Music is more readily available now than at any time in history: If you subscribe to a streaming service, you can access pretty much everything that’s ever been recorded with a few taps on your phone or — even easier! — a command called out to whichever voice-activated assistant you’ve given permission to listen in on your life.
All that content, however, often arrives with a dearth of context: No liner notes, no credits, a disappearing music press that’s another casualty of the digital age. (Storied British music weekly the NME shuttered its print edition this month.) It’s frustrating for music nerds who feel the need to geek out on what they’re hearing.
Coming partially to the rescue are music podcasts, the best of which use the advantages of the medium to make shows that shine light on recordings and the careers of the artists who made them.
This list of music podcasts worth exploring was spurred by a top-notch new one that heads the list, Tyler Mahan Coe’s Cocaine & Rhinestones. A podcast cohost myself — I share billing with WXPN-FM (88.5) deejay Dan Reed on The Dan and Dan Music Podcast — I put together this list of 10 pods worthy of admiration that are packed with info and insight. All shows are available on iTunes, or whereever you get your podcasts.
Tyler Mahan Coe was born into the Outlaw Country business. His father is David Allan Coe, the oft-controversial singer who wrote the Johnny Paycheck hit “Take This Job and Shove It.” “Cocaine & Rhinestones” is dedicated to 20th-century country music, with episodes devoted to Merle Haggard, Wynonna Judd, Bobbie Gentry, Ernest Tubb, and Loretta Lynn’s 1975 feminist anthem “The Pill.”
In an age of sanitized pop pseudo-country, “Cocaine & Rhinestones” reflects a yearning for the genre’s down-and-dirty past, an urge that’s also reflected in Mike Judge’s animated Cinemax series Tales from the Tour Bus and “Outlaws & Armadillos,” the 1970s exhibit that opens at the Country Music Hall ff Fame in Nashville in May.
Coe’s intense delivery can get grating over the long haul — and “C&R” is long, with two-hour-plus episodes devoted to Buck Owens and his guitarist Don Rich. But he’s an expert storyteller, skilled at separating myth from reality. “If I didn’t make “Cocaine & Rhinestones,” it was never going to exist, and I couldn’t bear the thought of that,” he writes. “Cocaine & Rhinestones” burns with that kind of passion.
The deepest of dives. In last year’s first season, host Cole Cuchna spent 22 episodes analyzing Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp a Butterfly. Season Two approaches Kanye West’s 2010 album My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy with a similar sense of purpose. As Cuchna, a hip-hop-loving musician with classical training, puts it in his mission statement: “We’ve quickly become a scrolling culture, hurriedly swiping through this infinite swath of content that seems to replenish without end. “Dissect” was created to counter this cultural shift … because great art deserves more than a swipe.” Think rap music doesn’t make for great art? After spending time with “Dissect,” you’ll likely think differently.
Hosted by Uproxx critic and Your Favorite Band is Killing Me author Steven Hyden, “Celebration Rock” typically focuses on a new release by chopping it up with another critic or with the artists themselves — the current episode features an interview with Led Zep golden god Robert Plant. (Full disclosure: I was on the show last year, talking about the War on Drugs’ A Deeper Understanding.) This month, Hyden did a series of pods examining Bruce Springsteen’s first nine albums, with songwriter guests like Julien Baker, Phoebe Bridgers and Tim Showalter of Philly band Strand of Oaks offering their assessments.
Hrishikesh Hirway’s precise, exacting pod deconstructs pop songs and movie and TV music with detail-oriented interviews with music-makers, including an impressive array of A-listers, such as Bjork, U2, and Ghostface Killah. The show’s range is demonstrated by its most recent episodes: a talk with Ludwig Göransson, the composer for Ryan Coogler’s Black Panther, about “Killmonger,” the theme music for the villain played by Michael B. Jordan; a deconstruction of Natalie Prass’ terrific indie disco track “Short Court Style”; and a breakdown of the theme music for the New York Times’ news show the Daily.
Hosted by North Jersey rapper N.O.R.E. (formerly Noreaga) and his partner DJ EFN, “Drink Champs” is the hip-hop cousin of Comedy Central’s Drunk History. Each week, the duo and a guest gather at a round table crowded with a prodigious amount of booze and interrogate their colleagues while indulging in the spirits spread out before them. The lips get looser as the shows go on, with guests like LL Cool J, Fat Joe, Big Daddy Kane, the Wu Tang Clan, and Amber Rose. Some shows, like the Swizz Beats episode, last more than three hours.
Questlove calls it “The Inside the Actors Studio for music.” The hosts may not be as memorable as James Lipton — or James Lipton as impersonated by Will Ferrell — but the concept is the same. An artist of note is interviewed live on stage about his or her body of work. I prefer in-studio interviews in which musicians aren’t as conscious of performing for an audience, but the list of compelling guests is impressive, including George Clinton, Alice Bag, Debbie Harry and Chris Stein of Blondie, Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis and Iggy Pop.
This pod lets artists talk to one another. These shows get interdisciplinary and often mix music with movies or food or film, or eliminate music from the equation altogether. Inspired pairings have included Questlove with Carrie Brownstein and Courtney Barnett with Julia Shapiro of Chastity Belt. The pitfall can be too much mutual-admiration conversation. “I think your art is awesome”; “Not as awesome as I think yours is!” But the unfiltered approach often pays dividends.
This BBC Radio 4 podcast defines itself as “a series about pieces of music with a powerful emotional impact.” So it’s not just Sam Cooke’s “A Change is Gonna Come,” but also Bach’s Cello Suite No. 1 in G Major and “The Star Spangled Banner.” The episode on the late British folksinger Sandy Denny’s “Who Knows Where the Times Goes?” includes input from singers Rufus Wainwright, Judy Collins, and Nina Simone, as well as producer Joe Boyd and neuroscientist David Eagleman (trying to literally answer the song’s question). Beautifully done.
Similar to “Song Exploder,” but with two bantering hosts — Fordham University music professor Nate Sloan and musician Charlie Harding — sometimes joined by a guest, as on the discussion of Janelle Monae’s single “Make Me Feel” with “Good as Hell” singer Lizzo. (Who, by the way, also has her own Spotify empowering podcast called “Good as Hell.”) “Switched on Pop” excels at showing how contemporary pop is made and why it makes you feel the way it does.
Yacht Rock: That’s the 1970s and ’80s soft-rock style of champagne-sipping music epitomized by Kenny Loggins, Michael McDonald, and Christopher Cross. The genre was celebrated and satirized in a mid-00s online video series created by J.D. Ryznar. That show — stick with me here — led to the “Beyond Yacht Rock” podcast in which Ryznar and pals compile playlists for imaginary genres they create, such as Nu-Wop, which mashes up Huey Lewis and other others influenced by ’50s doo-wop. It sounds nerdy and it is, but isn’t that what music podcasts are supposed to be?