A quick summary of 2021
I'll summarize 2021 and 2022 together when I write "2022 in review" early next year (that is, in 2023). Sorry for rattling off so many years in one sentence.
The rest of this is just some things that were new to me.
My favorite media-ish things I encountered this year
These are media-ish things I enjoyed for the first time in 2021, no matter what year they're from.
A Desolation Called Peace by Arkady Martine: This, the second book of the "Teixcalaan" series, closes out what I thought was going to be a sprawling, many-book space opera. As in the first book, Martine focuses mostly on one character and one planet. This narrow focus works on two levels. We get a thoughtful, contemplative story, and Martine is able to close out the series in a way that feels appropriately paced. I hope she'll return to this setting in the future.
A Trick of the Shadow by R. Ostermeier: Somebody in /r/horrorlit called this "one of the most chilling collections I've ever read." I won't go that far, but it is very good. This has all the things I like: quiet, weird horror. An indeterminate setting (it seems like the UK, but when, and where, and is it even our world's UK?). Subtly linked stories. Absurd bureaucracies.
Terra Ignota series by Ada Palmer: These books are taking me forever -- I started the series 16 months ago and am now only just 20% into book 4 -- and have really cut down how many books I've read in the last year, since I don't want to read more than two books at once. But I'm still plowing on and I don't regret my choice to read these. That says something, right?
The Gulp by Alan Baxter: Like the Ostermeier book above, this has linked stories, all of which are set in the small town of the Gulp. I had low expectations because of the throwback "Paperbacks From Hell"-style cover, but the stories are actually quite good. The sequel is already on my eReader.
A People's Guide to Capitalism by Hadas Thier: This is a wonderfully clear exposition of the marxist understanding of capitalism. Which is to say, the only understanding of capitalism that looks beyond ephemeral surface features ("free market!11") to understand the real foundation of the system -- production of commodities in which in labor power is the chief commodity. That understanding reveals capitalism to be based on exploitation, prone to crisis, and completely at odds with life on Earth. I recommend this to anyone who wants to understand Marx's economic work or to anyone who simply wants to understand what kind of society we have the misfortune of living in (for now).
Home Comforts: the Art and Science of Keeping House by Cheryl Mendelson: A giant book of advice for how to keep a tidy house, do laundry, entertain guests, etc. This book isn't really something I need or could even use, but it's an amazing accomplishment. Obtained thanks to a recommendation on the Cool Tools blog
The Spectre of Babeuf by Ian Birchall: Two things make this a great book. First, it is compelling. Even I read it in short order. Second, it shows that Babeuf is no mere utopian, but part of the modern socialist tradition, who had to grapple with the same problems we still face.
TV and movies
Deadwood: The dialog was so unnatural that I had to watch with subtitles, pausing to read and parse. But sometimes that dialog was brilliant (looking at you, E.B. Farnum), and besides, the characters and acting were more than enough to paper over that problem.
Garfunkel and Oates: Too-short TV show about a duo playing comedic folk music. Really good, the best comedy I've seen in years.
Kim's Convenience: A heartfelt sitcom about a Korean family running a convenience store. Some overarching plots and kept this pretty compelling.
Mare of Easttown: American detective show, quiet and calm, but also sort of bleak.
The Tunnel: British detective show, not quiet and calm.
Unforgotten: British detective show, quiet and calm.
You: The TV equivalent of candy. You feel bad for enjoying it, but you don't stop.
- The Treasure of the Sierra Madre: This is a bit of a cheat. I actually first saw this in 2016. But I saw it again on a December flight. It kept me spellbound. For 150 minutes or whatever, I didn't hate that I was on an airplane. Very nearly a perfect movie.
Briton Rites - For Mircalla: 2021's album that I listened to when I didn't know what else to listen to. I gave this a spin once before, a couple of years ago. Then I scoffed at the vocals. It's practically just a guy reading a story! But his delivery will grow on you, and the music is just fucking brilliant meat and potatoes heavy metal.
Nightstalker - Dead Rock Commandos: The best thing to say about this is that I heard it when I was sick. And yet there's no negative association; or if there is, it's not strong enough to overcome this album. Really solid stoner metal/rock. Probably recommended on /r/metal.
