Taylor Swift is a megastar, 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. Meanwhile, her track record as a tier-one hitmaker is unparalleled – no one’s lasted longer at the top of the pop pile than Swift.
Starting her career young, Swift has already built a very respectable back catalogue where almost all 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
#10 Taylor Swift
Taylor Swift was only 16 when she recorded her debut album, launching an astonishingly successful career. The smooth country sound of Taylor Swift is less interesting than her subsequent work, but she’s already a talented writer. The most memorable track is ‘Our Song’, which Swift wrote in twenty minutes for her school talent show. Taylor Swift starts strongly with the trio of ‘Tim McGraw’, ‘Picture to Burn’, and ‘Teardrops on My Guitar’.
After a tough time with the media, Swift’s tucked away in her bunker for Reputation. She’s firing shots at the world with titles 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 disappointing after two near-perfect pop albums.
Taylor Swift’s tenth album tells the story of thirteen sleepless nights throughout her life. Working again with producer Jack Antonoff, Midnights crosses the more mature style of Swift’s 2020 folk-tinged albums with the pop textures of 1989 and Lover. Thankfully, Swift has grown past the need to write forced radio anthems like ‘Shake It Off’ and ‘Me!’, but Midnights is disappointingly uniform with little stylistic variation. Swift’s still an impressive lyricist – “Did you ever have someone kiss you in a crowded room?” is a great image-conjuring line.
#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’. 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’.
Fearless is my favourite record from Swift’s early years. 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 bandmate. 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.
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’.
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’.
Before Red dropped, I was only aware of Swift as the teenage starlet who was interrupted by Kanye West at the VMAs. After Red, Swift 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.
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’.
1989 takes its inspiration from the pop sounds of the year of Swift’s birth, all glossy synths and drum machines. She dabbled in pop in Red, but here she embraces it, working with producers Max Martin and Jack Antonoff.
The lead single ‘Shake It Off’ was never a personal favourite. But subsequent singles like ‘Style’ and ‘Blank Space’ were sublime. 1989 boasts a great set of pop songs, where almost every track sounds like a potential radio hit – even bonus tracks like ‘New Romantics’ are indispensable.
What’s your favourite Taylor Swift album?