Books, Film, and TV of 2020

Funnily enough, one of my goals for this year was to consume more new media, to experience new stories, expand my creativity, and just for fun. The first semester of the year didn’t really allow for that very much but then lockdown happened. Initially, my anxiety was so high that all I could do was watch comfortable, familiar, and safe stories, but slowly I started adding in new ones as a means of escape. This basically revolved around film and TV as I just didn’t have the brain space to read with all of the fear and anxiety taking up so much space. But I really started to get into watching new things and enjoyed it more and more; I think I’d gotten stuck in a bit of a rut of rewatching old things because it allowed me to do other things at the same time, namely my constant (and desperate) attempts to keep up with my OCD-induced diary. But with so little going on, I really only had to write about the new things I was watching. Back at university, there’s been less time but I have still managed the odd new thing here and there.

I haven’t included everything in this post – for obvious reasons. I’ve just written about the ones I thought were really good or had something specific that I wanted to say about them. Please don’t feel that you have to read the whole thing in detail; feel free to skim or just look at one section for example. Hopefully there will be something in here that you walk away thinking, “oh, I want to read/watch that…” Fair warning, there will be some spoilers but I will try and mark them clearly.


BOOKS

The Boy, The Mole, The Fox and The Horse by Charlie Mackesy – My therapist gave me this book just before lockdown and I absolutely adore it. I love the beauty and simplicity of it, of the drawings, of the words, of the characters and the little conversations between them, about everything from cake to fear of the future… I can completely understand it not being for everyone – it is a very specific style of book and approach to life – but  I loved it and found great comfort in it. I still do. It’s permanently by my bed so that I can just open it at random and read a few passages.

I Would Leave Me If I Could by Halsey – Halsey’s first collection of poetry is described as “In this debut collection, Halsey bares her soul. Bringing the same artistry found in her lyrics, Halsey’s poems delve into the highs and lows of doomed relationships, family ties, sexuality, and mental illness. More hand grenades than confessions, these autobiographical poems explore and dismantle conventional notions of what it means to be a feminist in search of power. Masterful as it is raw, passionate, and profound, ‘I Would Leave Me If I Could’ signals the arrival of an essential voice.” It’s definitely true that she bares her soul: some of the poems are uncomfortably honest, giving you the sensation of reading a person’s diary. She’s sharing things she’s never shared before and she’s never been one to hide the ugly from the ugly sides of life. (It’s worth noting that some of the poems have graphic descriptions in them and she does discuss some really difficult subjects like abuse and sexual assault so if those things are likely to trigger you, it may be important to have a conversation with yourself about whether you’re in the right place to read the book.) Some of the ones I found most powerful were Due Date, Battles, Stockholm Syndrome Pt. 1, Wish You The Best, Eight, With Great Power Comes Great Responsibility, American Woman, Telltale, Tornado, Lighthouse, The Painter, High-Five Kids, A Story Like Mine, I Would Leave Me If I Could, Something For Them, and Seventeen. These aren’t necessarily ‘favourites’ because some of them are practically painful to read, knowing that she has gone through these experiences. But these are some of the ones that gave me that gut-punch feeling, ones that felt so important to the collection. I have such respect and admiration for her in sharing these stories; it’s one of the bravest pieces of personal writing I’ve ever seen. You can feel her passion and her sincerity and her emotions pouring off the page and I think that is what most drew me into this book. Yes, I loved the writing but the emotion was what made it so powerful. The closing lines to Ordinary Boys, I think, sums up the book really well: “You write to calm the craving. / To corner them in fiction / And say / Finally, / I have conquered you.

(I also read chapters and excerpts of multiple music and songwriting books for my course but as they weren’t for the sake of just reading and I didn’t always read the complete book each time, it didn’t feel right to include them here.)

I would’ve loved to have read more this year and I had so many plans but between my mental health struggles and university commitments, I just haven’t been able to. Hopefully next year will be a better reading year.


FILM

What Happened To Monday – In a dystopian future where every family is only allowed one child, septuplets, Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday, Saturday, and Sunday must remain hidden by assuming the singular identity of Karen Settman. They each go out one day a week – the day they were named after – and until the age of thirty, they manage to go unnoticed. But then Monday doesn’t come home and the sisters fear their secret has been discovered. It’s a really great action film (although, be warned, it doesn’t shy away from fairly graphic violence) and Noomi Rapace is incredible, playing seven distinct women, each with their own personalities, their own struggles, and their own emotional reactions (I’ve seen some people call the different personalities less than subtle but, if you’re only real existence isn’t really who you are or want to be, I wouldn’t be surprised by a need to defiantly distinguish yourself from the people ‘sharing’ your identity). From the emotional scenes to the action sequences, she was fantastic and I found myself connecting to each of the sisters in different ways, although I think Friday was my favourite. Despite being an action film, the emotional storyline is what really carries the film, getting more and more intense as the minutes pass. And the ending is really, really interesting but I won’t give it away. I thought the aesthetic was perfect for the story and really effective in elevating the emotions of the story. With the complicated moral debate that the film is based on, the multiple characters, the relationships between them, and the challenges they face, it really is a multi-layered movie, leaving you with a lot to think about after it ends.

(I kind of wish they would make a sequel of sorts because the underlying problem – the rapidly growing population and society’s inability to cope with that – isn’t solved. It wouldn’t have to involve the main characters, apart from maybe a cameo or two to bridge the films, and it could be shot like a documentary, like the ‘The Truth Behind The Child Allocation Act’ (the law that enforces the one child per family policy). Half of it could tell the story of how the Settman sisters revealed that truth (which could be where the cameos come in, the use of ‘crowd footage’ of certain moments, and interviews with scientists, etc) and then the other half of it could be about the committees put in place to find a better solution to the population problem. I think that could be a really interesting way to build on an already existing universe but without it needing to be a direct sequel but more an expansion of that world.)

Isn’t It Romantic – Romantic comedies aren’t usually my thing and I’ve never seen Rebel Wilson in something I enjoyed so I wasn’t expecting to like this film when a friend picked it for a Netflix Party but I ended up LOVING it. I loved how it made fun of romantic comedies (as well as challenging the toxic elements that can appear in them); I thought Rebel Wilson was hilarious; the musical numbers were great; and it was just such a joyful, feel good film. I’ve watched it multiple films since my first viewing and it always cheers me up.

Ocean’s 8 – I really enjoyed this film. Probably more than the original trilogy. I loved all of the main characters and how different they all were and yet, they became this great team. I loved the dynamics between them, even if many of them weren’t given the time or opportunity to be properly fleshed out (it was a big cast so that’s not exactly surprising). There were so many awesome people in the cast, even the cameo parts. Helena Bonham Carter was brilliant and I adored both Sandra Bullock and Cate Blanchett. They were gorgeous and hilarious and they had great chemistry; I wanted them to have their own spin off adventures, just the two of them. I’m not sure if I ship them in the conventional sense (as I know many people do) but there’s definitely a relationship there that would be really cool to see explored. Anyway. I loved the multiple twists and the comedy was right up my alley (most of the time – there were a few moments that made me cringe but that’s still quite impressive since comedy isn’t really my genre). And the ending was just perfect.

Laputa: Castle in the Sky – I love so many of the Studio Ghibli films and during lockdown, a group of friends and I watched a few of them. I hadn’t seen this one before and although it felt quite similar to Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind, in terms of themes and general storyline, I did really enjoy it. It follows a young girl and her friend in their attempts to keep a magic crystal safe from the power-hungry military and find a mythical floating castle. But the biggest thing for me was how beautiful it was: the design of the castle, the abandoned gardens with all the greenery growing freely, the big, glass rooms… it was just utterly stunning. It was definitely the most beautiful Studio Ghibli I’ve seen.

Fantasy Island – When a group of competition winners land on Fantasy Island, they are given the opportunity to have their greatest fantasy fulfilled. But slowly the fantasies start to spiral out of control, becoming much darker than originally intended. When they start to overlap, the group start to get suspicious that maybe these aren’t their fantasies at all, that they might be in the fantasy of someone else altogether. I was drawn in by the idea of fantasies being fulfilled and because I’m a fan of Maggie Q, Lucy Hale, and Michael Peña. It wasn’t a life-altering film but I enjoyed it and thought it threw out some interesting stuff about the things we fantasise about, whether they’d actually play out that way if they happened in real life, and who we’d be if they did happen. So, yeah, I felt like it was an afternoon well spent.

The Half of It – Solitary, introverted Ellie Chu lives in a small town, practically taking care of her widowed father and making extra money by writing homework assignments for her classmates. When the less than eloquent, dorky football player, Paul Munsky asks her to write a love letter for Aster Flores, a girl who goes to their school, she initially refuses, secretly in love with Aster herself. But when the power company threatens to cut off her house’s electricity, she accepts in order to make the payment. One letter turns into more and Ellie and Aster connect over their shared love of art and literature, although Aster believes it’s Paul she’s connecting with. Ellie and Paul also start to bond over the experience. I won’t say more than that because the story unfolds so beautifully that I don’t want to ruin it. It’s a funny, gentle, and “quietly revolutionary” (as I believe Rolling Stone described it) coming of age story. I’m sure there will be those who find it too whimsical or too Fault-In-Our-Stars-esque but there’s so much more too it than that. I loved it. I loved the characters and I loved the different relationships between them. I loved the ideas they discussed: about longing, about love, about art, about identity, about life… And the ending is perfect. Utterly perfect.

