[11 November 2010]
The Internet offers a plethora of options for those interested in reading insightful and relevant content about popular culture. But, sometimes you need to get your cultural fix while working out, cooking dinner, or sitting in traffic. The exhilarating world of podcasting opens up new opportunities for pop culture analysis in the relatively young medium. However, as is the case with the written word, it can often be difficult to separate the podcasting wheat from the chaff. For every intelligent and well-produced episode, there are hundreds of rambling, amateurish productions available for download on a daily basis. Here is a list of ten particularly rewarding podcasts covering the worlds of film, television, music, and literature. I always look forward to seeing new episodes of the following pop up on my iPhone:
#10: Film Junk
Although it took me a while to get into this podcast initially, it is now prominent in my regular rotation. Three movie fans from St. Catherines, Ontario talk weekly for a couple of hours about all aspects of the cinema, from movie news, to trailer trash, to reviews of new releases. While this podcast leans dangerously towards irrelevant rambling on occasion, the hosts are amusing enough that they are entertaining to listen to even when they talk about hockey or their collections of Star Wars memorabilia. The insights of documentary filmmaker and co-host Jay Cheel are of particular interest.
#9: New York Times Book Review
This podcast is the best I have found for keeping up with news from the universe of books. Editor Sam Tenenhaus conducts interviews with important contemporary authors. In addition, each episode contains a “Notes from the Field” segment in which Julian Bosman and Jennifer Schuessler discuss current trends in publishing as well as bestseller news. I’ve definitely discovered a good read or two from listening to this podcast.
#8: A.V. Talk
The A.V. Club, associated with The Onion, is one of the most comprehensive and intelligent sources for pop culture analysis today. Commentators like Scott Tobias and Kyle Ryan talk about the latest movies, television shows, and records. I particularly appreciate the variety on this podcast. One week you may hear a discussion of the new season of Mad Men, whereas the next week you’ll hear a debate about the merits of the new Arcade Fire album.
#7: New York Times Music Popcast
The Times music staff, including Jon Pareles, Ben Ratliff, Jon Caramanica, and Nate Chinen, review the latest musical releases, conduct artist interviews, and talk about trends in modern pop music. This podcast is notable for the depth of discussion about new CDs. The critics do an excellent job of covering music from several different cultural perspectives. Oftentimes the reviews of more controversial releases will feature more than one critic in dialogue about the merits and flaws of a particular record.
#6: IFC News Podcast
Alison Willmore and Matt Singer engage in a simultaneously casual and sophisticated conversation about movies. Don’t let the “independent” part of “IFC” fool you … they discuss more than just the latest arthouse flicks. In fact, the range of films discussed is one of the podcast’s great strengths. A recent episode, for instance, included banter about Stagecoach, Raging Bull, and Eraserhead. You never know exactly what direction the conversation will take. It’s enlightening and entertaining at the same time.
#5: NPR: Culturetopia
Culturetopia began as a compilation podcast of stories from regular NPR programs involving film and television. A few months ago, though, a weekly roundtable known as Pop Culture Happy Hour was added. The panel members, all employees of NPR, are articulate and have fascinating personalities. They bring their expertise in a diverse array of disciplines to the pop culture stories of the week. The panelists include Linda Holmes, Stephen Thompson, Trey Graham, and more.
#4: NPR: All Songs Considered
Bob Boilen and Robin Hilton play a variety of great new music on a weekly basis, covering indie, jazz, folk, and more. In addition, they discuss fascinating musical topics worthy of Nick Hornby’s High Fidelity like “best drum fills of all time”, “top records to get you through your teens”, or “best opening tracks”. I like to save up my episodes of this podcast for long road trips, for I find the music and fascinating dialogue keeps me going for hours at a time.
#3: Slate’s Culture Gabfest
Conceptually similar to NPR’s Pop Culture Happy Hour is Slate‘s Culture Gabfest. Stephen Metcalf, Julia Turner, and Dana Stevens talk about the latest movies, television, and books. They sometimes cover topics that verge on the esoteric, but they do it in such an engaging and articulate matter that they keep me engaged. My favorite part of the show each week is a segment called “Endorsements”, where each panel member talks about a pop culture item that is bringing him or her joy in that particular week.
#2: Sound Opinions
This podcast of the self-proclaimed “world’s only rock ‘n’ roll talk show” from PRX and Chicago Public Radio is quite simply the most comprehensive and well-produced pop music program out there today. Chicago critics Jim DeRogatis and Greg Kott provide music news, reviews using a Siskel and Ebert-style “buy it, burn it, or trash it” scale, and in-house interviews with some of the most interesting artists in modern music. DeRogatis and Kott have notably different musical tastes, which makes for a lively discussion. Sound Opinions is a great place to not only discover fascinating new music, but also learn about the glorious musical past. The critics frequently talk about the history of a particular genre (i.e. metal) or dissect a classic record (i.e. The Replacements’ Let It Be.
Filmspotting was at the vanguard of podcasting technology when the medium was truly in its infancy. The show has grown substantially since it began in 2005, expanding its audience and now playing weekly on Chicago Public Radio. Hosts Adam Kempenaar and Matty Robinson produce the most consistently engaging weekly film podcast today. Their show is such a joy to listen to because they bring the perfect balance between passion and critical acumen to their discussions of the cinema, both new and old. Regular segments include reviews of new releases and top five lists, like “top five movie trilogies,” “top five existential films,” or “five most overrated directors.” They also host regular movie marathons, in which they watch and comment upon at least five films from a particular director, genre, or cinematic movement. Past marathons have included films noir, westerns, and the work of Akira Kurosawa. I always walk away from listening to Filmspotting feeling refreshed and with a list of titles to add to my Netflix queue.