- John Fleming
Every Taylor Swift Album, Ranked
On Oct. 21, one of the most vital album artists in modern popular music will release her 10th full-length studio album, when Taylor Swift’s “Midnights” hits physical and electronic shelves. Swift has released eight consecutive number-one albums in the United States, and the only exception to this run in her career (her first LP) has gone platinum seven times. Her nine studio releases have varied in style but have remained consistently popular and acclaimed, but with the benefit of hindsight, some have aged better than others. All of them have been ranked here.
Two of Swift’s albums, "Fearless" and "Red," have been re-recorded in editions dubbed “Taylor’s Version” – among her hardcore fan base, these versions, which also went to number one on the Billboard 200 album chart, have become the canonical editions. For the sake of the list, I listened to the original track listings (the re-recordings include ample bonus tracks), but the difference between the new and originals are negligible for most listeners, including myself, because Swift was intentionally trying to duplicate the original sounds as faithfully as legally possible. For the sake of clarity, this distinction felt important.
9. "Taylor Swift" (2006)
Swift’s self-titled debut album was immediately hailed for its songwriting, though when compared to her later work, it becomes abundantly clear that this was an album primarily written by a 16-year-old. Upon retrospective evaluation, “Taylor Swift” is more appreciated than pleasurable, an interesting sign of things to come rather than a cohesive work on par with her later accomplishments.
That’s not to say that there aren’t individual songs that hold up: the Miranda Lambert-esque country rock of singles “Picture to Burn” and “Should’ve Said No” bring an uncommon level of genuine exuberance to teen-pop-country, and the album cuts “A Place in This World” and “Cold as You” hint at the songwriting at which she would excel in her more countrified works. But the album ultimately leans too heavily on genre clichés – the debut single “Tim McGraw” being an extended name-drop to an established star with references to back roads and blue jeans speaks to a tendency to emulate her idols rather than establish her own voice, one which would thankfully come into full form on future albums.
8. "Lover" (2019)
Following up her “dark” album, "reputation," Swift made it abundantly clear with minimal subtlety that she was steering back into the realm of bubblegum with the presentation of “Lover,” from the pastel-heavy album art to the downright silliness of the lightweight single, “Me!” (While I don’t hate the song, an artist who wanted a fun pop song, but didn’t want to drive home the point with a sledgehammer, would have chosen “Paper Rings.”)
Broadly speaking, “Lover” isn’t as sugary sweet as its title or its lead single – it ventures into rare social commentary with “You Need to Calm Down” and “The Man,” and some of the album’s finest moments are also its most melancholy (the dark synths on the still-poppy “Cruel Summer” and its musical fraternal twin, the echoey chorus of “Cornelia Street,” stand out). But the album is also not without its share of filler, which exists on other albums of hers but never on one with such a lack of cohesive theme, while some of its bolder shots, such as the bizarre faux-British “London Boy” or the messy pseudo-sincere “False God,” just don’t work.
The album has enough standouts to keep it from last place, but “Lover” is Swift’s messiest album.
7. "evermore" (2020)
“evermore” came after, by far, the shortest period between studio albums of Swift’s career, and that it was released four-and-a-half months after “folklore” was decidedly to its detriment.
While “willow,” the album’s lead single, was a standout the second it was released and also would have been the easy call for lead had it been on “folklore,” many of the album’s tracks lack the emotional punch of its predecessor, and given what a surprise the indie-folk of “folklore” was, it was never going to be possible for “evermore” to subvert expectations to such a degree.
Outside of “willow,” the livelier songs tend to be both executed the best (“ivy” and “long story short”), but in the case of ballads like “tolerate It” or the album’s title track, the record is too beholden to its need to be the genre it insists it is. Had “Lover” and “evermore” met somewhere in the middle production-wise, both albums likely would have been improved.
6. "1989" (2014)
No album in Swift’s career spurred more fame, attention, adoration or, eventually, criticism than “1989.” The flaws are undeniable: the utterly obnoxious synthesizers of album opener “Welcome to New York,” the sparse beats (not to be confused with sick beats) met with lyrical clichés of “Bad Blood” and perhaps most famously, the bizarre pseudo-rapping in the bridge of “Shake It Off.”
That said, the reason an album with a handful of songs I immediately skip isn’t at the bottom of the list is simple: the parts that work really do work. The album's two best singles were the fifth and sixth released, the Lana Del Rey-esque dream pop of “Wildest Dreams” and the synth-heavy “Out of the Woods” (the song on the album that probably sounds most like it’s actually from the year 1989). The late-in-the-album tracks, “How You Get the Girl” and “I Know Places,” in their simplicity, sound much more at home in a modern pop context than most of the album’s singles.
While its omnipresence did “1989” no favors, that doesn’t mean the album can’t have jams.
