Play Hard

Best of 2020: HLN’s favourite music, TV, books and films of the last 12 months

Because when everything else fell apart, we turned to art.

Written by Chris Kingston
Published 28.12.2020


Winner: Taylor Swift, evermore

2020 has been a pretty grim year for most things, but not music. Faced with the unprecedented challenges that lockdowns and self-isolation brought with them, musicians have reevaluated their creative practices – and aren’t we chuffed with the results. 

This was one of our toughest category to choose from. 2020 has given us some pretty standout records, largely from female artists (although it seems Bob Dylan will always be in the running for any top accolade). But, facing tough competition from Fiona Apple for Fetch The Bolt Cutters and Dua Lipa’s Future Nostalgia, we had to give this one to Taylor Swift – for the second of her two decidedly more indie 2020 albums. 

evermore is a 15-song, hour-long rediscovery of the ‘new Taylor’ – building on the ‘lost cabin in the woods’ vibe she cultivated in folklore, with arrangements that create the musical space to really showcase Swift’s songwriting genius, while also bringing back a little of the colourful pop she’s known and loved for. Oh, and her first country song in ages. But what we love most about both records – and evermore in particular – is the whole angry, unapologetic woman thing Taylor’s got going on. Yes, women do feel things that aren’t considered ‘pretty’ and no, we’re not going to keep quiet about it anymore. In this vein, special shoutout to sixth track ‘no body, no crime’ (featuring Haim) which tells a cracking tale. After all, if your best friend doesn’t realise your husband has murdered you because you didn’t show up for your Tuesday night dinner date, so then goes out and kills him while framing his mistress to avenge you (all with the help and blessing of your sister), then we don’t want to know.


Winner: Miley Cyrus, Midnight Sky 

Tricky, tricky, tricky. So many great really tracks have emerged this year – which has been handy, seeing as music has been our main saviour. While comparing our own list to some of the other end-of-year round-ups out there, we thought it was interesting to note that many of the songs listed in a lot of ‘top 10s’ were written and performed by women. Interesting, but not at all surprising.

It just so happens that our top 3 songs also come from fierce, first-rate females. In third place, the quarantine anthem ‘People, I’ve Been Sad’ from Christine & The Queens, which hit us right where it hurt this year. Second place goes to the marvellous Phoebe Bridgers, whose whole album Punisher is a trip, but whose track ‘Kyoto’ is a masterpiece of indecision and boredom, delivered with bare-knuckled honesty. 

But any song with Stevie Nicks’ seal of approval is a worthy winner in our eyes. Miley’s ‘Midnight Sky’ is a loving homage to Nicks’ ‘Edge of Seventeen’ but with her own added bite – a homage Stevie honoured when she hopped on the excellent remix ‘Edge of Midnight’. Basking in the stadium-pop glory of the ‘80s, ‘Midnight Sky’ is an anthemic rocket of a track, blasting raw-rock vocals about being born to run and not belonging to anyone but yourself. Stevie may have invented this particular strain of bewitching self-possession, but Miley owns it. 


Winner: The First Woman by Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi

Words bring wonders, and this year we’ve needed a few wonders in amongst the woes. We’re huge readers here at HLN and have thoroughly enjoyed ploughing through the pages that the literary world has given us in 2020. 

Some of our favourites include Scabby Queen by Kirstin Innes – the prodigious portrait of fictional chanteuse and ageing political activist Clio Campbell after her sudden suicide, stretching over five decades of British history. Another is Maggie O’Farrell’s Hamnet (no, it’s not a typo), which tells the heart-stopping story behind Shakespeare’s most famous play. And special mention goes to Richard Osman (of Pointless fame), whose first novel The Thursday Murder Club is the first debut in history to become the UK’s Christmas Number 1, (beating Barack Obama in the process). 

But Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi’s The First Woman stood out for us. Wise, captivating, funny and poignant, Makumbi’s third novel tells the story of Kirabo: a young girl growing up in a small Ugandan village, who has always been surrounded by the powerful women in her life but, as she enters her teenage years, begins to feel the absence of the mother she has never known. We follow Kirabo on her journey to becoming a young woman and finding her own place in the world, just as her country is transformed by the bloody dictatorship of Idi Amin. But what we loved about The First Woman is that it’s a book that is simultaneously about the stories that define us and the ones we tell to redefine ourselves.


Winner: I May Destroy You 

We’re not sure quite what we’d have done this year if it hadn’t been for the brilliant boxsets we’ve binged every now and again. BBC iPlayer has particularly stepped up its game, now rivalling a lot of our favourite streaming services when we’re flicking for our next fix. 

So many TV shows have stood out for so many different reasons this year. Our top 3? Mrs America takes bronze. Following some of the most notable figures of Second Wave Feminism, the Cate Blanchett-led series takes a look at the women who fuelled the movement (and one, in particular, who really tried to hold it back). Plus, obviously, Cate Blanchett. In position for the silver medal (and verrrrrry nearly clinching the gold) is Normal People. Delivering the great sexual reawakening of the coronavirus pandemic, Normal People is a more-than-worthy inclusion in any list of top 2020 shows, having transformed Sally Rooney’s largely insular novel into a visually-striking depiction of young love, and absolutely nailing the chemistry between Irish teenagers Connell Waldron and Marianne Sheridan. 

We’d never forgive ourselves if we didn’t take this opportunity to give a special shout-out to Tiger King which, when the chips were down and the world really needed a distraction, stepped up to the plate. Only cool cats and kittens in our circle, yo. 

But our gold medallist goes to I May Destroy You, the epic BBC creation from Michaela Coel, who both wrote and starred in the dramedy series. Although severe on the surface – Coel stars as Arabella, a woman whose drink was spiked one night and was subsequently sexually assaulted – its writing and execution takes its own brutality and wraps it in a mix of vulnerability, strength, and dark humour, creating something refreshingly removed from the survivor stories you’ve seen before. 


Winner: Mank 

This year has delivered a crushing blow to the film industry, which has had to sit by and watch as cinema after cinema was closed and premieres and production were delayed. But despite it all, a slew of incredible films still managed to grow through the cracks in the cinematic landscape and blossom in the last 12 months. 

Let’s start with a couple of perhaps the most topical. In a year where so much focus was placed on racial inequality, Queen & Slim and Mangrove were two welcomed releases – the first, a tale of two young African-Americans who meet on a Tinder date and get plunged into a nightmare when a cop car pulls them over; the second, Steve McQueen’s faithful recreation of the true story of Frank Crichlow and the ‘Mangrove Nine’, which really hammered home the fact that institutionalised racism is very much a British problem too. 

Now onto perhaps the wackiest – Jojo Rabbit. Kiwi writer-director Taika Waititi’s film follows young Jojo, a lonely lad living in Germany near the end of the Second World War, who’s imaginary friend is Adolf Hitler, (played by Waititi himself). But things become complicated when he discovers his single mother is hiding a Jewish girl in their attic. A laugh-out-loud comedy with heaps of heart, all interspersed with montages set to pop music. Magic. 

But finally, it’s time to talk about our winner. Shot entirely in black and white, Mank is a suitably-glorious tribute to the golden age of cinema. Literally a film about filmmaking, it sure has the cast to pull it off. Starring Oscar-winner Gary Oldman, Mamma Mia’s Amanda Seyfried and Game of Thrones bad grandpa Charles Dance, Mank is the story of alcoholic screenwriter Herman J Mankiewicz and his tumultuous development of the iconic 1941 movie, Citizen Kane. A sad portrait of a self-destructive artist making his best work at the expense of almost everything, Mank may be a little melancholy, but it’s undoubtedly a modern monochrome masterpiece.

Christopher Kingston
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