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The Information Weekend’s Last-Call 2021 Culture List

Hi, welcome to your Weekend: New Years Eve edition!

There were plenty of unmissable cultural moments in 2021: “Squid Game” exploded, “Dune” dazzled, Olivia Rodrigo and Taylor Swift dominated, Bennifer reunited, “Friends” and Carrie Bradshaw returned, and sea shanties took over TikTok.

But those were just the headliners. Suspecting there was more to 2021 than Lil Nas X and #FreeBritney, The Information Weekend asked our plugged-in writers, reporters and editors to clue us in on the cultural phenomena that they loved and the rest of us may have missed this year.

In the end-of-year roundup that we’ve teased in this newsletter, we gathered the best unsung content from 2021. Each pick on this list feels extremely of the moment, even though it may not have gotten the spotlight it deserved. We’re here to hype what we couldn’t stop talking about, from a venture capital newsletter to a comedic TikTok creator to a band we can only call “the Anglo-Saxon Haim.”

So in your last few days of 2021, catch up on these semi-hidden gems—you’ll thank us in 2022.

Things to Watch

“The Alpinist”
For those who thought “Free Solo” was too tame, there’s “The Alpinist,” a documentary about a climber so free-spirited and daring even Alex Honnold thinks he’s a little out there. That climber is Marc-André Leclerc, who died on Alaska’s Mendenhall Towers ridge in 2018, at the age of 25. The film is an extraordinary record of an extraordinary life. Mostly shot as Leclerc prepared for and completed a solo ascent of Torre Egger, one of Patagonia's most prized peaks, the documentary was in postproduction when director Peter Mortimer got a call from Leclerc’s girlfriend, Brette Harrington, saying he hadn’t returned from his Alaskan climb. Harrington is an accomplished climber herself, and she and Leclerc had both long ago confronted and accepted the possibility of death while climbing. “To me it’s not really an unacceptable risk,” he tells the filmmakers. Even so, Harrington’s eyes as she describes her grief will tear your heart out. That the film still manages to be joyful is a testament not only to Mortimer’s skill, but also to Leclerc’s free soul. Available to stream on Netflix.—Jillian Goodman, opinion editor

“The Sex Lives of College Girls”
Despite the title, “The Sex Lives of College Girls” is no sex- and drug-fueled “Girls Gone Wild.” Instead, creator and executive producer Mindy Kaling (a genius at everything she does) brings us a heartfelt and hilarious look at four college women trying to figure it all out. Sex is, of course, involved, but so are questions of identity, friendship, class and the all too prevalent inquiry of what does one actually wear to an ABC (Anything But Clothes) party. Kaling’s four lead characters (as played by Alyah Chanelle Scott, Amrit Kaur, Renée Rapp, and Pauline Chalamet—yes, sister of Timothée) will remind you of your closest college friends…or the ones you wish you had. Pound for pound, “Sex Lives” is the most realistic show I’ve seen about the college years: It’s messy, chaotic and poignant, and it doesn’t take itself too seriously. I wouldn’t say it’s fun for the whole family, but it’s certainly, unapologetically fun. Available to stream on HBO Max.—Annie Goldsmith, reporter

For more must-watches, click here.

Things to Listen To

Elton John and Dua Lipa, “Cold Heart” (PNAU Remix)
The top artists on my Spotify Wrapped playlist are, shall we say, eclectic: There’s ABBA, Enya, and everything from Tina Turner ballads to house music from Martin Garrix, Calvin Harris and Tiësto. That’s why I love this collaboration between Elton John, Dua Lipa and Australian dance music group PNAU. The song perfectly fuses my love of oldies but goodies, borrowing lyrics from some of Sir Elton’s hits, including “Rocket Man” and “Sacrifice,” and combining them with the au courant beats of modern-day pop queen Dua Lipa. It makes you want to sing along and sway to the beat as if you’ve known it forever, instantly putting you in a better mood. I’ll be playing this on repeat through the holidays and beyond—look for it on my Spotify Wrapped in 2022.—Kaya Yurieff, reporter

