USA TODAY Album of the Year: Taylor Swift's '1989'
Albums still matter — if you're Taylor Swift and her fans.
Swift's fifth album, 1989, dominated 2014 in a way few others have monopolized previous years. By the time Swift released 1989 on Oct. 27, she had worked her fan base into a frenzy of desire, dropping cryptic hints and previewing tracks, even inviting a few hundred of her most devoted followers into private settings where she played them the entire album, a grassroots marketing campaign unparalleled among pop stars of her magnitude.
The result? Swift managed to do in one week what no other album released in 2014 could do in the previous 42: sell a million copies. Within three weeks, she had made it to 2 million. At this point, 1989 has sold more than the combined total of 2014's next three biggest releases — Sam Smith's In the Lonely Hour, Eric Church's The Outsiders and Coldplay's Ghost Stories.
Swift also used 1989 to reframe the debate over streaming and the value of music. "In my opinion, the value of an album is, and will continue to be, based on the amount of heart and soul an artist has bled into a body of work, and the financial value that artists (and their labels) place on their music when it goes out into the marketplace," she wrote in a July piece for the Wall Street Journal.
When she backed up that opinion by yanking her entire catalog from Spotify, she became an instant folk hero to songwriters who claimed such streaming services severely underpaid them. In the short term, at least, she hasn't seen any financial repercussions from her decision. When Billboard changed its main albums chart in December to include on-demand online streams, 1989 moved back into the chart's No. 1 spot on sales alone.
The bottom line, though, is that 1989 is simply a fine album. It's intensely personal and drolly self-aware, with singles Shake It Off and Blank Space mocking the persona her detractors have tried to create for her while such songs as This Love and Wildest Dreams invite listeners into intimate places. It moves her away from exacting passive-aggressive revenge on exes, though she still writes about relationships, and reveals her longtime obsession with her recordings' sonic qualities. Swift has been a musical omnivore with excellent taste since her teens, and 1989 finds her, as she sings in Welcome to New York, "searching for a sound we hadn't heard before."
The 25-year-old found that redefining sound by looking in a place few others were, drawing inspiration from the big-beat and synth-pop styles of the late 1980s. Using the building blocks of throwback pop, she scaled to a new career peak, zigging when everybody else was sagging.