2021: Year in Review

With Christmas behind us and a road-trip to California on the horizon this week, it seems like a good day to sit and settle up the scores for 2021 here at my website, as I normally do at this time each year, plus or minus a few days. Unless I get ambitious, or someone I care about deeply passes away soon, this will likely be the final post of the year, for better and/or for worse.

ON THE BLOG:

In 2020, I surprised myself by publishing 147 posts, the most I’d done since the Poem-A-Day Project in 2004. Retiring from full-time work certainly gave me more time to write, as did COVID-driven cancellations of planned travel, and the need to fill socially isolated time in some satisfying and/or productive fashions. Traffic was robust in 2020, too, with other similarly isolated folks seeking to fill their own suddenly-surplus time online, a trend which I explored more fully (and made future forecasts regarding) in my Coronablogus post last month. For 2021, this post is Number 120, marking about a 20% decrease over last year’s rate of production, in terms of actual new entries on the site. But even with that smaller number of entries, the overall site readership trend was positive, as shown below. (Actual numbers are  edited out, as it’s tacky to share them, and the trend line is what matters; the light-blue pipes are total unique page visits, the dark-blue pipes are total unique visitors, so both grew in 2021):

I’ve owned this domain since the mid-1990s, but prior to 2015, I split my writing between a variety of sites with a variety of hosts, so there’s no easily meaningful visual comparison to make from those times. But at bottom line, the last two years have been quite good ones here, from both audience-engagement and writer-productivity standpoints, things that I most certainly would not have predicted in 2019. Of the 120 original posts this year, 57 were part of the second Favorite Songs By Favorite Artists series, which seems to be popular. I was originally thinking I’d carry it on into 2022, but after a few weeks off, I think it has run its course, and I’m going to put it to bed, for now.

As I report each year, here are the baker’s dozen most-read articles among the 120 new posts here over the past twelve months. It’s probably indicative of the fact that both my readers and I are (mostly) folks of a certain age that obituary-type posts fill such a sizable portion of the most-read roster. Our long-time heroes are leaving us, even as we contemplate our own collective mortality, especially during this, our Anno Virum. On the flip-side, I would note that two of the most life-affirming events for Marcia and I this year (our daughter’s wedding and our adventure in Grand Canyon) also made the Top 13, so it’s good that nice news appeals sometimes as well. Then there’s the odd dichotomy of having had a bit of life-affirmation by returning to our first in-person musical performance since COVID hit us, then seeing one of the artists who sang for us passing away mere weeks later. Both of those reports make the Top 13 below, as do four of the “Favorite Songs” entries. So there’s a bit of everything, tone-wise, which I suppose is just fine and dandy:

And then here are the baker’s dozen posts written in prior years that received the most reads in 2021. It always fascinates me which of the 1,000+ articles on my website interest people (or search engines) the most, all these years on since the first 1995 post on the earliest version of this website. (Note that I exclude things like the “About Me” page or the generic front page from the list, even though they generate a lot of my traffic). Once again, here’s hoping that people realize that the perennially-popular “Iowa Pick-Up Lines” post is a joke, and also, once again, it continues to befuddle me, as always, why my 1999 interview with relatively-obscure guitarist Dave Boquist appears on this “most-read” chart almost every year, receiving far more hits, continually, than my many other interviews with many other far more famous artists. Go figger . . .

ELSEWHERE ON THE WEB:

See this earlier post: Best of My Web 2021

TRAVEL:

We will see 2021 off, God willing and the creek don’t rise, from a condo in San Clemente, California, where we’re headed this week for a winter getaway. After years of somewhat absurd levels of travel, 2021 was quite benign for us: we only spent time in six states, as opposed to the 20+ I’ve experienced for much of the past decade. As I looked at my annual travel map, below, (I’ve pre-filled in our trip to San Clemente, with a planned stop at Joshua Tree National Park), it occurred to me (initially) that this was the first year in my entire life where I never spent any time east of the Mississippi River. But then, as I looked closer, I realized that, yeesh, I never even made it east of the Continental Divide in 2021. That’s a pretty profound paradigm shift, given my deep roots in the Carolinas, and our long stints in New York and the Midwest. If I can do so safely, I do intend to visit my mother in South Carolina in early 2022, and Marcia and I are cautiously hopeful that we may be able to consider international travel again later in the year, if we can do so with undue fear for our personal health and safety. I guess if we had to have a limited travel year, we couldn’t have picked a better place to do it from than our new home in Sedona, Arizona, as there’s plenty of stuff to do and see hereabouts, without having to fly or drive far to achieve the full experience.