Official Secrets – This is a docu-drama based on Katharine Gunn, a GCHQ analyst, who leaked a confidential memo that exposed an illegal spying operation by American and British intelligence services to potentially blackmail members of the UN into voting for the 2003 invasion of Iraq. It is eventually published but immediately discredited due to someone at the paper accidentally correcting American grammar to British grammar. Meanwhile an investigation is launched at GCHQ and eventually Katharine confesses to what she’s done. War breaks out in Iraq and Katharine seeks help from Liberty, an advocacy group which campaigns to challenge injustice, protect civil liberties and promote human rights. Even though this is about a historical event, I don’t want to give too much away because it’s a really fascinating film and I don’t want to ruin that experience if you’re not familiar with the events. It was a very strange experience to watch because I was alive at the time but far too young to be aware of the politics behind it all. I was aware of the war and went to the protest marches with my parents (so, somewhere, I’m potentially in the march footage that they used) but I didn’t know the details, like the story of Katharine Gunn. So it was a really interesting experience to watch it now and learning about what happened (I researched it more after finishing it) and putting that in the context of the few memories I do have of that time.

The Accountant – I have to admit that I didn’t like this film much, didn’t like how baldly stereotypical the portrayal of Autism was (as an autistic person, I found it so cringe-worthy that I could barely finish it) but there was a moment at the end that I thought was important and so I wanted to include it in this list. A family with an autistic son are being shown around a facility for people with Autism (not hospital or lab like at all though; more like this huge, beautiful country house) where some spend short periods and some live full time. The doctor says something that I think is really important, especially after such a traditional and unchallenging (and, in some ways, harmful) representation of Autism…

NEUROLOGIST: 1 in 68 children in [the US] are diagnosed with a form of Autism. But if you can put aside for a moment what your pediatrician and all the other NT’s have said about your son…

AUTISTIC BOY’S FATHER: ‘NT’s?

NEUROLOGIST: Neurotypicals. The rest of us. What if we’re wrong? What if we’ve been using the wrong tests to quantify intelligence in children with Autism? Your son’s not less than. He’s different. Now, your expectations for your son may change over time, they might include marriage, children, self-sufficiency. They might not. But I guarantee you, if we let the world set expectations for our children, they’ll start low, and they’ll stay there. And maybe… Just maybe… He doesn’t understand how to tell us. Or… we haven’t yet learned how to listen.

Searching – The really interesting thing about this film is how the viewer sees the story entirely through screens: homemade videos, computer screens, FaceTime, news footage, etc. It was really cool, but I can’t imagine that it would work again without feeling like a gimmick. Anyway, for this film, it was a really interesting way of telling the story, what could otherwise be a normal mystery film, albeit one full of unexpected twists. It follows David Kim’s search for his missing daughter, Margot, through which he learns that his daughter was going through much more than he’d realised after his wife and her mother’s death a few years (approximately) earlier. The police come up with multiple theories but continue to hit dead ends but David refuses to give up, leading to some confusing and shocking discoveries.

Enola Holmes – I was really excited for this film and I wasn’t disappointed; I really, really enjoyed it. I never quite got into Stranger Things but I did think Milly Bobby Brown was great from what I did see of it. I absolutely loved her in this role though: the incredibly smart, resourceful, and loyal younger sister of Mycroft and Sherlock Holmes. She had great, effortless chemistry with so many of the characters, including Sherlock himself, her mother (played beautifully and hilariously by Helena Bonham Carter), and the young Viscount Tewkesbury, whose story she accidentally falls into and becomes a part of whilst on her own quest. I loved the story, beginning when Enola’s mother mysteriously disappears, and I loved how it was constantly evolving, starting as one thing and then turning into another and then another. It felt really cohesive and flowed really well as a film: I loved the motifs that kept reappearing throughout, like the meanings of different flowers and Enola paying people to change clothes with her as just two examples. I also really loved how they broke the fourth wall with Enola speaking directly to the audience, looking right at the camera; I think it was a really effective storytelling technique. I really loved it and have watched it several times since my first viewing. It’s an interesting and thought-provoking film while still retaining that feel good factor that makes it so enjoyable to watch over and over again, especially when I’m having a bad day.

Legally Blonde*Spoilers* It was good fun and I loved that it challenged societal norms: that we should fit in and conform, that others can tell you who you are and who you should be, that your interests determine your intelligence, your character, or your value… It was great to see a film with a demographic of (probably) mainly young girls, pushing back against these ideas. I loved how Elle used her own expertise to her advantage and how it allowed her to draw conclusions that the others wouldn’t have come to (although I’m not sure that her knowledge of fashion and style would win her many cases). I loved how accepting she was and how willing to forgive she was, with Vivian for example. I did struggle with some of the stereotypes portrayed, like gay men knowing fashion, the sleazy professor trying to sleep with his student, and so on but it was made almost twenty years ago; I have to hope that things are better now. Having said that, they did publicly out a gay man (technically they tricked him into outing himself but is it really any different if they were planning on that exact outcome?), which is beyond problematic. And then to have the whole thing treated as so hilarious and outrageous makes it seem like no big deal when it is. Outing someone is not only cruel but potentially dangerous. It’s not something to joke about. So as much as I enjoyed the rest of the film and appreciated the positive messages it focussed on, ultimately it left a bad taste in my mouth.

Close – Noomi Rapace as an action hero with a complicated backstory? Count me in. Close follows Sam, a highly experienced Close Protection Officer, who is assigned to protect Zoe, the young and entitled heiress, after her father’s sudden death when she and her stepmother travel to Morocco to secure the future of the family mining empire. But while there, the house is attacked in an attempt to kill Zoe and prevent her from becoming a powerful figure in the company. It seems that the stepmother is trying to eliminate her competition and ultimately it’s left to Sam to protect Zoe (and to an extent, teach her to protect herself) and both get them to safety and find out what’s really going on. While it might not be a life altering movie, I really enjoyed it. I love Noomi Rapace and thought she did an awesome job as Sam. I thought she brought a lot to what could’ve potentially been quite a one-dimensional role: she shows an incredible control, calm and quick-thinking under pressure, but she also has deeply emotional reactions to some of the events that happen throughout the film. Apparently she did all her own stunts and was trained by Jacquie Davis, the UK’s first female bodyguard, whom the character of Sam was actually based on. I just loved her as a character and the conflict she finds herself in protecting Zoe, even when it’s no longer her job. The relationship between them grows as they have to depend on each other and it’s messy and complicated but they ultimately develop genuine affection for each other, which is particularly heartwarming when both of them have had such a hard time trusting others. So, overall, a film I really enjoyed and a greatly appreciated ninety minutes of escapism.


TV

Cheer – I wasn’t sure that this would be something I would enjoy but multiple people that I like and respect recommended it so I thought I’d give it a go and absolutely loved it from the first episode. I already had a hypothetical understanding of how physical and intense and skilled cheerleading is but to actually see it (and see the process of learning a routine, practicing it over and over, and then taking it to the biggest of competitions) gave me a completely new insight and respect for it, in a way that I don’t think I could’ve had had I only had that theoretical knowledge of it. I got so invested in so many of the team members (Morgan especially – I think I related to her the most and her journey had the biggest impact on me) and I finished almost every episode in tears because I was so moved by their stories and their passion and then where they had ended up when the series finished. It’s not an obvious choice for those without an interest in cheerleading or sports but I thought it was really, really good and highly recommend it.

Noughts + Crosses – I loved the books so I’ll admit I was worried that that would affect how I felt about the show or if the show would affect how I felt about the books. But they were quite different (Callum going to Police Training rather than Sephy’s school, Yaro’s appearance in the story, etc), which actually made the series much easier to sink into: I wasn’t constantly comparing them because the difference in the stories felt so significant. It wasn’t hard to love them both and feel emotional about how the events played out in each version. The show had a much darker vibe than the books but then, in the books, we see this society through the eyes of teenagers. However that’s not possible in television: we see the whole picture. Quite literally. We also see different plot lines from characters we saw very little of in the books as the story was told in first person, either from Sephy or Callum’s point of view.

As challenging and upsetting as many of the scenes were, there were so many things I loved about it as a show. I loved the casting and portrayal of the characters, especially when it came to Callum and Sephy. They had such great chemistry that their relationship felt so natural. The acting – all of the acting – was fantastic and you really felt the emotions of the characters as they went through them. I also thought the two families were portrayed so well; the dynamics were so complex, so layered and nuanced. I also loved how visually rich it was: even in the intentionally grim areas, like the industrial areas and the roof of Callum’s house, which I think is ultimately due to the incredible attention to detail that you don’t really get in the books. But in the show, you can really see the cultural influence in every aspect of life (stemming from an African Empire that colonised Europe hundreds of years prior): clothing styles, hair styles, architecture, interior design, advertising, language (slang, pleasantries, terms of endearment, etc), and so on.

I don’t know if I feel educated enough to make an assessment of the representation, especially considering the race reversal and the fact that certain things don’t line up with the present (in the UK at least, which is where it’s set), such as an inter-racial couple being arrested and the death penalty as a potential punishment. It’s not a straightforward comparison. But having said that, it does very effectively and powerfully highlight a multitude of issues around race and class. “Josh Lee [of The Guardian] gave the television series four out of five stars, describing it as a ‘reverse-race love story that is vital viewing.’ Lee praised the series for highlighting the challenges that working-class white people and people of colour share in the real world through its depiction of racism in an alternate world dominated by African supremacy.”

