After a lovely hiatus spent traveling, I am excited to be back on the blog, dear reader, especially because Taylor Swift just dropped 1989, her fifth record and (wait for it) the best pop album of 2014. Hear me out.
In general, 2014 has been a great year for singles but sluggish for albums. Enter Taylor Swift's 1989, an artistic statement so complete and polished, yet quirky and old school, it's a remarkable and consistent listen from front to back.
Of course, Swift has long been a great pop craftsman (not only on Red, but also on Speak Now and Fearless, albeit dressed in more country accoutrements) but 1989 finds her cashing in on the promise of her previous records. If 2012's Red was her singer-songwriter opus with radio smarts a-la Carole King's Tapestry or Joni Mitchell's Clouds--confessional, bare, sweet, joyful, and catchy--this new album is her mainstream statement of purpose. It is perhaps best compared to Cyndi Lauper's She's So Unusual, which was Lauper's 1984 artistic declaration of independence built with pop smarts and filled with both personal material and songs about perseverance; it is an album about a strong woman making her place for herself in the big city.
1989 is also infatuated with both New York City. Beginning with "Welcome to New York," Swift marks this as her urban record, though not in the sense we are used to with most current Top 40 albums. Though she doesn't quite embrace Lauper's New Wave, Swift does incorporate sounds popular thirty years ago. This is an album of straight-up pop music that is not dressed in hip-hop beats or dominated by club culture. You could dance to some of these songs (like bonus track "New Romantics") but their walls of synthesizers are better suited to arena sing-alongs than the dance-floor, as we hear on "I Wish You Would," the masterful love-song "Out of the Woods," and the break-up kiss-off "Bad Blood."
Lately, critics are infatuated with discussing cultural appropriation in pop music--an issue much more sticky than most of those think pieces claim, not to mention an issue that stretches beyond race to other subcultures. However, this album skirts all that chatter by recalling a time when music genres did not bleed into each other as easily and Swift uses 80s textures--layered vocals and electronic instruments--to present songs that are quintessentially her, rich with lyrical details, hooky as hell, and sung with her sweet and approachable voice.
Sure, her music does recall artists new an old: "Wildest Dreams" in phrasing and delivery owes a lot to Lana Del Rey, closing track "Clean"--a collaboration with Imogen Heap--sounds as much Heap's as Swift's, "Shake It Off" could be a contemporary "Girls Just Wanna Have Fun," and this whole record, hinged on love stories and drum machines, would not be possible without Kate Bush's Hounds of Love (1985). Yet, every track here feels unique to Swift's earnest point of view. Because she has expertly crafted the album into a semi-autobiographical narrative about her move to NYC and into adulthood, 1989 could belong to nobody but her. With this album, she stakes her claim as one of the most important forces in pop music.