Nostalgia, they say, comes in waves, each one crashing as a new generation learns how their parents lived. In the 1990s, the narrator of Radiohead’s song “The Bends” proclaimed, albeit sardonically, “I wish it was the ’60s.” By the aughts, pop culture was awash in a yearning for the ’80s—an epoch that saw, perhaps, its final crescendo with the debut of Stranger Things in 2016. Now, in 2022, it seems as though many people—or at least the ones who make movies and TV—are longing for those days when Radiohead themselves first dominated the airwaves.
This churn, the phenomenon of people resuscitating the culture of the past every few years, is at best described as a nostalgia cycle. Problem is, there’s no real metric for the frequency with which these revolutions happen. The aughts, thanks to shows like Mad Men, also had an air of ’60s sentimentality, for example. Adam Gopnik, writing for The New Yorker, called this the “Golden 40-Year Rule,” but sometimes culture whips around much more quickly than that. All it takes is some kids on TikTok breathing new life into Twilight to bring the 2000s back. Or, in the case of Showtime’s mystery/horror/coming-of-age drama Yellowjackets, a deeply wistful appreciation of those flannel-clad days before social media and smartphones took over teens’ lives.
Let’s be clear: Yellowjackets is not a hazy, rose-colored view of youth. It’s about a New Jersey high school girls’ soccer team that gets stranded in the Canadian wilderness following a plane crash on their way to a national championship in 1996. Some of them—the show is purposefully vague on how many—make it back to civilization. But there are hints, many of them, that Very Bad Things happened out in those woods, up to and including some sick ritualistic Lord of the Flies shenanigans and maybe-probably cannibalism. Like Lost, it time-jumps—cutting between the girls’ childhoods and the present day, sprinkling Reddit-thread-worthy unsolved mysteries everywhere. But unlike Lost, its appeal feels rooted in a desire to return to those halcyon days before the internet—while also serving as a reminder that they weren’t so halcyon at all.
It’s hard to pinpoint exactly when, but at some point in the last few weeks, Yellowjackets went from a low-key phenomenon to a cultural force. Case in point: There’s now a BuzzFeed quiz designed to tell you which member of the soccer team you are. A lot of the show’s popularity can be attributed to stellar reviews, excellent word-of-mouth, and the fact that viewers had extra time during the holiday season to catch up—plus Omicron has kept many home and watching.
But there’s something else, something even more base about its appeal: It’s a mystery full of the kinds of symbolism, clues, and Easter eggs that the internet loves to devour and hypothesize about. There are Reddit threads (lots), news articles, and more Twitter chatter than you can shake an Antler Queen at, and in this deep-winter Covid-19 surge moment, it’s hard not to go down an online rabbit hole trying to decode it all. Last night’s Season 1 finale only gave fans more cannibal catastrophe content to chew on.
This is all somewhat ironic because one of the things that’s appealing about Yellowjackets is that it’s so lo-fi. American teens in 1996 barely had AOL, and none of them had smartphones. They listened to Snow’s “Informer” because that’s what was on the radio and watched While You Were Sleeping on VHS because there was no Netflix. This isn’t to say that everyone who watches Yellowjackets wants to go back to a more primitive, pre-internet time, but there is something appealing about living in that world—for Gen Xers and millennials who grew up in it and for younger generations curious about its contours.
It’s also a story that almost has to take place in a previous decade. If the Yellowjackets were a big-deal high school girls’ soccer team now, they’d all probably be quasi-famous TikTokers or microinfluencers. Their disappearance would be the subject of hours of online sleuthing, much like the show itself is. The reason the survivors of the crash (that the audience knows of thus far)—Shauna (Melanie Lynskey), Taissa (Tawny Cypress), Misty (Christina Ricci), and Natalie (Juliette Lewis)—were able to keep a somewhat low profile after their return to civilization is likely due to the fact that it happened before the era of Don’t F**k With Cats-style Facebook watchdogs, before Serial turned everyone into a wannabe detective. Not only does half the show take place in a wilderness with little to no technology, its modern segments feature heroines who largely eschew it, with the possible exception of Misty, who is now herself a true-crime junky. (Having Lewis, Ricci, and Lynskey—three ’90s indie-movie staples who built their careers just before the era of celebrity blog culture and managed to survive its wrath—play its adult leads remains the show’s best in-joke.)
Pop music is a province of the unsettled. It lives in eras, and its most influential purveyors either adapt to the times or eerily predict them.
That is true for music’s production and its consumption. The governing narrative of the 2010s was all about streaming. Spotify and Apple Music completely rewired how we determine popular music and the boundaries of taste. Singles and playlists were the dominant considerations of anyone plugged in. Albums became an afterthought. The end goal of music streamers, which are nothing more than tech oligarchs in drag, was to make connections anew—to sculpt our habits, interests, and desires as a curated listening experience. In the decade behind us, that meant remolding how we listen. It meant albums would have less currency in the utopia ahead.
