The best of everything from 2021

And I thought these lists were hard to put together last year. At least in 2020 most of the world had ten good weeks before things melted down, something 2021 couldn’t even manage. However, this year I tried something new, after a helpful suggestion from Lindsay: “What’re you, a professional critic? Just list the best things you watched or listened to this year regardless of when they came out.” So, I did. And I guess it makes more sense, since I was already treating books and podcasts that way.

A note: everything is listed in alphabetical order, unless stated otherwise.

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My favourite albums this year

Every year I talk about how much less music I’m listening to, but now I’ve reached the point where I can’t even scrape together a top ten list. My pre-pandemic listening times were during my commute (which I no longer have) and at work (which meetings no longer allow) so my backlog is lengthy: Julien Baker, The Antlers, The Armed, Sharon Van Etten, Sleater-Kinney, Backxwash, black midi, McKinley Dixon, Fiddlehead, Pom Pom Squad, Snail Mail, Explosions In The Sky, Grouper, Wiki, Heartless Bastards, and Ka.

Anyway, here’s what I have. All are from 2021 unless otherwise noted.

The Besnard Lakes Are The Last Of The Great Thunderstorm Warnings by The Besnard Lakes

The bombast doesn’t end at the title. As big and lush as their previous, faraway albums.

Vital by Big Brave

Still with the bombast: more thudding and rhythmic than the Besnard Lakes, and less swirling. Feels so visceral while still being melodic. We had a chance to see them in Madrid last year had our trip not been cancelled — that would have been cool.

Delta Kream by The Black Keys

A return to blues-y form, one I couldn’t be happier about. I missed this Black Keys. I missed the blues standards.

Bonny Light Horseman (2020) by Bonny Light Horseman

One that crept up from last year, a beautiful folk album with incredibly rich, poetic lyrics, painting real pictures with Anaïs Mitchell’s lyrics.

G_d’s Pee AT STATE’S END by Godspeed You! Black Emperor

Doesn’t soar to the heights of Luciferian Towers, but few things can. The formula works (for me) and they stick with it.

HEY WHAT by Low

Continuing where the last album left off, but layering some of the old Low soaring melody back into the mix. I’ve only listened to it once but I’m already itching to listen again.

As The Love Continues by Mogwai

Far and away my current choice for album of the year, and the best release from one of my all-time favourite bands in years.

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My favourite songs this year

………………………Yyyyyyyeah, I’m gonna have to get back to you on this one.

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My favourite movies this year

Studios starting releasing things to home more than last year, so I was able to watch a few new things, especially in the past few months. Still very out of the loop on many of the critical year-end favourites, but I’m happy to even string together ten worthy films this year.

Black Widow (2021)

Definitely more in the fun camp than the high art camp, it was nice to give Natasha Romanoff this send-off from the MCU…and to introduce her sister. Their banter was the best part of the movie.

Dune (2021)

My dad was super-into the Dune books. I didn’t read them, but the words and names they contained were in the aether of the house. I have only the vaguest memories of the Lynch film, so watching this felt distantly like memories, but not mine. Still, it managed to be comprehensible, compelling, and visually stunning. Pretty excited for the second half.

Greyhound (2020)

This flew (floated?) under the radar last year, but had always been on my list — Tom Hanks as captain of a WWII ship trying to shepherd a convoy across the Atlantic, fighting off subs. After about ten minutes of exposition the tension goes straight to ten and doesn’t let up until the final moments; not perfectly crafted, but so skillfully that it felt like a bottle episode happening in a pressure cooker.

I Care A Lot (2021)

Humour of the very darkest variety…would probably have barely registered with me if not for the amazing Rosamund Pike, and the demonstration of how a magic seeds of crime become a Fortune 500 beanstalk with just a little water.

Judas and the Black Messiah (2021)

I was grateful to learn more about Black Panther Fred Hampton and FBI informant Bill O’Neal, and in awe of some serious powerhouse performances from Daniel Kaluuya and LaKeith Stanfield respectively.

The Mauritanian (2021)

I saw the ad for this popping up in my ‘suggestions for you’ box, but didn’t watch it until I listened to a This American Life episode about it. Plug in the cast and I hoped it was a worthwhile use of a couple of hours. It was.

