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The best podcasts of 2016

From relationship horror stories to the solving of a decades-old cold case, it’s been a great year for listening.

When I started writing my podcast column for the New Statesman a few months ago, I had a bit of a dig at publications that only cover podcasts through lists. Yet here I am, at the end of the year, with a list the top ten shows I think you should catch up on over Christmas. I hope you enjoy them.


The Allusionist

Helen Zaltzman uncovers the surprising stories behind our words, from “Winterval” to “Pride”. Always surprising, this is a podcast that has earned its place on my “must listen immediately” list via well-structured episodes and carefully crafted interviews.

Where to start: With this episode about getting losing your words in Antarctic and this one about transatlantic differences in the use of “please”.

 


In the Dark

A thrilling investigative documentary into the abduction and murder of 11-year-old Jacob Wetterling in Minnesota in 1989. There are some similarities to Serial, but this true crime podcast is better, not least because you find out who did it.

Where to start: With the first of the nine episodes, “The Crime”, before you binge through the rest in short order.

 

The Receipts

Four funny, honest British women discuss love, sex, infidelity and the pitfalls of interracial dating. It’s a relatively new show, so there are four episodes so far, but it’s worth getting on board early with this one. It’s going far.

Where to start: This episode about, among other things, women who cheat.

 

Election Profit Makers

To really understand Donald Trump’s election victory, you need to hear from the people who bet against it. David Rees, Jon Kimball and Starlee Kine embarked on their profit-making adventure back in July, and, well, we all know how it ended.

Where to start: This episode about Clinton’s pneumonia scare. Or just immerse yourself in the podcast’s bonus mixtape, which features tunes remixed from the most memorable moments of the campaign.

 

Another Round

A superb interview show from New York. Guests include Hillary Clinton and Hamilton’s Lin-Manuel Miranda, and there are plenty of regular rotating segments so it never feels stale.

Where to start: This interview with Rachel Wilkerson Miller about getting your life in order.

 

Not By Accident

An Australian documentary that follows one woman’s decision to become a single mother. Sophie Harper has been recording since she decided to get pregnant, and hasn't stopped. The result is a textured, intimate portrait of her life with her child.

Where to start: At the beginning, with her “Insemination Story”.

 

Wooden Overcoats

Move over, Radio 4. This ensemble scripted comedy about a pair of doomed undertakers is funnier than anything broadcast on the BBC. Siblings Rudyard and Antigone Funn battle to keep their undertaking business on the small island of Piffling going after a new competitor arrives in town.

Where to start: The opening episode of series two is a good introduction, if you don't want to go all the way back to the start.

 

Call Your Girlfriend

Two best friends maintain their relationship long distance via this heartwarming weekly podcast. Ann Friedman and Aminatou Sow talk about politics, current affairs, celebrities, books and anything else they want to catch up on.

Where to start: The 2016 in review episode features lots of clips from across the year.

 

Millennial

Megan Tan documents the struggles of Generation Y by recording every important moment in her own life. She’s incredibly honest and open on the podcast, so it's no surprise this show has gathered a strong community around it.

Where to start: This episode about income inequality in relationships.

 

The Secret History of Hollywood

Adam Roche makes beautifully produced, compelling documentaries about the early days of Hollywood. They’re like audiobooks, but better because there’s music and sound effects as well as narration.

Where to start: With the “Bullets and Blood” series that traces the origin story of Warner Brothers.

Caroline Crampton is assistant editor of the New Statesman. She writes a weekly podcast column.

This article first appeared in the 15 December 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Christmas and New Year special 2016

MICHAEL OCHS ARCHIVES/GETTY IMAGES
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Why Prince wanted to make his listeners feel inadequate

Prince aimed to make his listeners want to have him or be him. He did not like them to consider themselves his equals.

Dig If You Will the Picture: Funk, Sex and God in the Music of Prince, by Ben Greenman
Faber & Faber, 304pp, £17.99

During his mid-Eighties imperial phase, stretching from the eruption of “When Doves Cry” to the corruption of “Alphabet St”, Prince was a global object of desire: hyper-talented, cool, funny and charming. Everyone, it seemed, wanted to have him or be him. Have him or be him, covetousness or envy – those two reactions are more than a little negative. And more than a little negative is how I felt about both Prince and Ben Greenman when I got to the end of Dig If You Will the Picture: Funk, Sex and God in the Music of Prince, a book as cumbersome as its title. Published a year after his death, it didn’t make me hate Prince as much as Blake Bailey’s monumental takedown Cheever: a Life made me despise John Cheever, but it came close.

