This year, the time I spent listening to podcasts increased exponentially—from an already perhaps excessive baseline. I was desperate for information and desperate for comfort. I zigged and zagged from shows that stoked my anxiety to those that soothed it. The list presented here represents that uncertain and often stressful journey: I listened to a lot of political punditry this fall, and I didn’t stop after we published TIME’s Best Politics Podcasts list in September, favoring the data-heavy FiveThirtyEight Politics Podcast in the weeks leading up to the election. (Though relying on analysis of polls may have been foolhardy.) Still, I didn’t include any politics podcasts on the list this year: the election is over, and I’d rather not fuel political debates at the (virtual or literal) dinner table.
Politics aside, I spent most of my time from March onwards listening to comforting shows and old standbys: Still Processing for analysis of this cultural moment, You’re Wrong About for a reassessment of iconic historical figures and moments, and Fighting in the War Room for debates on the little pop culture that trickled out this year. If you’re in search of shows featuring brilliant hosts you’d love to be friends with, tune in to those series.
But when I began to put together this list, I focused on podcasts that worked to respond to this moment in particular. Some series that had already begun recording before the virus hit—investigating issues like systemic racism in our public school system or the homelessness crisis—resonated because they provided a basis to understand issues of inequality that the pandemic has only exacerbated. Others offered support to listeners just trying to survive, whether that meant coping mechanisms for staying mentally healthy or ideas for staying physically nourished with home-cooked meals. And a few series simply kept us updated with daily news analysis, proving how vital good journalism is in moments of crisis. Each show, in some way, catered to particular needs in this extraordinary year.
10. Back Issue
2020 has been a year of reflection, and several excellent podcasts reached back into our past to try to understand how we got here. One such show is Back Issue, which celebrates pop culture phenomena that were either largely overlooked by the mainstream (read: white) media or, if they did pervade the mainstream, deserve reconsideration through a modern lens. Hosts Tracy Clayton and Josh Gwynn celebrate Black sitcoms from the ’90s, Beyonce’s oeuvre and the under-appreciated Mariah Carey film Glitter. They also revisit important events with a critical eye—like some of the suspect choices made by the producers of America’s Next Top Model, including race-flipping the models for a shoot, even as Tyra Banks forged a new path to success for Black women on reality television. Clayton and Gwynn strike the perfect balance between pure fandom and criticism that can offer listeners insight into how the culture has evolved—and how far it has yet to go.
Where to Start: Remember How Messy Top Model Was? (with Jay Manuel)
9. Home Cooking
If you’re the sort of person who plans Thanksgiving weeks in advance, consulting cookbooks like chef Samin Nosrat’s Salt Fat Acid Heat as a resource in the process, you might fall hard for Nosrat’s new show. Her co-host, veteran podcaster Hrishikesh Hirway, poses listeners’ quarantine cooking questions to Nosrat, like what on earth to do with all the jalapeños delivered in a CSA box or how to make homemade cranberry sauce that actually tastes like the canned stuff to please the picky eaters at the table. (Hint: you can let it solidify in an empty can so it develops those ridges.) Her answers are usually ingenious. But that’s not the only reason to tune in. Anyone who has watched Nosrat on the Salt Fat Acid Heat Netflix series knows that her laugh is infectious, and anyone familiar with Hirway from Netflix’s Song Exploder or The West Wing Weekly podcast is well aware of his penchant for puns. If we’re all going to be stuck in our kitchens for the long haul as the pandemic continues, we might as well strive to make feeding ourselves as joyful an experience as possible, and this podcast sets us well on our way.
Where to Start: Thanksgiving, Part 1: Sage Wisdom (with Demi Adejuyigbe)
8. Dead Eyes
This was a weird year to tune into comedic podcasts, particularly those featuring conversations between celebrities largely untouched by the economic consequences of the pandemic. Dead Eyes is a funny podcast grounded in pettiness that somehow manages to be relatable rather than obnoxious—in part, perhaps, because of its host’s underdog status. Almost two decades ago, comedian Connor Ratliff was about to begin filming a small role in the Tom Hanks-produced miniseries Band of Brothers, when he lost the part, allegedly because Hanks thought Ratliff had “dead eyes.” The rejection has haunted Ratliff his entire adult life. Poking fun at investigative podcasts, Ratliff sets out to figure out what, exactly, happened when he was fired. Apparently Ratliff’s obsession is common among even the most successful in his industry. Ratliff gets Jon Hamm, Rian Johnson and others to talk about their own experiences losing coveted jobs, offering rare insight into the arbitrary and often brutal world of Hollywood ladder-climbing. But where similar conversations devolve into “man shouting at cloud” status, Ratliff’s knack for self-parody saves, and elevates, his show.
