Congratulations on making it through a remarkably difficult year for the entire planet. We’ve all tried different ways to cope with the isolation, boredom, and despair that 2020 brought us — and now that we’re at the end of it, it’s worth reflecting on the things that helped us through this tough time.
To that end, we at TNW want to share some of our favorite podcasts that we listened to this year, for you to enjoy as 2020 winds down. There’s a broad range of shows for you to choose from here, from conversations about the world, to sex cults and Dungeons & Dragons. Happy holidays, and happy listening!
Bill Gates and Rashida Jones Ask Big Questions – ‘What will the world look like after COVID-19?’
As 2020 comes to a close, I’m glad these two decided to do a show together; their on-air chemistry works great. Jones brings to the table an honest curiosity with important questions about the state of affairs on our planet that are on everyone’s mind, and Gates is equal parts knowledgeable and carefully optimistic about what to expect.
The first episode from this show, recorded a few weeks before vaccine programs were announced, has them talking about how the near future will play out, and they rope in NIAID director Dr. Anthony Fauci to weigh in too. It’s a great conversation that helped put a lot of things in perspective for me, and it’s an easy listen to boot. There are already a few more recent episodes to dig into as well.
Song Exploder – ‘Deftones – Ohms,’ ‘Run the Jewels – JU$T,’ and ‘Dua Lipa – Levitating‘
Hrishi Hirway’s Song Exploder podcast (now also a Netflix series), which explores the songwriting and arrangement behind some of the most important and influential music on the airwaves has been around for years now. But the format is still fresh and snappy, and each episode delivers just as much insight and delight as ever.
I thoroughly enjoyed three episodes that featured songs from three massive releases of 2020, from alt-metal outfit Deftones, British pop superstar Dua Lipa, and outspoken rap gods Run the Jewels.
As always, Hirway gives the artists plenty of space to share the intricacies behind these standout tracks: how they approached the lyrics, how they found and layered sounds, and how they came to collaborate with other heavy hitters. Plus, you get to hear delicious little details — isolated from the songs — that you may not have discovered on your first listen, or your tenth. I’ve selected three episodes for you to check out; there’s plenty more where that came from, as Song Exploder is coming up on 200 episodes now.
Uncover Season 1 — Escaping NXIVM
Days after NXIVM cult leader Keith Raniere was sentenced to 120 years in federal prison, a friend told me about documentaries she watched about the group, and I listen to this podcast to learn more. I finished it a few days ago, and it’s worth a few hours of time if you’re looking to understand what the deal about NXIVM is.
CBC’s in-depth podcast — originally launched in 2018 — paints a picture of the cult from former member Sarah Edmondson’s first-hand experiences, as well as those of several others like her.
The storytelling is gripping from start to finish. It gives you an insight into how the group recruited people, and how some of its beliefs and methods for “self-improvement” were deeply problematic. Plus, it dives into Kieth Raniere’s background, and his life before NXIVM.
You can listen to the 8-part podcast series here.
Dolly Parton’s America
I’d never been a huge fan of Dolly Parton before this podcast — don’t get me wrong, I did love her, but this podcast turned me into a rabid mega fan. Hosted by Jad Abumrad, of Radiolab fame, these 9 episodes pick apart a different aspect of the Dollyverse — from the true origins of the term “redneck” to why “Jolene” is actually a feminist anthem. And, like the best podcasts do, it winds up being about far more than face value.
My favorite episode is probably “Dollitics,” when Abumrad explores how Dolly’s endeavors to remain politically neutral failed — in part because it’s an increasingly impossible thing to do in general, but also because she’s long been a champion of women, labor rights, and equality for the working class, which doesn’t quite match up with right wing politics.
“Dixie Disappearance” is also great, as it looks at the controversy surrounding “Dolly Parton’s Dixie Stampede,” which is essentially a Civil War reenactment in Dollywood, her namesake theme park. This episode winds up being a fascinating look into how nostalgia for the south needs to be modernized: “Dolly embodies ‘a quivering mass of irreconcilable contradictions’ in a way very few other American figures do… but has America arrived at a place where such contradictions are no longer defensible or tolerable?”
