It’s been a year of feeling in-between. Vaccines allowed us to return to some normal routines and reunite with friends, but there’s still so much uncertainty as we near the end of this year. The only certainty of 2021 was that we could pull up Spotify to listen to a comforting album or watch the latest-streaming movie. We might be nervous to have to return to the monotony that marked 2020, but there’s one type of repetition we don’t mind—finding a song so good that you listen to it over and over again.
Albums emerged from artists’ quarantine studios and became the soundtrack to students’ familiar walks to class. Concert halls were filled with fans who heard the music that got them through 2020, feeling exhilaration reverberate through the crowd at the strum of the first bass note.
Brilliant shows and films alit our screens when we needed to take a break from re-learning how to socially interact with other people. The world of streaming networks continues to expand alongside the continual rise of the well-made and captivating limited series. The films that arrived in the theaters—their seats dusted off from a year of lower-than-usual attendance—were long awaited due to production and release delays during the beginning of the pandemic. But others were created on sets this year with strict COVID-19 regulations.
Here is a collection of Heights arts editors’ and staff writers’ favorite movies, music, and TV from this year. They represent the artistry that bloomed during dark times and the resilience of creative industries as they adapt to new realities.
Collapsed In Sunbeams – Arlo Parks
by Katherine Canniff, Arts Editor
After so much disconnection and isolation in 2020, many of us were eager to connect with others, earnestly asking each other “how are you doing?” At the beginning of 2021, Arlo Parks offered her listeners that connection with her debut album Collapsed In Sunbeams. On the album, Parks isn’t afraid to bare her soul or her gentle vocals. She opens the record with a piece of spoken word poetry that gives the album its title, painting beautiful images of love and setting the tone for the emotional album.
Her songs articulate mental health struggles, and she helps to strip away the topic’s taboo with every line. On the track titled “Hope,” Parks sings “You’re not alone like you think you are / We all have scars, I know it’s hard.” The lyrics never feel exploitative or simplified but seem to reach out to her audience to affirm their experiences.
Park’s poetic lyrics are at the core of the highly praised 12-track album. On “Eugene,” a popular single off the record, Parks lets her listeners see how she envisions the world as she sings “I had a dream, we kissed / and it was all amethyst / the underpart of your eyes was violet.”
The indie pop and R&B artist tastefully speaks about serious topics on tracks that still feature groovy rhythms that listeners can dance to. On “Just Go,” a bouncing and catchy synth beat is the backdrop for Parks’ musings on lost love. A simple electric guitar riff in the background provides a moment of pure musical satisfaction that rare chord changes or transitions to the chorus provide, making it a track to put on repeat.
Emerging on the music scene as a young artist, Parks represents a generation of young people who are looking for realism and honesty in the art that they surround themselves with as they grow up in a constantly shifting world.
BELIEVE IN ME, WHO BELIEVES IN YOU – Aries
by Josie McNeill, Assoc. Arts Editor
In my search to find a song to give me the same serotonin boost that “The Spins” by Mac Miller provides me, I came across “KIDS ON MOLLY” by Aries toward the end of this year. “KIDS ON MOLLY” matched the feel-good energy of “The Spins,” and the upbeat tempo of the song reminded me that even in the dark times of the COVID-19 pandemic, I could always safely dance around my dorm room. Plus, I love a song with a catchy guitar rhythm.
Luckily for me, “KIDS ON MOLLY” was succeeded by a slew of synth-pop and hip-hop tracks on BELIEVE IN ME, WHO BELIEVES IN YOU, Aries’ sophomore album. With “FOOL’S GOLD,” the first single off the album, Aries talks about his struggle with addiction—a topic that was also present in his first album WELCOME HOME. Similarly to “KIDS ON MOLLY,” “FOOLS GOLD” begins with a guitar riff instead of a beat. The riff, remaining present under the beat throughout the song, brings a serene feeling to contrast the heaviness of the lyrics.
In his songs, Aries sings about the shift from being closed off in his life to actively searching for meaningful experiences. This theme is especially present in “WHEN THE LIGHTS GO OUT,” where the sun represents his hopes in life. In the outro, he sings “always talkin’ ‘bout the sun / What does the sun even mean to you? Huh? / You’re inside all day, you don’t even see it.” Aries’ feeling of hope is mirrored in the sunny and infectious rhythm of the song. The music, in conjunction with the positive lyrics, creates an especially joyful note to close the album.
Aries’ music is different from the majority of the songs I listened to in 2021, but it was nice to add a little spice to my Spotify after a year that was rather monotonous. When I found Aries, I was looking for music where I could just turn up the volume, let go, and not think about the pandemic or my future for a moment. This album delivered just that.
