It’s a story we know all too well — small-town girl, big reputation.
This is, of course, the story of Taylor Swift, one of the most recognizable and celebrated names in music. From her early country sound to the infamous electronic shift to the folk stylings no one saw coming, she’s managed to navigate 15 years in the industry with fresh ideas and seemingly endless tricks up her sleeve. She’s released nine albums that have spawned countless hits, memorable lyrics and incredible pop culture moments, and she’s showing no signs of stopping.
Her latest endeavor, the “Taylor’s Version” series, is an effort to reclaim ownership of her first five albums. After the original masters were sold from her former label to another entertainment company, Swift set out to re-record all of the songs from these albums and distribute them as original releases, this time under her own name. Though the albums will faithfully replicate the original tracklists, they’ll also include acoustic reworks, extended versions and unreleased “From The Vault” songs.
“Red,” Swift’s fourth album, is the latest to get the Taylor treatment. Released Nov. 12, it follows “Fearless (Taylor’s Version)” as the second in the series, and with two hours and 10 minutes of material, there’s a lot to unpack. But mountains of music is nothing new for Swift, and it’s something the Avenue was born to tackle. As a staff full of Swifties, this is our moment to shine — to celebrate “Red (Taylor’s Version),” we’re chronicling our top three Taylor Swift albums of all time. Are you ready for it?
There’s a tweet floating somewhere in the void about the album that solidified Taylor Swift as a modern music icon. I’m likely misquoting, but to the best of my recollection, it goes something like this: “Growing up is realizing ‘1989’ is the perfect pop album.” I guess I’m officially an adult.
Perfect is a strong word, but if ever an album embodied the ethos of pop music, Taylor’s fifth release is the one. The hooks are enormous, the instrumentals are crisp and commanding and the songs glide with ease. “1989” is the album where Taylor learned to incorporate a pop sound into the pop structure she’d already mastered. It’s where bright guitar licks, powerful backbeats, warm synths and more genre regulars take center stage without overpowering the space, showcasing Taylor’s ear for sparkling, tasteful pop music. It’s where elements we now consider Taylor staples make their inaugural appearances — where musical motifs creep up for the first time (the “I’s” and “uhs” underscoring “I Know Places” and “How You Get The Girl), where she flaunts her penchant for repetition (the steady presence of the titular greeting on “Welcome to New York and the wistful post-chorus chants on “I Wish You Would”), where the bridge becomes the best part of her songs (“Blank Space,” “Wildest Dreams,” “Out of the Woods” — oh man, the bridge on “Out of the Woods.” Need I go on?).
Max Martin, a producer on several Taylor projects and probably the greatest mind in pop music, has this idea about making not just catchy melodies, but catchy words — syllables that stick and conjure powerful mental images for the listener. On “1989,” Taylor immerses herself in this philosophy, penning lyrics that evoke striking visuals. “Style,” the crowning jewel of the entire album and the epitome of all things pop, is the best example of this concept put into practice: “James Dean, daydream,” “red lip, classic” and other ideas are memorable and concrete, and the listener can latch onto them without much effort. The lines across the whole album come to life to create not just an intriguing record, but an immersive universe.
Taylor’s first four albums are predicated on tales of the everywoman — stories grounded in young love, teenage rivalries and the adolescent crisis of identity. Rarely on these did she acknowledge her stardom, instead playing on her relatability and down-to-earth appeal. But on “1989,” not only does Taylor recognize her celebrity, she embraces it. The result is her most thematically focused and precise album to date. “1989” is dangerous, cinematic, even sexy, boasting narratives of excitement and grandeur. Gone are the innocent touches and slow dances in the kitchen, replaced here with a whirlwind of fast cars, fancy parties, epic fights and loves fated to end in flames.
“1989” is where Taylor hits her stride and exercises total control. It’s what happens when everything clicks. Favorite albums aren’t always reflections of that artist’s “best” offering, but the prestige and prowess on “1989” are so addictive that I don’t have much of a choice. It’s my favorite Taylor album for more than the individual songs or the whole body of work (though both are major factors). I love it because it perfectly captures the spirit of pop music. Meticulously constructed, whip smart and firing on all cylinders, it exhibits a true reverence for the art of manipulating sound, and it’s what sealed Taylor’s status as a pop auteur and master of her craft. “1989” is not my favorite because it’s perfect — it’s my favorite because it understands what perfect is.