No Time To Die (2021)

I am a self-professed Bond junkie — and critic, when the films are bad. But I’ve generally been a fan of the Daniel Craig era, so I was more than happy to pony up for his swan song in the role. Some deep Bond fan service early in the film, a fun and against-type mid-movie “Bond girl” appearance by Ana de Armas, and a (hopefully) emergent successor, plus all the usual gizmos and action sequences did it for me.

Parasite (2019)

No surprise that the Oscar winner from a few years back would make my list when I finally watched it. Wonderfully dark and funny, but so very cutting as well.

The Power Of The Dog (2021)

If it involves both Kirsten Dunst and Jesse Plemons, I’ll be there. Add Benedict Cumberbatch as a tightly-wound viper and Jane Campion’s direction, and I’m running straight for it.

Tenet (2020)

Probably my least favourite Christopher Nolan film, but it still rates. I’ll still watch it a few more times, and maybe understand it by pass #4.

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My favourite TV shows this year

TV is probably the medium we’re still consuming the most. It was maybe the only list where I had to curate the top ten, vs. barely scraping one together. These were all made in 2021 as well, except Happy Valley season 1.

The Chair

Living with someone in academia probably gave me a little more connection to this than I might have otherwise had, but it was good — and made excellent by the cast. Power struggles are power struggles, no matter how hoity or how toity.

The Flight Attendant

I rather expected this to be fluff…and it kind of was, but also kind of wasn’t. It toed the line of dumb and fantastical without going ever, which kept it squarely in the enjoyable camp. Well done Kaley Cuoco for making this happen, and finding that balance.

Happy Valley (S1)

A catch-up from years past, hot on the heels of our Line of Duty obsession. We needed subtitles to understand the dialogue (and even then…nowt?) but were utterly drawn in to Sarah Lancashire’s performance. Still haven’t watched Season 2 somehow; it’s in the queue for when we fancy something a bit dark.

Line of Duty

Speaking of: the final season of Line of Duty was something of an obsession for us this year, having binged all previous seasons since the start of the pandemic. We even listened to the BBC podcast Obsessed With after each episode…which is a nice lead-in to an entry a little further down.

Mare of Easttown

Powerhouse performances from Kate Winslet, Jean Smart, and Julianne Nicholson (among few others) overshadowed a fairly typical small town cop drama, though with the emerging hot-spot setting of small town oxy-infested Pennsylvania (or Virginia, or whatever).

Only Murders In The Building

We started watching this when my mom was visiting, and would have binged it all before her flight had it not been coming out weekly. A show about a podcast that’s kind of making fun of shows that have podcasts (but which also had an official podcast) sounds dumb, but the charisma of the stars carried it.

Succession

Greek tragedy in the guise of maladjusted billionaire brats and their family dysfunction, echoing real-life family/board shenanigans (the Murdochs, the Rogers), fueled by utterly delicious dialogue. One of the few shows whose post-episode discourse prompts me to watch in real time, lest any betrayal be ruined. I like to watch it in real time. (See: Wambsgans, Tom.)

Ted Lasso

Finally got caught up to this series, which finds a neat little seam between drama, comedy, and outright feel-good-ness. Plus, when I realized that Hannah Waddingham was also the ‘Shame, shame, shame! [clang]’ septa from GoT, my brain exploded.

WandaVision

Had the potential to be very bad. Ended up very good indeed. A treatise on using nostalgic memories to deal with deep-seated trauma, and on the selfishness of institutional power, all orbiting the noble-hero core of the MCU.

The White Lotus

Excellent character-driven drama/comedy from Mike White, a heated barb sticking into the side of privilege in the form of various dysfunctional guests. I’m not sure I’ve ever wanted to punch someone as much as I wanted to punch Shane (played by Jake Lacy, whom I shall forever refer to as “Plop”).

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My favourite books this year

HHhH (2009) by Laurent Binet

This was the only book I actually finished this year — reading more than half of it while on Christmas vacation — but it was a good one. Mostly non-fiction with some fictional flourish (and occasional self-flagellation by the author as he criticizes his own style) but an entertaining telling of a WWII story I didn’t really know.

