Marie Tanksley’s top 10 podcast recommendations of 2021

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Marie Tanksley

Marie Tanksley assembles her top 10 podcast recommendations for 2021. As always, no spoilers!

“We’re Alive”

“We’re alive” is an apocalyptic Wayland Productions podcast widely regarded as one of the best podcasts ever made and the gold standard of fictional podcasts. I had tried to get into audio dramas before without any success, but after about three episodes of this show, I listened to it constantly. Every chance I got, my headphones were on and this was playing.

The story starts off with Michael Cross, a sergeant in the National Guard being called back to his base where he meets up with two fellow guard members and main characters. The group recounts some extremely troubling scenes they witnessed on the way to the base of what appeared to be people attacking and eating each other.

The group decides to grab what weapons they can and head to a local apartment building to secure themselves and seek refuge for what they think will be a short time. They assume government and military agents will regain control and restore order to the massive city of Los Angeles. They soon realize that in this new zombie-filled reality, no place is safe and no one is coming to help.

What comes next is a heart-racing story of survival that made me laugh, hold my breath and cry. I’ve never been interested in the zombie genre, but I fell in love with this podcast.

Creator and producer Kc Wayland is a brilliant writer who has gone on to write a book about creating audio theater and work as a professor at University of Southern California and Chapman University, teaching audio production classes.

With over 200 million downloads, the show, which spans 166 episodes, has an average star of 4.8 stars, 8,200 ratings, and 2,300 written reviews on Apple Podcasts. After the initial 166-episode story, the podcast goes on to have two more installments: “Lockdown” and “Goldrush.” Each is equally entertaining, although I found “Lockdown” and “Goldrush” to have more commercials.

The stories are complete with no unanswered questions burning at the end, but Wayland still plans to continue the saga in more installments that are currently in the works. Each episode is about 31 minutes long and released weekly when active.

This podcast has the most amazing soundscape. With only crisp clear Foley, music and amazing voice actors, the show is able to convey a sense of direction and space, painting the scene perfectly in your mind. There’s a diverse variety of amazingly talented voice actors who make mixing up characters impossible. They actually recorded together in the same room, outside of the norms of our current social-distancing world.

The pod has everything — great writing, character development and growth, amazing sound design, solid acting and high re-listen value. There’s even a well-done website with every resource you could want and a dedicated, active fan base. People have gotten tattoos, written fanfiction and a fancast and started a Reddit that creator Wayland is very present on.

This is not just a Podcast – this is a complete culture and well-established must-listen among fiction pods.

Similar pods: “The Magnus Archives,” “The Leviathan Chronicles,” “Wolf 359” (it gets better).

“Surprisingly Brillant”

“Surprisingly Brillant” is about science history, covering the hidden stories and unsung heroes of some of the greatest accomplishments of science. For iHeartRadio and Seeker, passionate hosts and writers Maren Hunsberger and Greg Foot take turns telling each other the origins of fascinating scientific ideas from all disciplines of science in a way that is not only easy to understand but jaw-droppingly entertaining.

You don’t have to have a background in science or gotten top marks in school to enjoy the topics. The detail in each hour-long episode is made greater by an esteemed guest from the field who helps tell the story lost to history books. It’s so nice to hear a show coming from people who genuinely love science and have a dynamic that makes them sound like they grew up friends.

Apple Podcasts has an average star of 4.5, 368 ratings and 80 written reviews. The 2020 show has two seasons so far and a total of 33 episodes, and Hunsberger confirmed via Twitter the show is only waiting on funding for a third season. When releasing, episodes usually come out on Fridays.

The most popular episodes according to Owltail are “The Puzzle Beneath Your Feet” and “The Electronic Ear.” I loved “The Electronic Ear” episode also. As a huge fan of audio, I thought it was fascinating to hear about implants and the preferred terms and language associated with them. I think it’s so important to make the medium of podcasting more accessible.

Music is subtle and comes in and out at important parts of the story. The commercial amount is average. I can’t express how much I’ve enjoyed the show. I can’t wait for season three to come out. If you’ve been a fan of Maren’s YouTube, Seeker or science in general, this podcast is a must-listen.

Similar pods: “Short Wave,” “SideDoor,” “99% Invisible,” “Ologies”

“Finding Fred”
I avoided “Finding Fred” for a long time because the gray cover art made me feel like it was going to try to expose some deep dark secret about Fred Rogers. However, that is nowhere near the case, and this podcast actually turned out to be a contender for “podcast of the year” for me.

