An eclectic list of the podcasts we loved in 2020
A year like this needed some joy. Here are the listens that brightened our days.
This year was, as you know, a lot. Our podcast-obsessed team needed podcasts to lift our spirits, to keep us informed, and to help us cope. You might notice our list has a bit of a different tone this year — we've compiled shows that really spoke to us and brought us joy. Sure, some of it is critically acclaimed, serious stuff, but all of it we'd happily rant about to our friends in the group chat. In no particular order, we've included our favourite new releases, as well as returning or ongoing shows whose work in 2020 stood out to us.
Screen Drafts is a show where they draft movies like a sports draft. And there are categories for each draft. So, they could gather around and say for example, "What is the best Ted Danson show?" And we go around in a circle and I pick The Good Place, and you pick Cheers and so on and so forth. But the episode I want to highlight is the episode where they gathered to do the ultimate draft of all Pixar movies.
When I saw this float across my social media, I saw that the runtime was six hours and 10 minutes. And I was like, "What!? I don't have time for this!" And let me tell you, by the second day I was on hour five. It's everything that I love. The thing that is magical to me is the level of commitment that they have...it's exciting to me. Their passion and their excitement is palpable. So much joy.
- Elamin Abdelmahmoud, Host
You're Wrong About: How do I love thee? Let me count the ways…
In each episode, hosts Michael Hobbes and Sarah Marshall help listeners "reconsider a person or event that's been miscast in the public imagination." And wow, are they good at it.
I am so smitten with this podcast. It is truly so refreshing to listen to something from the "Did you know?" genre of podcasting that is so well-researched. It's also hosted by two incredibly well-read and thoughtful people. I leave each episode feeling like I've learned something about the human condition. It's really fascinating (and often disturbing) to see how often history repeats itself and how damn frequently the media (Hi!) gets things completely wrong. Sometimes you just need the hindsight of time to bring that perspective. I'm so thankful to Michael and Sarah for bringing that hindsight with this show. Listen. You will be hooked.
- Kate Evans, Senior Producer
This was my favourite podcast from the 2016 election, because their idea of betting on different election outcomes was a kind of lighthearted take on a pretty dark election. But their podcast from the day after Donald Trump won is one of the saddest episodes of any podcast I've heard.
So I was interested in how they would take on this election. This year, they were much more guarded and were betting on Joe Biden in just about every area of the race, in a "power of positive thinking"/The Secret kind of strategy. It felt like a really great reflection of how following politics had changed, so much more so than any straightforward news/politics podcast ever could.
- Josh Flear, Associate Producer
A really weird year needs a really weird hero. Who would have thought it would be Marvel actor Jeremy Renner? I'm glad I got to bask in The Renner Files' absurdity while the world grappled with some way scarier weirdness. In a pseudo-true crime style, hosts Sarah Ramos and Caroline Goldfarb investigate: who is Jeremy Renner? Why did he have a self-titled social media app made for his fans? And why did that app descend into chaos and have to be shut down? The mysteries unravel through witty narration and dramatic quote reenactments. If you like celebrity gossip, a good laugh, and a heaping side of utter chaos, this one's for you. Bonus points for a catchy little theme song and a cameo from Schitt's Creek's Dustin Milligan.
- Elena Hudgins Lyle, Associate Producer
This year I turned to fiction podcasts for a sense of escape. Of all the ones I binged this year Borrasca is at the very top of my list. The story begins the summer that Sam Walker and his family move to Drisking, Missouri. But as Sam begins to settle in, the other kids at school make sure to fill him in on the town's local lore – stories of Skinned Men, the Shiny Gentlemen, and why screams can be heard from the mountains throughout town. When people start to disappear with no explanation, including Sam's sister Whitney, Sam starts to wonder if the urban legends are true. With the help of his friends Kyle and Kimber, he sets out to find Borrasca. The podcast was created by The Haunting of Hill House/Bly Manor writer Rebecca Klingel and it's produced by and stars Cole Sprouse (Riverdale, Five Feet Apart), so you know you're in good hands. The world of Borrasca is immersive, sonically rich and suspenseful, and the story ends with a brilliantly chilling payoff. Seriously, it's terrifying. I still get goosebumps just thinking about it.
-Kelsey Cueva, Associate Producer
This is the type of investigative podcast that really scratches the "true crime" itch, for people who like that genre, without being about anything gruesome. Host Josh Bloch (who you may remember from Uncover: Escaping NXIVM) explores tough-love programs for teens. The podcast uses one family's search for their lost son as a jumping off point. From there we learn not only the history of this trend, but more importantly, why parents would send their kids off in the first place. The show says a lot about our misunderstandings about teenagers. Even though we were all teens once, generational and cultural differences can lead to a lot of irrational fear being projected onto the teens in our lives. This one is a must-listen.