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My favourite podcasts this year

This category might have suffered the same fate as music, in that I used to consume most of my podcasts during my commute, but we’ve begun doing “podcast hour” to help us fall asleep at night, or even wake up gently. That plus a couple of flights kept me relatively current on some, though old favourites like This American Life have fallen by the wayside entirely.

9/12

Nearing the 20th anniversary mark of 9/11, Dan Taberski released this series not about the events of 9/11 itself, but about people having to adjust to a very different world the next day. The story of the people on the reality TV show alone is worth the price of admission.

99% Invisible

Evergreen entry on this list. The ground of design and architecture is too fertile with stories for me to get bored here, and the team behind it continues to tell good stories well, week after week.

Against The Rules

In a similar vein, I’ve always had a thing for Michael Lewis’ storytelling abilities. Where season 1 of the show focused on the role of the referee in American society, season 2 focused on the coach. Quickly exiting the arena (sorry) of sports, the locus from which so many of Lewis’ stories originate and quickly pivoting to, say, an autopsy in a park, it sucks me in with every episode.

Band Of Brothers

Built around another 20-year anniversary (in fact, episode one aired two days before 9/11) this podcast looked back episode by episode of one of my all-time favourite TV series. Taking deep dives with the actors who played Roe, Lipton, Liebgott, Winters, Malarkey, Guarnere, and others, as well as writers, directors, Tom Hanks, and even Dale Dye, this was an emotional look back at the series, but also the men on whom it was based. For fans of the show, it’s a treasure.

Dead Eyes

Speaking Band of Brothers, Connor Ratliff somehow continues, after two full seasons, to produce an expansive canvas of a story, all built around one failed audition. At this point, I feel like writing Tom Hanks myself, urging him to be on the podcast, even though I know it will have no effect. Do it, Tom. Do it.

Edith

Here, Rosamund Pike delivers again in a wholly different format, this time audio fiction about the first lady stepping up & in when Woodrow Wilson cannot. Great voice acting, with great audio effects too. It felt like an old-time radio serial.

Office Ladies

Even though I’d say it’s, like, 10% annoying, this is at the top of the podcast pile when new episodes drop. It’s also become our go-to sleepy-time podcast; we put on an old episode and fall right asleep. It’s as comfy as the TV show has become, like old friends when we need to chase away scary pandy thoughts.

White Saviours

A monumental piece of work from the CanadaLand team, shining light on a Canadian charity that always seemed to me a bit cult-like. Turns out I wasn’t the only one. It continues to win accolades and draw lawsuits, which I guess is some kind of success meter for podcasts?

You Are Good

The first of two podcasts on this list co-starring Sarah Marshall, this was once called Why Are Dads? but has pivoted away somewhat from the dads-in-movies-theme and mostly just become movie reviews with guest speakers. I often don’t know the movie, but the discussion is always so spot on. The Thor: Ragnarok episode with Fangirl Jeanne is just…{chef’s kiss}.

You’re Wrong About

This series, also co-starring Sarah Marshall and which Lindsay also tracked down, was #1 on our hit parade for months. Whether single-episode explorations into topics about which we’re, uh, probably wrong, or deep multi-episode threads (Princess Diana, OJ Simpson, etc.) taking you deeper than the headlines you remember as kids (if at all), it’s often funny and always informative.

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My favourite meals this year

Certainly, because of the pandemic, few of these would stand up to the kind of meals I’d list in non-pandemic years. Still, here we are. All are, not surprisingly, from places either in or near Toronto. In chronological order.

Jules Bistro, Toronto

One of the few places in Toronto we could count on to deliver a top-notch meal during the pandemic, we would occasionally remind ourselves what eating out tasted like by ordering steak or duck for two from this local French bistro.

Gare de L’Est, Toronto

Our first meal out in a year, more or less — recently vaccinated, we sat on a patio and listened to live jazz and ate and drank like the world was normal again. It obviously wasn’t, but for that one evening, we let ourselves forget.