Who didn’t love “Mr. Roger’s Neighborhood” as a kid? And who would have thought there would be even more to learn from him as an adult? That’s exactly what this podcast sets out to show. Tackling every aspect of the show from its conception and production to the ideals of Rogers and his drive to teach children how to confront their feelings in an ever-changing and dangerous world, the podcast has comprehensive coverage of Rogers.

Apple Podcasts has 3,800 ratings with an average of 4.5 stars. Solo host Carvell Wallace, best-selling author and amazing storyteller, covers Rogers in 10 episodes, all about 31 minutes long. Script, music and voice are all pristine.

Similar pods: “The Pineapple Project,” “The Jungle Prince,” “Chasing Cosby”

“Doomsday: History’s Most Dangerous Podcast”

I love “Doomsday: History’s Most Dangerous Podcast” so much! The morbidly funny 2020 show covers some of the most shocking days and disasters in history with wit and solid production quality. All of the episodes cover events I had never heard about.

It is solo hosted by Brad Choma and a part of the Funeral Kazoo Productions. Funeral Kazoo prides itself in being different and has another show, “Sleep Manuals” which is intended to guide you to sleep. Watch out for its newest shows “Inventors of Death” and “Spilled Milk,” set to come out this year. I really love Choma’s humor. He also has a brilliant voice for radio, making the show something I can fall asleep to but also be entertained at work with.

A word of warning though: The subject of this podcast and banter surrounding it is not for the feint of heart. I don’t find it offensive or disrespectful in any way, but if jokes about disasters are not what you’re trying to sign up for, maybe skip this one.

That being said, this is one of the few podcasts that can actually make me laugh out loud. Apple Podcasts has an incredible 5/5 stars, 23 ratings and 12 written reviews. So far the show has 26 episodes, all about 24 minutes in length, with new ones coming out bimonthly on Fridays.

Owltail’s most popular episodes are “The Silvertown Explosion of 1917” and “The Orkney Elevator Disaster of 1995,” but the most entertaining to me have been “The Great Boston Molassacre of 1919” and “The Mandhradevi Temple Apocalypse of 2005.” Music is minimal.

Similar pods: “Short History Of…,” “This Is A Disaster,” “Black Box Down”

“Just the Zoo of Us”

“Just the Zoo of Us” is one of my new favorite podcasts. This educational show is all about listening in as couple Christian and Ellen Weatherford review a different animal every episode. The show has a solid 4.9 out of 5 stars on Apple Podcasts with 104 ratings and 38 written reviews

It starts with each of them weighs the animal on a rating out of 10 on effectiveness, ingenuity and aesthetics. The disclaimer at the beginning of the show lets you know they aren’t animal professionals but rather enthusiasts who hold the research of each animal as the most important aspect of the show.

I think that is why their hilarious and cute dynamic is so unexpectedly charming. I never would have thought this adorable couple from Jacksonville, Florida, would become my favorite couple of any media. Their knowledge and love for nerdy things like anime and Dungeons and Dragons is something I haven’t seen in a podcast not specifically about those topics.

If you listen to the show in release order, you will pick up on some subtle mentions of their private life. It starts with just the two of them, follows in their pregnancy and then welcomes baby Finley into the world. I adore baby Finley, who can occasionally be heard cooing in the background of some episodes.

Besides being well-researched, cute and funny, they also have good radio voices and production quality. The podcast is made knowing you might listen with little ones, so it does not contain profanity. The episodes do sometimes mention things like reproduction and predatory habits. I really like how (maybe because they are not experts) the language they use is accessible and easily understood. That way I’m not lost in all the technical terms.

Their website is well done and includes transcripts, coloring pages and a message/animal submission/guest form. The couple is super active on Twitter and also has an email to contact them.

So far, the show has 401 episodes, all about an hour in length, and new ones come out weekly, usually at the end of the week. They also have experts come in, usually on a biweekly basis, to have a deeper conversation about that episode’s animal. Expert guest episodes became the most common when the couple took a short break to spend time with newly arrived baby Finley.

Episodes can be found on all major platforms. The most popular episodes according to Owltail are “3: Praying Mantis & Giant Panda” and “7: Asian Elephant & Immortal Jellyfish.” My favorites were “70: American Bison & Giraffe-Necked Weevil” and “1: American Alligator & Florida Manatee.”

Music is really well chosen and credited at the end of every episode. The show covers a ton of animals I never thought I would want to know anything about, but hearing these two talk about them as if they were the coolest things that ever existed changed my mind, and it could do the same for you.

