This article is part of a collection of my favorite media pieces in 2021.
YOU’RE WRONG ABOUT
Hosts Michael Hobbes and Sarah Marshall set their sights on the playgrounds and water coolers of America, where stories about Yoko Ono’s heartless shattering of Beatlemania, the inner workings of the human alpha male, and Wayfair’s involvement in child trafficking reign supreme. Their purview also extends to the college classrooms and ivory towers of America’s intellectual elite, where those of us with degrees sneer down at anyone who questions the veracity of the results of the Stanford Prison Experiment, the heartbreaking tale of the helpless Kitty Genovese, or the amazing achievements of Koko the Gorilla. You’re Wrong About is the closest thing most of us will have to an easily-digestible panacea for the ills of urban legends, tabloid journalism, and pop culture gone awry. I probably listened to more hours of this podcast than anything else this year. I have a strong suspicion Hobbes and Marshall eked out Kanye. They’re that good.
99 PERCENT INVISIBLE
It’s hard to imagine a list of my favorite podcasts that doesn’t at least mention 99PI (as long as you don’t read last year’s list of my favorite podcasts that doesn’t mention 99PI). Roman Mars could narrate a twelve-part special on the journey through the lower digestive tract and I’d still be enamored with his presentation style. This year, some of my favorite episodes tackled airplane armrests and indicators of ownership, the aging Japanese practice of stamping your name in place of a signature, the time-dishonored tradition of stealing signs in baseball, the iconic skyways of my own Twin Cities, and the story of the groundbreaking woman architect who designed Hearst Castle. Roman would have to fuck up pretty bad to lose me. He hasn’t so far.
YOU’RE DEAD TO ME
Another returnee from last year, You’re Dead to Me once billed itself as “the history podcast for people who don’t like history”. I think that’s selling it short. I suspect there’s a middle ground between ignorance and searching for primary, Arabic-language sources about the bathroom habits of Ibn Battuta. Host Greg Jenner does a good job at balancing discussion between the guest historian and guest comedian, and the show’s field of topics is broad enough that even armchair historians can find something they know nothing about.
RAISIN D’OR: THE LAZARUS HEIST
North Korea is a wild place. The country has a recent history of frequent famine, but somehow its government manages to maintain a nuclear weapons program, the fourth largest standing army on Earth (just behind the United States and well ahead of Russia), and enough luxury shipments to satisfy the ruling Kim dynasty’s passion for bling. Compared to its southern neighbor, North Korea’s economy is weak and painfully reliant on Cold War-era technology. So how does the country make enough money to support its military machine? I’ve written about the government’s involvement in the international meth trade. That’s part of it. Another, growing, component? State-supported hackers sic’ed on major international financial institutions. The Lazarus Heist is the story of how the North Korean hacker gang that took down Sony for The Interview went on to complete the largest digital bank robbery of all time, winning billions in a scheme spanning five countries, winding from banks to cyber cafés to casinos, and ending at the Kim doorstep in Pyongyang. I found it riveting enough to ignore the nuclear blast siren the show’s producers picked for a transition sound. The Lazarus Effect reminds us that, even in 2021, Japan, Brazil, and Florida can take a step back — North Korea remains the king of tales stranger than fiction.
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Read the rest of my favorites here.