Jacobs & Co., Toronto

Our first indoor meal of the year, and it was a big one. Jacobs has long been where we go to splash out a bit, and this was no exception. Superb Wagyu. A Super Tuscan worth the bill that followed. The infamous Caesar. It felt very weird to eat indoors, but the staff put us at ease, and we rolled on out of there.

Treadwell, Niagara on the Lake

On my first work trip to NotL we made dinner reservations at Treadwell, and remembered why it’s the best restaurant in that town, in my opinion. Our meal was so wonderful we begged for (and got) a lunch reservation the next day before leaving town.

Vela, Toronto

A work-related dinner on the patio. This was my first time eating there, and while there were a few ho-hum bites, there was a pork dish that absolutely melted my brain. That, plus seeing the sights on Portland on a weekend evening, made it quite memorable.

Barrington Steakhouse, Halifax

What I wrote at the time: “I had a quiet dinner by myself, thinking and making notes. My steak, the veg, and the ratatouille were all quite good, my wine was just okay, and the piano player singing mostly-Canadian classic rock was exceptional.”

La Paella, Toronto

An indoor/outdoor affair (on a covered patio) with friends, this meal stood out not just for the food, but for the hours of conversation and one-more-glass-of-Don-PX shenanigans that were the hallmark of meals in the before times. It felt good. (Until the next day.)

Ascari Enoteca, Toronto

For Lindsay’s birthday, with her mom in town, we dispatched ourselves to his reliable local spot for a full-ride Italian meal, on a rare October evening warm enough to comfortably sit outdoors. As is so often the case now, the restaurant was short-staffed, but we were in no hurry.

Bocado, Prince Edward County

The new hot spot in Picton, apparently, headed by a chef and team with no less provenance than two of our Toronto favourites: Patria and Byblos. I had to hold back on the drink as I was driving back to our hotel, but the Spanish-influenced food made up for it. Those dates.

Carisma, Toronto

Notable not just for the quality of the food at one of my all-time favourite Italian joints, but also for the fact that I got to take my employees out for dinner for the first time, just before Omicron reared its head.

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My favourite (new) wines this year

Only my second year doing this category. Like last year, I’m relying on Instagram and an occasional blog post to remember these, so I’ve almost certainly missed some. I’m hoping to have a better capture method soon. Two other key points: 1) all but one were consumed at home; 2) I’ve left out anything produced or imported by the company I work for. In chronological order.

Le Vieux Pin 2017 Equinox Syrah

I open the Equinox bottles judiciously, but always knowing they’ll be standouts. This one was no different.

El Enemigo 2013 Gran Enemigo Gualtallary Cabernet Franc

While Cab Franc might be my favourite grape, I don’t have many from Argentina. This bottle, paired with a perfect steak, is why I’ve started seeking them out.

TH Wines 2016 Pinot Noir

My last bottle from a long-cancelled wine club membership, from a now-shuttered winery. Drinking this felt like saying goodbye to an old, treasured friend.

Meerlust 2010 Rubicon

Probably just a touch past its prime, but on the list for sentimental reasons: this was the last of five bottles of the 2010 vintage my brother tracked down when I saw they were (almost inexplicably) at his local liquor store in rural Nova Scotia.

Penfolds 1996 Bin 707 Cabernet Sauvignon

Nothing past it’s prime here: this ’96, won at auction, could have lasted a few more years in bottle, but it certainly tasted like it was at its peak. Stunning, and a great way to celebrate a big career change.

Antinori 2010 Solaia

Since we hadn’t been to Jacobs in some time, and had eaten out only twice in the past year, we opted for a star turn bottle. I’ve always been a bit skeptical of Super Tuscan prices, but I might be a convert now.

The Farm 2017 Neudorf Vineyard Pinot Noir

The first of two wines on this list made by Kelly Mason, one of my very favourites working in Niagara today. An exquisite Pinot, a standout in a region where excellent Pinots abound.

Mason Vineyard 2018 The Landed Cabernet Franc

Mason’s second entry on this list couldn’t be more different: one of the most powerful and complex Francs I’ve tried, typical of neither Niagara nor the Loire…something different and exceptional.

