“Okay,” you might be thinking, “Was there anything to like about 2020?” And you have a point. But amidst all the stuff we thoroughly disliked about 2020, there was some stuff that helped us get through 2020 as well—stuff like amazing albums, spellbinding movies, and cathartic books. So it is our great pleasure to share here today the vast ocean of recommendations from our blog contributors that is “Stuff We Liked in 2020.” We hope you discover something in here that you like, as well.
Twin Peaks: The Return – So weird, so baffling, so good!
Better Call Saul – This might be one of the great TV shows of all time. I cannot wait for the final season.
Cobra Kai – Cheesy, campy, dumb, hilarious, sentimental, and unexpectedly endearing—I love all of it.
Every Moment Holy, Vol. II: Death, Grief, and Hope by Douglas McKelvey – As the editor, I know I’m cheating here, but I don’t care. This is a monumental work and I’m honored to have played a small part in giving birth to it.
The Door on Half-Bald Hill by Helena Sorensen – If there’s a book of 2020, this is it. Good beyond hope.
Letters from the Mountain (forthcoming, by Ben Palpant) – Cheating again. This lovely series of letters about the calling of a writer will be out later this year and I can’t wait for folks to be blessed by it.
folklore by Taylor Swift – First Swift album I’ve ever listened to—and it’s so good! The documentary/live film is also great.
Idiot Prayer by Nick Cave – I know he’s indulgent and sometimes a parody of himself, but I love being suspended in his “bleak and fishless sea.”
Wake Low’s eponymous debut album – More please.
Reunions by Jason Isbell & the 400 Unit
Innocent Country 2 by Quelle Chris & Chris Keys
folklore by Taylor Swift
Better Call Saul
Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom
The Color of Compromise: The Truth About the American Church’s Complicity in Racism by Jemar Tisby
Go Ahead in the Rain: Notes to A Tribe Called Quest by Hanif Abdurraqib
Surprised By Hope: Rethinking Heaven, the Resurrection, and the Mission of the Church by N. T. Wright
Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell by Susanna Clarke – I was editing Malcolm Guite’s episode of The Habit Podcast, and when Jonathan Rogers asked him that last question he asks all his guests (“Who are the writers who make you want to write?”), Malcolm answered “Susanna Clarke” and cited this book. I decided to read it and Malcolm was spot on, of course!
A very long, winding book full of humor, mystery, and subtly Christian undertones in the best way. It kept me occupied in the first months of the pandemic—whenever I got super overwhelmed, I knew that I could escape into this wild and wildly entertaining story.
If you find that you like this one and decide you want something a bit darker by Susanna Clarke, try Piranesi (Helena wrote about Piranesi in her section of this post).
44 Scotland Street series by Alexander McCall Smith – If Susanna Clarke sustained me through the initial shock of lockdown, then Alexander McCall Smith has gotten me through the winter so far. This is low effort, high reward reading, perfect for right before bedtime. It began as a serial in a Scottish newspaper, a chapter every day, so it has that thrilling feeling of an artist riffing on ideas and making stuff up as he goes along—without ever coming across as half-baked. Each chapter is invitingly short, and the books bounce around among a lovable and cringe-worthy cast of characters, each of whom are fumbling their way towards their own conceptions of happiness. It’s wickedly funny and often touching, and there are FOURTEEN of these books! A new one just came out in November. I’m currently on the sixth book. I’ve got a long ways to go.
The Decadent Society by Ross Douthat – The last book I read before the pandemic stopped us in our tracks. Perhaps an ill-timed release for a book, but Douthat’s insights are as pertinent as ever, even if we have more immediate concerns now than the ones he raises.
It gave me much-needed language for the sense that American culture keeps repeating itself in an endless (seemingly hopeless) feedback loop of derivative art and arguments.
Thirties by Jill Andrews – This is one of those albums that proved itself to me by the sheer number of times I returned to it for a comforting, immersive listen, whether in the car or through headphones at the end of a long day.
Honest, understated songwriting complimented by melt-in-your-mouth production. Plus, it’s an embarrassment of riches—13 songs, 43 minutes long. There’s lots to love here.
