Consuming 2020: Favorite Music, Television, Podcasts, Journalism, Humor, and Publications

Taylor Swift, Onion Headlines, Zadie Smith, and More!

David Zahl / 12.29.20

Time for our annual round up of favorites. As always, these are predominantly personal picks, albeit with an eye toward Mocking-resonance. Click here to read last year’s list. Deep breath:


Most of my musical consumption this year tracked with the 2020 episodes of The Well of Sound, which covered Allen Toussaint, Van Halen, Supergroups, and Marvin Gaye (plus Nick Lowe, which will be out this week, and Kate Bush next month). Each subject has MUCH to recommend it, so I encourage interested parties to take a listen. Non-interested parties, too. When it comes to the present, though:

Ten Favorite Albums Released in 2020

  1. Imploding the Mirage — The Killers. No other way to say it: this record got me through, and I’m grateful. So few bands try to reach for the transcendent anymore that it’s such a relief — and inspiration — to find one that not only hasn’t given up but possesses the chops to grasp it occasionally. And how they’re still batting a thousand in the cameo department is beyond me. There’s no low point, but “Running Towards a Place” and “Fire in Bone” are grace-anthems par excellence, right when I/we needed them most.
  2. Folklore — Taylor Swift
  3. Evermore — Taylor Swift. Absolute top of her game in every way, these records spell vocation with a capital-V. No one has a more uncanny ear for lyrical detail these days, or knack for drilling down to the heart of the matter, than TSwift. People talk about the National elevating her craft, but I think it’s the other way around.
  4. Stages — Electric Soft Parade
  5. Keeper of Days — Jon Guerra
  6. Moon Shot — The Lees of Memory
  7. Letter to You — Bruce Springsteen
  8. Ivan & Alyosha — Ivan & Alyosha
  9. As Long As You Are – Future Islands
  10. Patient Kingdom — Sandra McCracken

As for individual songs, these two playlists should cover the bases: 18 Favorite Songs Discovered in 2020 and 20 Favorite Songs Released in 2020

Television (Or Whatever We’re Calling It Now)

Five Favorite Shows

  1. How To with John Wilson. So much reality, compassion, and creativity in this one it’s almost unfathomable. Clearly the fruit of decades of work, somehow both wonder- and repentance-inducing at the same time. This guy is a true original. Fair warning though, it may make you love the human race again.
  2. Better Call Saul. I can only presume that Vince Gilligan’s streak of producing Great-American-Novel-level seasons of television will end one day. But that day did not fall in 2020. Near perfect.
  3. Ted Lasso. What starts out as a goofy, fish-out-of-water sitcom becomes a stirring and frequently hilarious crash course in Imputation. Cannot wait to see where this goes.
  4. Fargo. Perhaps not as good as other seasons, but that’s a very high bar indeed. Jessie Buckley alone!
  5. The Mandalorian, Season 2, especially the second half. You know what I’m talking about. A perfectly-timed thrill that felt like a gift.

Funniest Single Episode: “On the Run” from What We Do in the Shadows. Oh man, that Jackie Daytona.

Favorite Single Performance: Ethan Hawke in The Good Lord Bird, Carole Baskin in Tiger King

Best Quarantine Binge Experience: Cobra Kai

Favorite Grace-Centric Docuseries (Subsequent Headlines Notwithstanding): Cheer

Favorite Law-Centric Docuseries: The Last Dance

Biggest Disappointment AKA Lost Time Award: The Undoing, followed by Run and Raised By Wolves

Most Pleasant Surprise: High Fidelity

Best Foreign Language Police Procedural To Force You Off Your Phone (to Read Subtitles): Spiral

Series With Mockingbird-Friendly Themes That Everyone Recommends But I Haven’t Seen Yet: Ramy, The Queen’s Gambit

Favorite Pre-Screening By Far: Electric Jesus!

Favorite Feature Released in 2020, Bearing in Mind That Not Many Were (and I Saw Very Few): Emma and Soul

Least Favorite: I’m Thinking of Ending Things. Ooof.

