It’s the most wonderful time of the year: list season! You have probably already dived headlong into the Guardian’s best TV, music and films of 2021 (although you’ll have to log on next week to find out our top fives for each of those), and everyone from Pitchfork to the Telegraph has followed suit with their own rundowns. And in a couple of weeks time the Guide newsletter will be sharing your cultural highlights of the year. (Thanks to those of you who have already sent yours; for everyone else, do get involved – further info at the bottom of this newsletter.)
I love list season, as it offers not only the chance to discover new things, but also to whinge about which of my favourite films, TV shows or albums have been outrageously overlooked by the biased mainstream media. Still, in these strange times, it does seem like some of these lists are missing something: namely all the good stuff that didn’t come out in 2021 but we devoured anyway. As with 2020, this year we had a preposterous amount of time on our hands, a dearth (at least in the first half of the year) of entertainment options beyond our front doors, and a host streaming services crammed full of decades’ worth of films, albums and TV shows at our fingertips. So, with that in mind, I thought I would share some of the best new old culture I encountered this year …
While I enjoyed season two of Tim Robinson’s gonzo Netflix sketch show I Think You Should Leave, it slightly lacked some of the spontaneous “Where on Earth did they get that idea from?” magic of its first season – and it wasn’t the best Robinson-related show I binged through in 2021. No, that was Detroiters (available in full on Now), which Guardian writer Stuart Heritage has long raved about, but which I’d only watched in fits and starts until recently. Unlike ITYSL it’s an actual sitcom with plots and everything (it follows the travails of two inept but likable ad execs), but like ITSYL it possesses a sort of dream comedy logic, where the joke almost certainly goes in the opposite direction to the one you expect. And for something completely, drastically, different, can I recommend the 1972 travelogue Nairn Across Britain (available in full on iPlayer), in which late, great writer and critic Ian Nairn travels across the country by A-road, train and barge, delivering some absolutely savage put-downs of the state of British architecture in the process. They don’t make them like this any more.
I’ve droned on about my love of The Rewatchables podcast, which analyses older films that merit repeat viewings, enough on here already – but as well as being a great listen in its own right, it has prompted me to catch a few classics that I had inexplicably never seen before. So I burned through David Fincher’s shaggy dog thriller The Game (audacious, preposterous and strangely timely given our surfeit of “deadly game”-themed culture this year); Michael Mann’s tobacco industry drama The Insider (utterly riveting and strangely overlooked in conversations about the best films of the late 90s); and Oliver Stone’s American Football epic Any Given Sunday (steroidal, daft, occasionally brilliant, frequently unintentionally funny). For something a little more this century, check out Les Misérables (Netflix), a lit fuse of a French thriller set in the banlieues that was slightly overlooked when it was released last autumn. It’s La Haine but somehow even more stomach-knottingly tense.
Earlier this year, the Guardian music desk published a great piece about that strange period in the 90s where seemingly any song that appeared on a Levi’s advert –Spaceman, Flat Beat etc – became a hit. One of the tracks I vaguely remember from that era was A Nanny in Manhattan, a slice of catchy 60s British invasion-style pop from a Washington DC band called Lilys who I had assumed were one-hit wonders. Wrong! It turns out they actually have had a fascinating, varied career, first as a shogazey lo-fi indie band (check out the vaguely Teenage Fanclub-y Ginger), then later as oddball 60s revivalists. Their apex is 1999 album The 3 Way, which sounds like a lost chamber-pop classic with added experimental garage psych and almost math rock-like flourishes. There’s one song on it – the seven-minute epic Socs Hip – that has more ideas on it than most albums.
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