Opinion | Five essential podcasts for music aficionados
The barrage of new music releases can make it nearly impossible to find what you like. But there are great podcasts out there that can help you navigate the clutter and find the real nuggets
When it comes to new music, there is indeed a problem of plenty. With multiple streaming platforms that allow you to choose randomly or simply surrender to their algorithms, discovering new music that you like can often be a hit-or-miss thing.
One reason is the sheer number of albums, singles and EPs that are released every week. Spread across every genre, it can be almost impossible to zero in on what you really like. In my experience, that has sometimes meant I miss out on albums I ought to have checked out. At other times, it means going down a rabbit hole and burrowing deep into unexplored territories, discovering new bands or musicians that open up a whole new world or learning about bands I had missed even if they are from an era long gone.
Streaming platforms help, but only sometimes. My Spotify account, like everybody else’s, serves up daily mixes based on my listening history. And once a week it gives me a list that it calls the Release Radar—an array of new songs by artists both contemporary and old. At the time of writing, it tossed up a new single by Christone “Kingfish" Ingram, the stunning young blues singer and guitarist whom I had discovered in January, and who could be the new hope for the blues. I hadn’t realized Kingfish had released a new single but I know now because of Spotify. The track, Rock & Roll, is soulful, sweet and pleasurably understated. So much so that it made me open up his discography and experience his stunning talent once again.
But the new music that streaming platforms serve up, even though they are based on your own listening history, can sometimes be quite widely off the mark. After the nice track by Kingfish, I was urged to listen to a track called Iced Out Audemars, by the American rapper Pop Smoke. It left me cold.
That’s where music-related podcasts come in. Many of these are regular, often weekly, streams that can help you discover new music or take you back to artists and bands you might have missed. Generally hosted by expert music critics or DJs who know exactly what is going on, they can be great guides to navigating the cacophony and discovering gems. Here, then, is a list of my five essential podcasts, whose episodes I try not to miss (caveat: the selection is heavily influenced by my own biases, tastes and predilection for genres).
On Friday mornings, besides my quotidian habit of consuming endless cups of strong coffee, I cannot do without the new music episode of All Songs Considered (ASC). It’s a podcast by America’s partly public-funded non-profit media entity National Public Radio (NPR). Hosted by Bob Boilen and Robin Hilton, the New Music Friday episode never fails to help me discover gems. Last week, for instance, I discovered the British jazz musician and producer Kamaal Williams, via his brilliant new album Wu Hen. Williams is around 30 and his innovative way of using the keyboards like a percussive instrument can quickly become infectious.
Sometimes, ASC can affect me differently. On the same day that I discovered Williams, I heard a new Taylor Swift track, titled Seven. Swift is not one of my favourite singers but the song was so bittersweet that I sought out her new album, folklore,and actually liked it.
Pitchfork, as most music aficionados would know, is an online music magazine. Its reviewers are famously opinionated and pull no punches. But it’s also a site that can point you in directions you might not have ventured in.
The new Pitchfork Review podcast is hosted by the magazine’s editor, Puja Patel, and gets into the best new music. Last week, she did an episode on Bob Dylan’s new album, Rough And Rowdy Ways. But instead of just focusing on that new release, she took us on a trip down memory lane, revisiting the many times Dylan’s career had been interspersed with long silences before a comeback release. So it featured some of his brilliant past albums, such as John Wesley Harding (1967) and Time Out Of Mind (1997).
Seattle-based KEXP-FM, a radio channel with a weekly podcast called The Weekly Mix, is another essential. Unlike ASC or the Pitchfork podcast, KEXP’s podcast trades discussion for a largely uninterrupted playlist of new songs. Last week, I found A Hero’s Death, a song by Fontaines D.C., a post-punk band from Dublin whose ability to fuse boisterous intensity with general diffidence and melancholia is remarkable. I also discovered a new band (at least for me), The Dream Syndicate. A Los Angeles band that makes its own brand of neo-psychedelia, Dream Syndicate’s discography will keep me busy for a while!
If you are a music nerd, you don’t love just listening to your favourite artists but also want to know more about them. Inside the Musician’s Brain is a podcast that helps you do exactly that. Hosted by Osiris, a platform that curates music and culture podcasts, its episodes feature musician guests who talk about their bands and music styles and offer plenty of insights into the work they do. My favourite episodes are the two featuring Bill Nershi, String Cheese Incident’s (SCI’s) founder and frontman. SCI are at the forefront of the contemporary crop of jam bands and their blend of bluegrass, jazz, rock and electronica is unique. On those episodes, Nershi talks self-effacingly about SCI’s influence and how his 25-year-old band became a modern-day revivalist for an old genre, bluegrass—it’s like manna for fans.
No matter how many musical genres I try to explore, I always circle back to the blues. Replete with history and evolving constantly, the blueshave influenced many of today’s rock musicians.
For years, my go-to blues podcast has been the many decades old Bandana Blues, founded by a selfless US-based blues fan who went by the name Beardo. He died a couple of years ago but his podcast has been kept alive by his collaborator, the Hague-based Spinner. And its episodes never fail to surprise, with a trove of new, old and always spectacular blues musicians. Bandana Blues’ 852nd instalment was out last week, and on the nearly 90-minute episode, as expected, I discovered new and old stuff—the Vargas Blues Band from 2007; Dave Duncan from 2000; and many, many more. But the standout was Spoonful of Blues, a Norwegian band whose latest track, Corona Time is, well, timely.
First Beat is a column on what’s new and groovy in the world of music.