Consuming 2021: Favorite Music, TV, Books, and Podcasts

Some of the Media that Gave Me Hope This Year

David Zahl / 12.31.21

I’m taking a new approach with this year’s list of favorites. For two reasons: first, last year’s was simply too sprawling to replicate. (Which is why CJ pitched in with the journalism and humor recs). Second, I wanted to highlight only bits of media that I found hopeful. Perhaps that sounds pollyanna but there are plenty of lists out there cataloging the year’s most sophisticated and innovative depictions of sadness and sin. I don’t mean to suggest that honesty can’t be beautiful, or that there isn’t something innately hopeful in telling the truth — or telling a really good story really well, regardless of how it ends. But I found myself losing interest in such work this year. Life was challenging enough in 2021.

So I have tried winnow this list down to the songs, shows, books etc that contained particularly beautiful depictions of redemption and grace, the kind of stuff that makes a guy want to keep on keeping on, both as a person and a Christian. This means it’s a shorter list(!) but also a precious one.


Most of my musical consumption this year tracked with the 2021 episodes of The Well of Sound, which covered Kate Bush, Alice Cooper, and Genesis/Phil Collins. All three subjects warrant serious attention, and I commend those episodes to you. The latter won’t be released for a while but represents the most consuming and rewarding musical journey I took this year. So much beauty and majesty in the music of all eras of Genesis (click here for a playlist of favorites) but I, for one, had no idea that the “Supper” at the heart of their magnum opus, the 23-minute “Supper’s Ready”, refers to the Supper of the Lamb. I was shocked to discover that the “song” closes with a vision of the New Jerusalem and the Second Coming that is as transcendent a musical passage as exists in the pop cannon, religiously themed or otherwise. Yes, Peter, I can feel my soul ignite.

Thankfully, “Supper’s Ready” wasn’t the only Mbird-resonant gem that came my way out of the past. Here’s a playlist of Favorite Songs Discovered in 2021.

Which is not to suggest that plenty of amazing music wasn’t released 2021 itself. Here’s a playlist of Favorite Songs Released in 2021. As far as recent albums, considered through the lens of the criteria above, one stands above all others.

Album of the Year, Hands-Down: Mercy by Natalie Bergman. Nothing blew me away this year like this record and its companion EP “Keep Those Teardrops From Falling.” What took me aback was not just the directness with which The Wild Belle singer expresses her love for God (in the midst of grief), but the whimsy, wonder, and, well, coolness with which she does so. The melodies are simple and sturdy, the genre-spanning arrangements inventive yet never showy. And to those who find Bergman’s soprano a little too ethereal at times; give it time and it’ll grow on you until you can’t imagine these songs any other way. Can devotional music be sexy? I guess it can. Key tracks: “Shine Your Light on Me,” “Talk to the Lord,” “Home at Last,” “You’ve Got a Friend in Jesus.”


Grace in Practice “TV” Show of the Year, Scripted or Otherwise: Last Chance U: Basketball (Netflix). Again, an easy pick, as no other small screen venture came close to capturing the dynamics at the heart of the Gospel more than this show about Coach John Mosley and his pack of “lovable assholes.” Call me crazy but I don’t think it’s a coincidence that God gave us this series smack dab in the middle of in a year consumed with racial reckoning and religious deconstruction. If either of those despair-inducing topics matter to you, basketball fan or not, do yourself a favor and watch this show. And then watch it again. Getting to interview Coach Mosley at our Tyler Conference was a personal highlight of the year; I’m actually wearing my East Los Angeles College Huskies sweatshirt as I write this. Word has it, the ELAC crew will be back for a season 2, and I for one could not be more excited to see what pseudo-non-cursewords Coach has for us.

Grace-Filled Runners-Up That Don’t Rhyme with Fred Grasso: After Life, How To with John Wilson, Only Murders in the Building

Best Dramatized Case for Substitutionary Atonement: Mare of Easttown

Grace in Practice Films of the Year (Tie): Sound of Metal, Together, Together and The French Dispatch. Bill Murray’s scene with Jeffrey Wright alone! To be honest, though, I haven’t seen Licorice Pizza yet (or almost any of the others that people have loved). Nothing made me abreact more than 8-Bit Christmas.

