As a place to hear music, podcasts are far from ideal. Heck, the host of one of the shows on the list here, Disgraceland, makes a point of calling out prohibitively expensive licensing costs at the top of every episode. What podcasts excel at are telling stories, offering insight and adding depth to the music you're already listening to. There’s something uniquely intimate about the medium, too. Listeners connect to the hosts in ways that are different than the way they might feel a kinship or closeness with even their favorite musicians.
There are allegedly over half a million active podcasts hosted on Apple alone, which is way too many to even begin to make sense of. It’s likely that you already have some go-to shows in your regular rotation, but it’s a tough job to sift through that ever growing mass of audible content, so we gathered up 10 shows that are doing the lord’s work for music fans, each in their own way. It's a well-rounded, thoroughly binge-worthy bunch that runs the gamut from brilliantly silly to thoughtfully academic, and all points in between.
Even though podcasts have been an booming business for over a decade now, some of the most inventive and addictive shows here are less than a year old, and might be brand new to you. Regardless of your mood or genre preference you’re bound to find something fresh and interesting to pipe into your earbuds while you work out or do the dishes.
It might seem like a no-brainer, but so far as I know, Tyler Mahan Coe is the first, best and so far only podcaster out there making a point to dust off some of the lesser-known weird old stories from country music. The first season alone, which wrapped up earlier this year, went all the way back to the dustbowl to give Merle Haggard’s “Okie from Muskogee” an appropriate context, spun Loretta Lynn’s 1975 ode to birth control, “The Pill,” into a larger discussion of music industry sexism, and dedicated three episodes to a single song: Jeannie C. Riley’s “Harper Valley PTA.” Each entry in the series is carefully assembled for maximum narrative propulsivity, and built on a foundation of untold hours of intense research. Don’t believe me? Check the “Primary Sources” section of any given installment for the receipts. If the second season hasn’t dropped by the time you get caught up, you can find Coe and his friend Mark Mosley talking shit about pretty much every band ever on Your Favorite Band Sucks.
Hosted by NYC hip-hop radio legends, DJ Stretch Armstrong & Bobbito Garcia, What's Good is a fairly straightforward interview show, but benefits from the decades of accrued street cred Stretch and Bob bring to the table. These are the same charming goofballs after all who debuted bars from Biggie before he had even earned “unsigned hype” status. The first season of What's Good was all over the place insofar as the guests were concerned. As you'd expect, there are lots of musicians including Chance the Rapper, Stevie Wonder and Bootsy Collins, but conversations with less obviously hip-hop adjacent guests like CNN commentator Ana Navarro and chef José Andrés are where Stretch and Bobbito really flex some muscle. The second season, which started up a few weeks back, was front-loaded with Erykah Badu, Lenny Kravitz and Rakim, before getting to Puerto Rican comic book writer Edgardo Miranda-Rodriguez.
Far and away the objectively dumbest podcast on this list, R U Talkin’ R.E.M. RE: ME? (formerly U Talkin’ U2 To Me?) is also one of the funniest. For 51 episodes now hosts Adam Scott (Parks & Recreation) and Scott Aukerman (Comedy Bang! Bang!) have found ways to stretch the discographies of their two favorite bands, U2 and R.E.M., to their most inane breaking points. There are multiple ridiculous mini-shows within the main show that have nothing to do with music, for instance, and sometimes those shows even nest within each other like some sort of idiotic podcast Inception. The whole thing would be irredeemably pointless if the hosts sincere love of the bands they’re exploring didn’t shine through, but at the end of the day these guys are clearly passionate (and occasionally outright demented) mega-fans. The U2 “season” culminated with the hosts trekking all the way to New York where not only did they get to meet and interviewing their heroes, but they also received a crude doodle of a wang from Bono.
Hosted by comedians Adam Tod Brown and Travis Clark, Heart Shaped Pod is a thorough, if decidedly unprecious, discussion of all things Nirvana. And by all things, I mean all things. Along with requisite episodes cataloging the band's music videos Brown and Clark take detours into esoterica like Kurt’s preferred pedal setup and the the various legal battles surrounding his MTV Unplugged guitar. For all the absurd asides and stacked inside jokes, it's truly edifying to hear Brown and Clark sincerely try and square the Kurt they worshipped when they were younger with the significantly more complex (and occasionally flat-out cruel) person they’ve come to see him as over time. The show just resumed with “The Nevermind Years Part Four” after a temporary hiatus during which the hosts created Three Dollar Pod, Y’all, a similarly styled journey through the music of Limp Bizkit... but don't hold that against them.
Maybe it's a waste of everyone's time to big up Song Exploder, objectively one of the most popular music podcasts out there, but practically every time it comes up in conversation someone will invariably say, “Whoa I've never heard of that!” So, if that person is you this time around, you're welcome. Created, produced, edited and hosted by Hrishikesh Hirway, the conceit of the show is impossibly simple: Let musicians explain the nuts and bolts of the creative process by which they put a specific song together, then mix in the isolated bits from that song’s multitracks where applicable, lather, rinse, repeat. With any idea this elegant, the execution is what will undoubtedly make or break the thing and Hirway has managed to nail it every time with tightly produced bite-sized run-times that pull the curtain back on how music is made in a truly unique way. The show is up to 142 episodes as I type this (from Andrew Bird to Gorillaz) and thankfully shows no signs of stopping anytime soon.
