35. 2020 - A Year in Things

We made it

On my last working day of 2020 I tested positive for COVID. I don’t have much to say about it except wear a goddamn mask.


The previous newsletter was a review of 2020 through my experiences. This is a review of 2020 through things, more commonly called a year-end review. Only I don’t consume enough of anything from anywhen to properly review a year’s worth of things from that year.

(Except music.)

So this is a look back at the things that made 2020 possible for me, some of which were actually released in 2020 and most that weren’t.

(Except music.)

Thank you for reading this year. If this is your last newsletter, you’ve been a cherished guest. If it’s your first, welcome.

Without further ado, here was my 2020 in things.

Thing 1 - Podcasts

Poetry Unbound

Pádraig Ó Tuama, the Irish host of Poetry Unbound, speaks the way a hot toddy feels going down your throat. Warm and inflected and the beginning of a mood-bettering experience.

Ó Tuama starts each bi-weekly episode with a guiding question. He then relates the poem to you, which is not a way you can use that word but is nonetheless what happens. He holds poems in his mouth like someone rescuing a litter of kittens. I want to be each word; they sound so cared for.

I’ve turned to poetry every day of the pandemic, in particular poems that helped reframe my need to accomplish something with all this “free time”. Chief among them is Mary Oliver’s “Wild Geese”, which starts with my personal mantra for 2020:

You do not have to be good.

All Consuming

Every week, photographer Noah Kalina and videographer Adam Lisagor try a new direct-to-consumer product. If you’re not familiar with the concept, it’s something advertised on Instagram that you’ve never seen in a shop.

Pre-packaged overnight oats. Earwax camera. Scrotum shaver. They try the product and then rate it on a hundred-point scale. Due to a… misunderstanding(?) in the first episode, the scores are always under 10.

If you know Kalina it’s probably as the first of the “photograph myself every day” guys, something he’s been doing without fail for 20 years. As for Lisagor—think of a video you’ve seen for a startup that you liked and made you kind of want the product or service. Chances are it was made by his company, Sandwich.

St. Elwick’s Neighbourhood Association Newsletter Podcast

My favourite parodies, by which I mean the ones that make me uncomfortable to the point I can’t watch them, feature a high degree of sincerity. You want to believe the people behind the parody have a deep appreciation for the subject they’re parodying. This is where, at least to my tastes, British parodies often cut so much sharper than American ones.

“Owing to the grievous and small-minded abrogation of our printed newsletter budget we have been reduced to publishing by podcast.” And thus does Malcolm Durridge (the utterly perfect Mike Wozniak) of St. Elwick’s Neighbourhood Association attempt to deliver all the news, highlights, and goings-on from his perch in Essex.

He conducts interviews. He tries to bust a vape dealer. He reminds his daughter Jess to remove parts of the recording before he uploads it (it’s very clear Jess never touches the recording).

I first discovered Wozniak on the wonderfully unhinged Beef and Dairy Network Podcast, where he plays a host of characters like bovine ass vet Bob Trescothick. Beef and Dairy is wonderful, but St. Elwick’s offers Wozniak a calmer, gentler place to be totally bonkers.

Thing 2 - Hobbies

About ten years ago I got really into baking bread. I bought proofing baskets. I took courses. I fed a starter. I talked seriously about protein levels in flour.

I didn’t bake bread during lockdown.

Cameras

I suppose the hobby is more properly called “photography”, but before I started taking a lot of photos I looked at a lot of cameras. Have you ever watched someone take apart, clean, and put back together a camera? (That sentence has problems but I can’t fix them right now.) I recommend it.

Heck I recommend watching any popular repair video on YouTube, because they usually involve a person of great skill restoring with loving care and attention a “worthless object”, which is exactly the energy I need at the end of 2020. I like to imagine it’s my own shattered person they’re taking so much care of, carefully machining the perfect brass screws to reattach my battered soul.

I think with all our needs condensing into a single device that fits into a front pocket, it makes sense to go in the other direction entirely and buy devices that do only one thing extremely well. And by “it makes sense” I mean “it’s now fun”.

