2021, My Year in Listening, Reading, and Seeing

Making a list of the music that entered my life in a given year has become an annual thing (here’s 2018, 2019, and 2020). But it never really tells the full story. The second side of my favorite Django Reinhardt LP just finished, for example, as I began to write this. I put it on before lunch because my kid was a little blue and I knew that it would cheer them up. While I often listen to music on headphones in the little space between my ears, music is also a family thing. There’s the family playlist that we are all a little sick of that gets played in the car. There’s also the music I play to complement dinner. And finally there is a lot of music that I love that my wife can’t tolerate. So these lists leave a false impression that there isn’t a lot of Elton John being heard in this home. So, right off the bat, we’re distorting reality here. Forgive me.

And are these lists a little self-indulgent? Maybe. But I do seek out the ones that friends, acquaintances, and various public figures write. And I do follow up on their recommendations. I miss the free flowing culture of recommendations from college and my 20s; and I guess this is the equivalent these days… at least for 40-something adults living a post-Covid lifestyle. I hope that you find something here that you didn’t already know about and will enjoy, or better, that you’ll leave some recommendations in the comments. I’ve expanded into some new categories this year too.

10 Albums Presented in Alphabetical Order

Once I had gone through all of the new music I “brought on board” in 2021, sifted through it, and pulled out my top ten, it became pretty clear what I needed from music this year. As opposed to 2017, for example, when my most listened to record was Yoko Ono’s Plastic Ono Band, this year I needed balm. Much of the world seemed to be on the same page. This worked out to be the most international list I’ve ever put together. I noticed this was fairly common for this year’s critical top tens.

(Writing descriptions of music feels a little pointless in 2021 when you can very readily hear the recordings in a variety of ways. I’m old enough to remember when that wasn’t the case, when writing about music drove you to seek it out and sometimes you would need to wait months or years to hear it. It’s incredible how accessible music has become).

Arooj Aftab, Vulture Prince

I can’t tell you much about this music by Pakistani singer & composer Arooj Aftab except that it’s beautiful. I’ve been meaning to learn more about it and some day I will. I’m not sure, for example, which elements are traditional and which come from Aftab’s clearly deep imagination.

Susana Baca, Palabras Urgentes

Urgent words… I’ve been a fan of Susana Baca for ages, ever since I picked up The Soul of Black Peru, the Luaka Bop Afro-Peruvian music comp that came out in ’95. So I was ready to hear Baca get real about the state of the world. While I’m still working my way through the words, Baca’s meaning couldn’t be more clear.

Jon Batiste, We Are

If there was one album that we all liked as a family in 2021, it was We Are. It’s powerfully expressive, a little funky, and it reminds us of the trip we took to New Orleans in 2019. This feels like it should be a classic.

Calexico, Seasonal Shift

I’m a little surprised that a holiday record made my list. This came out in 2020, but with vinyl pressing plants being backed up, the shrink-wrap didn’t get torn off of it until this till this past Christmas. Calexico is one of our/my favorite bands, and their Christmas LP is just what you’d expect… warm and beautiful.

Floating Points, Pharoah Sanders, and the London Symphony Orchestra, Promises

I happened to listen to this for the first time on headphones while waiting in line (at Lambeau Field) for my first Covid vaccine shot and I can’t shake that association, nor do I want to. It’s something I return to when I need a little reassurance. It’s great, nothing new to say about it.

Helado Negro, Far In

Since I saw Helado Negro open for Beirut in Milwaukee in 2019, I’ve become a super fan. This was the low key but joyful music I needed this year. I feel very in sync with Roberto Lange.

Howie Lee, Birdy Island

I have no recollection of how I got turned on to this record, but I love it. Birdy Island is the soundscape that Chinese producer, Howie Lee, designed for an imaginary floating theme park populated by birds and ancestral spirits. I’ve spent a lot of time there in 2021.

Claire Rousay, A Softer Focus

Another ambient record, this one by Claire Rousay. This one feels like waking up on someone’s sofa in a light filled apartment on a drowsy Sunday. It’s almost better not to describe this music, I’d just encourage you to experience it.

Satomimagae, Hanazano

This record was a beautiful revelation to me. A voice and a guitar—two musical elements that have become almost too familiar. Satomimagae makes this combination feel new again.

The Weather Station, Ignorance

This record has been so critically lauded that it almost feels like people are embarrassed for liking it so much. But it really is great. Incisive songwriting, great musicianship, and it’s even topical.

5 Books Also Presented in Alphabetical Order

Susanna Clarke, Piranesi

As a family, we loved Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell so much that we spent YEARS waiting for Clarke’s follow-up, Piranesi. This turned out to be a book that I loved for entirely different reasons. Who can’t relate to being both lost and perfectly at home in a world that we can’t fully comprehend?

