Best Of Indy 2021: Arts And Culture

A woman holding a record
Square Cat Vinyl sells new and used records in Fountain Square.

Photo by Tony Valainis

Record Store Makeover

Macramé light fixtures, shag carpet, and 2,000 square feet of wood paneling. The decor at the new Square Cat Vinyl (1054 Virginia Ave., 317-875-1314) may be out of step with modern HGTV tastemakers, but the record store is boldly evocative of an era. “1970s time capsule, that’s what we were going for,” co-owner Mike Angel says of the retro look that debuted when the expanded Square Cat reopened in July following 16 months of pandemic closure. Angel, co-owner Patrick Burtch, and Neon Architecture’s Brian Burtch (Patrick’s brother) went for it, and the visuals suggest a listening party of Aerosmith, Kiss, and Led Zeppelin LPs. “It’s fun to hear people walk in and say things like, ‘This reminds me of my basement,’” Angel says. The combination record store, music venue, coffee shop, and bar doubled in size after Vintage Vogue closed next door.

Concert Streaming Service

Although Mandolin launched as a concert streaming platform during the stay-at-home days of the pandemic, the Indy company is making moves to be essential to the music industry now that in-person performances have returned. Cofounded by former Salesforce executive Mary Kay Huse, Mandolin is focused on perks that apply to people at the show, as well as someone watching at home. Online meet-and-greets connect artists with fans anywhere in the world, and Mandolin’s Live+ features let in-person attendees skip merch lines by placing orders online. Once fans arrive at their seats, they can change their view thanks to multicam production during a concert’s livestream.

six album coversNew Albums

This Time I’ll Be of Use


Indy hip-hop veterans Oreo Jones, Sirius Blvck, and Sedcairn Archives teamed up to form this supergroup, which released its first album in May. Pronounced “bless,” 81355 performs mind-bending rap music. The trio’s experimental, electronic sound appealed to Justin Vernon’s record label, which signed the group.

Reflections/Introspection: The Music of Thelonious Monk

Charlie Ballantine

One of Indy’s premier jazz musicians, guitarist Charlie Ballantine added to his already-impressive catalog in September with this tribute to jazz pianist Thelonious Monk. Featuring reworked, guitar-led arrangements of tunes like “Brilliant Corners,” “Monk’s Dream,” and “Reflections,” the double LP contains noteworthy contributions from saxophonist Amanda Gardier, who also happens to be Ballantine’s wife.

Concrete Beach

Karate, Guns & Tanning

Longtime friends Valerie Green and Paige Shedletsky head up this razor-sharp rock band, which takes its name from a strip mall sign spotted in Plainfield. Citing influences like the Riot Grrrl movement, grotesque art, and the gonzo visions of Hunter S. Thompson, Karate, Guns & Tanning released Concrete Beach in March with eye-popping visual accompaniment: The group filmed fire- and skull-filled music videos for every track on the album.

Back in Action


A 2021 graduate of Park Tudor, Midwxst shows off his hard-to-pin-down sound on this eight-song EP. Signed to the same label as the chart-topper Olivia Rodrigo, the Carmel native blends elements of electronic and rap music together for a sound some might classify as “hyperpop.” For a quick taste, check out the single “Tic Tac Toe,” which incorporates sampled snippets from the video game Pokémon.

Precious Downtime

S.M. Wolf

One of Indy’s most consistent rock bands over the past decade, S.M. Wolf is led by frontman Adam Gross. Aptly titled for an album created during the pandemic, Precious Downtime serves as a good example of S.M. Wolf’s strong songcraft, juxtaposing the catchy highs of songs like “Good Vibrations” with the introspective lows of those such as “Wade in Memory.”

We Control the Weather

Vess Ruhtenberg

A pillar of local rock music, Vess Ruhtenberg has a long resume of noteworthy bands he has been a part of, from the Zero Boys to the Lemonheads. But Ruhtenberg has only recently started releasing solo records, with We Control the Weather being his second. Made possible with the help of longtime collaborator Jeb Banner, the album contains all the fiery licks and playful quips we’ve come to expect from him over the years.

Cultural Development Force

When Malina Jeffers and Alan Bacon founded GANGGANG late last year, the duo committed themselves to investing in and promoting local artists of color. In the process, they have already created a couple of great events we hope to see return in 2022. This past fall, GANGGANG programmed the concert series at both the new Taggart Memorial Amphitheatre in Riverside Park and on the Clowes Hall lawn. But the group’s biggest hit was the Black art fair BUTTER in September, when muralists spray-painted the walls of the Stutz Building and DJs entertained Indy’s creative class. This month, GANGGANG moves into its new headquarters in Broad Ripple. In a building owned by IndyGo, they’ve created a coworking space for creatives, and they’re commissioning a large exterior mural there at the corner of 64th Street and College Avenue. Like the duo themselves, the painting promises to be a vibrant addition to the community.

Controversial New
Museum Exhibit

Newfields had a rough year. As if the ouster of its president over accusations of racism wasn’t enough, the museum didn’t receive the unanimous praise it was hoping for when The LUME (4000 Michigan Rd., 317-923-1331, discover
) launched in July. The new projection exhibit, currently featuring floor-to-ceiling details of Van Gogh paintings, drew some criticism for displacing the contemporary wing and being less than “fine art” itself. But crowds flocked to the Instagram-friendly backdrops. The $15 million investment in technology allows for other artwork to be featured there in the future, so visit the Van Gogh exhibit before it closes in May and judge for yourself.   