Vinyl records

Speaking of things that do only one thing well—record players! I finally had my panicky, middle-age moment of realising I didn’t know the names of any songs because it’s all streaming and playlists now isn’t it.

What listening to music on vinyl has done:

  • focused my listening

  • encouraged whole album consumption

  • slowed me down

What listening to music on vinyl hasn’t done:

  • helped me remember the names of any songs

Reading a long book

I thought I’d lost the ability to read long books. Turns out, the world just needed to shut down. Long books, like vinyl records, are an inconvenient way to consume content. You can’t dip in and out of a long book or you’ll never get a gestures like I’m hugging something literary of what you’re reading.

The long book I read this year was Nick Harkaway’s Gnomon. In printed form its 704 pages, which is about twice the length of books I usually read. It’s got shades of Cloud Atlas’s “watch me write in four different styles” flexing about it, and what it lacks in David Mitchell’s sheer hutzpah it makes up for in having, you know, a story that comes together in the end.

Just.

Thing 3 - Words

Fitzcarraldo Editions

If Wes Anderson started a publishing house it would probably look a lot like Fitzcarraldo. They have two outputs, fiction and essays, and both feature a heavy percentage of “international” authors.

They have two cover styles: blue for fiction, white for essays.

And like Mr. Anderson’s movies, certain people love EVERY book they publish and certain people hate EVERY book on principle.

My favourite reads this year came almost exclusively from Fitzcarraldo:

  • Hurricane Season by Fernanda Melchor, a shattering, gut-punch of a book, filled with such finely wrought characters suffering so extravagantly it will leave an indelible mark on your psyche

  • Nocilla Dream, Nocilla Experience, and Nocilla Lab by Agustín Fernández Mallo, three books connected in theme, the experience of reading them resembling surfing TV channels in an adjacent dimension

  • The Appointment by Katharina Volckmer, in which a young German woman now living in London delivers a soul-baring monologue during a gynaecological exam

  • The Hatred of Poetry by Ben Lerner, worth it for his analysis of the “world’s worst poem” alone

Little Weirds by Jenny Slate

Little Weirds by Jenny Slate is like… imagine you’re at a dinner party, and you’ve not been looking forward to it, and you’re worried they’ll sit you next to someone you won’t vibe with. And instead they sit you next to someone so naturally entertaining, so wonderfully curious and expressive and open, that you spend the rest of the evening floating along on a cloud of narrative delights. And by the end of the evening you have a new best friend and all sorts of different ways of looking at the everyday.

That’s Little Weirds.

The Analog Sea Review

The Analog Sea Review is a biannual journal published by The Analog Sea. The Analog Sea is a publisher dedicated to being offline (no website, natch.) You can only buy the journal at independent book shops.

Each of the three issues is worth picking up as a monument to why print still kicks total ass. They’re just so luxurious—hardbound, weighty, considered. There’s a bit too much hammering on about how “online is killing humanity”, but given it’s their raison d’être it’s easily forgiven.

Thing 4 - What I heard

30 songs. You can listen on Spotify or YouTube (with one substitution). Deep breath. Let’s do this.

Thinking Of - Tricky, Marta

If there was a Drive 2, this would soundtrack the part where Ryan Gosling’s character, having seemingly escaped his past, has to pull on the driving gloves one last time.

Tournament - Nation of Language

Growing up in the 80’s I did not listen to the bands who clearly inspired Nation of Language’s sound. I definitely listen to them now. Crisp drums, wavering synths, heartfelt crooning.

Gospel For A New Century - Yves Tumor

If Tame Impala and Tyler the Creator produced a funk song but actually it was Outkast all along.

Letter - sir Was

Mixtape for the girl who’ll eventually leave me for my best friend, side 1, track 1.

The Steps - HAIM

Dancing with girl friends in my bedroom after heart ache, forming new memories, finding new purpose.

Mustang - Bartees Strange

I could have picked any track off Strange’s debut, Live Forever. They’re all so different, all so good, all so beautiful. “Mustang” is like a lost A-side from Broken Social Scene’s You Forgot It In People, which is some of the highest praise I can level at a song.

