First, it was the new album release. Then it was the Victoria’s Secret Fashion Show performance. And now, her face is on my coffee table, mocking me from the cover of Time. To top all of that off, Her Royal Highness now lives in New York City. Wait a minute — I just moved to the city. Are you following me, Taylor?
“The Power of Taylor Swift,” the Time magazine cover declared, transporting us to an Oz-like world, a world full of cat videos, red lipstick and melodrama. Welcome to the Republic of Taylor, where lyrics about yet another relationship gone wrong become a chart-topping hit, and we watch the 25-year-old unfairly annihilate every other artist currently on the scene.
Still, there was a time that I wasn’t so cynical about Tay-Tay. I remember when “Tim McGraw” and “Teardrops on My Guitar” came out on her first self-titled album. That was the first time we saw the innocent, bright-eyed blonde. I loved those songs — original-iPod-Nano-on-repeat kind of love. In 2008, she came out with her album “Fearless,” which featured “You Belong with Me,” and all the prepubescent girls in America said in unison, “She’s talking about me.”
This is why we fall down at the feet of Taylor Swift. Because she single-handedly documented the blows and triumphs of our nonexistent love lives without making us feel pathetic. Because she gave us those songs that made us forget our 2002 Ford Taurus was not actually a convertible.
But I’ll tell you why I stopped drinking Taylor’s Kool-Aid:
- After “Fearless” came 2010’s “Speak Now,” (in my opinion, the most forgettable of her five albums) and then “Red,” a tried-and-true pop album. Yet, on her stroll down Sellout Lane, Taylor still claimed that this album was a “country-pop” album. I guess if you listen hard enough you can hear the faint sounds of a banjo through the dubstep.
- If I see one more damn Facebook birthday post referencing the song “22,” I think I’ll go jump off of the Brooklyn Bridge.
- I don’t particularly like her new album. I get it, OK? Some of it’s satirical, it’s an homage to her ’80s roots (if we can seriously even call someone born halfway through the very last month of 1989 an “’80s baby”), and it’s her announcement of her official transition to pop, a “coming out” of sorts. But despite some quality lyrics, “1989” is also repetitive, over-synthesized and shrill.
- Her kind acts, like the most recent “Swiftmas” holiday gift-giving, seem incredibly sweet to begin with but end up looking disingenuous because of their hype on her own social-media accounts.
- I can’t help but feel bad for country music, which Taylor used as a springboard but quickly tossed out once she developed a loyal fan base. Peace out, Nashville.
So no, it is not Taylor Freaking Swift who I think of when I reflect on 2014’s music.
It’s Sam Smith.
Last May, I first heard “Money on My Mind,” and my love affair (albeit, a one-sided affair) with Sam began. Never in my life had I heard a voice like his.
It was like cocoa butter.
The U.S. was finally able to confirm alien life on other planets because there was no way in hell that That Voice was human.
Consisting of a range that flows seamlessly from skin-tingling, sweet falsetto to deep, enveloping warmth, Sam’s voice is one of the most original and skilled I have heard in the past decade. His classic voice is reminiscent of Adele’s (um, duet, anyone?), creamy, luxurious and fine. It is quietly powerful and simply mesmerizing.
A voice like that does not need much else. It can embody both the paralyzing agony and fervid adrenaline found in love. Usually, Sam’s songs just have a soft piano or guitar supporting the melody. His voice does not need the accompaniment of the distractions and cacophony that Taylor’s does.
After our initial meeting, Sam never left my side. He followed me as I backpacked across Europe, ran my first 5K and moved to my new home in the city. His tracks are the most-played on my Spotify playlists, and they compose the soundtrack of my 2014 memories. And this is not just because I am forever rendered speechless by the dulce de leche voice that is Sam Smith. I am enamored with who Sam is as an artist and a human being.
In an era of homogenized sound and image, Sam has broken out as a singer of a different tune. His songs are not full of dubstep or bubblegum lyrics, but instead are poetic, stark, silky-smooth tunes that extract real, uninhibited emotion from people. Though he sings about unrequited love, his haunting voice and melodies highlight the moving, raw quality of his lyrics.
He took the world by storm with “Stay With Me,” which quickly became the song of the summer. Also on his first album are many lyrical stunners such as “I’m Not the Only One” and “Leave Your Lover,” both of which should have basically signaled us to the second coming.
Though Sam’s voice could stand on its own two feet, his lyrics are equally remarkable. His songs recount with vulnerability what he has said are his own life experiences without isolating us from the privacy of those moments. He does this through using faceless lyrics that detail emotions rather than exact visuals or settings. Taylor has attempted to be relatable, but Sam has achieved something beyond “relatable.” He has achieved embodiment of a larger human experience.
The critical difference between the two artists is that with Taylor’s music I see the story unfold before me. With Sam’s, I am the character.
The 22-year-old English crooner is not only remarkable for his tender tracks, however. Sam isn’t exactly your typical idol. He’s not of model proportions, and he’s also gay. He’s not loud about these characteristics, trying to garner attention for himself — he’s just him. Yet, he’s paving the way for other artists who don’t fit the old mold.
Most admirable is his genuine humility. In interviews, Sam is shy, modest and sweet, shaking off acclaim for his work and expressing gratitude for his fans and well-deserved success.
So give homeboy a little credit.
The Grammys will air on Feb. 8. Though his debut album “In the Lonely Hour” was only released halfway through 2014, Sam has nabbed six — count ’em, six — nominations for awards including Album of the Year and Best New Artist. He’ll be up against cat lady Taylor for a few of these, but if you know what’s good for ya, you’ll know whom to root for.
If I ever see Taylor on the streets, I’ll give her a salute for the heartache she once healed and for a 2014 well-played. But now, I think America is long overdue for the fresh, beautiful era of my boy Sammy.
I officially declare 2015 the “Year of Sam Smith.”