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The 10 Best Podcasts of All Time: The Must-Listen Shortlist

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The 10 Best Podcasts of All Time: The Must-Listen Shortlist

Somehow, it’s almost the new year (again).

If you’re like us, you’re feeling that familiar urge to reorganize your life, set goals, and—of course—find new podcasts to listen to.

But with over two million and counting podcasts out there, it can be challenging to sort through the noise and find the very best shows. That’s why we’re here with our curated shortlist of the must-listen podcasts of all time

And if you’re a content creator, buckle in—we’re about to go on a masterclass tour of what it takes to create a podcast with both quality and staying power.

How We Determined the Best Podcasts Shortlist

Of course, we should establish this upfront: the term “best” is subjective. Does it refer to the most popular podcasts? Or is it that every person’s indefinable creativity and artistry is received differently?

We know “best” looks different to everyone. You have your favorites, and we have ours. 

In this article, we’re not trying to make any major statements on what constitutes the “greatest” podcasts across the board. And on the other hand, we won’t just regurgitate a list of the most-downloaded podcasts of 2021—but how boring would that be? 

Below, we’ll give you our shortlist of must-listen shows based on their quality production value, impressive ratings, and wide availability on every listening app (which means popular Spotify exclusives like The Joe Rogan Experience and podcasts from The Ringer are excluded from this list). 

We’ll show you what they’re about and what—at least, according to us—made them successful. Whether you’re just looking for a new podcast to try or you want inspiration for your show, we’ve got you.

Let’s dig in!

Best Podcasts of All Time 

1. This American Life

Best podcast this American life

Show summary from Apple Podcasts: This American Life is a weekly public radio show, heard by 2.2 million people on more than 500 stations. Another 2.5 million people download the weekly podcast. It is hosted by Ira Glass, produced in collaboration with Chicago Public Media, and delivered to PRX The Public Radio Exchange stations. It has won all of the major broadcasting awards.”

Apple Podcasts Rating: 4.6

Why you should care: This American Life is a crossover from radio to podcasts. You can still find the public radio program on NPR stations across the U.S., but the podcast edition is accessible anywhere you can download podcasts. 

The content is fully engrossing no matter the medium and keeps more than two million listeners coming back each week. The show pioneered narrative journalism, taking its listeners through various intriguing, heartwarming, and thought-provoking stories in each hour-long episode.

If you’re a podcaster considering the future of the medium—how necessary it will be to pivot to video podcasts, for instance—look no further than This American Life for inspiration. Its producers understand how to transition from an increasingly outdated medium (radio) to a newer one—with grace and agility. 

2. Dolly Parton’s America

Dolly Parton's America podcast

Show summary from Apple Podcasts: “In this intensely divided moment, one of the few things everyone still seems to agree on is Dolly Parton—but why? That simple question leads to a profoundly personal, historical, and musical rethinking of one of America’s great icons. Join us for a 9-episode journey into the Dollyverse. Hosted by Jad Abumrad.”

Apple Podcasts Rating: 4.7

Why you should care: This Peabody Award-winning show is a lesson in knowing when to tap into cultural moments. As Lindsay Zoladz of the New York Times puts it:

“Abumrad narrates from his position as a relative outsider to what he calls the Dollyverse, presenting “Dolly Parton’s America” with the aesthetic language of the modern podcast: snippets of interviews, tonally appropriate background music, and the inviting, conversational voice of a man guiding you through his thought process as he travels down various rabbit holes of his own curiosity.”

Jad Abumrad’s documentary-style exploration of one of America’s both enigmatic and universally popular figures, Dolly Parton, does a deep dive into this beloved figure in a moment when her popularity is resurging. 

3. WTF with Marc Maron

WTF with Marc Maron

Show summary from Apple Podcasts: “Marc Maron welcomes comedians, actors, directors, writers, authors, musicians, and folks from all walks of life to his home for amazingly revealing conversations. Marc's probing, comprehensive interview style allows guests to express themselves in ways listeners have never heard.”

Apple Podcasts Rating: 4.6

Why you should care: Marc Maron is a standup comic that brings his irreverent, hilarious, and cutting style to the audio interview format. There’s a reason you can always find this show on lists of the best comedy podcasts of all time!

