Music

Taylor Swift Or Ryan Adams: Whose ‘1989’ Is Better? Here’s Our Song-By-Song Scorecard

taylor-swift-ryan-adams-1989
Big Machine :: Getty Images

On Monday, we were blessed by the release of Ryan Adams’ cover of Taylor Swift’s massively successful album, 1989. This was a massive undertaking for Adams, as he was not only covering these songs, but also re-arranging them and presenting them in new contexts. Now that two different versions of 1989 exist, it’s only natural to ask which one is better. That’s why we’re looking at every track on both versions of the album, and whose rendition is superior in each case. There can be only one 1989 to rule them all!

(Actually, there can probably be two. This is all in good fun. And, of course, these are Swift’s songs in the first place, so there’d be no Ryan Adams version if not for her.)

Compare the albums yourself, as well. You can hear Adams’ version on Spotify, but – as you may have heard – there’s only one place to stream Swift’s, on Apple Music.

1. “Welcome To New York”

This was one of the least-loved songs on 1989, but, if we’re being honest, that probably had more to do with the annoyance of hearing a 25-year-old multi-millionaire tell us how awesome one of the most expensive cities in the world is than the song itself. With that said, Adams’ rendition is considerably stronger. Whereas Swift’s original version is a slick pop tune that evangelizes for the amazingness of the Big Apple, there’s a more nervous energy to Adams’ take. Swift presents New York as a magical place where everyone’s dreams will come true, while Adams’ version is more tentative, presenting the city as a gamble that could go either way. His version is both more interesting, and more honest.

Winner: Adams

2. “Blank Space”

Adams’ take on this smash hit greatly differs from Swift’s original. While both songs are as musically sparse as the title would suggest, Swift presents the song as a fun romp about her “next mistake,” while Adams’ acoustic folk take is a more desperate tale of someone who is sick of hooking up, and looking to make a more lasting connection. Both songs are awesome for totally different reasons, and it’s just too hard to pick a winner here, so let’s call this one a draw.

Winner: Draw

3. “Style”

Most of the songs on Adams’ version of 1989 are sparse and acoustic, but this is the rare one that actually rocks out a little bit. Swift’s original is about as slick as you’d expect a modern pop song to be, while Adams’ take has a joyful sloppiness that gives it a much needed edge. One amusing wrinkle: Adams changes the lyric “you’ve got that James Dean daydream look in your eyes” to “you’ve got that Daydream Nation look in your eyes.” A nice Sonic Youth shoutout!

Winner: Adams

4. “Out Of The Woods”

This is an incredibly drastic transformation, as Swift’s tune is turned into a six-minute acoustic ballad. Adams’ more emotional take really brings the lyrics to life. The more I listened to these songs, the more I noticed that there’s more depth to the lyrics than Swift’s light arrangements would have you believe. Adams went a long way in fleshing out some of these songs, and “Out of the Woods” is the most clear-cut example of that.

Winner: Adams

5. “All You Had To Do Was Stay”

The original version of this song is one of Swift’s many legendary kiss-offs, like “Picture to Burn,” where she lets us know that, while she’s a little bit bummed that this dude is ditching her, she’s gonna be just fine. Adams’ take is far more yearning, as his delivery of the title phrase carries a devastatingly lonely vibe. Swift’s version is how you feel the first few hours after a breakup, before the gravity really sinks in: “Sure, this sucks, but I’ll be fine.” Adams’ version is the feeling when you go to bed by yourself for the first time: “Actually, this is far more devastating than I realized.” Both are enjoyable, but the rawness of Adams’ take gives it the edge.

Winner: Adams

6. “Shake It Off”

By far the most famous song on the album, and one of the most ubiquitous pop songs of the past decade, which made it one of the hardest songs for Adams to tackle here. How do you add new perspective to a song we’ve heard hundreds of times? Luckily, he’s up to the task. While Swift’s pep talk thoroughly convinces us that she’s not gonna let the haters get her down, Adams gives the song a far more brooding feel. It sounds like he’s desperately trying to cheer himself up, but just can’t get out of his funk. Adams gives this song an interesting new character and vibe, but Swift’s original is just too damn fun for his take to surpass it.

Winner: Swift

7. “I Wish You Would”

The title 1989 doesn’t just refer to Swift’s birth year; it’s also a subtle nod to the ’80s production values throughout the album. That style works a lot of times, but Swift’s take on this track embodied everything irritating and clunky about pop music in the late ’80s. That’s why this song works *much* better as the acoustic ballad that Adams presents it as. Swift would be wise to consider using Adams’ arrangement when performing it live.

Winner: Adams

8. “Bad Blood”

This is the difference between silly and serious. Swift’s song is campy and fun (just like its video), with a joyful singalong in the chorus. Adams, however, decides to present the lyrics as being deadly serious. The result is an incredibly effective breakup song. Still, as with “Shake It Off,” the fun of the original is too good to pass up, even if Adams’ version is certainly worth your time, as well.

Winner: Swift

9. “Wildest Dreams”

What is truly striking about Adams’ version of 1989 is how much he makes these songs feel like they’re his own creations. This is particularly true of his take on “Wildest Dreams,” which would have fit right in on Love Is Hell. Swift’s version feels decidedly lacking in resonance compared to what Adams did with it, and this is easily one of the most successful tracks of this undertaking.

Winner: Adams

10. “How You Get The Girl”

For most of this battle, I’ve been preferring Adams’ more emotionally resonant arrangements to Swift’s fluffy originals, but this is the exception to the rule. While Adams’ acoustic flourishes are appreciated, “How You Get The Girl” just works better as a lightweight pop tune. It’s catchy enough that I’m surprised it hasn’t been released as a single yet.

Winner: Swift

11. “This Love”

This the rare time when Adams mostly stays true to the original arrangement. It’s a fine ballad in both forms, but Swift’s version feels a bit more memorable, particularly in terms of the chorus, so it earns a narrow victory.

Winner: Swift

12. “I Know Places”

This was my least favorite song on the original 1989 (yes, worse than “Welcome to New York”), mostly because it’s so disjointed musically, seemingly trying production tricks it doesn’t need simply because it can. That’s why Adams’ more down-to-Earth take was a vast improvement; with his more subtle arrangement, it’s much easier to appreciate the lyrics.

Winner: Adams

13. “Clean”

This is one of the more rewarding deep cuts on 1989, and a fine example of how Swift’s songwriting has steadily improved since her 2006 debut. Adams does a fine job presenting it in an alt-country context, but I’d take the original as a slightly more impressive statement.

Winner: Swift

Final Score

Adams: 7
Swift:
5
Draw:
1

Final Thoughts

This was an incredibly rewarding project for Ryan Adams. Many of the songs here outshine the originals in my mind, and the ones that don’t are fascinating nonetheless. Perhaps more importantly, though, this project shows what a strong songwriter Swift is. It’s easy to hear her glossy pop tunes on the radio and assume she’s nothing but fluff, but Adams presents her songs in a context where the depth of her lyrics can truly shine. This was a major success not just for Ryan Adams, but for Taylor Swift, as well.

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