To the great surprise of no one on planet earth, this is a weird year in which to do a list like this. Or, anything else. When I started prepping for this I assumed I wouldn’t have enough content to fill it, but it turns out I do, with some tweaks. So here goes. Everything is listed in alphabetical order, unless otherwise stated.
My favourite albums of 2020
I’ve been pretty lax on music catch-up this year, and as such have not yet fully tackled this year’s releases by The Avalanches, Phoebe Bridgers, Basia Bulat, Bonny Light Horseman, Drakeo the Ruler, Fleet Foxes, Fontaines D.C., Damien Jurado, Lomelda, Bob Mould, Angel Olsen, Owen Pallett, Ratboys, Sigur Ros, Bartees Strange, Tricky, or U.S. Girls. So, as always, take the list below as a work in progress.
Fetch The Bolt Cutters by Fiona Apple
Me and everyone else, I guess. This seems to be the de facto pick for album of the year, and with good reason: it was a brilliant little surprise, near-impeccably made, and paired real maturity and restraint with all the usual bubbling edge.
Flower Of Devotion by Dehd
Admittedly a little all over the place toward the end of the album, but they could have cut just the first six songs and it still would have ended up on my top ten list. It grabbed me right from “Desire” and barely let go.
Rough & Rowdy Ways by Bob Dylan
It is absolutely bonkers to me that someone could be this good for this long. I really appreciate most of the album, but — goofy though it may be — “Murder Most Foul” just entered my bloodstream and stuck for the whole year.
Miss Anthropocene by Grimes
The last time I heard good things about a Grimes album I was skeptical. I was wrong then. I was wrong this time too. Catchy up and down the playlist. These albums always sit outside the usual genre I feel I like, but there’s something about her music that draws me in over and over.
Women In Music Part III by Haim
I was never that much of a Haim fan, but this sounds like so many things familiar to my brain — tributes to artists that felt familiar, Rostam’s co-production, etc. — that it gave the melodies a chance to catch up to my soul.
Snapshot Of A Beginner by Nap Eyes
I keep waiting for these guys to take a misstep. Not that I want them to, but rather because it seems like a hard high wire act to pull off time and again. But they’ve cemented themselves so well in this groove that it no longer feels like a derivative of other styles, so much as it feels like their style.
Set My Heart On Fire Immediately by Perfume Genius
As with all PG albums this one felt spiky, but the high notes were so high it carried the rest of the album. There’s more texture here than I know what to do with sometimes.
Every Bad by Porridge Radio
From out of nowhere, this one became my spring soundtrack with all its gentle intensity. The looping cri de coeur at the end of “Lilac” probably helped get me through the early days of COVID.
RTJ4 by Run The Jewels
Nothing gentle about this one. All the usual RTJ type hits, and “Ooh La La” might be my visceral favourite, but “JU$T” probably hit a new level for them.
Saint Cloud by Waxahatchee
Maybe the most consistent album on the list, as is her wont, there were no wrong steps here and several absolute killers. This might have been the tour I most wished could have happened in 2020.
My favourite songs of 2020
- Fiona Apple . “Under The Table”
- Ball Park Music . “Cherub”
- The Constantines . “Call Me Out”
- Dehd . “Desire”
- Bob Dylan . “Murder Most Foul”
- Jay Electronica . “The Blinding”
- Fontaines D.C. . “Televised Mind”
- Future Islands . “Thrill”
- Grimes . “4ÆM”
- Haim . “Up From A Dream”
- Jon McKiel . “Deeper Shade”
- Nap Eyes . “Mark Zuckerberg”
- Perfume Genius . “Describe”
- Porridge Radio . “Lilac”
- Jeff Rosenstock . “N O D R E A M”
- Run The Jewels . “Ooh La La”
- Tricky . “Hate This Pain”
- U.S. Girls . “Born To Lose”
- Kurt Vile & John Prine . “How Lucky”
- Waxahatchee . “St. Cloud”
My favourite movies of 2020
Obviously this wasn’t a big year for new releases, and anyway my movie consumption has been declining for a while because of how much TV we watch at home. My 2020 backlog includes Da 5 Bloods, The Forty-Year-Old Version, The Invisible Man, Kajillionaire, Mank, Never Rarely Sometimes Always, Nomadland, One Night in Miami, Portrait of a Lady on Fire, and Shirley, so as of right now I’ve only seen five that would make this list.
