Monday, May 25, 2015

Every* Taylor Swift song, ranked

*So maybe not every Taylor Swift song, but only because most of her unreleased songs can only be found on Youtube and her team of laywers have made it so that many of her songs have either been taken down, muted, or pitched down to the point of being unrecognizable.

"Respect motherfucking craft when you hear it."  That's a line my favorite music critic Tom Breihan used to close out his review of Fearless, then referenced again in his excellent write-up of 1989, and it's an idea I return to endlessly regarding Taylor Swift.  There's a large percentage of the world that hates her: because she's young, because she's a woman, because she makes music for young women, because she has a narrow range of song topics, because her persona seems a little manufactured.  The list goes on.  And when there are so many people who are enraged by Swift for so many reasons, it can be a little hard to be a fan who has to defend her.  I spent so much time figuring out ways to do that very thing, yet it can all be summed up in a single, succinct sentence: "Respect motherfucking craft when you hear it."

But, if required, I could provide many reasons why I think Taylor Swift is so terrific.  Say what you will about the lyrical scope of her music, but when you get down to the lyrical content, there's nobody else making pop music this clear-eyed, emotionally rich, and empathetic.  There's a term I like to throw around when talking about Swift's songs called "emotional maximalism," which really gets at her ability to dig in to any feeling and blow it up into a beautiful widescreen version.  Maybe that's why her words resonate so much with people my age, because she doesn't present emotions as they are, but as they feel at the very moment of their inception.  Though her music was never as country as award show categories made it out to be, that evocative lyrical specificity is the biggest thing she took away from her Nashville-adjacent roots.

So I've decided to channel my undying love for the music of Taylor Swift into this crazy endeavor, a ranking of (almost) every song she's ever made.  There's been a great deal of playing and replaying of her albums these last few months, and in doing so, lots of patterns have emerged: her habit of ending songs on the same line(s) she began them with, her recent obsession with the color red, her inability to write a bad bridge, the amount of micro-melodies she stuffs in between the cracks of her songs.  But the main takeaway I've had from this experience is that Taylor Swift's music is incredible, even more so than I previously thought.  In fact, her genius seems so self-evident that it truly baffles me that there are so many people who don't see it.

The Rules: The criteria for this list is pretty straightforward.  I'm simply ranking Taylor Swift songs by personal preference.  Cover songs aren't allowed, which means I don't get to talk about the terrible awesomeness of her rendition of "Santa Baby".  Live or demo versions of studio songs also don't qualify, because then this list would be never ending.  And last but not least, if it's a song that features Swift but isn't actually her song, then it's not eligible.  (I think that only nixes John Mayer's pleasant "Half of My Heart" anyway.)  Anything else is fair game.  Now that all of that is cleared up, let's get started!

99. Ronan (Charity Single)
Okay I know that this song is about a real boy who died of cancer at four years old, and that's really sad, but let's not ignore the fact that it's boring and tuneless.  I'm probably going to get stoned to death for this opinion but Zzzzzzzz...

98. A Perfectly Good Heart (Taylor Swift: Deluxe Edition)
"A Perfectly Good Heart" commits the greatest sin a Taylor Swift song can commit: it doesn't get specific enough.  It's a song about a first heartbreak, so maybe it makes sense that something everybody goes through feels a little generic, but no excuse in the world could make me enjoy the litany of breakup platitudes on this track.  Even worse, the whole thing is centered around that painful, goopy "Why would you wanna break a perfectly good heart?" chorus.  I do like that gorgeous guitar solo that gives way to an acoustic one though.

97. Invisible (Taylor Swift: Deluxe Edition)
Here's the thing about Taylor Swift: she's got a ton of strengths, but ballads aren't one of them.  And she especially wasn't good at them when she was 16.  Aside from that high, whinnying slide guitar that starts the track off, there isn't really anything positive to say about "Invisible."  It sounds like something that would be on that Disney Channel show Austin & Ally, particularly the extremely grating chorus.  She's written a few other songs about unrequited love, and all of them are better than this stinker.

96. Last Kiss (Speak Now)
"Last Kiss" is shapeless, which is pretty much the ultimate sin.  It gets off to a strong start -- "I still remember that look on your face, lit through the darkness at 1:58" -- but then it's all downhill from there.  It's truly all downhill, because this song never ends.  No seriously, THIS SONG NEVER ENDS.  So I'm going to give everyone the courtesy that "Last Kiss" doesn't, by not talking about it anymore.

95. We Were Happy (Unreleased)
Wistful Taylor Swift is one of my favorite versions of Taylor Swift, so by default I want to be a little more charitable to this song about recalling the happy moments of an extinct relationship.  The actual musical elements just aren't strong enough for that though.  It lacks a strong melody to carry it, so it kind of wobbles around and falters.

94. Crazier (Unreleased)
Like many of the unreleased songs that I drudged up for the sake of this project, "Crazier" is a little more twangy and ballad-like.  It's not one of her best though, never taking off when you want it to.

93. White Horse (Fearless)
When comparing Taylor Swift albums, most people cite Fearless as being her most consistent record, and it most definitely is, but that doesn't mean there aren't some snoozers on it.  "White Horse," a product of Swift trying out that foamy singer-songwriter stuff that was popular at the time, is one of those sleepy numbers.  Intellectually, it's really cool and smart that she upends the idea of "Love Story" a few songs later, with a track that asserts, "I'm not a princess, this ain't a fairy tale."  But man, this song is so limp, there's no way around it.  Leave this kind of material for boring artists like Ingrid Michaelson.

92. Smokey Black Nights (Unreleased)
If YouTube comments are to be believed, Swift wrote and recorded this song when she was 13.  If that's true, then I'm pretty impressed by how textured the lyrics are (I keep telling you: she has a preternatural gift!).  And it's fun to hear things that we'd never hear again from her, like that bluesy inflection, the gospel background vocals, and even a little bit of church organ.  Still, her voice sounds terrible enough to dock it some major points.

91. This Love (1989)
I really want to like "This Love."  It's aiming for something dreamy and aqueous.  But instead it ends up being, as I once described it, a wet fart of a song.  There are some small gems like "Tossing, turning / struggled through the night with someone new," but everywhere else Swift's voice and songwriting fails.  Hard.  If 1989 was an ode to the end of the decade in which Swift was born, then this is a modern rendition of the soggy ballads that would appear on 80s pop albums.  It's not a good look for her.

90. Better Than Revenge (Speak Now)
Uh oh, here's one of those problematic songs you hear so much about!  At first, I was really appalled by this song.  It sounded so mean and simple and petty, but if you go into this album thinking that it's an attempt at comic book villainy, then it becomes devilishly fun.  It's still not a great song, lyrically or musically, but it's a fine little Paramore knockoff.   (Just check out Swift's phrasing and delivery in the second verse -- it's so Hayley Williams.)  Even though I don't love this, Camilla Belle should -- it's the most famous she's ever been.

89. You Don't Have To Call Me (Unreleased)
"You Don't Have To Call Me" is solid enough, but seems like half of a song.  It's also surprisingly light on lyrics, which feels alien to a Taylor Swift track.  It's easy to see how this could've morphed into the much better "You're Not Sorry," which features the lyric, "You don't have to call me anymore."

