Friday, December 31, 2021

2021 Flashback: Music, Books, & Misc.

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Top Ten Songs of 2021

#10 "Bad Habits" Ed Sheeran

I always resent when Ed Sheeran makes a song I like, but I need to open my heart up to joy wherever it happens to come from! This song has an excellent propulsive beat, and its minor key hook creates a real atmosphere of lurking, creeping dread that highlights the downbeat lyrics extremely well.

#9 "Boys Don't Cry" Yoshi Flower

Here's the tonal opposite of "Bad Habits," a contemplative song that hides its feelings behind a cheery major key that evokes Katy Perry's "Roar" more than it does the sadboy indie vibes the lyrics are asking for.

#8 "Leave Before You Love Me" Jonas Brothers

I don't suppose this remark would sell the song to that many people, but the entirety of this song seems to exist in the chord progression of the bridge from Wham!'s "Last Christmas." I think that serves its tragic yet chill vibes mighty well, though.

#7 "Up" Cardi B

Neither tragic nor chill is Cardi B's first single of the year. Cardi just knows how to have fun, which is the vibe we desperately need in 2021. If I told you how many times I've had the phrase "dirty-ass, dusty-ass bitch, you got pinkeye" has rolled through the back of my brain over the past 11 months, you'd probably worry a little.

#6 "Heartbreak Anthem" Little Mix, Galantis, and David Guetta

Starting with a riff ripped from Beyoncé's "Halo" isn't the move I was expecting from Swedish dance duo Galantis, but they apply their magic to this more downbeat song, making it impeccably fun in the process.

#5 "Symptomatic" Peach PRC

The theme of this year's tracks, as I'm just realizing now, is "bops about depressing things." That's pretty much where we're at right now, yeah. "Symptomatic" is a bubbly pop banger, but it adds a dollop of bitter to the sweet with the best pop lyrics about mental health I've ever heard.

#4 "Montero (Call Me By Your Name)" Lil Nas X

Lil Nas X is the king of singles, and while the video for this song received more attention than the music itself, the music is damn good. The way that droning harmony kicks in during the chorus rattles my bones every time. This is one of those songs that I want to play again immediately the second it ends.

#3 "Keep an Eye On Dan" ABBA

ABBA's reunion album 40 years later was certainly patchy. They didn't have another "Mamma Mia" in them, and they knew it, opting for a darker, more contemplative vibe. However, "Keep an Eye On Dan" is the best of both worlds, applying the disco synth pageantry of a "Voulez-Vous" to a song about joint custody, creating a startling, stirring juxtaposition.

#2 "Josh" Peach PRC

I always try to avoid having the same artist appear on any of these lists twice. I had several other songs waiting in the wings, but I just had to go back to the Peach PRC well. "Josh" is a goddamn delight of a breakup song, applying superb pop production to a sublime diss track. The way the instrumentation drops out during the first lines of the chorus, allowing the vocoder and a saucy ticking clock to run the show, is damnably clever and gives the song a sense of texture that most indie pop could only dream of.

#1 "That's What I Want" Lil Nas X

Oops, another repeat. What am I supposed to do when I'm faced with a second huge helping of chocolate cake like this final promotional single? That four-note riff that accents the first two lines of the chorus is as immediately irresistible as the hand claps in the Friends theme song. Listen to this more than once and tell me you're not already singing along.

Best 2020 Song I Missed: "Pink Pony Club" Chappell Roan

It is the great tragedy of my life to be so behind the times as to not have this song reign proudly at #1 on my list for 2020. OK, I'm glad Kesha's "Father Daughter Dance" got its due, but "Pink Pony Club" is a sparkling jewel that deserves all the attention it never got. The first time those throaty synths kick in just launch me into the atmosphere and I never come down. This video is also excellent, both in its low-budget evocation of its themes, and in the exacting way the visuals support the storytelling of the song itself.

Bottom Five Songs of 2021

#5 "Little Things" ABBA

Positioning this as the third song on the album almost had me give up on ABBA on my first listen. It's a dreadfully treacly little nothing of a track that they're convinced will get traction because it's about Christmas. That said, it would only be the third worst track on most artists' Christmas albums, so I'm glad ABBA just gave us the one song.

#4 "Spaceman" Nick Jonas

I get it, COVID has us all in a mood. I just think the metaphor is so weak here, and "Spaceman" just feels like such a hilariously out of date phrase.

#3 "Drinkin' Beer. Talkin' God. Amen." Chase Rice feat. Florida Georgia Line 

Where would I be without bro country? These lists would be a lot harder to compile, that's for sure.