RECORDINGS:

See these three earlier posts:

BOOKS:

See this earlier post: Best Books of 2021

FILM AND TELEVISION:

See these two earlier posts:

AND  THEN . . . .

. . . onward into 2022, with a very deep sense of unease about the ways in which our Nation seems to be careening toward institutional racism and fascism and theocracy. It’s truly frightening to see how the will of a determined minority, intent on using every lever of power available to them (legal or otherwise), seemingly takes priority over the desires and wishes and votes of the remaining majority of the population, among which I count myself. Which is so sad, on so many planes, particularly for someone who once proudly served the Nation as a Federal employee and an active duty service member. Here’s hoping that a year from now, I’ll feel better about these things. But I doubt that’s going to be the case, alas, even if I don’t regularly write about such things here, because I don’t feel like I have a lot to add to the narrative, and it’s intellectually depressing to continually wallow in it.

On a brighter note, I’ve mentioned in passing a few times here over the past year that I’ve been hard at work on a book with long-time friend and Naval Academy classmate Rear Admiral Jim McNeal, co-author of The Herndon Climb: A History of the United States Naval Academy’s Greatest Tradition, which I reviewed here. Jim and I have a contract with McFarland, a publishing house based in North Carolina, to deliver a complete manuscript by the end of January 2022, with publication hopefully targeted before year’s end. If you’ve ever mucked around with the publishing industry, then you know that “instant gratification” is not in cards on projects like this one.

We finished the main-line text (about 75,000+ words) last week, and I then had the pleasure of taking the digital version of it to a local print shop, producing the first physical version of the text for compilation and copy-editing purposes. Our skilled editor is hard at work on the manuscript, per the photo below. And here’s hoping that when I do next year’s version of this annual report, I’ll be able to point you toward a purchase site to acquire our book, should you be interested, and that we’ll be (a) past the worst of the pandemic, and (b) not living in a political place that would make the most dystopian fantasist shudder with revulsion.

I don’t know whether I’ll continue in 2022 to churn out the piffle and tripe at recent levels, or whether your collective engagement with the site will continue to grow and expand. (One of the nice things about doing this as a labor of love, and not a labor of commerce, is that the thought of less traffic in the year ahead does not cause me any agita). But regardless of how all of those things turn out, I will forever be grateful to those of you who care enough to continue supporting my creative endeavors, right here and right now, and I wish all of you and all of yours the very best over the days and months and years to come!

So, did you mean “Let’s eat, Grandma” or “Let’s eat Grandma” here?

Best Television of 2021

As noted, teased and promised in yesterday’s Best Films of 2021 post, this, our viral life, has found me unexpectedly watching far more television over the past two years than I have at any time since (maybe) my early Saturday Morning Cartoons days (and even that’s a bit questionable, time-wise). While I have certainly sat through some disappointing time-wasters over the past year, I’ve also really enjoyed a fair number of things that I don’t think I would have bothered to watch, pre-COVID. And, me being me, that means I have to make a list, and share said list with you.

While these shows do not appear the list below, because they either did not air in 2021, or did not originate in 2021, I do note that I am most excited about the return of Letterkenny later this month, and that we’ve watched the first episode of the normally outstanding The Expanse, which was, alas, kind of meh. I also adored Sherman’s Showcase, which was a 2019/2020 release, but which promises a second season soon. So if this becomes an annual year-end list, then I suspect you’ll see some or all of those three (if The Expanse bounces back during its final five episodes, anyway) in my hypothetical 2022 list.

And with that as preamble, here are my ten favorite multi-episode things that I watched on television over the past year, and that do not qualify (to my mind) as feature films . . .

#10. Brand New Cherry Flavor

#9. Only Murders In The Building

#8. 1971: The Year That Music Changed Everything

#7. South Side

#6. Reservation Dogs

#5. Resident Alien

#4. The Beatles: Get Back

#3. Letterkenny

#2. Squid Game

#1. Ted Lasso

Best Films of 2021

What a weird year for movies 2021 has been!

Right off the bat, the obvious defining weirdness is that I have not set foot in a movie theater in almost two years at this point. A bit less obvious: I have not historically been much of a television watcher, but in early COVID days, Marcia and I generally made an active effort to sit together to watch something on television most nights, and that habit has endured through 2021. I have not done so in the past, but as I look at the things that pleased me this year, I think that I probably need to do a “Best Television of 2021” post as part of my year-end wrap-up, covering the “non-movie” portion of our viewing experiences.