Criminal Minds (Season 15)*SPOILERS* It feels so strange to me that this show is over. I started watching it in mid 2009, in the gap between seasons three and four and now it’s over. I can’t believe I’ve been watching this show for eleven years; that just seems so odd to me. Anyway. I must admit that I’ve been expecting someone to pull the plug on Criminal Minds for a while now. I’m not convinced it’s been consistently good since season seven, although there have been good episodes and story arcs since then; it just felt like they were running out of ideas, reusing old stories and villains, or using ideas that in earlier seasons they would’ve considered too ridiculous or traumatising to make episodes out of. I was endlessly happy to have Emily Prentiss back and that’s ultimately what got me back into the show when I was losing interest, especially with her in the position of Unit Chief; I feel like that was a very natural arc and development of here character. Anyway, back to season fifteen. I hated the cliffhanger to season fourteen and was very relieved to see JJ and Reid recover their friendship and I really liked Reid’s relationship with Max; she seemed like a good fit for him. I wasn’t particularly drawn in by any of the episodes, story wise, and I found Everett Lynch to be a pretty uninteresting nemesis, certainly nothing compared to George Foyet or Ian Doyle. But I liked the more character focussed moments throughout the season. The show was obviously coming to a conclusion and they were muddying the waters of who would be leaving the team, creating new paths for multiple characters. While I would’ve loved to see Emily as FBI Director (not exactly likely given all of the trouble the BAU cause), I think it was fitting that Garcia was the one to leave. She struggled with the darkness of it all and going to work for a non-profit seems like something that would’ve been a really positive place for her to be. As much as I was ready for the show to be over, I found those last few minutes really heartbreaking and I definitely cried when she waved them off, everyone aware that she wouldn’t be there when they got back.

Little Fires Everywhere – As soon as I saw the trailer for this show, I wanted to watch it. The mini series begins with Elena Richardson (played by Reese Witherspoon) watching as her big, beautiful home burns down in front of her and I was instantly invested. We jump back four months and the rest of the series is devoted to finding out what led up to that moment. Set in the late 1990s in the midwest town of Shaker Heights, Ohio, two very different families collide: the Richardson family are privileged, wealthy, and white, while the Warren family are transient, artistic, black, and rarely have money to spare. The children become friends, Pearl Warren drawn to the stability of the Richardson home and developing a crush on the oldest son, Trip, while Izzy Richardson identifies with Pearl’s mother, Mia Warren (played by Kerry Washington), as an artist and outsider. Their relationships bring the mothers closer together with disastrous consequences for all. It’s hard to describe the show without giving anything away, which I don’t really want to do with this one; the show does a much better job than I will. I’m still hoping to read the book but something that I found really interesting was that the author had pictured the Warrens as people of colour because she wanted to talk about how intertwined race and class are but hadn’t felt like she was the right person, as an Asian-American, to talk about a black woman’s experience. But then, when Kerry Washington joined the cast and became an executive producer, the showrunner decided to bring race to the forefront of the story and filled the writer’s room “with creatives who could relate to Mia’s kind of Blackness,” a decision the author was happy with. (x) It was also really interesting to watch how the characters developed and changed due to these relationships and how that affected you, as the person watching, and your feelings about the characters. Everyone I’ve talked to about the show has said the same, that their favourite characters at the beginning of the show weren’t the same as their favourites by the end. But overall, I loved Izzy and I particularly loved the scenes between Izzy and Mia. I thought they were particularly powerful. Having said that, the series is packed with incredibly powerful moments.

Absentia (Seasons 1-3) – Six years after disappearing on the hunt for a serial killer, having been assumed dead, FBI Emily Byrne is found in a cabin in the woods, barely alive and with almost no memory of the years she was missing. Recovering in hospital, she learns that her husband has remarried and that he and his new wife are raising her son. Her former colleagues at the FBI investigate her disappearance again but when they start to find evidence that Emily may have faked her abduction, Emily launches her own investigation and it becomes a race. Will Emily find out the truth before the FBI reach the end of the path they’re being led down? I loved this show. It’s one of my favourites of the year and I may very well rewatch it over the Christmas holidays. I just fell in love with the character of Emily Byrne (played by Stana Katic) – she’s a really well developed character and a total badass – and I was just blown away by how the show portrayed the trauma of what had happened to her, consistently and realistically and with the gravitas it deserved. I also thought it was great that they explored the psychological effects that her disappearance had had on her family and her relationships and how, even though they were incredibly grateful to have her back, their previous issues and their issues stemming from her disappearance didn’t go away and had to be dealt with. So there was a lot of interesting character development throughout the whole show, not just the first season. Fair warning, there’s some serious violence so if that’s not your thing, then you won’t enjoy this. But it’s an incredible psychological-thriller-mystery-drama with great characters. And while I don’t want to talk about the later seasons because that would give away the end of Season 1, I do want to shout out the introduction of the character of Cal Isaac. He’s a really interesting character and I really liked him straight away. The development of his relationship with Emily is done really well too. Anyway, I’m gonna stop here. It’s great. I love it. I can’t wait to watch it again.

Broadchurch (Series 1-3) – Broadchurch follows the partnership of the mysterious and grumpy DI Alec Hardy (played by David Tennant) and the bright and cheerful DS Ellie Miller (played by Olivia Colman) as they attempt to solve cases (one per series) in the small, seaside town of Broadchurch. It was incredibly gripping and the cliffhangers at the end of each episode were almost unbearable. We watched all three series very quickly because we kept finding ourselves watching almost a whole series in one night. Looking back at it though, I’m not sure I could rewatch it: the stories were so painful and emotional that I’m not sure I could bear to, although I guess that’s a testament to how fantastic the acting is. But I absolutely adored Hardy and Ellie’s relationship; the contrast between their personalities was utterly hilarious but their shared commitment to the job and finding the truth made them a remarkable, if unusual, pair.

Agents of Shield (Season 7)*SPOILERS* I was so upset when I learnt that this year’s season was going to be the last (I legitimately called my Mum in tears when I heard the news) but if there had to be a last, this was the best possible last. It was just incredible, from start to finish. I was a bit wary about it, with the previous season ending with them in the past but then, as they moved towards the present, episode by episode, I really got into it and I loved watching the new timeline develop, story by story. Every episode was excellent but a handful of them were real standouts, not just of the season but of the whole show (7×09 is probably my absolute favourite episode). I loved the references to previous seasons and I loved seeing old characters return as we got closer to the present. I also loved the development of the characters: Coulson, May, and Yoyo all had particularly interesting journeys that I found myself very invested in. And of course, I loved Daisy’s storyline throughout the season. I wasn’t sure a love interest was a good move but they handled it so intuitively that the way it played out felt very natural. And I loved the return to her earlier focus on family and where she came from and what that meant for who she ended up becoming. She was already a powerful figure (powers aside) but she really came into herself in this season and I wouldn’t have thought I could love her more but I did. But then Daisy Johnson is my hero and I will love her forever. I also loved that she was the voice of the audience in the sense of her grief over the team’s story ending; that felt really important and special. And despite it being the end. I loved the ending. It was just absolutely perfect. I sobbed through the last few episodes because it was so powerful and so emotional. A part of me will always want more but I don’t think they could have created a better ending. So I’ll be grateful for what an amazing seven seasons and for all the show has given me. I think it’ll probably be important to me for the rest of my life.

The Fix – I was so happy to have Robin Tunney back on my screen, especially as a main character. I thought her acting, especially when it came to the emotions she was experiencing (or when she had to shut off those emotions), was fantastic. I really enjoyed that the series followed one legal case, allowing the show to really delve into the details and the relationships between all of  the characters, as well as side stories that fleshed out the bigger picture. It might not reinvent the wheel but I really did enjoy it and as I said, it was such a delight to see Robin Tunney again, especially in such a beautiful nuanced and complex role.

Lucifer (Season 5: Part 1)*Spoilers* I love Lucifer and this season certainly didn’t disappoint. I love how much work goes into evolving the characters and their own personal journeys. No one in the ensemble feels like a side character; they’re all beautifully fleshed out, more and more as time goes on. I also thought there were some really great storylines in this season. Michael’s introduction was certainly interesting, although I was glad when he was outed as Michael and not Lucifer so quickly as the idea of Chloe starting a relationship with him, thinking he was Lucifer, made me feel seriously uncomfortable. Both Maze and Dan have really powerful storylines and I felt for them so deeply, even though I hadn’t initially liked Dan. I just wanted to hug Maze the whole time. I also thought the ongoing story of Ella and her boyfriend was a really cool addition. But with so many storylines going on at once, I never felt like the show was unbalanced or that any of stories were treated as filler. And yet it never felt too busy.

There were so many amazing scenes but there were a few that really topped the list. One of them was in the first episode when Maze destroys Lucifer’s piano because she feels so hurt and so angry that Lucifer abandoned her for Hell. Lesley-Ann Brandt’s acting is just incredible; I swear I could feel everything she was feeling. And I’m also really freaking curious how the show made the scene possible, what they did to make it possible for her to tear a piano into pieces. My other favourite is the final fight scene, in episode eight. The choreography is awesome and the special effects, particularly Maze throwing Lucifer through a glass wall while time is frozen, are stunning. The glass seems to hang rather than falling to the floor but they can still sweep it aside. It’s beautiful.

And that cliffhanger. Oh my god.

