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2021's standout podcasts feature personal stories, and plenty of surprises

TERRY GROSS, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. There were so many new podcasts this year, making it even more difficult to narrow down what to listen to, so it will be helpful to hear what podcast critic Nick Quah has to say about three of his favorite podcasts of the year. Here's Nick.

NICK QUAH: As I look back at the podcasts that most spoke to me in 2021, two qualities stood out - a sense of surprise and a keen interest in inner lives. Based on those two things, here are the three shows I'll remember from this year.

The most intriguing podcast from 2021 features an anonymous narrator and a title that can't be fully spoken on radio airwaves. I'll refer to it "S-hole Country," which, of course, takes its name from the infamous epithet once levied by former President Donald Trump against several nations. This nonfiction series follows a Ghanaian American woman living in California who calls herself Afia as she confronts a pivotal choice. She's been given the opportunity to start a new life in (unintelligible) Ghana, where her parents now live. And the chance prompts her to re-examine her place in the United States. The situation provokes some rich, thorny questions. What does the notion of a developing country actually mean? And what remains of the American promise anyway? The material makes for a potentially heavy memoir. But working together with the producer Mark Pagan, Afia moves the story along with a bounce, backed by shrewd observation and sparkling sound design.

(SOUNDBITE OF PODCAST, "S***HOLE COUNTRY")

AFIA KAAKYIRE: What is there for you in America, Maame Afia? Hmm? She laughs. Her silver earrings and bracelets jangle merrily. Scratch that - menacingly.

(SOUNDBITE OF BELLS RINGING)

KAAKYIRE: I should have known. When I first graduated from college and moved out to Philly for a job, my parents happily offered to drive. And as they headed back, they happily handed me the receipts for their gas and tolls. She's just so good at this. A minute ago, we were celebrating.

QUAH: The anonymous narrator is an underused device in podcasting. And "S-hole Country" leans on it for a crucial reason. Afia's story involves a reveal late in the series that relates to her actual identity, one that reframes the entire story that came before it. I'll hold the details. But rest assured, like everything else in this production, it's done with purpose and with power.

Seth Rogen is far from anything resembling an anonymous narrator. But in many ways, his podcast, "Storytime With Seth Rogen" shares "S-hole Country's" capacity for surprise. Celebrity podcasts are as common as traffic lights these days. But "Storytime" stands out. Not only is it a good time, it can be transcendental. On paper, the premise seems familiar. In each episode, Rogen interviews a different guest - mostly celebrities, but not always - with the aim of drawing out an entertaining story from their lives. But it is in the execution that "Storytime" reaches for a higher level. Collaborating with Richard Parks III, a producer known for his eccentric sound and sensibility, Rogen builds on the idea that every story has the largest possible stakes for the person telling it, whether it's a tale about a bear attack or something as banal as a joke gone wrong. To convey this, the show blows its guests' stories up into the most elaborate terms possible, as they do in this clip featuring the comedian Quinta Brunson, recounting a fateful date at a screening of Quentin Tarantino's "Inglourious Basterds."

(SOUNDBITE OF PODCAST, "STORYTIME WITH SETH ROGEN")

SETH ROGEN: The movie starts.

QUINTA BRUNSON: It starts with a scalping.

ROGEN: Quinta is spinning [expletive] out.

BRUNSON: 'Cause I hate blood, and I hate gore.

ROGEN: There's Octavius (ph), sitting beside her, not liking comedy, loving "Inglorious Basterds." There's Paul Rudd mere feet away from her. There's Quinta watching Christoph Waltz murdering Jewish people, something she does not want to be seeing right now.

BRUNSON: I'm having a crisis, an existential crisis.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC, SCREAMING)

ROGEN: She doesn't know what to do. Why is this happening to her? Why is this happening?

QUAH: It's a lovely storytelling philosophy, but doing it well requires balance. Push too far and the whole thing can easily collapse into indulgence. But "Storytime" pulls it off more often than not. It's a show that internalizes the idea of taking other people's inner lives seriously. And it's definitely a podcast I won't be forgetting anytime soon.

Speaking of blowing things up, let's talk about the best podcast of the year. Many of the shows that stood out to me in 2021 were projects that felt singular to their creators, instruments that made me see the world exactly as they see it. No podcast did this better than "Aack Cast" by the comedian and writer Jamie Loftus. Equal parts cultural analysis and reportage, "Aack Cast" offers listeners a re-examination of "Cathy," the world-famous comic strip by Cathy Guisewite.

These days, the Cathy character tends to be remembered as much for her punchline, aack, as being a punchline for a certain kind of anti-feminism. Loftus doesn't believe this, arguing that the comic should be interpreted against the context of its history. Put simply, Cathy was a character who changed repeatedly as its creator navigated the many feminisms of her lifetime. Loftus' arguments for "Cathy" are compelling, but the larger achievement in "Aack Cast" is the way in which she makes them. The podcast is an anarchic work - loud and messy and fun, the creation of someone who brings to the game a cheerful disregard for the rules.

(SOUNDBITE OF PODCAST, "AACK CAST")

JAMIE LOFTUS: At her peak, the Cathy character was as loved by her fans for being terminally stressed out and overextended as she was hated by her detractors for being cringey. And I'm here to tell you that these haters, these detractors simply have not read enough "Cathy" comics. Are you going to believe Carrie Bradshaw - rich coming from her, by the way - she's a literal "Cathy" comic - over someone who spent the entire spring of 2021 reading thousands of aacks, two feminist movement worth of aacks, seven full presidencies worth of aacks? Listener, I ask you, because I have read every single "Cathy" comic, and I really like to talk to people about it.

QUAH: There are very few podcast-makers today who feel quite as creatively liberated as Loftus. For that reason alone, she sounds to me like the future of this medium, and that prospect is thoroughly exciting. Constantly teetering between chaos and order, what's specifically interesting about "Aack Cast" is that you get the sense there's a very thin line separating what you're hearing in the podcast and what it's actually like in her head. There are very few podcast-makers today who feel quite as creatively liberated as Loftus. For that reason alone, she sounds to me like the future of this medium, and that prospect is thoroughly exciting.

GROSS: Nick Quah is podcast critic for New York Magazine and Vulture.

Tomorrow on FRESH AIR, we remember Archbishop Desmond Tutu of South Africa. He died Sunday at age 90. We'll hear a 1984 interview with him when he was fighting against apartheid, advocating nonviolence - that's the year he won the Nobel Peace Prize - and an interview post-apartheid in 1999 about chairing South Africa's Truth and Reconciliation Commission. I hope you'll join us.

(SOUNDBITE OF ABDULLAH IBRAHIM'S "YOU CAN'T STOP ME NOW")

GROSS: FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham. Thea Chaloner directed today's show. I'm Terry Gross.

(SOUNDBITE OF ABDULLAH IBRAHIM'S "YOU CAN'T STOP ME NOW") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.