Chapter 319 - clipping.

Donald Trump is a white supremacist, full stop. This song marked a time in 2020 that did not end, that should not end, and won’t likely end in my lifetime.

JU$T - Run The Jewels

Reaction videos of people hearing Rage Against The Machine for the first time. Song Exploder episode on this song. Pharrell never aging. Get it?

Kolo Kolo - Balming Tiger

There’s no better description of this song (which has a required-viewing music video) than this YouTube comment:

96% Hakuna Matata
3% Japan
1% Green Ronaldo

Not A Problem - Lack Of Afro

What’s that? Your step needs some swagger? “Awwww shit, walk up in this like a new bitch.” Walk into 2021 playing this loud and freely.

Sunny Crypt - Francis Bebey (Daniel Haaksman Edit)

With all due respect to Mr. Haaksman, I don’t know what edit means in this context. But I do know he collected this gem and many more on Black Atlantica Edits and for that I am very grateful. This makes me want to dance outside, under a canopy of stars.

Sun For Someone - Oscar Jerome

A very crisp suit. Sunglasses. Single-fold pocket square. More steps than a pilgrimage.

JAZZ BREAK

The jazz kids who grew up with Radiohead and Wu-Tang and Madlib and Dilla have left school and are straight cooking in the kitchen. London is specially blessed by this influx of talent and if the whole world hadn’t shut down, I’d have gone to see all of them this year.

Baby Renfro - Eric Revis

Trumpet stabs. Bass harmonics. Piano as a percussive element.

A Certain Trip - Guillaume Perret

This song will make you want to travel somewhere “exotic”, and for that I am very sorry.

Happy Crazy - PAARD.

Everything is kicking off in the factory after midnight! (Also our second entry of a band with a full stop in their name. Trend of the year?)

Crewcut - Lunch Money Life

The band with the clearest connection to Radiohead, meaning they’re my favourite.

Mlecz - Błoto

“There’s something in the water in Poland”, the blog post would read, if there were still blogs and people still drank tap water.

4 Dads, For Whomst - Big Yawn

Those are two song titles, though it works pretty well as a collective title for both. They get two songs because they released two albums. I don’t make the rules.

Wezlee’s Disco Inferno - Planet Battagon

Intergalactic planetary, planetary intergalactic.

Ritual - Nightports, Betamax

The producers who are Nightports team up with a single musician to produce improvised albums of absolutely punishing grooves.

TED - Village of the Sun, Moses Boyd, Binker Golding

Basically a supergroup, which would be unfair for all the regular groups except a) Moses Boyd is an equal opportunity enhancer and b) he just has that effect it’s not his fault.

All News Is Good News - Surprise Chef

And THIS song will make you want to sit by a pool. Again, the sincerest apologies.

Shapeshift - The VV Experience

There’s so much music coming out of everywhere bands form from other bands like cellular mitosis.

8 Mullups - Hummucide

I’m of that age where I can’t tell if something is a reference anymore, and whether I need to know the reference to fully appreciate the thing. Thankfully, none of the words involved here seem to reference anything.

Meow Meow - Ebi Soda

Bristol is also positively heaving with jazz talent.

Don’t Shoot Guns Down - Sault

Sault, a mysterious collective from London, has released four albums in two years. That alone is bonkers and then you add that each album has been great and really, come on, four great albums every two years average? Even Jay Z can’t say shit to that.

Atomised - GoGo Penguin

Described by one Tiny Desk commenter as an IT team on a lunch break, GoGo Penguin are the most unassuming legendary musicians you’re likely to encounter. They look like maths teachers and play like people who’ve made a pact with the devil, god, some eldritch horror… it’s stupid how well they play.

Frustratingly, you really need to see them live to understand exactly how good they are. Because on a recording you’re going to assume there’s a ton of studio trickery going into their trademark sound, and their engineers definitely deserve a lot of credit. But it’s only when you see Chris Illingworth play the piano live that you’ll realise he’s implementing that delay with just his hands. (I’m a music simpleton so this still blows my mind.)