Away*Spoilers* This is a ten episode season about a group of astronauts on the first manned mission to Mars. I’m a sucker for anything about space and I’ve always really liked Hilary Swank so I was excited when it popped up on Netflix one day. I felt like it started a little awkwardly but I thought the cast were fantastic and I loved the characters, especially the astronauts. I found them all really interesting and complex and I loved seeing how their lives had lead them to that point and I loved the relationships between them, as a group and in the various combinations. I don’t know if that many disasters is realistic or not but I think they conveyed the emotions of the characters really well. I was crying by the end of every episode, if not before. My favourite part without a doubt was the end when, in the last episode, they land on Mars and everything that’s been building through the show (the relationships between the astronauts, their evolving emotions about the mission, the complicated concept of duty, their relationships with their friends and family on Earth) all come to a head. It’s a stunning end and I was just sobbing. Even my Mum, who’d only seen snatches of it as she came and went, found it emotional.

Dare Me*SPOILERS* I’ve been finding this one really difficult to write about, I think because there are so many layers to the story and the relationships between the characters are so complicated. The story follows best friends, Beth and Addy, who’ve been inseparable for years until the new cheerleading coach Colette French arrives, removing Beth’s captainship and completely shaking up the team. Beth, a wild and reckless but ultimately lonely girl, distrusts her immediately while Addy, the loyal follower and peacekeeper, becomes more and more infatuated by Coach French, something that drives a wedge between the two friends. The storyline requires some suspension of disbelief (I doubt a real cheerleading coach would encourage parties and underage drinking in her own home but then, given that she’s bringing positive attention to the cheerleaders and therefore the pretty fucked up little town they’re living in, who knows…) but it’s definitely a wild ride from beginning to end. When I first finished it, I thought, “okay, cool, that was interesting,” but a week later, I realised that I was still thinking about it a lot, especially about the characters and their relationships. They were so complex and intriguing. I was fascinated. I even ended up writing a song based on the show.

The Queen’s Gambit*Spoilers* I know a lot of people found this show really gripping right from the start but it was more of a slow burn for me. I don’t think I absolutely fell for it until the last episode. Like an elastic band being pulled, it was almost like I got more and more frustrated with the show and then all of that tension was released in the final episode when I felt it all come together. I loved every second of that episode: her friends coming together to help her with her strategy, her win against Borgov and his grace over her victory, all of her people supporting and celebrating her, and then it ending with her walking the Russian park with all of the old men playing chess and how excited they were to meet her and honoured to play with her. It was fantastic. I do have my criticisms of it as a show but that final episode especially was so powerful that ultimately my experience of it was positive.

The Split (Series 2) – I started watching this back at the beginning of the year but then the pandemic derailed everything and I forgot about it. But recently I found it on BBC iPlayer and had to finish it. I love Nicola Walker and while the whole cast was great, she just delivered incredible performance after incredible performance. The dual storylines of the legal case her character, Hannah, was working and the difficulties in her personal life were balanced beautifully and they informed each other in a powerful but still realistic way. I loved Series 1 but this series really upped the emotional intensity and Nicola Walker’s acting – the subtlety of the emotional spiral – as the pressure mounted and her life started coming apart around her was just breathtaking. And even though she wasn’t innocent, she also wasn’t the only guilty party and the complexity of the story, the emotions experienced, and the relationships between the characters felt very true to life. The pain that Hannah was going through by the end was completely and utterly heartbreaking and the final episodes had me in floods of tears. I just wanted to hug her. It was an absolute masterclass in acting and I only love Nicola Walker more after watching it. I really, really hope there’s another series and I can’t wait to have her back on my screen, whether in a third series or when Series 4 of Unforgotten airs. She’s fantastic in that too.

Little Voice – I didn’t watch this straight away; the idea of watching a TV show about a struggling singersongwriter felt a little too close to home when I was already struggling with my mental health. And the likelihood that it would probably have a really positive ending for her, music wise, just felt like more than I could handle. So I kept it on my ‘To Watch’ list; I mean, it was co-created by Sara Bareilles so I knew that, in the right frame of mind, I’d really enjoy it. But after hearing Sara’s album of the songs in the show and falling in love with so many of them, I had to watch it. And I did, I really did enjoy it.

*SPOILERS* I got really invested in lots of the characters, especially Bess, Prisha, and Samuel, and I loved the relationships between all of the characters; they all felt really different and natural, based on the characters personalities and experiences together. I especially loved Bess’ relationship with the other characters, particularly with her father, her brother, Prisha, Samuel, Benny, her boss at the bar, one of the elderly women at the senior centre she also works in, and so on. I felt like she had a really special way to connect with people. There were some really touching moments – watching Bess write songs, the first time she performs and it goes well, Bess and Ethan’s conversation about hope, etc – but then there were a handful of moments that made me cringe with secondhand embarrassment – Bess’ early stage banter, watching her father rant during her first studio experience, etc. Overall, it was a positive experience but when I cringed, I really cringed.

It was great to see such a diverse cast and for the show to have a disabled character who’s disability wasn’t brushed aside but also wasn’t his only character trait; he was pretty well developed (considering how many characters there were) with his own storyline, involving his relationship with Bess, his love of musical theatre, and his journey to be more independent, to which he had both positive and negative reactions. There were also some very relatable music industry experiences, like producers trying to mould a song to their own vision or telling you what you want to hear, industry people saying good things and then telling you all of the reasons why they can’t work with you, people making promises that never come to anything, and so on. I haven’t experienced all of these situations but I’ve definitely experienced some of them.

My only real issue with it was that I felt like there was just too much going on, too many storylines that ended up not getting the time they deserved. I loved so many of them that I don’t know which ones I would’ve cut but it was too much for nine episodes and what could’ve been really beautifully developed stories ended up being glossed over. I don’t want to say any more because I don’t want to totally ruin it but I would recommend it if you have Apple TV+. I loved the music and I loved how well it matched the story and the characters. Oh, and I loved Sara Bareilles’ cameo and how Bess and Louis fangirled over meeting her.

His Dark Materials (Series 2)*SPOILERS* I loved series 1 so I was really, really excited for series 2 of His Dark Materials. I don’t want to give too much away since it’s literally just finished and so a lot of people may not have seen it yet but I thought it was excellent and looked forward to it every week. I thought the city in the ‘middle world,’ Cittàgazze, was really intriguing and so beautiful. And it was very cool to see characters from Lyra’s world in Will’s world (which I believe is also our, the reader’s, world?) and how they tried to fit in. Sometimes the jumps between worlds was a bit confusing or jarring but I loved how some elements matched up beautifully and how some were in such stark contrast. And that was just background as it was the strength of the characters and their relationships that really drove the show. I thought the chemistry between Lyra and Will (and Pan, of course) was great and I loved their friendship; even with only seven episodes to the series, we really saw it grow and develop as they got to know and trust each other. I also really liked Mary Malone and her relationship with Lyra (and the scenes with Lyra and Mary’s machine were incredible). As much as I love Lyra (Dafne Keen really was the perfect choice), I couldn’t help but be absolutely blown away by Ruth Wilson in every episode. Her performances as Marisa Coulter are just awesome. She’s such a complicated character (I’m desperate to understand how she can do what she can do and why her relationship with her dæmon is so different to everyone else’s: why he doesn’t speak, why she’s so cruel to him, how they can be so far apart – something that does seem to distress him but not her – and so on) and Ruth Wilson does such an amazing job playing her. I admit that a part of me was waiting throughout each episode for the moment where we saw how awesome she is, because there was one in pretty much all, if not all, of the episodes: her interrogation of Lee Scoresby (and the painful moment with her dæmon afterwards), the moment when Lyra sets Pan on her dæmon but she is able to fight off the affects – that whole scene is amazing, not to mention intriguing – her ability to control the spectres, the moment where she almost turns on her own dæmon… She’s a force of nature. I’m kind of obsessed with her because she’s such a fascinating character. I did feel like the end was quite rushed: they spent most of the series looking for Will’s father and then he’s just suddenly there, but it wouldn’t surprise me if the pandemic had played a part in that. It just felt like it was suddenly over and I was completely unprepared for that. I have just seen that it’s been renewed for the third and final series so I’m really looking forward to that, whenever it may come. This team and this cast have done such an incredible job with these stories so I’m really glad that they’ll be able to finish them.


OTHER

Miss Americana – I don’t know if I can sum up this documentary in just a paragraph or two but, between them, Taylor Swift and Lana Wilson created a beautifully honest and emotionally revealing documentary about Taylor’s life so far, the period of transformation she had found herself in, and what she wanted for her future. It shows footage and discusses the history and the fall out of everything with Kanye and the infamous phone call in 2016 (the full recording of which has since been revealed, proving that Taylor was telling the truth all along), the toxicity of social media and how the response to Kanye’s attacks on her continue to affect her, addressing her need to please and how damaging that had become, the harrowing experience of the sexual assault trial, her body image issues and eating disorder, the making of reputation, the reputation tour, her mother’s cancer, beginning to voice her political opinions and arguing with her father and management team about it, the making and release of Lover, the writing of ‘Only The Young,’ and basically her journey of growing as a person. There’s a lot in there and it was a real eye-opening experience, even for someone who considers themselves an avid Taylor fan. I loved her even more than I already did for putting out this documentary and deliberately including details that she knew would help people, like her previously unknown struggles with her body image and the experience of her sexual assault trial. She didn’t have to discuss these things but she did because she knew that there would be people who needed to hear her talk about it. I admire her so much for that. I would highly recommend watching it, fan or not.