Similar pods: “The Wild Episode,” “Herpetological Highlights,” “Nature Guys”

“Murder in House Two”

“Murder in House Two” is a 2020 miniseries investigating one of the biggest cover-ups in US military history to find out what really happened. It takes place in the midst of the Iraq War when, in November of 2005, a group of US marines shot 24 unarmed Iraqi civilians (many of whom were women and children) in Haditha, Iraq.

Written and narrated by filmmaker Michael Epstein, the show looks at the accused, how the U.S. government decided from the beginning to suppress the truth from ever getting out and the fight of multiple people to do what they believe is right. Even if you’re (like me) not one for war stories, this podcast is worth checking out.

The way forensic analysts uncover what occurred at the scene minute by minute was incredible. There are twists and turns from the moment the story leaks to the end of the trial. I say this not to sensationalize it but to try to convey how unexpected each new piece of information is.

The production team, while doing a really good job in terms of audio quality, also is very aware of how to unveil a story in a logical but fascinating way. They did such a good job with the journalism side of things that it really brings to light how unbelievable the story is.

The podcast has everything from a thorough research, interviews with the key participants, and never-before-heard audio recordings. There’s also a documentary that covers the same stuff, and it’s great if you want a visual of what’s going on.

Apple Podcasts has a solid 4.8/5-star rating, 478 ratings, and 46 written reviews. In total, the podcast has 10 parts that on average are about 29 minutes long. Music is almost nonexistent and only heard subtly sometimes.

I think these types of stories are important because you can’t know something until someone tells you. So the average person may never know or imagine something like this without hearing it. It also brings light to the tragic murder of these innocent people who deserve to have their stories told in a caring and professional manner.

Similar pods: “Cover-Up,” “American Scandal,” “Unraveled”

“This Thing of Darkness”

“This Thing of Darkness,” the tragic, suspenseful audio drama from BBC Scotland Production originally aired on BBC Radio 4 and is hands-down one of the best fictional podcasts I’ve heard. The seven-part story starts with the murder of Jamie, a 19-year-old personal trainer and social media influencer and follows his family as they try to find out who did it.

It’s told from the point of view of a forensic psychiatrist, Dr. Alex Bridges, hired by the defense of Jamie’s father, David, who’s been accused of his murder and is awaiting trial. With Dr. Bridges as our guide and narrator, we listen in as she interviews David about his life and what happened to Jamie as well as the group inmate therapy sessions he participates in.

While David and his daughter are adamant about his innocence, the series keeps you questioning whether the truth of Jamie’s murder will be revealed. This podcast has everything: a great plot full of family secrets, excellent sound production and solid voice acting.

Not only does it feature really well-done character development, it’s the definition of it. In the group sessions throughout the show, we meet complicated characters and walk with them as they come to terms with their crimes, regret and grief. Three of the main characters and family members also experience major changes.

The show focuses, through the work of Dr. Bridges, on the psychological aspects and effects murder has on those involved with a professional consultant, Gwen Adshead, to fact-check the series. 4.9 stars out of 5 on Apple Podcasts with 50 ratings and only 7 written reviews.

Trigger warnings for gaslighting, manipulation and violence.

Similar pods: “Max & Ivan: Fugitives,” “Elixir,” “Tower 4”

“Your Brain on Facts”

Trivia nerds rejoice! “Your Brain on Facts” is an educational podcast about facts and the stories behind them. Host Moxie LaBouche covers a wide range of well-researched topics with perfect delivery that hooks you in every time. Subjects covered in the past have included music, history, parties and so much more.

The writing and production are phenomenal. It’s structured and informational with no small talk. Despite this, there is a fair bit of comedy in how the stories are told. While the people have credited the show with getting them into podcasts, LaBouche is also known for her amazing radio voice and does voice-over work as well. At first I found her perfect radio voice a little too calming for work, but the facts are too interesting to make it a sleep podcast. Even the commercials are entertaining and on a more important note, at a leveled volume.

She also has a book out similar to the podcast worth checking out. Apple Podcasts has 4.7 out of 5 stars and 133 ratings. So far the show has 203 episodes, all about half an hour long, with new ones coming out weekly on Fridays.

Some of my favorite episodes so far have been “We Can’t Have Nice Things: Art & Antiquities Edition ” and “Project Pigeon and Acoustic Kitty” (trigger for violence against animals). Owltail’s most popular according to listens are “Meeting New Peoples” and “hiStory.”

