Albums and Shows That Engaged Me This Year
It’s been such a joy to have friends share in this year-end tradition by writing their own lists! Make sure to check them all out at FridaySwell, a Medium Publication I created with hopes of more collaborative writing in the future. For continuity sake, I’m posting my list again here on weekendswell, but head on over to FridaySwell to read mine alongside others.
Haim — Women in Music Pt. III
These three sisters from the San Fernando Valley have taken my year by storm. Their appearance on Song Exploder (a top podcast this year) introduced me to them, where drummer Danielle explains the story behind their catchy hit, Summer Girl. This album hit my speakers all summer long, perfect for singing along while working around the house. In September I saw them in concert at the county bowl, and I’m hoping to end the year by seeing the youngest Haim sister’s first feature film appearance, Licorice Pizza.
Dua Lipa — Future Nostalgia
This is a pure pop indulgence and my mention of it here will surely dash any chance I have of becoming a smarter-than-thou music critic. It’s just fun! The Future Nostalgia album earns its name by sliding retro effects (like the vocoder) between European dance beats and catchy lyrics. It was, in fact, another episode of Song Exploder that made me give Dua Lipa another chance (can I just call her Dua?), prompting me to rethink my first impression of her as “just another dance fad”. She has surrounded herself with talented writers and musicians, which surely gives her that staying power.
Soccer Mommy — Color Theory
Sophie Allison’s music in fact has nothing to do with soccer or mommies, but it captures her early-20’s angst in such a bright way. The band shines: mid-tempo, straight forward drumming with simple, electric rhythm guitar, and the occasional riff. But it’s the vocal delivery and lyrics that allows the listener that “litmus lozenge” escape for any lingering sadness. I caught a live-stream concert of hers in late 2020 from Central Park — the band sounded surprisingly great given the medium. She also has a killer remake of Drive, by The Cars. I keep this album near for the days when I need it.
Mr. Jukes — God First
Surely my favorite artist name of the year is “Mr. Jukes” (Jack Steadman’s stage name apparently comes from a seafaring character in a Joseph Conrad book named Jukes, who “keeps it cool during the whole thing while they’re descending into chaos”). Jukes (can I call him Jukes?) keeps it cool indeed as he partners with Barney Artist for a great 2021 album called The Locket. However, it’s his 2017 record, “God First” that drew me back again and again. Hovering between gospel, R&B, and rap, Jukes collaborates with Lianne La Havas and De La Soul to produce this varied album that stays interesting throughout.
The Marías — Cinema
Truly a cinematic album, this LA-based duo makes music that could easily play through the needle of a darkened, leather-booth cocktail lounge. The album meanders from hook-filled vocals (Hush) to the rainy-day slow jam, All I Really Want is You. Plays well in the foreground or background.
Arlo Parks — Collapsed in Sunbeams
This record by UK-based Arlo Parks picks up where Lianne La Havas or Jorja Smith left off, patiently delivering warm vocals and poetic lyrics over lazy drum tracks. This debut album has won a lot of attention — deservedly so — including the year-end #1 from KCRW. Try out the song Eugene to get started!
An intriguing British crime drama slowly unpeels the lives of its two main characters whilst solving several cases over eleven episodes. The writing is excellent (it’s based on the Cormoran Strike novels written by J.K. Rowling), and the visuals are stylistic and warm, the striking of each cigarette-lighting match making you want to have a smoke outside the pub with detective Strike and his assistant, Holliday Grainger. (HBO Max)
Call My Agent
One sign of a good show is that even when you don’t speak the language, you keep watching, subtitles and all. The Parisian talent firm is a perfect vehicle to follow the lives of these hard-working agents, while various guest stars provide the week-to-week crisis. (Netflix: in French, with English subtitles)
We had such a fun ride with the 4 wee girls from Derry, Northern Ireland, and their cousin James from London who joined them at the all-girls Catholic School. It’s amazing how a show that has the urban warfare of “The Troubles” can feel so universal, with its high school foibles and cliquish copy cats. Also sports a great 1990’s soundtrack. (Netflix: in Irish, with English subtiles 😉 )
Awkwafina is Nora From Queens
Nora is a lovable loser living at home — her lonely father and a crass gramma cherish her even while she is trying to move out before turning thirty. In one episode, gramma invites Nora to ride the bus to gamble in Atlantic City with her Chinese senior club, and ends up brawling with a group of older Korean women over the single iPad charger in the cafe. In another episode, Nora meets someone who invites her to join a focus group scam and they play their flexible-age looks for money, until the police arrest them. This is a just for fun show that made me laugh out loud. (HBO Max)
Mare of Easttown
Riveting crime solver Kate Winslet plays a small town detective (with some very specific type of Pennsylvania accent), and an ending that keeps on giving. Wake up each day waiting for the next episode. Related recommendation: The Sinner Season 3, with Matt Bomer from White Collar. (HBO Max)
Love Life Season 2
Season one was good, don’t get me wrong, with Anna Kendrick leading a cast of twenty-somethings figuring out life in NYC. But the second has more to say, and in a more nuanced way. This is largely due to the performance of William Fitzgerald Harper (Chidi from The Good Place), who brilliantly portrays a struggling book editor who navigates both the journey of love, and of being Black in a white world (while trying to prove to his friends that he’s not “too white”). Two Saturday Night Live cast members, Punkie Johnson and Ego Nwodim, show their acting chops as well, to great effect. The second season acts like a spin-off from the first, with only a few characters returning, so I say just start there. (HBO Max)
A fascinating imagination of a world that split 1987 Berlin into two identical copies, where the smallest action created a ripple effect until the two worlds were at war. Each person has an “other” — an identical twin on the other side, including its main character played by J.K. Simmons. Over its 2 seasons the show lagged a little at the start of Season 2, but after a pause I returned to finish, and the “what if” questions it asks still remain in my mind. (Prime)
♦ weekendswell ♦
Did last year’s favorites stand the test of time? See for yourself : 2020 Favorites