The release of “We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together” is one of those “where were you when” moments. The first single from Taylor Swift’s fourth album sounded nothing like anything she’d done before, and it blew my fragile, naive, 12-year-old mind. This was not the twangy, wide-eyed Taylor I’d grown to know and love — this was Taylor with some edge, some bite. A little older, a little more jaded, a whole lot bigger in sound and style.
In retrospect, it’s laughable that people were so jarred by Taylor’s “sudden transformation” to a pop artist with “1989.” Evidence of her pop sensibilities can arguably be seen as early as “Fearless,” but it’s certainly all over “Red.” The massive choruses of “We Are Never” and “22,” the vocoder echoes of the title track and “I Knew You Were Trouble,” catchy repetition in the hook on “Stay Stay Stay” and the bridge of “Holy Ground” — “Red” is where the Swiftian shift from country music’s most endearing figure to bona-fide pop star began to take shape.
It’s also the record that cemented Taylor as one of this generation’s greatest storytellers. The writing on “Red” is sharp and vivid, tinged with the wisdom of a woman who’s had her heart broken a few times and the wonder of that same woman who still believes in love despite it all. Taylor always had a knack for narrative details — the stupid old pickup truck, the short skirts and t-shirts, the roses left to die — but “Red” sees her execute a story from start to finish. Whether it’s the cafe date on “Begin Again” or the yacht club party on “Starlight,” these are the songs where Taylor truly takes her listener on a journey.
Consistency issues on “Red” and my deference to pure pop are what push “1989” over the edge. Some tracks (apologies to “Sad, Beautiful, Tragic” stans) drag on at points, features take up too much of the oxygen and the theme is difficult to discern. But the dips are nothing compared to the peaks. The pacing on “Holy Ground” and “State of Grace” is exhilarating, the hooks on the singles are already legendary in the pop canon and “All Too Well” is probably the best song she’s ever written (argue with a wall).
The true magic of “Red” is how representative it is of Swift’s entire artistic identity. As a transitory album, it houses all the bits and pieces that define her 15-year career. Though pop elements peek through, “Red” doesn’t abandon Swift’s country roots, placing plucky mandolins and banjos and peaceful guitar strums at the center of the soundscapes. Everything that comes to mind when we think of Swift — her great songwriting, her acoustic Nashville past, her electronic New York future — is present on “Red.” It pays proper homage to who she was while also harboring the promise of who she could become.
Present Taylor’s pop excellence has my heart, but there’s something so charming about early Taylor’s girl-next-door brand of country. “Fearless,” her second album, is bursting with this small-town sincerity, and I’m too sentimental to discount the chokehold it has on me.
The earworm instrumentals on “1989” represent Taylor at her most musically accessible, but “Fearless” is Taylor at her most lyrically accessible. It’s first days and first loves, longing stares and last goodbyes. It’s a fairytale romance that climaxes with a kiss in the rain, but it’s also the everyday insecurities of going to high school. The songs on “Fearless” tell instantly recognizable stories filtered through the lens of a true romantic. Grand displays like “Love Story” and the title track are paired with more grounded cuts like “Fifteen” and “Hey Stephen,” and the duality is exactly what made the record such a hit. “Fearless” speaks to the optimistic underdogs and the hopeful hidden, kicked around by reality but still determined to dream.
It’s so easy to picture Taylor writing these songs — sheets on sheets of haphazardly scrawled lyrics sprawled across her bedroom floor. Her later works get a lot of the credit in shaping her legacy, but “Fearless” is the record that inspired millions of young girls to embrace their emotions, maybe even voice them. Taylor, undeterred by a culture that largely dismissed her, made a monument out of 27-second phone calls and those other girls who just don’t get him like she does. It’s the reason why artists like Olivia Rodrigo even exist; bearing the brunt of the criticism for talking about your feelings before it was cool, Taylor paved the way for girls with nothing more than a guitar and a broken heart.