But genres can be stubborn things. They push back. R&B especially. That felt unusually true this year. For me, 2021 was a period in which R&B made albums matter again. I found a special, almost refreshing comfort in the artistic pursuit of totality, in the creative freedom let loose by artists like Tirzah and Jazmine Sullivan. Maybe because R&B has roots in the traditions of Black music, it balks at so much of how sound moves, evolves, and restyles itself. The genre is both analog and post-internet, seemingly unconcerned by how social platforms like TikTok have influenced modern sound and aware that it remains only as influential as the base it has built. The core of what gave rise to R&B was here before the internet. It will be here after. The genre, as we’ve witnessed this year, is at its best when it is unmalleable, unmoved—until it isn’t.
You’re probably thinking: But doesn’t that go against everything I know about Black music, and Black culture at large—how it innovates and creates and is improvised-upon in so many skillful, and sometimes menacing, ways? Well, yes (as Black Twitter constantly reminds us). But the opposite is also true.
R&B is a genre of anti-futures. It acknowledges what is coming while firmly positioned in what came before. It looks inward. It’s what I like to think of as foundational music. In that way, it works like a matrix. The music moves forward, across, back, and through—but never in great haste. R&B is a reminder that perhaps we needn’t be in such a rush to the future on the horizon. Dystopia looms. For others, it is already here. R&B asks us to pause, to take a breath, to acknowledge the self with blunt and bone-deep introspection, to perhaps reconsider the path ahead.
Of course, no one genre can wholly withstand inspired innovation—projects from Dawn Richard and L’Rain were keen studies in texture and tender futurism—but what the best albums of the year all have in common (with two exceptions) is the thread of R&B as their DNA, their backbone, their big beating heart.
The 8 Best Albums of 2021
8. 30, Adele
Six years removed from 25 and Adele returns in rare and rarefied form. A reservoir of moody, oscillating love-and-woe ballads, 30 triumphs in its candid and candied approach to heartache, pain, and vulnerability. Adele soars.
Recommended songs: “My Little Love”; “Hold On”
7. Colourgrade, Tirzah
More than anything, Tirzah projects are spare and inviting. They are spatial meditations on intimacy and relationships, on how we negotiate the distance between bodies, emotions, and experiences. Devotion, her debut, was one of 2018’s best (put “Fine Again” on loop right now) and Colourgrade is no different. The singer is never concerned with formalism, which gives Colourgrade a unique geometry: It is about absence and the in-between. It gives definition to the undefined.
Recommended songs: “Beating”; “Sink In”
6. Vince Staples, Vince Staples
Vince Staples is from North Long Beach. It supplies him with a distinct worldview. He’s seen a lot and survived a lot more. The self-titled project—his most exciting full-length since 2015’s Summertime ‘06—is a trip through memory: In looking back, what do we bring with us? How heavy is the weight of remembering? Essayistic and low-key, the 10-song record tackles mortality, violence, and the bonds that both connect and shatter.
Recommended songs: “Are You With That”; “Sundown Town”; “Take Me Home”
5. Still Over It, Summer Walker
The third release from R&B classicist Summer Walker is a silky and sensual merry-go-round of breakup ballads about her failed relationship with producer London on da Track. What the album does best—to say nothing of its fantastic production—is pinpoint the hardship of lost romance in the age of Insta thirst-trapping. In Walker’s translation, it is a whirlwind of emotion and catharsis.
Recommended songs: “Circus”; “Unloyal” feat. Ari Lennox; “Toxic” feat. Lil Durk
4. Talk Memory, BADBADNOTGOOD
It’s difficult to convey the contours of Talk Memory in conventional music terms because the album, in the abstract, is not music. Though it’s entirely instrumental, its scale is much larger. I imagine this is what dreams sound like. What Toronto experimentalists BADBADNOTGOOD have devised is a holy thing. Along with collaborators Terrace Martin, Laraaji, and famed Brazilian composer Arthur Verocai, they have reached beautifully impossible heights. The view is better up here.
Recommended songs: All of them
3. If Orange Was a Place, Tems
Tems supplied the velvety lungs to 2021’s unofficial song of the year: she is unmistakable and unmissable on Wizkid’s “Essence.” As a solo act, the Nigerian singer is something of a path-breaker, already on her way to global Afrobeats stardom. This five-song EP doesn’t just solidify Tems’ growing mastery, it rightly puts everyone on notice. She’s not letting up.