88. Cold As You (Taylor Swift)
If there's one major problem with her debut album, it's that it sounds so darn syrupy, likely a natural outgrowth of it being so much more country-inflected than her later work.  Either way, "Cold As You" sounds like a family size bottle of Mrs. Buttersworth.  "I've never been anywhere cold as you" is a dumb lyric anyway, especially since it's the line she hangs the song around.  But hey, the rest of it is quite emotionally intelligent, to the point where I was shocked by how well she was able to tap into universal thoughts and scenarios at that young of an age.  Plus, I love a slow solo and an acoustic guitar solo, so the musical breakdown is like the best of both worlds.  Still too much syrup though.

87. I'm Only Me When I'm With You (Taylor Swift: Deluxe Edition)
Swift may not always be the best judge of how long an album should be or how many tracks it should have, but she's generally good at determining which songs are better off just being bonus tracks.  "I'm Only Me When I'm With You" is the very definition of a bonus track: not bad by any means, but something about it is just not quite there.  I'm never going to completely reject one of her surging rockers -- that chorus trade-off between the crunching guitars, sly slide guitar, and a splash of fiddle is killer -- but she's also just a little bit out of her depth on this one.

86. I Heart ? (Unreleased)
I can see why this song never made it to an official release because it's the most country song I've ever heard from her, and making it a single probably wouldn't have boded well for her crossover chances.  Plus, it's a little too similar to "Picture to Burn."  On its own, "I Heart ?" is a fine, albeit poorly named, tune.

85. Beautiful Eyes (Unreleased)
I don't really know that much about "Beautiful Eyes," but I'm going to guess it was written and recorded around the time of her first album, because it feels very unpolished, like Taylor Swift operating at half-power.  The melody feels so unlike her -- the whole song is charmingly off-brand.  Still, there's some solid stuff to be found, like the way she sings "so baby make me fly," and the charm goes a long way.

84. Breathe [ft. Colbie Caillat] (Fearless)
I blame Colbie Caillat.  That flavor-of-many-months-ago artist has a co-writing credit and sings on "Breathe," and it feels more like her song than Swift's.  The lyrics suffer from an overload of platitudes and cliches that feel alien to the rest of the latter's output.  Does "people are people and sometimes they change their minds" sound like something Taylor Swift would write?  Does "You're the only thing I know like the back of my hand"?  (Take it from somebody who just listened to Taylor Swift 600 times in the last 3 months, neither line does.)  Swift tries her hardest to inject some life into this song -- the vocals are quite pretty, the melody takes some interesting stabs -- and it almost works.  But the song is built on such a weak foundation that her efforts aren't enough.  "Breathe" is relaxing song, sure, but it also feels a little soporific.

83. Closest To a Cowboy (Unreleased)
This one is very rough around the edges, but I could see some passes in the studio crushing it into a diamond.  It's got a strong chorus, and you can hear traces of a great melody in the verses.  Plus, I love meter of this couplet: "Snap buttons on a denim shirt / blue jeans and a little dirt."  Shame it sounds like it was recorded on an iPhone 3 though.

82. Girl at Home (Red: Deluxe Edition)
This one is a nice little line of demarcation that can be used to separate the philosophy behind Swift's older music and her new-found feminism of today.  "Girl at Home" finds her refusing to be a guy's side piece because she respects the other girl too much.  It's easy to imagine Old Taylor Swift being the mistress and concocting a reason to believe the other woman deserves to be cheated on by somehow not being good enough for the guy.  (In fact, you don't even have to imagine it.  Just an album ago, she stole a guy from somebody at the altar.)  Unfortunately, listening to this song isn't as fun as talking or thinking about it.  It's bogged down by a chorus that is not only annoying, but feels like it repeats 15 times.  Not even a terrific bridge can save it.

81. Haunted (Speak Now)
Part of the problem with Speak Now is that it has these Paramore and Evanescence type of songs that aren't bad, they're just kind of weird for Taylor Swift.  There's way too much going on in "Haunted," to the point where she gets buried by the over-the-top instrumentation.  Instead of riding the wave, she gets caught under it.  But no Taylor Swift song is without its redeeming qualities, so even though this is the rare case where a song of hers is ruined by its chorus, the pre-chorus is phenomenal.  That delivery of "whooooaaa, losing my breath" is a real rollercoaster.

80. I Almost Do (Red)
In an age where the album booklet (and physical media in general) is dying, Taylor Swift remains one of the few artists still trying to make the most out of it.  She does so by including a hidden message for each of her songs in the album's booklet.  The hidden message in this one is apparently, "wrote this instead of calling," which is awesome.  If only the song itself was as fantastic.  There are individual elements of it that I enjoy, like the heavy acoustic strumming, or that sliding chord progression that feels like being swept up by a tidal wave when it hits.  But ultimately, "I Almost Do" is a little too sedate.  There's simply not enough fire to it, especially given the context provided in the hidden message.

79. Never Grow Up (Speak Now)
"Never Grow Up" plays like a redux of Fearless' "The Best Day," which ends up being both a blessing and a curse.  The bad news is that it's not nearly as good as its spiritual predecessor.  That chorus gets pretty grating, and the verses feature saccharine, drippy lines like, "Don't lose the way that you dance around in your pj's getting ready for school."  But on the bright side, it still serves as an interesting companion piece to "The Best Day."  In the latter, she misses her youth so much that she transports herself back to various moments of it.  On this one, she longs for her childhood, so she warns someone who's still young to cherish it.  So hey, maybe this song is essential!  (It isn't really.)

78. Welcome to New York (1989)
"Welcome to New York" is, without a doubt, Taylor Swift's most unfairly maligned song.  When the track was released before 1989 came out, it was met with nearly universal hate, and since then it's been agreed upon by the world that it's the worst song on the album.  Listen, I'm not going to sit here and try to argue that it's a great song, because it's not.  But it's also not music's greatest sin either.  I think people are so offended by it because they take it as her assuming the role of ambassador of New York, welcoming others to the city.  To me, it's clear that she's welcoming herself, which I find very goofy and endearing.  Less than being about a place it's about an idea, and those chintzy keyboards give off a feeling of boundless optimism.  So while it may not be a great song, it's a pretty solid introduction to the album and Swift's state of mind going into it.

77. Safe & Sound [ft. The Civil Wars] (The Hunger Games: Songs From District 12 and Beyond)
This might be the most controversial part of my whole list.  "Safe & Sound" has some passionate fans, some them are even people who didn't take her seriously before.  Honestly though, I've never understood why people are so over the moon about it.  It's very much a soundtrack song, meaning that it's supposed to tie in to the movie in some way thematically.  So by design, it feels less personal than her best material.  Plus, the second half of the song seems like it's planning on building to something powerful, but everything just fizzles out unceremoniously.  I'd be lying if I said it wasn't a pretty song, especially since it features some beautiful backup vocals from The Civil Wars.  Sometimes pretty just isn't enough.

76. I Know Places (1989)
"I Know Places" is one of those songs that's not bad, but just doesn't exactly feel right for Taylor Swift.  It's got some great elements -- that chunky bassline, talk of fame and paparazzi that feels direct and real -- but it never quite comes together.

75. A Place in This World (Taylor Swift)
The least impressive Taylor Swift songs are always the ones that sound like they could be anyone else's track.  This little generic pop-rock number could've easily been a Hilary Duff song, or whatever other Disney actor was crossing over at the time.  It's a song to soundtrack a long drive on a warm afternoon -- it doesn't matter what the actual content is, as long as it has a vaguely positive vibe.  Still, against my better judgement, I can't help but dig "A Place in This World" just a little bit.  Like on most early Taylor Swift songs, those guitars are undeniable.

