You've heard it all before (read, throughout 2020). "We are never going back to the ways things used to be." And, "Little by little things will get better." Then along comes 2021 and the gradual getting better runs head first into the proverbial Mack truck of reality.
Thankfully stories, songs, and images can provide moments of escape, clarity, solace, reflection, and joy. Following is my list for 2021. This is something other than a favorites or a "best of" list. Some of my mentions will be frequently recalled for the lessons learned and encouragement discovered. Others will soon be forgotten, but in the moment they were a gracious gift. Maybe you'll find a few for your journey.
Allison Russell and Outside Child
are my choice for album of the year (I know I said this wasn't that kind of list, but this is that kind of album). Russell sings of her childhood enduring sexual abuse and parental mental illness. Her music is beyond beautiful as she flows across styles giving us more than what we deserve, but certainly what we need.
Leslie Jordan, Company's Comin' - Hoping to bring some respite in the midst of the pandemic Jordan goes to their roots resulting in an album of traditional hymns. The supporting cast is a bonus, think Dolly and Brandi (Carlile) for starters. I love the sense of timelessness. Jordan has lived a many faceted life and now in the dark days of a pandemic and national upheaval he returns to the music of his childhood and family.
Mary Chapin Carpenter, One Night Lonely - In November of 2020 Carpenter performed a live, retrospective, acoustic set at the legendary Wolf Trap Theater in Maryland, to an empty house. "...a stunning performance. Thoughtful, thought-provoking, consoling, and utterly involving." Liz Thomson, theartsdesk.com
Shelby Lynne, The Servant - With her mix of swagger and soul Lynne released an album perfect for the pandemic moment (it was recorded before Covid arrived). Further proof that less can be more. Lynne says that this album, "..saved her soul." It might be interesting to see what it does for us.
Sara Watkins, Under the Pepper Tree - Watkins continues to expand her reach in style and context resulting in music that fits the moment in her life and maybe our cultural moments as well. Under the Pepper Tree is a sharing of music from her childhood with her daughter. Another opportunity for pandemic comfort hearing music from times past from a new voice.
Willie Nelson, That's life - Willie does what only Willie can do. He takes songs associated with Frank Sinatra makes them new all over again. Another opportunity to breath deep, rest, remember and hope.
Grace Pettis and Nobody's Girl - Grace is the daughter of one of my longtime favorite singer songwriters, Pierce Pettis. Her career has been blossoming in recent years, including her collaboration with Nobody's Girl. They display a healthy sense of respect and adventure in taking on Tracy Chapman's Fast Car, resulting in a version that I have listened to over and over. Also, Grace released Working Woman in 2021 to strong reviews.
The Milk Carton Kids and Haley Heynderickx - Finally a live concert, September 5 at the Mount Baker Theater. Heynderickx opening was fresh and inviting. We had seen the Milk Carton years ago as an opening act in Seattle. The show was a perfect mix of great music and refreshing banter and presence. An oasis in the continuing storm.
Nanci Griffith 1953 - 2021. I have long been captivated by the music and life of Nanci Griffith. We saw her once in concert on the Pier in Seattle. Her music provided a comforting presence over the years and her death brings a great sadness.
Extra - Alison Krauss & Robert Plant, Raise the Roof - arrived late, but gonna be great.
How The Word is Passed by Clint Smith and Caste by Isabel Wilkerson - Two of three on this years list that I will label "must read." Not to instill guilt but to encourage a greater understanding for us all. Both give a unique historical understanding that can help us (the people of the USA and the greater world) move toward whole, healthy and just lives, relationships and communities. Each is beautifully written and while sweeping in scope both relate to the individual reader.
Jesus & John Wayne by Kristin Kobes Du Mez - The third book I note as "must read." Any understanding of American Evangelicalism without this book is left wanting. Personally, it was like a journey through my life in church and ministry settings. The bad news is Kobes Du Mez reveals the bleak reality of what evangelicalism is and how it got to this place. The good news is she gives light to a possible better future.
