Best reads of 2021: Everything is awful edition.

In 2020, I foolishly made a New Year’s resolution to read 366 feature stories over the course of the year — an effort to read more, be inspired by the good work of other writers, and keep me from wasting time on dumb stuff like games on my phone, TV or actual work. It was a chore, but it paid off with tons of good stories, which I recounted over the year HERE.

This year… I didn’t read very much at all. It’s probably akin to going on a crash diet, then once you’ve lost the weight, heading to Golden Corral. I just went in the opposite direction, burned out from my yearlong endeavor.

Still, at the end of every year, I like to compile a list of my favorite stories I’ve read (find my 2020 list HERE or 2018 HERE. What happened to 2019? No clue.), and so I was faced with the harsh reality that I’d not devoted nearly enough time to great journalism in 2021. That’s a shame, and something I need to remedy in 2022. No, I won’t be reading 366 features (at least not purposefully), but there should be some happy medium. So, when I do this list again in 12 months, it will certainly be a better cross-section of the year’s best writing (I hope).

In the meantime, I did read just enough in 2021 to warrant at least a top 10 list (and a few others for good measure)…

First, a few quick honorable mentions…

  • I’m a sucker for a good oral history, and Alan Siegel at The Ringer had a terrific one on one of the best episodes of TV ever: The Pine Barrens episode of “The Sopranos.”
  • On the short list of people I’d love to just sit in a room with and have them talk about anything, John Swartzwelder would be near the top. Mike Sacks at The New Yorker actually tracked down the reclusive writer from the golden age of “The Simpsons” and got some fantastic insight in the process.
  • Sometimes the story pitch is so good, it really doesn’t matter how good the story actually turns out. This piece on 24 hours at a Buc-ees from Michael J. Mooney in Texas Highways is solid regardless, but I’d have read it on the premise alone.
  • Proof that there is no end to interesting story ideas: Katherine J. Wu writes about the history of the butthole for The Atlantic.
  • Bob Ross had something of a moment in 2021 — 26 years after he died. Zachary Crockett explained in The Hustle why it’s nearly impossible to purchase one of Ross’s original works.
  • Something I’d never considered before reading this story, and now I notice it all the time: The infrastructure of the Internet is rotting, and its history is disappearing. The Atlantic’s Jonathan Zittrain writes eloquently about why that’s such a problem.
  • I loved this story from Kathryn Van Arendonk for Vulture on my favorite TV show of 2021… Bluey. Yes, it’s a kids show. But it is so much more than that. I cried multiple times this year because of Bluey episodes. When’s the last time a kids show did that?
  • As quick news stories go, you’ll bet hard pressed to top this one from Meridian, Mississippi.
  • As a general rule, I hate celebrity profiles, but few hit the mark and actually unravel something bigger about the subject better than this one, from Michael Schulman in The New Yorker, on “Succession” star Jeremy Strong, who is one strange dude.
  • As we dig in on the best of 2021, it will not come as much of a surprise to learn that the running theme throughout most of it is one of despair. We are living in hard times. And so, this piece from Alana Newhouse, which was among the first things I read in 2021, actually turned out to be pretty symbolic of all that was to come. Dig in to some misery: Everything is broken.

Now, on to the top 10…

  1. We’re a few years in to the “what has the internet wrought” culture and the horror stories never stop. This one, from New York Times’ Kashmir Hill, was a gripping account of how a man’s reputation was ruined by a virtual stranger.
  1. Pro Publica did so much amazing and important work this year, but no story will make you angrier than this one, about a Tennessee town that made a point of jailing black kids for made-up crimes. Terrific reporting from Meribah Knight & Ken Armstrong.
  1. Texas Monthly’s Skip Hollandsworth made almost every year-end list with this fantastically absurd story of a Houston socialite who may also have been a prostitute, dated her nephew, and killed her husband. Oh & she was involved with Chuck Berry.
  1. Sirin Kale’s haunting story for The Guardian on a body that fell from an airplane over London is a gut-wrenching mystery that ultimately reminds us how far people will go to find freedom and how horrific the price often is.
  1. The most talked-about story of the year… and for good reason. Bob Kolker’s Bad Art Friend in the New York Times Mag was one of those rare stories in which you’re never quite sure how to feel & afterward, you have to ask some hard questions about yourself, too.
  1. Here’s how you open a terrific crime story: “In the hours before he went missing, never to be seen again, Paddy Moriarty had beer on his mind.” Medium’s Mitch Moxley delivers a rollicking caper with wonderfully vivid details.
  1. There wasn’t a better sports (adjacent) story in 2021 than Steve Politi’s terrifying account of a former Rutgers hoops player-turned-murderer… and all the obvious signs that went ignored before the brutal final act outside a strip club in Mexico.

Side note: Steve’s expense report for this story must’ve been one for the ages.

  1. I’m not sure any story stuck with me longer than Rolling Stone’s Tim Dickinson’s recounting of a man’s theft of a plane from SEA-TAC airport. The sheer audacity of it was worth the story, but what’s haunting is just how normal Beebo Russell seemed when he did it.
  1. 20 years after 9/11, we’re still unpacking the trauma. The Atlantic’s Jennifer Senior unravels a deeply personal story that captures all the loss and horror and anger that followed that day and the fictions we create to cope with the aftermath.
  1. Everyone has an opinion on Kyle Rittenhouse. The reality of what happened, however, doesn’t fit easy narratives. Paige Williams’ story in The New Yorker is a perfect portrait – not of Rittenhouse, but of all the ways facts is bent to serve our own ends.

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