My favorite audiobooks and listening experiences of 2021

Earlier this week I shared my favorite books of 2021. Today, I’m sharing my favorite audiobooks and podcasts.

In previous years, I didn’t duplicate titles on these two lists, but as you’ll see below, I broke with convention this year, meaning a handful of titles appear on both lists. I assure you: I really did love them that much.

When choosing my favorite audiobooks, I’m not just focused on how much I valued the reading experience (though that certainly matters), but on how much I appreciated the listening experience. I love audiobooks that truly elevate the reading experience. Did a narrator bring a little something extra to the story, something I couldn’t have gotten from reading in print? In my mind, that is the mark of a truly great audiobook.

For me, an additional mark of a great listening experience—of any good book, for that matter—is that I’m still thinking about the story, even months later. Bonus points to any book that makes me want to run another mile, fold another load of laundry, or sit in my car in the driveway so I can keep listening.

I’m continuing to listen to a steady stream of audiobooks. In fact, in 2021, I listened to almost exclusively audiobooks and very few podcasts. My evolving listening habits are reflected on the blog: click here for all our audiobook posts. We also created a podcast playlist for you: click here for the What Should I Read Next playlist for audiobook- focused episodes.

2021 was an exceptional audiobook year. These are my very favorites. You’ll see my list skews heavily towards fiction, because that’s my typical audiobook preference, but there are a few notable exceptions.

Now let’s talk favorites—and please, share YOUR favorite audiobooks in the comments section!

All books featured here were chosen because I loooove them. If you buy something through our retail links, we may earn an affiliate commission. More info here.

Audiobooks

A note about these descriptions: I focused on why I loved the listening experience, not what the book was about. To find out more about any book mentioned below—or any book included in Modern Mrs Darcy book lists—use this neat trick: click or tap on the book cover to open that book’s page, where you can see a listing of all the places we’ve referenced it on the blog.

My Lady Jane

My Lady Jane

I included this one on my favorite books of 2021 list and had to include it again here because it's a wonderful example of an audiobook that elevates the reading experience. Katherine Kellgren's pitch perfect narration amplifies the humor and zestiness of this fantastical tale with historical roots (think Monty Python or Jasper Fforde); I listened with a huge smile on my face. More info →
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Clap When You Land

Clap When You Land

I read the print galley for this novel in verse prior to its spring 2020 release and re-read on audio with my daughter this year. Acevedo always reads her own work: she's a spoken word poet and an incredible performer; I can't say enough good things about her audiobooks. It's dedicated to the memory of the lives lost on American Airlines flight 587, the passenger flight that crashed en route to Santo Domingo from JFK on November 12, 2001. Taking this historical event as her leaping off point, Acevedo tells the story of two teenage girls—one in New York, one in Santo Domingo—who discover they are sisters in the aftermath of the crash, when the truth of their father’s double life is unceremoniously revealed. The girls tentatively bond as they explore the pain—and love—they share, leading up to a triumphant ending. More info →
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Jubilee

Jubilee

Author:
After reading W. Ralph Eubanks's nonfiction work A Place Like Mississippi, I was inspired to learn more about Margaret Walker, who spent her early years in New Orleans and went on to become a prominent writer of the Chicago Black Renaissance. Jubilee is her only novel, and when I discovered favorite narrator Robin Miles reads the audiobook, I knew I had to listen. The sweeping story follows a slave named Vyry through the antebellum era, the Civil War, and Reconstruction, focusing on her struggles and suffering, the men she loved, the children she bore, and her constant yearning for freedom. Walker modeled her protagonist after her own great-grandmother. I read the 50th anniversary edition and loved poet Nikki Giovanni’s foreword. More info →
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If We Were Villains

If We Were Villains

Author:
This campus mystery is set in the world of the theater and swimming in Shakespearean dialogue, so is it any wonder it's wonderful on audio? Robert Petkoff (who I'd previously listened to with Andrew Sean Greer's Less hits just the right tone; he nicely differentiates the wide cast of characters. This story, much compared to The Secret History, begins at the end: Oliver Marks has just been released from jail after serving a ten year sentence, and he's finally ready to tell the truth. But the truth about what? We slowly learn that ten years ago, Oliver was part of a close-knit group of Shakespearean actors at Dellecher Classical Conservatory, where the offstage rivalries and romances hold just as much drama as their performances. But their final year—the one that lands Oliver in prison—reads more like one of Shakespeare's tragedies. More info →
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A Swim in a Pond in the Rain: In Which Four Russians Give a Master Class on Writing, Reading, and Life