Made to look like one continuous shot, more or less, of two British soldiers carrying a message between two WWI units on the Western Front, this was such a rollercoaster between the horrific scenes of no man’s land, the bucolic French countryside, burning villages, serene woods, and so on, and so on, that I felt battered. I realized at a few points that I’d been holding my breath. Not without faults, but still a fairly fresh take on a very well-trod genre.
Quiet and subtle and chilling and clever and frustrating and not nearly far-fetched enough. That’s not a failing of the movie; things would be better if it were far-fetched.
This is what a documentary is supposed to be. It took a deeper look at the systemic issues within USA Gymnastics, not just at the rapist Larry Nassar, and gave plenty of airtime & consideration to the victims. As gripping as the story was we kept remarking throughout the documentary how well it was made. There’s a reason why it’s carrying a 100% score on Rotten Tomatoes.
Another excellent documentary, this one about trans representation in popular culture. A lot of familiar faces, some looks at good and bad examples — as well as the lasting implications of The Crying Game, and the subsequent Ace Ventura gag.
The Trial of the Chicago 7
Admittedly I knew nothing about this episode in American politics. It was a typical Aaron Sorkin script (read: clever, quick, and leftish) so it was an entertaining watch about an infuriating event. Pretty hard to buy Sasha Baron Cohen as Abbie Hoffman though.
My favourite TV shows of 2020
Like I said, the movie list is short in large part because the TV list is long. In addition to the ten 2020 shows below that I watched & liked this year, there were five that didn’t make the cut: Dirty Money, The Devil Next Door, Jeffrey Epstein: Filthy Rich, The Stranger, and Seduced: the NXIVM Story. I/we also watched older stuff: all six seasons of Bojack Horseman, season 1 of The Boys, three seasons of Broadchurch, six seasons of Community, season 3 of The Deuce, season 1 of Euphoria, both seasons of Fleabag, four seasons (and counting) of Grace and Frankie, two seasons of Line of Duty, all four seasons of The Man In The High Castle, two seasons of Mr. Robot, season 1 of Mrs. Fletcher, season 7 of New Girl (which I’d somehow never finished), season 2 of Pose, all five seasons of Schitt’s Creek, and a few miniseries like Safe, Unbelievable, and Waco. Plus parts of Succession and a constant rotation of old Office and New Girl episodes. Phew.
Caveats: I’m only partway through Lovecraft Country, Westworld season 3, and whatever stunted season of Billions this is, and haven’t even started Killing Eve season 3, though I doubt any of those would make this list anyway.
Consistently crude, consistently hilarious. Lots of winks to the camera this season, including some important ones about where the line should be in comedy, even a comedy where a constipated turd gets birthed like a baby.
I’ve come to love the quirkiness of this show, and how a loose thread attaches seasons together. This season we got a backstory to a backstory, and Chris Rock playing so against type I forgot it was Chris Rock. Also: Timothy Olyphant playing a role he now pretty much owns.
The Good Place
The final few episodes aired in January 2020 (remember January?!) so this one counts. One of the funniest and most optimistic shows on TV ended on a really lovely note, without a hint of the dumpster fire of a year that was to follow.
The Last Dance
I was just a bit too young to have truly witnessed the rise of Michael Jordan in real time (we also didn’t have cable, so I had no way to watch it even if I’d been paying attention) so this look back was a treat, a bigger pile of considerations in the GOAT discussion to sit alongside LeBron’s accomplishments. Plus it somehow led to us watching Spacejam.
Last Week Tonight with John Oliver
Still the smartest thing on TV. Still killed it, even working in a blank cube. The running Adam Driver joke was one of my favourite things all year.
I actually watched both seasons this year, watching season 1 on my flight to Madrid back in January (and then watching it again with my brother in Cairo later on that same trip) before bingeing season 2 in one Christmas vacation afternoon/evening. So entertaining on its own, yet with so much fan service.
The Plot Against America
Adapted from a Philip Roth novel I read years ago, this came to the screen — courtesy of David Simon, whose stuff I will always watch — at just the right time, as even more overt racist sentiments than usual came out of the American woodwork, egged on by the piece of shit in the White House.
A lesson in perseverance (it took decades to get this made) and in stylistic production, we binged this in <24 hours. Some absolutely indelible characters and scenes. It sparked a surge in online chess playing for Lindsay, for one thing.