On - Kelly Lee Owens

Dance music from the purest heart.

Inside I’ll Sing - Shards

A fairly straight-ahead song by this experimental choir’s standards, and all the more lovely for it. Can’t listen without tearing up. Can’t sing along without feeling better.

Thing 5 - What I saw

Ted Lasso

We need to talk about Ted Lasso.

At some point over the last decade I lost the ability to stick with a show the obligatory “two or three episodes before it gets good”.

So I’ve not watched the vast majority of excellent programs released during that time, and not many of the shows released before that I was going to catch up on later.

So when I say Ted Lasso is the best television show I’ve seen this year, and one of the best shows I’ve seen ever, it’s with that heavy, heavy caveat in place. It’s my not very encompassing opinion. But magically, wonderfully, it’s one that seems to be shared by a great many people.

It wasn’t supposed to be good. It wasn’t even supposed to be competent, based, as it is, on a character from a television commercial. Yet with god as my witness, I say to you that not only is it good, it’s transformative. It will make you feel like a better person.

Portrait Of A Lady On Fire

Four years ago it was The Great Beauty (La grande bellezza). Two years ago it was Call Me By Your Name. And this year, the movie I turned to again and and again to restore my faith, lift my eyes, and embiggen my spirit was Céline Sciamma’s Portrait Of A Lady On Fire.

The central story concerns a painter commissioned to do a portrait of the titular lady. Paint the hopeful(?) bride-to-be with enough skill and panache and it will help secure the future of a family.

While the romance that develops between painter and subject is definitely its driving force, the movie’s main theme, for me, is how women quietly help each other solve problems. There’s an extended secondary plot involving an unwanted pregnancy that feels particularly resonant with this year (and specifically events in Poland.)

There are wordless scenes where the lead characters simply occupy space together that say more than entire other movies. And Adèle Haenel is the greatest actor working today whose name most people don’t know.

Baumgartner Restoration - YouTube

A somewhat stiff, slightly conservative-sounding man films himself restoring paintings (and the odd statue) for anonymous rich clients isn’t exactly the recipe for a hit YouTube channel and the thing I watched the most in 2020.

And yet, I’ve become enamoured with his fastidiousness. I’ve joined with millions of others in learning about why staples are terrible, how only hacks use non-reversible paint, the undeniable utility of washi kozo paper.

Why isn’t there an art restoration reality show? How insanely entertaining would that be? I mean, it would end up just like American Idol where the best parts were always who was going to butcher a song the worst. But imagine!

Thing 6 - All the other things

Games

A big shout out to people who make games this year. You the real MVP. I played a lot of games, which for me is about 10—but that’s a lot! And while my go-to is super lengthy RPGs where I get to change my armour like every five minutes, this year I was more impressed by short, narrative games dealing with human-sized issues.

Wide Ocean Big Jacket lets you guide four characters, two teens and two adults, as they navigate a particularly fraught camping trip. I wanted to spend more time with them.

Mutazione describes itself as a mutant soap opera. Surprisingly heartfelt with a beautiful soundtrack, and the year’s best performance by a sentient fungi.

Animal Crossing: New Horizons was a mammoth hit I thought wouldn’t interest me in the slightest. Then people started to recreate fashion shoots and entire Japanese towns in it, and here we are. I fell off it pretty hard, but while I was there it was a bit magical.

Food

Some of my favourite places closed for good this year. (RIP Jidori). And some pivoted to takeaway, hopefully pointing to a sustainable future.

Rice Error is by the people behind Bao, which if you know you know.

Dom’s Subs, formerly Visions Canteen, make the best sandwiches I’ve ever had.

Any time another person cooked for me or I cooked for another person because that happened almost never this year which was weird as hell.

Clothing

I bought a pair of Red Wings, something I’ve resisted for 12 years. And now I get it. Dry feet is a luxury I am very willing to pay for.


Oof. Gonna hit send on this. Be well. Stay curious. 2021 is almost here, and it’s going to be a lot like 2020. But this time we know all about the bastard. Let’s do this.