Things I Really Liked in 2021

It seems impossible, but it’s that time again! Time for my year in review posts.

This was a marginally more normal year for me in media. In less I sneak a few more in under the wire, I read 58 new-to-me books (see my Goodreads year in review here), not counting rereads, and I listened to LOTS of music. Here’s my Spotify top 100, though I think this is skewed by the fact I mostly listen in the kitchen, and so it doesn’t include the music that I really become obsessed with as I always purchase that. Some of the biggest, buzziest titles didn’t work for me, but the things that did really, really did.

I add my normal caveat that this isn’t a best of the year list, but rather, a list of things I thought were especially meaningful and cool. These are not in a particular order. And as always, you can look back at my previous year in review posts: 2020201920182017, and 2016.

Music and Podcasts

Nessun Dorma“/Aria Code: when I was listening to this episode in my car in March 2021, a year into COVID, I had to pull over and sob in the parking lot of a Popeyes. I wish I was joking. Part analysis of the Puccini aria, part meditation on the experience of first responders during the opening act of this pandemic, and part memorial to the many (the so many) we lost, it’s a celebration of human nature, and all that is beautiful and horrible about it.

The Vanishing of Harry Pace“/Radiolab: Radiolab is my first and probably deepest podcast love, and this miniseries about racial discrimination, passing, lawsuits, and the early days of the record industry is brilliant, surprising, and insightful. I also highly recommend the team’s foray into the history of the cassette tape as a bookend to this one.

Steamroller“/Phoebe Bridgers: While this song is several years old, I became obsessed with it when I was revising Chick Magnet, and its sense of romantic longing became infused with the book for me. It’s just a perfect ballad.

Home Video/Lucy Dacus: And as I fell down the hole into all of the voices of boygenius, I came to Dacus last, but I tumbled into love with her music. Female singers were wronged by a lot of dudes this years (see recent albums by Taylor Swift, Adele, Olivia Rodrigo, The Chicks, and Kacey Musgraves), but my favorite of all of those is Dacus’s Home Video. Maybe it helps that the wrongs here often come from parents and patriarchs, not lovers, making her stand out. But seriously, listen to “Thumbs” and tell me there was a better empowerment ballad this years. And an aside: I want to read a book based on “Christine.” Make it happen, someone.

Genre Fiction and Romance

Romance with Magical Elements: One of my reading trends was books with central or strong romances and a hint (or more than a hint) of magic. Once More Upon a Time/Roshani Chokshi; A Marvellous Light/Freya Marske; and Half a Soul/Olivia Atwater are all gloriously romantic, beautifully written, and preternatural in the best way.

Seven Days in June/Tia Williams: My favorite contemporary romance of the year by a substantial margin, this book needs some heavy content notes, but it provided some of the year’s best banter and swoon. It’s hard enough to write one writer protag and to have it be believable, but Williams achieves it with two–plus adds in several fantastic teenagers to boot. Don’t let the “is this women’s fic” cover put you off: this is absolutely a romance. A terrific one.

The Queer Principles of Kit Webb/Cat Sebastian: Sebastian writes such good books. Of all the authors currently writing romance, she may have the strongest oeuvre. From my perspective, I don’t think she’s written a bad book, even as she’s skipped between historical eras and dabbled in mystery. This entry, a cross-class romance involving a grumpy retired highway man and an aristocratic dandy realizing the truth about his family, is another stunner. I can’t wait to see what she does next.

Lit-Fic and Non-Fic

How the Word Is Passed/Clint Smith: I’ve taught Smith’s poetry for many years, but I’m here to tell you that his debut non-fiction, a tour through a number of historic sites in the US and Senegal that tell (or don’t tell) the story of Transatlantic chattel slavery, is a powerful mediation on history, memory, and narrative. It’s a must read for everyone.

The Chosen and the Beautiful/Nghi Vo: This retelling of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby through the eyes of Jordan Baker has some of the year’s most beautiful prose. And, like Wide Sargasso Sea before it, this revision of the source material is so compelling, it will make it impossible to look at the original any other way again.

Honey Girl/Morgan Rogers: I struggled with whether to put this book here or in romance, but I ultimately decide the love story is more of the “strong romantic elements” variety. This is primarily Grace’s narrative: she just finished her PhD in astrophysics and yet she feels as if she’s disappointed her parents, her advisor, and herself. So…fiction. It’s about loneliness and monsters and friendship and impossible love for once coming true. It’s stunningly written, and I loved every second of it.

TV and Movies

Ted Lasso: I’m certain that this will appear on the majority of folk’s lists, but that’s because it’s the perfect show for this moment. If somehow you’ve avoided it, it’s a fish-out-of-water comedy about an American coaching British football, but it’s really an examination of toxic masculinity and of how/whether someone can lead with kindness. The writing is consistently clever, and for a show that’s all about niceness, it’s been willing to go to the dark side. I cannot wait for season 3.

Dickinson: While poking around on Apple+ after we ran out of Ted Lasso episodes, I decided to give this kinda sorta Emily Dickinson biopic a try, and I’m so glad I did. The three seasons follow Dickinson’s most productive years from the early 1850s through the Civil War and fit into the emerging genre of historical shows that are gloriously, delightfully inauthentic (see also The Great and Miracle Workers). But somehow, the contemporary soundtrack (bursting with Lizzo and Mitski), the parodies of vaunted literary figures such as Whitman and Plath, and the focus on the sapphic romance between Dickinson and her sister-in-love just worked, at least for me, and proved the enduring power of Dickinson’s poems.

(ETA: Someone asked me if they should try Dickinson, and my answer came down to two things: 1) how caught up do you get on questions of historical accuracy? and 2) do you think Patricia Lockwood’s “The Father and Mother of American Tit-Pics” is funny and provides insight into Whitman and Dickinson? If your answers are not very (or not at all) and yes respectively, you’ll probably love it. If not, probably not.)

Death Is Our Business: Frontline always leaves me smarter, more thoughtful, about the world, and this episode–which focuses on Black funeral homes in New Orleans during the first and second waves of COVID–is no exception. Like the Aria Code episode I linked to above, what I found especially powerful about Death Is Our Business is no only that it honored workers on the frontlines and the dead, but that it celebrated life and resilience. We need both more than ever.

Get Back: I am not a Beatles superfan. I grew up during the Beatles’s revival in the 90s (remember Anthology?), and I like their music well enough, but when I heard that Get Back was 8 hours long, that seemed liked waaaaaaay too much of the Fab Four for me. But when I gave it a try and the third episode ended, I was…bereft. I wanted to go on as the fly on the wall watching them make music forever. This is, quite simply, one of the most revealing sneak peeks into the creative process ever. It’s also a chronological of the almost magical partnership and romantic friendship between John and Paul. Of course Peter Jackson couldn’t stand to leave any of this footage on the cutting room floor. I’m only amazed he restrained himself this much.

Author: Emma

Emma Barry is a teacher, novelist, recovering academic, and former political staffer. She lives with her high school sweetheart and a menagerie of pets and children in Virginia, and she occasionally finds time to read and write.

5 thoughts on “Things I Really Liked in 2021”

  1. I always get such good recs from your year-end “review”: thanks!!! Especially for the “Jordan Baker”, to bolster my continued fascination with all things Gatsby.

    1. I hope you’ll love it! Two of my friends read it on my recommendation and enjoyed it. I thought it was very clever and gorgeously written.

      1. Yes! Here, Jordan is a Chinese adoptee raised by a white American family who don’t understand her. (Gatsby is a bisexual vampire.) There are also sapphic and magical overtones.

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