I spend quite a lot of time every December reading pop culture oriented Best-Of lists, and this year I’ve decided to publish my own.
So below are the most outstanding, memorable, and resonant works of media I came across in 2021, that made the year - and my life - more vibrant and worthwhile.
The Anthropocene Reviewed: Essays on a Human-Centered Planet by John Green
Like everything else John Green writes, his essays about a wide range of topics - from Monopoly to sunsets to QWERTY keyboards - are profound, witty, and beautiful. Most importantly, they make you feel a part of something bigger than yourself.
The Psychology of Money: Timeless Lessons on Wealth, Greed, and Happiness by Morgan Housel
I really needed this book without knowing it. Morgan Housel doesn’t really give direct financial advice, per se, but rather provides us with a framework for how to (and how not to) think about money. The book is short, the takeaways simple, and the advice sticks. I’d recommend this to everyone.
All the Wrong Moves: A Memoir About Chess, Love, and Ruining Everything by Sasha Chapin
Even I myself couldn’t have made up a book more suited to my interests than this one. Author Sasha Chapin recounts his unending obsession with chess, and how the game dominated his life for a few years, during which he travelled the world playing tournaments and ignoring everything else.
All the Wrong Moves is a short, hilarious, and gripping read. Plus, it features Ben Finegold. The writing is sublime - at once unique, funny, truth-bearing yet digestible, and there were moments when I would stop and re-read the same paragraph again and again. It leaves us with greater insights about the nature of obsession, and life itself. Really, the entire book is worth reading just to get to the “secret of chess” metaphor at the end.
(See also: my all time favourite books.)
("^" indicates a rewatch.)
Knives Out (2019)^
I rewatched Knives Out with my parents this year, and its easily one of my all time favourite movies now. KO is about as entertaining as a movie can possibly get. The story is fantastic, the characters memorable, it looks great, every scene is bursting with creative energy - what more could you want in a film? It’s the definition of fun.
See also: everything great about Knives Out (video).
A drama about a South Korean family struggling to make it in Arkansas, US in the 1980’s. Poignant, tender, meditative. Beautiful soundtrack as well.
Almost Famous (2000)
One of the most magical, dream-like, and nostalgic movies I’ve ever seen, Almost Famous worked a spell on me. It felt like an adventure in the truest sense. Movies rarely make me jealous of its characters, but this one surely did.
"The only true currency in this bankrupt world is what you share with someone else when you're uncool."
Good Will Hunting (1997)^
A classic with more memorable scenes than almost any other film. Immensely quotable, wise, funny, and heartbreaking. One of those movies worth rewatching every year.
Get Out (2017)^
A shot-for-shot perfect film, in my opinion. The most daringly original story to come out in a long time. Will never get tired of seeing this one.
Dune was the first film I watched in theatres this year, and boy was it worth it. My favourite aspect of the film was how seriously it took itself, and how information-heavy it was. Will read the book soon. (He said every year.)
“Everything is vague to a degree you do not realize till you have tried to make it precise, and everything precise is so remote from everything that we normally think, that you cannot for a moment suppose that is what we really mean when we say what we think.” - Bertrand Russell
“It had taken four years. They had endured violent storms, accidents, one disappointment after another, public indifference or ridicule, and clouds of demon mosquitoes. To get to and from their remote sand dune testing ground they had made five round-trips from Dayton (counting Orville’s return home to see about stronger propeller shafts), a total of seven thousand miles by train, all to fly little more than half a mile. No matter. They had done it.” - The Wright Brothers by David McCullough
“A tree is a subterranean organism usually commensating with soil, bacteria, and fungi, with photosynthetic parts above the ground.” - unknown botany professor
“Isaac Newton said he had seen farther by standing on the shoulders of giants, but he did not believe it. He was born into a world of darkness, obscurity, and magic; led a strangely pure and obsessive life, lacking parents, lovers, and friends; quarreled bitterly with great men who crossed his path; veered at least once to the brink of madness; cloaked his work in secrecy; and yet discovered more of the essential core of human knowledge than anyone before or after.” - Issac Newton by James Gleick
“The ability to play chess is the sign of a gentleman. The ability to play chess well is the sign of a wasted life.” - Paul Morphy
"Everything that needs to be said has already been said. But, since no one was listening, everything must be said again." - André Gide
Music #1 - Albums
Bo Burnham - Inside (The Songs) (2021)
Inside was a pretty good comedy special, but its songs make for a better album. The music is super catchy and addictive, and the songwriting hilarious. It’s been in my rotation all year. As someone said, this might be the only truly essential work of pandemic art.
Favourite songs: Content, White Woman’s Instagram, Bezos I, Look Who’s Inside Again, Welcome to the Internet, Bezos II, That Funny Feeling.
Kanye West - Donda (2021)
Kanye West’s newest release was clunky, overlong, unfiltered, and a bit messy. But being a Kanye West album, it was automatically pretty great.
Favourite songs: Jail, Off The Grid, Jesus Lord, Lord I Need You, Life of the Party (feat. Andre 3000).
Sufjan Stevens - Carrie & Lowell (2015)
Carrie & Lowell is a really sad record. Through acoustic folk songs, Sufjan Stevens deals with the loss of his mother and his strained relationship with her as a child. It’s a meditative, poetic, often transcendent reflection on grief and moving on.
Favourite songs: Death with Dignity, Eugene, Fourth of July, The Only Thing.
