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Our A-Z of Cultural Highs Were Not Always Your A-Z of Cultural Highs Music, Movies, Television, Art, and Similar Things That Made 2020 bearable chosen by our editors, contributors, and special guest stars

Our A-Z of Cultural Highs Were Not Always Your A-Z of Cultural Highs

Music, Movies, Television, Art, and Similar Things That Made 2020 bearable chosen by our editors, contributors, and special guest stars

by Alarcon, Founder / Managing Editor
first published: January, 2021
It's the New Years Day Long Read...

If you’re reading this, then like me, you survived 2020. It was a rough one, wasn’t it? Trump, Brexit, COVID-19, the finale of The Undoing? That said, there were a few things that made 2020 a little less miserable, and here they are… - Alarcon

A
BEST IN INSIDER AND OUTSIDER ART

Alarcon: The silver monolith found tucked away installed in a red rock slot canyon south of Moab doesn’t have a name that anyone knows of and the artist remains unknown, but this piece truly did captivate the art world in 2020. Banksy, your move.

Ancient Champion: I liked the monolith. Might have driven to see that if it was still there. The Toon Traveller dropped by before the lockdown and we looked over some stuff at the IKON, we loved the Eastside and everything Pogus Caesar did… He did a lot this year.


B
BEST BOOKS WE AT LEAST BEGAN READING THIS YEAR

Alarcon: I read a lot of great books by musicians this year: Debbie Harry's Face It, Ian Hunter’s Sweepstakes, Jeff Tweedy’s How to Write One Song, Kathy Valentine’s All I Ever Wanted, Jessica Simpson’s Open Book, but the standout tome was written by Chris Frantz. Remain in Love: Talking Heads, Tom Tom Club, Tina is funny, sad, revealing, -- everything you want in a music biography. Frantz doesn’t pull punches, but he’s respectful about it. Of course he’s going to mention David Byrne, and of course we find out that Byrne is a handful, but Frantz paints a fair picture of his time before and after the Heads.

Alex V. Cook writes: Hugh Raffles’ The Book of Unconformities: Speculations on Lost Time -- one of those huge view-the-entirety-through-one-thing science/history revelators with a heartbreaking, personal take. A geologist navigates the death of his sisters by going deep on spots where the bedrock of the planet is exposed and how they inevitably change the people who encounter them. Super high concept and core-penetrating.

Alan Devey writes: Neither of them were published in 2020 but two of the books that had the biggest impact on me this year were both non-fiction, Patricia Lockwood’s Priestdaddy is a memoir-cum-portrait of her eccentric father that’s as hilarious as anything I’ve ever read while David Wallace-Wells’ The Uninhabitable Earth clearly and forensically explains how planet-destroying climate change is already here and really puts into perspective the pandemic, showing it’s just a precursor/warm up for the horrors to come during this century. In fiction I finally got round to Patrick Hamilton’s masterful trilogy Twenty Thousand Streets Under The Sky, a portrait of the struggles of ordinary folk in London between the wars that suffuses you with the drama of real, lived lives and was the closest I came to going to the pub through much of 2020.

Meave Haughey says, Novels...
There, There - Tommy Orange.   just such an exciting and fresh read about a group of family and friends travelling to the big PowWow and the connections between them. 

Ocean Vuong - On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous  poet turned novelist -- it’s the beautiful turns of phrase

A Ghost In the Throat - Doireann Ní Ghríofa. Part history, part fiction -- An almost indescribable look at writing and motherhood. I wept through this...pummeled by the beauty and the concision. 

Lampie - Annet Schaap. Astonishing writing whose style drew me in immediately and never faltered. Lampie is banished from the lighthouse where she lives with her father and sent to the dark house on the hill where she meets the monster who will change her life.

The Dutch House - Ann Patchett  - I love stories about architecture and this one centres around a huge suburban mansion which has a lasting effect on the family who can't escape it even once they've lost it 

In the Distance - Hernan Diaz -  a new take on American settlement tales. A Swedish boy who is separated from his brother on his way to America must cope with the harsh realities of landscape and the violence of people in the early days of European settlers.

