Hello! So here’s something I’ve never reviewed before: podcasts! I’ve been fairly late to the podcast game, not getting into them until late 2014 but then devouring them by the score over last year. I’ve decided to share my favourite podcasts here, perhaps at the start of each month, and give you a brief precis of what they’re about. Some you’ll have heard of before, others perhaps not. So, let’s crack on with the first four.

podcast 1Podcast: Thinking Sideways
Number of Episodes: 150+
Release: Every Thursday

Thinking Sideways is a newer podcast for me and it specialises in tales of the unexplained. Basically, wherever there’s an unanswered question or a mystery that has never been solved, this podcast will step in, give you the facts and try to come to a conclusion that explains the puzzle. The hosts are Steve, Devin and Joe, three smart and funny (the best descriptors for a podcaster, I find) Americans who claim to have no formal training in investigation, but are simply interested in the world. I confess that I haven’t listened to many of the episodes yet, but what I’ve heard so far is brilliant. Each week, we are introduced to a new mystery and one of the team runs through all the facts we have about it, with the second half of the podcast dedicated to potential theories.

Episodes have covered everything from what happened to the Mary Celeste, where the Voynich Manuscript comes from and what it means, how the Max Headroom broadcast intrusion was achieved, the disappearance of Lord Lucan, and the suspicious deaths of Kurt Cobain and Princess Diana. Episode lengths range from twenty minutes to over two hours, although most are about an hour long. If there’s ever a question you’ve wanted answered, then this is the podcast for you.

If you want a flavour of the podcast without committing right away, the “Santa Claus” episode just a quarter of an hour long and gives you an idea of what to expect. I also highly recommend “Taman Shud”, about a man who was discovered dead on a beach with no identification and all the labels cut from his clothes, and, because it’s me, I also suggest “Agatha Christie Disappearance” for suggestions on what really happened to her.

podcast 2Podcast: The Allusionist
Number of Episodes: 35
Release: Fortnightly

This podcast is hosted by Helen Zaltzman, who most of you probably know better as one third of Answer Me This, a podcast I’ll cover another time. Helen is obsessed with language and grammar, and this podcast is her pet project to delve deeper into its murky waters and pull up something shiny. Each fortnight, she selects a topic related to language and explores its history and usage, and fills your brain with trivia you never knew you needed. Most episodes include an interview with someone related to whatever she’s discussing.

There’s an episode for everyone here, and they’re only ever 15-20 minutes long, but she packs so much into that short space of time. These are bite-sized nuggets of joy; both genuinely funny and genuinely interesting. Helen is potentially the only person who could make a discussion on the use of spaces between words interesting. Some particularly good episodes include: “The Writing on the Wall”, which talks about the display signs used next to objects in museums; “Crosswords”, which goes into detail on how to make a good crossword and how to write cryptic clues”; and “Toki Pona” in which she and guest Nate DiMeo try to learn one of the world’s smallest languages in just a few hours.

While usually light-hearted, a few episodes take on a more serious tone, such as “Pride”, which deals with the usage of that word in the LGBT community, or “Step Away”, which tries to argue for a better term than “step-parent”, which conjures up all the connotations Disney have imbued it with over the years. You can dip in and out of the series in any order; you’ll find yourself wanting to listen to them all anyway.

podcast 3Podcast: Stuff You Should Know
Number of Episodes: 800+
Release: Tuesday and Thursday

Have you ever wondered if lethal injection is really humane? Do you want to know who gets to name the continents? Do you have questions about pinball, maggots, werewolves, AIDS, collective hysteria, electricity or anything in between? Well, Stuff You Should Know has you covered. Josh and Chuck are on hand twice a week with a new topic that they’ve researched and want to tell you all about.

They are excellent hosts. Josh has a very soothing, sleepy voice that gives you the impression of a wise man imparting his knowledge interspersed with dry quips, and Chuck is there keeping him awake with more of his own facts and jokes. They can take any topic and make it interesting because, frankly, all topics are interesting. It’s going to be a long time before I make it through all the episodes, but the thirty or forty I’ve listened to so far have been wonderful. They’re great for commuting, as you feel your time isn’t wasted – you’re learning and becoming a better person all the time! To give you an example of the variety here, in the last month alone they released episodes about cats, labour strikes, the Big Bang, kin selection, tornadoes and lead. Episodes typically last half an hour to an hour.

It’s impossible really to suggest an episode to start with, so just think of a topic you’re interested in and have a rummage. If you do want to just dive in and try something at random, I suggest “What makes us yawn?”, “How Royalty Works” or “How Jim Henson Worked”. Their medical-based episodes are also particularly great.

podcast 4Podcast: Kraken
Number of Episodes: 100+
Release: Every Sunday

I always feel Kraken ought to be better known than it is. Hosted by four guys – Mazin, Craig, Joel and Ian – each week they take a topic and share their opinions on it, with the second half of the episode dedicated to a related question, in search of an answer or at least something sensible. The thing they discuss can be a film, a book, an article, a person, or something a bit more bizarre, but generally comes from the field of “culture, technology and that”.

The related questions are always interesting and bring up so many issues regarding things that aren’t even related, as well as those that are. This is a podcast that enjoys a tangent. Some examples of related things and questions include “Amy Winehouse / Do we kill our celebrities?”, “Game of Thrones / How far is too far?” and “Adventure Time / Are we becoming a culture of children?”. Sometimes they’re far more simplistic, such as, “Christmas / What do you want for Christmas?” or more recently, “Brexit / In or out?” There are also occasional episodes that have a twist, such as one in which they play Dungeons & Dragons while discussing games, or a recent episode about William Shakespeare which was recorded while in the audience of a play, a gimmick that treads the fine line between being hilarious and ambitious, to simply being impossibly rude. It leads to a very tense episode in which you wonder at what point they’re going to be thrown out of the theatre.

The four guys all have their own voices and opinions. Mazin seems the most level-headed but is plagued by strange dreams, which become the focus of an episode themselves at one point. Craig has given up on films entirely and doesn’t want anything to do with them anymore. Joel is obsessed with the power of stories and will throw this into the conversation whenever possible. And Ian usually hasn’t seen or read whatever they’re talking about, but if he has, will invariably deem it “alright”. Good episodes to start on are “London / What’s the worst thing about living in a city?” and “Swearing / Do words have power?” If you want to see just how strange it gets, look for the episode “A stick / Is this the greatest stick?” Later episodes are generally better than earlier ones – once they’ve established the template for an episode – but they’re all worth a go. Even if you don’t know about the topic they’re discussing, odds are it won’t matter. Soon they’ll be arguing that chicken should be free or plague pits are thrifty instead of racist. Just listen and laugh.

I’ll be back on this next month with four more podcasts.

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