James S.A. Corey, The Expanse Series

Apparently this is the year I needed reassuring ambient music and escapism? Anyway, I fell hard for The Expanse this year. I’ve read the first six, so I have a few more to go. But so far these have been the most interesting hard science fiction books I’ve read in a long time. While I like the tv series, the books are much more richly detailed. The world that the authors have created is fascinating and feels very human and real. If you think you might enjoy an epic space adventure set, very plausibly, in our solar system about 200 years from now, you almost certainly will like this. I’m not sure why I waited.

Matthew Gabriele & David M. Perry, The Bright Ages

This and the next are related in that they offer a new retelling, based on the most recent scholarship of our past. What if ‘the Dark Ages,’ were far more cosmopolitan and dynamic than we’ve been led to believe? This book is fascinating, it demands that we examine the agendas of renaissance intellectuals. Who did the idea of ‘rebirth’ serve?

David Graeber & David Wengrow, The Dawn of Everything

In the case of The Dawn of Everything, it turns out that “nasty, brutish, and short,” to quote Hobbes reflected a racist and colonialist mindset, go figure. If you have the right journal subscriptions, you’ve known that this view has been overturned, sadly it seems to take decades for the culture—and especially high school curricula—to catch up. I’m still reading this one.

Andrés Reséndez, A Land So Strange

This is quite the history book. First, there is the baroque (literally!) internal politics of the Spanish conquistadors. But mostly there is the depiction of the Americas teeming with Native societies before disease decimated them. Cabeza de Vaca and his scant companions journeyed across the continent—on foot—were enslaved, but eventually gained reputation for being magical healers, before finally wandering back into a zone of Spanish colonization. This would be the most epic tv show ever.

Some TV Shows, Movies, and Theater

There are so many tv shows… I’ve looked at several best of 2021 lists and there are many programs that I’ve never even heard of, much less seen. These, though, were well worth anyone’s time:

  • Succession, Season 3—This is the season where it finally clicked with me that it’s intended to be a comedy and wasn’t just inadvertently funny.
  • Mare of Easttown—Kate Winslet can act! The attention to detail in this show was impressive. Aside from six months living in Baltimore, I haven’t spent a lot of time in the Mid-Atlantic region, but I have spent most of my life in the rust belt. So I found many things relatable.
  • The White Lotus—This show was very funny in a way that hits very close, but hopefully not to me.

Biggest Disappointment: Foundation. I had been really looking forward to this adaptation of Isaac Asimov’s series since I first caught wind of it. Let’s just say that it wasn’t remotely what I’d hoped for.

Movies: Did I see any movies? Is it still a relevant art form? I just don’t know. I really miss that period of time from about 1993-2003 when movies felt particularly vital and I lived in places where I could see them in theaters. In retrospect it feels like a golden age, and I just haven’t been excited about movies since. TV feels more appealing these days, movies are like short stories by comparison. I prefer novels.

Theater: We attended two productions this year, The Fisherman’s Daughters, which is an original musical by Door County singer/songwriter Katie Dahl, and “Krampus Claws,” Yonder Artland’s annual Krampus pageant, which I wrote about here. Both of these were locally written and produced.

Visual Art

You’ll find this picture of Linda in the dictionary under the word ‘underwhelmed.’

Immersive Van Gogh—I only added this category so I can go on the record with this take: “Immersive Van Gogh” was the crassest money grab I’ve ever seen in the art world. As a family, we were underwhelmed almost immediately. We barely waited for the loop to repeat before taking off. It should have been called “Immersive Van Gogh Screensaver,” because that’s about how much depth it had. But everyone we know seem to love it, so we ended up feeling uncomfortably like some kind of artistic Ebenezer Scrooge. If you liked it, that’s okay. Van Gogh’s art is colorful and it’s hard to ruin it. But he was also, in his own way, a social reformer who felt a profound mission to help the poor. The artist who painted The Potato Eaters wouldn’t have recognized himself in this spectacle. No doubt the amount of money that we collectively spent could have funded the NEA for decades.

Dickeyville Grotto—On the way to Denver last Spring, we stopped by the Dickeyville Grotto. The religious life seems to have driven—inspired?—various priests and other devotees to create lavish and bizarre constructions and art environments, particularly in Wisconsin. This is one of the best we’ve seen. It’s just on the way out of the state, you can’t miss it. The Kohler Art Foundation will be doing restoration work here in 2022.

Frida Kahlo: Timeless (Cleve Carney Museum of Art at the College of Du Page, Glen Ellyn, Illinois)—This wonderful show was the opposite of “Immersive Van Gogh.” It was a rare exhibition of Kahlo paintings from throughout her life and, of all places, it was at a relatively small college art museum. The work was very well presented and contextualized, we all walked away feeling like we knew much more about her, her life, and her milieu. It was every bit as thoughtful and well-considered as the Van Gogh wasn’t. I’ve seen a lot of retrospectives in my life and this was one of the best, and in an unexpected place.

Aside from these, my experience of art in 2021 was almost entirely online. Hopefully, we’ll do better this year. (The image at the top of the screen is a Richard Serra piece that feels sadly neglected in a Chicago park).


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