Meave’s Short Stories : 
‘Autolysis or Ways of Disappearing’ by @sylvswarren published by @MinorLits and soon to be restored to https://minorliteratures.com/

DJ Fuzzyfelt:
Jeff Tweedys 'How to write a song' book.

Re-reading the books of John Higgs and looking forwards to his next book William Blake vs The World. Not sure if he'll ever top his book 'about' The KLF-a book of inspired genius.  

Books and Music
Compiling a history of the amazing music and collaborations of Mark Lanegan from The Beat Happening in 1988 to his gig in Ireland a few weeks ago, and trying to equate it all with the squalor and self loathing of his extraordinary autobiography 'Sing Backwards and Weep' published earlier this year - DJ Fuzzyfelt.


C
COMPETITIVE SPORTS
Alarcon: Referred to as the world’s fourth sport, MTV’s The Challenge: Double Agents is really delivering this year. Currently airing its 36th season, The Challenge has evolved from a goofy 30-minute program where Real World and Road Rules cast members participate in a Wacky Races-like competition to a mature sport with a $1 million purse. Keep your NFL, your Premier League, and your NBA -- The Challenge is the only sport with real stakes. Unemployable reality cast members who need the win to pay their rent? Sign me up for season tickets.

Ancient Champion: Surely The Floor is Lava, for five minutes or so...


D
DOCUMENTARIES, SO MANY DOCUMENTARIES SOMETHING MUST’VE BEEN GOOD

Alarcon: The Bee Gees finally got a proper (yet very abbreviated) documentary this year in HBO’s The Bee Gees: How Can You Mend A Broken Heart. They really did write some great songs -- How Deep is Your Love?”, “Fanny (Be Tender with My Heart)”, “Massachusetts?” While the documentary focused mainly on things most fans already knew, it did illustrate how the Bee Gees’ career was temporarily destroyed by American homophobes and racists.

Alex V. Cook writes: Seconds The Bee Gees doc. Though I wish they’d included the weird Cucumber Castle movie they made to go along with the album and the actually fabulous Sgt Pepper’s movie. I went deep on the early Bee Gees this year so the doc was icing on the cake.


E
AN EDUCATION
Damon Hayhurst says: As a teacher of art and design I am always on the lookout for new strategies to get my students to become ‘activated’ with the process of making art. I came across Sarah Urist Green’s book; You are An Artist via an instagram trawl one afternoon just as the covid pandemic had kicked in. Great timing. The content of the book could really be aimed at anyone that wants to experiment with creative thought and then making some kind of practical outcome, not necessarily an artist or teacher of art. The formula of each section of the book is this: an artistic concept that has been conjured up by a practicing visual artist, with a bit of background info about that artist including an image of something made by that artist. Then there’s the assignment, which gives the reader clear guidelines of how to go about producing their own artwork. This formula could allow the reader or artist-in-making to have a ‘cultural highlight’ of their own every week. (Check out the Soundcloud link to a sample of the books by the author in this link.)

STILL THE BEST ROUTE INTO COLLEGE, DON’T BE DETERRED JUST BECAUSE THEY GOT CAUGHT

Alarcon: While the 2019 College Admissions Bribery Scandal overflowed into 2020 and involved dozens of players -- some famous, some just rich -- Full House actor Lori Loughlin was the star of the show, and the gift that kept giving all throughout the first half of 2020. She could have admitted her crime in buying her dimwitted daughter’s way into USC; instead she doubled-down on her lie and you know how we like it when they struggle. Remember how Felicity Huffman was involved, too? Of course you don’t, because she copped to the charges and fell off the radar.


F
EVERYONE CAN BE THEIR OWN FASHION MAVEN AND MAYBE NO ONE WILL NOTICE

Alarcon: Musicians in drag is as old as dirt, but Harry Styles wearing a lace Gucci ball gown really did strike a nerve with homophobic pundints around the world, and for that, we can all rejoice. This story only lasted for a couple weeks in the global news cycle, but in that time, we got some hilarious soundbites from the righteous right.