World on the Ground by Sarah Jarosz – I read somewhere that Sarah contemplated holding off on releasing this record when it became clear that she wouldn’t be able to tour it like she hoped, and I’m so glad she didn’t go through with that. This one kept me excellent company throughout the summer. Ideal road music, full of harmonically adventurous melodies, intriguing characters, and some quite relatably humorous lines (“Drive across the desert in your blue Ford Escape / Hopefully your car will live up to its name”)
Debussy piano compositions – Kelsey and I have just been pounding the “Calm Debussy- piano” playlist on Spotify this year. Ha! You can tell what we’ve really needed.
But seriously, next time you feel like you can’t get a full breath after some horrific news headline, trying playing his “Préludes / Book 1, L.117: 8,” “Rêverie,” “Estampes: I. Pagodes,” or, of course, “Claire De Lune” and let it take you away.
I believe that the piano is the best instrument. There are many ways to prove me wrong. But Debussy is one way to prove me right!
The Great British Baking Show – I mean, come on. Take some of the most adorable, eccentric people you could ever imagine, watch them laugh and cry with one another as they overcome the unflinching scrutiny of Paul Hollywood, and be shocked at some random hilarious thing that Noel Fielding says. It’s a blissful coping mechanism that hasn’t let me down yet.
Emma – This movie is addictive. It’s one of those where you can feel the economy of the craft—meaning that every shot, every beat of the accompanying music, every facial expression, every pause in conversation, is for a reason. It’s a thrill to watch, pitch-perfect and clever and ultimately redemptive in surprising and rewarding ways. Every moment feels like a punch line. What a treasure.
The Social Dilemma – If you haven’t watched it yet, then wait for an evening when you feel ready to face the social media monster-in-the-closet and have at it. If you’re like me, you think you’ve heard all the critiques anyone has to say about Facebook and the attention economy and how it rewires our brains—but watching this will organize that information into a cohesive, compelling narrative that will actually leave you feeling empowered.
How To Be An Antiracist by Ibram X. Kendi – An important eye-opening
read on racism in America.
The Rivers of London series by Ben Aaronovitich – Imagine if adult
Harry Potter were recruited by the London Metropolitan Police.
Native: Identity, Belonging, and Rediscovering God by Kaitlin B.
Curtice – An exploration of what it means to be indigenous and
Christian in America.
folklore + evermore by Taylor Swift – The stripped down folky Taylor
Swift project I’ve always wanted.
Out of Body by Needtobreathe – Possibly their best album.
Cannot Be, Whatsoever by Novo Amor – Basically the Welsh Bon Iver.
I didn’t really watch many new films or TV this year, but I did get a
PS4, so here are my top 3 video games:
Horizon Zero Dawn – A gorgeous open world post-post-apocalyptic game
with a compelling storyline.
Spider-Man – Webbing through NYC is just FUN.
Rise of the Tomb Raider – Lara Croft searches for a macguffin that
grants immortality in Siberia.
The Great Belonging by Charlotte Donlon – As pandemic life has heightened the rampant loneliness in our world, this book couldn’t be more timely. Written as a collection of small essays and reflections, this book was a comforting friend as winter began to set in.
Handle with Care by Lore Ferguson Wilbert – And another timely book… Lore Wilbert’s beautiful, reflective book on the ministry of physical touch. I reviewed it for The Rabbit Room, if you’d like to read my thoughts there. Thinking it may be time to read it again soon.
Revelations of Divine Love by Julian of Norwich – Technically, I’m still reading it, because it’s one to savor. Who knew a medieval mystic and Black Plague survivor would become such a good companion for these times. If you’re interested in diving in, I recommend the contemporary English edition from Paraclete Press.
Because I didn’t watch a lot of movies this year, I’m using my movie slot for more books. Of course, you all NEED to read The Door on Half-Bald Hill. But here are a few more I loved…
The Golem and the Jinni by Helene Wecker – A lonely golem and a restless jinni meet and strike up an unlikely friendship in 1899 New York. It’s a beautifully written blend of mythology and historical fiction, and a perfect winter read, if you’re looking for a story to get swept up in.
Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel – I almost put it down a few times because a post-apocalyptic pandemic novel in 2020 was… a lot. I’m glad I didn’t. It’s a dark story shot through with glimmers of hope and humanity, and the ending makes it all worthwhile.
Virgil Wander by Leif Enger – Every time I read Leif Enger I remember why I love his books and wonder why it took me so long. A delight.
Drive In Show by The Lone Bellow – Of all the things I’ve missed in this season of social distancing, live music might be the thing I miss most. We had cancelled tickets to see The Lone Bellow at the beginning of the year, so when they came back around for a Drive In theater tour, I was grateful they came up our way. Sure, it felt a little odd in some ways, but they put on a fantastic show that made everything feel almost normal for a night.