“Maintenance Phase,” podcast 
Why do we trust body mass index? What’s the deal with the Presidential Physical Fitness test? Why is Halo Top ice cream taking grocery stores by storm? These are the sort of questions that Maintenance Phase, a fantastically funny and informative podcast, uses as jumping-off points to take listeners on heavily fact-checked journeys into the wobbly world of “wellness.” The show is predominantly focused on debunking and decoding the junk science behind popular health fads, wellness scams and nonsensical nutrition advice. The chemistry between the two hosts, Aubrey Gordon, author of “What We Don’t Talk About When We Talk About Fat,” and Michael Hobbes, a journalist best known for his other breakout podcast, “You’re Wrong About,” is electric—I could listen to them explain how paint dries. Start your listening with “Snake Oil,” which explains why there will always be salespeople hawking miracle cures and where the term “snake oil” comes from in the first place.—Paris Martineau, reporter

For more essential ear worms, click here.

Things to Read

Rex Woodbury’s “Digital Native” substack
For those confused on how to use “cheugy” in a sentence or what it means to have “reality privilege,” Rex Woodbury is the digital culture translator you’ve been waiting for. Woodbury, an investor at Index Ventures and an influencer in his own right, writes weekly articles on internet trends for his substack, “Digital Native.” His writing is approachable while still treating all things Gen Z with academic seriousness. One of his essays begins with a “Squid Game” recap, but ends as a treatise on fintech startups upending our financial system. Another dissects the metaverse by telling the story of Neopets, including a brief tangent on the game’s Scientology phase (seriously). His work always teaches me something new and leaves me feeling optimistic about the internet’s future—provided Gen Z is leading the way.—Margaux MacColl, reporter 

Andy Weir, “Project Hail Mary”
At the risk of dumbing down something exceedingly smart, if you liked the film “The Martian,” based on Andy Weir’s 2011 debut novel, you’re going to love his latest sci-fi odyssey, “Project Hail Mary.” The basic building blocks of Weir’s narrative universe have returned: You’ve got a highly competent Caucasian male astronaut hurtling through space, alone, in great peril, and cracking dad jokes. You’ve got a first-person narrator who marries Bill Nye and Neil deGrasse Tyson, converting incomprehensible scientific principles into thrilling biochemistry experiments and cool-ass spaceship maneuvers. And, most impressively, you’ve got a propulsive, can’t-look-away, twist-filled plot with nothing less than the survival of the world (or...spoiler alert...multiple worlds) at stake. It’s science fiction that actual physicists can warm to and that non-scientists can put their faith in.—Jon Steinberg, Weekend Editor

For more mind-blowing reads, click here.

Things to Do

@Mobkitchen on TikTok
The TikTok algorithm sent me down a wonderful rabbit hole of cooking influencers this year, including a group of British cooks who create content under @Mobkitchen on TikTok (and on the web as well). Mobkitchen is all about unpretentious, delicious and accessible recipes. For example, rather than obsessing over precise measurements, they’ll simply tell you to put a “glug” of olive oil in a pan. Their videos are beautifully shot and edited, and are almost always less than a minute—perfect inspiration for a quick dinner. This winter I’ve been tearing through their soup recipes (two of my favorites are their fragrant lemongrass mushroom soup and simple orzo minestrone).—Nick Wingfield, senior editor

Radiohead, Kid A Mnesia Exhibition
While we drown in suspect hype for the metaverse and non-fungible tokens, here comes Radiohead with a surreal digital museum (free to download on PC, Mac and Sony’s hard-to-find PlayStation 5) that actually creates a sense of place and wonder, one we’re lucky to have. Radiohead’s turn-of-the-millennium masterpieces “Kid A” and “Amnesiac” were reissued for their joint 20th anniversary, and are presented here as part of an expansive 3D exhibition, mixed with artwork from singer Thom Yorke and visual artist Stanley Donwood. Two studios, [namethemachine] and Arbitrarily Good Productions, have knit Radiohead’s music and art together in ways that simply wouldn’t be possible in a real-world exhibition. One moment you’re in a photorealistic video installation set to a distorted version of “Everything in Its Right Place”; the next you’re floating in a void while a parade of grinning, impish ghosts glides along to the melody of “Kid A.”—Mathew Olson, reporter

For more worthy diversions, click here.

Until next Weekend, thanks for reading!

Happy New Year, everybody.


Weekend Editor, The Information

Jon Steinberg is the Weekend Editor at The Information. He is a former editor-in-chief of San Francisco magazine and senior editor at New York magazine, where his work won many National Magazine Awards.
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