’s all-nonsense agony aunts leaves no taboo unturned. But their bizarre counsel isn’t just bleakly, hysterically funny, it’s also cathartic. In Joan and Jericha’s world, women are lazy, unsympathetic and physically repellent, while “guys” are hard-working and gorgeous, making the show an outrageously gratifying pastiche of misogyny old and new.

What we said: Armed with their own experiences of marital difficulties and large-headed lesbian progeny, no problem is too filthy or absurd to receive a dose of their unique wisdom.
Available on Spotify and Apple Podcasts

Scorpions.
Scorpions, whose song Wind of Change inspired this year’s best podcast. Photograph: Harry Langdon/Getty Images

1
Wind of Change

Was a hammy 90s power ballad in fact a secret, anti-Soviet counter-intelligence tool, penned by the CIA? Such was the outlandish claim at the centre of our top podcast of 2020. Named for the song at its centre – Wind of Change by West German rock outfit Scorpions – this gripping podcast, hosted by the New Yorker’s Patrick Radden Keefe, had it all. For history fans, it offered a window into the espionage tactics of the cold war era; for music fans, it told of an intriguing urban legend behind a seemingly anodyne hit; and for those with a taste for true crime and mystery, it was a chance to see the conventions of those genres applied to a whole new subject. A singular series, and one which – in an age of ubiquitous fake news – challenged listeners to think about the complicated nature of truth. Plus, bonus points for getting the whistle-along earworm that is Wind of Change into all of our heads.
Available on Spotify and Apple Podcasts

Contributors

Rachel Aroesti and Hannah J Davies

The GuardianTramp

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