There's something about hearing passionate people talk about the things they love that's super uplifting. Enthusiast! is an easily bingeable series for those who love a good geek-out session. From fish sauce to duct tape, this podcast highlights folks who are enthusiastic over just about everything under the sun. Listening so far has taught me about the medicinal uses of apples, how to achieve the right acoustics in a concert hall, and the difference between my sun and moon sign. Having spent most of the year at home, opportunities to meet new people have been few and far between. Enthusiast! is one of the few things that comes close to capturing that same magic of getting to know someone, and the things they love, for the first time.
"Systemic" was such a 2020 buzzword, for good reason. Conversations about racism had us looking beyond individual acts of hate. This show changed my perspective a good deal. It chronicles the cyclical history of segregation in New York City public schools — the well-meaning white parents who didn't sustain efforts to desegregate, and the governments who would only study the problem over and over again. Chana Joffe-Walt's reporting goes deep into stories past and present, all part of the same greater narrative. The ending is hopeful without pulling punches. It's also beautifully produced (as you'd expect from the team behind Serial), with fantastic original music. I hope it can encourage us white listeners to think about what it really means to resist complicity in systems that benefit us.
This is the podcast I have been listening to the most this year. It's generally about music theory, so it's a topic that could absolutely be dry. But the host, Kirk Hamilton, looks at (mostly) popular songs and shows you how the choices of chords work with the melody, or how certain production techniques end up sounding. Plus, his excitement about the topic comes across in every episode.
Season 3 of The Two Princes came out this fall and it's a gosh darn musical. Need I say more? After saving the world twice, Prince Rupert and Prince Amir are ready to tie the knot – and nothing is going to stop them this time! Not the handsome new prince who rolls into town on a mission to win Rupert's heart. Not the sudden disappearance of half of the kingdom's population. And definitely not the end of the world... right?
The Two Princes is made up of a cast of majority queer characters who, between fighting off foes and defending their kingdom, are just looking to belong. After three seasons I have such a soft spot for this podcast, and as a former theatre kid, the musical aspect of this season really drives things home for me. While the theatre industry may have taken a hit this year, The Two Princes offers up a healthy dose of adventure, whimsy and escapism, and allows you to enjoy a musical from anywhere. Oh yeah, did I mention it's a musical?
The Empty Bowl is a cereal podcast and it's absolutely the chillest sound in the world. Justin McElroy and Dan Goubert speak in low, soft voices about their favourite new cereals and each episode starts and ends with the sound of waves and singing bowls. I really think it lowers my blood pressure.
I had to save a space on this list to mourn one of my favourite podcasts of all time. Nancy released its final season in 2020. Hosted by queer besties Tobin Low and Kathy Tu, this show told stories from all across the LGBTQ+ world. Queer media is so often white and focused on gay men, but LGBTQ+ women, people of colour and trans folks got to shine here too. Stories ranged from tragic and powerful to light and fluffy, just like our real lives. This season alone had stories about kids who perform in drag, a long-lost gay micronation, and the life and times of a Black lesbian strip club. Just like the queer community, this podcast felt like home to me. Its emphasis on friendship and chosen family always brought me warmth. The whole Nancy team did such important work. Someone help me fill the hole in my heart!
The word "toxic masculinity" gets tossed around a lot these days. But when I think about all of the wonderful men in my life – I know they're not waking up in the morning hoping to spread their toxic vibes into the environment. The truth is, there just aren't a ton of spaces for men to be vulnerable and express emotions. I love Other Men Need Help and host Mark Pagán for creating space for a nuanced discussion about just that. And it's not just talk! Men taking accountability for the ways they uphold the status quo is a common theme. This show is indie, excellent and never boring.
Full disclosure: I played a small part in the making of this podcast (I helped with transcription), but even if I hadn't, I guarantee it would still be on this list. This Is Not A Drake Podcast is the first Canadian hip-hop pod of its kind. Truly, it's made by the culture, for the culture. Host Ty Harper – who's a Toronto hip-hop veteran in his own right – cleverly uses Drake's career as a launching pad to branch into broader conversations about hip-hop culture in Toronto. Episodes explore the Black-Canadian identity, the evolution of the mixtape, gender disparity in hip-hop, the fusion of R&B and hip-hop and why it's such a big deal, and we hear accounts of what it's really like to make it in the Screwface Capital (spoiler alert: we can be doing better to support our local artists). From HustleGRL, the creator of Drake's first fansite, to big names in music like Kardinal Offishall and k-Os, we hear from people all across the culture. This is Not a Drake Podcast is thoughtful, well produced, and everything you want in an audio essay. It serves up part critique of the Canadian media landscape (yes that includes us, the CBC) and part love letter to our city and the hip-hop artists who've shaped it.
The finale of this podcast came out the week before lockdown. It was framed as a documentary, and it's a pure podcast joke: host Justin McElroy calls it a "prestige podcast" and uses a kind of Serial-like tone. But it's also positive and exciting and is nice to look back on now.