Where to Start: 01: He’s Having Second Thoughts
Atlantic writer Vann R. Newkirk II began reporting this eight-part Hurricane Katrina podcast long before the pandemic. In it, he revisits a familiar story through the voices of several who experienced it—a local radio host, a nurse, a civil engineer and a 14-year-old girl, among others stranded in New Orleans after the hurricane. He contrasts their on-the-ground experiences with those reported by the media to the nation at large: newscasters initially obsessed over looting in the city rather than the immense suffering happening in the Superdome, a portrayal which, he argues, contributed to delays in relief effort. The series slowly builds to an interview with then-FEMA director Michael Brown, one of the few government officials who agreed to talk to Newkirk, confronting him with not only a list of logistical missteps but wrenching accounts from New Orleans natives ignored and left to suffer. It’s a master class in the tough interview. Listening in 2020, it’s hard not to draw comparisons between the way George W. Bush’s administration handled an unexpected disaster and the way that Donald Trump’s administration responded to the pandemic. In both cases, Black Americans bore the brunt of the government’s failures, paying with their safety, their jobs and their lives.
Where to Start: Antediluvian
6. The Daily
Even before the pandemic, many a podcast listener began their morning routines with the dulcet tones of Michael Barbaro’s voice. But The Daily’s status on the podcast charts suggests that this year has made addicts of us all. Spring was chaotic, and The Daily was a constant presence, offering up not only the latest news but also expert reporting that could inform major life decisions—including, in my case, postponing my wedding. Science and health reporter Donald G. McNeil, Jr., in particular, has been a beacon for Daily listeners, providing crucial information on how to move through the world as safely as possible and minimize risk. As someone who rang the alarm bell early about the coronavirus and has tended to take a sobering view of the statistics, he recently offered a moment of rare optimism about the state of the world once a vaccine becomes available next year. Barbaro and his team at the Times have established themselves as the most trusted voices in podcasting at a time when we as a country are desperate for information.
Where to Start: “The Next Year (or Two) of the Pandemic”
It’s rare to find reporting on the large structural issues behind the surge in homelessness on the West Coast that also humanizes the unsheltered people at the center of the debate. Outsiders’ ability to do both is a uniquely compelling narrative feat. Reporters from KNKX and the Seattle Times focus specifically on Olympia, Wash., a city whose homeless population swelled dramatically in 2018 from about 30 tents in the downtown area to 300. Some in Olympia’s government pushed for innovative solutions, like setting up a mitigation site that offered a safer, more supportive environment than street encampments. Many local businesses and homeowners were not pleased, but the city forged ahead with its grand experiment before COVID-19 hit. Outsiders used this new strategy as a lens through which to examine the relative contributions of gentrification, weather, the economy and local politics to homelessness. But when the pandemic arrived, they quickly pivoted, training their focus on the effects of the coronavirus on a particularly vulnerable population. Throughout, the reporters ground the story in compelling testimony from unsheltered individuals who, faced with a series of often unexpected disasters, find themselves in a situation impossible to escape. Their stories demonstrate just how thin the line is between sheltered and unsheltered.
Where to Start: Episode 1: The Rain
4. You Must Remember This: Polly Platt
You Must Remember This is a beloved podcast about the myths and realities of Hollywood’s first century. Since 2014, host Karina Longworth has explored the life stories of “Dead Blondes” including Marilyn Monroe, the Manson Murders and Disney’s controversial film Song of the South. The 10-episode miniseries on producer, writer and production designer Polly Platt that Longworth produced this year is the show’s best yet. Platt is probably best known, at least beyond insider Hollywood circles, as the first wife of director Peter Bogdanovich—a rather unjust legacy for an intuitive storytelling genius who did much of the work that made classic films like The Last Picture Show, Broadcast News and Big successful. Though she was respected by her peers and nominated for one Oscar, for set design on 1983’s Terms of Endearment, she spent her career largely overshadowed by her husband and the many men she bolstered professionally. Longworth managed to get her hands on Platt’s unfinished, unpublished memoir and builds her tribute to Platt’s life around that work, along with interviews with Platt’s daughters and cohorts and her own deep research. Platt has largely been erased from Hollywood’s mythology, but Longworth rescues her from the shadows of history, gives her due credit in all her complexity and, in doing so, explores the nuances of a larger story about the sexism women have long battled in Hollywood.
