Almost 20 years on, the Iraq War is almost universally regarded as a massive failure: a brutal and unnecessary campaign by a reckless, hawkish White House more interested in securing Saddam Hussein’s oil reserves than his (non-existent, as it turned out) WMDs. Even back in 2003 a majority of people thought it was unjust and unjustified, prosecuted on the flimsiest of pretences (that Iraq was somehow responsible for 9/11) by people with no forethought for what might happen once Saddam was gone. And yet once the gears started to move, it was impossible for us to do anything to stop them.
This superb podcast presented by Noah Kulwin and Brendan James takes an honest, unflinching and surprisingly funny look at the background of the conflict, its major players and what the hell happened when the US, Great Britain and a host of allies invaded. Its irreverent approach makes a refreshing change from traditional media takes on the war, without diminishing any of its anger at the sheer tragic needlessness of it all.
The Sopranos is probably the greatest television series of all time, so 20 years after it first appeared on the screen it seems apt that it gets its own in-depth episode-by-episode podcast, presented by stars Michael Imperioli (who played Christopher Moltisanti) and Steve Schirippa (Bobby Baccalieri). The dynamic between the pair (who were supposed to be recording the podcast together, but have been forced to record remotely by COVID-19) makes this a light-hearted affair rather than academic-style breakdown of the show, in which their own reminiscences about fellow cast members and shoots add colour to their discussions of plot points, characters and subtext.
Anyone who loves The Sopranos will likely love this. But if you haven’t watched the show, go and do that first – this show is for fans rather than the uninitiated.
Wind of Change
Best for: Cold War and hair metal enthusiasts
The CIA has been behind all sorts of bizarre, outlandish and downright evil stuff over the past few decades. The US intelligence agency’s clandestine activities in Latin America alone would provide enough material for 20 podcast series – but this particular one doesn’t look at coups, assassinations and agitators: it focusses instead on a hit rock song and the tantalising rumour that it was actually written by the CIA.
Yes: according to agency insiders, German hair metal band The Scorpions’ famous power ballad “Wind of Change” was a psy-op engineered in Langley – part of a concerted propaganda operation to bring down the iron curtain, end the Cold War and banish communism from the world. Over eight episodes, journalist Patrick Radden Keefe talks to ex-spies, rock fans, pop stars and more in his efforts to uncover the truth. It’s a wild ride.
Best for: Internet culture casuals
To call this a technology podcast would be doing it an injustice. This, instead, is an ongoing series of incredibly fascinating human stories that involve technology in some way. Modern life is put under a microscope, exposing some of the parts of our technological world that we take for granted. What is on the other end of a telephone scammer’s line? How easy is it to hack someone? Where on Earth did Pepe come from? This is a gateway to internet and tech culture like no other.
Fall of Civilizations
Best for: history buffs
What’s the one thing all historical empires have in common? None of them are around anymore. From ancient Rome to the Mayans to the Han dynasty, every great civilisation has eventually fallen into ruin. Each episode of Paul Cooper’s podcast series – well researched, sharply written and impeccably produced – tells the story of a single society’s collapse: why it happened, how it happened and what it might have felt like to watch it all disintegrate.
The Catch and Kill Podcast
Best for: would-be investigators
The story behind journalist Ronan Farrow’s investigation into Harvey Weinstein’s history of sex crimes is full of incredible twists and turns, and it’s all detailed in this podcast (and Farrow’s book of the same name). This isn’t just about Weinstein, his crimes or his victims (although that’s all sensitively explored here), it’s about the means by which powerful members of our society hold sway over those they perceive as weak. Money, intimidation, blackmail and more – it’s all in the playbook, as Farrow himself found out when Weinstein’s “people” sent a bunch of shadowy private investigators to follow him around.
Pilot TV Podcast
Best for: TV binge watchers
Pilot is a small screen-focussed monthly from the people behind the long-running Empire movie magazine, and its weekly podcast is required listening for telly addicts. Its entertaining hosts look at new and upcoming releases, interview star guests and generally shoot the breeze about what’s going on in the world of quality television. And with so many different ways to watch these days, it’s great to get a few pointers from the experts.
Best for: the extremely online
Like any place where thousands of people gather, social media provides a fascinating insight into the breadth and depth of humanity. One moment you’re cursing Facebook’s existence as Uncle Keith clicks out yet another bit of questionable boomer bait into the ether, the next you’re howling with glee at someone else’s incredibly witty reply.
Blocked Party is a podcast that delves into the hilarious underbelly of social media culture, particularly that of Twitter. Each guest comes on to regale Canadian hosts John Cullen and Stefan Heck with their own Block Tale – the story behind them being blocked by a celebrity, brand or other social media heavyweight. If you find social media interesting in an of itself, Blocked Party provides a hilarious insight into how it’s turning us all crazy.
Best for: Food fanciers
POPPADOMS OR BREAD?! It’s one of the first questions that all guests are aggressively asked on Off Menu, the brilliantly entertaining food-based podcast hosted by comedians James Acaster (a genie here) and Ed Gamble. On each episode, a celebrity guest invited to an imaginary restaurant is asked to outline their dream meal, from the water on the table (still or sparkling) right up to dessert - and if you’ve ever tried to do something similar with friends, you’ll know how contentious it gets. You really get the full spectrum of grub love here: from Scroobius Pip’s tribute to Domino’s on the inaugural episode, to the predictably eclectic tastes of Jay Rayner, it’s always a good listen. Just don’t do so on an empty stomach.
The Missing Cryptoqueen
Best for: Mystery lovers
If you’re still not sure what blockchain is or how it could revolutionise finance, you’re not alone: thousands of people gleefully invested in the OneCoin cryptocurrency only for it to be unmasked as a Ponzi scheme that wasn’t even backed up by blockchain. This BBC-produced podcast tells not only the story of OneCoin’s rise and fall but that of its messianic founder and figurehead Ruja Ignatova, who conveniently disappeared before she could be arrested. Is she in hiding? Kidnapped? Dead? You’ll hear plenty of hair-curling stuff over the eight episodes.