#2 "This Is How Your People Dance" Diana the Musical Cast

It was hard to pick a single song from Diana the Musical, which is a holistic nightmare that doesn't have a single part you can point to and confidently declare "yes, that is the worst thing about this." However, the song that both unironically uses the term "funkadelic" and the rhyme "the Russian plays on and on, like an endless telethon" deserves to rot in music prison. Also, if you want to go ahead and skip to 2:30 on that video, you'll see some of the hilariously pathetic choreography that I was mentioning back there in the FILM section. 

#1 "Friday (Remix)" Rebecca Black feat. Dorian Electra, Big Freedia & 3OH!3

I'm a huge proponent of the original "Friday," which is a bad song in the most perfectly catchy way. This song takes that track, applies the most basic Ableton Live filter to it, and calls it a day. It's one of the laziest remixes I've ever heard, and it does not serve any of the wild coterie of people who have arrived to attempt to make something of the shrill mush Rebecca Black left behind.

Best Music Video: "Montero (Call Me By Your Name)" Lil Nas X

Now, when I said the music wasn't getting enough attention, I didn't mean the video should be ignored. I mean, come on! The lap dance with the Devil is obviously the lightning rod moment, but for me the peak of this particular pop confection is Lil Nas X's Marie Antoinette costume. Scrumptious.

Best Guilty Pleasure: "Stay" Justin Bieber & The Kid Laroi

The guilty pleasure aspect of this is that I learned about the song from TikTok videos which I watched reposted on Instagram because I am an old man.

Best Cover Song: "Think of Me" Patrick Wilson

The Broadway charity show Miscast finally gave Patrick Wilson (who played Raoul in The Phantom of the Opera opposite Emmy Rossum) the chance to show off his pipes by handing him Christine's big number, and he knocks it out of the park even though he's given a sub-karaoke-bar level backing track.

Best Album Cover: Montero, Lil Nas X

Lil Nas X knows how to promote the shit out of his work and get the best people to help him do it. Unfortunately, the album itself is rather bland if you strip away the killer singles, but we can always just prop it up and look at it.

Worst Album Cover: Voyage, ABBA

Now, I need to know who approved this desperately uninteresting design. What is this meant to convey to me? ABBA came from the Sun? I don't know and I don't care. Thanks, everyone.

2021 Crush: Alex Landi, "Kiss Me More" Doja Cat

Obviously the man is hot. This isn't news. He's on Grey's Anatomy. But there's something about putting him in a candy colored ocean in a spacesuit that amps him up 1000%.


My Libby app helped me catch up with a lot more contemporary books this year than I normally do. However, though the top 3 entries are 2021 releases, I've still spent too much time in the past to fill out an entire top 5 so we're gonna get...

The Top 5 Books I Read in 2021

#5 My Brother's Husband, Gengoroh Tagame (2015-2017)

This manga, by prolific yaoi artist Gengoroh Tagame is a fascinating blend. The art style is typically his own, with both the adult men frequently taking their clothes off and looking damn good doing it (no full-frontal nudity, but plenty of everything else). However, it's also a tender and sweet rumination about a single father who comes to terms with his deceased twin brother's homosexuality during a visit from his widower, a Canadian who is fulfilling one of his husband's final wishes. It's extremely didactic, and much more directed to straight Japanese audiences than gay American ones, but it's such a beautiful reflection of loss and societal stigma that it completely bowled me over.

#4 Uzumaki, Junji Ito (1998-1999)

The rest of the manga I've read this year has been the work of Junji Ito, horror mangaka extraordinaire. Uzumaki is the twisted tale of a town that becomes obsessed with spirals, and the various supernatural ways that this sinister influence exerts itself. It's an unspeakably chilling work that delivers more grotesque, beautiful chiaroscuro art with the turn of every page.

#3 The Darkness Outside Us, Eliot Schrefer (2021)

I signed up for "horny gays in space," but what I didn't expect was a thrilling science fiction mystery so compelling that I could hardly put it down. Even if you guess the ultimate reveal before the time comes, the novel combats any impatience by becoming a love story so heartfelt and tragic that you don't give a shit when they still need to go through the plot motions.

#2 Girly Drinks, Mallory O'Meara (2021)

Mallory O'Meara's debut nonfiction work The Lady from the Black Lagoon was the Julie and Julie of horror cinema. I wasn't sure how her more focused historical work Girly Drinks, which is a history of women and alcohol, would compare. However, by tracing the history of what and how women drank across history and across cultures, O'Meara paints a deeply compelling picture of the crushing power of misogyny, yet keeps the tone light with her signature humor at the same time.

