Taylor Swift’s sixth studio album, “Reputation,” comes out Nov. 10. To hold you over in the meantime, we’re taking a look back at the previous albums of this country darling turned pop music superstar—and deciding once and for all which Taylor Swift album is truly the best of the best.
5. Taylor Swift (2006)
Taylor Swift’s self-titled debut album is beautiful on its own, but pushed to the bottom of the list by the increasing strength of her later work. The decidedly country record spoke to innocent crushes, first love, and feeling small in a big world, all perfectly suited to the young teenage girl who wrote it. Set almost exclusively to acoustic guitar, it encompasses all the most awkward and beautiful parts of high school. Showcasing her incomparable relatability from the start, the lyrics on her first album may not be the her most complex, but they didn’t have to be for every young girl to turn up the volume on her portable CD player or iPod (the highest honor bestowed upon any musician in 2006) and sing along. One of the album’s most successful singles was “Teardrops on My Guitar,” a bittersweet testament to the unrequited high school crush in all its watching-him-watching-her-in-the-hallway agony. Looking back, it’s honest in the most painfully awkward and precious way. “Our Song” is a cute ode to the honeymoon phase of a young relationship going right. The album incorporates a lovely recurring theme of associating crushes and relationships with particular songs or musicians. Listening to “Taylor Swift” feels like being 15 again and “falling in love” with that kid in your Spanish class who doesn’t know you exist or not knowing who you are and accepting that it might take some time to figure out. In terms of Taylor Swift’s appeal, talent, and staying power, her first album was only the beginning.
4. Speak Now (2010)
Swift’s fourth studio album finds itself, appropriately, fourth in the rankings. While not a bad album—it’s hard to call any of Taylor Swift albums “bad”—it doesn’t stray far from “Fearless,” and if anything, it takes a step back. The musicality is much the same as her second album, acoustic or sometimes electric guitars, and a mix of ballads and more upbeat numbers with more emphasis on the former. Taylor violates her tried-and-true balance of a few standout, quality singles in a lineup of other songs that play off the more popular ones. The single “Mean,” which Taylor Swift performed at the 54th Grammys, is an anomaly in Swift’s repertoire. Its overly simple lyrics and banjo melody don’t particularly compel or impress. While some tracks are too long and lyrically lacking, the album is saved by its better songs. While “Dear John” clocks in at almost seven minutes, it is an honest and biting account of the demise of a relationship, presumably her own with musician John Mayer, and an example of Swift’s relatable and sometimes heartbreaking songwriting. “Back to December” and “Story of Us” are both well-written and performed tracks, the latter receiving much less attention than it was due. “Back to December” is one of those rare Taylor Swift songs that takes an introspective look at responsibility for the end of a relationship, and “Story of Us” is just purely fun to listen to. “Speak Now” may not be as adventurous as Swift’s other albums, but it’s heartfelt and easy to like.
3. Fearless (2008)
Still speaking from youth and innocence, but with more of a bite than her first album, “Fearless” comes up third in Swift’s catalog. The strongest of her original country-inspired trilogy, it masters the form of the softer ballads prominent on her first album and adds grittier, more angsty tracks to contrast them. “Fearless” is a move away from her debut persona of a cutesy, starry-eyed ingenue to someone with more depth, and the music and lyrics reflect this. Her production, while still largely acoustic, expanded to more electric guitar and some well-placed banjo. “Love Story” and “You Belong With Me” were the album’s greatest successes, the first an enchanting take on forbidden love and the second an upbeat track with a self-explanatory title. “Love Story” retells Romeo and Juliet without being cheesy, a feat pretty hard to accomplish with a source material so over-referenced. It’s a lovely song, and the melody and tone of her voice evoke the drama and ecstasy of young romance. “You Belong With Me” is the first and quintessential Taylor Swift drag, the ancestor of her later singles like “We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together.” The song’s a better-executed reflection on the same “high-stakes” high school crushes she tackles in her first album. Well-organized and well-written, “Fearless” is Taylor Swift’s best work as a purely country performer and the go-to if you miss the days of cutesy, country-rockin’, acoustic Taylor Swift.
2. 1989 (2014)
“1989” marked the final transition of Taylor Swift from country music to pop, and it did so with a bang. The singer partnered with Jack Antonoff, former member of Fun and one of the most sought-after producers in pop music, to create an ’80s-influenced pop album complete with synthesizers, processed instrumentation, and heavy basslines. She took her standard break-up song—and it is truly “her” break-up song, because she’s owned the trope like no other—and set it on fire. “Blank Space” is Swift’s take on the catchy, driving-with-the-windows-down song of the summer, and an effective middle finger to anyone and everyone who criticizes how she manages her love life. “Boys only want love if it’s torture,” she croons cynically, almost as if rolling her eyes–and that cynicism is part of what makes “1989” so different from her other albums. “Shake It Off” does the same thing. Taylor Swift owns all the criticism and laughs at it, and it’s absolutely infectious. Such a sudden and profound shift in style can’t come without some sacrifice; in the case of this album, that sacrifice is the lyrics. They feel more cryptic and more guarded than those of her previous albums. But while Swift lost something in personal depth, she gained it back in mystery and fantasy that match well with the softer tone of much of the album. “1989” was a strong foot planted in the genre of pop music and a declaration that she won’t be leaving anytime soon.
1. Red (2012)
“Red” is a masterpiece of a poetic, catchy country-pop album. Its lyrics, sound, and concept are Taylor Swift’s best to date. Swift knows her audience well, and nowhere is this clearer than on “Red.” Her commercially successful singles, like “We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together” and “22,” may have frustrated more skeptical listeners. But they became pop anthems and satisfied her larger fan base. Each individual track stands on its own merits while contributing to the album’s larger themes and sound, a genre-bending account of the emotions and memories she associates with the color red. She straddles pop and country effortlessly, experimenting within each and marrying them together. While not as popular as her more mainstream singles, the artistic standout is the soft, crescendoing “All Too Well.” With a loud, persistent drumbeat contrasting her softer voice until it rises in pitch and intensity at the song’s bridge, the nostalgic and at times accusatory song comes across more like a poem. In this song, as in others on “Red,” Swift ventured farther into storytelling than she had previously. In the songs “Starlight” and “The Lucky One,” Swift is an observer a la Billy Joel, telling other people’s stories as she sees them from a distance, but without completely detaching herself. Even her more personal numbers are saturated with this feeling of reflection or “looking back.” Also impressive are her collaborations with other artists. Swift’s duets “The Last Time” and “Everything Has Changed,” with Gary Lightbody and Ed Sheeran, respectively, are two of the best tracks on the album. The first is haunting and the second is soft and sweet, but each manages to add something more to an album not at all lacking in depth or in quality. While color as a concept isn’t new, she wore it well. Everything on her album, at the risk of sounding cliché, feels bright, angry, broken, and, ultimately, “red.”