A Swim in a Pond in the Rain: In Which Four Russians Give a Master Class on Writing, Reading, and Life

Author:
I had to be talked into this one, but I'm glad I went with it. In this workbook-like book, Saunders explores the craft of writing through the lens of Russian short stories. You don't need an English degree or any interest in Russian lit to give this a try—a healthy dose of nerdy curiosity will do. I found it surprisingly engaging, especially on audio, with narrators like Nick Offerman, Rainn Wilson, Glenn Close, and Renee Elise Goldberry each visiting "class" to read a short story. Listening felt like sitting in a fantastic lecture hall with a favorite literature professor (but honestly, now I want a print copy for note-taking purposes!). More info →
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When Ghosts Come Home

When Ghosts Come Home

Author:
J.D. Jackson's superb narration takes Cash's first procedural to the next level. The story unfolds over just four days; the setting is Oak Island NC, 1984. I was hooked from the first scene: when the local sheriff is jolted awake by a loud noise in the middle of the night, he heads to the small airport to investigate, where he discovers a crashed plane, stripped bare, and a dead body. The sheriff's ensuing probe uncovers old grievances and rawer, fresher crises in the small community. All these month's later, I'm still thinking about the ending. (I highly recommend reading this in book club so you have readers to discuss it with!) More info →
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How the Word Is Passed: A Reckoning with the History of Slavery Across America

How the Word Is Passed: A Reckoning with the History of Slavery Across America

Author:
I included this on my 2021 favorites list, but the audiobook, read by the author, is so exceptional it deserves inclusion here as well. In his first full-length nonfiction work, poet and journalist Smith explores the legacy of slavery in the United States, and to do so he takes his readers on a tour of sorts, visiting nine physical monuments crucial to that history, like Jefferson's Monticello, the Whitney Plantation in Louisiana, Angola Prison, New York City, and finally Senegal's Gorée Island. Each visit is packed with stories from both past and present, as Smith examines the site's history and explores what that means for us today. More info →
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The View Was Exhausting

The View Was Exhausting

I picked this up on a whim and the strength of the cover's Taylor Jenkins Reid blurb (not typical for me AT ALL), and I'm so glad I did! The audiobook, narrated by Tania Rodrigues, was wholly absorbing. The plot is pure romance novel with a fake relationship trope, though the audiobook "read" very literary, perhaps because the story sensitively explores weighty themes. (I'm curious how print readers feel.) I loved it. More info →
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Taste: My Life Through Food

Taste: My Life Through Food

Author:
This is another title from my 2021 favorites list, but I had to include it here as well because Tucci's narration is a DELIGHT. (But heads up, that doesn't mean it's not pretty sweary at times.) He won me over with his three-minute introduction and didn't want to stop listening for a moment after that. (I folded laundry! I did dishes! I sat in the driveway to finish the chapter!) From his stories of growing up in a large Italian-American family in New York, to mixing up the perfect martini on set, to falling in love with his wife over a cheese cart, I just ate this up. More info →
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The Night Watchman

The Night Watchman

Author:
When we hosted Tayari Jones for our WSIRN 300th episode celebration, she raved about this 2020 Pulitzer winner, saying she wanted to give it a standing ovation. That comment nudged me to pick it up again, on audio this time. (Why have I not been listening to Erdrich narrate her own work all along? She's wonderful in that format.) The story is based on the life of her own grandfather, who worked as a night watchman and who traveled from rural North Dakota to Washington, D.C. to fight against Native dispossession of their tribal lands. The story is beautifully, lovingly drawn: I was enraptured, and rooting so hard for these characters. More info →
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What Should I Read Next favorites

It is SO HARD to pick favorite episodes of my own podcast—much harder than picking the above favorite books, and that was brutal! I’m choosing a combination of episodes that stand out in my mind and those that would be a good introduction to the show. Above all, I chose episodes with good energy below. Please know that if you’re not a regular listener, you can truly jump in anywhere. (And welcome to the podcast!)

