It feels as though Taylor Swift has been around forever, but she’s just released her seventh album, 2019’s Lover, while still in her twenties. Swift started young, releasing her 2006 debut at the age of 16, and has used her marketing savvy to keep her brand huge.
The magnitude of Swift’s success has made her an easy target for detractors. Ageing music fans often pick her as as target for disdain of the state of modern music, even though she fits their authenticity criteria better than most of her mainstream contemporaries. She’s written an entire album without the help of co-writers (2010’s Speak Now), she’s a capable musician, and she’s succeeded despite an unexceptional voice.
Swift has maintained a long career at the top because she’s a talented songwriter. Her songs are simple and effective, and she peppers them with interesting details and phrases. Lines like “You made a rebel of a careless man’s careful daughter” from ‘Mine’ are the work of a skilled craftswoman.
Swift’s early work is classified as country, although it has a pop sheen; inspired by Shania Twain more than Merle Haggard. As her career progressed, Swift gravitated towards pop music – Swedish pop mastermind Max Martin was drafted in for 2012’s Red to produce hits like ‘We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together’ and ‘I Knew You Were Trouble’.
Swift committed to pop fully with 1989, using the year of her birth as inspiration. The album was inspired by some of Swift’s favourite acts from the era, such as Phil Collins, Madonna, and Annie Lennox. Swift worked with producers Max Martin, Shellback, and Jack Antonoff to provide a creamy pop sound.
I am in love with catchy melodies and hooks that are stuck in your head for days, and ideally weeks, and even months. I really love it when I hear a song, and all of a sudden, my next two weeks are spent trying to figure out how to get that song out of my head. I think there’s a way to artfully do it. I want people to have songs that I write stuck in their heads, but I don’t want it to absolutely perturb them that they have the song stuck in their head. I’m talking about songs that sound like they were cooked up in a lab. Like, anything that makes you think there are eight songwriters on this.Taylor Swift, Time Magazine
Why 1989 is Taylor Swift’s Best Album
Despite her longevity as pop royalty, Swift’s more recent releases have been mildly disappointing. Her best work is contained on her four records from 2008’s sophomore effort Fearless through to 2014’s 1989.
Dedicated fans often opt for the more personal albums like Speak Now, but my favourites are the more pop-oriented Red and 1989. Red has a brilliant core of eight tracks created with long-time producer Nathan Chapman. ‘State of Grace’ and the title track add U2-style stadium rock to Swift’s vocabulary, the piano ballad ‘All Too Well’ is a fan favourite, while ‘Begin Again’ sweetly revisits Swift’s country roots. Conversely, the duets with Ed Sheeran and Gary Lightbody feel like cynical attempts to widen Swift’s appeal.
Compared to the sprawling mishmash of styles on Red, 1989 is tightly constructed. It’s an unceasing cascade of 1980s-flavoured pop confectionery. There are weak points – Swift’s recent lead singles have come across as crass crowd-pleasers, and the cheerleader rap of ‘Shake It Off’ from 1989 undermines a robust song.
There were seven singles released from 1989 but almost every song sounds like it would fit on the radio – no easy feat for a pop album. The deluxe edition adds three more songs – ‘You Are In Love’ and ‘New Romantics’ are essential additions.
Key Tracks on 1989
Swift’s love life has been the subject of media interest and speculation for years. Swift satires her public image on ‘Blank Space’, writing an over-the-top parody of herself. ‘Blank Space’ is self-aware, a heady pop tune with a killer chorus.
Got a long list of ex-lovers
They’ll tell you I’m insane
‘Cause you know I love the players
And you love the game
1989 is a 1980s-inspired pop album, and as such it’s heavy on synthesizers. But it’s an electric guitar riff that drives the propulsive ‘Style’. Swift has a knack for descriptive language, and ‘Style’ has a cinematic feel – “Midnight, you come and pick me up, no headlights” is an evocative opening line. The punchy vocal phrasing on the chorus is a great hook.
You got that James Dean daydream look in your eye
And I got that red lip, classic thing that you like
1989 is a nearly ceaseless parade of pop bangers; the closing track ‘Clean’ provides closure, a wistful song of meditation.
Rain came pouring down when I was drowning
That’s when I could finally breathe
And by morning, gone was any trace of you, I think I am finally clean
Do The Experts Agree?
Rolling Stone were impressed by 1989, saying “deeply weird, feverishly emotional, wildly enthusiastic, 1989 sounds exactly like Taylor Swift, even when it sounds like nothing she’s ever tried before.”
1989 was the sixth highest ranked album on Metacritic for 2014, no mean feat for an unabashedly populist artist.
On the website Rate Your Music, 1989 is ranked as the second best of Taylor Swift’s records, behind Speak Now.
1989 has been added to later editions of 1001 Albums You Must Hear Before You Die, the only Swift album to make the cut.