Ancient Champion says: Naomi Campbell, Naomi Campbell’s Hazmat suit, Naomi Campbell’s chat show episode with Mariah Carey. Would be instant classics in any year.


G
OH, GODS

Alarcon: Celeb pastor-to-the-stars, Carl Lentz did not let us down when his dallancies with a “young celebrity” were exposed in November. Lentz was fired from his job, found out his wife was also cheating, and has been shunned by his best friend Justin Bieber. If I’ve said it before, I’ve said it a million times -- it’s always the leader of the church. Always.

Ancient Champion: Cage match vs Falwell Jr, for the best of the year?


H
HOLOGRAM OF ALMOST ANY YEAR

Alarcon: When my fellow OUTSIDELEFT’s co-founder, Lamont sent me a URL of the hologram that Kanye West sent his wife Kim Kardashian, I thought I was hallucinating. It was like a Cameo message from the dead: Robert Kardashian, one of the men who got OJ Simpson off his double murder charge, in all of his three-dimensional glory. I still think about Robert Kardashian’s goulish return from the abyss and say to myself, Kanye West needs professional help.


I
INTERFACES EVERYWHERE, ACCEPT IT

Alarcon: Sitting back with a pre-roll in one hand, and scrolling through TikTok as K-pop enthusiasts foiled Trump's return to the campaign trail while laughing like Robert De Niro in Cape Fear really hit the spot this summer. Through TikTok and Instagram, stans sabotaged Trump’s rally appearances and social media accounts. Millennials may have let us down, but Gen Z gives hope to a flailing world.

Ancient Champion: Still heavily self-harming with my 2016 Championship Manager game. As manager of Forest Green Rovers I’ve won the Champions League six times in a row.

Alex V. Cook writes: Presonus’ StudioOne version five. If you have wanted to graduate from GarageBand/Audacity to a big-person DAW and make your own pandemic Pet Sounds, I highly recommend this one as a way into this rabbit hole. I’ve made half of two albums and three EPs this year with it.

Ancient Champion: Alex got me thinking, when not football managing, I leapt to Logic because… Oh it was free for 3 months and in that time I recorded more tunes than I could think of fun names for. Of course because I have Apple locked-in-syndrome and I don’t really  know what I am doing and overcook everything, I still retain my inimitable perpetually undermining and self-destructive imposter syndrome no matter what software gets in front of me.


J


K


L
BEST IN LONG CONS

Alarcon: The decade-long grift of Hillary “Hilaria” Baldwin (media personality and Alec Baldwin’s wife) came to an end in 2020, and to be honest, it really took the sting out of the Republicans denying Americians a one-off $2,000 survival check. The jokes wrote themselves, but the one thing everyone will remember about this one is, how do you say in english… cucumber?


M
GETTING MISSING THE MARK OFF TO A FAST START

Alarcon: Was there anything more condescending and off the mark than when The Gal Gadot Singers sang John Lennon’s “Imagine” on Day 6 -- DAY 6! -- of the COVID-19 quarantine lockdown? Incredibly wealthy celebrities coming together on YouTube in an effort to sooth the rest of us poor plebes… Historians will look back at this video and determine this was the turning point -- this video was the moment we, as a people, turned on celebrity. There was this unspoken rule that we gave relatively-successful actors and musicians a slightly wider berth. We didn’t worship them, but we let them get away with pseudo altruism like this. Those days are over.

 

M IS ALSO FOR MUSIC
BEST IN MUSIC FROM NEW JERSEY AND ELSEWHERE THAT ISN’T BEARWOOD

Alan Devey writes: My album of the year by a long way was Phoebe Bridgers’ Punisher; majestic, shimmering pop music with an underlying anxiety and dissatisfaction threaded through memorable lyrics that resonated with our times and provided ample evidence of a great songwriter at the height of her powers. Other fantastic releases came from Pinegrove (The Burning Hell), The Lovely Eggs, Juniore and more. To listen to my ‘Best of 2020’ radio show and the picks from my fellow presenters, visit the Comes With MP3s website.