Come for the exciting guests, stay for the thought-provoking conversations stirred up by Maron’s straightforward and unapologetically human interview style.

4. Reply All

Reply All Spotify podcast

Show summary from Apple Podcasts: ‘A podcast about the internet' that is an unfailingly original exploration of modern life and how to survive it.’ - The Guardian. Hosted by Alex Goldman and Emmanuel Dzotsi from Gimlet.” 

Apple Podcasts Rating: 4.7

Why you should care: This long-running show about internet culture covers wide-ranging topics that go beyond tech. Anything exciting or strange is fair game for the producers’ aggressive research skills and obsessive digging. The personable and hilarious interactions between the hosts make the show endlessly listenable. 

As James Marriott of The Times says, “You know your podcast is good when you fly to India to confront an annoying cold caller personally, and nobody even thinks that’s your best episode.”

Reply All faced some controversy earlier this year after allegations surfaced over the toxic workplace at Gimlet (Reply All’s parent company). After a brief pause and a reshuffling of hosts, the show is back with content that’s as fascinating as ever.

5. Stuff You Should Know

Stuff you should know podcast cover

Show summary from Apple Podcasts: “If you've ever wanted to know about champagne, satanism, the Stonewall Uprising, chaos theory, LSD, El Nino, true crime and Rosa Parks, then look no further. Josh and Chuck have you covered.”

Apple Podcasts Rating: 4.5

Why you should care: Chuck and Josh have been podcasting since the very beginning of podcasts. Stuff You Should Know has been going strong since 2008—and it’s a masterclass in longevity. 

What’s their secret? Chuck and Josh’s easy friendship is apparent in every second of every episode, and they manage to find the interesting and funny in any topic ranging from aliens to embalming. 

A podcast with staying power is one with the undeniable chemistry between the hosts, a reliable show structure, and (at least in this case) a healthy dose of the obscure and weird to laugh about.

6. The Daily

The Daily podcast show

Show summary from Apple Podcasts: “This is what the news should sound like. The biggest stories of our time, told by the best journalists in the world. Hosted by Michael Barbaro. Twenty minutes a day, five days a week, ready by 6 a.m.”

Apple Podcasts Rating: 4.4

Why you should care: With more and more podcast listeners looking for daily news updates they can consume during their commute, it’s no wonder The Daily is so popular. It’s the progenitor of the daily news podcast and gets over a million downloads every weekday. 

Hosted by New York Times journalist Michael Barbaro and produced beautifully, The Daily takes narrative storytelling principles and condenses them into a bite-sized, 20-minute package. Who says daily news podcasts need to feel dry or rushed?

7. Office Ladies

Office Ladies Podcast

Show summary from Apple Podcasts: “The Office co-stars and best friends, Jenna Fischer and Angela Kinsey are doing the ultimate The Office re-watch podcast for you. Each week Jenna and Angela will break down an episode of The Office and give exclusive behind-the-scenes stories that only two people who were there can tell you.”

Apple Podcasts Rating: 4.8

Why you should care: The fandom/rewatch podcast genre has exploded in recent years, with blockbuster shows like Binge Mode, The West Wing Weekly, and Fake Doctors, Real Friends as just the tip of the iceberg. 

But few have exploded in popularity quite like Office Ladies, where they rewatch the iconic U.S. version of The Office. 

Probably the key to this show’s success is in its hosts, Jenna Fischer and Angela Kinsey, who played Pam and Angela on the TV show and are best friends in real life. Their insider knowledge gives a deeper look into the beloved television show than never before, while their close friendship adds a fun quirkiness to each episode. 

Listening to The Office feels like chatting about your favorite show with your two best friends—who happen to have been there when it was filmed. A winning combo.

8. My Favorite Murder

My Favorite Murder top podcast

Show summary from Apple Podcasts: “Lifelong fans of true crime stories Karen Kilgariff and Georgia Hardstark tell each other their favorite tales of murder and hear hometown crime stories from friends and fans.”

Apple Podcasts Rating: 4.6

Why you should care: The true-crime podcast craze is undeniable, with countless true-crime podcasts out there. My Favorite Murder was one of the first podcasts in the genre that kicked off our cultural obsession with true crime. 

But unlike many of the other shows in the category, My Favorite Murder straddles the line between horror and comedy. 