City of Lover Concert (Taylor Swift Show) – I was gutted that I couldn’t be at this show when it happened so I was really excited that Taylor was putting it on Disney+. It wasn’t the same and the flow of it felt quite jerky as they had to cut around the songs caught up in the Masters situation (she can perform them but they can’t be recorded and distributed in a film like this one) but it was still really cool and a lovely tribute to the Lover album since we didn’t get a tour for the album (and probably never will since the release of folklore and evermore). You can feel the joy radiating off Taylor as she performed the then new songs and it’s hard not to smile, watching her do this thing that she loves so much. I still wish I could’ve been there for the actual show but I’m so grateful that we got this, especially with the pandemic and the resulting loss of live music.

Hamilton – I’d been planning to see the show in London but then the pandemic hit and obviously that plan was scuppered but then it went up on Disney+ just as my phone contract offered me a free subscription. The timing was beautiful. From the first note, I was absolutely entranced. I loved it. I loved the music, the acting, the set, how the actors interacted with the set… everything. I’ve watched it over and over and read so many articles explaining different aspects of it because I just find the whole production so fascinating. And as both a songwriter and a songwriting nerd, my mind was just exploding. It really is mind-blowing work and I’m sure there are still things I’m missing because it’s so clever and so layered. I could talk about the music for hours but I won’t, I promise. So, yeah, I found it really inspiring as a writer (and I did actually attempt to write a song in the style of it although I’m not sure it’ll ever see the light of day). It was amazing and I love it. I love it more every time I watch it.

folklore: long pond studio sessions – I loved this so much. I love Taylor Swift and I love the folklore album and in a time where we can’t have real concerts, I so appreciated that this film gave us the next best thing. The studio was gorgeous (I would love somewhere like that to write and record music one day) and the performances were stunning; Taylor’s vocals in particular were just breathtaking. She can convey so much emotion just through her eyes and I found watching the film a really emotional moving experience. I also loved getting to learn more about the songs, what they were about, the context in which they were written, and so on. We’ve been speculating and theorising for so long that it was so satisfying to find out where fans had guessed right and get some insight into the ones where we’d been so confused (‘hoax,’ for example). And the whole thing is so beautiful and intimate. It was just so good and I knew from the first watch that I’d be watching it over and over again.


So I hope that was of some interest and that you’re maybe even leaving with a few new things to read or watch. I’m quite proud of how many new things I discovered this year, after being stuck in a rut of just rewatching the same things. I definitely want to continue this approach into next year, although hopefully it will include more books. As I said, I just haven’t been able to concentrate enough to get into a novel. But having said that, I feel really good about pushing myself out of my comfort zone, exploring genres I don’t generally favour, and expanding my creative brain by filling it with new stories, new characters, and new ideas. So I’m proud of this list and I’m excited for the new discoveries that 2021 will bring.

2020 in Songs

Despite being such an upside down and difficult year, and the chaos in the music industry due to the pandemic, so much amazing music was released.  It was a real struggle every single month to choose just one song (and as you can see, in some cases I couldn’t). Having said that, my mental health has been really bad for most of the year and I listen to music less when I’m depressed (I think it’s just too emotional when my emotions are already very fragile) but when I felt able to, it was and is such a comfort. So I’m really, really grateful to all the artists who continued to work on and put out music in a year when so many people really needed it.


1. 929 by Halsey

I was so excited about Halsey’s new album and it turned out to be one of my favourite albums of the year. I absolutely adore it, adore almost every single song. So this was a really hard choice (although I think ‘More’ was a pretty close second). But I love this one because it’s so simple and it tells so many stories and shares so many beautifully detailed painful and powerful moments, like “And I’ve stared at the sky in Milwaukee and hoped that my father would finally call me” and “I lost the love of my life to an ivory powder but then I realise that I’m no higher power.” It drew me in straight away; it’s so visual and yet so emotional that you could be experiencing it all for yourself. It’s honestly hard to describe how and why I love it so much. But it’s one of my favourite songs of hers and I’m so glad I got to hear it live.

Favourite Lyrics: “And I remember this girl with pink hair in Detroit / Well she told me / She said, “Ashley, you gotta promise us that you won’t die / ‘Cause we need you,” and honestly, I think that she lied / And I remember the names of every single kid I’ve met / But I forget half the people who I’ve gotten in bed”

A very important note: I love that, on The Manic World Tour, she changed the lyrics from “She said, “Ashley, you gotta promise us that you won’t die, ’cause we need you,” and honestly, I think that she lied” to “She said, “Ashley, you gotta promise us that you won’t die, ’cause we need you,” and honestly, I think she was right.” It got the biggest cheer both nights I saw the show and I cried my eyes out even though I knew it was coming from all the videos posted of the shows.


2. Life of the Party by Ingrid Andress // Small Town Hypocrite by Caylee Hammack

I absolutely loved ‘Life of the Party’ when Ingrid performed it on tour so I was very happy when it was on the album (although ‘Blue’ may have beaten it if she’d released that one). I love the contradiction of the sad emotions painted as an upbeat, party song. It’s like the song is literally a manifestation of the denial that the relationship is over and everything is awful. Ingrid’s vocals are incredible anyway, but they seem particularly stunning in this song: you can hear how close to the edge all of these volatile emotions are, all the anger and misery and hurt, and how much she’s trying to ignore them. In just her voice. She’s an amazing vocalist. I don’t know how she’ll do at the upcoming Grammys with such heavy competition but just to be nominated for three really significant awards on her first album is incredible. I can’t help thinking back to when I first met her in 2018 and what her reaction would’ve been if I could’ve told her where she’d be today.

Favourite Lyrics: “I’m the life of the party / Round here, everybody loves me / But they don’t know that I’ve been hurtin’ / ‘Cause, baby, ever since you left me / I’ve been the life of the party”

I first heard Caylee sing this song in 2016, on my second trip to Nashville and Tin Pan South. It was so heartbreaking then and somehow, it seems even more heartbreaking now. It tells such a sad story in such rich and painful detail that I can’t help but get caught up in it every time I listen to it. The lyrics are all so stunning and her vocal performance is amazing; she conveys the regret in the song so powerfully that it often makes me cry. Caylee has since released her debut album, If It Wasn’t For You, and it’s full of songs that are just as powerful and emotional. I love most of them but I think my favourites – or at least two of them – are ‘Forged In The Fire’ and ‘Mean Something.’ They both hit me so hard each time that I usually end up in tears. If she ever tours in the UK, you’ll be able to recognise me as I will probably be sobbing obnoxiously through the entire show because her songs trigger such big emotions in me.

Favourite Lyrics: “And that scholarship was a ship that sailed / When I chose you and daddy gave me hell / I made myself into someone else just to love you, damn I loved you /  Took all my plans and I put ’em in a box / Phantom pains for the wings I lost”


3. the other girl (with Halsey) by Kelsea Ballerini

I was so excited about Kelsea’s new album and I was not disappointed. There were so many songs I could’ve chosen, including ‘the way i used to’ and ‘half of my hometown.’ But I absolutely adore both Kelsea and Halsey and their friendship is so freaking adorable (their CMT Crossroads was a true gift) and I love that it’s a female/female duet, which you don’t get half as often as a female/male duet. And what makes it even better is that it isn’t about two girls fighting over a guy, but about each of them recognising why he likes the other so much – because they’re both awesome women in their own way: ‘who’s the diamond, who’s the pearl?’ – and realising that he’s treating them BOTH badly. It’s about whether either of them are willing to put up with it. It would be super cool if they collaborated again and continued the story (in my mind, they both dump him and go on to be best friends) but I can’t really see it happening. It’s super catchy and their voices really compliment each other; it’s such a good song. And this performance (I’m assuming it was during the rehearsal for the CMT Crossroads as they’re dressed and made up differently) of it really shows what great performers they both are.

Favourite Lyrics: “Are you mad? Me too / And I wonder in his world / Is it me? Is it you? / Who’s the other girl?”


4. Couch (Unreleased) by Kalie Shorr

During the first lockdown (in the UK), Kalie was doing a lot of different livestreams on various platforms and I swear, it was one of the things that kept me going when I was really struggling with everything. And during an Instagram live with Savannah Keyes (another awesome – and lovely – Nashville singersongwriter), she played two songs that they’d written together with Skip Black, the day after the big break up that inspired a lot of her album, Open Book. The first was ‘The One,’ which made it onto the album (and is definitely one of my favourites) and then this one, ‘Couch,’ which remains officially unreleased (although she has played it on her podcast, Too Much To Say). I fell in love with it straight away; it was just so raw and heartbreaking. I ended up working out the chords and play it on the piano quite a bit. I just absolutely adore it. It’s such a beautiful song.

Favourite Lyrics: “You left a picture on your old night stand / Like it’s some kind of message, like, ‘I don’t give a damn’ / If I need a reminder that I’m brokenhearted / Baby, there’s a million in this apartment / I don’t need a picture on your old nightstand”


5. Atom Bomb by Lauren Cimorelli // California by Kina Grannis

I loved Cimorelli (at the time, a band of six sisters but the youngest has now left) as a teenager and when I looked them up again a while back, I saw that a few of the girls were releasing their own music. I gravitated towards Lauren’s very quickly because of the lyrics, melody, and production. They just fit my taste in music better. I rediscovered her just after she’d released ‘Atom Bomb’ and I just loved it. I loved the detail and emotive language in the lyrics, the melodies were so catchy, and the production was epic; it really reminded me of ‘Wonderland’ by Taylor Swift. I love how she compares the end of a relationship with something of such catastrophic destruction because that’s often how my emotions feel: enormous and overwhelming and end-of-the-world. So I really relate to it emotionally as well as loving all the songwriting and sonic elements. She’s since released several more songs and ‘Rabbit Hole’ also ranks very highly on my list.