Episode of Television That Made Me Laugh Harder Than I Should Probably Admit in Public: “The Watermelon,” Curb Your Enthusiasm

Documentaries That Didn’t Feel Like Homework and Made Me Smile: Get Back, Listening to Kenny G


Grace in Practice Novel of the Year: Crossroads by Jonathan Franzen. I’ve got a full review coming next week for Christianity Today but WOW. I’ve enjoyed all of Franzen’s novels but allow me to join the chorus of reviewers calling Crossroads his best (and most readable). It also happens to be about a church youth group (in the 70s) and a clergy family, both rendered with uncanny, sometimes uncomfortable, often hilarious detail. My eyebrows went up when journalist Ruth Graham tweeted that Crossroads contains “some of the deepest, most complex depictions of what sincere Christian faith means in real people’s lives that I’ve ever read.” But she’s 100% right. Those depictions are made all the more incisive by not being cordoned off from the actual concerns of adult life. The book also contains no fewer than five jaw-dropping scenes of grace in practice. I’d go so far as to say that Crossroads is good for Christianity. Read it.

#LowAnthropology Non-Fiction of the Year (in the Best, Most Uplifting Way): Four Thousand Weeks by Oliver Burkeman

Most Essential Newsletter, and Certainly the One I Found Myself Forwarding Most: Red Hand Files by Nick Cave. I’m pretty sure Nick has become my pastor, and I couldn’t be more grateful. The unintiated should start with the most recent one, about Christmas, in which he writes:

Hope and optimism can be different, almost opposing, forces. Hope rises out of known suffering and is the defiant and dissenting spark that refuses to be extinguished. Optimism, on the other hand, can be the denial of that suffering, a fear of facing the darkness, a lack of awareness, a kind of blindness to the actual. Hope is wised-up and disobedient.Optimism can be fearful and false. However, there exists another form of optimism, a kind of radical optimism. This optimism has experienced the suffering of the world, believes in the insubordinate nature of hope and is forever at war with banal pessimism, cynicism and nihilism.

As we move into Christmas, the image of Jesus in the manger — what Yeats calls the ‘uncontrollable mystery on the bestial floor’ — is that hope and that radical optimism incarnate.

Most Devastatingly Profound (and #Seculosity-Adjacent) Newsletter Discovery: Moms Under the Influence by Kathyrn Jezer-Morton

Favorite Devotional Resource Anywhere on Social Media: Andy Squyres’ incredible Instagram feed

Favorite Personal Essay Not Mentioned by CJ: “God Is on the Bathroom Floor” by Nightbirde

Most Surprising Graphic Novel to Give Me a Killer Sermon Illustration: Extremity Vol 2 by Daniel Warren Johnson


Reigning Grace in Practice Podcast Champion, Five Years Running, AKA the One Podcast I Would Recommend Over Any of Our Own: Heavyweight. This show remains a force for good like few others. We really need to have Jonathan Goldstein speak at a conference. One to start with might be “#37 John”

Favorite Non-Heavyweight Podcast Episode About Real Life Sin and Redemption: Dr Ray Christian on The Confessional

Boldest, Best Researched, Most Captivating, and Dare I Say Important Deep Dive Podcast Series (Especially for Anyone Looking to Understand America’s Religious Landscape): The Rise and Fall of Mars Hill. 2021 had its share of MVPs, and Mike Cosper is surely one of them. He did us all a great service — more than I suspect we realize right now — by delivering such a harrowing yet ultimately loving piece of work. Its undeniable excellence bodes well for the future of Christian witness in this country. I’m serious.

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One response to “Consuming 2021: Favorite Music, TV, Books, and Podcasts”

  1. […] time again! I decided to continue last year’s practice of winnowing down these faves to what gave me hope and lifted my spirits throughout the year. As […]

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