The 20 best podcasts of 2021

Celebrities’ bizarre snacking habits, a true crime tale about stripping troupe The Chippendales, and the realisation that there’s no such thing as too much Louis Theroux: it’s the pods of the year


Harsh Reality

Combining a prescient story with unparalleled access to the people at its heart, Wondery and Novel’s co-production was a revelation. Miriam Rivera – the trans woman whose identity was the secret at the heart of the 2003 reality series There’s Something About Miriam – is no longer the object but rather the subject here, as the perpetrators and participants of the original, highly problematic, series wrestle with their complicity and naivety.


The Bias Diagnosis

Does your race really affect your outcomes in the British medical system? Dr Ivan Beckley investigated the shocking inequalities in the health system, from conditions diagnosed incorrectly or perilously late, to the racist stereotypes which lead some clinicians to underestimate their patients’ pain. Without blood, guts or a hint of sensationalism, this standout series painted a horrifying picture of prejudice.


Pieces of Britney

Pieces of Britney was a fortuitously timed looked at Spears’s plight.
A fortuitously timed looked at Spears’s plight ... Pieces of Britney. Photograph: Mario Anzuoni/Reuters

This fortuitously-timed podcast (it launched in July, days after Spears appeared in court protesting her conservatorship) didn’t simply act as a much-needed explainer for a complex legal situation – it also did a great job of contextualising the popstar’s plight. Amid archive recordings and the dramatisation of key events, host Pandora Sykes offered a potted history of the disturbing ways 00s celebrity culture preyed on young female stars.


Teach Me a Lesson

Bella Mackie and Greg James wrestled with the big issues – and exploding rodents – in their Teach Me a Lesson podcast.
Bella Mackie and Greg James wrestle with the big issues – and exploding rodents ... Teach Me a Lesson. Photograph: BBC

Bella Mackie and Greg James – media personalities, married couple, keen students – grew a devoted audience with their series about getting to grips with the lessons they didn’t learn at school. Is love at first sight real? Are people born evil? And, er, did exploding rodents help Britain win the second world war? There was never a dull moment.


Dear Me

Hosted by comics Katy Wix and Adam Drake, this gentle, meandering travel miniseries returns comedian guests to their childhood homes to commune with their former selves. Liam Williams thoughtfully reflects on 00s life in Leeds, the reliably daffy Lou Sanders travels to Broadstairs to surprise an old pal, and Wix’s Stath Lets Flats co-star Kiell Smith-Bynoe takes a trip back to London’s East Ham.


Death at the Wing

Adam McKay (Vice, The Big Short, Succession) hosted this look at the US basketball stars of the 80s and 90s who shone brightly but whose lives were cut short, tying in individual tragedies to wider societal issues in Reagan’s America. From drugs to gun violence and the pressures of celebrity, each chapter smartly weaved the personal with the political to devastating effect.


The Line

Apple’s gripping non-fiction series explored the controversial war crime trial against former US Navy Seal Eddie Gallagher. Was Gallagher – accused by his colleagues of erratic, aggressive behaviour – responsible for killing an Iraqi prisoner in Mosul in 2017? And what does the case tell us about the conflict at large? Dan Taberski (Missing Richard Simmons) was our guide to this most murky of cases.


Prison Break

The truth about being a ‘prison wife’ ... Josie Bevan’s Prison Break.
The truth about being a ‘prison wife’ ... Josie Bevan’s Prison Break. Photograph: Josie Bevan

When Josie Bevan’s husband was convicted of fraud and sentenced to nine years in jail, prison – previously a barely-considered prospect – became her new obsession. Upon Rob’s release, Bevan interrogates the very foundations our justice system is predicated on. Is prison a cure? A deterrent? A safety measure? If not, then what exactly is it for? This thoughtful, personal and empathetic podcast investigates.


The 33 ⅓ Podcast

This companion podcast to the literary series of the same name – a collection of brief, insightful books on era-defining albums – sees producer Prince Paul (best known for De La Soul’s seminal debut, 3 Feet High and Rising) dissect the same records with a roster of musician guests. Hole’s Patty Schemel examines Metallica’s Metallica, Danny Brown surveys Bowie’s Low, and Victoria Monét celebrates Janet Jackson’s The Velvet Rope. Nerdy insight and enthusiasm unite in a succession of fascinating deep dives.


