Taylor Swift is a mega-star, and her profile as a celebrity can overshadow her musical abilities. Opinions on Swift are wildly diverse – in some quarters she’s dismissed as disposable music for teenage girls. In others she’s highly respected as a songwriter and recording artist.
Swift is an adept songwriter, particularly as a lyricist. Her storytelling abilities allow her to pepper her songs with interesting details and memorable phrases. Swift’s equally capable with upbeat, poppy material and slower, more brooding tracks. Her songs are straightforward musically, and she operates in the mainstream contexts of pop and country-pop. It’s an interesting exercise to try to find comparisons for her in pop music’s past – Swift is equal parts a carefully manicured image-maker like Madonna and an uncluttered and robust songwriter like Carole King or Tom Petty.
Starting her career young, Swift has already built a very respectable back catalogue where almost of her albums have a unique flavour. As well as hit singles like ‘Shake It Off’ and ‘We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together’, Swift also has beloved deep cuts. Dedicated fans gravitate to lengthy, soul-baring tracks like ‘All Too Well’ and ‘Dear John’. 2020’s Folklore and Evermore show that she still has plenty of ideas, fifteen years into her recording career.
Taylor Swift’s Albums Ranked from Worst to Best
#9 – Taylor Swift
Taylor Swift was 16 years old when she recorded her debut album, launching her career. I don’t enjoy the smooth country sound, but there’s already a very talented writer here. The best number is ‘Our Song’ – she wrote it in twenty minutes for her school talent show. It benefits from the twangy arrangement and the southern affectation in Swift’s vocals (she’s actually from Pennsylvania)
After a tough time with the media, Swift’s tucked away in her bunker for Reputation, firing shots at the world with songs like ‘This Is Why We Can’t Have Nice Things’ and ‘Look What You Made Me Do’. Swift is putting as much effort into self-expression as into crafting good songs and Reputation ends up as a disorienting mix of pop songs and darker, more personal material. I listen to Reputation more than her early country albums, but it’s a little disappointing after two near-perfect pop albums.
#7 – Speak Now
2010’s Speak Now is notable as the album that Swift wrote alone, without any collaborators. Speak Now is a fan favourite on account of personal songs like ‘Dear John’ and ‘Back to December’, but it’s also in need of an editor as its fourteen songs stretch out to nearly 70 minutes. There’s plenty of strong material within the long running time, like the punchy ‘Mine’ and the pretty balladry of ‘Enchanted’.
#6 – Fearless
Fearless is my favourite record from Swift’s early years. Stylistically it’s wider-reaching than her debut, from upbeat material like the Olympic anthem ‘Change’ and the joyous ‘Love Story’ to gentle acoustic ruminations like ‘Fifteen’ and ‘Best Day’. My favourite is the tuneful melodrama of ‘Breathe’, a string-laden ballad with Swift bidding farewell to a band-mate. If your back-catalogue is strong enough to push Fearless into the bottom half, you’re a very good recording artist. Fearless was re-recorded by Swift in 2021 as Fearless (Taylor’s Version) – an expanded edition with 26 tracks and cameos from Maren Morris and Keith Urban.
#5 – Evermore
Swift’s second surprise album of 2020 isn’t quite as strong as her first, but it’s a very good record mere months after Folklore. As on Folklore, The National’s Aaron Dessner is her main collaborator, while HAIM and Bon Iver contribute guest vocals. Swift’s storytelling has never been better; these tales of adult disillusion recall Bruce Springsteen’s The River on songs like ”tis The Damn Season’ and ‘Coney Island’.
#4 – Lover
Swift bounced back from Reputation with the joyful and mature Lover. Swift describes it as a “love letter to love”, and it’s largely synth-pop with Jack Antonoff in the producer’s chair. The title track is a great torch song, while ‘Soon You’ll Get Better’ is a poignant return to country music. Forget about the florid single ‘Me!’ – Lover is all about deep cuts like ‘False God’ and ‘Cruel Summer’.
#3 – Red
Before Red dropped, I was only aware of Swift as the teenage starlet who was interrupted by Kanye West at the VMAs. After Red she was inescapable, with hits like ‘We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together’ and ’22’. Red featured a strong and wide-ranging set of tracks to back up the hits – from the gentle country of ‘Begin Again’ and the epic balladry of ‘All Too Well’, to the reverb-laden, driving ‘State of Grace’ and the countrified stadium rock of the title track. The two duets are a mild blemish on an otherwise terrific record.
#2 – Folklore
Swift created Folklore during the COVID-19 pandemic, a surprise release in July 2020. Collaborating with The National’s Aaron Dessner, Swift employs a low-key, acoustic sound – an “indie record that’s much cooler than mine”, if you will. It’s maybe a little uniform and overlong, but Swift’s vocal melodies have never been prettier on songs like ‘August’ and ‘Invisible String’.
#1 – 1989
1989 takes its inspiration from the pop sounds of the year of Swift’s birth, all glossy synths and drum machines. It’s a great set of pop songs with most of the tracks sounding like potential radio hits – even bonus tracks like ‘New Romantics’ are indispensable.