Favorite Film Discoveries: The Before Trilogy by Richard Linklater


Most Cited By-Lines on This Site: Giles Fraser, Tara Isabella Burton, Chad Bird, and Casey Cep

Favorite Newsletters: The Red Hand Files by Nick Cave, The Imperfectionist by Oliver Burkeman, and Snakes & Ladders by Alan Jacobs

Long Reads We Got the Most Mileage Out Of:The Weirdly Enduring Appeal of Weird Al Yankovic” by Sam Anderson, “Who Would I Be Without Instagram” by Tavi Gevinson, “The Cancer Chair” by Christian Wiman, and “The Emotion Police” & “Who Wants to Play the Status Game?” by Agnes Callard

Most Indispensable Column of the Summer:What the Bible Has to Say About Black Anger” by Esau McCaulley

Most Fascinating Interviews: Ethan Richardson talking to Jason Webster, Jack Antonoff talking to Lana Del Rey, Len Gutkin talking to Rita Felski, Mike Birbiglia talking to Hasan Minhaj, Tom Holland on High Profiles

Salt n Light Interview Award: Nadia Bolz Weber on Armchair Expert

Favorite Podcasts We Don’t Host: Heavyweight, Rabbit Hole, Christian History Almanac, and The Well of Sound

Grace in Practice Podcast Discovery of the Year: The “Don’t Be Good — Be Great” episode of Against the Rules with Michael Lewis

Seculosity Award: “God Is Dead. So Is the Office. These People Want to Save Both” by Nellie Bowles. Runner up being “Productivity Is Not Working” by Laurie Penny

Most Essential Lecture on Religion: “Christianity and Morality” by Giles Fraser

Most Relevant Social Phenomena: Purity Spirals, Pandemic Shaming (AKA the Pharisaism of Karen and Kevin), Over-Typologization and the Self Help-ification of Social Justice

Word of the Year: Doomscrolling

Most Relevant Commercial Phenomenon: Blands

Most Discouraging Mental Health Related Research: New study shows preference for revenge over forgiveness

Most Encouraging Mental Health Related Research: Alcoholics Anonymous outperforming all other methods of treating addiction

Most Touching Photo Essay: Deanna Dikeman’s Parents Waving Farewell, followed by Mark Peterson’s images of Parking Lot Worship in Virginia Beach and then Sad and Useless’s round-up of Decrepit Soviet-Era Playgrounds

Grace in Practice Story of the Year: The Ballad of Bobby and Cheryl Love on Humans of New York. Runner-up being this one.

Favorite Modern Saint (AKA Most Affecting Portrait of Genuine Holiness): Ken Fuson


Most Clever Hard Times Headlines: Gym Closures Leaves Old Naked Guys with Nowhere to Shower, Opinion: I Think That- No Sorry, You Go Ahead, Woman Diagnosed With COVID-19, Multiple Types of Rare Cancer by WebMD, and Small Town’s Dark Secret Not Nearly Interesting Enough to Tear Community Apart

Most Relevant Onion Headlines: White Ally Willing To Do Whatever It Takes To Make Sure People Won’t Be Mad At Him, Fact That Man Being Criticized Just Goes To Prove His Point, Weighted Blanket Sure To Succeed Where CBD, Salt Lamp, Oil Diffuser, Acupressure Mat, Bath Bombs, And White Noise Machine Failed, and Man Just Can’t Be With Someone Who He Projects So Many Of His Own Flaws Onto

McSweeney’s Gold: On the Seventh Day, God Created Parenting, and Then Parenting Created Coffee, Your School District’s Reopening Survey, Email Signatures In Ascending Order of How Nervous I Am to Be Emailing You, and A University President Responds to Those Who Have Suggested the School Should Dip Into the Endowment

Top Two Reductress Listicles (and Two Other Gems): 5 Noise-Canceling Headphones That Do Nothing to Drown Out Your Inner Monologue, 4 Ways to Punish Yourself for Not Committing to Your Self-Care Routine, Study: This Study Will Be Retracted by Tomorrow, and a bit more seriously, Sorry I’m Late, I Was Praying to God for the First Time in My Life

Viral COVID Musical Parody of the Year: This One, followed by this one

Most Inspired Biblical Humor: Amanda Vaughn’s Book of Mom, in a Pandemic, With Virtual Learning (who hasn’t been alone in SIX MONTHS)

Most Inspired Church History Humor: Martin Luther’s Ninety-five Theses, as E-mailed by Your Passive-Aggressive Co-Worker

Best Non-Satirical Headline of the Year: Albany man rescued from Lake George by priests on a floating tiki bar. More recently, this one has also been doing the trick.