5. "Speak Now" (2010)
Her first album recorded as a full-fledged pop superstar (and, post-2009 VMAs, arguably with as high of an approval rating as she has ever enjoyed), “Speak Now,” at times, features a return to pop-country. (The first three singles are the album’s biggest hits: “Mine,” “Back to December” and “Mean.” All fit the template of her debut album, albeit with a more matured sound.) Also present on this self-penned LP, are some of the closest examples of Swift making straight-up rock music: “The Story of Us,” “Haunted” and, especially, “Better Than Revenge” are credible Avril Lavigne impressions.
Even if the album has some filler, such as the dull “Never Grow Up” and “Innocent” (the latter’s reputation as a nasty Kanye West diss track doesn’t change that the song, to the extent it needs to exist at all, is two minutes longer than it needs to be), it serves as the perfect pivot from Swift’s pop-country era to a mainstream top 40 focus.
4. "folklore" (2020)
“folklore” has a bit of a chicken-or-the-egg effect to its origin story – by Swift’s account, the album was written in the wake of her upcoming summer tour being canceled due to the COVID-19 pandemic, but to construct an album barely four months after the world effectively shut down that so radically departs from the world’s notions of what a Taylor Swift album is, seems to defy all logic. Easily the most different from its predecessor a Taylor Swift album ever has been, the quiet acoustic folk of “folklore,” with extensive production from The National’s Aaron Dessner and a memorable cameo from Bon Iver’s distinctive frontman Justin Vernon, arrived in all of its dark, understated glory as a soundtrack for one of the darkest eras in modern cultural history.
Although the album lacks a true outstanding single (though “exile,” the promotional “the 1” and the number-one hit “cardigan” certainly performed well), it is, wealthy Manhattanite-chic of “the last great american dynasty” aside, remarkably consistent, with the gentle echoes of “seven” and the soft pop of “invisible string” and “betty” standing out.
3. "reputation" (2017)
After the ubiquity of “1989,” Swift seemed to embrace the inevitable hatred of its follow-up – between the newspaper print motif album art and its electroclash-inspired, highly divisive lead single “Look What You Made Me Do” (a song I’ve considered among her finest singles since the night it was released and briefly took over the world), it was clear she wasn’t trying to re-create “1989.” But while “reputation” has its share of abrasive electronic tracks – the second single “...Ready for It?” didn’t stray far from the template, nor did “Don’t Blame Me” and “I Did Something Bad” was so aggressive that it is arguably the closest Swift has ever come to outright hard rock – ironically, its reputation preceded it.
At least as many songs on the album (“Delicate,” “Gorgeous,” “King of My Heart,” among others) are perfectly sweet pop songs, though those who detested the album’s more abrasive songs immediately tended to ignore the album’s gentler side. Ultimately, this was their loss – “reputation” is, if not the best Taylor Swift album, probably the most sonically interesting one.
2. "Red" (2012)
After writing “Speak Now” entirely by herself, Swift enlisted pop songwriting royalty Max Martin and Shellback to co-write the album’s three most overtly pop radio-friendly songs: “We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together,” “I Knew You Were Trouble” and “22.” These three hits, on some level, work, but they only scratch the surface of the album’s emotional resonance.
On almost any other album, “Begin Again” (one of the rare true country songs, and one of the last conventionally country songs she would ever release) would be the album’s emotional apex, but the crown goes to the legendary “All Too Well,” the album track-turned-fan favorite-turned-fashionable answer for greatest song she ever wrote. (While it was the 10:13 version that became a cultural touchstone in 2021, the barely half-as-long album version is far and away the preferable version in the context of the album.) And while “Stay Stay Stay” and “Starlight” are comparatively rather silly pop songs, the balance between density and fun makes “Red” work.
1. "Fearless" (2008)
For as much as Taylor Swift has found success in country (both radio-friendly pop-country and more traditionalist folk-style country) and in mainstream pop, she is truly in her zone when she threads the needle between the two, and her sophomore LP is Taylor firmly in her zone.
From the album’s opening title track, one of the most quietly great, anthemic singles of her career, through her Colbie Caillat collaboration “Breathe,” there isn’t a song among the album’s first seven tracks that isn’t substantially better than any song on her self-titled debut.
Every time I have revisited the album, there’s been a new song that I suddenly realize was better than I had realized before (since you’re going to ask, it was “Hey Stephen” this time), and I can’t wait to inevitably get really into “The Best Day” someday. The album does taper off a little bit near the end (though the power pop burst of “Forever & Always” breaks up any potential monotony), but there isn’t a single bad song on the album.
“Fearless” may not be the cool answer for Taylor Swift’s masterpiece, but it is quite simply one of the best pop albums of the 21st century.