2021: A bit better. Still not great.
Some might even argue that 2021 felt worse than 2020, when we faced the start of a raging pandemic, a renewed fight for racial equality, a divisive election and the loss of Alex Trebek.
This year welcomed us with the Capitol Hill riots and moved on to the Atlanta spa shootings, wildfires, a tragedy at the Astroworld festival, the losses of Larry King, Cicely Tyson, DMX, Prince Philip, Norm Macdonald and Stephen Sondheim, and – despite vaccines – COVID-19 deaths that surpassed the coronavirus death toll in 2020.
But enough with the bad stuff. You didn’t click on this story for that. You’re here for the good stuff, which surprisingly was there if you look for it. That’s the power of entertainment – the music, the television, the movies, the books. They are what inspire us, lift us up and make us feel seen when we need it the most.
From stars’ history-making achievements to outrageous red carpet looks, here are 100 things that brought joy to USA TODAY’s Life and Entertainment staff in 2021, in no particular order.
Best books of 2021:These 17 titles received four-star reviews from USA TODAY critics
1. Anderson Cooper and Andy Cohen took tequila shots during New Year’s Eve coverage on CNN to say good riddance to a “fecal year.”
2. Adele made fans feel less alone with her new album, “30,” and her fervent plea for grace in her hit single, “Easy On Me.”
3. Taylor Swift reclaimed her work by re-recording and re-releasing her “Fearless” and “Red” albums, which included some new music and a new, longer version of “All Too Well.”
4. Then Swift sang the song in all its 10-minute glory on “Saturday Night Live.”
5. Swift’s scarf re-entered the pop-culture conversation. (“All Too Well” is believed to be inspired by Swift’s brief relationship with actor Jake Gyllenhaal.) Even Dionne Warwick weighed in on Twitter, telling “that young man” to return the scarf: “It does not belong to you. Box it up and I will pay the cost of postage, Jake.”
6. Beyoncé set a new Grammys record for most wins by a female artist.
7. She also stunned with her husband Jay-Z in a Tiffany & Co. ad campaign, wearing the brand’s iconic 128.54-carat diamond, and becoming only the fourth woman – and first Black woman – to do so since the jeweler was founded in 1877.
8. Ariana Grande earned her 20th Guinness World Record, the most songs to debut at No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100.
9. South Korean supergroup BTS kept us dancing all summer with “Butter.”
10. BTS also made Grammy Awards history with a nomination for best pop duo/group performance for “Dynamite,” a first for a K-pop group.
11. The K-pop group also gave its first concert in two years after the pandemic derailed a world tour. It was a big year for the BTS Army.
12. Lil Nas X won the VMAs red carpet with his glittery, lavender prom-inspired look.
13. Lady Gaga nailed singing the national anthem at President Joe Biden’s inauguration.
14. Amanda Gorman performed her powerful poem “The Hill We Climb” at the inauguration, becoming the youngest inaugural poet in U.S. history.
15. Jay-Z, Tina Turner, Carole King and other favorites were inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame.
16. Everything about Dolly Parton, including the time she soothed a stressed Stephen Colbert when she broke out in song during a virtual interview on “The Late Show” and the “adorable” throwback pic she shared of husband Carl Dean.
17. The return of live music. When the Foo Fighters reopened Madison Square Garden, it was “a dream come true” for lead singer Dave Grohl. “Goddamn, I missed the attention,” he quipped during the nearly three-hour show.
18. The return of Broadway shows.
19. The comeback of trick-or-treating! We felt safer congregating for other holidays this year, too, like Rosh Hashanah.
20. Demi Lovato came out as nonbinary, allowing them “to feel most authentic.”
21. Stars, including John Legend, Halle Berry and Ringo Starr, got vaccinated and encouraged others to do the same. “Black-ish” actor Anthony Anderson told USA TODAY he got vaccinated in March after initially being “on the fence” about it. After speaking to his physicians and a doctor friend, he changed his mind and is encouraging others to do the same.
22. Jennifer Lopez and Ben Affleck got back together. They were an early 2000s super couple before both moved onto other love interests – Lopez with Marc Anthony and Alex Rodriguez and Affleck with Jennifer Garner. Those relationships fizzled out, too, but Lopez and Affleck rekindled their love this year, and shared some PDA at events.
23. Chloé Zhao made Oscar history, becoming the first woman of color to win best director for her haunting, meditative drama “Nomadland.”
24. Mia Neal and Jamika Wilson also made Oscar history as the first Black women to earn awards for best makeup and hairstyling.