The Battersea Poltergeist

During the making of his ghost story podcast Haunted, Danny Robins stumbled upon this extraordinary story of a violent, 12-year haunting in 1950s London. Amazingly, the teenage girl at its centre, Shirley Hitchings, is alive to tell the tale. Alongside her testimony, re-enacted with the help of actors Toby Jones and Alice Lowe, Robins tries his damnedest to offer a rational explanation with the help of sceptics and scientists – but it turns out to be no easy task.


The Witness

In 2005, Joseph “Joey” O’Callaghan became the youngest person to enter witness protection in Ireland when his testimony put two gang members behind bars for murder. He was 19 at the time, and has now spent nearly two decades with a new identity. This striking series saw O’Callaghan outline his harrowing experiences in Dublin’s criminal underworld, which began when he was just 11 years old.


Things Fell Apart

Jon Ronson, cultural oracle and host of the Things Fell Apart podcast.
Cultural oracle ... Jon Ronson, host of Things Fell Apart. Photograph: Christopher Lane/The Guardian

With his 2015 book, So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed, Jon Ronson proved himself a cultural oracle, anticipating the way social media cancellations would soon grip the public imagination. In this typically fascinating show, the documentarian traces some of the root causes of America’s current internet-based culture wars: namely, the individual – and often surprisingly arbitrary – protests that became tangled up with the Christian right, prompting mass hysteria in the process.


The Daily

Michael Barbaro and the New York Times team kept the bar high through another year of pandemic drama and ever-changing news agendas. The Daily’s in-depth reporting on everyone from Ghislaine Maxwell to Britney Spears has been impressive, alongside copious amounts of Covid analysis – recently evidenced in an episode dedicated to the scientific questions provoked by Omicron.

Grounded with Louis Theroux

Louis Theroux was back for a second series of his Zoom-based interview series – and it was revelatory.
Revelatory ... Louis Theroux’s Zoom-based interview series. Photograph: BBC

Multiple books, TV shows, merch, podcasts: it can sometimes feel as if the bespectacled documentary-maker has saturated pop culture on all fronts. But Grounded, his Zoom-conducted interview series, proved once again that you can never have too much Louis Theroux. This second outing hosted everyone from zeitgeisty cultural figures (Michaela Coel) to past rivals (Ruby Wax), overlooked TV mainstays (Rylan) and family members (Justin Theroux), each conversation as revelatory as the last.



In 2019, writer and university professor Chris Stedman received a scheduled email from his friend Alex, informing him that he had killed himself. The message also contained a link to some recordings of a Britney sound-alike Alex had met on one of the popstar’s fan forums. In this incredibly moving series, Stedman attempts to uncover the woman’s significance, all the while meditating on grief, friendship, fan culture and his friend’s life.

Day X

A loaded gun found in a toilet in Vienna in 2017 led to the discovery of a military officer with a dramatic double life, as told in this chillingly brilliant show from the New York Times. “Franco A” assumed the identity of a Syrian refugee, seemingly looking to place the blame for an upcoming attack on his false persona. How deep into the German military did such far right influences extend?


Slow Burn

Not one but two series of Slate’s acclaimed podcast were released in 2021, zooming in once again on little-known aspects of major events in US history. Noreen Malone hosted a smart look at the shaky moral judgments that led to the Iraq war, while Joel Anderson expertly examined the events triggered by Rodney King’s beating by the LAPD in a series dedicated to the LA riots.


Comfort Eating with Grace Dent

Grace Dent profiled odd celeb food experiments in her charming interview podcast, Comfort Eating.
Charming and bizarre ... Comfort Eating with Grace Dent. Photograph: Ilka & Franz/The Guardian. Food stylist: Lucy-Ruth Hathaway. Hair and make-up: Sarah Cherry using NARS Cosmetics. Set build: Lost Boys. Food assistant: Valeria Soledad Russo

In her capacity as the Guardian’s restaurant critic and Masterchef guest judge, Grace Dent is well-versed in cutting-edge cookery – but here she is confronted with culinary experimentation like never before. From Scarlett Moffatt’s Wotsit-sprinkled toast to Laura Whitmore’s raw mushroom-and-mayo combo, celebrities’ bizarre snacking habits prove the perfect conversation-starter in this charming interview podcast, which journeys onwards into (even) more serious topics.


