My favorite (non-movie) things of 2021
Let’s close the year out with a celebration of books, TV and music.
This would traditionally be the week I release my top 10 movies of the year list. But this has been a weird year for movie viewing for me. I spent much of it wondering if I was getting out of writing about film only to become reinvigorated in the last few months; blame the mental whiplash of the pandemic. But that means there were one or two months where I watched hardly anything at all, and because of that, I didn’t feel it was appropriate to re-up for the Detroit Film Critics Society this year, which would have allowed me to see most everything. Hopefully next year.
All that to say, the holiday break and the month of January are going to be a time to catch up on 2021’s movies, with the plan right now to release weekly 2021 catchup reviews and then unveil my top 10 list on Jan. 31. But that doesn’t mean we can’t still count the pop culture year down!
While I may have seen fewer movies this year than in the past, my reading and television viewing was as active as ever. And so, here’s a list, in no particular order, of 10 pop culture things I love this year. There are TV/streaming shows, a good deal of books, some music and podcasts. I hope you’ll give some of these a chance, and please share your own in the comments so I can catch up on them in 2022!
Bo Burnham: Inside
Bo Burnham ruined an entire weekend for me. I turned this on late one Friday night expecting a light laugh riot. And while Inside is often very funny, I didn’t expect Burnham’s comedy special to also tap into the fractured, fraying mindset of life spent inside our homes for a year, watching the outside world devolve into riots and warming, all brought to us via the internet. While I laughed at “White Woman’s Instagram,” the melancholy “That Funny Feeling” and “All Eyes on Me” stuck to my ribs and caused me to spiral. Combine that sinking feeling with an intricate, beautifully composed special all written, shot and edited by Burnham over the course of the year, and Inside is one of the great creative works of the pandemic, so much so that I had to force myself to not put it on my top 10 movie list. Note: I’ll have much more to say about this on Wednesday.
The Drawing of the Three by Stephen King
This was a great year for me as a Stephen King reader. I finally got around to ‘Salem’s Lot, one of the best examples of King unpacking the rot beneath small-town life. I read his more recent Revival, which ends on one of his bleakest and most unforgettable notes. But the biggest joy this year as a King fan came from finally taking the journey toward the Dark Tower. I bought the entire set in the midst of lockdown and re-read The Gunslinger, which I found interesting but a bit stilted. But the second book in Roland’s journey, The Drawing of the Three, is one of King’s very best novels and has sealed the deal for me: in 2022, I’ll be reaching the Dark Tower. Basically a long journey down a beach with pit stops for metaphysical excursions, this book has some of King’s best character work and most inventive concepts. Roland, Eddie and Detta/Odetta are beautifully drawn characters, and there is genuine large-scale spectacle in Roland’s adventures to various eras of our world. It ends on a note that has me salivating about what comes next; I can’t wait to pick up The Wastelands and continue the journey.
The MCU on Disney+
We went a whole year without the Marvel Cinematic Universe, and it felt like the goal of 2021 was to make up for it, with four feature films and an equal number of streaming shows. The movies ranged from disappointing to among the MCU’s best, but with one exception, the TV shows were uniformly engaging, inventive and bizarre in a way that movies aren’t allowed to be. WandaVision played with the television format to tell a story about trauma and healing. Loki went deeply weird, redeeming one of the MCU’s great villains and giving us a crash course in the Multiverse. What If… was hit and miss, but in its best moments, it captured the fun of using animation to do absolutely anything with these beloved characters. And Hawkeye was a fun chaser, a relatively low-stakes buddy comedy peppered with fun action sequences. Only The Falcon and the Winter Soldier disappointed, and even that one had its moments of ambition and thematic heft. In its best moments, Disney+’s MCU shows captured the fun of following a weekly, focused and deeply weird comic series, and I’m eager for more.
Until this Shakes Apart by Five Iron Frenzy
Full disclosure that I contributed to the Kickstarter for this album, the first in eight years for the ska/punk band. Earlier this year, I attempted a new direction in writing, tackling Christian culture. Ultimately, that fizzled out, due both to my recognition that movies will always be my first writing love, and to a growing frustration with Evangelical culture that quickly sapped the fun out of it. Simply put: As I watched Evangelicals burn down the world around me, I was depressed to see no one rising up in Christian arts to confront this abdication of our responsibilities. But Reese Roper and Company surprised me, churning out an album that is among their most sonically muscular and deeply angry. The album taps into the band’s penchant for decrying capitalism and Christian hypocrisy, and it tackles everything from immigration to gun violence to racism to the pandemic. But it also stops for boppy numbers about nostalgia, parenting and hope. Five Iron has long been among my all-time favorite bands, and this is one of their best albums.