The lifespan of No Plus Ones might’ve been only slightly longer than six full months, but damn if it wasn’t great while it lasted. And who knows, it could honestly make a comeback at any time. Hosted by music writers Dan Ozzi and David Anthony, the show made a point of approaching some of the more vacuous aspects of the music industry with as much sincerity as they could muster. Episodes devoted to Pete Wentz’s wikipedia page, Smash Mouth memes and Tom DeLonge’s alien obsession are entertaining, sure, but damned if Ozzi and Anthony (and their guests) didn’t manage to make those silly themes as educational as they were entertaining. Alongside those admittedly bonkers episodes are some meta peeks behind the scenes of the sausage factory of music writing, including chats with critics Ian Cohen and Gary Suarez, among others. It’s a shame that the show might be on a potentially permanent hiatus, but at least the guys left this to go work on more import things like [looks at notes]... uh... Shore Thing: A Podcast About Pauly Shore.
My Favorite Murder. Crimetown. Criminal. The first season of Serial. There's something about podcasting as a medium that makes it an ideal venue for pulpy true-crime shows to explode, so it's almost a little surprising that it wasn’t until just last year that someone came along and decided to plumb the depths of rock and roll’s history to similar ends. Musician Jake Brennan is the visionary who had that idea, and Disgraceland is the show he made. Far and away one of the most addictive shows on this list, Disgraceland delves into debauched tales from acts as well known as the Rolling Stones and James Brown, but also profiles equally fascinating, if less obvious, fringe characters like music promoter Michael Alig and rapper Tay-K 47. Each episode is a densely packed burst of expertly produced (and deeply researched) storytelling the grimy likes of which you're more likely to find in the pages of the National Enquirer than on the cover of the Rolling Stone. Buyer beware, the most recent episode is about G.G. Allin, which is to say, you may wanna work your way up to that installment rather than jump right into the Disgraceland deep end.
Hosted by UPROXX cultural critic Steven Hyden, Celebration Rock is a fun mishmash of formats. Most episodes are one-off interviews with musicians or writers, but occasionally Hyden will get hyper focused and spend multiple episodes in a row exploring and unpacking the entire bodies of work by a single artist or group, as he did with Bruce Springsteen last year, and Pearl Jam the year before that. Either way, the end results tend to feel like individual glossy magazine feature articles for your ears as they’re being created in real time. It’s also worth noting that Hyden’s breadth of coverage is pretty amazing, with entries designed to entice aging hipsters, contrarian hot take appreciators, granola munchin’ jam band fans and, yes, even middle school youth group Jesus Freaks. Somehow with all that demographic range of content Hyden manages to frame every topic with maximum inclusivity.
When Darrel Steven “Chris” Lighty died in 2012 at the age of 44, from an apparently self-inflicted gunshot, his obituary in the New York Times referred to him as “one of the most powerful figures in the hip-hop business.” Despite that well-earned title, it’s entirely possible you have never heard of him. Hosted by Reggie “Combat Jack” Ossé, Mogul goes a long way to bringing Lighty’s life story, knotty warts and all, to a broader audience. Across a half dozen main episodes and 10 extended “bonus” episodes), Ossé puts you right there in the clubs, back alleys and board rooms where Lighty helped turn Nas, Mobb Deep, Missy Elliott, L.L. Cool J and 50 Cent into major stars, while also wrestling with his subject’s sometimes troubling legacy. Mogul, which frankly explored the depression and mental health issues that led to Lighty’s death, was already heartbreaking enough, but it becomes doubly tragic since Ossé was diagnosed with colon cancer just as the series wrapped up, and he would pass away just a few months afterward.
One of the nice things about podcasts is that they’re generally free, so long as you don't mind sitting through ads for stamps dot com and mail-order mattresses. The five part mini series Pop, Race, and the ’60s, though, is only available as a premium to Slate Plus subscribers. It's a big ask, I know, but it wouldn't be on the list if I didn't think it wasn't worth seeking out. Hosted by Jack Hamilton, Slate’s pop critic and author of Just Around Midnight: Rock and Roll and the Racial Imagination, each episode finds Hamilton and a guest bouncing two separate era-specific artists off of each other in order to interrogate the intersections and dead ends that result. As the the "Slate Academy" title suggests, the show does get a bit academic at times, Hamilton is an assistant professor at the University of Virginia after all, but nevertheless Pop, Race & The 60s is an enlightening, and sometimes challenging listen that lives up to the.
Chris Lay is a freelance writer, archivist, and record store clerk living in Madison, WI. The very first CD he bought for himself was the Dumb & Dumber soundtrack when he was twelve and things only got better from there.
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