My top 5 podcasts of 2021 (The first half)

My pick of the podcasts that have meant the most to me in the first half of 2021, featuring: Open Mike Eagle; El-P; Richard Herring; Nigel Planer; Alexei Sayle; Omid Djalili; Questlove; Mariah Carey; Marc Maron; and Katey Sagal.

Once in every lifetime… comes a love like this.* Gentle reader: We are somehow past the halfway point in 2021 already. How are you doing? How are you feeling? How has this year been treating you so far?

To mark the midpoint in 2021, here’s my round-up of the five podcasts that have brought me the most delight so far this year. Podcasting is an endlessly sustaining well of wonder for me. The first six months of 2021 have gifted us an abundance of podcasting brilliance. Looking back over my favourites from this year so far, I was surprised at the Young Onesheavy leaning of this highly personal and subjective selection… but I can’t help what I enjoy listening to.

I’m always looking for new podcasts to enjoy and to explore. So I’d love to know what podcasts are speaking to you in 2021. What have been your favourite podcasts overall and/or your favourite individual podcast episodes so far this year? Please do tweet me or leave a comment below to let me know!

Now, here we go..

My top 5 podcasts of 2021 (The first half)

5. MARC MARON/KATEY SAGAL

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“I don’t want to think this much.” I love it when podcasts head off in unexpected directions. This is the perfect example. Maron’s chinwag with Sagal – ostensibly part of the publicity round for the latter’s show Rebel – veers off the promotional path almost immediately. Just a few words in, Maron and Sagal recognise one another as kindred spirits, twin souls whose outlook on life chimes on all levels. This includes their clear-eyed awareness and bold acceptance of the demons that drive them, shaping their thoughts and dictating their paths. For me, this is podcasting at its most magical. As a medium, podcasting seems unrivalled for creating a space to enable and to share this kind of profoundly honest dialogue. These two souls are both frank about their demons. They look back on the decades that have brought each of them to this moment. It is remarkable to hear Sagal and Maron talk with such brutal honesty about their mutual experiences of alcoholism, body dysmorphia and self-loathing. Each of them has had to find a way to live with these demons. There is a cruel paradox at play here. Each feels that they thrive in spite of but also because of these demons. I love their talk about how creativity and achievement can be tightly bound in with the negative forces that drive you (I blogged about it in I don’t want to think this much). Please somebody get Sagal and Maron to launch their own regular podcast!

4. ALEXEI SAYLE/OMID DJALILI

The Alexei Sayle Podcast has quickly established itself as one of the best and funniest podcasts. This is either in spite or because of Sayle’s lack of knowledge of or enthusiasm for podcasting as a medium. You never know what you will get from one episode to the next. But every episode is great. In particular, Sayle’s chat with Omid Djalili is a joy. They have a long-established friendship and mutual respect. And – as they detail in this episode – they are all too often mistaken for one another, even by the dear departed Robin Williams. You will learn here what Djalili considers his best line from his part in The Mummy (although sadly it ended up on the cutting room floor). The Mummy trivia doesn’t end there. It transpires that by an odd coincidence, Sayle’s podcast producer Talal Karkouti also contributed to that film, providing the voices for all the children in some scenes. On top of all this there is what I consider to be the single funniest moment in anything I’ve heard or seen this year: Alexei Sayle’s rendition of his (by his own admission) risible cockney accent from his appearance in Lovejoy episode entitled The Napoleonic Commode made me actually cry with laughter while listening beheadphone’d in public. And bear in mind always the cautionary tale of Little Jodie…

3. QUESTLOVE/MARIAH CAREY

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“I’m just keeping it 100. This is what happened.” Gentle reader, I have to confess that I knew very little about what Ms Carey might be like as a person prior to listening to her conversation with Questlove (besides my half-remembered recollections of her somewhat bizarre home tour on MTV Cribs probably two decades ago). So it was a delight to lend an ear to her lengthy two-part appearance on the consistently excellent Questlove Supreme podcast and discover that she is warm, funny, open and talkative in the extreme… and seemingly very down to earth. She also proves herself to be a great mimic (her affectionate impression of Aretha Franklin’s speaking voice is spot on). This podcast touches on so many fascinating themes, some of which are explored in greater detail in her book The Meaning of Mariah Carey. The conversation takes in race relations in the US, the secret grunge album that she recorded in the 1990s, and an epic set of recommendations for warm beverages to keep one’s pipes in tip-top condition. This is podcasting at its loveliest, and comes highly recommended.

2. RICHARD HERRING/NIGEL PLANER

“I took the full weight of the éclair.” This is Nigel Planer, letting Richard Herring in on the true risks associated with being the tallest member of the Young Ones cast – especially when the giant chocolate éclairs start to rain down from the heavens.** For the final Zoom-based RHLSTP episode (for now, at least), Herring serves us what is just the most warm-hearted podcast. He veritably basks in the opportunity to talk in depth to Mr Planer – a true comedy hero of his (and mine). However, this podcast has one glaring flaw. It needs to be at least five hours longer. With a career as vast and rich as Planer’s, there is inevitably a lot of ground that remains uncovered. But we do get a lot of fascinating Young Ones nuggets (including a little tale about the professionalism and punctuality of dear departed Motörhead frontman Lemmy Kilmister). And it is great to hear Herring giving deserved praise to Planer’s wonderful early 1990s series The Nicholas Craig Masterclass. Now sirs: Please do seriously consider a part 2 (and preferably a part 3, a 4 and a 5, too)!

1. OPEN MIKE EAGLE/EL-P

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“People would come up to me with tears in their eyes, and I was like ‘Oh, I was wrong about what this could mean to people.'” What happens when a creative mind that is all about relentless forward motion is forced to take a look in the rearview mirror? The answer is a true gift to the world, an epic podcast unfolding over 12 weekly instalments. For the second season of his excellent What Had Happened Was podcast, Open Mike Eagle goes deep with El-P (aka El-Producto, aka Jaime Meline, rapper, hip hop producer and – along with Killer Mike – one half of Run The Jewels) for a thorough exploration of his life and work. I love how Open Mike Eagle (the calmest and most charming of podcast hosts) covers not just the creative process, but also what comes after: the life your words and your works take on when they are out in the world. We are also gifted extensive insights into the guiding spirit that feeds and fuels his work – the El-P ethos, if you will. For me, this is key to his creativity, as it pervades everything he does. In the fifth episode, he talks about the force that drives him: “As long as I’ve ever been [making music], my desire, my ethos and my hope is that when I’m done with this, that people can look at what I’ve done in my career and say that I contributed something. I’m really trying to find myself through this music. There’s no question about that.” I’d argue that the El-P ethos can be summed up in a three-word motto that appeared on the original Funcrusher EP: “Independent as fuck.” Those three words also make it into the outstanding theme song for this series, in which Open Mike Eagle raps over a truly great El-P beat. These two really should think about doing an album together. For much more from me on the greatness of this podcast series, see my post The El-P ethos.

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FOOTNOTES

* Here is the source of these words (although originally the work of Cliff, of course).

** Here is pictorial evidence of the danger of falling chocolate éclairs as evidenced by The Young Ones.

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