This was an odd year for media consumption. I read less than normal and was more meh about books and shows that, in regular times, I’m certain I would have loved. I avoided some big titles because I suspected they would annoy me, but despite that, I found plenty to enjoy and recommend in 2020.
As always, this isn’t a best of list. I don’t think I watched, read, or listened to nearly enough stuff to put one of those together. This is, instead, a list of stuff I happened to really love this year, and it’s offered in no particular order.
One of my most fervent hopes for 2021 is that I’ll be back to normal as a reader and viewer. You can read my best of lists from 2019, 2018, 2017, and 2016 for a peek at what more enthusiastic Emma looks like. ; )
Music and Podcasts:
“Blinding Lights,” The Weeknd: is it really possible this has only been out for a year and not, say, ten? With a retro 80s vibe and an infectious beat, it’s an easy shoe-in for any song of the year list.
“Julianna Calm Down” and “Young Man,” The Chicks: Gaslighter is one of my two most listened albums of the year. The righteous anger and the themes of solidarity, mourning, and grief are at once intensely individual (what went down on that boat?) and broadly cultural.
“hoax,” Taylor Swift: The other most played album for me is Folklore (with Evermore coming in fast on the outside). It’s just perfect writing music.
“On the Floor,” Perfume Genius: seriously, I dare you not to dance while this is on. Just try it. I’ll wait.
Dolly Parton’s America: part sociology, part musicology, part deep dive into the history, music, and impact of an American legend.
The Other Latif, Radiolab: When lockdown started, and I fell off from most of my podcast listening, there was one mini-series that I absolutely had to finish: reporter Latif Nasser digging into the history of a Guantanamo Bay detainee with whom he shares a name, revealing a decades’ long American shame in the process.
Genre Fiction and Romance:
Return of the Thief, Megan Whalen Turner: I won’t say more about this YA fantasy since I pretty much expended all the words here.
The Spare, Miranda Dubner: there’s a romance in here, but it’s also a sprawling, intimate look into an alternate British royal family and their lives and loves. It cracked a DNF streak for me in the spring, and I loved every page.
The Widow of Rose House, Diana Biller: a delightful American historical romance about ghosts and home renovation, with a prickly heroine and a smoking hot absent minded inventor hero. More of this, please.
Spoiler Alert, Olivia Dade: yes, yes, she’s my friend and I’m biased, but I truly believe that I would have loved this even if I didn’t already love Olivia for its scathing takedown of the final season of Game of Thrones and its hilarious and heartfelt romance.
Lit-Fic and Non-Fic:
Real Life, Brandon Taylor: I’m so picky about representations of academics. The complex relationship with your advisor, the way you love and resent your work, the incestuous and aggressive tension between a cohort: all of this was spot on. Real Life is immersive, specific, and incredibly difficult to read in the best way. Trigger warnings for memories of childhood sexual assault and on-page relationship violence and racist micro-aggressions.
Caste, Isabel Wilkerson: I have thought about this book more than any other that I read in 2020. Following up on The Warmth of Other Suns, Wilkerson compares the formation of race in the United States with the caste systems in India and Nazi Germany. It’s just an absolute must read.
The Schubert Generation, Now Hear This: One of my favorite discoveries this year was Scott Yoo’s contribution to the series Great Performances. The first season focused on baroque composers, and the more recent on Classical and Romantic ones. The episode from which I learned the most was about Franz Schubert, and it featured entirely performers under the age of 31 (the age at which Schubert died). It’s a sensual delight–for your ears.
Policing the Police 2020, Frontline: Jelani Cobb updates his earlier documentary about police reform, arguing that the efforts are circular and ineffective because they are embedded in larger social inequalities that we’ve never solved. Brilliantly made, incredibly frustrating.
She-Ra and the Princesses of Power, Season 5: It was obvious from the pilot that Catra and She-Ra were Meant to Be, but then season 5 went and made that canon. Please imagine the delight on my face when I watched the series finale, and then, if you somehow didn’t sample this because it was for kids, rectify that now. It’s a sheer delight.
Sylvie’s Love: Did another historical romance drop on Christmas Day? I hadn’t noticed. This stunner (is it a romantic drama? women’s fiction? an old fashioned women’s picture? who cares!) set in 1950s/early 60s New York is stylish, atmospheric, and dripping with chemistry. Watch it immediately.
The Mandalorian, Season 2: I adored this (until the end) because it posits a story in the Star Wars galaxy that has absolutely nothing to do with the main series’ royal family. It’s the tale of an angry murder daddy and his adopted son and all the friends he doesn’t intend to make along the way but can’t seem to avoid.
The Queen’s Gambit: I’m a sucker for mid-century stuff centered on impossibly competent women, okay? This is a blend of Jane Eyre and Rocky, a bildungsroman about a chess genius learning that she really does have a community, kicking ass, and looking fabulous.