Hosts Georgia and Karen infuse their investigations and storytelling with just the right amount of humor and down-to-earth discussions. They explore hometown stories with grit while avoiding the self-seriousness that other true-crime podcasters stumble into.

As a journalist and detective, Barney Doyle writes for the True Crime Files

My Favorite Murder is not quite horror. And it isn’t exactly a comedy either. My Favorite Murder is a narration of the thoughts of a community of people who are, like the show’s hosts, bravely confronting the wickedness of the world with an open mind, a sense of humor, and a proper perspective of what actually matters in these true crime stories.”

9. Hardcore History

hardcore history podcast

Show summary from Apple Podcasts: “In "Hardcore History," journalist and broadcaster Dan Carlin takes his "Martian," unorthodox way of thinking and applies it to the past. Was Alexander the Great as bad a person as Adolf Hitler? What would Apaches with modern weapons be like? Will our modern civilization ever fall like civilizations from past eras? This isn't academic history (and Carlin isn't a historian), but the podcast's unique blend of high drama, masterful narration, and Twilight Zone-style twists has entertained millions of listeners.”

Apple Podcasts Rating: 4.8

Why you should care: There are history podcasts, educational podcasts, and fiction podcasts. Dan Carlin’s Hardcore History is an ingenious combination of all three.

He delves deep into historical wars and events like World War I, Cesar’s Gallic Wars, and the rise of the Khans, narrating them with a gravelly, imaginative flair that keeps listeners glued to their earbuds. Named “America’s Best History Teacher” by Huffpost, Dan Carlin has figured out how to combine his passion for history with his knack for the dramatic. 

The lesson? Choose a topic you care about, paint a fascinating picture, and your listeners will keep coming back.

10. Serial

Serial podcast

Show summary from Apple Podcasts: “Serial is a podcast from Serial Productions, a New York Times company, hosted by Sarah Koenig. Serial unfolds one story—a true story—throughout a whole season. The show follows the plot and characters wherever they lead, through many surprising twists and turns. Sarah won't know what happens at the end of the story until she gets there, not long before you get there with her.”

Apple Podcasts Rating: 4.5

Why you should care: Often considered the best true-crime podcast of all time, Serial made history as the first podcast to reach five million downloads on iTunes (not to mention the first podcast to win the Peabody Award).

This investigative journalism podcast narrates a true crime story for a season. The kicker is that the host and investigator, Sarah Koenig, don’t know how the investigation will end until shortly before you do. 

If you’re a fan of the recent Hulu show Only Murders in the Building, you have Serial to thank—and you should check it out. And true crime podcasters can learn from Serial, too; incorporate as much mystery as possible, even for yourself, so that listeners feel the genuine narrative tension as you stagger towards the finish line.

Best Podcasts FAQs

What is the most downloaded podcast of all time?

According to the Edison Research Podcast Consumer Tracking Report, the top most downloaded podcast in the U.S. Q2 2021 was The Joe Rogan Experience. Here are their compiled list of the top 50 most listened-to podcasts based on download numbers: 

US Top 50 Best Podcasts

What is the best podcast on Spotify?

According to Spotify’s analytics, the five most popular podcasts in 2021 were The Joe Rogan Experience, Call her Daddy, Crime Junkie, TED Talks Daily, and The Daily.

Best Spotify podcasts globally

Who is the highest-paid podcaster?

According to Statista, Joe Rogan again takes the #1 slot for the highest-earning podcast host. My Favorite Murder closely follows him hosts Karen Kilgariff and Georgia Hardstark, Dave Ramsey of The Dave Ramsey Show, and Dax Shepherd of Armchair Expert.

Highest paid podcasters

The factors influencing a podcaster’s income include its popularity and brand partnerships. Even the podcasts with fewer download numbers can earn top numbers if they land quality sponsorship deals.

What is the greatest podcast of all time?

The greatest podcasts of all time range from news shows like The Daily to comedy interview podcasts like WTF with Marc Maron to true-crime thrillers like Serial. 

What you consider “the best” depends on your definition and your taste—but all the shows listed above have cracked a mystery or two about becoming widely popular phenomena. Any aspiring content creator can learn from them, and any podcast fan should probably add them to their to-listen list.


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