The music isn’t as polished or complex as “1989,” and the writing isn’t at the level of narrative brilliance Taylor reached on “Red,” but “Fearless” isn’t without its hits. “You Belong With Me,” overflowing with the sentiments of a teenager who yearns and pines without restraint, rightly earned its place as one of the biggest songs of the 2000s (not to mention VMA for Best Female Video with Swift’s iconic dual role as cheer captain and band nerd on the bleachers). “Love Story” is still a celebrated classic, and if “All Too Well” is the best song Taylor’s ever written, “Forever and Always” is a strong contender for second place. The soundscape is dominated by easy acoustic strums, electric licks and the occasional fiddle riff, and even though it’s no masterclass in pop instrumentals, there’s beauty in the simplicity. A hook is a hook, and as predictable as some of these sounds feel, the songs still stick.
What “Fearless” lacks in maturity and refinement, it makes up for in spirit and authenticity. The songs seep with feeling, and Taylor’s voice shines through. She’s overwhelmingly earnest here. It’s as if the only difference between Taylor and the average teen is that she had the sense to write things down. Her later projects surpass it on a technical level, but “Fearless” is the album that made millions (myself included) fall in love with Taylor Swift. It’s the best representation of the real Taylor, the one you felt like you knew better than any other artist, the one who could be your best friend. For that, “Fearless” deserves all its flowers.
The slander I get every single day for saying that "Reputation" is my favorite Taylor Swift album is disturbing. Every day that I open the bluebird app, I fear being canceled. Yet, I am brave enough to say that "Reputation" is, without a doubt, Swift’s magnum opus (yes it took me 30 minutes to Google that term).
To understand "Reputation," we must understand Swift’s history. "Reputation" was a phoenix born out of the ashes of Swift’s tarnished past. While I could sit here in my dimly lit apartment because my electric bill was a little too high and talk about everything that led to the infamous year in which Swift disappeared, I am frankly on a deadline.
To put it plainly, Swift was being hated on the media for being “too skinny,” “dating too much,” being an alleged “mean girl,” and, of course, the infamous video of her and Kanye’s phone call (which was later discovered to be a doctored video). This hate wasn’t simply “hate.” Swift was essentially one of the first and only successful victims of cancel culture.
In response, Swift simply disappeared… for a year.
It was during this time in which Swift created the masterpiece that was "Reputation."
It’s an album that tells two tales. One of love and one of revenge; one of death and one of rebirth.
In her most experimental album yet, Swift managed to create a pop sensation (arguably better than "1989") which managed to combine piano ballads, hip-hop, EDM, R&B, and even some elements of trap.
In an effort to take back her reputation, through songs such as “I Did Something Bad,” “Look What You Made Me Do,” and “This Is Why We Can’t Have Nice Things,” Swift slips in the story of her finding love amid her public image being burnt up into flames. This idea is made no clearer than in “Delicate” when she says, “My reputation's never been worse, so, you must like me for me.”
Now… I am not going to sit here and be a “Look What You Made Me Do” apologist. It’s objectively a bad song with one of the most annoying choruses in Swift’s discography. Yet, let’s not deny talent where there is talent: that music video was iconic.
“The old Taylor can't come to the phone right now. Why? Oh, 'cause she's dead.”
I mean, look at the material!
The album closer, “New Year’s Day," catapults "Reputation" into the top five Swift albums. The line “don't ever become a stranger whose laugh I could recognize anywhere” alone pushes it into the top three. Just as the title indicates, this song signifies her blossoming into a new year (new era) while reflecting on both the good and the bad memories of the previous year.
Not only does she move on from the past, with the smog of her old self on the horizon, but she does so with her new lover, Joe.
This song ends the "Reputation" era while setting the stage for her proceeding album, "Lover," metamorphosing herself from a snake into a butterfly.
As Swift said herself, "Red" tells the story of a heartbroken person. While I think this album sounds more like a random playlist rather than a cohesive album, it makes sense! Like a breakup, it’s messy in all the best ways.