Since 2020, comedian Kumar Varun has been hosting an excellent quiz show on his YouTube channel. Something about trivia just does it for me - last year I was addicted to Jeopardy! on Netflix, this year it was KVizzing on YouTube. I’ve watched almost all editions of this show, and they’ve all been hugely fun.
After having Anand, Kramnik, and Carlsen on his channel, I thought Samay had really achieved everything one can as a chess streamer. And then he invites Garry Kasparov on his stream. This guy.
Kasparov was hugely entertaining. Compared to Samay’s streams with other world chess champions, this one’s a lot more chess-heavy in the best possible way. Kasparov does the bulk of the talking - he obviously has lots to say - and I like it.
If you’re into chess but don’t have time to watch the whole thing, watch the video from this point on, where Kasparov not only identifies chess games from a position literally within seconds, but then describes the tournament they took place in, and the best continuation to be played. It’s absolutely insane. So is this hilarious Mikhail Tal story.
The Triumph and Terror of Wang Huning by N. S. Lyons
“Behind this veil of carefully cultivated opacity, it’s unsurprising that so few people in the West know of Wang, let alone know him personally.
Yet Wang Huning is arguably the single most influential “public intellectual” alive today.”
Augmenting Long Term Memory by Michael Nielsen
“The single biggest change that Anki brings about is that it means memory is no longer a haphazard event, to be left to chance. Rather, it guarantees I will remember something, with minimal effort. That is, Anki makes memory a choice.”
Why You Should Quit the Internet by Anonymous
“The best stuff happens outside the web. Outside is new and frightening, not comfortable. Encountering pain helps transform your vision of yourself and forces you to grow.
And there is very little that is new and frightening on the web. The biggest realizations happen when you are in free-fall, not when you have a safety net.”
Music #2 - Songs
Here is a Spotify playlist of my favourite songs of 2021.
Obsidian is a free and open source note taking app. For someone who’s always jotting down stuff, writing, or making notes, it’s literally life changing. You can’t go back once you’ve used it.
I’d always wanted a single source of all my writings, and finally found it. I was finally able to transfer all my miscellaneous documents, from Google Keep, Dropbox, Google Docs, Simplenote, and MS Word, to a single place. It’s now my go-to app for absolutely anything I want to write about now. Features like note linking are just a bonus. It’s like having an IDE for writing.
This also has a bit of a learning curve, so I’d recommend YouTubing some introductory videos.
Anki is a flashcard app that helps you remember things. You create flashcards, revise them daily, and the algorithm decides which cards to show you over a long enough interval so you don’t forget them. Here’s a good introductory Twitter thread about it.
Because it offers so much, there’s a bit of a learning curve. I’d recommend ignoring the various online resources just finishing Ali Abdaal’s Skillshare course on Anki - it covers absolutely everything you need. He explains it all - how spaced repetition and active recall can help you remember anything, how to actually install and start using Anki daily, what the best plugins are, and how other people (eg. medical students) have used it.
Bonus: here are some out of the box ways to use Anki.
OBS is a free, open source video streaming and recording tool. Your favourite YouTube or Twitch streamer probably uses this.
I have a hard time focusing, so back in May/June I decided to stream my desktop screen when working, in the hopes that it would help me be more focused. Although no one was watching my streams (which is ideal), just the fact that my screen and face was on display helped a lot.
What I love most about OBS is that in spite of being absolutely loaded with features, it’s super easy to set up, to the point where you might not even need a tutorial for basic usage. The UI is intuitive, and you can literally be streaming within 10 minutes of installing it. It’s my go-to now for any kind of streaming. I use less than 1% of features it has, and still that’s more than enough for me.
And since it’s so popular with YouTubers, you can bet that YouTube has tons of videos about every kind of problem you could face with it.
Ted Lasso - season 1
Everything you’ve heard about Ted Lasso is true, the show is really that great. They got everything right. It was so much fun to watch.
Alma Matters: Inside the IIT Dream
This is a three episode documentary on the life of students of IIT Kharagpur, but really it’s a universal story. It displays all aspects of a college student’s life, the highs and lows. Anyone who’s done engineering in India will find a lot to relate to. Watch the trailer here.
The Sopranos, “Made in America”
Probably the single best episode of TV I watched this year. I wrote a whole thing about it.
Better Call Saul - season 4
By far the show’s best season, and elevates it to another level that was sustained throughout season 5. Can’t wait for the final batch of episodes.
Comedy Premium League - season 1
This was a huge stress reliever for me in the week I was packing my bags for graduate school. The format could’ve been better and a lot of the skits fell flat, but overall it was hilarious. I watched it twice.
Community - season 3
The (second?) best season of the most inventive sitcom ever made. I love this show to bits.
Squid Game - season 1
Although it ended on an unimaginative, conventional dud, most of the first season of Squid Game was startlingly refreshing. Won’t be watching season 2 though.
The West Wing - seasons 1 to 3
I get the criticisms for it, but in spite of everything The West Wing is my favourite TV show right now. Can’t wait for more.
Pop Culture Goals for 2022
I don’t usually make “pop culture goals”, but next year I do want to finally read (and then watch) The Lord of the Rings. (I know, I know.) I also want to watch The Wire - it’s about time. I also want to read books around more specific topics instead of just doing them randomly. I also want (but am hesitant) to play Factorio because it seems like exactly the kind of game I’ll get sucked into for days on end. But isn’t that the point?
Anyways, I’d be super curious to hear any of your pop culture goals if you’re reading this. Also hit me with recommendations if you think I’ll enjoy something, and have a happy new year!
Many thanks. Already ordered the Chapin chess book.