BEST IN MUSIC FROM OUTER TEXAS
Alex: legendary installation artist and grit-bard Terry Allen and the Panhandle Mystery Band embark on their most luminous mingle among strippers, pirates, lowlifes and ghost children with JUST LIKE MOBY DICK. It’s like if Prairie Home Companion was broadcast from the burnt shell of a Lubbock gas station and the musicians actually wanted to be there.

Ancient Champion: IKLAN, oops, on any other day I might claim them for Bearwood. Mesmerising music mesmerises. Begin with their super-insidious 9 minute RockTheHouse...

DJ Fuzzyfelt: Sault, The Bug, Belbury Poly, Plone and Burial for new music. Anton Newcombe for posting 40+ Brian Jonestown Massacre works in progress on YouTube.


N


O
OUTSIDELEFT NIGHTS OUT with Millicent Chapanda and Germa Aden… Unforgettable.


P
PHILANTHROPIC POCKETS SO DEEP YOU’LL NEVER REACH THEIR LINT… Alarcon: Leave it to Dolly Parton to step in and donate $1 million to fund Vanderbilt University’s Covid-19 research, which subsequently aided Moderna to develop one of the first successful Covid-19 vaccines. It was a generous move without fanfare, and allowed us to see a glimpse of the world without quarantine.

P IS ALSO FOR PODCASTS
Meave Haughey, podcasts - have saved me this year : 
Criminal 
Mortified
No Such Thing as A Fish 
This American Life
Heavyweight
Where Should We Begin? 
This is Love 
Invisibilia
10 Things That Scare Me 
Serial

P IS ALSO FOR PLACES
DJ Fuzzyfelt’s places...
The Portuguese Hinterlands-it's not all Lisbon, Porto, and the Algarve. Take a train east and you'll find a whole different country.

The Clwydian Holloways.Catch the hourly bus from Wrexham to Llandegla. Get off at the village shop  and follow the signs. 

The Alice in Wonderland Church at Daresbury in Cheshire.

Knowlton Henge.We should all have a favourite Henge.


Q
QUOTES, ALRIGHT BUT COULDN'T GORE VIDAL COME BACK
"Covid, Covid, Covid, Covid, Covid, Covid, Covid, Covid, Covid, Covid, Covid" Trump at a rally in Gastonia, NC


R
C.D. Rose section
‘At the Gallery of National Art’ by @cdrose_writer  A mysterious and technically perfect oscillation of a story from the forthcoming The Blind Accordionist by C.D. Rose

http://mironline.org/atthegalleryofnationalart/


S
ON A SCREEN NEAR YOU

Alarcon: I’m not gonna lie, HBO’s The Undoing had us there for a while. Did Hugh Grant do it? Did their precocious kid do it? Did Donald Sutherland do it? (His incestious undertones certainly raised red flags.) In the end, it’s exactly who we all thought it was -- spoiler -- Hugh. I, like many others, thought the esteemed David E. Kelley was going to M. Night Shyamalan the ending, but I overestimated everyone involved in this disappointment. Still, it brought many people together if only for an hour a week, and diverted our attention away from 2020. 

Jason writes: After Bong Joon Ho’s outstanding Parasite it felt unlikely that anything could challenge it when thinking of what may be the film of the year. After the lockdown hit, film fans had to actually sift through those streamable services to find the rest of the year’s gems. Over at MUBI the heartfelt Portrait of a Lady on Fire ( directed by Céline Sciamma), could possibly be the best of all.

Set in France in the late 18th century, it tells the story of a forbidden affair between an aristocrat and a painter commissioned to paint her portrait. Visually breathtaking with outstanding performances by the two leads, this was a masterpiece of cinema. Over on BFI Player there was the late Jóhann Jóhannsson’s poetic Last & First Men and the unnerving ‘Koko-di Koko-da’ that were both worth a mention, but it was over on Netflix that Charlie Kaufman’s disorienting ‘I’m thinking of ending things’ that really shone.

