One thing you learn from podcasts is that, freed from a cramped radio slot and faced with someone who actually knows a bit about their subject, almost everyone has a fascinating story to tell. Scouse songwriting duo Simon Barber and Brian O’Connor set up Sodajerker just as an excuse to talk to their heroes about what it’s like to put songs together. But their natural inquisitiveness brings out the best in legends including Andy Partridge of XTC, Mike Stoller and Johnny Marr, making Sodajerker one of the most unusual and rewarding music podcasts.
There is, let’s face it, a hell of a lot of stuff that we should know about but don’t. Who has the time to Google everything? Far better to absorb it while exercising, commuting or cooking the tea from this conversational and highly entertaining podcast by. On SYSK, a rotating pro-am panel discusses everything from How Bitcoin Works to How Crack Works in what feels like the world’s most well-informed pub conversation. A “holy shit!” revelation is guaranteed every 10 minutes or so. Did you know that Woody Harrelson’s dad was a Mafia hitman? Us neither.
This one, meanwhile, is Have I Got News For You with a metric shitload more swearing plus a little more bite and viciousness than “Gosh, isn’t Ed Miliband’s voice funny?” It’s an audio version of red-meat liberal Bill Maher’s HBO show, giving us a top-of-the-line comic – plus guests from politics, stand-up and the media – tearing into the rotten state of American government and its even worse Republican opposition. British TV and radio keep failing to replicate this format chiefly because we have no-one like Maher, the left-wing PJ O’Rourke.
4 | Little Atoms
Pamper your brain with books, ideas, the arts, politics and whatever else comes up in an engaging, irreverent and unashamedly intellectual podcast that makes Radio 4’s Front Row sound like the E! Channel. The lo-fi production values – check those creaky armchairs – compound the impression of rubbing leather-padded jacket elbows with a splendidly down-at-heel slice of the intelligentsia.
Some voices were just born for radio. So it is with the bound-leather tones of Harry Shearer, Spinal Tap’s Derek Smalls and the voice of The Simpsons’ Principal Skinner, who has been presenting this witty mix of liberal political snark, comic observation and weird news from around the world since 1983 – long before the dawn of podcasting.
6 | The Pod Delusion
This cheerfully sceptical “podcast about interesting things” looks at the world from a fiercely rationalist perspective. It’s a partner of the British Humanist Association and the name, of course, is a hat-tip to Richard Dawkins’ atheist bible The God Delusion. Each episode takes a leisurely but eye-opening look at issues as varied as the iffy history of Assassin’s Creed, Greece’s Golden Dawn and the non-human civil rights of captive killer whales. It’ll give you hope that the world isn’t really vanishing down a wormhole of superstition, and make you feel about 50 per cent smarter.
John Oliver – British comedy’s heroic cultural attaché to The Daily Show – and mate Zaltzman deadpan their way through current affairs in this brilliantly rambling “newspaper for the ears”. It’s two of our lot doing the kind of sharp topical comedy that the Yanks do so well, and if you enjoy Jon Stewart or Steven Colbert then your commute is pretty much sorted here.
8 | The Nerdist
Your average radio interview can end up boringly formulaic, with three predictable questions wrapped up by a plug for the guest’s latest “project”. Being open-ended, podcasts can ramble on for as long as they like and – horror! – develop into actual conversations. Geeky interlocutor Chris Hardwick takes full advantage of this, coming up with entertaining and properly insightful sit-downs with characters as diverse as Harrison Ford, Vince Breaking Bad Gilligan, Dave Grohl and porn star turned actress Sasha Grey.
America’s state-funded National Public Radio can be a little brown-rice-and-world-music sometimes but they’ve got a grip on movies, music and the Internet that’s beyond most British broadcasters. In this weekly roundtable its pundits dig into the thinking person’s entertainment story of the week, be it Mad Men, Downton Abbey or the shambolic VMAs. In one episode they explained why a key swearword in Firefly translates as “Holy Testicle Tuesday!” in Mandarin.
Scandalously, Britain’s single best source of quality movie commentary goes out on Radio 5Live on Friday afternoons when normal people are hard at work. But! It’s a podcast too, so you can sit ringside as bequiffed cineaste Mark “the Good Doctor” Kermode and voice of the common man Simon Mayo pass judgment in the week’s releases – and talk to the odd film star too. Bliss it is when Kermode really gets his teeth into a stinker like Keith Lemon: The Film.
Like an audio edition of Horizon remixed by Boards Of Canada and Chris The Day Today Morris, the oblique documentary series Radiolab, from New York’s public station WNYC, riffs on a big, big subject like colour, time or numbers until it become a sound experience in its own right. Hard facts collide with a playful sonic approach and the effect is like a dream where you learn stuff. In the episode on colour they used the harmonics of a choir to illustrate how dogs see the spectrum. Amazing, right?