Peopled with Dreams by John Mark McMillan – I’m here for anything JMM releases, but I really appreciated the subversive joy of this album right at the start of the year. “Juggernaut” was my 2020 Easter song.
Random Sufjan Stevens records – There was a moment when I got on a random Sufjan kick. I still haven’t listened all the way through The Ascension, but I finally listened to Michigan, revisited Illinoise, and appreciated the moody sci-fi weirdness on Aporia.
folklore by Taylor Swift – I know, it’s already on lots of other lists, but in this house we absolutely enjoy T-Swift and may or may not have pre-ordered the vinyl.
A Passion for Ignorance: What we choose not to know and why by Renata Salecl – Watching a year unfold in which there was so much conscious unknowing among people and institutions whom I have respected, I felt a need to understand why ignorance is valued and pursued. Salecl’s book is succinct, but deeply affecting, showing the devastating effect of turning a blind eye and deaf ear. I understood more about myself, social media, and the mayhem that we have affectionately come to call 2020.
A Diary of Private Prayer by John Baillie – I have used Baillie’s book sporadically in the past, but 2020 was the year when I discovered its daily worth and wonder. The simple format of the prayers, their candid confession of sin and celebration of God’s great creation opened up new pathways for approaching God. This is a refreshing and life changing resource.
Waiting on the Word by Malcolm Guite – My own spiritual background does not make much of the liturgical seasons, and consequently Advent has tended to be a vague sense of anticipation about Christmas coming. Malcolm’s selection of poems, his gentle-toned leadership through the beauty and nuance of the seasons, and his God honouring reflections drew my heart out after the Saviour in fresh ways.
Little Women – Little Women topped and tailed 2020 for us as a family – with a cinema trip after Christmas 2019, and then a DVD night at Christmas past. The film just gets better and better, and while I’m delighted to see the strength with which the female characters are dignified and invested, I also learned a lot about quiet, supportive, strength as a man. The production values are so high, and the performances are uniformly wonderful.
Contagion – I never caught the original release in 2011, and so watching this movie in 2020 was incredibly surreal. While the last thing on my wishlist was more pandemic, the film showed me the inevitability of what the world is presently facing, as well as the fact that this middle space we occupy is not permanent.
Mosul directed by Matthew Michael Carnahan – There is no shortage of Iraq/Afghanistan war movies on the menu these days, but Mosul (the acted movie, not the documentary) was an eye-opening insight into the work of Iraqi forces against ISIS. The fraternity among the soldiers, and the non-Western view of a country’s struggle with insurgency, were fascinating elements of a devastatingly well directed and acted movie.
Conversations by Sara Groves – I’ve only come into contact with Sara Groves’ work in the past few years, and her 2001 release Conversations has been a constant companion through this past year. Some of the songs have now come to frame major decisions we have faced as a family, and have given us words of realism and hope through some difficult times. ‘Painting Pictures of Egypt’ has now become completely proverbial in our conversations together.
Patient Kingdom by Sandra McCracken – There’s an earthy transcendence in all of Sandra’s work, and Patient Kingdom embodies this so powerfully. The musicianship is first class, the lyricism is direct and profound, and the whole project has lifted my heart heavenwards over and over again in 2020.
The Arcadian Wild by The Arcadian Wild – Hutchmoot Homebound introduced me to The Arcadian Wild for the first time, and I have spent a lot of time since then trying to figure out why it took so long for me to come across them. This album from 2015 is so deft musically, and nimble lyrically. It has been a good friend through the last half of 2020.
Stages on Life’s Way by Søren Kierkegaard – My quarantine project has been to read through Kierkegaard’s pseudonymous authorship, and this link in the chain was a challenge. It’s more obscure and much longer than most of his works, so the commentaries weren’t particularly helpful. But it was the first time that I found myself holding my life view up to those of his many characters—which was, as I understand it, one of his primary goals in writing under pseudonyms.
Philosopher of the Heart: The Restless Life of Søren Kierkegaard by Clare Carlisle – I’d read and loved Lowrie’s biography of SK, but this new one (2020) is phenomenal. Every chapter is bookended with an imaginative depiction of Kierkegaard in real time: he’s trying to get comfortable in the train carriage; it’s Christmas, and he’s writing alone by candlelight. In lieu of a standard chronological bio, the reader is invited into his day-to-day. Beautifully done. Plus, Carlisle responds to emails.