I likely watched more feature films in 2021 than in most any other year of my adult life, but I did so from the comfort of our plush command center at home, in front of our big-screen wall-mounted television, and not in a cinema setting. I know a lot of folks might find that disappointing, but I have to say, it’s been pretty great to not have any movies ruined in 2021 by assholes on cellphones or by chatting audience members or by glitchy sound/projection, or by annoyingly bright “EXIT” signs above open doors that admit the sounds of a crowded lobby into my viewing space. I could get used to this. No, scratch that: I have gotten used to this. While I’ll be happy at some point to watch a big-budget film with a popcorn bucket bigger than my head oozing iridescent butter-flavored topping into my lap, for now, I’m all good with the privacy and focus that our home-based paradigm provides.

The other weird aspect in defining “Best Films of 2021” is defining exactly what counts. On a strictly calendar basis, I would certainly cite The Sound of Metal and Promising Young Woman among the very best things released in the past twelve months, but due to the shifts in award scheduling associated with the Anno Virum, both of those films were included in last year’s (belated) Oscar cycle, so it seems counter-productive to praise them now, since they’ve already gotten their award-season due. On the flip side of that, Nomadland also technically came out in 2021, winning a bucket-load of Oscars, and annoying me deeply, as I consider it to be one of the most over-rated films in recent memory, ugh. (I’d give that award for the latter part of calendar year 2021 to Dune.  Two-and-a-half hours to get halfway through the book? No thank you. And Timothée Chalamet as Paul Atreides? No, no, no, no, no, no, no, NO, NO!!! And NO!!!!! And did I mention NO!?)

Another weird factor to consider for 2021 movie lists: there were loads of films, mostly foreign ones, that debuted in the international festival circuits in 2019 or 2020, with their producers intending to release them in the United States shortly thereafter, only to have their plans duly and fully virused, like so many other plans, by so many other people. So the various American streaming services ended up offering we United Statesians with our first opportunities to see a lot of killer films from abroad, making them technically 2021 releases as far as domestic eyes are concerned, even though they may already have been a year or two old in terms of their own indigenous release dates. And then there’s the final weird factor with regard to streaming services like Netflix and Amazon Prime and Hulu and Disney+ and HBO Max, who released their own feature films on their own television platforms, raising the question (again) about what counts as a television show, and what counts as a cinematic film release.

In reviewing the (long) list of everything I watched (however it might be categorized) in 2021, I’ve decided that my basic premises for my Best Films of 2021 list will be to only include domestic films that did not make the deadline for consideration in the most recent Oscar cycle, and to include any non-domestic films that first saw release in any format since the end of that same Oscar cycle. As I originally posted this annual report before the end of both the 2021 calendar and award years, I do note that I have not yet seen several contending films, but I hope to do so before the Oscar broadcast, and I suspect that some of them may well be lifted into the “Best of 2021” list after I have a chance to see them. (Note: I will continue to update all of the lists below up until the Oscars are actually awarded). Please let me know if there are others that I need to prioritize in the weeks ahead.

  • The Dog Who Wouldn’t Be Quiet
  • Memoria

With all of that as a long preamble, here are my personal picks for the Best Films of 2021, in three broad categories:

Best New American Feature Films of 2021:

  • Annette
  • Being the Ricardos
  • Belfast
  • The Card Counter
  • Censor
  • C’mon C’mon
  • CODA
  • Concrete Cowboy
  • Cruella
  • Cryptozoo
  • The Dig
  • Don’t Look Up
  • Free Guy
  • The French Dispatch of the Liberty, Kansas Evening Sun
  • The Green Knight
  • The Harder They Fall
  • The Killing of Two Lovers
  • Language Lessons
  • Lapsis
  • Last Night in Soho
  • The Lost Daughter
  • The Mitchells vs the Machines
  • Old Henry
  • The Outside Story
  • Passing
  • Pig
  • Plan B
  • The Power of the Dog
  • Red Rocket
  • Saint Maud
  • Say Your Prayers
  • Together Together
  • The Tragedy of Macbeth

Best Documentary Feature Films of 2021:

  • 14 Peaks: Nothing Is Impossible
  • Kurt Vonnegut: Unstuck in Time
  • The Sparks Brothers
  • Summer of Soul ( . . . Or, When the Revolution Could Not Be Televised)
  • The Velvet Underground

Best Foreign Language Films Receiving First Wide American Release in 2021:

  • About Endlessness
  • Bad Luck Banging or Loony Porn
  • Bergman Island
  • Dead Pigs
  • The Disciple
  • Drive My Car
  • Flee
  • The Hand of God
  • I’m Your Man
  • Keep An Eye Out
  • Mama Weed
  • Mandibles
  • Night of the Kings
  • Parallel Mothers
  • Titane
  • Undine
  • Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy
  • Who You Think I Am
  • The Worst Person in the World

As a bonus feature, because I’m a bonus feature-offering kind of guy, if I had to cast an Oscar Ballot today, here would be my picks among the major categories, or among the minor categories where something really stuck with me for one reason or another. (Note: This list has been edited in real time to reflect the actual nominations, with which I was most displeased, after they were announced in February 2022; I have not had the chance to see the various shorts categories, so do not include them below):

  • Best Feature Film: The Power of the Dog
  • Best Director: Jane Campion, The Power of the Dog
  • Best Actor: Benedict Cumberbatch, The Power of the Dog
  • Best Actress: Olivia Colman, The Lost Daughter
  • Best Supporting Actor: Troy Kotsur, CODA
  • Best Supporting Actress: Jessie Buckley, The Lost Daughter
  • Best Adapted Screenplay: Maggie Gyllenhaal, The Lost Daughter
  • Best Original Screenplay: Eskil Vogt and Joachim Trier, The Worst Person in the World
  • Best Cinematography: Bruno Delbonnel, The Tragedy of Macbeth
  • Best Film Editing: Peter Scibberas, The Power of the Dog
  • Best Production Design: Stefan Dechant and Nancy Haigh, The Tragedy of Macbeth
  • Best Costume Design: Jenny Beavan, Cruella
  • Best Make-Up and Hair Design: Nadia Stacey, Naomi Donne and Julia Vernon, Cruella
  • Best Animated Feature Film: The Mitchells vs The Machines
  • Best Documentary Feature Film: Summer of Soul (. . . Or, When the Revolution Could Not Be Televised)
  • Best International Feature Film: The Worst Person in the World
  • Best Original Song: NO VOTE (protesting the exclusion of Ron and Russell Mael for contributing several brilliant songs to their Annette, and also protesting the inclusion of five pieces of musical crap, most especially a nomination for that herniated little over-rated right-wing anti-vaxxer gnome Van Morrison for his totally-distracting contributions to Belfast)
  • Best Original Score: Jonny Greenwood, The Power of the Dog
  • Any Other Best Big-Budget Boom-Boom Zip-Zap Pew-Pew Pretty-Pretty Technical Awards Given to Over-Long Films With No Heart: Dune

It’s not getting a lot of media attention, and it got no Oscar love when the nominations were announced, but this is truly a remarkable film, and I recommend it to you, most heartily.

With Which I Am Well Pleased XV (Feet of Pure White Snow)

Yet another installment in my recurring series, within which I share 15 things that have rocked my world over the past month or so. I’m working on various “Best of 2021” lists this month (see here for the first of that set), as one does, so this is likely the last short-term report of recent pleasures, before I shift fully into annual highlights. As always, I welcome your suggestions on things that I might have missed, but need to see, hear, watch, read, eat, play with, or experience!

FILMS:

TELEVISION:

MUSIC:

BOOKS:

With Which I Am Well Pleased XIV (Worms For Victor Hugo)

Yet another installment in my recurring series, within which I share 15 things that have rocked my world over the past month or so. As always, I welcome your suggestions on things that I might have missed, but need to see, hear, watch, read, eat, play with, or experience!

FILM

TELEVISION

MUSIC

BOOKS

With Which I Am Well Pleased XIII (Japanese Birds)

Yet another installment in my recurring series, within which I share 15 things that have rocked my world over the past month or so. As always, I welcome your suggestions on things that I might have missed, but need to see, hear, watch, read, eat, play with, or experience!

FILM

TELEVISION

MUSIC

BOOKS

Favorite Songs By Favorite Artists (Series Two) #44: Sparks

Note: For an index of all articles in this second “Favorite Songs” series, click here. For a summary of all artists covered in the original series, click here.

Who They Are: Eccentric California-bred brothers Ron (keyboards) and Russell (vocals) Mael have been writing and performing together since 1966, first as Halfnelson, then as Sparks after the re-release and re-branding of their Todd Rundgren-produced debut album in 1972. Sparks have released 25 studio albums since that time, largely existing as a quintessential cult band in the United States, while achieving wild rock-star status in England, Germany, Japan and elsewhere. The duo have worked with a variety of collaborators over the years, most notably German producer-composer Giorgio Moroder and/or his in-house team in the late ’70s and early ’80s. After a couple of fallow spells while the brothers worked on theatrical and film projects, Sparks have achieved a series of stunning late-career musical highs with their recent studio output, and their fame and acclaim (such as they are in their home country) have been capped this year with the release of the Edgar Wright-directed documentary The Sparks Brothers (which I most highly commend to you) and the rock opera Annette, with screenplay and score by Ron and Russell, starring Adam Driver, Marion Cotillard and Simon Hellberg, and directed by auteur Leos Carax. It offers a brilliant, often shocking movie experience, one of the most unusual, though-provoking and rewarding films I’ve seen in quite some time.