Welcome to Your Fantasy

The Chippendales were an unlikely source of pop culture inspiration in 2021, with the male strippers inspiring an Amazon docuseries, a Hulu drama (currently in development) and this podcast from Pineapple Street Studios and Gimlet, hosted by historian Natalia Petrzela. Welcome to Your Fantasy deftly balanced the camp mayhem of this “Disneyland for adults” and its colourful cast of characters, with the insalubrious true crime story behind it all.


Sweet Bobby

Kirat Assi, the victim of a disturbing example of catfishing, as profiled in the Sweet Bobby podcast.
Kirat Assi, the victim of a disturbing example of catfishing ... Sweet Bobby. Photograph: Andrew Testa/Andrew Testa for Tortoise Media

Catfishing – the act of misleading somebody with a fake internet persona – is a well-known phenomenon, but as our lives move ever more online, it remains far too little understood. This initially shocking, consistently riveting series chronicles one such outrageous deception, in which a woman genuinely believed herself to be in a decade-long relationship with a non-existent man. Once the perpetrator is revealed, host Alexi Mostrous begins conducting his own investigation into the catfisher’s motivations – as well as the seemingly lacklustre police response to this disturbing and distinctly modern criminal activity.


Hannah J Davies and Rachel Aroesti

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
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

Rachel Aroesti and Hannah J Davies

24, Dec, 2020 @2:00 PM

Article image
Greg James and Bella Mackie: 'We're not the next Richard and Judy'
The Radio 1 breakfast host and his writer wife fought off lockdown ennui to launch an educational new podcast – which has quickly become a chart-topping hit

Toby Moses

03, Mar, 2021 @12:39 PM

Article image
The best podcasts of 2021 so far
From poltergeists to prison, the Chippendales and the NBA ... here are our picks of the most gripping storytelling from the first half of the year

Hannah J Davies

17, Jun, 2021 @8:40 AM

Article image
The 20 best podcasts of 2022
Porn money talk, conspiracy theories, near-fatal tiger attacks and the bleak hilarity of Kathy Burke: it’s the pods of the year

Alexi Duggins, Hollie Richardson, Hannah J Davies and Hannah Verdier

23, Dec, 2022 @11:00 AM

Article image
The 50 best podcasts of 2018
From Julia Davies’ dark comedy Dear Joan to track by track teardown Dissect, Marc Maron to Meat and beyond, here are this year’s finest audio offerings

Hannah J Davies, Hannah Verdier, Gavin Haynes and Harriet GibsonePhotographs: Daniel Seung Lee/Gimlet Media; Pete Souza/The White House; Aaron Richter

30, Jun, 2018 @6:00 AM

Article image
'The first week was mayhem' – how This American Life revolutionised radio
It has spawned hit spinoffs, bagged a Pulitzer and its evocative, character-led reports now have 5 million fans. Has This American Life grown too big? As the show turns 25, founder Ira Glass reveals what keeps him up at night

Sam Wolfson

10, Dec, 2020 @6:00 AM

Article image
‘The live shows have really lit a fire under us’: how podcasts became arena fillers
Funny, frank and intimate … in recent years, the live versions of audio shows have shot up by 2,000%. Now, comedians are selling out auditoriums nationwide

Sophie Zeldin-O'Neill

27, Dec, 2022 @3:00 PM

Article image
From The Nod to The Butterfly Effect: podcasts ripe for TV adaptation
Hollywood studios are fighting over adaptation rights for some of the best podcasts around, but which are the best fits for the small screen?

Hannah Verdier

15, Feb, 2018 @6:01 AM

Article image
Jon Ronson investigates the death of a porn star – podcasts of the week
The author uncovers the tragic story of one of the porn industry’s biggest names, plus we take a look at what’s new in the podcast world

Gwilym Mumford, Hannah Verdier and Lily Ames

26, Oct, 2018 @5:00 AM

Article image
Are you bored yet? The most exciting radio and podcasts to keep you entertained
From a musical time machine to true crime and a refreshing twist on current affairs, make some noise over the holidays

Ammar Kalia

27, Dec, 2022 @7:00 AM