December 2, 2020

The 11 Best Podcasts of 2020 So Far

6 min read

best podcasts

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Social isolation and the expansion of the work from home culture have lead to a reconsideration of podcasts. Frequently relegated to the morning commute, they once felt like a time-effective way to cram in information and news during the short moments your mind was free. Some have predicted that stay-at-home orders would make them feel obsolete—easy to pass over in favor of eight-hour Netflix binges. But that hasn’t been the case.

With our standard schedules now blasted to smithereens, any time can be podcast time. And what counts as a valuable listen is totally up to you. News and politics feel like too much? Give your old go-tos a rest. What feels right, right now? A fantastically funny cultural survey that maintains its footing years in. A winding look into an obscure musical mystery from a top-level journalist. An extraordinary exploration of an American tragedy that gives us a clearer perspective on both what happened then and what’s happening right now. Continue on for our picks of the best of what’s out there.

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1

Keep It

For lively and thoughtful pop culture discussions, Keep It reigns supreme. Hosts Ira Madison III, Louis Virtel, and Aida Osman are all sharply witty and gifted with an ability to get at the deeper themes beneath entertainment and celebrity culture. They have an innate sense of what the world wants to obsess about right now and book top-level guests. A quarantine episode with appearances from Jane Fonda and Jeremy O. Harris? I rest my case.

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2

Floodlines

Amidst another national crisis disproportionately affecting black communities and the poor, The Atlantic put out Floodlines, an in-depth look at the tragedy of Hurricane Katrina. Host Vann R. Newkirk II does a stunning job recounting both the storm itself and then the incomprehensible failures of the government response—and the indelible trauma it left on a generation of New Orleans residents. While the frightening parallels to today might make it more difficult to listen to, they also make it that much more illuminating.

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3

Night Call

An established classic, Night Call pairs three cooler-than-cool L.A. hosts, Molly Lambert, Emily Yoshida and Tess Lynch, with an unbeatable format: Every Monday night, listeners call in to talk, leading the show down the most wonderful discussion paths. The show recruits a lively assortment of guests and recently shaped shows around monthly themes like Plastic Surgery April and Y2May (an exploration of Y2K), all of which are ripe for fascinating conversations.

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4

Six Feet Apart With Alex Wagner

Journalist Alex Wagner takes on coronavirus reporting with a new angle: the people it’s affecting. Episodes begin with a big umbrella, say groceries, then take a granular look at how the virus has impacted that world. Episode four, “Sports,” explores the disappointment and heartbreak experienced by athletes (a ballerina, an aspiring Olympian, and a WNBA champ) who’ve had to put their passions on hold. While it’s certainly not escapist fare, the podcast has a deeply human feel and Wagner’s skilled reporting and empathetic touch make it truly worth a listen.

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5

Wind of Change

Writer Patrick Radden Keefe looked to a new medium to explore a theory that the 1990 Scorpions song “Wind of Change” was actually written by the CIA. Radden Keefe’s meticulously reporting has a twisting quality that makes anything seem possible, so Wind of Change is sure to be a roller coaster ride, and give us something to do while we wait for his in-the-works book on the Sackler family’s pharmaceutical empire.

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6

The Kinswomen

The Kinswomen hosts Yseult Polfliet and Hannah Pechter focus on the gap between white women and women of color and how better to navigate difficult conversations between the two. Born out of an event the pair attended at The Wing about cross-racial dialogue, the podcast takes a truly honest and open look at the angles people tend to avoid when discussing race and what white people can do to serve as real allies. Episode topics include everything from plantation weddings and the myths around Martin Luther King, Jr. to blackfishing.

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7

Oh, Hello: the P’dcast

Some people may have gotten their fill of John Mulaney and Nick Kroll’s alter ego act after the Off-Broadway show, the Broadway show, or the Netflix special. But then there’s me, eager for more! Just as the need for more of the elderly, cantankerous George and Gil might not really exist, there is also no purpose to their new podcast, in which the pair absurdly investigate the death of Princess Diana. It very much embodies the best spirit of quarantine: We have nothing better to do, so why not?

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8

Phoebe Reads a Mystery

I used to be a voracious consumer of news podcasts, listening to NYT’s The Daily and NPR’s Up First as soon as I opened my eyes. But ever since the pandemic hit, the only podcast I can stomach is Phoebe Reads a Mystery. It’s from Phoebe Judge, the host of one of my all-time favorite podcasts, Criminal. I started with season one, in which Phoebe reads “The Mysterious Affair at Styles,” Agatha Christie’s first published novel that introduces her now-famous Inspector Hercule Poirot. As a fan of mystery novels, I’ve always meant to read more of the classics, and hearing Phoebe read the book that started it all for Christie in her distinctive and soothing voice has been a very welcome distraction from the headlines of the day. —Kayla Webley Adler

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9

You’re Wrong About

If you’re looking for a diversion from the headlines, you’d be hard-pressed to find a better option than You’re Wrong About, a podcast that goes behind the news stories of yesteryear that we think we know everything there is to know about. To quote venerable MTV series True Life, “you think you know, but you have no idea.” Whether they’re tackling Tanya Harding, Stonewall, or the concept of exorcism, hosts Mike Hobbes and Sarah Marshall never fail to illuminate new ideas and spark new questions. This podcast is like being quarantined with the most engaging history buff you’ve ever met. —R. Eric Thomas

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10

Sugar Calling

2020 has so quickly been marked by this one disastrous and tragic event. For me, and for so many people I know, all we want is someone to tell us what to do, how to feel, who to be. It only makes sense that one of the most iconic advice-givers, Cheryl Strayed, would begin a podcast at the moment we need her most. The only twist is that Strayed isn’t offering her own advice in Sugar Calling, her new series with The New York Times. Instead, she’s calling writers that inspire her (all over 60 years old) to discuss how they’re navigating this scary time. The conversations, which feature the likes of Margaret Atwood, Judy Blume, and Amy Tan, turn into intimate discussions about courage, grief, and resilience. In her signature style, Strayed has found a new way of offering guidance this year, and we’re all listening closely. —Madison Feller

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11

Questlove Supreme

I discovered Questlove’s podcast late last year and have been obsessed ever since. The drummer, actor, and Tonight Show musical director does deep dives into today’s biggest cultural, political, and musical icons (the Jimmy Jam episode from April is so, so great!). He’s also scored sit-downs with big-names like Michelle Obama, Usher, Maya Rudolph, and most recently Ilana Glazer. —Rose Minutaglio

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