Favorite Obvious Plant: Waldo Can’t Hide From Himself

Most Surreal Yet Amusing Church Trend: Squirt Gun Baptisms and Blessings

Single Most Jaw-Dropping Viral Moment: The July 4th LA Translation of Romans 5:20, with this a distant second

Cleverest Religious Tweets: This one and this one

Most Inspired New Yorker Daily Shout: This Is What Your Unsolicited Advice Sounds Like

Funniest Low Anthropology Photo Essay: World’s Greatest Gallery of Men in Socks and Sandals or Fictional Self-Help Books

The Lest-We-Forget Award AKA Laugh-or-You’ll-Cry Video: This one

Books and Literature (Personal Addendum to This List)

Favorite Novels I Read This Year: Love in the Ruins by Walker Percy. Can’t believe it took me so long. The first 40 pages almost did me in with simultaneous laughter and horror. Talk about prophetic! A close second would be the searing midlife crisis opus known as Bright Flows the River by Taylor Caldwell (sad clowns beware — seriously).

Favorite Novel I Read This Year That Was Also Published This Year: Piranesi by Susanna Clarke. I think she may be my favorite living novelist. Click here for more.

Most Brilliant Short Story I Read This Year:Now More Than Ever” by Zadie Smith

Favorite Essay Collection: Intimations by Zadie Smith

Most Grace-tastic Memoir: Across That Bridge by John Lewis, followed closely by Craigslist Confessional by Helena Dea Bala

Most Genuinely Helpful Work of Non-Fiction: The Happiness Curve by Jonathan Rauch, followed by Anne Helen Peterson’s Can’t Even, Kate Murphy’s You’re Not Listening, and Ada Calhoun’s Why We Can’t Sleep

Most Essential Book-Length Work of Religion Journalism: Strange Rites by Tara Isabella Burton

Most Essential Academic Theology That Someone Who Doesn’t Share the Author’s Last Name Needs to Rave About on Amazon ASAP: The Holy Spirit and Christian Experience by Simeon Zahl

Philosophy Interview I Wish I’d Read Before Writing Seculosity: Hartmut Rosa in Krisis

Best Religious Graphic Novel I’ve Ever Read: The Harrowing of Hell by Evan Dahm

The Most Devastating Book Review (That I Can’t Get Out of My Head, Months Later):Ha ha! Ha ha!” by Lauren Oyler

Favorite Poem Not By Mischa Willett:All My Friends Are Finding New Beliefs” by Christian Wiman

Timeliest Poem that’s stuck with me: The Coronavirus Prayer by James Parker

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4 responses to “Consuming 2020: Favorite Music, Television, Podcasts, Journalism, Humor, and Publications”

  1. Ken says:

    Love in the Ruins, alrright! Thanks, Dave. As always, the range of rich stuff you consume and “inwardly digest” is amazing.

    My own favorite track of the year is “when I am alone.” The composition itself is by David Lang of the Bang on a Can collective. What we hear is singer and composer Caroline Shaw’s multi-tracked and overlapped voice giving short, one-sentence descriptions of what one does when alone. It’s austere, lovely, and poignant.

  2. Pierre says:

    This is such a treasure trove – many things I read and enjoyed this year as they were mentioned on the site, but many more I didn’t catch along the way. Now I have lots to enjoy between now & New Year’s!

    • David Zahl says:

      It’s a lot of fun to put together – I basically go through every weekender we published and sift for the best stuff. Lots of gold in them hills!

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