Steve Hackett - Voyage of the Acolyte: Recommended for its guitar tone on one of Pete Pardo's Sea of Tranquility channel's shows. Yeah, it's good alright. Lead track "Ace of Wands" alone is probably reason enough for it to make this list.
Stevie Wonder - Songs in the Key of Life: So, like the other Stevie Wonder albums that have made my recent annual reviews, I didn't like this at first. It seemed so poppy and slick that I thought about deleting it. But it slowly grew on me. First I liked "Pasttime Paradise," then "Black Man," and then I kind of gave up on the album. Picking it up again after almost a year, one track after another started lodging themselves in my head. This album more than holds its own against his other classic period albums. And it's a double LP. A huge achievement.
The Cure - Boys Don't Cry: Like Joy Division but not boring.
Xysma - Yeah: "Death metal with a 1970s vibes. Yeah, fuck that gimmick. Oh, wait, the album is from 1991? That sounds weird. I like weird 90s death metal." Really good, probably my favorite metal album that I heard in 2021. Definitely an /r/metal recommendation.
Spotify top songs
This is here only for the sake of tradition. I barely used Spotify this year. It's a bad product. It spies on you. It uses DRM. It tries to build a wall around what used to be the open podcast "ecosystem." The selection is full of gaps. There organization is terrible. Music disappears. It's not good. Anyone who likes music should still prefer local files.
Anyway, because of how little I used Spotify, songs made this list after one or two listens. I don't vouch for any of these songs.
- Gilles Chabenat - La mante / Baudimic / Adele
- Brutality - Sympathy
- Hothouse Flowers - Alright
- Will H. Johnson - Chessmen
- Atvm - Sanguinary Floating Orb
- Trio - Bye Bye
- Justice - D.A.N.C.E.
- Brutality - Septicemic Plague
- Isotope - Do the Business
- Foxy Shazam - Intro / Bombs Away
- Trio - Anna / Letmeinletmeout
- Caroline Pennell with Felix Snow - Lovesick
- Vera Hall Ward - Mama's Goin' to Buy Him a Little Lap Dog
- Brutality - Crushed
- Gilles Chabenat - Le bel oiseau
- Des'ree - You Gotta Be
- James Murphy - Through Your Eyes
- Nattsvargr - Winter's Final Breath
- Gilles Chabenat - Les souliers rouges / Plein vent
- Foxy Shazam - Bye Bye Symphony
I played all of these on PC unless otherwise noted.
Apex Legends: Ever since the days of Medal of Honor: Allied Assault, I've been a fan of FPS modes without respawn. Apex Legends is such a game. Explore big, colorful sci-fi landscapes. Kit yourself out. Hide in fear. Then die in a frantic, confused battle. Repeat. Played 264 hours in the last year.
Cloudpunk: That atmosphere, man. It's brilliant! Critics of this game have some valid points. Yes, the gameplay is mostly fetch quests. And yes, the world itself is simple. What looks like a bustling, teeming city reveals itself to be made up the same graphical building blocks. Though the city is peopled by thousands of NPCs, there's very little depth to any of them. But who gives a damn? Somehow the sum is bigger than the parts. Your character is new to Nivalis, which may be the last city in the world. It makes sense that you can't go everywhere, can't talk to everyone, can't remake the world around them. It is immersive for the player to feel out-of-place, ignored, and small. At any rate, the writing is great, the voice acting is actually noteworthy, and that atmosphere, man.
Hotshot Racing: A bright, colorful, simple racing game. It's hard to pin down a comparison. The racing is generic 90s fare (and that's a compliment). Only the graphics remind me of anything specific: the 32X classic Virtua Racing Deluxe.
Life is Strange 2: Life is Strange 2 had the potential of being an amazing road trip or journey game. Early on, as the two main characters walked down a highway, I thought that's what was coming: 10 hours of walking, talking, hitchhiking, and making decisions. Pretty quickly the game settles down into a series of set pieces that you just end up at. That said, this game still has a lot going for: those set pieces are beautiful, the cast is memorable, the story is engaging, and the choices you need to make are not easy. There's even a good free tie-in game (The Awesome Adventures of Captain Spirit) to be played between episodes 1 and 2.