The Book of Hours by Rainer Maria Rilke – Love poems to the divine, recommended by Bob, one of the patron saints at my parish. No words. I’ll be re-reading it soon, no doubt.
The Ascension by Sufjan Stevens – The title track is an extrabiblical hymn, a confession of an evolving faith mid-rebirth (i.e., when it’s dead). Hearing him sing “to everything, there is no meaning” is maybe the most meaningful moment of the album.
Fetch the Bolt Cutters by Fiona Apple – If Billie Eilish spun out at the finish line and resurfaced 20 years later, she’d probably make something like this.
“St. Augustine At Night” by Dawes – Maybe the only song that really hit me off Dawes’ latest album, but it vindicates the whole record. Helps me empathize with the madness behind the MAGA. Taylor Goldsmith wordsmithing at his best.
I’m going to cheat: in 2020 I finally completed Anthony Powell’s (pronounced ‘Pole’!) mammoth 12-volume masterpiece, A Dance to the Music of Time (a narrative with a cast of over 300, set in and around London from the 1920s to 1960s). It’s breathtaking, with some of the most striking but economical pen-portraits of characters I’ve read. But that’s not one of my three…
The Fatal Eggs by Mikhail Bulgakov – Better known for his Master and Margarita, this is a brilliant, punch, satirical science-fiction from the early years of the USSR. If you are an HGWells fan, you’ll love it especially.
I Am Dynamite!: A Life of Friedrich Nietzsche by Sue Prideaux – This is one of the best biographies I think I’ve read on anyone. Nietzsche is a spectre haunting the 20th century and beyond, and we will never begin to grasp what the world around us means without coming to terms with him. But he’s an intimidating figure. This brilliantly brings him to life and gives in-roads into his thought (which is notoriously hard to pin down in places). One thing is clear: that whatever you thought he was is almost certainly wrong. But what a tragic figure. Heartbreaking, really.
The Silence of the Girls by Pat Barker – Nostalgia about some past era is the triumph of imagination over reality since few of us would be comfortable in any period not our own (much that we might wish it otherwise). If you don’t believe me, this book will cure you. In lesser hands, it would be a crude gimmick; in Barker’s (best known for her superb World War I Regeneration trilogy), it’s a triumph. A retelling of the elements of Homer’s Iliad through the eyes of one captured Trojan, Queen Briseis, now one of Achilles’ prize slaves. I couldn’t put it down. I always suspected Achilles was a cad. Now I know it.
I couldn’t make up my mind whether or not to put Tenet on here (I love all the Nolans’ films, however uneven). So I think I won’t. Parasite also deserves mention. Astonishing movie. But everyone will put that, so again, I won’t. It’s hard to remember what we watched this year, to be honest, what with two full-on UK lockdowns (and now a third) and basically completing Netflix. But these have stuck in my mind:
Delhi Crime – As a Nordic Noir addict, I’m a sucker for a deep detective show (True Detective season 1 the pinnacle IMHOl season 3 pretty great too; give season 2 a miss), the darker the better. This is a superb 7-part show, based on a true crime (horrific assaults on a woman and her boyfriend on a bus), which opens up a world of which I knew precious little. Brilliantly acted and shot (think Michael Mann colours), we were gripped.
The Bureau – Brilliant French espionage series, starring the utterly compelling Matthieu Kassovitz amid a host of other fascinating characters in the French secret service. North Africa and Iran are a focus – as is the perennial spy’s dilemma of who to trust…
Mr. Jones – True story of the Welsh journalist (James Norton, known from McMafia and Grantchester) who got the news of Stalin’s deliberate starvation of Ukraine in the 1930s to the world (incidentally, with some support from the late, great Malcolm Muggeridge, but that’s not picked up in the film). Literally millions died. It’s impossible to say how many. Directed by the Polish Agnieszka Holland, it’s a tough but surreally beautiful watch. Weirdly, I’d read Anne Appelbaum’s 2017 history of the tragedy (Red Famine: Stalin’s War on Ukraine) earlier in the year and was blown away by the film’s apparent accuracy. Never has the sound of eating been used to such poignant effect…
Elbowrooms by Elbow – One of countless lockdown specials out there, I’ve had this on a loop at times. A wonderful exercise in the familiar being recrafted into something beautifully poignant and affecting. Weightless just gets me. every. single. time.