Favourite Lyrics: “What’s yours, what’s mine / Keep trying to pick up what’s left of me / Breathe slow / Let go but that smoke just keeps / Suffocating me”

During the first UK lockdown, I spent a lot of time playing the piano. I find it hard to think about anything but what I’m playing, something I desperately needed, and the lower octaves felt very soothing. One of my favourite songs to play is ‘California’ by Kina Grannis, which she wrote while trapped for a hundred days in Jakarta due to visa problems while touring in 2015; it’s a beautiful song and the sound of it is so gentle and comforting. I ended up thinking a lot about the parallels between the song and everything that was going on in the world at that moment: the pandemic, the lockdown, and how all of that was affecting us all (I hope Kina herself has been coping okay having had to go through these two similar, extremely difficult situations). It’s still one of my favourite songs to play (when the nerve pain I’ve been experiencing isn’t too bad); it feels like a desperately needed hug in these really hard times and I never take for granted how much comfort it brings me.

Favourite Lyrics: “Hey there, California / I can hear you when I wake up / In the distance, like the ocean / You calling me back to your side / Holding my breathe in the night / I listen again for your song”


6. Little Voice by Sara Bareilles

I distinctly remember listening to this song for the first time: I was lying in bed in the dark and it felt like Sara was singing directly to me, putting so many of my thoughts and feelings into words. I listened to it over and over again and just cried my eyes out. It was exactly what I needed to hear. It’s so simple but the lyrics are so powerful, effortlessly capturing so much emotion with so few words. Months later, I don’t have such an extreme emotional reaction but it still means a lot to me. It both lifts me up and calms my soul.

Favourite Lyrics: “It’s just a little voice and if you’re listening / Sometimes a little voice can say the biggest things / It’s just my little voice that I’ve been missing”


7. this is me trying by Taylor Swift

It’s very, very, VERY tempting to cheat and just say the whole of Taylor Swift’s surprise eighth album, folklore, or at least list my top five (‘the 1,’ ‘exile,’ ‘my tears ricochet,’ ‘mirrorball,’ and ‘this is me trying’) but I’m trying my very best to keep to the tradition of having a somewhat concise list. The top spot is a rock solid tie between ‘mirrorball’ and ‘this is me trying,’ because I love them both so much and relate to them both so strongly but, in the end, I decided to write about ‘this is me trying’ because, having had such an awful year mental health wise, it felt more fitting. It just sounds like how I feel so often and Taylor’s voice as she sings it… she sounds like she’s feeling all of it, all of these emotions I feel so strongly, and that only made me feel more connected to the song, to the album, to her. The lyrics are just stunning and I related to so many of them: “I’ve been having a hard time adjusting / I had the shiniest wheels, now they’re rusting / I didn’t know if you’d care if I came back,” makes me think about how everyone called me ‘gifted’ as a child and young teenager but ever since then, my life has been put on hold somewhat by having to deal with my mental health and the difficulties caused by my Autism and that third line is so similar to a recurring thought pattern of mine, of wondering whether anyone would even notice if I disappeared; I feel “Pulled the car off the road to the lookout / Could’ve followed my fears all the way down” so strongly it’s painful, both in the sense of getting sucked into spirals of fear and anxiety and in the sense of having periods of feeling suicidal; “They told me all of my cages were mental” reminds me of how hard I had to fight to get my diagnoses because nobody believed me and I was constantly dismissed, which has ultimately resulted in even more problems; “I was so ahead of the curve, the curve became a sphere / Fell behind all my classmates and I ended up here / Pourin’ out my heart to a stranger” could be the story of my life in how I was always ‘the best’ at things because I was so driven by perfectionism and the fear of getting things wrong or letting people down and while that initially put me ahead, it ended up backfiring and resulting in mental health problems that have now put me behind in so many ways, many of which I’m now dealing with (or trying to deal with) in therapy (although I’d hardly call her a stranger, having seen her for almost six years now); the line “And it’s hard to be at a party / When I feel like an open wound” really just describes any mental health bad day, when having to function feels excruciating because just existing is painful; and “I just wanted you to know / That this is me trying,” just sums me up. I’m always trying. always, always trying.

As I’ve kind of just described, I related to it so much because, with my Autism, my mental health issues, my physical health problems, and so on, I feeling like I’m trying my goddamn hardest everyday, just to get through the minute, the hour, the day. And most of the time, no one even knows that all of this is going on under the surface, sometimes because I don’t want them to and sometimes because I already feel so fragile that to let it all pour out would shatter me. Because it’s taking all of my energy to hold it together and if I let go, I might never be able to get a hold on it all again. And doing all of that work takes so much energy. When you’re working that hard to just survive, it’s so easy to feel like you’re failing because you’re not achieving in the same way as everyone around you – getting through the day doesn’t feel like an achievement when your best friend has just got a promotion or your sibling has gotten amazing grades. It’s easy to feel like it just isn’t worth trying but it is and this song is a testament to that, to staying still instead of moving backwards, to making baby steps of progress, to trying and trying and trying, even when it feels excruciating. I related to all of those feelings so strongly that it took my breath away. It’s an incredible song and maybe one of her most important ones.

Favourite Lyrics: “I didn’t know if you’d care if I came back / I have a lot of regrets about that / Pulled the car off the road to the lookout / Could’ve followed my fears all the way down”


8. Wait For It from Hamilton

I finally saw Hamilton when it was released on Disney+ and I absolutely loved it, every element, from start to finish. It was just incredible. I know that it’s not without its flaws but it’s really fascinating, especially from a creative perspective. It’s so clever and layered and I find it so inspiring as a writer. I’ve been watching it over and over again and I get more out of it every time. I could’ve chosen almost any song because I love so many of them but after much deliberation, I chose this one. I can’t explain it really; there’s just something about it.

Favourite Lyrics: “Death doesn’t discriminate between the sinners and the saints / It takes and it takes and it takes and we keep living anyway / We rise and we fall and we break and we make our mistakes / And if there’s a reason I’m still alive when everyone who loves me has died / I’m willing to wait for it”

(And just in case I needed more awesome, Chloe Bennet – who played Daisy Johnson in Agents of Shield, my all time favourite character – and her cast mate, Jeff Ward, did multiple lip syncs to Hamilton songs and they’re hilarious. As if I needed more reasons to love both Chloe and Hamilton…)


9. Coming Back To You by Sara Bareilles

I was in a pretty bad place mentally when this album, More Love, came out so I kept putting off listening to it; I didn’t want my depression to taint my feelings about the songs. But eventually I managed to listen to it and, as always with a Sara record, I fell in love with it. There are multiple songs that I really, really love but ‘Coming Back To You’ just really spoke to me from the first listen. I love the energy, I love the instrumentation, the melodies are super catchy, and the lyrics are just so beautiful. I connected to the verses especially straight away, especially the ones I’ve listed as my favourites. They just hit so close to home and yet singing along to them feels so freeing. I love it.

Favourite Lyrics: “I’m facing all of my fears / I’ve lined them up and wonder how I’ve been with them for years / They had me crippled before / They made a home in my heart but they’re not welcome anymore”


10. My Voice by Kalie Shorr

October was the month of Kalie Shorr. She announced her record deal, announced the upcoming re-release of her upcoming album – titled Open Book: Unabridged – released her new single, ‘My Voice,’ played an awesome livestream show (I mean, what I saw was awesome but I had major difficulties with the app) during which she also played another incredible new song, ‘Eighteen,’ and she released a worktape of her unreleased song, ‘Strawberry Blonde,’ (which she’d promised to do if Biden won the US election) which was awesome (if the lyric ‘you might find it surprising I stopped taking shit from anyone’ doesn’t describe my life the last few years of my life than I don’t know what does). So a Kalie song was necessary for this month. I could choose all three of the songs we got this month because they were all fantastic in their own way but I’m gonna go with ‘My Voice’ since it was the single she released that month. It’s an awesomely feisty and empowering song that’s a devastating ‘fuck you’ to the music industry but it’s also more than that. It’s also a song about celebrating who you are in all your uniqueness, regardless of what other people tell you. I love the defiance in it, the rebellion of choosing yourself: I find it really inspiring. It actually makes me feel more confident and not just in the dance around like an idiot in front of whoever’s around kind of way but in the deep in your gut way. The lyric, “Get used to the sound of my voice” gets me every time because it makes me feel like, somehow, being me is enough. Enough to do the things I want to do, achieve the things I want to achieve, and be the person I’m often scared is out of my reach. And if I ever needed a song like that, it’s this year.