74. Innocent (Speak Now)
Like many songs on Speak Now, "Innocent" is cutthroat song hidden in layers of coyness.  This is her infamous "I forgive you" song to Kanye West, after he cut off her acceptance speech at the 2009 VMAs.  Except it's more like a condescending act, as she tries to play gracious but just ends up kind of spitting in his face.  "Innocent" is like when somebody in school insults another kid, but the remark doesn't really make much sense.  This only has the cadence of a diss.  I do like the mic-dropping dramatics of the production work though.  Those sharp, piercing guitars really let loose in the second half.  So even though this song is a little too long, at least it's very pretty.

73. Come Back...Be Here (Red: Deluxe Edition)
"Come Back...Be Here" is an airy guitar pop song about not realizing how into a guy you are until the relationship is forced to be long-distance.  She's back here in the States while he's an ocean away in London (perhaps with 4 other British boys?), wondering what he's doing at any given moment.  This doesn't really have much of a place on Red, but it stands on its own as a pleasant throwback.

72. Everything Has Changed [ft. Ed Sheeran] (Red)
In Taylor Swift's earlier days, her music was more binary.  Back then, when a song of hers wasn't a huge pop number, it usually drifted towards the country end of the genre spectrum.  What I like about Red is that the songs that aren't trying to be stratospheric pop hits drift towards something else entirely.  They imagine her as this really relaxed singer-songwriter type, and it's a really good look for her.  Even having a dweeb like Ed Sheeran on the track can't kill the vibe of this one.

71. Eyes Open (The Hunger Games: Songs From District 12 and Beyond)
"Eyes Open" has some of the same problems that I think "Safe & Sound" has, but this one sounds a little more like a Taylor Swift song.  I also think it fits the tone of the film more, so I give it the edge.  This is another one of those "Taylor Swift sounds like she's fronting a band that got played on The Fuse in the mid 2000s" tracks, and those always tickle me.

70. Writing Songs About You (Unreleased)
This one is what I like to call "too real."  Exhibit A: "I can't wait for the day I stop pretending that I'm really okay when I'm not. I want to know how it feels to be over you for real."  Exhibit B: "Why did you have to look so good?  Don't you know that I'm trying to hate you?  Trying to have a dream without you in it."  We've all been there, am I right??

69. I Knew You Were Trouble (Red)
My reaction to the three Max Martin-produced songs on Red when the album first came out was something akin to the outrage folk-heads had when Bob Dylan started playing the electric guitar.  "I Knew You Were Trouble" especially feels like a Swift Goes Dubstep moment.  And I'll tell you what: I didn't like it one bit in 2012.  Since then, I've made peace with the song, even coming around to finding most of it charming.  That dubstep drop still feels incongruous when placed in the middle of the song's bubblegum pop verses.  This is kind of like an inverse of the usual formula with "not quite there" Taylor Swift songs -- great verses, weak chorus.

68. Wonderland (1989: Deluxe Edition)
First of all, shout out to Rihanna.  Much like Selena Gomez's "Come and Get It," this one sounds like it was written for Rihanna but given to Taylor Swift instead.  The chorus even has RiRi's signature "eh eh" at the end.  Aside from that, Swift still finds her ways to make it her own.  She's so good at making songs about trying to throw yourself so completely into a relationship, thinking that shutting out the world will be enough to keep it from creeping in anyway.  "Wonderland" is another example of that and it's a very smart one.

67. The Moment I Knew (Red: Deluxe Edition)
"The Moment I Knew" is an immersive first-person experience of a song.  It tells the story of the moment she knew a relationship -- with Jake Gyllenhaal, given the context clues -- wasn't going to last.  She puts you in her position, really digging into this minor personal apocalypse and making the listener feel the emotions she was going through.  And there's something amusing about the contrast between how relatively minor the infraction was (he didn't come to her birthday party) and the details of her reaction (crying on the bathroom floor, her friends consoling her, etc).

66. You Are In Love (1989: Deluxe Edition)
All three of the bonus tracks on 1989 serve as a perfect replacement for one of the final three songs on the regular version.  So much like "Wonderland" is a better version of "I Know Places," "You Are In Love" gets at what "This Love" was trying to achieve, but actually succeeds.  It's such a tranquil and relaxing song.  Those billowy synths and the short, clipped phrasing of the verses make it feel perfect for a quiet, overcast night.  It's pretty much the only song on the album that is about being in love without complications.  One of Swift's greatest skills is her ability to put into words the most confusing, wonderful, scary, and exciting feelings.  She does that again, perfectly, on this one.

65. Sweeter Than Fiction (One Chance: Motion Picture Soundtrack)
This is the first collaboration between Swift and Jack Antonoff, and definitely feels like a dry run for the stuff the two of them would make on 1989, particularly "I Wish You Would."  Like that song, it's got an 80s new wave feel to it, with the kind of precise, stacked chorus that Antonoff seems to be so good at, and some shimmering guitar parts.  There's a great sheen on top of "Sweeter Than Fiction;" it shines and sparkles in all the best ways.

64. Permanent Marker (Unreleased)
When I listened to this song about x-ing out a girl's picture in permanent marker and ripping into a million pieces, I thought it was fun in the typical villainous Taylor Swift way.  But when I learned that it's supposedly about her younger brother's ex-girlfriend, it took on a whole new level of delightfulness.  I like the instrumentation on this one too, the band takes time to build up the first verse, then sails in to a nice and crunchy chorus.

63. The Story of Us (Speak Now)
As the title suggests, this song chronicles a tumultuous relationship by framing it with the traditional structure of a chapter book.  It's sort of fun, but the conceit gets a little creaky about halfway through the runtime.  Luckily, it's got a breathless energy that holds up the perspiring metaphor.  That hi-hat hitting on every beat, those twin guitars spinning off and clashing all over the song, the loud and boisterous conclusion.  It tiptoes right to the edge of the line, but never quite crosses over into being too busy.

62. Red (Red)
"Losing him was blue like I've never known / Missing him was dark gray all alone / Forgetting him was like trying to known somebody you've never met / But loving him was red" goes the chorus of "Red."  On its own, the color conceit is a pretty clever way to describe the checkpoints of a relationship, but it becomes even more interesting with the knowledge that it may be about John Mayer, who apparently has synesthesia.  Musically, it's a busy song -- those overstuffed guitar parts, the "la la"s in the background, etc.  But ultimately, it's a mostly good kind of busy.

61. We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together (Red)
Forget about Jeff Ross, Taylor Swift is the true Roast Master General.  Nobody makes breakup songs as flame-spitting as she does.  She just roasts dudes, there's no other way to put it.  I love the way she holds that "Weeeeeee" in the chorus, as if nothing gives her more glee than telling her ex what's what.  And she even finds a way to fit some self-deprecation in here too: "Would you hide away and find your peace of mind, with some indie record that's much cooler than mine?"  (Very few indie records are cooler than hers though.)

60. Ours (Speak Now: Deluxe Edition)
So many of these songs are about volatile emotions.  Not so with "Ours," which is simply nice and sweet.  I like how peaceful and contented this song is, which makes it weird that this song is apparently about John Mayer.  It's funny that he inspired what might be her nicest song and also her most vitriolic.