Letter to You by Bruce Springsteen – He just keeps producing the goods at the right moment.
Debussy-Rameau by Víkingur Ólafsson – Slightly different, this one. Ólafsson is an Icelandic concert pianist and one of a kind. But he too transforms the familiar in surprising and unpredictable ways. Here he splices work by two seemingly different Frenchman – Jean-Phillippe Rameau (1683-1764) and Claude Debussy (1862-1918). The result is musical alchemy, perfect for inspiring aural constellations in the mind! But it needs time and patience.
The Colossus of New York by Colson Whitehead – I’m 16 years late to Whitehead’s paean to New York City, but I’m so glad I read it. Whitehead’s vignettes take the reader from NYC’s rainy streets to regular subway rides and Coney Island to Central Park, and each vivid description is so beautifully written that I was compelled to go back and re-read several pages only to further appreciate the wordsmith at work.
On Religion by John Caputo – I’ll let Caputo speak for himself. “The name of God is the name of the chance for something absolutely new, for a new birth, for the expectation, the hope, the hope against hope (Rom. 4:18) in a transforming future. Without it we are left without hope and are absorbed by rational management techniques.”
Small Country by Gaël Faye – Brutal and beautiful. A coming-of-age story of 10-year-old Gabriel growing up in Burundi as civil war takes hold.
Punisher (Dead Oceans) by Phoebe Bridgers – Bridgers’ makes no secret of her intense love of Elliot Smith (she even sings a song to him here), and his influence is certainly felt throughout Punisher‘s dark compositions. However, Bridgers’ vulnerability in documenting her own depressive thoughts, self-destructive tendencies, or regretful decisions is a real gift, especially when the songs are this beautiful. An easy pick for favorite album of 2020 for me.
Non-Secure Connection (Zappo) by Bruce Hornsby – If you stopped following Hornsby years ago—perhaps when he was reminding us of “the way it is”—then you’ve missed out on some of the most inventive albums released in the last few years. Non-Secure Connection is the follow-up to Absolute Zero. Both are worth your time and attention.
Everything Else Has Gone Wrong (Mmm…) by Bombay Bicycle Club – I’m a sucker for British rock, so I was eager to see how Bombay Bicycle Club sounded after a six-year absence. This latest album is, in my opinion, their best work yet with a spirited set of pop/rock songs that utilize every instrument and texture they can find. By the time Jack Steadman sings “This light’ll bring me home” on the closing “Racing Stripes”, you’re more than ready to go back to the beginning.
The Collective – If you enjoyed Spotlight, which won Best Picture, then watch the real thing. This Romanian documentary plays out like a slowly unfolding thriller as journalists dig deeper into multiple layers of gov’t corruption at every level, all of which started with a nightclub fire that killed dozens of people needlessly. An important reminder of the importance of investigative journalism and accountability.
First Cow – Even the title will likely draw a laugh, and to try to describe this movie as anything more than a beautiful meditation on friendship will only push you further away from giving it a try. This movie takes its time but the journey is well worth the investment.
The Vast of Night – This low-budget sci-fi flick flew under the radar even for at-home viewing, but it’s a captivating film that feels like Spielberg-ian suspense. Beautifully shot movie that was clearly someone’s long-held pet project.
How To Do Nothing by Jenny Odell – This is the best book I read this year. Odell brings an artist’s perspective to the discussion around technology and the commercialization of how we spend our time and attention. It is strangely hopeful and casts a vision for what might happen if we all slow down and “resist the attention economy.”
Hidden Valley Road by Robert Kolker – This was a heavy read, but I learned so much about the history of mental health through the story of one family’s journey with mental illness.
Troubled Blood by Robert Galbraith – I love the Cormoran Strike books and was grateful for another one in 2020.
Irresistable – This was surprisingly sentimental and hopeful. I loved Jon Stewart’s take on this divisive political climate and the common humanity that connects us and moves us forward. Steve Carell is always a joy.
Peanut Butter Falcon – This movie really moved me. The acting was incredible and the fact that it is set in the Outer Banks of North Carolina where my family grew up made it that much more special.
Ted Lasso – I bet this makes a lot of lists. Looking over my choices I was drawn to movies that highlight the goodness of people and love that conquers hate. This was no exception. It was so nice to see a character that was just so KIND and uncynical.
Damage by H.E.R. – I listened to this song over and over again this year. I love H.E.R. and love even more that she has worked with so many Nashville artists including Scott Mulvahill! I love the vibe, the production, and her beautiful voice.