Favourite Lyrics: “Too rock for country, too country for punk / But who said I had to pick either one / Tattoos at the Opry / I could cover ’em up but it’s not me”


11. Carry You by Tim Minchin

In November, I watched ‘Tim Minchin: Apart Together, The Album Live!‘ which was absolutely incredible. I loved it and I loved pretty much every song he played. He had some awesome, super high energy songs and then some quiet, profound ones that just created this beautiful balance for a show, especially one during these times. My absolute favourites were ‘Absence of You,’ ‘Leaving LA,’ ‘I Can’t Save You,’ and ‘Carry You.’ I could’ve chosen so many songs from his new album but ‘Carry You,’ even though I’d heard it before, pre-pandemic, it just really got me when I watched this show. I guess, in the context of the pandemic, it just hits differently. It was very emotional and I was crying by the end of the first chorus.

Favourite Lyrics: “And though we cannot be together / I know that I will carry you, wherever I go / I will carry you / Lord knows / I will carry you / I will carry you”

(Also, shout out to Kalie Shorr’s ‘Lying To Myself.’ It’s an amazing song, with utterly stunning lyrics, including, “I put you up on that pedestal, and damn, you looked incredible, I guess coming down’s inevitable…” and “Picked out all of my favourite things you said, and like a delusional architect, I built you up like a house of cards…”)


12. Show Me Around – Carly Pearce //  marjorie by Taylor Swift

I first heard Carly Pearce play this song during the virtual Tin Pan South festival a few months ago and she called it a tribute to busbee (an incredible songwriter, producer, and member of the Nashville community) who died last year. She described how she’d been inspired by something said at his funeral about how of course he had to get to heaven first so that he would be able to show his loved ones around when they eventually arrived and thus a song was born. I’m not religious but it’s such a beautiful song, incredibly sad but also incredibly warm and comforting. I was in tears before the second verse started. As I said, I’m not religious but the loss of loved ones is such a painful thing that sometimes, I wish I was; it’s nice to listen to the song and just pretend for a little bit that I am. It helps.

Favourite Lyrics: “Bet you’re up there right now making plans and writing out / All your favourite places that you just can’t wait to take us / And we’ll get to spend forever talking about whatever / When I get there, promise you’ll track me down / And show me around”

I thought I was done but then, Taylor Swift gave us all the shock of our lives and released her second surprise album in six months, evermore. I’m still absorbing all of the songs but a handful of them stuck out to me straight away, including ‘no body, no crime (feat. HAIM),’ ‘happiness,’ ‘ivy,’ ‘long story short,’ and ‘marjorie.’ I could’ve written about any of these but ‘marjorie’ feels so incredibly special that I think it was probably always going to be that one. It’s so heartbreakingly sad but such a beautiful tribute to her grandmother, especially given that it includes recordings of her grandmother’s opera performances as background vocals. That just gets me every time. Justin Vernon’s backing vocals in the choruses also add a gorgeous depth to the song that only makes it more powerful and emotional. The whole sound world of the song is full and warm and rich without being too busy and it just feels like it fills my entire body.

I love the simplicity of the verses and they feel very much like advice her grandmother might’ve (or would’ve) given her but it’s the bridge that has me in tears every time (these are the ones listed as my favourite lyrics because they’re just so powerful). I relate to that section and the last section (“And if I didn’t know better / I’d think you were singing to me now / If I didn’t know better / I’d think you were still around / I know better / But I still feel you all around / I know better / But you’re still around”) so strongly that it makes me cry every time I listen to it. But even though it’s an incredibly sad song to relate to, there’s something really special and important to have a song like this to relate to, to feel understood in these emotions. I absolutely adore it already and I’m pretty sure it will always have a special significance for me, even though it’s only been out a short time. I wish I could hug Taylor and tell her just how grateful I am to have this song in my life. And I can only hope that one day I can write as good a tribute to my Dad as Taylor has done for her grandmother.

Favourite Lyrics: “I should’ve asked you questions / I should’ve asked you how to be / Asked you to write it down for me / Should’ve kept every grocery store receipt / ‘Cause every scrap of you would be taken from me / Watched as you signed your name Marjorie / All your closets of backlogged dreams / And how you left them all to me”


There are so many songs I could’ve put on this list (and I’m already over my self imposed twelve song limit…) but if I wrote about them all, we’d still be here at the end of 2021. So I’ll stop here. But this has been really good fun. I hope you enjoyed reading it as much as I enjoyed writing it. Here’s a Spotify playlist so that you can check out the songs!

What were your songs of 2020?

National Album Day 2020

Back in the early weeks of lockdown, I wrote a (very long) post about my favourite albums from the 2010s. I love albums; I love the putting together of a collection of songs to create a bigger, more expressive and more meaningful piece of work, both as a listener and as a songwriter. I think it adds so much more to the listening experience than the release-one-single-at-a-time approach. I love diving into them and getting lost in these little pocket universes they create and generally, once I love an album, they remain high on my musical lists.

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And since today is National Album Day (as well as World Mental Health Day), I thought I’d do a little write up of my favourite albums of 2020 so far…


Manic by Halsey (January 2020) – Despite coming out so early in the year and with all the competition since, it’s easy for me to say that this is at the top of my list of 2020 albums, or of albums in general. I absolutely adore it. I love her previous work and the way each body of work existed in a larger metaphor (Badlands is another of my very favourite albums) but there was something truly special about this album and how personal it was, how it felt like we were truly seeing Ashley for the first time; there was something so sacred about that, especially on the first listen. I love how eclectic this album is – in genre, production style, featured artists, subject matter – because that’s something that’s always been indicative of her as a person: she experiments with her hair, her style, her musical projects, her artistic projects, and so on. That the album reflects that feels very authentic and real. And yet somehow it fits. It works. I could write in depth about every song but I’ll just stick to a couple of points: I loved how you feel the transition from Halsey to Ashley in ‘Ashley’; I love the journey, both lyrically and production wise, that we experience through ‘Forever … (is a long time)’; I love the vivid imagery and storytelling that we get in songs like ‘Finally // Beautiful Stranger’; I love and feel honoured by her willingness to be so open and vulnerable about some of the most difficult parts of her life, such as we hear in ‘More’ and ‘929.’ I’m so inspired by her as a songwriter and as an artist and as a person that I think this album will be very special to me for a very long time, if not forever.

Favourite Tracks: Ashley, You should be sad, Forever … (is a long time), 3am, killing boys, More, Still Learning, and 929.

Good Years by The Shires (March 2020) – I’ve loved The Shires’ music since they released ‘Nashville Grey Skies’ in early 2015 and Ben and Crissie are just such lovely people. Their voices sound gorgeous together, complimenting each other perfectly, and their melodies are always incredibly catchy; I’m usually singing the melodies before I even know the lyrics. The production is also stunning; I would describe it as having the glossiness of pop music while staying very true to the country instrumentation and arrangement. There’s a warmth to it; I always feel enveloped by the very sound of the songs. My only wish would be for some development album to album, for example in the song content; after their first album, love songs feature heavily on every album and I just think it would be really interesting to hear them sing about different subjects. They proved on the first album, Brave, that they could do it and do it well with great songs like ‘Nashville Grey Skies’ and ‘Made in England’ and they’ve come so far since then.

Favourite Tracks: Lightning Strikes and About Last Night.

kelsea by Kelsea Ballerini (March 2020) – I’m consistently awed by Kelsea’s ability to perfectly balance country and pop, blending the intimate storytelling and warm instrumentation of country and the glittery production and melodies of pop. And I love how you can feel her growth in each album, as an artist, as a songwriter, and as a person. To me, this album sounds like the universal inbetween of becoming a real adult: getting comfortable in your skin but still nursing some of your deeper insecurities, walking that line of the steadiness of adulthood and the flightiness of youth, and establishing the anchors of your identity while continuing to grow.

Favourite Tracks: club, the other girl (with Halsey), bragger, half of my hometown (feat. Kenny Chesney), the way i used to, and needy.

Lady Like by Ingrid Andress (March 2020) – I’d been excited for Ingrid to release music ever since I first heard her play ‘Lady Like’ at a Tin Pan South round in 2018. She was just fantastic and I couldn’t wait for her to release more than the two singles that were on iTunes at the time. It only took one song to tell what an amazing talent she was. I love the album – I particularly love her lyrics, her ability to weave humour into one song and then vulnerable, heart-wrenching imagery into another, and it’s really cool to have so much piano in country songs – but I was a bit disappointed that there were only eight tracks and that I’d heard all of them by the time the album came out. It’s great, of course, to finally have them to blast in the car and so on, but I would’ve loved to hear a song she’d been holding back for the release or something like that. And I was really sad that ‘Blue,’ which she’d played on tour, didn’t make the album because it was absolutely stunning.

Favourite Tracks: Bad Advice, We’re Not Friends, More Hearts Than Mine, Life of the Party, and Lady Like.

folklore by Taylor Swift (July 2020) – I’ve already written a bit about this album (and because I am such a songwriting nerd, I’m writing another post about it in more detail because there’s just so much to say about it) but I couldn’t not include this album in this post. I’ll just try my best not to go overboard. This feels like the album of a pure singersongwriter, an album where the songs themselves are given centre stage to shine. Somehow the album is her most experimental yet while still being so true to the songwriter that she has always been. I love the production style, which often centers around the piano, the minimal arrangements, and the lower vocal range that Taylor takes the time to explore. I love the different narratives and perspectives that she writes from while still sharing her emotions and experiences. And I love how vulnerable she allows herself to be, over and over again. Whether these lyrics are autobiographical or drawn from elsewhere – “You know the greatest loves of all time are over now,” “I can see you starin’, honey, like he’s just your understudy, like you’d get your knuckles bloody for me,” “I didn’t have it in myself to go with grace,” “I’m still a believer but I don’t know why, I’ve never been a natural, all I do is try, try, try,” “Before I learned civility, I used to scream ferociously any time I wanted,” “Pulled the car off the road to the lookout, could’ve followed my fears all the way down,” “And you know damn well, for you I would ruin myself, a million little times,” “But the rain is always gonna come, if you’re standing with me,” and “Stood on the cliffside, screaming, ‘Give me a reason'” – they prove what an incredible songwriter she is, what a deeper thinker she is, and how deeply she feels emotions (something that has always made me feel really connected to her and her writing). These are emotions she’s related to, whether the events happened to her or not, and to turn those feelings into something so beautiful and to then share it with the world is so, so special. There’s so much more I could say but it’s a stunning album and I love it more than I can express. It’s one of those albums that arrived in my life just when I needed it and my god, I am so grateful.