Uncontroversial New
Museum Exhibit

Demonstrating unfathomable strength, Malala Yousafzai not only recovered from being shot by a Taliban soldier on her way to school at age 15, she has gone on to become a fierce advocate of education for girls, as well as the youngest-ever Nobel Prize recipient. The Children’s Museum (3000 N. Meridian St., 317-334-4000) has honored the activist with a new addition to its Power of Children exhibit that opened in September. Malala’s World contains a re-creation of her homestead, where you can learn about the specific challenges she faced. Prepare to leave inspired.


A rainbow lit movie theater sign

New Movie Theater

Despite our local love of cinema, Indy has been without an independent movie house for years, as theaters fell into the hands of a few national chains. This lack was something that two father-son pairs, Tom and Ed Battista and Sam and Ben Sutphin, sought to rectify with a one-of-a-kind boutique cineplex and an innovative in-house restaurant they christened Kan-Kan Cinema and Brasserie (1258 Windsor St.). While the premiere was delayed well over a year because of the pandemic, this architecturally arresting cultural center in Windsor Park was well worth the wait, not just for its three cozy theaters playing new-release and classic films but also for the expert, cinema-inspired cocktails in the sleek bar and Bluebeard chef Abbi Merriss’s creative snacks and bistro dishes (her steak frites are a standard-setter), which are more than worth a screening on their own.

New Documentary

No one can accuse Robert Weide of rushing his new documentary, Kurt Vonnegut: Unstuck in Time. The director of the first five seasons of Curb Your Enthusiasm had been working on the film about Indiana’s most famous author for 40 years. In our opinion, it was worth the wait. Weide’s movie captures Vonnegut’s alternately mischievous and melancholy personality with an intimacy that was only possible because the two became friends over the course of those decades. That friendship deserves the generous screen time it gets. Vonnegut’s relationship with Indianapolis was more conflicted, but the documentary makes it clear that this place remained important to him throughout his life. Catch it on Hulu.


New Comedian 

Sharing one’s perspective is a major part of any comedian’s act. Lucas Waterfill, a Plainfield native with cerebral palsy, uses comedy to let audiences know what it’s like to be disabled. Waterfill’s sharp and unfiltered outlook earned him top prize in this year’s Indiana’s Funniest Person competition at Helium Comedy Club. “As a cripple, I’m jealous of other minorities,” he jokes. “Because other minorities are hated. Gay and Black people have entire groups dedicated to hating them. I wish they would just spread some of that hatred toward the crippled community.” The comedian will record a March 5 performance at White Rabbit Cabaret for a special titled Public Inconvenience.

Literary Adventure

Indiana Humanities began a new chapter in the spring with Bookmark Indy, a collection of historic homes, parks, and other locales that figured prominently in the lives of the city’s writers. Each location has a physical marker, as well as accompanying photos and video on the website. Visit the Pyramids and place yourself in the shoes of poet Adrian Matejka, who grew up nearby and name-checked the structures in the poem “Ascendant Blacks.” Hang out at the Red Key Tavern to understand why Dan Wakefield featured the storied SoBro bar in Going All the Way. Walk the trails at Skiles Test Nature Park, named after a man in an urban legend who inspired Susan Neville’s In the House of Blue Lights. In all, 19 sites have been “marked” in this index of Indy’s literary achievements.

New Cabaret

With a prime location inside Carmel’s glamorous new boutique hotel, Michael Feinstein’s at Hotel Carmichael (1 Carmichael Square, Carmel, 317-688-1947) made an impressive debut this year by partnering with the Center for the Performing Arts, where Feinstein serves as artistic director. Inside the swanky, low-lit lounge, touring Broadway veterans (Marilu Henner, Liz Callaway, Franc D’Ambrosio) charm audiences with songs in an intimate setting where every seat feels like it’s in the front row.

five books

New Books

Somebody’s Daughter

By Ashley C. Ford

Ford, who has written for IM, moved back to Indianapolis from New York last year just in time to publish her smash hit of a memoir. The book, which chronicles her relationship with her father in prison, has been reviewed favorably by The New York Times, The Washington Post, Oprah, and just about everyone else.

Somebody Else Sold the World

By Adrian Matejka

A former poet laureate of Indiana and a professor at IU, Matejka writes poetry about pop culture that transcends the cultural figures he references. His latest book, inspired in part by David Bowie’s “The Man Who Sold the World,” is more about the chaos of modern life than it is about pop songs.

A Little Devil in America

By Hanif Abdurraqib

Butler University’s new writer-in-residence has written for The New York Times Magazine and Pitchfork, but his latest collection of essays—about Black performances from Sun Ra to Whitney Houston—is our favorite thing from him yet. Bonus: Abdurraqib, who recently won the MacArthur “Genius Grant,” spoke at Butler’s Shelton Auditorium on December 2. 

The Anthropocene Reviewed

By John Green

The Hoosier State features prominently in this lively adaptation of Green’s popular podcast of the same name. The compilation of essays tackles subjects both absurd (regional grocery chain Piggly Wiggly) and serious (viral meningitis), but it’s at its best when covering the Indianapolis 500 and the world’s largest ball of paint in Alexandria, Indiana.

Rise to the Sun

By Leah Johnson

Few Indiana authors have had a more successful debut than Johnson, whose 2020 YA novel You Should See Me in a Crown was selected as the first title in Reese Witherspoon’s book club. In July, she released this follow-up about two queer Black women who fall for each other at a music festival.