59. Teardrops on My Guitar (Taylor Swift)
People these days tend to think of the word "melodramatic" as a pejorative term, but Taylor Swift shows that it's a quality you can wield with great skill and precision.  And here she is, like a teenage Douglas Sirk, singing a song about a boy being the reason there are teardrops on her guitar.  She sings lines like "And there he goes, so perfectly / the kind of flawless I wish I could be" and "The only one who's got enough of me to break my heart."  It's some glorious melodrama.  Even the concept of teardrops on her guitar is so perfectly detail-driven in that quintessential Taylor Swift way.  This was our first real taste of Swift's intensely autobiographical writing (the "Drew" mentioned in the song was a real boy she knew in high school), an aspect of her work that would become the most talked about as time went on.

58. All You Had to Do Was Stay (1989)
The singles on Red felt like a jarring shift for Swift, but by the time this album rolled around, it's clear that she had a better handle on these kind of effervescent pop songs.  "All You Had To Do Was Stay" has that breezy, powdered sugar sound that recalls the previous album's "22."  And while it may not be a better song than "22," it feels steadier and more assured.  It's a song that sneaks up on you, one where you don't realize how good it is until you insist on listening to it over and over.

57. Starlight (Red)
I remember not really liking this one very much, and in my head it was a much more dancey song, but in actuality this is a fine, catchy track.  But stay tuned for when she makes a better version of this one two years later and calls it "New Romantics."

56. I'd Lie (Unreleased)
"I don't think that passenger seat has ever looked that good to me."  I knew I was in good hands when I heard that opening line.  And the rest of the song is loaded with these lovely little details that Swift would fit into her songs, back when she wrote more about simple, girlish infatuation.  "I'd Lie" only recently came into my life and I already think it's a joy.

55. Back to December (Speak Now)
This felt like a real game-changer when Speak Now first dropped back in 2010.  After so many mudslinging songs about men who've done her wrong, "Back to December" was the first time Taylor Swift really, truly admits culpability in a ruined relationship.  It's also just impressively mounted, with those regal strings and that refracting guitar.  At one point, the instrumentation threatens to become a little too much (I think there's a Christmas bell chime that appears near the end?), but Swift smartly keeps the lyrics simple.  "It turns out freedom ain't nothing but missing you" is so efficient, it could be the only line in the song and you'd get the point.

54. Bad Blood (1989)
Signs point to this song being about Katy Perry and their beef that was sparked when she tried to poach tour crew from Swift, or something like that.  So this is pretty much Taylor Swift's "Ether" or "Takeover."  And it's fitting that for this diss track, a practice ensconced in rap culture, she sings over a beat that contains a drum loop that resembles Clipse's "Gridin."  In 2008, I never thought I'd have the opportunity to compare Taylor Swift and the coke rap romanticizing of the Thornton brothers, and yet here we are.  She's got such great command on "Bad Blood," the eye in a storm of pounding drums, cowbell, and electronic splashes; singing lines like "band aids don't fix bullet holes."  Basically, she's riding the wave on this one, and it's dope.

53. Come in With the Rain (Fearless: Platinum Edition)
"Come in With the Rain" is an easy way to see the leap in skill that Swift took between her first and second records.  It sounds like something that could have appeared on the self-titled album, except that there's much more craft and confidence to it.  The song is just a simple, modern midtempo country number, without all of the rural posturing that seems to come with the genre these days.  However, it doesn't dispense with the melodrama, and is all the better for it.  There's a great little "ohhhh" she gives after she sings "Because I'm too tired at night for all of these games" on the chorus that feels like something from a Victorian play.

52. Tell Me Why (Fearless)
"Tell Me Why" is a song with an excellent balance of pop, rock, and country.  In that way, it's kind of like the album it's nested in the middle of.  It's also a surprisingly dark song for this early in her career, with all of the hints of abuse that pop up throughout, including the excellently sung micro-melody on "you might think I'm bulletproof, but I'm not."  "Tell Me Why" is super empowering too.  It's about coming to a realization that this guy sucks and deciding to kick him to the curb, walking away better and stronger.

51. If This Was a Movie (Speak Now: Deluxe Edition)
Taylor Swift is fascinated with narrative conventions.  Many of her songs are about life imitating age-old storytelling templates, and I think that's why they're so accessible.  She understands the comfort of tropes and the anxiety that comes from our lives not fitting into prescribed expectations.  "If This Was a Movie" has a chorus that literally wishes things in life would turn out like the events in a movie.  She takes that idea and stretches it out to IMAX proportions, with sweeping instrumentation to match.  But perhaps the smartest move she makes is the somber line that concludes the chorus: "But if this was a movie, you'd be here right now."  Even Taylor Swift knows there's a limit to fairy tales and fantasies.

50. 22 (Red)
People my age nearly ruined this song, constantly referencing it and making it their requisite anthem when they turned 22 years old.  But truthfully, nothing can fully soil this fizzy blast.  After all, how can you deny the buzzy synth line over that trampolining chorus?  Swift doesn't often have this much fun, but it's always great when she's allowed to do so.  This is the type of track where she can say things like "We're happy, free, confused, and lonely at the same time / It's miserable and magical, oh yeah / tonight's the night when we forget about the deadlines" and not sound ridiculous.  Try to stave off "22" as much as you want, it's an infectious tune.

49. Change (Fearless)
In another life, Taylor Swift could probably front a killer rock band.  (She basically does at various points on this album and Speak Now.)  "Change" finds her howling through a wall of crunching guitars and booming, thunderous drums.  Maybe it lasts a verse too long, but it effectively gets the blood going, sounding like the closing salvo of a 4th of July fireworks show.  No wonder why it was the song of the 2008 Summer Olympics.

48. Tim McGraw (Taylor Swift)
"Tim McGraw" is a pretty monumental song, not just because it was her very first single, but also because it's an introduction that has her most recognizable qualities baked in from the beginning.  She had a knack for evocative lyrics even then, setting the scene with vivid lines like "The moon like a spotlight on the lake."  Coupled with the song's open, stainless steel production, you can see why this put her on the map.  There's such a great mixture of wistfulness and quiet animosity to it too, as she reflects on the memories of a dead relationship.  And even though it may repeat one too many times, that long, winding chorus is really terrific.  She would later hone her songwriting to cut out the flabbier edges here, but it's still amazing to think that she was this strong coming out of the gate.

47. Picture to Burn (Taylor Swift)
There's alot of sentimental value to this song, because it's the first Taylor Swift song I ever listened to.  I don't know how I missed out on "Tim McGraw" and "Teardrops on My Guitar" when they first came out -- I had certainly heard of them though -- but "Picture to Burn" was good enough to pique my interest.  At this point, she hadn't quite amassed the crossover success that she would later achieve, so she was still considered a country artist, and I remember hearing this and thinking, "I hate this genre...but this song is kind of good"?  Looking back on it now, the honky tonk is a little hokey, but I still love how fiery it is.  And that chorus is just a blast -- you can practically feel it kicking into a higher gear when she sings "So watch me strike a match on all our wasted time."  It's interesting that the first two songs on her self-titled debut introduce the two main sides of Swift's music.  "Tim McGraw" is that starry-eyed, lovelorn song that she would do so well for the rest of her career, but "Picture to Burn" finds Swift in scorched-earth mode.  Even when she was 16, exes weren't safe from her wrath.

46. How You Get the Girl (1989)
Taylor Swift is such a great songwriter that she can even turn an eHow page into a monster jam.  She instructs a guy on how to win her heart over a great, skipping melody.  "How You Get the Girl" is a simple, whiz-bang song with so many great individual moments you can single out: that fast, clipped acoustic guitar; that whirring high-frequency noise near the end of the chorus; that swooping micro-melody on "say it's been a long six months."  There's something new to pick up with each listen.