Favourite Tracks: the 1, exile (feat. Bon Iver), my tears ricochet, mirrorball, this is me trying, illicit affairs, and mad woman.

If It Wasn’t For You by Caylee Hammack (August 2020) – I first heard Caylee sing at Tin Pan South in 2017 and I just fell in love with her songwriting. I’ve been waiting for her to release music ever since and so when she announced this album I was ecstatic. ‘Family Tree’ was the perfect first single: it feels like such a central theme in the album and one of the strongest songs in every aspect. Just because of what was going on in my life when it came out, I haven’t had the opportunity to really delve into it – into the lyrics and stories and so on – but I’m really loving listening to it and just taking it all in (full disclosure, I cried when I first heard ‘Forged In The Fire’ and ‘Mean Something’). She has an amazing voice and I love her ballsy, unapologetic attitude but that she can also let that fall away and open up to write and sing these incredibly vulnerable songs. Her lyric writing is also something really special: her songs are full of little details that make them so unique. I can’t imagine anyone else singing them and really making them work. There are also various production choices that really stick out to me, things that you – or at least I – don’t hear all that often, like her use of backing vocals and ‘non-musical sounds’ like the cheering of a football game on TV in ‘Family Tree.’ My only sadness concerning this album is that she didn’t include a song she sang when I heard her at Tin Pan South, probably one of the most heartbreaking songs I’ve ever heard: “Laid an old friend in the ground before saying ‘I’m sorry’, and that’s something that I don’t expect forgiveness for, I should’ve called more.” I would’ve loved that song to be included on the album because it was absolutely beautiful.

Favourite Tracks: Preciatcha, Sister, Forged In The Fire, Family Tree, Mean Something (feat. Ashley McBryde & Tenille Townes), and Small Town Hypocrite.

Badlands (Live from Webster Hall) by Halsey (August 2020) – Before I talk about the live album, I have to mention the original first because it’s one of my favourite albums of all time. I love how different it is; I love the production and all the extra details that give it it’s unique sound; I love her vocals and the the myriad of little ways she uses her voice to convey emotion; I love the stories she tells and the lyrics she writes, all of the detail she includes and within them, which ones she chooses to develop, the themes she brings into the songs time and again. She’s truly one of my favourite artists.

But back to the live album. I love how much energy and passion she puts into her performances and I love how you can hear her smiling and responding to the crowd as she sings (and oh my god, how gloriously loud the crowd are). Her vocals are incredible (they’ve grown so much since she toured this album) and I love how she’s made little changes: changing the rhythm, speaking a line instead of singing it, and so on. The music behind her, whether it’s live or programmed or a combination of both sounds great and I can absolutely imagine her up on that stage, leaping around just as she did when I saw her on the Badlands Tour in 2016. I also loved the spoken parts (and especially relevant to this post, how she talks about how much she loves albums and how much everyone in the crowd loves albums if they love Badlands as much as they clearly do) because she speaks so beautifully and has such an interesting way of seeing the world. I guess my only sadness about those tracks is how clearly she’s talking to the audience right there (as it should be in a live show, in my opinion) and it just reminds me how I’ve never felt part of the fanbase – or any artist’s fanbase – regardless of how much I love her. I always feel on the edge, feel like if I took one step back and disappeared, no one would notice. And given just how close Halsey is with her fanbase – always taking photos, signing things, replying to tweets, getting tattoos with them, making them feel truly valued as individuals – it’s not difficult to feel even more invisible than usual. I guess that’s one of the downsides of artists being able to connect to fans one-on-one: it’s great for the fans it happens to, but really hard for those it doesn’t.

It’s worth noting that it’s hard to separate my favourite songs from the Badlands album and my favourite performances from the Badlands (Live at Webster Hall) album but I’ll try my best because they’re not necessarily the same…

Favourite Tracks: Castle, Hold Me Down, Hurricane, Roman Holiday, Colors, Tiny Little Babies – Talking Break, Strange Love, Forget Her and Find Her – Talking Break, Coming Down, Control (this one is so powerful), Young God, Gasoline, Some Kind of Stardust – Talking Break, and Is There Somewhere.

More Love: Songs from Little Voice Season One by Sara Bareilles (September 2020)I’m aware that having not seen the show, Little Voice, yet, listening to this album may be a different experience than that of someone who has seen the show. I do really want to watch it but with my mental health in mind, I’m conflicted: I want to see anything Sara Bareilles is involved in creating because I love her and I love her work but I’m also wary that media about my chosen career path, about becoming a singersongwriter, has the capacity to seriously trigger my anxiety, something that I’m extra cautious of in these present times when my anxiety is already so high. But regardless of that, I couldn’t let a Sara Bareilles album come out and not listen to it. I have found it a little harder to get into than some of her others (but again that maybe be that I haven’t seen the show that gives the songs context). But there’s something so distinctly Sara Bareilles about it that I love. The songs feel hopeful and have a certain warmth, creating an instant emotional connection. It’s just stronger with some than others. The production feels like the big sister of the Little Voice album and her vocals her just incredible. Her lyrics are just stunning as always – “I’m barely brave enough to be breathing,” “So I will write it down, all the jagged edges,” “I’m facing all of my fears, I’ve lined them up and wonder how I’ve been with them for years,” “I hit my head against the wall, a portrait of my grief,” and “Looking over the precious moments, it hurts don’t it, they can cut both ways” – and I feel like they’re coming to me just at the right time. There’s something about Sara’s music that has always felt just so healing and I’ve never needed that more than I do right now. I think it’s also worth noting that I’ve never had to pause an album so many times to write down song ideas.

Favourite Tracks: More Love, Simple And True, Coming Back To You, and Little Voice.

ballerini by Kelsea Ballerini (September 2020) – While I’m pretty sure I prefer kelsea to ballerini, I think this is a really fascinating project and it’s really cool to see how different the songs could’ve been, what a different life they could’ve had. I found the instrumentation a little repetitive but I loved some of the changes she made, particularly the little lyric tweaks that gave you a brand new, and often a more vulnerable, insight into the songs. Some songs had a completely different emotional vibe that was really unexpected but so cool to experience. As fans, the songs obviously speak differently to us with these changes but I admit that I’m super curious how they’ve taken on new meaning for Kelsea. It will be really interesting to see, when she is able to tour again, how she chooses to perform these songs, which version she chooses or leans into more.

Favourite Tracks: club, homecoming queen?, bragger, half of my hometown, the way i used to, needy, a country song, and la.

Lady Like (Deluxe) by Ingrid Andress (October 2020) – This album was announced less than an hour after I wrote the paragraph of Lady Like, where I talked about wanting some songs I hadn’t already heard. That made me laugh; it was like I had willed it into existence. The livestream before the release was great and it made my little songwriter heart happy to hear all the stories from the behind-the-scenes of writing those songs. And when it was over, the album was available on iTunes. I love that she changed the tracklist to tell the chronological story (using the tracklist to actively tell a story is something I’ve always been a fan of, rather than just putting the songs in an order that sounds good – not that there’s anything wrong with that) so it was a bit like listening to the album all over again and I just feel like it gave the album a slightly different vibe, a different emotional context. I’m not gonna talk about the songs from the original album because I’d just be repeating myself but the five new tracks were definitely a cool addition to the album as a piece of art (I’m still sad about ‘Blue’ though – hopefully she’s just saving it for a future project). I liked the simplicity and honesty of ‘Feeling Things,’ ‘Boys’ is youthfully lighthearted and flippant, and ‘Waste of Lime’ is full of the acerbic wit and attitude that Ingrid does so well, just as well as she does vulnerable and heartfelt. And the added voices of Karen Fairchild and Kimberly Schlapman from Little Big Town bring a beautiful, almost choral effect to ‘More Hearts Than Mine.’ As I said, I think these extra tracks really add to an already great album and I’m so glad that Ingrid decided to expand on the Lady Like era before moving onto the next project.

Favourite Tracks (not including those from the original edition of the album): Feeling Things and Waste of Lime.


I’ve struggled to sit and just listen to new music over lockdown – my brain seems insistent that I always be doing something to keep my anxiety at bay – so there are still multiple albums that I really want to listen to but haven’t been able to focus enough yet to do so. Some of these are:

  • Gaslighter by The Chicks
  • Rise and Shine by Cassadee Pope
  • Petals For Armor by Hayley Williams
  • Fetch The Bolt Cutters by Fiona Apple
  • Punisher by Phoebe Bridgers
  • Such Pretty Forks in the Road by Alanis Morissette
  • Stay Alive by Laura Jane Grace

I’m really looking forward to them though and having something to look forward to in times like these is definitely not a bad thing.