“This Must Be The Place” by Talking Heads – I know this is an old song, but it’s been a gift to me in this season. I was blown away by David Byrne’s American Utopia (which I would have added to the movies list if I didn’t already have three) and rediscovered the power of his music. This song might be my favorite.
Good Luck With Whatever by Dawes – This album just came out in the Fall, but it immediately became the only non-work music I listened to the rest of the year. There are so many wonderful songs and performances, but the song “Didn’t Fix Me” is easily my favorite written/performed/produced song I heard all year.
Atlas: Space by Sleeping at Last – What a perfect and gorgeous record. Excellently written and heartbreakingly beautifully captured.
Blake Mills by Blake Mills – Rediscovered this one again (again!) this year. So many ridiculous songs and sounds and GASP the guitar playing!!
Last Week Tonight with John Oliver – the only TV show I watch every week. He’s brilliant and insightful and yes, offensive at times, but I love that he isn’t cynical. They go in depth on interesting problems and then always leave you with some course of action you can take. I love that it invites action and service. And yes, wickedly funny.
Knives Out – I punched my couch alone in my living room because I was so happy and anxious and excited at the same time by this movie. Loved every second of it.
Onward – What a great story! Hilarious and fun and beautiful. Another Pixar classic.
Every Good Endeavor by Tim Keller – A book about work and faith and rest that was incredibly profound for me.
Essentialism by Greg McKeown – Under the wire. I read this in the last four days of the year and it has completely changed how I will approach 2021. Simple, insightful, and profoundly useful guide to getting rid of the clutter in your work and life and focusing on what’s really important. Highly recommended!
Paradise Sky by Joe R. Lansdale – A wild, funny and thought-provoking tale of an African-American gunslinger in the old west.
American Spy by Lauren Wilkinson – My wife found this on Barack Obama’s reading list from last year. An amazing first-person novel of an African-American CIA spy, now in hiding to protect her young son. SO GOOD.
I also finally read The Road by Cormac McCarthy without quitting by page 20, and while I recognize it was excellent I did not like it at all. It was like the James Taylor of books for me.
Robert Falconer by George MacDonald – As usual G-Mac weaves a story in many dimensions. A winding road, truth, theology – deep enjoyment and a lot to chew.
High Performance Habits: How Extraordinary People Become That Way by Brendon Burchard – Once again – in the transition last year where gigs and recordings for me flipped off like a switch, I needed some kicks in the tail to keep on track as I recreated myself.
To Bless the Space Between Us: A Book of Blessings by John O’Donohue – This book is beautifully deep without being technical or complicated; it’s almost childlike at times. A look at life in this world by a poet-priest-philosopher.
Foyle’s War – Rebecca Reynolds told me about this a long time ago, and even lent me the DVD set. We didn’t dig into Foyle’s world until this year. I love characters who always do their best to choose to do what is right and good, especially when it gets complicated.
Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. – It’s possible, even likely that one of the scriptwriters was on something when they were writing some of the seasons, but I really enjoyed the crazy story arc and the characters.
Les Miserables with Dominic West, a mini-series – Six episodes allows for a little more exploration of Fantine’s story, plus other elements like Val Jean going back to prison. No movie or series can do this book justice, but I usually applaud them anyway for trying.
Who Are You Now by Madison Cunningham – Just before the music circuit fried this year, I played on a Cayamo Cruise with the Soggy Bottom Boys. It was a shipload of great artists, and we hosted several jams in our suite. Madison Cunningham showed up one night, and Sean Watkins of Nickel Creek introduced us and said, “Madison is a really great artist.” Little did I know – the next day I walked up to watch her show on deck and thirty seconds later I was a lifelong fan. Drew Holcomb and the Neighbors with Ellie, Molly Tuttle, Sean and Sara Watkins, Dirk Powell, Buddy Miller, and a bunch of others played amazing and lovely sets.
Church Street Blues by Tony Rice – Tony passed on Christmas Day, marking the fading of the fantastical musical era I had the privilege to grow up in. If you like story songs with soulful, folky, but confident vocals, and absolute top level guitar playing, get Church Street Blues. Tony has been absolutely integral to my musical story, and his vast influence has covered everyone I grew up with, plus the next generation like Nickel Creek, and today’s bands like Punch Brothers. He has been legendary in Bluegrass circles since the early 1970s.
