Did the CIA write a hair-metal ballad to help end the Cold War? Does Beyoncé’s 2016 album Lemonade embody German composer Richard Wagner’s concept of a gesamtkunstwerk, or “total work of art”?
Music podcasts ponder big questions like these. But mostly they explore and contextualize the music, making you want to go back and listen again with fresh ears.
Summertime is a good time to catch up on some. Or were you still planning to read Moby-Dick?
The 10 podcasts here will broaden your perspective in informative ways, much like the notes once found on the back of LPs or in CD booklets. Indeed, the Broken Record podcast, featuring musician interviews conducted by Rick Rubin and Malcolm Gladwell, is subtitled “liner notes for the digital age.”
Say Nothing, Patrick Radden Keefe’s 2019 book about the troubles in Northern Ireland, is a masterwork of investigative reporting and tense, suspenseful storytelling. Keefe’s new project seems daft in comparison, but also turns out to be brilliant.
In this podcast, the New Yorker journalist digs into a years-old rumor that “Wind of Change,” the 1990 song by the German hard-rock band Scorpions, was actually written by the CIA.
The song — by the band best known in the United States for “Rock You Like a Hurricane” — was an enormous hit around the world, particularly behind the Iron Curtain at a time when Western pop music was outlawed. The notion that the American spy agency had anything to do with it seems ridiculous.
That is, until Keefe explores the various ways the U.S. employed popular culture in “soft power” attempts to win over hearts and minds in a global battle with the Soviet Union. Once you hear tales of Louis Armstrong being employed by the State Department as an international emissary for American culture and Nina Simone going on an African tour that — unbeknownst to her — was secretly funded by the CIA, the idea of spies dabbling in heavy metal doesn’t seem so absurd. Listen on Spotify.
Cole Cuchna makes other deep divers seem like surface skimmers. Each season of Dissect — which won a music podcast Webby award this week — has focused exclusively on a landmark hip-hop album, one song per episode.
Dissect aims to be a slowed-down corrective to “the infinite swath of content that seems to replenish without end.” It takes its time, “because great art deserves more than a swipe.”
Previous seasons focused on Kanye West and Kendrick Lamar. This year, Cuchna is getting serious about Lemonade, Beyoncé’s “ambitious synthesis of film, poetry, and music” that he argues measures up in every way to Wagner’s medium-melding “total work of art” concept. Titi Shodiya, of the podcast Dope Labs, joins him as cohost. Listen at dissectpodcast.com.
So of course he’s also been podcasting. Working with a team that includes Laiya St. Clair — also cohost of Visit Philadelphia’s Love + Grit podcast — Questo has hosted guestos including John Legend, Broad City’s Ilana Glazer, and “Lean Back” rapper Fat Joe. New episodes arrive every Wednesday on Pandora.
Hrishikesh Hirway’s podcast is a precise enterprise. Episodes focus on a single song, broken down into constituent parts and explained from inspiration to execution by the artists. At episode’s end, the song is played in its entirety.
Song Exploders arrives twice monthly, with recent guests Soccer Mommy, Meek Mill, FKA Twigs, Vagabon, and Tame Impala. The latest episodes demonstrate Hirway’s range, with British singer-songwriter Laura Marling’s “Song for Our Daughter” and electro-noise duo 100 Gecs’ “money machine.” At SongExploder.net.
This podcast’s origins date back a wee bit farther than the rest: Desert Island Discs first aired on BBC radio in 1942. Since then, the format has remained the same: Each guest talks about eight recordings they would bring along when stranded, like Tom Hanks in Cast Away.
Episodes with Annie Lennox, Bruce Springsteen, Thom Yorke, Daniel Radcliffe, John McEnroe, Ed Sheeran, and writers Caitlin Moran and Kate Atkinson are archived. An in-depth interview with The Wire actor Wendell Pierce tells his life story, from Funkadelic’s “One Nation Under a Groove” to Solomon Burke’s “Don’t Give Up on Me,” demonstrating just how good DID can be. At bbc.co.uk.
Jake Brennan’s Disgraceland interests itself in the intersection of music with crime and scandal. From why Jerry Lee Lewis is known as “The Killer” to Ozzy Osbourne’s bird biting, there’s plenty of ground to cover.
In March, Brennan posted what turned out to be a timely Little Richard episode, subtitled “Sex and the Duality of the King and Queen of Rock ‘N’ Roll.” The latest episode is about Los Angeles rapper Nipsey Hussle, who was slain in 2019. It includes an anecdote about the importance to Hussle’s career of the $100 cheesesteak sold at Philadelphia restaurateur Stephen Starr’s Barclay Prime. At Disgracelandpod.com.
With both Tipping Point author Gladwell and record producer Rubin — known for his work with LL Cool J, Run-DMC, and Johnny Cash — Broken Record attracts big names. Recent guests include Alicia Keys, Tame Impala, Bob Weir of the Grateful Dead, Questlove, rap duo Run the Jewels, and jazz composer Esperanza Spalding. In the latest show, Rubin has a revealing tete-a-tete with Southern songwriter Jason Isbell. Brokenrecordpodcast.com.
Hosted by writers Jordan Runtagh and Steven Hyden, Rivals has fun with pop music battle royals, whether they be celebrity beefs like Kanye West vs. Taylor Swift or bandmate battles like John Lennon squaring off with Paul McCartney. Uncle Tupelo associates Jeff Tweedy and Jay Farrar have been Rivals fodder, too, going their own ways with Wilco and Son Volt. To go deeper, read Hyden’s Your Favorite Band Is Killing Me. On iheart.com.
The first two seasons of Slate’s Slow Burn podcast covered Richard Nixon’s Watergate and Bill Clinton’s impeachment. The third examines another late-20th-century conflict of historical importance: the rivalry of rappers Tupac Shakur and Notorious B.I.G., who were shot to death in 1996 and 1997, in murders that remain officially unsolved. At Slate.com.
This Spotify podcast’s not-obvious choice for host is rapper Chuck D of Public Enemy. When PE got its start, Def Jam record executive Bill Stephney’s aim was for the group to be an American hip-hop equivalent of the passionately political British punks. I didn’t learn much from this podcast that I didn’t already know about my favorite band of all time, but it offers a fresh perspective for initiates. On Spotify.