Stand-up comics talking about the foundation and technique of comedy ought to be about as interesting as golfers talking about their swing – great for insiders, not so much for the rest of us. But in these free-ranging hour-long conversations with noted joke-architects like Al Murray, Greg Proops and Richard Herring, interviewer Stuart Goldsmith steers the chat towards entertaining revelation and deftly stomps on any preciousness or “tears of a clown” clichés. Listen and you’ll never heckle a stand-up again.
Take the bewilderment out of American politics with this insightful and very funny weekly roundup from high-end webzine Slate. Freed from the stultifying need to create an artificial sense of balance, presenters John Dickerson, Emily Bazelon and David Plotz can tell it like it is on Obamacare, the Tea Party and more. It’s like The Today Programme with jokes (and occasional swearing).
14 | The Football Ramble
You know what would be nice? If every sports radio station on earth didn’t dump all its shows into iTunes as well, making it harder to find worthwhile independent shows like the excellent Football Ramble. Here a handful of actual fans – civilians who buy their own tickets, not self-congratulatory pundits or shiny-suited ex-players up in the Green Room – talk over the week’s footballing issues. It’s the antithesis of so-called banter on so-called soccer sofas, and ideal if you love our national sport but cringe when you hear the words “the beautiful game”.
It’s a brilliantly original idea — a spot-on recreation of old-time US radio drama from the Thirties and Forties that both sends up these corny, wholesome wireless serials and shows real affection for a homespun era before irony ruined everything. Fake serials including Sparks Nevada, Marshal On Mars, Amelia Earheart, Fearless Flier and Down in Moonshine Holler are rendered with songs, wisecracks and handmade sound effects before a live audience in Hollywood. You’ll laugh like a space coyote.
16 | WTF With Marc Maron
This high-intensity twice-weekly interview podcast is about as far as you can imagine from a chummy little chat between showbusiness insiders. Having paid his dues both in performance and his personal life – addiction, booze, bitter divorce – LA-based stand-up comic Marc Maron persuades a stellar line-up to come round to his garage (yes, his garage) and open up in ways that conventional media seldom sees. Robin Williams, Edgar Wright, Josh Homme and Thom Yorke are among the guests in an interview series unlike any other.
Even post Sugarman, this remains pretty much the world’s last undiscovered music, kept secret for decades in censored, apartheid-ridden South Africa. Isolation produced some brilliantly insane and fearless sounds, though, and expatriates Brett Locke and Leon Lazarus spread the word on old and new English and Afrikaans rock, pop and traditional music with great humour, infectious enthusiasm and pure uncut SA accents. Their recent Nelson Mandela tribute edition in particular was a genuine tearjerker.
18 | 99% Invisible
You know that an item of design is good if you barely notice it – hence the name of this reliably mind-boggling exploration of product design, architecture, fashion technology and any and everything designed for KALW in San Francisco. If you think a podcast about design makes about as much sense as ventriloquism on the radio, Roman Mars’s bite-sized show (15-30 minutes) is as vivid as you could wish, exploring everything from DIY spacesuits to the roots of the I ♥ NY logo to the aesthetic of Looney Tunes cartoons.
19 | The Memory Palace
You don’t always have 90 minutes to spare, but this unique history podcast – which turns historical disasters, turning points or just weird happenings into evocative spoke-word vignettes plus music – comes in 3-10 minute episodes perfect for a ciggie break or walk round the block. Covering everything from spy cats to the advent of the Sony Walkman, The Memory Palace is part short story, part audio poem and part oral history time capsule. We could do with more episodes, though. Just eight in all of 2013? Really?
20 | Oxford Biography
The thing with history is they keep making more of it. Fill in the blanks with this admirably straightforward series of capsule life stories from the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Each episode gives without judgment or bias an account of one Briton’s life, researched by professional historians. There are 180 available and their span is boggling, taking in everyone from Lord Haw-Haw to Freddie Mercury to Mo Mowlam to Piltdown Man. Though they concentrate on a single life these podcasts evoke a powerful sense of other times and places.
21 | Monocle 24: The Menu
The international fancypants restaurant lifestyle is now within all of our grasps, but to its credit this food and drink podcast from unashamedly elitist news and culture network Monocle is open-minded and enthusiastic rather than snobby. Presenter Markus Hippi creates a suitably pan-European vibe for this thoroughly inspiring podcast. When you really, really need the restaurant news from Toronto, Mumbai and São Paolo, or you simply must know about the cronut before everyone else does, this is the place for you.
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