Hence, what makes "Red" one of Taylor’s best albums are the songs themselves, rather than the era which "Red" represented or the full album. From some of the best heartbreak songs to ever be created, such as “All Too Well,” “Holy Ground,” “The Last Time,” and “Everything Has Changed,” to some of the biggest pop-sensations that have ever graced the screens of 2011 Honda Accord radios, such “22,” “I Knew You Were Trouble,” “Red,” and “We Are Never Getting Back Together,” this album is masterfully chaotic.
I’ll say it once and I’ll say it again, but “I Knew You Were Trouble” and “We Are Never Getting Back Together” set the stage for the album that "Reputation" would become.
"Red" is also masterful in how it manages to be the cross-over album between Taylor Swift being a country singer to a pop star. To this day, it’s still debated which category this album would fall under. Before "Red," there was "Speak Now;" After "Red," there was "1989." Without "Red," there would exist no bridge between such distinct dichotomies.
Most importantly however, unlike any other Swift album, no album comes close to having such general public recognition. I mean who doesn’t sing “22” on their 22nd birthday? Who doesn’t blast “We Are Never Getting Back Together” after their fourth breakup with their toxic partner?
"evermore" reminds me of escaping to your aunt’s North Carolinian cabin because seasonal depression hit a little too hard after graduating college and trying to make it big in New York.
Although I know this is one of Swift’s most impersonal albums, it seems like the perfect slowdown after such a star-studded life.
The sister album to the surprise summer drop that was "folklore" packs more of a punch than its older sister. While it’s a controversial opinion, "evermore" holds the most heartbreaking and intimate songs from any Swift album before.
Take “champagne problems,” a song about a woman who rejected her boyfriend’s marriage proposal because she was suffering from with own inner demons and couldn’t find it within herself to marry the love of her life. Despite the embarrassment that she made this man go through, she wishes nothing but the best for him and wishes he finds nothing if not a better version of herself.
Or “no body, no crime (feat. HAIM),” which tells the tale of a woman getting cheated on by her husband before she suddenly goes missing. Swift’s character, which just so happens to be the missing woman’s best friend, takes matters into her own hands as she murders the unfaithful husband and tries to pin it on the mistress.
Once again, while this album is Swift’s most impersonal when relating to her own life, it's also her most intimate as she manages to tell such a detail-oriented story within a few short minutes of a folk song.
These songs tug at heartstrings that many people didn’t even know they had. They pull at feelings that are often hard to describe in simple words. For example, the lyrics from “happiness,” “There'll be happiness after you but there was happiness because of you,” is such a simple yet heart-wrenching sentiment.
Most of "evermore" is like this. Simple, yet heart-wrenching, and that’s what makes it perfect.
For an entire year after its release, “Red” was stuck in my mom's car CD player. Living in a town where getting anywhere required at least 45 minutes of driving, this meant I listened to it almost every day. As a pre-teen, I saw this album as a manual to navigating love and heartbreak, youth and growing up — and I still regard it as such.
For a songwriter known for her love-focused narratives, it’s quite a loaded yet based statement to call “Red” Taylor Swift’s quintessential love album. Happy, free, confused and lonely, Taylor encapsulates the complexities of human emotion in “Red” and narrates them from her own experiences. “Red” sees Taylor at her most vulnerable, laying her heart bare and opening up in some of the most confessional tracks in her discography.
“Red” might have been my first sentient introduction to the power of storytelling in songwriting. The dramatic narrations of equally dramatic romantic endeavors paint a vivid picture with set characters, scenes and elements — such as autumn leaves and Taylor’s scarf in a drawer in Maggie Gyllenhaal’s house.
With all its narrative storytelling and grand build-ups and releases, the album comes off as cinematic at times. Arena anthems such as the opener “State of Grace,” “Treacherous” and “The Moment I Knew” create a sound almost as expansive as the emotions portrayed in the record.
From the confessional “I Almost Do,” the satirical “Stay Stay Stay,” the playfully self-aware “We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together,” and “All Too Well,” which might just be Taylor Swift’s magnum opus, the songwriting in “Red” creates a detailed and colorful snapshot of Taylor’s experiences at the time it was recorded. While it isn’t necessarily a love manual you should follow under perfect conditions, it definitely is one that tells you how to deal with realistic human situations, narrated from Taylor’s life experiences.
