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2016's best music podcasts

Holly Gordon

In 2016, if someone asks for a podcast suggestion and you say This American Life, then you're not taking the question seriously.

No offence to Ira Glass and his A+ team over at WBEZ, but most people on the podcast hunt have already found that one themselves. So what next? For our list of 2016's best music podcasts, we went to Podcast Playlist, CBC Radio One's home for podcast lovers, a show that broadcasts the best content from the podcast world.

Co-host Lindsay Michael and associate producer Kate Evans jumped right in, with members of the CBC Music team, to single out our very favourite music podcasts of the year — whether the podcast is itself about music, or a musically tone-less podcast with a music episode. Below, the best 2016 had to offer.

Note: Radio 3's podcast is not in the list below, but you should absolutely check it out. And look for next week's episode, on the best Canadian indie songs of 2016, right here.

Twenty Thousand Hertz, ‘NBC Chimes’

There’s the music that you go to when you want to make yourself move, fill a room or change your mood. And then there’s the music that comes to you, unrequested but altogether necessary. The music in the sounds of everyday life is the basis of the new podcast Twenty Thousand Hertz. Tightly produced, sonically stimulating and delightfully granular, Twenty Thousand Hertz seeks to tell "the stories behind the world’s most recognizable and interesting sounds" and, by extention, songs. For example, who among us doesn’t recognize G-E-C, otherwise known as the NBC chimes? In fewer than 15 minutes you get the origins of the chimes, their cultural significance, a story about the secret "fourth chime," and hear from the last person to ever play them on the NBC radio network.

— Judith Lynch (@CBCJudith)


Song Exploder

Song Exploder is the classic music nerd podcast. Charming genius Hrishikesh Hirway breaks down a song track by track and interviews the musician about their songwriting process. Hirway eventually puts all of the pieces together to create the finished track.

As a music nerd and former Montrealer, the Grimes episode of Song Exploder made my life. Hearing the complex parts of Grimes's “Kill V. Maim” came together, pulling the curtain aside to see how actual magic is made.

— Lindsay Michael, co-host of Podcast Playlist


Switched on Pop

This podcast from musicologist Nate Sloan and musician Charlie Harding looks at the “making and meaning” of popular music. I was a fan before I appeared on the show in this episode that grapples with feminism and pop, and the hosts are wonderfully geeky about all things related to pop music, which I love. But also? They are aware of their own privilege and when wanting to explore something like feminism and music, they invited feminist writers and music critics on the show, asked questions and listened to our answers. I really appreciate allyship in practice as opposed to theory. I also love arguing with them in my head about Taylor Swift or feeling super vindicated when they agree with me about some complaint I have that’s ultra-specific or a little petty. Plus, it’s academic-ish but still fun, so you’ll walk away feeling a little bit smarter and entertained.

— Andrea Warner (@_AndreaWarner), co-host of Pop This! podcast


Revisionist History (‘Hallelujah’)

Malcolm Gladwell’s Revisionist History argues that “sometimes the past deserves a second chance.” In this music-based episode, that past is the kismet-fuelled history of Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah,” which had to be rejected, revamped and rediscovered before it found its rightful place in music history. Couched in the Tipping Point author’s quest for rediscovering an Elvis Costello song, Gladwell traces “Hallelujah”’s unlikely route to canon-hood through happenstance and untimely death, ultimately giving equal credit to the Velvet Underground’s John Cale as the more popular versions by Cohen and Jeff Buckley. The podcast led me to track down Cale for his take, which you can read here.

— Jonathan Dekel (@jondekel)

Listen to Revisionist History’s “Hallelujah” episode here.

Microphone Check

In one of this year's Microphone Check episodes, hosts Frannie Kelley and Tribe Called Quest’s Ali Shaheed Muhammad interviewed music industry veteran Sophia Chang. Chang has managed hip-hop royalty including ODB, D’Angelo and Tribe Called Quest. In this episode she shares some unreal stories, including the time she took RZA to the Shaolin Temple in China.

— Kate Evans, associate producer for Podcast Playlist


The Talkhouse Music Podcast

While it’s nice to hear music journalists get in-depth with musicians, no one gets closer to a musical subject like another musical subject. The Talkhouse is a hub for artists to talk to other artists, and to talk about their work. From musicians reviewing another band’s latest release to sitting two artists in one room to do longform interviews, the Talkhouse has created a space for us to learn more about our favourite artists’ tastes and opinions.

The Talkhouse’s podcast, in particular, is where we’ll find some of the most fascinating conversations between creatives, and sometimes they can be quite the unlikely pairing: Wyclef Jean and Arcade Fire’s Will Butler break into song together a few times throughout their 42-minute chat; Carly Rae Jepsen sneaks in a quick question for Brian Wilson at Pitchfork Music Festival; and in one of the most delightful chats of the year, the Julie Ruin’s Kathleen Hanna and Perfect Pussy’s Meredith Graves trade compliments and stories of punk and sexism in a store in New York City.

— Melody Lau (@melodylamb)


Kreative Kontrol

Primarily a music podcast, Vish Khanna’s Kreative Kontrol is one of the strongest podcasts in Canada (we featured it on Podcast Playlist back in March). His interview with musician and artist Lido Pimienta is a standout of the year: inspirational, subversive and totally engaging. “I don’t feel like I sugar coat anything,” Pimienta tells Khanna. A perfect mantra for 2017. — KE

Listen to Vish Khanna’s episode with Lido Pimienta here.


Songonauts is awesomely oddball audio fiction from the makers of The Truth. It tells the story of a mediocre rock band that gets a break when a magical drum machine transports the band members intotheir songs. It’s co-created by Jonathan Mann, a musician who has been writing a new song a day since 2009. — KE

Listen to Songonauts here.

Soul Music (BBC Radio 4)

BBC's Soul Music is not about soul music as a genre, but rather how music touches the listener’s soul. This subtle podcast tells stories of the emotional impact of music through personal stories.

Each episode focuses on a well-known piece of music. Along with stories of how the music has touched audiences, it also gives often surprising origin stories of the creation of the piece itself. With a masterful mix of music and stories, this podcast can be beautiful and sometimes very moving.

I especially love this series because it features pop, soul, folk and classical pieces side by side. Always worth listening. — LM

Listen to Soul Music's episode that focuses on Mozart’s Requiem here.

Code Switch (Tupac episode)

Code Switch, in podcast form, was launched in May 2016, and has quickly become my favourite thing to listen to that is not music. It's an NPR show with the tagline "race and identity, remixed," and Code Switch's Sept. 14 episode on Tupac Shakur was 24 minutes of complicated feelings. Hosts Gene Demby (not a Tupac fan) and Shereen Marisol Meraji (100% a Tupac fan) chat with journalist Kevin Powell, who interviewed Tupac three times, including on Rikers Island when Tupac was incarcerated on sexual assault charges. Powell talks about Tupac's feminism ("Keep Your Head Up") in the context of his incarceration, as well as Tupac's fame in the context of not having dealt with his childhood traumas. Meraji asks, if Tupac would have died now instead of 20 years ago, would we revere him the same way? It's straightforward radio, and one of the most nuanced pieces on Tupac in a year that marks 20 since his death.

— Holly Gordon (@hollygowritely)


More to explore:

11 best new bands of 2016

Making Noise: 10 artists who shaped 2016

2016: in memoriam

CBC Radio 3's top 103 songs of 2016

25 best Canadian albums of the year