Saying “what a strange year” is both such an understatement and so obvious that I’m sure it doesn’t need to be said, but I can’t help but say it anyway. What a strange, strange year. Mostly I turned to books to get me through it, but there were also plenty of standouts in other mediums that offered entertainment and escapism through the weirdness of 2020. Here are a few of my favourites from the year in music, tv, film*, and podcasts.
There was actually a lot of fantastic music released this year, by everyone from Phoebe Bridgers to Bruce Springsteen to Perfume Genius to Waxahatchee to Bob Dylan. Some albums sprung from lockdown while others had been in the works back when the world was more normal. However, there were two albums that loomed so large for me in 2020 that they overshadowed all others:
Fiona Apple’s Fetch the Bolt Cutters is a perfect quarantine album and it’s also a perfect album, period. Written and recorded in her home (and sometimes with her home, utilising everyday sounds like pots and pans and her dogs barking), it’s a brilliant, unsettling, empowering, wild, complex work of absolute genius and art. Also this story about Shameika, the inspiration for a track of the same name, and Fiona reconnecting after decades is just wonderful.
If you told me a decade ago I would love a Taylor Swift album as much as Folklore, I would have never believed you, but this quarantine written-and-recorded album takes everything I love—sweater weather, soft piano melodies, storytelling tracks, The National (it’s co-produced by Aaron Dessner and it shows)—and melds it into an album I’ve listened to an embarrassing number of times.
Although I listened to quite a few podcasts this year on long walks in the park at my parents’ house or while working from home, I mostly turned to familiar favourites like Reply All and Criminal. However, there were a few new standouts:
Nice White Parents is a five-part series from Chana Joffe-Walt of This American Life, about Brooklyn’s school system, one of the most segregated in the country. A look at systematic racism and the way it manifests even in people who are otherwise well-meaning, it’s fascinating and excellently reported.
Conspiracies like QAnon have brought to the forefront the fact that the internet can negatively radicalise people, but how exactly does that happen? The New York Times’ podcast Rabbit Hole explains with a case study and a look at the way fringe movements can gain widespread support—or at least attention—online.
Some of the best stories are those that take a seemingly trivial thing and delve into it in a way that makes it utterly compelling, and Wind of Change does this to a T. Patrick Radden Keefe receives a tip that the 1990 hit ‘Wind of Change’ by Scorpions was actually written by the CIA as anti-Soviet propaganda. Sounds ridiculous, right? And yet.
I’m sure there were some excellent movies released this year despite the fact that cinemas were closed for most of 2020, but I only watched about five movies total (apart from rewatching a number of old favourites for quarantine comfort) so I can’t really say anything about them. May 2021 be a more productive year for movie-watching.
Luckily, there was plenty of TV to get us through the endless hours at home with nothing to do but Netflix. Quite a few shows that had started before 2020 had excellent seasons like Bojack Horseman, What We Do in the Shadows, Schitt’s Creek, The Mandalorian, and Better Call Saul, but there were also a few that premiered (either a first season or an entire miniseries) this year that deserve special shoutouts:
Sally Rooney’s Normal People is one of my favourite novels, and it’s rare that a book has ever been more perfectly adapted than this one in the miniseries. Poignant, sexy, and tragic, it captured all the fleeting, furtive moments and feelings in absolutely perfect form. The actors playing Marianne and Connell were on-point casting, and all in all it was pretty much just a perfect adaptation and nearly perfect series.
A late entry to this list, Bridgerton only premiered its eight-episode season on Christmas Day, but since it only took me about eight minutes to fall in love with it that’s okay. This prestige-period-piece-meets-Gossip-Girl show is both smart and ridiculously fun. And the costume-porn is second to none with its Regency-era opulence.
I probably don’t need to tell you about The Queen’s Gambit since everyone else I know was obsessed with it and watched it way before I did, but in case you missed it this 1960s-set miniseries about a chess prodigy whose opponents at the board aren’t half as fierce as her inner demons is a must-watch. Anya Taylor-Joy has serious star power as the lead.
I’ve written before about how Ted Lasso was the TV version of comfort food for me this year, and that still holds true. When things are hard, it’s nice to watch something that’s so full of kindness and heart. It’s sweet, uncynical, and features teamwork at its most together and masculinity at its least toxic, and it’s exactly what we needed during a year like this.