Taylor Swift’s 2020 releases, which she refers to as the sister albums, represented yet another defined change of direction for her, going from the colorful pop in “Lover” to a laidback folk sound heavily focused on storytelling. It is often said in online Swiftie circles that “folklore” is the better album and “evermore” has the better songs. With some of the strongest showcases of songwriting of her career, “evermore” reminds us of the greatness of Taylor Swift’s pen game. More than just a great follow-up to “folklore,” “evermore” reflects a career’s worth of growth.
Her most recent studio album, “evermore” showcases all the strengths she’s mastered over the years. The return of country elements to her sound, the catchy pop hooks and her signature honest storytelling make the album a perfect accumulation of her signature elements.
“evermore” takes the storytelling approach established in folklore and perfects it into its strongest form. On “no body no crime” and “ivy”, Swift builds from the fictional narratives that define “folklore.” Songs like “champagne problems”, “marjorie” and “cowboy like me” feature some of Swift’s strongest lyricism and demonstrate the acquired maturity from which she writes.
If nothing else, “evermore” is a career piece, fully reflecting how far she has come over the span of over 15 years in the public eye.
Enough has been said about “1989” simply being the best example of pop perfection, and it’s all true.
Youthful, colorful, catchy, “1989” has every element that makes pop so charming and appealing to the masses. It has everything you could ask in a pop album: excellent hooks, vibrant melodies and the extraordinary songwriting that can always be expected from Taylor.
It not only marked Taylor’s iconic genre shift, but it opened the doors for her to become the household name she is today. Magnifying the hit songwriter power she had, the scale of the “1989” era cemented Taylor as a modern legend. It also introduced Jack Antonoff to the Taylor Swift musical universe, creating the power duo that still continues to power the machine behind Taylor’s hits.
Produced mostly by pop giant Max Martin, it surprisingly goes beyond sounding like every other mid-2010s pop record. The fact that it still feels so fresh shows one of the most important qualities of pop music done right — timelessness.
I could go further into all the reasons why this is such a great album, but they have been said before and honestly it just feels redundant at this point. If you get it, you get it, and if you don’t, I’m sure any pop enthusiast will gladly lecture you on the topic.
To put it shortly, “1989” is a flawless pop record. That’s it.
1. Speak Now
When I first started thinking about my favorite Taylor Swift albums, “Speak Now” was the first and only choice I could settle on. It’s pop perfection while still holding on to some of Taylor’s beloved country twang. It’s a mix of wide-eyed, open-hearted romanticism and well-earned cynicism. It’s jam-packed with songs you want to scream at the top of your lungs, but not necessarily cry your eyes out to — the optimal listening experience.
“Speak Now" is full of songs that have stood the test of time. “Mine,” “Mean” and “Better Than Revenge” were staples of my early adolescence, and I’d be lying if I said they didn’t hold up just as well now. There’s a reason “Enchanted” has recently blown up on TikTok. It’s a song anyone can find a way to relate to (and subsequently scream the lyrics to while sliding down their shower wall).
Also, I’m convinced that “Dear John” is Taylor’s best song, lyrically and beyond. If I were the titular John, I don’t think I could have recovered.
I listened to “Blank Space” for the first time in the bathroom of a middle school dance with three of my then best friends. Last week, now a sophomore in college, I listened to “1989” beginning to end two times in a row. I had an equally enjoyable time.
Taylor comes into her own pop-wise with “1989.” I don’t know much about music, but I can speak from my own experiences — and Taylor’s fifth studio album is engaging and exciting from the opening notes until the very end. The energy of “Welcome to New York,” the slower pace of “You Are in Love,” the lyricism of “Clean” and everything in between come together to create an album with no lulls. By this point, she’s perfected pop.
I’ve made this point in the past, and I’ll make it again: I don’t necessarily think my top three Taylor Swift albums are also the three albums I consider to be her best albums all-around. I’m under no illusion about that fact — “Lover” had some of Taylor’s worst singles. There’s little redemption for “You Need to Calm Down” and even less for “ME!” But, clearly, I still find room to forgive.
Taylor has an album for everything — the girlish spirit of first love and first loss, the stinging hurt of real heartbreak, intricate storytelling and every emotion and experience in between. But “Lover,” at least to me, gives us a listening experience that we don’t really get with any of her other releases: an album where Taylor is truly, genuinely happy.