Where to Start: Episode 1: “It Wasn’t Sexism Then”
3. Staying In With Emily and Kumail
Celebrity couple Emily V. Gordon and Kumail Nanjiani are uniquely qualified to offer guidance and comfort during the pandemic. Gordon, as fans of the couple’s based-on-true-events movie The Big Sick will know, has a chronic illness that forces her to occasionally quarantine herself even during non-pandemic times. She also happens to have been a therapist before she pivoted to screenwriting. She and Nanjiani offer excellent advice on how to survive quarantine—mentally, physically and emotionally. The two have an easy comic energy and seem to genuinely like one another as human beings (surprisingly rare on couple-hosted podcasts). They talk about watching movies, working out and befriending the animals in their yard as they endure a lockdown. Nanjiani plays doting-to-the-point-of-paranoia husband to Gordon, scorching all their takeout orders in the microwave for fear of germs. Gordon will sometimes switch into couple’s therapy mode when the two have (extremely relatable) disagreements on what level of distancing they should be employing to stay safe. For the months they recorded episodes at the beginning of the pandemic, the show was hilarious and helpful and soothing. Its only shortcoming is that it didn’t last longer.
Where to Start: 6. A Depression Where I Am
2. Code Switch
Code Switch has been hosting insightful discussions on race for years, but it only reached No. 1 on the Apple podcast charts this year, at a moment when, following the killing of George Floyd, white people en masse seemed to suddenly begin considering their role in systemic racism. It’s fantastic that this four-year-old podcast continues to earn new listeners because it deserved that attention long before anti-racism became a buzzword in 2020. Hosts Gene Demby and Shereen Marisol Meraji explore how race touches culture, politics, public health—everything—in frank discussions with guests. Recent episodes have delved into Vice President-elect Kamala Harris’ Indian heritage and why it has gotten less attention that her Black identity; analyzing how coronavirus fears devolved into xenophobia; and tracing the origins of the “Karen” meme (or at least the concept behind it) to the early days of America’s history. Crucially, the conversations often draw from the personal experience of the hosts or their guests, grounding what could otherwise become an academic discussion. Code Switch offers listeners a better understanding of the current state of politics and culture than even the best politics and culture podcasts.
Where to Start: Is It Time to Say R.I.P. to POC?
1. Nice White Parents
The New York Times‘ Serial Productions conducted a deep dive into the New York Public school system, among the most segregated in the country, for a podcast that is difficult to stop thinking about once you’ve heard it. Host Chana Joffe-Walt presents a stunning portrait of just how much power even the most liberal, well-intentioned white parents wield in the public school system, often to the benefit of their own children and the detriment of BIPOC students. The first episode brings listeners to a fundraising gala that not all the parents can afford to attend and some cringe-inducing displays of white privilege that should be mandatory listening for anyone who wants to sit on a PTA. Joffe-Walt makes clear that choosing where to send a child to school is the ultimate test of many white parents’ stated liberal values—and when push comes to shove, they choose their child’s future test scores over the diverse community they purport to desire. Everybody in this podcast wants the same thing: more equitable education. But nobody can seem to agree on how to reach that goal, especially in an intransigent school system. The show excels when it lays out the arguments and obstacles, inevitably stoking debate among listeners. The podcast introduces issues that have been laid bare since it debuted in July, now that the coronavirus has exacerbated class divides, with well-off parents hiring tutors and arranging learning pods for their children as other parents are left with little recourse. We may emerge from this pandemic with an even more inequitable school system than we had before: it would be fertile ground for a second season of the year’s most fascinating podcast.
Where to Start: 1: The Book of Statuses