#1 Aristotle and Dante Dive Into the Waters of the World, Benjamin Alire Sáenz (2021)

Artistotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe is one of the most beautiful, lyrical young adult novels ever written, so this many-years-later sequel had big shoes to fill. It's a lot longer and a little less perfect, but it still made me cry upwards of a hundred times so I still highly recommend it.

Top 5 Agatha Christie Books I Read in 2021

When I was picking through the 150+ books I read during 2021, I had to contend with the gargantuan mass of Agatha Christie, which I began voraciously marathoning in June. I hurtled my way through Poirot, Marple, and even Tommy and Tuppence, Superintendent Battle, and Colonel Race. I still have upward of a dozen books of hers to get through because damn was the woman prolific, but I found myself in the pretty unique position of having all the author's most major works fresh in my memory so I thought I'd give y'all a little looksie at the results of my hunt through crime literature history.

#5 N or M? (1941)

This is the third entry in the Tommy and Tuppence series, which follows a plucky young married couple who constantly find themselves on adventures. They're not so young at this point, having reached middle age and the second World War. However, this tale of them sniffing out a German spy in a small seaside town is simultaneously a swashbuckling adventure, an airtight mystery, and as quasi-feminist as any of Christie's literature could ever get.

#4 Lord Edgware Dies (1933)

This Poirot mystery has a deliciously compelling hook, in which the murder seems easy enough to solve... at first. The woman who was witnessed shooting her husband while also attending a party miles away obviously hired that actress who looked exactly like her, right? But when evidence proves that this couldn't have been the case, things get gnarly from there.

#3 Absent in the Spring (1944, as Mary Westmacott)

Agatha Christie wrote six novels that had nothing to do with crime, all under the pen name of Mary Westmacott. Before I cracked open this one, I had no clue it would end up being as close to a masterpiece as her prose could ever get. Absent in the Spring tells the story of a woman in her late middle age being stuck at a rest facility for several days on her way home from Baghdad. While alone in the desert, she is determined to entertain herself by indulging in reminisces of happy memories. However, the more she thinks about them, the more she realizes that - not only aren't the memories as happy as she has convinced herself they are - she might just be unintentionally making everyone in her life utterly miserable through her dictatorial commitment to forcing the world to conform to the exact type of happiness she thinks she should be having. 

This tale of a woman finally confronting herself when she runs out of other people to talk to is an out-and-out tragedy that tinges on psychological horror as the bottom drops out from beneath her and she has to confront the possibility that her entire life might be a sham. It's the most emotionally compelling work Christie has ever written and by far the most any of her novels has earned the phrase "hidden gem." People gotta get on this one.

#2 Hercule Poirot's Christmas (1938)

But now now, we don't come to Agatha Christie for prose. We come to her for damn good mysteries, and Hercule Poirot's Christmas is delightful. All the most delicious hallmarks are present, including a massive family gathered around, every one of whom has a reason to want the miserable old sod dead. Introducing a supporting character with a mustache so luxurious he makes Poirot feel defensive of his own is just the cherry on top of a wild ride.

#1 The Murder of Roger Ackroyd (1926)

OK, nobody needs me to tell them that The Murder of Roger Ackroyd is fucking great. But The Murder of Roger Ackroyd is fucking great.

Here's Some Stuff That I Did in 2021

Screen Rant

Hey! I quit my day job in retail, which left me so stress-riddled and pandemic weary I could hardly function, and started writing movie and TV news for Screen Rant! Why not check out my articles and give me some sweet, sweet clicks?

Alternate Ending

I've also been continuing my work with the good folks over at Alternate Ending, both reviewing contemporary films and continuing my exploits with head critic Tim Brayton on the horror podcast Bride of Alternate Ending. Some of the reviews I'm most proud of this year are CinderellaHe's All That, and A Week Away, because if there's one thing I adore, it's eviscerating some direct-to-streaming crap. I also participated in a pilot podcast called A Worthy Binge, where Rob, Carrie and I reviewed every episode of The Falcon and the Winter Soldier. That show was a blast but too time consuming for two working parents who run a web site and host a podcast. I still have time though, just saying.

Other Podcasts

You can catch me on a whole heap of other shows. Check me out discussing Killer Party on Kill by Kill, Greetings from Bury Park/Blinded by the Light on Hazel & Katniss & Harry & Starr, Paranormal Activity: Next of Kin on The Friendchise, and the Fear Street trilogy on Two Friends Watch. Also we resurrected Attack of the Queerwolf for some special holiday episodes on My Bloody Valentine and Halloween H20: Twenty Years Later.

Word Count: 2733

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