45. Sparks Fly (Speak Now)
Taylor Swift and her choruses function much like a pitcher with an excellent fastball.  Whenever everything else isn't working, she can always pull out a great chorus to save the day.  That's pretty much what happens here on "Sparks Fly."  The verses have some clunkers like the ultra-generic "The way you move is like a full-on rainstorm, and I'm a house of cards" and the just plain embarrassing "I'm captivated by you baby, like a fireworks show."  But then that chorus rolls around and takes flight, and it never fails to give me that exciting, skin-tingling feeling.  It's great, efficient work from her, and the song comes off looking so much better because of it.

44. Clean [ft. Imogen Heap] (1989)
If 1989 is a concept album about the breakup-makeup cycle of a single relationship, then this is a satisfying final chapter.  "Clean" is a brilliant song about finally moving on from the end of a relationship, knowing that the only way out is through: finally purging your pain instead of trying to manage it.  It's not just crucial to the emotional arc of the album, but also essential to the sound of the record.  1989 has a recurring theme of Swift's collaborators (Jack Antonoff, Max Martin, Shellback, etc.) pushing her to interesting places in her transition to full pop.  Imogen Heap does the same thing here; those little toy box keys are a signature of theirs, and it feels right at home on this one too.

43. The Outside (Taylor Swift)
This is a better example of Taylor Swift in pop-rock mode on her debut ablum than the slightly bland "A Place in This World."  "The Outside" is anything but that -- it's melodically dynamic and incredibly catchy.  The song is also just a great showcase for her studio players, who deliver a glittering bath bomb of guitars.  That great little main riff gives way to some striking flashes in the verses, and eventually leading into another of many impressive solos on this record.  It's just really exhilarating listening to this song as it careens from terrific section to terrific section.

42. Forever & Always (Fearless)
This is the kind of song that gives the "Taylor Swift is a terrible singer" types ammo.  The melody goes all kinds of places that she can't follow, and the result is often a screechy ear sore.  However, it saves itself by simply being a freight truck of righteous fury and killer hooks.  And even though the vocals aren't great, Swift finds a way to muscle it out for a blustering delivery of "It rains when you're here and it rains when you're gone" during the chorus.  This was one of my favorites back in high school, and although it has fallen slightly in my esteem since then, it still packs a punch.

41. Stay Beautiful (Taylor Swift)
This is just a lovely little nugget. It's super efficient, setting the stage with that first verse and gracefully moving into that short, hooky earworm of a chorus, all surrounded by a galloping charge of guitars, slides, and mandolins.  I also just like the sentiment of this song.  She's so infatuated by this guy that she doesn't even care if they end up together, so long as he stays just the way he is and everything in his life works out for him.  I miss this version of Taylor Swift sometimes.

40. Shake It Off (1989)
I think the world let out a collective "wtf???" when they first heard "Shake It Off."  It's big and dumb and goofy, a grab bag of elements that shouldn't work in a Taylor Swift song, nor should they ever be mixed together at all.  After many listens, there's still a little too much going on, but this is still a certified jam despite all of that.  Once she coos "But I keep cruisin," the song just locks in and zooms away, only halting at the questionable "Hey Mickey" inspired breakdown.  "Shake It Off" is a weird song in Taylor Swift's body of work -- there are just as many bad things about it as there are good ones, but the stuff that does work is so great that the flaws don't even matter.

39. Love Story (Fearless)
This song has become so iconic and monolithic, it's hard to divorce it from its popularity.  It's a testament to how infectious it is, then, that I'm only slightly sick of it.  "Love Story" is clearly Taylor Swift in Single Mode, but it doesn't shave off any of the qualities that make her great.  In fact, it doubles down on them, boiling her romantic notions down to Romeo-Juliet archetypes and climaxing with a marriage proposal.  (Cheesy as it is, if you don't get a little verklempt when the song swells up at "He knelt to the ground and pulled out a ring," you're a monster.)  I also like the way that she often uses the chorus to advance her songs, rather than having them be an idea to constantly return to like a home base.  "Love Story" is one of the best instances of this; each chorus uses slightly different words to move the narrative forward.  That this is only like the seventh best song on Fearless is indicative of how fantastic that album is.

38. Begin Again (Red)
All Taylor Swift albums have the same general trajectory, in that they build to a song that leaves on a hopeful, warm note.  Even though this formula is predictable at this point, it still hasn't stopped feeling exhilarating.  And on "Begin Again," she makes finding a new guy feel like a total revelation.  I think that many other writers pluck songs from their own lives, but they tend to abstract it, thinking it'll be more relatable that way (or maybe because they're afraid of being too revealing).  But there's no filtering step in Swift's songwriting process.  She leaves in all of these sharp, personal details and assumes the listener will find a way to relate to it.  And she's absolutely right -- it's a gamble that pays off every time.  So something like "You said you never met one girl who had as many James Taylor records as you, but I do" isn't anything that's directly happened to me, but I understand the sentiment in my bones.  "Begin Again" is so great because there's a moment like that in almost every line.

37. Today Was a Fairytale (Valentine's Day Soundtrack)
Remember the movie Valentine's Day?  (It's okay if you don't.)  I don't even know if this song appears in the film, but I'm going to guess that it's the best thing about it anyway.  At first, I found this one incredibly annoying, because of the amount of times she says the very twee phrase, "Today was a fairytale."  But with a little soul searching I was able to see this for what it is: pure fire.  This was recorded in the period of her career when she was rocking the best backing band in the pop game, so the song is full monstrous, gleaming guitar parts.  "Today Was a Fairytale" feels like the perfect song for a big movie climax.

36. Fifteen (Fearless)
When I think about all of the young girls who have probably cried to this song, I get this warm feeling inside.  I love that she takes these teenage emotions that everyone else trivializes and she treats it like the most serious thing in the world.  In turn, lots of people trivialize her music, but it's so important for teens to finally feel like someone gets it.  I hadn't listened to this one in years, and in that time, I had mentally soured on the song, thinking that it was a little naive for somebody not much older than 15 trying to have hindsight and wisdom about being that age.  But in listening to "Fifteen" again for this project, I rediscovered how fantastic it is.  When she sings "And Abigail gave everything she had to a boy who changed his mind, and we both cried" it feels like an emotional levee is bursting.  Swift just really knows how to dig into the heartache.

35. The Way I Loved You (Fearless)
One of Taylor Swift's most underrated talents is how convincing she is.  That's how she can get away with something like "The Way I Loved You."  This song is troublesome and problematic, to use modern internet parlance.  Basically, it's all about Swift being with this guy who's kind and good to her, but she's not satisfied because she misses the toxic relationship she used to be in.  (She never goes as far as explicitly calling the former relationship that, but in the way she sketches it out, it's all there.)  You can see why that wouldn't be so healthy for an artist like her to promote.  But boy, does this song have some sweep to it.  When that chorus comes in like a gale of wind, it's hard to think about anything else.  If you're still on the ground by the end of it, then you're made of some strong stuff.

34. Mean (Speak Now)
Somebody should teach Taylor Swift what a critic is.  This song was written about a music critic who repeatedly wrote negative articles about her.  You know, basically doing what a critic is supposed to do: critique.  And so Swift's solution to this critic's bullying was to make her own bullying song about how she's successful and famous while he's just lonely and pathetic.  However, the song works for a few reasons: 1. It's a hand-clapping, banjo-strumming, hooky little earworm.  2. Beneath the mudslinging lies a mushy, wounded core.  The song is basically a person with low self-esteem trying to convince herself that everything will be okay.  3. To quote a great tweet from comedian Jake Fogelnest, "Sometimes punching down is fun!"

