10 of the Best Podcast Episodes of 2021, According to the Lifehacker Staff

10 of the Best Podcast Episodes of 2021, According to the Lifehacker Staff
Photo: CHIARI VFX, Shutterstock

Podcasts can be a place to go to stay informed about the…current state of things. Or they can be the place we go for comfort, entertainment, and to forget about the current state of things. This year, the Lifehacker staff turned to podcasts for all of the above. Here’s a list of our favourite episodes, from an optimistic interview with primatologist Jane Goodall to an engrossing interview with porn star Porsche Lynn — and everything in between.

Threedom: “This Was a Mistake”

Screenshot: ThreedomScreenshot: Threedom

Threedom is my ultimate comfort podcast. I have no clue how to select a favourite episode — in part because each one is so hilarious, but also because nothing about this show is chronological or sensical in any way. If what you like about podcasts is the ability to drop in on your smartest, funniest friends talking about nothing in particular, this is the show for you. Scott, Paul, and Lauren have found a way to bottle up the sound of friendship, with all the inside jokes, bickering, and longwinded bits that entails. You might as well start with episode one: “This was a mistake.” — Meredith Dietz, staff writer

Fall of Civilizations: “Easter Island — Where Giants Walked”

Screenshot: Fall of CivilizationsScreenshot: Fall of Civilizations

As tempted as I am to choose yet another You’re Wrong About episode (psst, go check out the McDonald’s coffee lawsuit episode and the one about the Dixie Chicks), my pick this year is the Fall of Civilizations episode about Rapa Nui, also known as Easter Island.

The island’s history has been twisted into all kinds of cautionary tales over the years, but the best lesson is probably “don’t kidnap and enslave people.” Just saying. If you’re not familiar with the island’s history, you’re going to love the answer to the “mystery” of how the famous Moai statues made it from the quarry to their seaside destinations. The podcast also features ancient songs sung by a modern-day choir that keeps musical traditions alive at a school on Rapa Nui. — Beth Skwarecki, senior health editor

You’re Wrong About: “The McDonald’s Hot Coffee Case”

Screenshot: You’re Wrong AboutScreenshot: You’re Wrong About

In case you didn’t take Beth’s hint, allow me to reiterate it here. The chief reason for loving You’re Wrong About is the accuracy of its title: No matter how well-informed you think you are about the real stories behind the news, chances are good that your understanding of whatever a given episodes happens to be focused on has been warped by media misrepresentation, political spin, and good old human laziness. Take, for example, the infamous case of the woman who sued McDonald’s after spilling coffee on her lap. It has been memorialised as the epitome of irresponsible lawsuits — an innocent corporation forced to foot the bill for human stupidity!

But actually, the woman wasn’t carelessly driving with the cup between her legs or expecting a big payout over minor injuries. She was in the passenger seat in a parked car and dumped her coffee while adding creamer (an accident that could’ve happened to anyone); she was severely scalded — we’re talking third-degree burns that caused her to be partially disabled for more than two years — by near-boiling liquid McDonald’s already knew it was serving too hot.

Realising how wrong we all were about this infamous incident is a good reminder that we need to be careful about listening uncritically to the loudest version of the truth, whatever its source — be it a trending headline, cable news outlets, or the collected wisdom of our Facebook feeds. — Joel Cunningham, deputy editor

The Saucer Life: “Harold J. Berney”

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Author and historian Aaron Gulyas’s The Saucer Life treats flying saucers as folklore, affectionately examining obscure and colourful incidents and people from UFO culture, from 1950s contactees to fake “experts” to forgotten radio personalities who want to believe. I particularly liked the episode about Harold J. Berney, a conman who swindled marks out of more than $US40,000 ($55,024) in 1950s money by convincing them to invest in a “modulator” he said he’d learned about while visiting the space brothers on Venus. — Stephen Johnson, staff writer

The Ringer: “Gene and Roger”

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I’m going to cheat and choose what was more of a podcast miniseries than a sinlge episode. This summer, The Ringer devoted six episodes of its excellent film podcast The Big Picture to examining one of my favourite rivalries in pop culture: The lifelong rivalry between film critic frenemies Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert. As a born and bread Chicagoan, these men, who I grew up reading in the Tribune and the Sun-Times, respectively, as well as seeing them weekly on WTTW, taught me how to watch and love movies.