These are in chronological order:

1. WSIRN Episode 268: Our team’s best books of the year. Our team is made up of a bunch of bookworms with very different reading tastes, but that doesn’t stop us from swapping book recommendations all the time. In this live event recording all eight of us share favorite recent reads.

2. Episode 273: Realism, redemption, and reading across generations. This delightful episode features Virginians Rebekah and Beverly, our first grandmother-granddaughter pair—and Beverly is our first nonogenarian!

3. Episode 275: How many book clubs is too many book clubs? In this episode with Brigid Misselhorn, a self-proclaimed book club addict, we discuss the origins of her book club addiction, the benefits of audiobooks, and balancing personal reading with obligatory reading. Brigid also calls herself a slow reader, and shares tips for finishing all her book club reads on time.

4. Episode 283: Don’t save the good stuff. This episode with MMD Book Club community manager Ginger Horton was literally years in the making. We chat about how her role at Modern Mrs Darcy changed her reading life, how she tracks her reading in a unique way, and how she cleverly uses the Summer Reading Guide to spread that summer reading feeling over the entire year.

5. Episode 289: A ridiculous plan to read more books. Neil Pasricha came to the show with a dilemma: how can he bring more bookish serendipity into this heavily-planned reading life? I have ideas.

6. Episode 293: Streamline your (digital) TBR. Caylee Dyck struggles with a classic bookworm dilemma: she has 150+ ebooks on her Kindle, and they ALL sound appealing. So how is she supposed to choose what to read next? This episode is packed with practical tips for tackling a huge To Be Read list, and also includes suggestions for making ebook reading more tactile, engaging, and useful.

7. Episode 296: Backlist and brunch. Amber Burns knows she’s missed some amazing books that have been published over the last ten years, but she’s not sure which ones are right for her. We discuss why she loves books as a means of discovery, and I aim to help her discover a handful of mind-blowing backlist reads that will keep her up turning the pages past her bedtime. 

8. Episode 298: A reading life without regrets. Cristina Griffin loves atmospheric reads, brilliant endings, and characters she can connect with emotionally. Perhaps this is why our conversation led me to recommend two titles that later ended up on my personal best-of-the-year list? Cristina also teaches a college course at UVA that we’re pretty sure you’re going to wish you could enroll in yourself once you hear about it.

9. Episode 299: Playing genre hopscotch. Michael Clark and I recorded this episode while he was in the midst of a “reading drought,” so I’m especially hopeful my recommendations hit home. An interesting note about this episode: the perfect book rec came to me right after we hung up, but that didn’t stop us from sliding it into the episode. Take a listen and you’ll hear what I’m talking about!

10. Episode 311: Reading is LIFE! I had to include this very recent episode with library lover Danielle Callendar on my favorites list, not just because of how much I enjoyed our conversation, but also because of the staggering number of readers who listened and told us this episode was especially delightful (and insightful) because their reading life strongly resembles Danielle’s. We’re thrilled to hear it. 

What are your favorite audiobooks of 2021? What did you love to listen to this year?

P.S. My favorite listening experiences of 2020 and my favorite audiobooks of 2019. New to audiobooks? Try these 7 ways to discover your audiobook style. And don’t miss my favorite books of 2021.

53 comments

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  1. Edie says:

    Project Hail Mary by Andy Weir. I laughed and I cried. It was the best audiobook listening experience I’ve had this year and perhaps my favorite listening experience ever. So good!

  2. Tracey says:

    The House in the Cerulean Sea, The Only Good Indians, and Girl, Woman, Other are the books I read this year where I think listening rather than hard copy especially enhanced the experience.

  3. Stacy says:

    Elizabeth Acevedo is an exceptional audiobook narrator; I highly recommend listening to every audiobook shes narrated.

    I also listened and loved Beach Read narrated by Julia Whelan

  4. Stephanie says:

    I just finished two good ones! Chasing the Thrill from the Summer Reading Guide-excellent on audio-and All About Me by Mel Brooks-so, so good and entertaining!

  5. Lisa F. says:

    I’m new to audiobooks this year, but am really enjoying it–it helps with my trouble concentrating lately. I loved Rebecca, narrated by Anna Massey; Hamnet, narrated by Ell Potter; and am currently listening to Once Upon a River, narrated by Juliet Stevenson. I follow (or followed) along with the print copy of each.