Lead the Knave by Arty McGlynn & Nollaig Casey – An iconic Irish guitarist, producer, arranger, and composer, Arty passed away as well this year. I played with him once on a Jerry Douglas Transatlantic Sessions show in Londonderry, Northern Ireland. I’ve been listening a bunch to this groundbreaking album with his partner. Mesmerizing and mood-creating.
Piranesi by Susanna Clarke – I can’t say much about this story without spoiling it, but this is my favorite kind of book. It’s dark and atmospheric, the writing spare, and it leaves you with a sense of being surrounded by mystery. Susanna Clarke’s unblushing embrace of other worlds is bold and inspiring.
How to Teach Your Children Shakespeare by Ken Ludwig – I bought this book as a guide for myself, planning to read it as a reference before creating a Shakespeare unit for my homeschool curriculum. But Ludwig’s infectious enthusiasm and total lack of pretense convinced me to read the book aloud as the kids and I worked to memorize twenty-three passages from Shakespeare’s greatest plays. We had so much fun.
Okay For Now by Gary D. Schmidt – There are lots of great children’s books that don’t make great read-alouds. Gary D. Schmidt’s books, however, are as much a treat for the reader as for the listener. And if you want to teach your children that people can change, if you want them to understand that the actions of even the “bad guys” are motivated by fear, shame, grief, and trauma, Schmidt is the writer for you. (We also read The Wednesday Wars and Lizzie Bright and the Buckminster Boy this year. The latter is very, very heavy.)
Little Women – I adored Greta Gerwig’s structuring of this story (the first I remember crying over, some time around age 11). In multiple scenes, we see men, with their wealth, education, and power, standing apart from a knot of women who fill the scene with life. Theirs is the passion that coaxes music from a dusty piano, the sparkling conversation that enlivens the silent room, the appreciation for beauty that gives value to overlooked artistry, and the depth of feeling that imbues every circumstance with meaning. I also love that the film begins with Jo’s attempt to flourish inside the limiting expectations of a male editor with no imagination. She’s angered by Frederick’s suggestion that she has more to give, and it takes the loss of her sister, the loss of her dearest friend, the loss of her job, the loss of everything that is not really her, to show her that her story is more than enough.
Emma – I loved this version of Austen’s novel, and I was surprised by the quirky, unexpectedly perfect soundtrack. But the performances of Josh O’Connor, Miranda Hart, and Bill Nighy took the cake.
The Crown – This series is wonderfully written and acted. Jon and I rewatched the first three seasons in order to get a better sense of the character arcs. Sometime in Season 3, Rupert Greyson-Williams introduces a motif that involves male singers executing a descending interval. Just two notes. But they land with a finality that stirs such dread. It’s as if the song and the singers are collapsing under the weight of the institution. And watching teams of people scurry around that institution, shoring up its cracks and touching up its colors, certainly fills me with dread. In Season 4, we see more clearly than ever how the thing they’re fighting to preserve is killing them.
“Psalm 116” by Mission House – This arrangement was one of the many gifts of Hutchmoot: Homebound, and I have listened to it hundreds of times. It has one of those melodies that rolls along deliciously, each phrase leading into the next in such a way that I find it hard to stop singing. When Andrew and Skye add their harmonies on the second verse, it’s delightful.
The Plague by Albert Camus – This is the first thing I’ve read by Camus. It seemed like a good book to tackle in the midst of a pandemic, and though admittedly it’s not a Rom-Com, it actually ended up being pretty absorbing and even enjoyable. Moreover, though the book was written nearly seventy-five years ago, some passages speak to the events and emotions of this past year with an eerie clarity. The book describes the spread of bubonic plague through a small North African city, but Camus also intended the sickness to serve as a parable of fascism and Nazism in their spread across mid-century Europe. “We all have plague,” one of the characters concludes darkly. This book is worth reading then, not only for its insight into how people respond to a pandemic, but for how it depicts the deadly contagions of hatred, paranoia, cynicism, and desperation.
My Life with the Saints by James Martin – James Martin is a Jesuit priest and popular author. This book is a memoir of Martin’s own spiritual journey, told through biographies of different Catholic saints who have influenced him at one point or another along the way, or whose stories parallel some part of Martin’s own experience. The book taught me a lot about faithful men and women of God from across Christian history, many whose names I hadn’t heard before. Their stories were encouraging and inspiring (and a kind of salve after reading Camus’ depiction of human sinfulness in The Plague!). Martin is an engaging and funny writer, and easy to follow—I actually listened to this as an audiobook. As I look back over the last year’s reading, this book stands out because of the rare combination of boxes it checks: informative, spiritually enriching, interesting, and fun.