25. And Viola Davis made Oscar history, too, as the most-nominated Black actress of all time.
26. Glenn Close did “Da Butt” dance at the Oscars. The skit was scripted, but the booty-shaking became a beloved, viral moment.
28. “Pose” star Michaela Jaé Rodriguez (formerly Mj Rodriguez) cried “tears of joy” after she was nominated for an Emmy, making her the first transgender performer nominated in a lead drama category.
29. RuPaul Charles also sashayed into Emmys history, becoming the most-awarded Black artist with 11 wins after VH1’s “RuPaul’s Drag Race” won the award for top competition program for the fourth year in a row.
30. Michaela Coel won an outstanding writing Emmy for HBO limited series “I May Destroy You” and accepted the honor in a powerful speech: “I dedicate this story to every single survivor of sexual assault,” she said.
31. “Ted Lasso” was nominated for a record 20 Emmys and won seven, and we can see why: The unabashedly feel-good show was a pandemic binge-watch.
32. Mother-and-daughter duo Andie MacDowell and Margaret Qualley captured hearts in the limited Netflix series “Maid,” which brought to light issues surrounding generational trauma and poverty.
33. Noodle the pug earned our collective love with his oh-so-relatable TikTok predictions of “bones” or “no bones” days, so we knew when to get after it and when to rest and recharge.
34. Netflix kept viewers watching by adding more non-English content, like Spanish “Money Heist,” French “Lupin” and its biggest hit, South Korea’s “Squid Game,” and American audiences fell in love.
35. Ed Sheeran returned after four-plus years and gave us the “Shivers” with his new studio album “=” (pronounced “Equals”).
36. Bruno Mars and Anderson .Paak became musical supergroup Silk Sonic and finally released their silky smooth album “An Evening with Silk Sonic,” featuring nine tracks of nostalgic, bass-heavy rhythms.
37. Mariah Carey, the queen of Christmas, blessed us with yet another holiday special.
38. Right before Thanksgiving, when family was top of mind, Disney released the joyous movie “Encanto,” which follows Mirabel, a teen who finds her way after feeling like an outcast among her large Madrigal family.
40. Leyna Bloom became the first transgender woman of color to grace the pages of the Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Issue since the iconic magazine’s inception of the swimsuit issue nearly 60 years ago – and she understood the assignment.
41. Philippines-born influencer Bretman Rock also made magazine history as the first gay male cover star of Playboy.
42. Laverne Cox landed a new role as host of E!’s awards-show or red-carpet coverage, starting in 2022, putting a transgender woman front and center of Hollywood’s biggest events from the Grammy Awards to the Oscars.
43. “13 Reasons Why” star Tommy Dorfman reintroduced herself as a trans woman. “This is an evolution of Tommy. I’m becoming more Tommy,” she said.
44. JoJo Siwa, who came out as a member of the LGBTQ community in January, made history on “Dancing With The Stars” by competing with a same-sex partner. They nearly won it, but were edged out by former NBA star Iman Shumpert.
45. Women athletes made bold statements at the Tokyo Olympics: Simone Biles prioritized her mental health, German gymnasts traded high-cut leotards for full-body unitards and breastfeeding mothers publicly denounced a policy that forbade them from bringing their nursing infants to the event.
46. Rapper Lizzo and actor Chris Evans made us giggle with a hilarious social media exchange. Lizzo, who has publicly revealed her crush on Evans, sent the “Captain America” star a flirty message while drinking and Evans gave the best response: “No shame in a drunk DM,” he said. Then added: “God knows i’ve done worse on this app lol.”
47. Cardi B and Penn Badgley’s Twitter exchange also made our day with their adorable admiration for each other. When a clip resurfaced of the “You” actor praising the rapper, Cardi B responded: “HE KNOWS ME !!!OMMMGGGG!!!!!!” The two then swapped their profile pics to pics of each other.
49. Kids television shows became more diverse and taught children about race and LGBTQ issues. Netflix animated series “Ridley Jones” launched in July featuring a non-binary bison named Fred and “Sesame Street” introduced two new Black Muppets and featured its first recurring, married same-sex couple.
50. Megan Thee Stallion graduated! The rapper earned a bachelor’s degree in health administration from Texas Southern University.
51. Kristen Stewart gave a stellar performance as Princess Diana in director Pablo Larraín’s brilliant film “Spencer.”
52. Celebrities including Brooke Shields and Angelina Jolie upcycled their red carpet gowns through their kids.
53. Amy Schumer was dressed in a tampon costume for Halloween.
54. Lizzo walked around Hollywood as Grogu.
55. Ye, formerly Kanye, finally released “Donda.”
58. Jamie Dornan sang, danced and ripped shirts in the movie “Barb and Star Go to Vista Del Mar.”
59. Bob Odenkirk is OK. The “Better Call Saul” star scared fans after collapsing on the show’s New Mexico set. Thankfully, he recovered from what was described as a “small heart attack.”