Struggled under its own weight a bit, but makes it here on (a) the strength of the leads, especially the incomparable Merritt Wever; and (b) the clever Phoebe Waller-Bridge script. I’ll watch anything those two team up on, from now ’til the end of time.
I only started watching this in 2020, bingeing every season and catching up to the end not long after it aired for real. So consistently hilarious and deserving of all the late-breaking accolades. As I type this my niece is downstairs watching it, having gotten hooked on it when we played her the pilot. (We gave her an “Ew, David!” t-shirt for Christmas, pre-emptively guessing that she’d like the show.)
My favourite books of 2020
There was only one again this year. I just…I can’t seem to get myself back to books. We even tried forming a book club, but then we bought a house, and that was it. I started a few, but the only thing I finished was Cork Dork by Bianca Bosker. Imagine that, a book about wine.
My favourite podcasts of 2020
COVID definitely messed with my podcast listening. I used to listen to them both ways on my commute, but don’t find them easy to listen to while at home, so I didn’t listen to any of some previous favourites (Intelligence Squared, Reveal, Revisionist History, The Anthropocene Revealed) this year and am massively behind on others.
This is one of the ones I’ve fallen behind on, though in the early days of the pandemic when I was still trying to force myself to go for long walks, I was burning through lots of them. As long as Roman Mars creates this, it will likely be in my top ten.
Against The Rules
Maybe it’s Michael Lewis’ voice (the Roman Mars love would lend some credence to that theory) or maybe it’s his skilled storytelling, but I love this series.
Such a beauty of a podcast: a small, inside-baseball story of an actor trying to descend into the particulars of his near-miss casting rejection of a bit part in Band of Brothers, and the apparent reason: that Tom Hanks thought he had “dead eyes” during the audition. Truly great for a fan of the series, or anyone who can sympathize with a struggling actor.
This launched in early March so I missed it, but once I found my way back I was hooked. This look back at Hurricane Katrina, with a clear-eyed look at the racism on display in both the response and the media coverage, was thoughtful and thorough.
Earlier this year Lindsay and I made a deal: I’d watch the Harry Potter movies if she’d watch the Star Wars movies. We started listening to this podcast because the two hosts, Nicole Byer and Lauren Lapkus, were also watching the Star Wars movies for the first time. It’s pretty great, and when Byer called Han Solo “Hans” I almost laughed myself unconscious.
My only complaint about this Scaachi Koul podcast is that there were too few episodes. The world needs so much more of her snarkwit.
Still my favourite Canadian politics podcast. Granted, it’s the only one I listen to, but still. While the two hosts (Jen Gerson and, now, Sandy Garossino) are ostensibly on opposite sides of most issues, the best episodes might counterintuitively be the ones where they agree. Their co-savaging of the lack of subsidized childcare along with a University of Calgary economics professor, or their up-and-downing of a Huawei exec, for example.
Just as I’ve loved their previous seasons (Nixon; Clinton; Biggie & Tupac) this one about the rise of David Duke was an illuminating look back at a period I wasn’t really old enough to grasp, but which still seemed/seems infuriatingly relevant today.
This American Life
Another series I’m well behind one, but the episodes I listened to in the early days of the pandemic — or even some reported from China in January, when it was there and not yet here — were of the usual calibre that lands TAL here year after year.
Uncover season 6
This CBC podcast has been a past favourite (season 3, The Village) but season 6, about Satanic Panic in small-town Saskatchewan in the early ’90s, touched off memories from my own youth (as someone whose brothers and brothers’ friends played D&D) and of the West Memphis Three.
My favourite meals of 2020
These are listed in chronological order and, because of the pandemic, there were obviously very few memorable meals out.
Jacobs & Co., Toronto
A perpetual contender for this list, Jacobs didn’t disappoint when we visited in January. Killer vintage sparkling, local Wagyu, a bottle of Etude I brought from my cellar, 1929 Don PX for dessert, and I was shown (but couldn’t/wouldn’t spring for) a bottle of 1863 Madeira. Mercy.
On my last night in Madrid for a January conference, I ate alone in the hotel’s top restaurant with only a smattering of occupied tables in the whole room. I had oxtail fritters and duck and a lovely bottle of Tempranillo, and a surprise dessert courtesy of the staff. Lovely. (Close second on this trip: the churros con chocolate I ate outside at San Ginés.)