Whenever I describe this show to someone, they laugh. Hosted by actor and comedian Connor Ratliff, the podcast tries to solve a very stupid mystery: "Why Tom Hanks fired [Connor] from a small role in the 2001 HBO mini-series, Band Of Brothers." Allegedly Mr. Hanks said Connor had "Dead Eyes." Ouch. The show is quirky and beautifully produced. It often strays from the very specific Hanksian mystery into talking about failure and rejection. Yes, actors get rejected on the daily. But it's a very human thing we can all relate to. Simply put: "Why don't you like me?" Vulnerability is a theme in all the podcasts I get attached to, from Why Won't You Date Me to Other Men Need Help. This medium does no-holds-barred honesty better than any other, and Dead Eyes is one of the best examples of that I've heard.
Appearances toes the line between truth and fiction, openly declaring in its prologue that it's not far off from creator Sharon Mashihi's real life (or in some cases, perhaps-real future life). At first glance, I thought this story might be pretty straightforward: Mashihi's character Melanie wants to become a mom. She reflects on her own upbringing on her way to getting there. As I listened, so many more layers revealed themselves. Certain moments stopped me in my tracks. I had to press pause to be able to process them the way they deserved. I found so much to relate to, even though I don't have much in common with Melanie. I was hesitant initially about Mashihi voicing Melanie's whole family and more, but it worked well and added a palpable intimacy. This show gives some real weight to the idea that fiction unveils the truth better than fact.
So far, this podcast has only 1 episode to date. But damn, what an episode. We are not the Virus is a podcast from the Encampment Support Network (ESN). ESN is an ad hoc group of people who started doing daily outreach to encampments around the city when the pandemic hit. In the first episode residents take host Aliya Pabani through life in the park. They share with her strategies for living in a pandemic without access to water. I sent this episode to a lot of people in my life who struggle to understand homelessness. As the podcast highlights, Toronto's encampments are a result of a decades-long housing crisis in the city. City representatives may be able to move the camps out of sight, but it doesn't address the needs of our communities. Not only does this podcast give a voice to extremely vulnerable and marginalized people, it inspires its listeners to take action.
Horror fans know that sometimes it's not the people who are evil, but the place. Parkdale Haunt was an equally frightening and fun listen, and its well-timed release made up for the lack of Halloween festivities this year. The story follows best friends Claire and Judith as they navigate the Toronto real estate market. When Claire inherits a house from extended family that she's never met, she and Judith set out to fix it up and record the process for a home reno podcast. But the more time they spend at the house, the more Claire's behaviour changes, eventually leading up to her disappearance. Parkdale is a neighbourhood in Toronto famous for its grand Victorian homes, making it the perfect setting for this gothic horror. All in all, this pod makes for a spooky good time. I give it two severed thumbs up. Listen, if you dare…
Look, call me biased, but even before we got to work with host Elamin Abdelmahmoud on our show, Party Lines was my pandemic guiding light. I had to take frequent breaks from daily news podcasts this year, because... you know. But Party Lines made the news and politics fascinating and funny. The kind of enthusiasm Rosemary Barton and Elamin have for things like federal budget updates lifts my spirits. Come for the policy analysis, stay for the pop culture references and relatable pandemic gripes. I always look forward to the weekly "Last Call" segment where Rosie bemoans not being able to go to a bar (and I groan in sympathy). I'm so glad this show made the transition from 2019 election limited series to weekly politics explainer so gracefully.
This show gets me more excited about music than just about anything else. You get such an honest, unpretentious look at the music making process that it makes you feel like maybe you could make music too.
There are certain episodes that I get really excited about (a recent episode covered Soccer Mommy's song "Circle the Drain") but I don't even really need to like the band to get sucked in.
Famous comedian/actor interview podcasts are a dime a dozen, but this one snuck its way into my heart this year. Canadian actor Will Arnett and his friends, Ozark's Jason Bateman and Will & Grace's Sean Hayes, trade off surprising each other with a mystery famous guest for them all to interview. Hilarity ensues. But also, you might get a lesson on voter suppression from Stacey Abrams. The idea is for the hosts to challenge themselves to learn about different walks of life. (As a big Leafs fan, I loved hearing Hayes out of his depth with Arnett's pal, NHL vet and Leafs president Brendan Shanahan: "Can I call you Shanny?") But sometimes the trio don't learn anything, they just goof off with Maya Rudolph — and hey, that's cool too. As with so many great comedy-driven shows, don't skip the ads on this one — they're so funny!
Maybe it's not the best human quality, but I find it's true: it's easier for us to connect to a broader issue when we can put a face to it – or in this case, a voice. Paradigm tells the personal stories behind the issues that define our world. It's a window into someone's life that lets us witness a larger story at the same time. A new producer shares their world each episode, giving the show a lot of breadth and variety. Whether it's grieving a medically-assisted death or facing racism in Ontario schools, the show shines a light on subjects we should be talking about. Audio is such an intimate medium that can foster such empathy, and I love seeing new shows like this one take advantage of that to inspire and challenge us.