Alan Devey writes: Justin Kurzel’s adaptation of Peter Carey’s (fictional) True History of the Kelly Gang absolutely blew me away this year. After the disturbingly wonderful Snowtown and his compellingly idiosyncratic MacBeth, as far as I’m concerned this movie cements Kurzel’s place as an Australian cinematic visionary. That’s not least because his counter-factual does everything Tarantino’s been trying to do for ages, but does it with a unique flair and narrative confidence that Quentin hasn’t possessed in years. And yet the critics who adore QT were entirely sniffy about this masterpiece. Go figure.

Cassis B Staudt writes: Thank God, the Berlin Film Festival still took place in 2020. I got enough inspiration for the entire year, especially from Eliza Hittman’s Never Rarely Sometimes Always. This is a fantastic film about a seventeen year old girl and her unplanned pregnancy. Without resources, how does she deal with it all on her own? We go along with our quietly independent lead character while she, as she always has done, takes her life in her own hands. This film still impacts me and it rightfully won the Silver Bear Award. Eliza Hittman is such a skilled director! Never Rarely Sometimes Always is unsensational and shows a different side of coming of age and New York. What an important film about female self-determination! #neverrarelysometimesalways #elizahittman #sidneyflanigan

Alex V. Cook writes: Raised by Wolves on HBO. I love Ridley Scott’s android milk-lovin’ ass but honestly, he packs too much into a movie and taxes the viewer. Big budget streaming series is the way to do it. The Bickertons gag between the Mother and Father android is spot on and Ragnar from VIKINGS really shines. Also, The Expanse. I watched all four seasons over the year and now season five comes in at the end. Excellent sci-fi as class politics study that dares to show Earthers as the assholes we are. Oye beratna!

Ancient Champion: My telly cultural highs actually are the same as most everyone else I think. I loved Steve McQueen’s Lovers Rock extended Silly Games singing sequence, his house parties felt like parties I had been at, way back when. Michaela Coel’s, I May Destroy You, was so astonishing, I think it might’ve been the first thing to come out of a screen at me that hit hard in the same way Blue Velvet did in the 80s, really, at the cinema one West Hampstead morning I think, by the end of it, my mouth was dry and I found myself on the edge of my seat. I May Destroy You did that too.


T
Trips
DJ Fuzzyfelt’s visiting St Marys Church and Arts Centre at Eype in Dorset where PJ Harvey recorded Let England Shake-worth a visit for the views alone. 

T IS ALSO FOR TALKING 
Most of all just talking to people by whatever means possible - DJ Fuzzyfelt


U


V


W
STILL SOME SPACE AND TIME FOR WHIMSY 
John Robinson says: Taskmaster -- the move of this ridiculous series to Channel 4 from satellite channel Dave was considered risky by its fans. Would the increased budget remove the joy of watching five comedians being bullied by Taskmaster Greg Davies and his servant “little” Alex Horne as they performed nonsensical tasks such as finding which of a huge number of socks contains a satsuma without looking in the socks, or making the best edible flag, or finding out a stranger’s profession without him speaking… Fortunately and even with Covid restrictions in place, the tenth series proved a joy and wonder to behold, with podcast maestro Richard Herring being crowned the victor. A New Year’s special is on tomorrow, with Krishnan Guru-Murphy amongst others, facing by far the toughest challenges of their professional career. The greatest thing about Taskmaster is how invested the participants become, even furious when their towers of pasta collapse or their pictures of a horse (while riding a horse) are ridiculed. It’s must watch tv. Far more enthralling than similar game based entertainment such as The Queen’s Gambit, and with much higher stakes. There’s a golden model of the Taskmaster’s head for the Champion!


X


Y
Yes Cymru - DJ Fuzzyfelt


Z


Main image on this page, Brexit Board - (original semi-edable art. Cheddar, Cheddar with Chives, Pork Pie and a busted cranberry star, on wood) 2020, Ancient Champion

Alarcon
Founder / Managing Editor

Alarcon co-founded outsideleft with lamontpaul (the Tony Wilson to his Rob Gretton) in 2004. His work for OL has attracted the attention of hundreds of thousands of readers, oh and probably the FBI, too.


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