Volpe 2018 Pasini Zuc Di Volpe Pinot Grigio

But for some present acid and missing honey, I might have thought this was Condrieu. Eye-opening, for what Pinot Grigio can be (vs. how I tend to think of it).

Bonneau du Martray 2008 Corton-Charlemagne Grand Cru

Another bottle won at auction, and certainly too nice to drink on a random Monday evening all by myself, but that’s what happened. And it was glorious.

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My favourite (new) beers this year

I’d mentioned last year that my beer drinking was slowing down. In 2021 it very nearly came to a dead stop. Last year the culprit was the pandemic; this year was down to joining the wine industry halfway through the year, which only accelerated my already-deep obsession with wine. So, what’s noted here (a) largely comes from two beer orders we had sent to the house — some specialty bottles of Tilquin from Bar Volo, and a whole bunch from Rorschach Brewing down the street from us — and (b) doesn’t even hit the ten mark. That’s how few new beers I tried & liked enough to make the cut. In chronological order.

Gueuze Tilquin Oude Myrtille Sauvage (2018-2019)

A wild blueberry version of one of my all-time favourite beers. Pretty on point for the son of a blueberry farmer, really.

Gueuze Tilquin Oude Cassis (2018-2019)

A cassis version of the same. Not quite as good as the quetsche (plum) version, but still one of the best beers I’ve ever tried.

Rorschach Decadence (Pecan Sticky Bun)

From their sweet stout series, this was one where the sweetness balanced out the umami of the pecans. Not all of them worked so well.

Rorschach Hedonism (Blueberry Strawberry Guava)

The best (IMO) of their fruited sour pale series. These proved to be dangerously drinkable for 6.9% beer.

Rorschach Malevolent Benevolence (German Chocolate Cake)

My favourite of their heaviest hitters. Many in this series are totally overwhelming, but this one nailed it.

Rorschach Decadence (Salted Caramel Latte)

Again, they found the right balance with one: not too salty, not too sweet, not too creamy. The goldilocks of sweet stouts. (Okay, that’s enough from Rorschach.)

Garrison Rise ‘n’ Stein

Enjoyed on a warm fall day, in a beer garden on Halifax’s waterfront, whilst eating a currywurst. I’ve had much worse afternoons.

Godspeed Tmavý Ležák 12º

In what I assumed would be my last patio beer of the year (and I was right) I stopped at Wvrst and drank this dark lager as streetcar after streetcar went rumbling by my shoulder.

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My favourite moments this year

In chronological order. Also, it says something about the year we had when there was nothing notable until early April, and even that was our recovery from COVID, FFS.

  1. COVID sucked, but the first day we felt recovered from it felt pretty good. We could taste again!
  2. The first spring day warm enough to sit outside on our new outdoor furniture.
  3. When there was a vaccination popup in our neighbourhood where we got shot #1.
  4. A Canadiens playoff run to the finals (which feels pretty distant right now).
  5. Making a career change, moving to the wine industry after 22 years in banking.
  6. Getting shot #2 at Vaccineapalooza.
  7. Drinking a 1996 Penfolds Bin 707 to celebrate starting my new job.
  8. A renewing visit from a Montreal friend.
  9. A quick work-but-also-fun trip to Niagara on the Lake.
  10. The first night Kramer slept on the bed with us.
  11. A brief visit & dinner out from brother #2.
  12. Tasting the new wine club wines at Hidden Bench, including a Decanter best in show winner.
  13. Seeing the farm again for the first time in ~2 years.
  14. Learning lots of funny and interesting stories about my parents.
  15. Making my way through the by the glass list at Obladee.
  16. Dinner with my mom and her sister, and her family in Guelph.
  17. Blindness, our first theatrical experience in years.
  18. Waking up to the view of the lake at Mirazule.
  19. My first (and so far only, as it turned out) commute to work in my new car.
  20. Breaking bread with my new team.

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[Cover photo by Jon Tyson on Unsplash]

One response to “The best of everything from 2021

  1. Thanks for the list and leaving a good open trail to find you. I always look forward to this list so thanks for taking the time to put it together. I hope all is well with you! Happy New Year. Send me a note if you make it outwest. Amy

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