33. Tied Together With a Smile (Taylor Swift)
Taylor Swift's debut album may be her weakest, but it's also her most empathetic, a quality that can probably be attributed to the fact that it was created by a high school student who had no idea she would eventually become the biggest pop star in America.  I absolutely love this generous, deeply compassionate song about a friend of hers who everyone thought was beautiful and nice, but nobody knew that she was suffering from bulimia.  Swift is just so great at making these kind of emotional mini-epics.  The chorus is superb, with the way the melody swoops up and the end of each line tumbles into the next bar.  And even though her metaphors aren't always the tightest ("hoping it will end up in his pocket, but he leaves you out like a penny in the rain"), she can still craft something like "you cry but you don't tell anyone / that you might not be the golden one," which feels like an entire YA novel packed into one line.

32. The Other Side of the Door (Fearless: Platinum Edition)
Taylor Swift doesn't really write extended outros.  Most of the time, she just ends a song one of her monster-sized choruses or with a simple repetition of the first few lines.  In that sense, I don't know if she's ever penned anything quite like "The Other Side of the Door, " which ends on a magnificent outro.  It's full of fiery bluster, with each line stepping on the next because just has to get it all out.  It's almost like a poem.  The song almost lasts a little too long, but it's totally worth it for those final 30 seconds.

31. Out of the Woods (1989)
1989 is a work of great mimicry, an album that finds her trying to graft her sensibilities onto the style of other artists.  This is something that has popped up in her earlier material, but never as consistent or successfully.  "Out of the Woods" might be the most fascinating example, a song that sounds like the lovechild of Chvrches and M83.  It's very precisely produced, with snares that feel like they kick up dust when they hit, and background vocals that feel perfectly placed in the mix.  It all builds to that spiraling, rising outro, closing out the song on a dizzying head rush.

30. The Last Time [ft. That Dude From Snow Patrol] (Red)
"The Last Time" basically sounds like a Snow Patrol song featuring Taylor Swift, which turns out to be surprisingly excellent.  That Dude From Snow Patrol (oh, if you must know: Gary Lightbody) and Taylor Swift harmonize really well over this duet, which chugs along with a building locomotive intensity.  There's a real, adult weariness to this song.  The pop singles on Red were light, fluffy relationship songs.  On this one, there's a real sense of "Get it together because I can't take it anymore" exhaustion.  That bridge, where it turns into a back-and-forth conversation between the guy and the girl, is just crushing.  This song feels so high stakes, like the world is burning up around Swift and Lightbody.

29. Holy Ground (Red)
I like to find the latent darkness within Taylor Swift songs and I have a theory that if you squint a little, "Holy Ground" is a song about shutting everything else in the world out because that's the only way this particular relationship can work.  But who cares about my pet theories when this thing is so gloriously catchy?  It's got a kicky little rhythm, and once that bridge arrives it feels like the rest of the world is standing still.

28. Stay Stay Stay (Red)
Here's another one in which I can find some latent darkness, even though it's one of most seemingly cheerful songs in her entire discography.  To me, "Stay Stay Stay" is about imagining the truest, most perfect love but secretly knowing it's not possible.  And there are some pretty grim lines in here, like "Before you I only dated self-indulgent takers" and "No one else is gonna love me when I get mad."  Counterpoint: No song with a Taylor Swift Giggle(TM) could ever truly be dark.

27. Mine (Speak Now)
"Mine" was the first Taylor Swift song that felt like was about a truly adult relationship.  There's talk of passionate love, not the kind that involves fairy tales and crossed stars, but love that has to contend with "bills to pay" and emotional baggage.  It's actually quite complex and a little bit dark, with Swift/the speaker of the song revealing a pessimism and weariness about love, due to past experiences and her parents' troubled relationship.  Musically, it's a wonder too.  She just cycles from strength to strength, tossing off a perfect verse, then a perfect chorus, then a perfect bridge.  Some of my favorite Taylor Swift moments -- "Braced myself for the goodbye, 'cause it's all I've ever known," "careless man's careful daughter" -- are on this one.

26. Should've Said No (Taylor Swift)
The back half of her debut album is a nonstop onslaught of jams, but once "Should've Said No" comes along, the record somehow finds another gear.  This song is so forceful and furious, you get the sense of her feeling all this anger and rushing to write it down.  There's a level of stakes and urgency to it, and when that choruses crashes in, it feels like the Earth is cracking open.  "Should've Said No" has a beautiful simplicity to it -- it's just four minutes of her laying down the law to some dude who wronged her.  Apparently this track made it on to the record at the last second, and it would've been a much worse album without it.

25. I Wish You Would (1989)
During the pre-release promotion of this album, Swift spoke about being inspired by 80s pop music when writing it, and "I Wish You Would" is the one song that really makes good on that promise.  It sounds like a song from a deleted scene in a John Hughes movie, in the best way possible.  You can almost visualize the big hair and puffy dresses when you hear those strobing synths and guitars that cut like a ginsu knife.  And with that off-kilter machine gunning chorus, "I Wish You Would" is just a wild ride.  That's not even mentioning the line, "We're a crooked love in a straight line down."  Now tell me she can't turn a phrase.

24. Treacherous (Red)
If there was one song that represented Taylor Swift's worldview, one track that summed up her entire musical ethos, this would be it.  Swift is, if nothing else, a hopeless romantic.  If you look at her music -- and by extension, her love life -- you'll see a person who dives deep into a relationship, only to end up with a broken heart.  And yet, when the next relationship rolls around, she jumps in with just as much fervor and optimism.  It's a quality that makes her easy to mock, but I don't know, there's something that's weirdly admirable about it.  "Treacherous" puts a positive spin on the negative action of entering a relationship that may not last long or end well.  She sums it up well in the chorus with a simple, "Nothing safe is worth the drive."  This all could be a disaster, but hey, it could also work out, so why not focus on that?

23. Superstar (Fearless: Platinum Edition)
Similar ground gets covered in Taylor Swift songs (in a nutshell: boys), but each of them always feel distinct from one another.  "Superstar" feels so specific that you'd never get it confused with any of her other songs about being enamored.  If a blush was put to music, this would be it.  There's a starry-eyed wonder to the way she sings something like "You smile that beautiful smile and all the girls in the front row scream your name."  She doesn't just set the scene by saying it's the morning, she describes a "misty morning."  The devil's in the details, and she always gets them right.  I used to think that this song was a stronger chorus away from being a world-conquering song, but that hook sneaks up on you on repeated listens.  "Superstar" doesn't just approach greatness, it makes a soft landing there.

22. Blank Space (1989)
Though "Shake It Off" was the first official single on 1989, "Blank Space" was the one that really captured the heart of America.  And rightfully so -- it's such a fun and clever song about her poking fun at her image as a serial dater and man-eater.  "Blank Space" is infinitely quotable, with an array of daggers for you to pick as a favorite.  Whether it be "Darling, I'm a nightmare dressed like a daydream," "I could make the bad guys good for a weekend," or "I've got a blank space, baby, and I'll write your name," you really can't go wrong.  She delivers these lines with a tilting, infectious melody to match the swaggering nature of their content.  This song is pretty much Pop 101, effortlessly catchy in the way that most Taylor Swift singles are.  I still don't get those people who are hearing "Starbucks lovers" though.

