Album of the Year: Ryan Adams – “1989”



More often that not, one wouldn’t select a tribute/covers album as an Album of the Year. With that out there, combined with what you’ve read in the headline, you’re by now suspecting that we don’t consider Ryan Adams’ reimagining of Taylor Swift’s 1989 your typical tribute/covers album. You, ladies and gentlemen, would be correct.

Publicly, it all began on August 6 as Adams started sharing video clips and photos on Instagram that told the world he was not just covering a Swift song, rather, he was covering an entire Swift album – 1989. Revered as one of the greatest pop albums of recent memory, it was clear that Adams’ 1989 was going to come at this from an unexplored angle.

Swift soon got wind, got all Twittery and flattered about it, subsequently introducing her enormous army of an audience to Adams. Then the music press jumped aboard and even if Adams ever considered this project to be a casual fling, it was soon becoming a real serious deal.

Throughout August, curious onlookers would track Adams’ progress of 1989. By the time the full album was ready in September, you could feel Adams fans about to combust: some because of excitement, others because they rolled their eyeballs too hard.

When I heard the album, I was stunned by the emotional depth it contained and Adams’ ability to take a collection of pop-perfected songs to a whole other level.

Here’s a look back at our September 2015 review of our Album of the Year, Ryan Adams’ 1989:

At first, many wondered if this was a gimmick designed for Adams to gain some headlines. But, after Adams’ interview with Zane Lowe on Beats 1 (which featured a surprise appearance by Swift) we learned that this project was approached from an honest place.

Adams spoke with depth about Swift’s vast musical talents and how her songs are constructed. Swift offered her appreciation for Adams’ take on 1989, then admitted to being open about future collaborations with him…even though the two have jammed privately in the past.

Beneath the warm and fuzziness displayed during the Beats 1 interview, what we really learned is that Adams approached 1989 during an emotionally tumultuous time in his life. He’d just finished pouring himself into his next double album, but still had much more to get off his chest. He thanked the process of recording 1989 for clearing him up.

This can be heard and most importantly felt on Adams’ 1989. When Adams is in emotional turmoil, he’s at his best. You can feel the pain, confusion, desperation, sadness and search for hope in his vocal delivery. Musically, he knows how to turn a feeling into an all-encompassing soundscape.

Perhaps Adams’ greatest accomplishment with 1989 is his ability to take what many consider to be Swift’s grandiose pop album and make listeners understand that there’s a lot going on behind “these, sick, beats.” Adams shines a light on the deep lyrical work going on here, so much so, that it could be argued that someone living under a rock could assume that these songs are his.

Adams’ “Out of the Woods” is an absolute beast of devastation and longing; “Blank Space” is somber yet warming, while “All You Had to Do Was Stay” is blasted with twang and Adams at his vocalist best. As for “Shake it Off,” I never knew how solid of a song that was until it was stripped back to its bearings here.

Admittedly, I’ve never listened to Swift’s 1989. Even with Adams putting out this substantial reinterpretation of it, I don’t feel the need to go back and give it a spin. In many ways, Adams has turned his 1989 album into one that doesn’t require a reference point. You see, this is not a cover album or a tribute. It’s a beautifully orchestrated reimagining of songs that likely never reached pop music haters – like me.

-Adam Grant