Still in January, Lindsay and I met up with some fellow East-enders for dinner at Wynona. We’d been once or twice before; they had not. We ran through a pretty good chunk of the menu, and a few interesting bottles of wine, before being chased from our table having gone well past our time limit.
In February, back when groups of people could gather in small rooms, I attended a work celebration dinner in the private room at Barberian’s. The food and wine flew thick and fast, so it’s all a bit of a blur — especially now — but I remember it being pretty damn special. I hope to get back to that room some day.
Elora Mill Hotel, Elora
For our first getaway from the city during the pandemic I could have picked dinner the first night — our first meal in a restaurant since March, a good one at that, and also my birthday — but the one that sticks out is dinner the following night, when we ordered to our room and ate outside, on the terrace, overlooking the river. It was a pretty perfect evening.
In the summer, when the lockdown was temporarily lifted just enough to allow restaurants to open (before being slammed shut again, as we all expected), we managed to sneak in one meal on a makeshift patio outside of ēst. The city allowed restaurants to set up outdoor dining in the rightmost lane of Queen Street, so we ate our meal with a streetcar rumbling by inches from my head, but it still felt pretty glorious. Now, several weeks into the latest lockdown, it’s a distant dream.
Honourable mention to a few other new-to-us Toronto joints I/we managed to try before the lockdown: Bodega Henriette, Cluny, Chotto Matte, Xola, and Osteria Rialto.
My favourite (new) beers of 2020
Granted, my beer drinking was already slowing down, and the lack of travel (visiting beer bars is how I find cool neighbourhoods in new cities) cut into it even more, but I did managed to scrounge a list of some pretty good beers. In chronological order.
Cascade Brewing Framblanc (2016)
A bottle of vintage sour from the cellar, shared over lunch at Bar Hop Session on the Danforth.
La Pirata / La Quince Frapufino + Perennial Intentionally Indulgent
Two beers — a coffee/milk stout and Tiramisu-inspired imperial stout respectively — sampled at the Brew Wild Pizza Bar in Madrid, just down the street from my hotel.
Fábrica Maravillas Black Star
Another milk stout in Madrid, this one house-made at a tiny brewpub. Whilst sat at the bar I met a guy from New Jersey just taking a detour on his way home from an internship at Brasserie Cantillon.
Bellwoods Barn Owl (No. 18) + Willibald Farm Pay It Forward
Hard to say whether I drank these during a work sesh or friend hangout at Boxcar Social. I’d had other Barn Owl variants before but this passionfruit version stood out. As did this oatmeal stout from Willibald Farm, which was new to me.
I was kind of shocked to see that this was my first shapeshifter. I was going to dig into it to see if my data was skewed, but then I thought: fuck it. I remember how good this sour IPA was when I had it at White Lily Diner, probably with a patty melt or pastrami sandwich.
Half Hours on Earth Burnout Generation
I brought this chamomile ginger cinnamon lemon honey sour ale home from Boxcar in the opening weeks of the pandemic. In addition to being absolutely delicious, it almost made me wish I had a cold.
Rorschach Reverie + Rorschach Blasphemy
In July, tired of being stuck inside, we walked to Woodbine Park on a scorching hot July day to meet our friend Sarah and drink beers on the grass. Along the way we stopped at Rorschach and grabbed some of their excellent beer, including these two: a Pineapple/Mango/Orange/Tangerine Double Milkshake IPA and a Passionfruit/Pineapple Sour. It felt like that scene in Shawshank Redemption where they sit on the roof and drink beers and, just for a while, feel like free men again.
My favourite (new) wines of 2020
New category! I don’t log wine as carefully as I do beer (it’s too hard to look each one up, especially in a restaurant, and my Ontario-heavy collection isn’t friendly to a lot of barcode scanning apps anyway), but flipping back through my Instagram history, where I capture the more memorable ones, turned up a decent list. Again, in chronological order.
Etude 2009 Cabernet Sauvignon
As mentioned above, I brought this with me to Jacobs & Co. to go with piles of steak. And go it did.
O’Shaughnessy 2014 Cabernet Sauvignon
In the afore-mentioned Barberian’s private cellar dinner, our dinner companions were ordering quite a bit of Caymus. I eventually suggested switching to something a little…less refined, shall we say. Our server said, “OK, no more chocolate cake. How about this?” And damn, was he right.