When I First Heard Them: 1980ish, on the radio while living in Rhode Island, as their first Moroder collaboration, the album No. 1 in Heaven, was burning up the charts on the other side of the Atlantic. I drifted in and out of their voluminous catalog over the ensuing years, while also exploring their previous records in a hit-and-miss fashion, but I really began paying active attention to them again after the release of Hello Young Lovers in 2006, largely in response to enthusiastic recommendations from my long-time fellow music-loving friend Adam. I’m deeply glad that he brought Sparks up to me around that time, because for all the scattershot brilliance of their earlier catalog, everything they’ve done since then has been spot-on amazing, soup to nuts, just bouncing from high point to high point with each new track and each new album release.

Why I Love Them: The Mael’s music is lyrically rich and engaging, often funny (but rarely silly), and the duo are blessed with some truly world-class chops when it comes to writing irresistible ear-worm hooks and melodies. Listen to them for a half hour, and I’ll all but guarantee that your brain with glom onto some chorus and play it on repeat inside your skull for days, if not weeks, to follow. The pair write in a variety of idioms, ranging from Donna Summer-style disco to brash guitar-based glam rock to orchestral grandeur to simple singalong chansons to Terry Riley-esques excursions into repetition, repetition, repetition, truly hammering their words, concepts, and sounds into your soul. As wonderful as their music is, Ron and Russell are also delightful interview subjects and eminently watchable on video and stage, quirky showmen capable of big gestures, and fond of sharing memorable imagery. Russell (who Sex Pistol Steve Jones repeatedly refers to as “Cutie Pie” in the Sparks Brothers documentary)  does indeed exude pop star charisma of the highest order, while also possessing an incredible, versatile, distinctive voice. Ron, for his part, is just, uhhhh . . . different: his stage visage tends to be scowling, and he’s worn either an Adolph Hitler, Charlie Chaplin, or John Waters mustache throughout the group’s career, in recent years topped with stylish and cool round glasses. Ron often pantomimes elements of the duo’s songs on stage, then deftly steps back to his keyboard (usually Roland-brand, with their logos having been altered to say “Ronald”) to add his virtuoso tinkly touches. As a fine example of his delightful eccentricities, Ron brightened early COVID days by creating a video to share the large collection of hand sanitizers that he’d collected over the years while touring the world. I watched it more than once, happily enthralled. I’ll be a most happy camper if I can claim to be even a tenth as cool and interesting and spry as Ron Mael is now, when I reach his current mid-70-something age. Something to aspire to there, right? I’ve been so high on Sparks in recent years that I think I am approaching a personal musical inflection point in terms of how I answer the dreaded “Favorite Band” question that originally inspired this whole series of articles. Sparks FTW? I think that just might be the case at this point . . .

#10. “The Number One Song in Heaven,” from No. 1 in Heaven (1979)

#9. “I Can’t Believe That You Would Fall For All The Crap In This Song,” from Exotic Creatures of the Deep (2008)

#8. “When Do I Get to Sing ‘My Way’?,” from Gratuitous Sax & Senseless Violins (1994)

#7. “Pulling Rabbits Out of a Hat,” from Pulling Rabbits Out of a Hat (1984)

#6. “Lawnmower,” from A Steady Drip, Drip, Drip (2020)

#5. “Dick Around,” from Hello Young Lovers (2006)

#4. “Nothing Travels Faster Than The Speed of Light,” from A Steady Drip, Drip, Drip (2020)

#3. “My Baby’s Taking Me Home,” from Lil’ Beethoven (2002)

#2. “So May We Start,” from Annette (Original Motion Picture Soundtrack) (2021)

#1. “What The Hell Is It This Time?,” from Hippopotamus (2017)

With Which I Am Well Pleased XII (Tone Tune)

Yet another installment in my recurring series, within which I share 15 things that have rocked my world over the past month or so. As always, I welcome your suggestions on things that I might have missed, but need to see, hear, watch, read, eat, play with, or experience!

FILM

TELEVISION

MUSIC

BOOKS