The Adam Buxton Podcast – ‘Joe Cornish’
There’s something deeply comforting about burgeoning national treasure Adam Buxton. It’s hard to put a finger on exactly why (his voice? His friendliness? His sense of humour?), but whatever the reason, his show has been a delight throughout lockdown.
But there was one particular episode of the Adam Buxton Podcast that stood out.
A lot of us have lost loved ones in 2020 and, midway through the year, Buxton’s mom died unexpectedly. He released a podcast discussing it shortly afterwards with his long-time friend and collaborator, Joe Cornish.
It’s touching, warm, and funny, an experience that’s joyous and heartbreaking in equal measure. But, once you’re done listening to it, you’re left comfortable in the knowledge that love and friendship will survive all.
Ask a Cycling Coach — ‘Crank Length, Achieving Mastery, DOMS and More‘
With coronavirus-imbued lockdowns imposed upon us this year, I set out on a mission to use my time to get fitter, challenge my own perspectives, learn, and finally listen to some of these damn podcasts that people talk about all the time. As it happens, I managed to push all of those goals together and complete them in one efficient swoop by listening to TrainerRoad’s Ask a Cycling Coach podcast.
TrainerRoad is an app that helps cyclists plan, organize, and execute focused workouts and training plans. It’s kind of like Zwift and Sufferfest, but a lot more serious. TrainerRoad’s founders, who are also accredited cycling coaches, host a weekly podcast to share their knowledge on technology, training techniques, and the science behind how to become a faster, fitter cyclist.
Episodes of Ask a Cycling Coach have covered topics such as how to recover from hard rides, how to stay motivated, how to choose the right equipment, and nutrition strategies for endurance events. A personal favorite was episode 287, where coaches discussed crank length. Cranks are the parts that pedals attach to, the part of the bike that we turn to drive the rear wheel via cogs and a chain.
There’s a lot of “bro” science that suggests longer cranks are better, as they should help us produce more power. “Give me a lever long enough and I can move the earth,” right? Well, that doesn’t appear to be the case for cycling, despite what many think. Let the coaches in TrainerRoad’s podcast dispel the myths and show how running short cranks could be better for everyone.
The Alarmist – ‘The McDonald’s Hot Coffee Lawsuit: Who is to Blame?’
2020 has been tragic. But what exactly went wrong, and why? I’d just love to have someone to blame, so I can focus my frustration on a specific person, object, or situation. Is bat soup to blame? Are no-maskers to blame? Are we all to blame? The Alarmist helped me wrap my head around this. The show’s host, Rebecca Delgado-Smith, along with guest scientists and historians, analyzes in every episode a different disaster, failure, or catastrophe, exposing the culprits and explaining how (and if) the whole big mess could have been avoided.
The Alarmist started off back in 2019, but trust me, it sweats 2020 vibes from every pore. And I’m glad I discovered it this year, because it’s so topical it hurts. Don’t expect complaints and whines: Delgado-Smith has the uncanny ability to break down intricate, dreadful, and complex historical events into easily-digestible stories with lots of respectful and politically-correct humor and wit. The topics vary from the Manson family murders, to the break-up of the Beatles, to the Titanic’s tragic sinking and Bill Clinton’s scandal that involved Monica Lewinsky.
I personally loved the episode about the McDonald’s hot coffee lawsuit: back in 1994, a woman was driving while holding a McDonald’s coffee cup. She mistakenly (or purposely?) spilled the scalding hot coffee on her legs, and decided to sue the fast food company for her minor burns. She ultimately won millions of dollars and currently lives a happily-ever-after due to her very dumb mistake. Sounds unfair, right? Now, before you go get a third-degree burn, go listen to The Alarmist and I can assure you that you’ll change your mind.
LA By Night
I’m not exactly a podcast guy, and this isn’t a new show, but 2020 is the year I discovered LA By Night.
These days, my lifestyle (read: having a toddler) isn’t very conducive to relaxing with a good book. The only time I have to really indulge in any form of escapism is when I’m doing chores or running errands. And that’s the perfect time for a podcast.