21. The Lucky One (Red)
"The Lucky One" is a really sad, poignant song about what it's like to be a woman in the limelight, a hardship that stretches back for decades.  Something tells me it's only going to become more relevant, given the way it talks about how the masses are bloodthirsty and looking to cycle through "It Girl" starlets at will.  The song is paced well, charting a former celebrity's rise and fall, transitioning to a different stage of her trajectory with each verse. Swift then cleverly makes herself the subject at the end, wondering if she'll be the next one chewed up and spit out by Hollywood.  It's a shame she doesn't engage in this kind of storytelling more often, because she's got a real talent for it.

20. The Best Day (Fearless)
I have so much sense memory tied to this whole album, but especially "The Best Day."  It feels so autumnal, every time I listen to it I'm immediately transported back to the fall of my junior year of high school, which is when Fearless came out and I listened to it endlessly.  That's fitting for a track that's essentially about nostalgia too.  Swift makes an interesting choice by using present tense as she looks back on different periods of her life growing up.  It's ultimately the correct one too, the kind of decision that makes her songs so immediate and relatable.  And she just nails the language in this song, using the perfect words to get the listener in a child's mindset.  This has got to go down in the pantheon of all-time great songs about moms too.  It could've easily been cheesy, but it's actually very sweet.

19. Our Song (Taylor Swift)
It's remarkable how Taylor Swift is able to get a handle on all these different feelings that often feel too big and wild to wield.  And she does just that on "Our Song," boiling the excitement of a relationship down to an exceedingly clever conceit.  You see, she and this boy don't need a piece of music to represent the two of them, because the little moments that make up their relationship -- the slammed doors, the nights of sneaking out, talking to each other on the phone -- sing in their own way.  "I've heard every album, listened to the radio / waited for something to come along / that was as good as our song," she sings on the bridge.  And it doesn't get much better than "Our Song" itself either.

18. All Too Well (Red)
Songs like this justify this months-long, sanity-stripping endeavor.  "All Too Well" is a favorite among many Taylor Swift fans (including Parenthood actress/hilarious person, Sarah Ramos), and I've heard some people who generally hate her music say, "But that song 'All Too Well' is pretty good."  Until two months ago, I just didn't get it.  To me, this song seemed a little too long and a little too limp.  Upon listening and re-listening to Swift's entire oeuvre for the purposes of this list, I was able to see "All Too Well" for what it is: a beautiful, bruised epic.   In a way, it's like a Taylor Swift Rosetta Stone -- she spins a long yarn of heartbreak and stuffs it with so many great little details and phrasings, the exact things that make her such a special lyricist.  (Really, you could look at any line in this song and lift out a winner, but I particularly like "I forget about you long enough to forget why I needed to.")  Supposedly, this song was originally 11 minutes long, and I would've loved to hear that version.  When those martial drums kick in at the end of the album version, it packs a suitable punch, but it must have set burned the studio to the ground as the cap to a 10-minute journey.

17. Fearless (Fearless)
Here's how this song starts: "There's something 'bout the way / the street looks when it's just rained / there's a glow off the pavement / you walk me to your car / and you know I wanna ask you to dance right there / in the middle of the parking lot, yeah."  It's essentially Taylor Swift in microcosm, that nook-and-cranny detailing of romantic feelings.  She's enamored with this guy, yet here she is musing about the rain-slicked pavement, connecting its glow to that of a possible relationship.  Like that introduction, the rest of "Fearless" is just so exciting, effectively evoking that feeling of diving headfirst into something new.  As an album, Fearless is such a gigantic leap forward for Swift, and this song lets you know that straight from the jump.  (Also check out this quote from her on the main description of this song's Genius page.  It maps out the themes of the album perfectly.)

16. You're Not Sorry (Fearless)
Ballads may not be her strong suit, but "You're Not Sorry" is a bold-faced exception.  It's spectacularly produced, that short but sweet bridge is one of her best, and the guitar solo absolutely rips.  You can't ask for any more from a power ballad.  One thing I've noticed during this project is that Taylor Swift's kiss-off songs always have very forceful and dramatic instrumentation, and I love that.  You can almost envision her flicking the forehead of whatever dumb guy crossed her once this song really starts to kick in.

15. Style (1989)
Is Taylor Swift a fan of the movie Drive?  One would think so after listening to "Style," whose slick guitar riff and smoky atmosphere recalls the soundtrack for that film.  One word that best describes this is "cool," it feels like the perfect song to put on during a midnight cruise.  Lyrically, it's the thematic linchpin of 1989, which seems to be about a relationship that's trapped in a constant breakup-makeup cycle.  "Style" channels that idea into one massively catchy chorus, which views Swift and a guy through the conceit of trends that always come back in style.  "You've got that James Dean daydream look and your eyes, and I've got that red lip classic thing that you like," is such a great way to talk about a relationship as a ship that can't be sunk.  "Style" is so great that it feels eternal too.

14. Long Live (Speak Now)
Earlier on this list, I talked about how some Taylor Swift songs sound like sequels to ones that came before it.  But while something like "Never Grow Up" is a lesser, more boring version of "The Best Day," "Long Live" takes the concept and feeling of "Change" and realizes its full potential.  Both are anthemic album-enders that are in some way about being young and feeling like you can make a real impact.  "Change" takes the more direct route with its crashing wall of guitars, but "Long Live" is gloriously restrained, letting the U2-esque guitar pluck away in the wide open space of the verses, before swelling up in the chorus.

Lyrically, it's smaller in scale too.  "Change" was broad enough to be the theme song to the Olympics, while "Long Live" was written about her touring band.  Because of that, it manages to feel intimate and personal while actually being massive.  It almost feels like recalling a favorite summer camp memory, you can hear her smiling as she sings the lyrics.

13. Superman (Speak Now: Deluxe Edition)
If you just look at the lyric sheet of "Superman," it probably comes off as nauseating, cheesy, and pea-brained in its simplicity.  But when you actually listen to it?  It's magnificent.  "Superman" saves itself by being aggressively catchy, which is what all of the best Taylor Swift songs are.  The chorus has a form to match the song's namesake, with its hulking mass of crackling guitars that reveal a surprising agility.  The melody in the verses has a laser-beam focus and straightforwardness.  It's a bird, it's a plane, it's a wonderful Taylor Swift song.

12. Dear John (Speak Now)
I've always liked this song, but I also used to criticize it because I thought Swift was overly victimizing herself.   That's right, I was a part of The Problem.  But when you think about it, it's pretty gross that John Mayer dated a 19 year old and people scoffed at the idea of that 19 year old making a song about him emotionally manipulating her.  She got back at him the best way she could, by creating a track so raw, scorching, and specific that it deserves to be in the pantheon of all-time great diss songs.  (She even has her session guitarist sprinkle some Mayer-esque guitar accents all over the tune, an amazing touch.)

There's something so composed about her pain in "Dear John," and it comes off much less angry than alot of her other ex-boyfriend joints.  But in doing so, she somehow created something even more vicious and razor-sharp.  The barbs slice deeper because she's so controlled.  And the song itself is just so perfectly mounted, a fire-breathing behemoth that builds and builds over the course of six minutes until it finally explodes.  I love the way she stretches out that last word in "I'm shining like fireworks over your sad, empty town."  She turns a one-syllable word into 15.  "Epic" has become a meaningless word, but there's no other way to describe this one adequately.