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It’s very easy to treat Peacock as a punchline. They were the last major streaming service to launch, their pricing structure is deeply confusing, and to the uninitiated, they seem to be nothing more than a repository for old Office and Parks and Rec episodes (although that alone would make it worth subscribing). But they’ve been launching some solid comedies, including the surprisingly clever Saved by the Bell reboot and the recent MacGruber series. Girls5Eva is another gem from producers Tina Fey and Robert Carlock, and it bears the rapid-fire gags and live-action cartoon vibes of 30 Rock and The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt. Sarah Bareilles is fine as the lead, a 40-something woman whose once-popular pop band gets a second chance. But it’s the bonkers performances by Busy Phillips, Paula Pell and especially Hamilton’s Renee Elise Goldsberry that really bring the laughs. There are some great barbs at pop culture, sexism and the recording industry, but there’s also just that wonderful off-kilter humor Fey and Carlock are so good at cultivating. I laughed harder at this than nearly any comedy series I watched this year (I’d also include Only Murders in the Building, but my rule is I need to have finished a show to list it, and I still have a few of that left).
Slasher fiction from Grady Hendrix and Stephen Graham Jones
As was probably made clear earlier this year, I have a soft spot for slasher films. Most aren’t good, but their predictable charms make them endlessly enjoyable. This year, I was surprised to find two books that elevate the genre and find some clever and even moving depth to it. Grady Hendrix’s The Final Girls Support Group is a fun thriller about what happens to the girls who survive horror movies, and I appreciate the way it examines the genre and its fandoms in the mold of a perfectly solid story. Stephen Graham Jones’ My Heart is a Chainsaw is even better; it’s an examination of the reason people turn to these movies and how stories help us make sense of our trauma.
Falling by TJ Newman
Newman’s debut novel centers on a pilot whose told his family’s been kidnapped, and if he wants to save them, he needs to crash the plane. Newman’s career as a flight attendant allows her to use that knowledge to stay a step ahead of the readers, and the result is a bullet-paced thrill ride that starts with its foot on the gas and doesn’t let up. The story moves with the intensity of a great Hollywood thriller (a movie is in the works), and it’s the rare book for which “unputdownable” is accurate. I’m not a fan of flying; this book didn’t help that. Can’t wait to see what Newman comes up with next.
The Hella Mega Tour
For my first concert in more than two years, I went big. My brother had an extra ticket to the Hella Mega Tour in August at Detroit’s Comerica Park, and I happily took him up on the offer. We had nosebleed seats in a giant arena, but that didn’t matter. Seeing The Interrupters, Weezer, Fall Out Boy and Green Day on a hot summer night in the middle of a city was as close to the good old days as I had gotten in a very long time. For nearly five hours, we listened to great bands play loud music, screamed along, and the only reminder of an ongoing pandemic were the masks we donned when we walked through the stadium’s indoor concourses. Normal didn’t last long, but man what a blast.
This isn’t really a pop culture thing, but it’s the only space I could think of to talk about one of the greatest things I encountered this year. I’d long been curious about float therapy or, as some call it, sensory deprivation therapy (which isn’t entirely accurate). Basically, it’s where you go to a spa and enter a small pod filled with about a foot of water filled with 1,000 pounds of Epsom salts, and you just float for an hour. The first time I tried it, I was a bit wary of laying in total darkness, so I left the light in the pod on. It was relaxing, but I felt like I was missing something. The second time I did it, I shut off the sound and lights and just let the darkness take me, and it was a transformative experience. I can’t explain the peace, both of body and mind, that come during that hour when you just float in the silence and darkness. Where I was afraid I’d be claustrophobic, I actually experienced elation and a deeper sense of relaxation than I’ve ever known. I’ve gone back several times, and the result is invigorating. My muscles stop hurting, my anxiety goes away and I sleep better. It’s been a game-changer.
Jayber Crow by Wendell Berry
Berry’s book takes a bit of patience to get into, especially for people like me whose fiction reading is usually plot-driven and fast-paced. This tale of a Kentucky barber in a small town moves at its own gentle rhythm, and in terms of plot, it’s just a story of watching the town grow and change around the man over the decades. But what a beautiful, heartbreaking and deeply wonderful read. It’s great to get lost in Port William, to be part of its community, to watch the comings and goings of its people. Berry’s writing is spiritual without being preachy, moving without being manipulative, and gentle without being boring. I’ll definitely be reading more of him in 2022.