The Dropout, Marvel's Wastelanders, and more
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Best Podcasts of 2021
Credit: Marvel/SXM; Spotify; Stitcher; Defacto Sound; TCM; C13

An estimated 120 million of you listened to podcasts this year. Of course, quantity does not beget quality, which made narrowing down the 10 best of 2021 a tricky proposition. The pods we chose for our list all had striking premises and some inherent tension (a host with an enthralling voice didn't hurt either). From a former CEO and self-made billionaire on trial to the further adventures of Star-Lord to a deep dive into the U.S. presidents (especially the ones nobody talks about), check out our selections below.

Twenty Thousand Hertz

Did you know the Netflix "tudum" was almost a bleating goat? Or that the iconic HBO pre-movie theme from your childhood lives on in ways you probably never realized? Have you ever wondered who came up with McDonalds' "I'm Lovin' It" theme (it apparently wasn't Pusha T, despite the rapper's claims)? This podcast explores the untold stories behind the most popular sounds in pop culture, and also explores other auditory oddities like synesthesia (a neurological condition where people are able to see or taste sounds), the concept of perfect pitch, and more. Perfect cocktail party fodder. —Patrick Gomez

Once Upon a Timeā€¦ at Bennington College

Bennington College is the ultra-exclusive, outlandishly expensive, stunningly picturesque Vermont school where modern literary minds like Donna Tartt, Bret Easton Ellis, and Jonathan Lethem began their writing careers. Once Upon a Time… at Bennington College is writer Lili Anolik's deep dive into the affairs (many of them sordid) of the class of '86 — of which Tartt, Ellis, and Lethem are members. Through interviews with classmates, professors, and even Ellis and Lethem themselves, she creates a narrative that's juicier and more entertaining than any fan fiction the publishing world could come up with. The podcast is not without its controversies — Tartt declined to be interviewed, and takes umbrage with its whole conceit — but it's exactly what we'd all expect (and, frankly, desire) when it comes to the real-life inspiration for The Secret History. —Seija Rankin

The Dropout: Elizabeth Holmes on Trial

ABC News' fascinating 2019 dive into the rise and fall of Theranos founder and CEO Elizabeth Holmes returned this year with new episodes timed to her long-awaited fraud trial. Host Rebecca Jarvis details everything from Holmes' defense strategy to the testimony and twists in the courtroom (including a juror being excused for…playing Sudoku), and Holmes herself taking the stand. Consider it required listening if you're even remotely curious about the Theranos case, and especially if you're excited for Amanda Seyfried to play Holmes in Hulu's upcoming adaptation of The Dropout. —Jessica Derschowitz

Absolutely Not

Comedian Heather McMahan's podcast is, essentially, a podcast about nothing. Or maybe it's about everything? The official conceit is one of confession, a space for listeners to call in to her semi-anonymous hotline and tell-all about the things (or, often, people) bothering them in their lives: mothers-in-law, roommates, bosses, a rude customer at the grocery store. But as the pandemic raged on into its second calendar year, the podcast, which opens with McMahan's monologue-style updates on her own life and career, focused more and more on the still-controversial idea that it's okay to not be okay. There's no toxic positivity to be found, only LOL-inducing diatribes about what it's like to move back in with your mother, postpone your wedding multiple times, attempt to sell a television show over Zoom (from your mom's basement), freeze your eggs, freeze your eggs again, and cry daily for no discernible reason. It's a cunning reminder that even if most of us are a--holes, we're basically all in it together. —S.R.

Love Is a Crime

In 1951, the shooting of screen siren Joan Bennett's agent (and lover) Jennings Lang by her husband Walter Wanger was the talk of the town. But today, few have heard of this Hollywood scandal. You Must Remember This host Karina Longworth and Bennett and Wanger's granddaughter, filmmaker Vanessa Hope, dive into their lives and the crime that changed them forever. Some of the voice casting leaves things to be desired (Jon Hamm is spot-on as Wanger, but Zooey Deschanel sounds less like Bennett and more like she's in an SNL sketch). But the mountains of research and Hope's own reflections on a tragedy that has shaped her family humanize a story that's so much more than the tabloid ink it generated. —Maureen Lee Lenker

Hell of Presidents

American history as you've never heard it before! Co-hosts Matt Christman and Chris Wade give listeners a funny, enlightening tour of the U.S. presidents, including how each one responded to the political and economic conditions of their time, and how they succeeded or failed at representing their moment. You'll learn a lot more about obscure ones (Millard Fillmore, Martin Van Buren) and see the likes of Lincoln and Nixon in a new light. —Christian Holub

The Plot Thickens: Lucy

Turner Classic Movies has excelled at blending Hollywood glamour with historical context for over two decades now. Their podcast continues that legacy, and season 3 — all about Lucille Ball — is their best yet. Ball is a hot topic, between Being the Ricardos and the 70th anniversary of I Love Lucy, but nothing offers a better, more informative take on her and her tumultuous romance with Desi Arnaz than this show. Bursting with new interviews, archival recordings, and unprecedented insight, TCM 'splains the life of an American icon with a passion and vigor as fiery as her hair. —M.L.L.

Marvel's Wastelanders: Old Man Star-Lord

Explore an Avenger's twilight years in this star-studded, humorous, surprisingly poetic audio play: In an "alternate future," a graying Peter Quill (Timothy Busfield) and Rocket (Chris Elliott) are the sole surviving Guardians of the Galaxy and have been commissioned to find a powerful cosmic artifact. The Collector (Quincy Tyler Bernstine) has fashioned the duo with collars set to kill them in a matter of days if they don't return with the prize. Rocket is also racing a second clock, one that ticks faster with each involuntary cough. Star-Lord is part of an anthology series, with a Hawkeye season out since and more aged Avengers to come. —P.G.

Cerebro

The world doesn't exactly lack for X-Men podcasts, but Cerebro's premise is unique, as is its execution. "The X-Men podcast where a homo and his friends delve deep into the history of homo superior" is how host Connor Goldsmith playfully describes the show at the beginning of each episode, as he and his guests excavate the many queer allegories that are possible with these colorful characters. There is now an impressively large backlog of episodes for listeners to pick and choose their favorites, but don't be afraid to spend time with characters you're not as familiar with (we recommend the entries on Mystique and Lady Mastermind). —C.H.

Black Girl Songbook

Nostalgic and festive, every episode of this Spotify series is a love letter — and celebration — to Black women in music.  (Did your favorite podcast have a party for Beyoncé's birthday?) Host and VIBE alum Danyel Smith has an easy rapport with guests, from singers Brandy and Pointer Sister Anita to Rap City's Leslie "Big Lez" Segar. Not just for the initiated, Black Girl Songbook is a two-season, 25-episode curriculum for anyone who doesn't know the full lyrics to the Waiting to Exhale soundtrack. —Sabrina Ford

A version of this story appears in Entertainment Weekly's January issue, on newsstands Friday and available to order here. Don't forget to subscribe for more exclusive interviews and photos, only in EW.

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