As this biography of their evolving relationship — which took them from crosstown foes, to uneasy TV partners, to something of a bickering old married couple — makes clear, few people had as outsized an impact on how people think about movies (and how they are made) than these prickly, standoffish, not-ready-for-prime-time Midwesterners. Film criticism has come a long way from what it was when these guys still occupied their fabled balcony, but it was forever changed by them — two thumbs pressed firmly down (or up?) on the scale of film history. — Joel

This Is Love: “The Magpie of Heart Mountain”

Photo: This Is LovePhoto: This Is Love

This Is Love is the sister podcast to Phoebe Judge’s longer-running podcast, Criminal, and it’s just what I needed throughout the pandemic (and forever from here on out). Judge tells a collection of heartwarming stories with her signature soothing voice, and this story in particular stuck with me. Shigeru Yabu was just a child when he and his family were incarcerated in a Japanese internment camp during WWII, and while he was there, he made an unexpected friend who helped keep his spirits up and provided companionship — a talking magpie bird named “Maggie.” — Meghan Walbert, managing editor

The Daily: “The Unlikely Pioneer Behind mRNA Vaccines”

Screenshot: The New York TimesScreenshot: The New York Times

How much do you know about mRNA vaccines? This isn’t a “truther” moment — far from it — instead, the story behind the mRNA vaccine is simply fascinating, covering decades of research and the struggle for a truly revolutionary idea to be taken seriously.

I love The Daily in general, but it can, occasionally, be stressful and depressing. This episode was anything but. It’s worth a listen. In fact, it’s the perfect pairing for your commute to get your booster shot. — Jake Peterson, senior technology editor

The Rialto Report: “Porsche Lynn: The Other Side of Power” (Parts 1 & 2)

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Once again, this distinction goes to The Rialto Report. This Golden Age porn podcast is the only podcast I listen to with any regularity, and this two-part episode is a fucking ride from beginning to end. Though most of her films fall outside of true Golden Age, Porsche Lynn might be one of my favourite people in porn. Her life story is utterly engrossing and sometimes tragic, but she’s able to tell it with warmth, humility, and an incredible sense of humour. Even if you’ve never seen any of her work, or any pornography at all (yeah, right), this episode is worth a listen. — Claire Lower, senior food editor

Strange and Unexplained: “Reincarnation: Four people who lived before”

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I spent a silly amount of time debating which episode of Daisy Eagen’s Strange and Unexplained podcast to share with you, because the weekly show quickly became one of my favourites this year. Apparently I like “true stories about weird shit,” including — perhaps most especially — episode six, that features “a toddler who remembers dying in a fire, a boy who remembers a fancy life in Hollywood, a kid who remembers being crushed by a tractor, and a man who remembers being a Civil War soldier.” (But honorable mentions to the episodes about the Bermuda Triangle, Roanoke, the death of Kendrick Johnson, the “Watcher House,” stigmata, and all the rest of them.) — Meghan

The New Yorker Radio Hour: “Jane Goodall Talks With Andy Borowitz”

Screenshot: The New Yorker Radio HourScreenshot: The New Yorker Radio Hour

When I started thinking of my favourite podcast episode of the year, I realised to my own disgust that I’ve mostly listened to news and interviews in 2021. My life felt so busy and serious, and my podcast listening catered accordingly. The downside is that most of my podcast listening was depressing, boring, or both; but a few months ago, I listened to an interview with Jane Goodall — a name I recognised as “that woman who studied primates,” but not much beyond that — who was thoughtful, inspiring, and charming. As she talked about her past studies and how she sees the future of the world, she was somehow both philosophical and pragmatic, and also — again, somehow — optimistic. I felt like I could sit at her feet and listen to her speak for hours, but since I can’t, I plan to do the next best things, like reading her most recent work called The Book of Hope and digging around the internet for other interviews.

If your pessimism is getting the best of you in light of [gestures at everything around us], consider this episode a short reprieve through someone realistic enough to understand the peril of things like climate change, smart enough to offer solutions, and brave enough to be hopeful. She won’t just be “the primate woman” to me anymore. — Jordan Calhoun, editor-in-chief

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