LA By Night is pure escapism. It’s a TV show that looks like a Zoom meeting of a group of professional actors playing Vampire: The Masquerade.
It’s a surreal experience. If you’ve never played Dungeons & Dragons or other tabletop roleplaying games, it’s an excellent way to see how it’s done by people who are really good at doing it. But the best part is that it only takes a few minutes to get past the fact that these are actors dressed up to sit at a dinner table and roll dice while describing scenes (it’s called collaborative storytelling). Once you’re immersed, the effect is reminiscent of old-timey radio shows where a cast of characters would react as a narrator weaved a tale of adventure, mystery, or science fiction.
You can get it in podcast form here on Spotify. It’s also available on Geek and Sundry’s website here.
Like Tristan, I don’t listen to a lot of podcasts regularly. But the one podcast I’ve found that’s held my interest enough to check in on it regularly is a curiosity called Enough Wicker. Something to know about me: I’m a mega Golden Girls fan. My late mother indoctrinated me young, and I could probably recite every episode of all seven seasons line-for-line.
But I’ve never really connected with other Golden Girls fans. I know they’re out there — there’s a whole generation of people who watched the show as young adults, like I did. But it’s not something I ever talked to many people about, besides my mother. However, in the last year, since I’ve been watching the show a lot more (thank goodness for Hulu and reruns), I’ve wanted to talk to more people about it and hear what other people love about it. To that end I’ve been joining some Golden Girls fan groups, watching YouTube episodes, and yes, listening to podcasts.
The hosts of Enough Wicker, Lauren and Sarah, discuss each episode in detail. At the time of writing, they’re partway through season two. And I’ll say this for Lauren and Sarah: they know their stuff. They talk about everything from film-making techniques and literary devices in each episode, to commenting on tiny details even I’ve never noticed before.
It’s just a great listen if this show was as much a part of your life as it was for me (and Lauren and Sarah, clearly). Oh, and this podcast was partially the inspiration behind the “Stay Golden Sunday” Golden Girls recaps I’m now writing on my own blog if you want to check it out.
The Blindboy Podcast
I discovered my favourite podcast of 2020 on a road trip that provided a brief respite from this hell year. My fellow traveler turned on the car radio and from the speakers emerged the soothing Irish tones of a man known as Blindboy Boatclub explaining his friendship with an otter.
Blindboy rose to fame in his home country as a member of the Rubberbandits, a comedy hip-hop duo best-known for the song ‘Horse Outside’ and wearing plastic bags on their heads. He’s now also one of Ireland’s most popular podcasters.
Soundtracked by his own ambient musical compositions, Blindboy delves into an eclectic range of topics, from psychology to folklore, and interviews the likes of Spike Lee and Roddy Doyle.
My favorite episodes cover the political power of art. I particularly recommend his pontifications on avant garde participatory art as a device of social change and the CIA’s covert funding of abstract expressionism.
The podcast does take some patience and not every hot take hits the spot. But at his best, Blindboy’s mix of entertainment and education makes for great craic.
The Adventure Zone
Normally, I go for deep historical podcasts on war, famine, political intrigue, or world-shaping events. I basically just want to cram as much knowledge into my brain with as minimal effort as possible.
But like most people, I’ve given up on reality this year — so I turned to The Adventure Zone. I’ve never been able to get into scripted fictional podcasts, but The Adventure Zone manages to hit the sweet spot of scripted and improvised goofing around.
The basic premise of the show is that three brothers and their dad play Dungeons & Dragons together, and… well, that’s it. They just play cool campaigns, make jokes, and have fun. The great thing about it is that you don’t have to know anything about playing D&D to listen to it, as they’re mostly focusing on making it an entertaining story for listeners.
They started the series way back in 2014, so there’s a huge backlog you can sink your ear teeth into (yeah, that’s a phrase). So I encourage you to get away from the horrible realities of this world and transport yourself to fantasyland — it’s the healthy way to cope.
If you’re hankering for more, check out our previous lists from 2019 and 2018. Most of those are still great listens!
Behind the wheel of the Volkswagen ID.4 crossover
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