Last Chance Texaco by Rickie Lee Jones - A engaging memoir. I was drawn to read this following years of enjoying her, sometimes edgy and obtuse, music and her somewhat cryptic and unusual spiritual journey. My interest was deepened by discovering she was born in 1954 (a great year) and learning that she has significant life connections in the Pacific Northwest.
The Light of Days by Judy Batalion - I thought I knew about WWII and the resistance. I was wrong. The Light of Days is a heroic retelling of the lives of women (usually young women between the ages of 15 and 30) who strategized, organized and implemented actions to undermine the Nazi's while caring for their families and communities. It was hard to believe that any would survive, but a true gift of grace to learn of many who did.
Leaving Isn't the Hardest Thing by Lauren Hough - Go ahead, read it and you can explain it to me. Memoir, humor, tragedy, the ugliness of humanity mixed with kisses of grace.
Decolonizing Wealth, Indigenous Wisdom to Heal and Restore balance by Edgar Villanueva - An inside look at the world of philanthropy and a call for change.
The Cold Millions by Jess Walter - The early 20th century, a pacific Northwest setting, the pace and impact of cultural shifts and an intergenerational view of a family.
Winter Counts by David Heska Wanbli Weiden - A gritty thriller that continues to press on toward justice and peace.
MOVIES & TV
The Flight Attendant - Tried it once, gave up. Tried again and got hooked. Near the end there is a moment where Cassie, the lead character, has a personal awakening that was strikingly similar to something I have experienced in a crucial life moment.
The Kominsky Method - Great characters and storytelling. Every seeming unimportant detail came together for a perfect conclusion.
Schitt's Creek - Oh my, love conquerers all, over and over again.
Jeopardy - The final week of shows with Alex Trebek, the off air drama in search of a new host, multiple hosts and a number of 5+ win streaks.
Midnight Mass - If you haven't seen it you don't get it. Downright scary and creepy. But with whispers of something beyond, something more. The true depth and hope of life revealed.
Searching for Italy - How many weeks can you follow Stanley Tucci around Italy eating local foods? Appears enough that season two is coming next year. True "comfort food" as the pandemic lingered on.
Ma Rainey's Black Bottom - 1920's, the Blues, Chicago, Viola Davis and Chadwick Boseman (in his last acting role).
Only Murders in The Building - Steve Martin, Martin Short, Selena Gomez and an unending flow of great cameos. Two old guys and a young adult woman discover a murder and make a podcast. Seems normal for 2021. The cast shines, each in their way. Martin and Short bring both their history and new things for a new setting.
Reservation Dogs - My favorite show for 2021 (I know, this is not a favorite's list). Labeled as a comedy, Reservation Dogs is so much more. From the writing to production and acting indigenous people make this happen. The characters, the relationships, the moments and the story arch all unite resulting in a great experience.
Offbeat Oregon History - It's Oregon, it's history and it's a bit quirky. What's not to love?
Ask Me Another - I guess it may have been pigeonholed as Wait, Wait junior, eventually resulting in its cancellation. The hosts had great chemistry and the mix of music, humor and trivia was fresh.
American Prodigy, The Kid - A deep dive into the life and career of Ken Griffey Junior. A must listen for any Pacific Northwest baseball fan (maybe any baseball fan).
The Last Archive - Season Two: The Rise of Doubt. I love an honest exploration of doubt. An overall great season with an ending episode for the moment and the ages.
Throughline - This keeps making the list because they keep telling the stories of history by reminding us the, "The past is never the past."
Embedded - The Capitol Gazette - The story of five murders in an Maryland newsroom. Investigative storytelling at it's best.
Plain English - Tech, politics and culture. I'm hooked. the November 23 episode, Buy or Sell Pandemic Trends is a gem.
Gangster Capitalism, Jerry Falwell Jr. and Liberty University - This confirms many of my prejudices (this may not be a good thing). It is either a guilty pleasure or cautionary tale. Maybe both.
The Rise and Fall of Mars Hill - The proverbial train wreck, It's an ugly mess but I can't quit looking (listening)...