Tawse 2010 Meritage
The last remnants of a long-ago cancelled Tawse wine club membership, I held on to this one just long enough. It seemed to me in peak drinking condition, having been born in one of Ontario’s great vintages.
Leaning Post 2017 Wismer Foxcroft Chardonnay
I could have just as easily put 2027’s Wismer Foxcroft chard on this list. It’s hard to go wrong with that grape in that vineyard, I guess. But there’s something about how Ilya makes and cares for his wines that just grabs me.
Vins de Vienne 2017 Condrieu ‘La Chambée’
Out of a cursed LCBO Vintages order which mostly went missing, I did manage to salvage this utterly delicious Condrieu, all fruit & spice & vanilla.
Ravine 2010 Piccone Cabernet Franc
I took Rick Van Sickle’s advice (this was his top Niagara red of 2012) and saved this bottle for a special occasion. That occasion was a socially-distanced summer evening on the front porch of my friend (and big Ravine fan) Andrea’s house.
Pegos Claros 2013 Castelão
This bottle followed Lindsay and I home from Lisbon on our first-ever trip away together. It needed a little patience in the cellar (though not as much as the Quinta de Roriz Touriga Nacional still chilling in there) but we were rewarded when we opened this one up.
Pearl Morissette 2012 Baranoff Vineyard Pinot Noir
My final bottle from Pearl Morissette’s California experiment, and probably the best…no doubt due to some age. Truly a blend of California heat and Ontario leanness.
M. Chapoutier 2012 Monier de la Sizeranne Syrah
A parting gift from my team at my last job, I let this one sit for 7+ years before popping it for a special dinner at home. It was just starting to slide past its peak, but was nonetheless remarkable.
Le Vieux Pin 2012 Equinoxe Cabernet Franc
I admit, I was a bit dubious. I love all of Le Vieux Pin’s wines — it’s why I’m a member of their wine club — but their specialty is generally Rhone varietals, not Loire. Plus, I’d not been blown away by Okanagan Cab Franc when I visited a few years back. I had no reason to fear, it turns out: this was fantastic, and had years’ worth of structure still left in it. This one comes with a big price tag, but my first foray into the bottle made me pretty glad I have a few more vintages put away.
My favourite moments of 2020
In a year that had some serious downside and a lot of long unremarkable stretches, it was a nice exercise to dig back through the haze for some little moments. The world, the good world, is still out there. It’s just obscured for now, but for faint pinpoints like these. I, for one, plan to cling to them for all I’m worth.
Again, in alphabetical order:
- Watching live Flamenco in Madrid.
- Drinking sherry in La Venencia, a charismatic bar living stubbornly in the 1930s.
- Seeing the great Pyramid of Giza up close.
- Standing in a chamber of the Al-Rifa’i Mosque in Cairo, pitch black but for a bit of stained glass thirty feet up, listening to the call to prayer echoing around the walls.
- Drinking a quiet cup of coffee just above the tumult of the Khan el-Khalili market.
- Watching a recording of Fleabag (the play, not the TV show) recorded in London, which would be the closest thing to travel March 2020 would allow, at the Paradise Theatre.
- Winning a Lauren Pelc-McArthur painting in a charity auction.
- Drinking beer in Woodbine Park with our friend Sarah, which at the time felt like absolute peak freedom.
- Watching the Grand River roil below our room’s terrace at the Elora Mill Inn.
- Seeing the Canadiens surprise the Penguins in the weird-ass playoffs.
- Enjoying Kramer’s remarkable progress during lockdown, in which he’s learned to let us pet him, and even pick up him to kiss his head sometimes.
- Buying a house!
- Seeing the Raptors win a playoff series, and nearly win a second, in a year where no one gave them a chance to do either.
- Eating dinner outside (one of only two dinners out in nine months), even with streetcars and motorbikes whipping by my head.
- Finally walking the Lower Don trail.
- Sitting on the floor of our new house after moving day, drinking a bottle of Benjamin Bridge.
- Sheer relief at the realization that Donald Trump can just fuck off now.
- An online, blind beer tasting contest for a friend’s birthday.
- Waking up Dec 25th to see snow, the first White Christmas I can remember in years.
- Chatting with our families on Christmas Day, seeing everyone healthy and happy and safe. Which, really, is all that matters.
[Cover photo by Jon Tyson on Unsplash]