Music is brief, as are commercials. The pod also has a great website with all of the episodes, scripts and sources. As a long-time listener, I highly recommend the show. Facts truly don’t get much better than this.

Similar pods: “Damn Interesting,” “Historical Blindness” and “The Constant: A History of Getting Things Wrong”

“LeVar Burton Reads”

As a kid I was a loyal Reading Rainbow fan. I never missed it, and now I can continue curling up to enjoy more of LeVar Burton in “LeVar Burton Reads” done with Sticher. The show has 4.9/5 stars for a reason. Every Tuesday, solo host Burton (with the help of his team whom he never fails to credit) reads one of his favorite fictional short stories from a diverse selection of contemporary and classic writers.

I’ve found so many more authors of color from this pod than I would have on my own. The support and inclusiveness is a goal to emulate. Production is excellent across the board with voice and soundscaping expertly done. Equal parts soothing and familiar, Burton’s talented reading voice is another great staple of the show. It’s perfect for every character regardless of which emotion is being conveyed, and the selection of stories always challenges you to think critically.

Just a warning for those who are looking for happy ever after endings: The stories read usually spotlight science fiction, speculative fiction and fantasy, which sometimes results in suspenseful and unresolved conclusions. Despite this, one similarity between the tales is that they are all brilliant. So much so that I listen to them twice. Once as I go to sleep and then again the next morning to hear what I missed. They’re too good to be only for sleep.

Beware of episode notes about content, which he reminds listeners of every episode. There is swearing and once I heard a slur, but again this is all in the show notes and a part of the read story. At the end of every story, Burton gives his own opinions about the reading in a short debrief that wraps everything up nicely.

132 episodes so far, all about 45 minutes on average with new episodes coming out weekly on Tuesdays. My favorite episodes have been “Dark Spaces on the Map” by Anjali Sachdeva, and “Jump” by Cadwell Turnbull. Owltail’s most popular are listed as “LIVE! in DC: ‘A Dark Night’ by Edward P. Jones” and “‘Multo’ by Samuel Marzioli.”

The commercial amount is average but never wakes me up. This pod is for anyone who considers themselves a lover of books or fantastic narration.

Similar pods: “Fictional,” “Book Cheat,” “Phoebe Reads A Mystery”

“A Piece of Work”

Abbi Jacobson knocks it out of the park with this approachable art podcast done for WNYC Studios in partnership with Museum of Modern Art. Fans of Broad City might recognize Jacobson as one of the show’s main characters, whose wit and charm carry over into real life. She’s an art major but it’s clear her voice was made for radio.

One of the best parts about the show is that it is always so refreshing to hear someone speak about something they clearly adore. For most of us, art can seem intimidating, but this funny, down-to-earth pod says art is for everyone. It doesn’t matter if you dislike art or work full time in an art museum, Jacobson makes informative and comprehensive cases for all sorts of art. Her passion for creating a podcast about art that educates while it captivates in a way that isn’t pretentious and is the sort of attitude the subject needs.

The show gives an inside look into MoMA with the help of some of Jacobson’s friends. She brings them along to gauge their reactions to some of the works she discusses. It’s so interesting to hear the different impressions and perspectives. Guests include Hannibal Buress, RuPaul and Questlove to name a few. Everything they have to say is useful and adds to the presentation, unlike what I’ve seen in other shows.

I’ll admit I was skeptical about how hearing people talk about art would be with just the audio, but this ten-part series is out to prove anyone with the same doubts wrong. While it’s completely possible to enjoy the show without viewing the art, a quick google search gives you so much more to appreciate. For an easy way to make sure you’re looking at the right piece, I recommend checking out the show’s website.

Apple Podcasts has 4.8 out of 5 stars, 1,343 ratings, and 278 written reviews. Episodes were about 20 minutes long, commercials were average for the length and music was minimal. You can listen to the episodes out of order, only missing slight nods to guests from older episodes.

Owltail can’t generate the most popular for this short series, but my favorites were “Samantha Irby Gets High on Light” and “How Questlove Learned to Love Silence.”

No trigger warnings for this one. I’m sure it’s obvious by the length of the review that I loved this show. I would give it 10/5 stars if I could.

Similar pods: “The Art History Babes,” “ArtCurious Podcast,” “The Week in Art,” “The Art Assignment” (bonus YouTube recommendation)

Be sure to come back for more recommendations bimonthly in the Spring of 2022.