Pretend It’s a City – Martin Scorsese
By Paterson Tran, Asst. Arts Editor
Pretend It’s a City, a limited series centered around author Fran Lebowitz, is both a reflection on the evolution of New York City and a criticism of 21st century pop culture. Rooted in director Martin Scorsese’s and Lebowitz’s experiences, the two create Pretend It’s a City to reminisce about New York City and the zeitgeist of the 1970s and ’80s. Lebowitz uses the seven-episode series as a mode to look back on how her writing and criticism have held up over time. Through her analysis, Lebowitz finds the defunct remnants of the city where she spent her adolescence and where the genesis of her unique voice began.
Scorsese delivers a perfect backdrop for Lebowitz’s story with a compilation of archival footage of New York and a score that evokes the 24/7 chaos of the city. Lebowitz airs both condescension and bitterness to the world changing around her. At the same time, she basks in the reality that she can’t live forever in the bubble of her youth, and alongside Scorsese, she finds greater purpose in her voice. Mirroring the turbulent young adulthood that she faced decades ago, Lebowitz uses Pretend It’s a City as a blank page and makes her argument with flawless dictation.
Ultimately, the show is Lebowitz’s love letter to herself. From her stories of barefoot transportation, a car robbery for an apple and cigarettes, to her repeated disgust for new art, she offers up disdain as the common denominator of great comedy. She argues that, in 2021, art and film fail to provide fulfillment for healthy contemptment—no matter how menial.
Spencer – Pablo Larraín
Grace Mayer, Senior Staff
Kristen Stewart as Princess Diana in Spencer delivers one of the best performances of the year and one of the best renderings of Diana from the past decade. Stewart envelops us into the princess’s paranoia with each earnest expression and discomforting shrug. Diana feels engulfed by the penetrating gazes of the royal family and its army of staff. Throughout the film, Diana is confined within the palace during a Christmas weekend in the early ’90s—before Diana filed for divorce from Prince Charles—and her words, fashion choices, weight, and personality are scrutinized and often censored.
The movie is not without its faults. Running at nearly two hours, the film, directed by Pablo Larraín, loses momentum at points. Some scenes are drawn out past their point of effectiveness, including the film’s opening, with an assembly line of cooks and an aerial view of the palace’s grounds. Although these scenes illustrate the obscene opulence of the royal family and seem to reflect the dullness that Diana feels while stuck in royal obligations and Christmas traditions, they also stalled my interest in the emotional richness of Diana’s character. But when Stewart’s on the screen—which she is for the vast majority of the film—there’s no turning away.
While watching Diana fall further and further out of line with the crown, we trail her nervously. The camera follows her from behind while she parades through the palace, sinks into toilet bowls, and romps through fields.Stewart’s Diana takes us on a rollercoaster ride that is at times buzzing with elation, a ruse she musters up for her sons, while she is weighed down by her internal agony. It’s a difficult balance to maintain, but one that Stewart expertly navigates.
Licorice Pizza – Paul Thomas Anderson
by Shaun Taxali, Heights Staff
Delightful and delicious are two adjectives that immediately come to mind to describe Paul Thomas Anderson’s new film, Licorice Pizza. The film serves as Anderson’s addition to a pantheon of groundbreaking films. Anderson strays away from the narratives of his recent American epics like There Will Be Blood and The Master. But while watching Licorice Pizza, I was enchanted by its more youthful and innocent charm. After a tumultuous couple of years, the expertly crafted film serves its role as sheer sun-soaked escapism.
Anderson is simply trying to enchant his audience—rolling viewers into a story of first love in 1970s Los Angeles between Gary Valentine (Cooper Hoffman) and Alana Kane (Alana Haim). With a 10-year age difference between the pair, the awkwardness and absurdity in their relationship drives the story forward, as each undergoes their own journey of growing up with the spotlight of Hollywood present in every corner of their neighborhood.
Hoffman and Haim both make their feature film debuts and deliver sweeping performances. Their strong onscreen chemistry makes it easy to watch them talk about anything and everything.
Licorice Pizza is two hours of exciting and energetic filmmaking, as the film takes audiences on a rapturous emotional ride—reminding them exactly why going to the movies is fun in the first place. Impossible to watch without a beaming smile, the highly anticipated film has the potential to captivate people for decades, as Anderson masterfully crafts a romantic and spellbinding mood.
In the playground of Los Angeles, anything can get Anderson’s protagonists into trouble, but the audience knows that Gary and Alana have each other to rely on. It is a romantic and refreshing coming-of-age tale—all crafted by a filmmaker who is still at the top of his game.