It’s a pure happiness you can hear in every lyric and with every lilt of her voice, giggles and all. “Cruel Summer” gave us a song to scream out car windows, “Death by a Thousand Cuts” an unbeatable bridge and “Lover” a ballad so obviously written by someone that is more in love than they’ve ever been before. It's hard to get enough of.
“Lover” makes sense as a top three album for me. I enjoy it for the same reasons “Stay Stay Stay” is one of my most-listened-to tracks off of “Red.” Sometimes, I just want my music to be fun.
With a discography as extensive as Taylor Swift's, the artistry I appreciate and romanticize over the years are variations of each other depending on where I am in life. For this reason, the albums that are my favorites have more to do with me than with Swift’s albums themselves. Most of it has to do whatever it was I was going through and what my unsettled body felt like trying to find its place.
With “Red,” the vastness that comes with feeling small, lost and confused goes from feeling like a void to becoming freedom itself.
Let’s just ignore the fact that “We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together” and “I Knew You Were Trouble” are even on Taylor Swift’s discography. On “Red,” the hits make up for the misses.
When you’re 11 years old, hope is romanticizing your teens and 20s, a hefty task that one song in particular accomplishes. The one feeling that has permanently found its place in my body is the feeling of listening to “State of Grace” for the first time. It's the feeling of listening to the simple drum beat that sounds like assurance, before you hear chords that sound like yearning. And accompanying them, words that make love and pain and life and everything in between feel pleasurably unrestrained.
This song and (most of) this album are some of my favorite words ever written. It’s narrative writing at its finest. Swift finds a way to make life seem exuberant and love excruciatingly intense. I’m 11 years old and in my room, silently screaming and jumping around while envisioning warm and brisk love inside of me thinking, in the words of Mary Oliver, maybe I can save my life a little.
Overall, the album, about heartbreak, (sometimes failed) optimism and growing up feels like a coming-of-age film. Even the melancholic emotions it writes about are framed in tenderness and zeal.
I know that today, I’ll listen to “Red” and I’ll be back in the little body I was in. When hopelessness needed to be fought with hope using, yes you guessed it, the internet. When hope meant scrolling on Tumblr and seeing the many lives that I wanted to live and needing some way to reach a feeling of permanent nostalgia, the kind that wavers on mild euphoria. How could I feel anything like that in my tiny dingy bedroom, or anywhere for that matter? The answer will always be “Red.”
2. Speak Now
Another album that’s on this list just because I like to hoard memories.
Specifically memories of tacky lyric videos on Youtube and staring out the window listening to “Back to December” (one of my favorites on the album) while envisioning apologizing to a boy whose love was too much for my damaged little soul. It’s also the first time I listened to an album and realized how badly I wanted to be a writer.
Once again, the narrative writing is genius and heartbreaking; you’re inside of her head and she’s inside of yours and it’s painfully intimate but neither of you can do anything about it.
“Speak Now” is written like a doomed fairytale, one that sees 20-year-old Swift beautifully idealize the moments and men she writes about, only to sentimentalize the tumultuous heartbreak and anger that comes afterwards. But isn’t that what good writing does?
“evermore,” the latest Taylor Swift album, is resonant of the simplicity that comes with getting older. The songwriting is rooted in fiction and shows Swift expanding into utilizing allegorical writing steeped in motifs and esoteric writing devices.
It’s also creatively unpredictable. In the past, a Taylor Swift era has lasted one album but with “evermore” being a continuation of “folklore” we see Swift explore even further the impressionist storytelling that she has begun to explore. “evermore” is yet again, another album whose writing is absolutely genius and Swift’s best writing.
“evermore,” to me at least, is most definitely a holiday album. With its cozy fingerpicking and folksy percussion, it’ll make you want to run away to a cabin deep within the woods, with nothing but a fire crackling next to an old school record player. The winter nostalgia and imagery is intentional and can be felt interwoven throughout the production.
The genius of Swift is apparent in different ways with “evermore” as the meditative and venerable perspective and approach leaves listeners living in the mysticality of the moment while still feeling bits of nostalgia from the past.