60. Actor Adam Driver was the centaur we didn’t know we needed. The actor’s Burberry fragrance ad had social media users swooning.
61. Oscar Isaac and Jessica Chastain got caught in a sultry moment on the red carpet – which was even sexier in slow motion. Turns out HBO’s “Scenes From a Marriage” stars “were acting” and are just friends, but fans were pleased with the heated exchange.
62. Peter Jackson made us feel better about The Beatles’ breakup with his “Get Back” documentary.
63. Steve Harvey’s outfits made us look again, especially when he paired three denim pieces together and rocked it.
64. Swedish pop group ABBA returned with their first album in 40 years, “Voyage.”
65. Elvira, Mistress of the Dark, revealed her awesome secret girlfriend of 19 years.
66. Hulu’s “Only Murders in the Building” brought joy, mystery and intergenerational fun.
67. Matt Amodio broke records on “Jeopardy!” His 38-game streak and winnings of $1,518,601 put him second in the game show’s Hall of Fame, just behind GOAT Ken Jennings.
68. Amy Schneider also made waves on “Jeopardy!,” sending “a positive message to the nerdy trans girl.” The engineering manager from Oakland, California, became the first openly transgender contestant to qualify for a spot in the Tournament of Champions.
69. Timothée Chalamet charmed in his “Saturday Night Live” debut with a coronavirus skit and Harry Styles impersonation. He also starred in three movies this year: “Don’t Look Up,” “Dune” and “The French Dispatch.”
70. The Met Gala and red carpets returned, bringing back outrageous looks.
71. Lady Gaga owned the red carpet for the “House of Gucci” premiere.
72. Michelle Zauner released a powerful memoir “Crying in H Mart.” Goodreads named it the year’s best memoir.
73. Nobel laureate Kazuo Ishiguro took stock of humanity with “Klara and the Sun.”
74. Two-time Pulitzer Prize winner Colson Whitehead returned with twisty crime novel “Harlem Shuffle.”
75. Amor Towles gave us a new great American novel with “The Lincoln Highway.”
76. Melissa Lozada-Oliva wrote the super trippy and amazing novel “Dreaming Of You.”
77. Actor Channing Tatum wrote a children’s book about being a girl dad called “The One and Only Sparkella.”
78. Original “Blue’s Clues” host Steve Burns gave us a virtual big, warm hug when he took to social media just to check in and tell us “we look great.” Burns also reunited with other former “Clues” hosts Donovan Patton and Joshua Dela Cruz at the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade, which brought even more tears.
79. Bad Bunny released a song with Julieta Venegas, “Lo Siento BB:/” and it was everything.
80. Beach House finally released new music.
81. Ariana Grande and Kelly Clarkson sang together and it was epic.
82. Tinashe’s new album “333” gave us everything.
83. Billie Eilish proved yet again why she’s the queen of pop music, with a stellar album “Happier Than Ever.”
84. Chloe Bailey had us screaming “Lord, have mercy” with new single “Have Mercy.”
85. “Demon Slayer: Kimetsu no Yaiba – The Movie: Mugen Train” premiered in the U.S., and it was the best.
86. U.S.-born entertainer, anti-Nazi spy and civil rights activist Josephine Baker was inducted into France’s Pantheon and became the first Black woman to receive the nation’s highest honor.
90. Other stars took their love to the next level, including Kristen Stewart and Dylan Meyer, Kate Hudson and Danny Fujikawa, Issa Rae and Louis Diame, and Blake Shelton and Gwen Stefani. We won’t talk about the breakups, unless those make you happy.
91. Olivia Rodrigo released her first album “Sour” and immediately became iconic.
92. Black queer love stories were told more prominently on TV thanks to Lil Nas X, “Master of None” and “Sex Education.”
93. The definitive gay holiday Christmas rom-com, “Single All The Way,” arrived.
95. Netflix’s real-estate reality show “Selling Sunset” returned with so much (campy) drama.
96. HBO’s “Succession” finally came back.
97. Netflix dropped new episodes of “On My Block,” and a pretty flawless series finale.
98. Most “Sex and The City” characters returned in HBO Max’s “And Just Like That…” with Sarah Jessica Parker, Cynthia Nixon and Kristin Davis, but not Kim Cattrall.
100. Manic pixie dream boys like Pete Davidson and Machine Gun Kelly took over our lives.