Black Widow – Cate Shortland
by Erin Pender, Heights Staff
Since 2010, Natasha Romanoff, played by Scarlett Johansson, has been an integral character in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, as her role expanded in each new film. In such a male-dominated genre, a female superhero—especially one who does not have any supernatural powers of her own—can carve out new storylines and roles in the film industry.
For the countless girls and young women who grew up watching Marvel movies, Black Widow is a role model. She demonstrates that women can be strong, confident, and bold, and still be feminine. It’s only fitting that Black Widow got her own movie this year—one that would explain her origin story.
Black Widow, released in July of this year, details Natasha’s childhood and her quest to take down the head of a cruel spy training program with her sister, Yelena Belova (Florence Pugh). They also reunite with their parents, Alexei Shostakov (David Harbour) and Melina Vostokoff (Rachel Weisz).
Beyond exhilarating fight scenes, the dynamic between these four is the most exciting part of the film. Witty one-liners and recurring jokes demonstrate their familial dynamic, quickly engaging the audience in their world and their complicated relationships. Pugh shines in the film, as she delivers Yelena’s lines with the shrewdness and wit of an adult but clings to the idea of an idyllic childhood.
Natasha’s and Yelena’s bond also allows the film to explore the idea of family. Family is what can sustain a person and keep them going through life’s challenges. Chosen families are just as important, as they provide that support system even when one may be far away from their “real” family. For Natasha, that chosen family includes the Avengers.
Black Widow is a fitting tribute to Natasha and a wonderful introduction to Yelena’s character. The importance of strong female characters can never be understated, and this film ensures that the legacy of Black Widow lives on.
The Comeback – Zac Brown Band
by Lauren Jasen, Heights Staff
Zac Brown Band returned to its country roots with its most recent album, The Comeback. Released this fall, the album touches on themes that are reminiscent of past albums— genuine love, Georgia roots, and living life to the fullest. I have been a devoted Zac Brown Band fan for many years now. I own all of its albums on vinyl and I have seen the band perform live multiple times, and with this new album release, I gained an even greater appreciation for Zac Brown Band’s music.
The track “Same Boat” reminds listeners that although we come from different walks of life, we also have common experiences. It is a simple sentiment but one with a profound philosophical message. When hearing the track “The Comeback,” it is difficult not to reflect on the events of the pandemic this past year. The lead singer, Zac Brown, takes a hopeful approach as he sings of light after darkness and the change that can rise from the wreckage.
“Stubborn Pride” and “Wild Palomino” are both brilliant ballads, but “Any Day Now” is the heartfelt gem of the album. It could be Zac Brown Band’s most emotionally rich song thus far. Every time I listen to the song, the climax gives me chills as Brown sings, “No I wasn’t done loving you / So many things I meant to do / I’m cold as the pillow by your empty nightstand / You’re long gone now with my heart in your hand.” Spotify Wrapped informed me that it was my most listened to song of the year, which doesn’t surprise me at all.
Zac Brown Band has shown us time and time again that music has the power to bring people together—both during simple times when life is about enjoying fried chicken and the music on the radio, and during times of difficulty when our strength is put to the test. The Comeback was the reminder I needed to truly appreciate every day.
Tungsten – Healy
by Kieran Wilson, Heights Staff
Memphis-based artist Healy released his sophomore album, Tungsten, in January 2021. This 13-track project is the culmination of four years of work for Healy, and it showcases the ways he has grown since his debut album Subluxe.
With the new record, Healy offers a brief look into his musical and personal life—turning his everyday musings about life into abstract yet understandable reflections on memory and the passage of time. With elements of pop and rap, easy-flowing melodies, and luscious synths, guitars, and piano, Healy really comes into his own on Tungsten. The album feels like its own musical world that’s ready for us to journey through it.
In “Deep Cuts,” Healy draws on images that are personal but, at the same time, open for interpretation, leaving his listeners ample room to see how the lyrics speak to their own experiences.
In “Nikes On,” Healy questions why time seems to move so fast. While this is by no means a new theme explored by the music industry, Healy puts his own spin on it, asking “Why time got his Nikes on?” His relaxed delivery makes this song feel like a stream of consciousness, making this one of the standouts from the album.
Healy scores big with Tungsten and leaves listeners eager for new music and with cosmic questions to ponder about the passage of time.
This album struck such a reverberating chord with me, as I found parallels between its lyrics and my own life. As I look more toward the future, I find myself with more and more questions about time. Why does it pass so quickly? How can I best spend it? Will I make the most out of all that is given to me? I certainly don’t have answers to those questions, but in Tungsten, I found a companion in my meditations.
Featured Graphic by Annie Corrigan / Heights Editor