The Prince we meet in anecdotes and legal depositions from both before and after his imperial phase is cranky, petty-minded and grasping. This may be because Greenman, who contributes to the New Yorker and has assisted George Clinton and Brian Wilson with their memoirs, is a much more entertaining writer when ripping Prince to bits than when attempting to build a shrine from his mortal remains. Here Greenman is, in flat-footed praise mode yet inadvertently dissing his subject: “From Stevie Wonder, he took mastery. From David Bowie, he took mystery. All of these influences were ingested and digested until Prince, nourished, went about making something new.” Follow that metaphor through and Prince’s “something new” can only be faecal.

But here is Greenman criticising the fall-from-grace album Graffiti Bridge. “The only thing holding back these epics from unconditional greatness is their poor aerodynamics,” he writes. “They’re like ­giant whiteboards filled with flow charts and equations: diagrams of how to make a Prince song work at top speed without actually working at top speed.” That simile, of subsonic flying whiteboards, is ridiculous but accurate – and captures something of what Prince is like when he is his diagrammatic rather than his funky self.

There are great insights here. Some are offhand, such as, “What is Purple Rain, the movie, but an argument for collaboration?” Others are more laboured but worthwhile as mini-obituaries: “Prince was a flamboyant star with a penchant for intellectual ­exploration, but he was also a sly comedian, a critic of existing soul music stereotypes, and a massive egomaniac.”

Elsewhere, the prose is pretentious, bathetic and nonsensical in equal measure. Of Prince’s alter ego Camille, ­Greenman writes, “This pitch-shifted version of Prince hovered between male and female and, in the process, cracked open previously conventional issues of power, sexuality, ego and
id.” Clearly, Prince/Camille had no issue with the superego – or, at least, didn’t feel the need to hover and in the process crack it.

By the end, I felt that this book was a fitting monument to Prince: glib and unsatisfying. When I listen to his music, I feel that something is being taken from me rather than given. At best, I end a song such as “Kiss” feeling disburdened, floating, freer; at worst, I feel hungry, swizzed, abused. And I think this is deliberate. Prince aimed to make his listeners want to have him or be him. He did not like them to consider themselves his equals. Making them feel inadequate was the whole point.

There is a clip of him performing Sly and the Family Stone’s “Everyday People” with three members of the band. Each time the chorus comes up and everyone in the room sings, “I-i am everyday people,” you can see Prince struggling to join in, because he’s thinking, “You may be, but I’m not.”

I don’t doubt that the latter-day Prince could be a magnificent performer. The fewer musicians he had with him, the better he got. Fans left his concerts feeling that they’d been at the greatest gig in their life, but Prince was the inventor of the after-show after-show. For super-fans, there was always another gig at a smaller, more obscure venue, starting at three or five o’clock in the morning. Just when it looked like he could give no more, it turned out – wearyingly – that he was inexhaustible. There was always more of the same. More 15-minute funk jams. More cheeky covers intended to prove that Prince was a more talented musician than the songs’ composers, because he could insert a half-diminished seventh chord where they’d strummed E minor. Worst of all, there were more and more muso excursions into 1970s fusion. It’s a fundamental question: if Prince was such a great musician, why did he play such God-awful jazz?

In the end, as a fan who had adored every­thing he did up to Lovesexy, I became angry with him and stopped listening. So did Greenman: “When I started working on this book, I promised myself that I would listen only to Prince’s music. I had enough to last me months. But about six weeks in, the Prince-only diet started to feel claustrophobic and maybe even a little ghoulish . . .” What Greenman found, I think, is that in Prince’s musical world the space gets perpetually smaller, because ultimately all the singer wants you to concentrate on is his self-aggrandisement. It’s fitting that Prince kept his unreleased recordings in “the vault” – a place for miserly hoarding of surplus value.

The ghoulishness of the Prince diet is that it gives no proper nourishment. It’s there in the lyrics to one of his offhand masterpieces: “Starfish and coffee/Maple syrup and jam/Butterscotch clouds, a tangerine/And a side order of ham”. This isn’t soul food. You’ll be hungry an hour later.

Greenman’s most revealing footnote – about himself and about his subject – concerns another creepy, slave-driving manufacturer of confectionery. “The movie side of Warner Bros had [in the early 1990s] just acquired the rights to remake Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory . . . Prince, I thought, would be perfect for the part . . . I wrote a long letter to Warner making the case but was too shy to send it.”

In this book, that long letter is finally delivered. Prince was a perfect Wonka. 

This article first appeared in the 20 April 2017 issue of the New Statesman, May's gamble

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