Recommended songs: “Vibe Out”; “Found” ft. Brent Faiyaz
2. Fatigue, L’Rain
Fatigue is elemental in scope. It bleeds, sways, hollers, and hums. It meditates and stomps and conjures. It thunders. It awakens. For the Brooklyn fusionist, Fatigue is a spiritual passage—blending folk, gospel, soul, and experimental pop into a tonal and textural masterpiece. L’Rain has crafted one of the most beautiful albums of the year.
When Jazmine Sullivan released Heaux Tales 11 months ago, we had no idea where the year would take us—through moments of deep hurt and intense passion, through bouts of regret and earned joy. Much like 2021, the album unfolds in a series of twisting chapters, a clever mix of song and testimonial, each building on the track before. What Heaux Tales does skillfully is map sexual agency. It gives power and voice to the desires of Black women. It is an album, foremost, about reclamation—it urges listeners to demand what they are owed, and so much more. Consider it a lesson for all of us.
Recommended songs: “Pick Up Your Feelings”; “Price Tags” feat. Anderson Paak; “Lost One”
Honorable Mentions:Second Line, Dawn Richard; Call Me If You Get Lost, Tyler the Creator; Planet Her, Doja Cat; Navy’s Reprise, Navy Blue; Far In, Helado Negro; Sometimes I Might Be Introvert, Little Simz
Nearly two hours into Eternals’ mildly excessive 2-hour-37-minute runtime, it struck me: This movie is bad. Strange and unsettling, it was a realization not unlike the feeling of knowing you’re about to be dumped. The spell is broken; it can’t be recast. For the previous 100-plus minutes, Chloé Zhao’s thoughtful exploration of an immortal race of superheroes had captured my full attention. It had fights, banter, moments of catharsis. Watching it felt like making new friends. But soon it became clear: That’s all it felt like. My joy came from experiencing the movie in a theater, surrounded by people—not the movie itself.
Culturally, there was a lot riding on this year. As an epoch, the Covid-19 era has been shot through with missed opportunities. Many of these are personal milestones—a postponed wedding, a freshman year spent away from classmates. Others are more broad—NBA games played without fans, Mulan premiering in the US on Disney+. But as 2020 morphed into 2021, things changed. Vaccines rolled out and music venues opened; people started going to cinemas and flooding sports arenas. Pop culture touchstones, and the ways people enjoyed them, began to reemerge, bringing with them scores of expectations. No Time to Die needed to be excellent because, for some fans, the new James Bond film was their first time seeing a big movie on a big screen in months. The same was true for Dune. Eternals too, which was why anything short of incredible felt like a let down—and it was.
Such disappointments were abundant this year. But frankly, there was no way to avoid this. Lockdowns in 2020 led to a lot of pent-up demand for cultural outlets. A spring without Coachella, a summer without blockbusters, a fall and winter without much of the usual holiday fanfare—these things left lots of folks wanting. Sure, we filled the void with streaming marathons, podcasts, and TikToks, but it was hard to reckon with the fact that something, a lot of things, were missing.
Come 2021, many of them returned. Delayed movies like Dune and the new 007 flick found their way to Imax screens. And while both of those films were solidly good, no movie this year had that Ohmygod, did you see? air that Star Wars: The Force Awakens or Black Panther did. (Of anything Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings came closest. Maybe Spider-Man: No Way Home, but it hit theaters just as Omicron fears were peaking.) And not necessarily because they failed at being feats of filmmaking. We just needed them to be too much. Like their first post-lockdown hugs, people hoped their inaugural trips to the multiplex would feel monumental. Perhaps, in my head, I expected my first meeting with the Eternals to feel like returning home to the Marvel Cinematic Universe. When Eternals just felt like any other trip to the theater—a nice time, but rarely life-changing—the effect was melancholic. And that’s probably for reasons that aren’t the movie’s fault.
A slightly different shift happened with TV consumption. During 2020, media diets maxed out on comfort food: Friends, The Office, The Circle. Much of that carried over into 2021, as streaming became the most reliable—if not best—source of new cultural output. Of course, plenty of challenging programs broke through in the last two years—I May Destroy You and Mare of Easttown come to mind—but, if anything, quarantine reacquainted lots of viewers with easygoing shows like New Girl and Schitt’s Creek or any one of a half-dozen escapist genre programs on Disney+. Sure, some people discovered, or rediscovered, complicated fare like The Sopranos, but when it came to excitement over new programming, absurd shows like Tiger King and Selling Sunset seemed to grab the most attention—offering a form of tuning-out-while-tuning-in that other new series didn’t. The breakthroughs, like Squid Game, leaned obscure and/or absurd. Those that were expected to make a splash, like Netflix’s live-action Cowboy Bebop and Apple TV+’s Foundation, fell flat. Even as TV became the more dominant medium, it was still riddled with letdowns.