    • Mary says:

      I loved Once Upon a River and Juliet Stevenson is one of my favorite narrators. I have Hamnet on audio but haven’t read yet, adore Maggie O’Farrell (thank you Anne!). Good to see this high praise for the audio. And I will look for Rebecca, it’s been years since I read it!

  6. Lauren says:

    Not 2021 specific, but my absolute favorite audiobooks are the Lady Hardcastle series by T.E. Kinsey. The narrator, Elizabeth Knowelden, is amazing. She completely brings the precious characters Kinsey wrote to life. And the 8th book in the series comes out in 2022!

  7. Allison says:

    Thanks, Anne! I found a love of audiobooks from your recommendations several years ago.
    This year, the audiobooks I loved were:
    Monogamy
    Deacon King Kong
    Good Company
    Transcendent Kingdom
    And am currently listening to and enjoy the 2nd Maisie Dobbs on audio.

  8. Kristin says:

    Braiding Sweetgrass is excellent on audio, as Robin Wall Kimmerer’s voice is soothing and compelling. I also have loved Echo (Munoz Ryan) and This is a Story of A Happy Marriage (Patchett) on audio.

  9. Elise says:

    It made me happy to see two of my favorite audiobook narrators – J.D. Jackson and Katherine Kellgren – on this list. So good!
    I use audiobooks primarily as a way of re-reading old favorites, and this year I especially loved Peter Capaldi’s narration of Watership Down. It’s a story I already loved, but he brought it to life for me in a new way.

    • Colleen says:

      OH my goodness – Watership Down is a childhood fav of mine and I’ve been hesitant to re-read it because I love it so much and worried what I would think reading it as an adult. But, now I am going to listen to it – thanks for the recommendation!

  10. Mary says:

    I am a long time audiobook reader, and am always happy when you list your recommendations. I also love Louise Erdrich’s narration and am looking forward to listening to her new book, loved The Night Watchman.
    Early on during lockdown in 2020 I moved from reading historical fiction to historical romance. I just needed to read something that I knew would have a happy ending! My favorite author here is Mary Balogh. Pair her with narration by Rosalyn Landor and it’s a total delight! I recommend starting with the Bedwyn Series, so many in depth, wonderful characters that come to life in the reading.
    Finally , I loved Stephen King’s new novel Billy Summers (not horror!) I found in impossible to stop listening to the story, especially read by Paul Sparks. It’s his only narration so far, but I hope he does more! He is an actor you may have seen but I’m not telling where, it could spoil listening to the book!

  11. I’ve been recommending the audiobook version of Taste by Stanley Tucci to everyone I meet. There’s about a 30 second blip of him describing how he feels when someone cuts spaghetti with a knife and a fork that gave me so much joy I can hardly describe it.

  12. Colleen says:

    I have been loving my audiobooks and I feel like they just keep getting better and better! My favourites are:
    Miracle and Wonder – Malcolm Gladwell, Paul Simon, Bruce Headlam – my goodness talk about an incredible listening experience. Paul Simon plays songs and talks about how the music came together. Gladwell always does an incredible job (Talking to Strangers is a MUST listen to as an audiobook) and this book really gives you a behind the scenes like no other. You can get it from either Libro.FM and support your fav indie bookstore or straight from Gladwell’s website Pushkin.FM.
    Next – oh where to go!
    FireKeepers Daughter by Angeline Boulley and narrated by Isabella Star LaBlanc, having someone be able to speak in Ojibwe and do the inflections of each character to create truly different voices was awesome. Loved the way the story was brought together through the audio.
    The Man Who Died Twice – Richard Osman and narrated by Lesley Manville – these characters in this book I adore and Manville again creates such different voices for them that I feel like I get to know each of them.
    Call Me Indian – Fred Sasakamoose narrated by Wilton Littlechild – hearing all the Cree language in this book just lifted up the audio experience that much for me.
    I think for me the mark of a great audiobook is like Anne said – I want to stay in my vehicle, at work, up late and keep listening. I also think that when I’m so immersed and suddenly my brain says “is there more than one narrator?” and there is only one but they’ve truly created something that feels like more than one voice that thrills me.
    I have dozens more that I loved, full cast books, books with extra audio, and more. I could go on but the ones above are my more recent ones I listened to and gave 5 stars to (something I never did until I bought one of Anne’s reading journals, now I assign stars hahah!)