The Wound of Knowledge: Christian Spirituality from the New Testament to St. John of the Cross by Rowan Williams – C. S. Lewis wrote: “I believe that many who find that ‘nothing happens’ when they sit down, or kneel down, to a book of devotion, would find that the heart sings unbidden while they are working their way through a tough bit of theology with a pipe in their teeth and a pencil in their hand.” That pretty well describes my experience of this classic study of Christian spirituality from the former Archbishop of Canterbury. Williams considers the Apostle Paul, Athanasius, Augustine, Luther and others, and how they understood the Christian vocation of prayer, contemplation, and the pursuit of union with Christ. This is not always an easy read (though Williams, who is also a poet, writes beautifully). Nevertheless it is a deeply rewarding one.
Vera – This British detective series has been the go-to date night watch for my wife and me over the past year. The series is based on Ann Cleeve’s Vera Stanhope series, and is set in Newcastle-upon-Tyne and the surrounding Northumberland countryside. The writing and acting are terrific, but really, I’d tune in just to hear DCI Vera (played by Brenda Blethyn) say “that’s alright, luv,” or “nevermind, pet.” Episodes are available through Amazon (or even better), for free through the Nashville Public Library’s Hoopla streaming service.
Liyana – A visually beautiful documentary about a group of orphans in the African nation of Eswatini, who are participating in a story-writing workshop. It is a story about the transformative power of stories. The movie shifts between filmed segments that tell the stories of the orphans, and animated segments that tell the story they write together. Streaming on Amazon, GooglePlay, and YouTube.
Wolfwalkers – This animated film was produced by the same Irish studio that created The Book of Kells and Song of the Sea. (If you haven’t seen those yet, go watch them immediately. I’ll wait here.) Like the two previous films, Wolfwalkers is based on Irish folklore and features a rich, graphical animation style that draws heavily from Celtic art and iconography. This story is set in Ireland in 1650 and has both historical and fantastical elements. The story pits the rational Puritanism of Oliver Cromwell against the fantastical paganism of the Celts, in a way that ultimately is probably a little one-sided and unfair to the Puritans. (For that matter, the early Celts were warrior tribes who practiced human sacrifice, rather than the crystals-and-crafts-loving environmentalists suggested by the film.) Nevermind all that; enjoy the eye candy. This is a great movie. Available on Apple TV+.
Chet Baker Sings by Chet Baker – For my money Chet Baker was the very coolest exponent of the “Cool Jazz” movement of the 40’s and 50’s. I’ve always loved his trumpet playing, but for some reason had never spent much time with this classic 1954 recording that features him as a vocalist. If you’re looking for an easy way in to jazz, or a soundtrack to listen to while imagining yourself as a character in a film noir detective drama; or, if you really dug La La Land, and would like to meet some of the music that inspired it—this is your record.
Agape by Jesus Molina – Jesus Molina is a 25 year-old Colombian jazz pianist of almost other-worldly virtuosity. A lot of the fun of this album is just enjoying (or if you’re a pianist, perhaps despairing over) his extraordinary keyboard pyrotechnics. But in addition to the flash, there is real substance here and some solid musical compositions. Molina also gets my vote for “Musician with the Purest, Most Innocent, and Exuberant Love of Jesus.” Most of his song titles reflect Christian themes, and one of his online bios says that he was taught to play piano “by the best teacher in the world, our Lord Jesus Christ.” That’s the sort of thing I might read with a chuckle if I hadn’t heard the guy’s chops.
From This Place by Pat Metheny – Jazz guitarist Pat Metheny recorded his first album in 1976, 44 years before the release of From This Place. Over that long career he has become (I learned from the NPR segment reviewing this album) “the only recording artist in history to win a Grammy award in 10 different categories.” Metheny’s music has always had a cinematic quality – unfolding in a lyrically linear fashion, rather than following a verse/chorus/bridge sort of format. That film-like character is accentuated on this album, which features Metheny’s quartet accompanied by the Hollywood Studio Symphony. It’s a recording to put on in the background while you make dinner or sort papers at your desk. After two or three times through you’ll be surprised to discover how deeply these long elaborate melodies have worked their way into your psyche.