Mutazione: Travel to a strange island to take care of your dying grandpa. Live with the locals for one week. There's not much here in terms of gameplay, but you're going to "live" with some fascinating people for a week, and that's enough. It's a great trend, this trend of games focusing on the more or less normal, everyday interactions between people.
NFL2K2: Just a good old football game for the Sega Dreamcast. I missed this one back in the day, probably because I already had NFL2K. I believe the people who say that NFL2K3 (or was it NFL2K5?) is the pinnacle of football video games.
Night in the Woods: This made my 2017 in review list, but back then I didn't say anything. I want to say something now. This is Halloween in game form. There's some spookiness, but better than that, there's leaves and cozy fall weather and hanging out with your friends. As with other games on this list, it's a matter of atmosphere, story, characters, and dialog. It nails all that. It doesn't matter that the gameplay is mostly pressing left, right, and interact.
Planetside 2: After a long break (2014 to 2021), my friends and I picked this back up. There's still nothing else that has huge neon laser battles like this game. Play it, it's free!
Subnautica: Below Zero: It's like the original Subnautica. Not better, not worse, maybe just smaller. Play this, or the first one, or both, but just play a Subnautica!
Wintermoor Tactics Club: This just makes the list. Combining elements of a visual novel, RPG, and turn-based strategy game, this is a fun, cozy game bolstered by the unique premise -- students at a boarding school are forced to compete in a snowball fight tournament.
Software I started to use
kakoune: I started using this text editor in August because of the kakoune-wiki plugin. The combination is everything I could want. kakoune handles syntax highlighting and line wrapping as well as or better than vi or nvim, and the wiki plugin has only the features I want: a way to insert and follow links, as well as a way to see a list all pages and jump to one of them. The downside is that the commands are rather different than vi. Learning them was easy enough, but now I find that I'm trying to use kakoune commands in vi.
nvim: I switched from vim to neovim in July. Really the only reason was that nvim stores its configuration files in one directory, versus vim, which had
~/.vim/. My config file is a bit shorter now since some settings that were options in vim are now defaults in nvim. I only use nvim when I need its spell checking. Otherwise, I stick to vi most of the time.
spectrwm: In April and May 2020, I spent a week or two using dwm on my laptop. I liked tiling in general and dwm's simplicity in particular. But I never quite got on with the keybindings. At the time I tried spectrwm, but this, too, didn't take. For me the default settings were quite bad -- bad colors, bad fonts, bad keybindings. Fixing that was more than I had time for. But I always planned to circle back around to it one day. That day ended up being April 21, 2021. I had a free evening at work. I figured learning a powerful new window manager would increase my productivity, and work should be glad about that. In a couple of hours, spectrwm was configured well enough that I could keep using it. The remaining tweaks took only a few days. I never looked back. I like that this is simple but still configurable, and that it has historically had close ties to the OpenBSD community.
zutty: Last fall, I found myself at my parents' house. It was a cool, crisp night and I had just got back from a walk. What else to do but try a new terminal emulator? This one's fine and fast and simple. Making it use the font I wanted was confusing, so I'm stuck with 10x20. But I really like that. It's part of the reason I stuck to zutty.
Things I bought
Fuji XF 70-300mm lens: This replaced my venerable 55-200mm lens. The extra reach and weather-sealing are really nice to have. It seems good? A year on and I still haven't used this much.
Computer: In February I made a new computer using AMD parts and ECC RAM. The timing was terrible given the shortages; it took almost 14 months to finally get a new video card for this build.
mp3 player: In 2012 I got an iPod Classic 160 GB (7th generation). It's great hardware, and once you get the open source Rockbox firmware on it, there's no problem with the software. But 160 GB just isn't enough space. In December 2020 I tried to replace the hard drive with an mSATA drive. In doing so, I broke the power connector on the logic board. Instead of spending 90 dollars on a refurbished logic board, I cheaped out and got a new old stock Sandisk Fuze+. Its internal memory is piddly, but that's okay. It takes MicroSD cards. With a 512GB MicroSD card and Rockbox, this thing is more than serviceable for 2022. The only problem is the cheap hardware. The iPod was faster and had the brilliant scroll wheel.