  13. Julie Walker says:

    I, too, LOVED M. L. Rio’s debut novel If We Were Villains. The story and narration were pitch-perfect, and I adored all the Shakespearan references. I can’t wait to read her next book.

  14. Carrie Padgett says:

    I really enjoyed Downstairs Girl on audio. The narrator’s accents were spot-on for the characters.
    I’m listening to Truly, Madly, Guilty right now and liking it too.

  15. Suzanne C says:

    I didn’t read many audiobooks this year, but I did find two new-to-me favorite narrators: Hugh Dancy and Emilia Fox. She is especially a delight reading Agatha Christie.

  16. Janet Westcott says:

    Like so many, I LOVE audiobooks. My favourites …
    Where the Crawdads Sing- Celia Owen. I think this is close to the best book I have ever read.
    The Salt Path and the sequel The Wild Silence narrated by author Raynor Winn. Oh her voice I could listen to all day. True story, poignant and very moving. I could ‘read’ it again and again.
    The Dictionary of Lost Words – Pip Williams
    I could go on and on – Olive Kitteridge and Olive Again – Elizabeth Strout for example. Just about anything by Elizabeth Strout. Love her books

  17. suzy says:

    I tried most of my re-reads this year in audio, and they were fantastic! You know, when a book is a favorite, the narration can really disappoint, but not for these: Picnic in Provence, read by Elizabeth Bard, herself; Celine,read by Kimberly Farr, The One in a Million Boy (and the Ona Vitkus voice was perfect) and Comeback by Dick Francis round out my “listens”. I will add two new ones that were good: The Exiles (by Christina Baker Kline) and Miracle Creek, by Angie Kim.

  18. Dawn says:

    I can’t believe nobody has mentioned The Four Winds, by Kristin Hannah and narrated by Julia Whelan.
    I don’t normally do audiobooks, but I’m weaning myself off true crime podcasts and this was my gateway drug to audio.
    It was a GIFT.

  19. Sue says:

    Three excellent books I just loved in audio: The Guncle by Rowley (both hilarious and touching), Maid: Hard Work, Low Pay… by Land and read by the author, and State-of Terror by Clinton and Penny.

  20. Maria Ontiveros says:

    I loved Girl, Woman, Other on audio. It was probably my top book of the year, although News of the World on audio was also superb. For my annual summer long book challenge, I listened to all 20+ hours of American Gods, and it was amazing!!! Honorable mention to Malibu Rising, which kept me company on a solo road trip when I really needed it.

  21. Samantha says:

    My favorite audiobook was Lovely War by Julie Berry. The book was one of my favorite books this year but the audiobook had a full cast and was outstanding.

  22. Carol says:

    Why did I wait so long to read The Shell Seekers by Rosamund Pilcher? It had been on my TBR for 20+ years, I recently picked up the audiobook and loved it. The narrator did a wonderful job with the richly drawn characters. I loved getting to know Penelope Keeling and wish she could be my best friend.

  23. Pat says:

    My best audiobook reads of 2021 were Firekeeper’s Daughter by Boulley, Razorblade Tears by Cosby, Ordinary Grace by Krueger, and Anxious People by Backman. They were so good.

  24. Jess says:

    My best audiobook experience of the year was Broken Horses by Brandi Carlile. All the music she packed in between chapters was incredible, and listening to her tell her story in her own words, her own voice was a lovely experience.

  25. Nancy says:

    My favorite audiobooks this year were The Art of Racing in the Rain by Garth Stein, The Guncle by Stephen Rowley, Sparks Like Stars by Nadya Hashimi, With the Fire on High by Elizabeth Acevedo (performed by the author), Greenlights by Matthew McConaughey (ready by the author), 84 Charing Cross Road by Helene Hanff, and Taste by Stanley Tuccie (also read by the author).

  26. Lizzie Scott says:

    So many fiction books are spoilt by bad narration, but I loved The Midnight Library; Carey Mulligan is brilliant. Memoirs are often great though and I loved Green Lights written and narrated brilliantly by Matthew McConaughey. Michelle Obama’s Becoming is fantastic, of course. Can’t wait to use some of these recommendations to help me choose my next listens. Thanks!

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