11. Untouchable (Fearless: Platinum Edition)
Okay, I've got some explaining to do.  I clearly stated in the rules at the top of this post that covers weren't allowed, so why is this song, originally written and performed by the band Luna Halo, on this list?  There are a few reasons: 1. For a very long time, I didn't know it was a cover.  2. This version is much better than the original.  3. So much of it feels like a Taylor Swift song that it deserves placement.  She changes up Luna Halo's version -- so much so that they were willing to give her writing credits for her version -- and gives it a spacious, dreamy feel.  It's such a gentle song, I love that breathy way she says "come on, come on."  But it also quietly builds to a tower, accumulating so much emotion and momentum that it does feel like those "million little stars" have written something about her feelings.  This track is crazy good and it would've been a crime to leave it off the list.

10. Jump Then Fall (Fearless: Platinum Edition)
Something about the additional songs on Fearless: Platinum Edition makes it feel different from her other albums' bonus songs.  It could be because they were released a whole year after the regular album, and have a slightly different sound (despite many of the songs being recorded around the same time as the original Fearless songs).  The new material felt more like a really good EP between albums, as opposed to a few extras for the diehards.  Look no further than "Jump Then Fall" to see how high-quality these tracks are.  With its bright and clear production, lovely banjo plucks, and hopscotching melody, it's one of the best songs in Taylor's repertoire.  There's nothing about "Jump Then Fall" that actively strives for greatness, but it achieves it anyway, simply by doing its thing and doing it well.

9. You Belong With Me (Fearless)
Unlike with "Love Story," the other mega-hit from Fearless, the constant radio play of "You Belong With Me" hasn't dulled its impact one bit.  This song is an absolute powerhouse, a jam to end all jams.  Some people have a problem with the "she's cheer captain and I'm on the bleachers" dichotomy and the virgin/whore dynamic she allegedly perpetuates in this and other songs, but I remain dubious.  She isn't just bashing popularity in a broad sense.  Instead, she's highlighting the way that that somebody can seem like your polar-opposite adversary when they're with somebody you want.  And I feel like we all can relate to that.  Plus, did I mention that this song is a straight-up jam?

8. Wildest Dreams (1989)
Anybody with even a passing familiarity with the musical stylings of Lana Del Rey will take one listen to "Wildest Dreams" and tell you that it sounds like one of her songs.  But what they fail to mention is that Lana Del Rey could never make a song this sincere and, quite frankly, this good.  There's a deep, crushing yearning at the very center of this song which, coupled with its schmaltzy ornamentation, makes the emotions hit in a strange, but effective way.  There's an evocative sense memory to Swift's words: "His hands are in my hair, his clothes are in my room / And his voice is a familiar sound..."  By the time that breathy, withering sigh in the chorus comes around, you might need a fainting couch.  Eat your heart out, Lana.

7. New Romantics (1989: Deluxe Edition)
It has been about seven months since 1989 came out and not a single person on this planet has come up with a logical explanation for why Taylor Swift relegated "New Romantics" to being a bonus track.  This song is pretty much the reason why the word "banger" was invented.  Before this, she had never made a song as unabashedly dancey as this, and who knew she had it in her.  It's a smart, catchy track that's a great celebration of youth without feeling generic like every other "celebration of youth" song that's dominating the radio.  Accessible as it is, there are also some great references to old songs for the super fans: "We wait for trains that just aren't coming" (Sad Beautiful Tragic), "We show off our different scarlet letters" (Love Story), etc.  It's impossible to dislike this audio whirlwind.  Everybody pon de dancefloor!

6. Sad Beautiful Tragic (Red)
Fun fact: This song is so important to Taylor Swift that she rarely ever plays it live.  It's very important to me too, because I think this song is incredible.  Her voice sits perfectly in the mix; a little breathy, with a tiny bit of an echo.  And this is the first song I point to when somebody tries to argue that she's incapable of emotional maturity.  Change that twee title and stay mum about who's singing and I bet you could trick a bunch of people into thinking this is a song from a well-respected songwriter.  Swift shows some excellent efficiency on lines like "In dreams, I meet you in warm conversation / We both wake in lonely beds, in different cities."  Not only does she convey so much information in a small amount of words, the shift between the two lines feels like being splashed by a bucket of cold water.  Fun fact #2: I once read an interpretation of this song that theorized that the speaker is a woman who ends up killing herself.  There's not much in the text to support that, but I've chosen to treat it as canon anyway.

5. Enchanted (Speak Now)
Fun fact: This song was written about Adam Young, the Owl City dude.  That makes it, without a doubt, the best thing associated with Owl City.  (Although don't sleep on "The Saltwater Room," which is secretly a not-terrible song.)  The content of Taylor Swift's lyrics often gets discussed, but not enough people talk about their structure and form.  Her words are carefully construed; there's a poetic precision to the way her lyrics roll off the tongue.  I say all of this because the opening of "Enchanted" is an all-timer in this regard.  Just read the first few lines to yourself and feel the way they swirl around in your mouth like a fine wine.

This is also one of her most interestingly produced songs too.  The verses are filled with little flourishes that pop up like starbursts in a reverie.  The chorus bursts open and rains down like pyrotechnics.  "Enchanted" makes it mark in the little moments.  The "please don't be in love with someone else" refrain is simple, but the aching way it's sung always hits me so hard.  "My thoughts will echo your name, until I see you again" is so evocative that it has no choice but to stick with you.  This song is so good, it inspired a perfume.  You can't argue with that!

4. Mary's Song [Oh My My My] (Taylor Swift)
Remember when Taylor Swift wrote a better Nicholas Sparks book than Nicholas Sparks could've ever written?  And remember when she did it in three and a half minutes?  Written about her neighbors, "Mary's Song" tells this classic storybook tale of childhood friends who become lovers.  They get married, have kids, grow old together; and in between those familiar beats, Swift stuffs the song with all these touching details that make the sweeping story even more moving.  All of this sounds saccharine and awful when written down, but I'd be lying if I didn't say I get emotional every single time I listen to this.  It's an absolute knockout, I tell you.

3. Hey Stephen (Fearless)
"Hey Stephen" is so perfectly constructed and calibrated that it should be taught at songwriting workshops.  She stuffs so many interesting melodic turns into it (the little micro-melody she adopts at "Of all the girls tossing rocks at your window..." could carry an entire song).  The bridge might be the best one she's ever written, and she writes nothing but incredible bridges.  Every instrument is giving the other one room to do its thing, but they all come together with a factory line efficiency.  Not to mention it's just a super cute and endearing little tune.  This thing is marvelous, people!

2. State of Grace (Red)
Even with the album-defining "Fearless" and the whirlwind of "Mine" under her belt, there's no question that "State of Grace" is Taylor Swift's best opening track.  You've heard of stadium rock before?  Well this is stadium pop at its absolute finest, a wild rush of an introduction that slingshots the whole album's momentum right from the get-go.  This song is just massive, with a chorus that sounds like she's projecting from another galaxy, her voice a clarion call to us earthbound listeners.  The guitars have a thin, glassy chop that recalls the kind of riffs The Edge stopped writing 20 years ago.  (U2's guitar sound has come up twice on this list.  Maybe she's a huge fan?)  The drums propel the song forward with a dizzying fury.  Together, these elements make a maelstrom of sound.

But what makes "State of Grace" so great is that it doesn't lean on its inherent catchiness.  Swift doesn't just slack off on the lyrics front just because she wrote a killer melody surrounded by incredible instrumentation.  In fact, this track has some of my favorite lines of hers.  "We learned to live with the pain, mosaic broken hearts" might be her best phrase-turning ever.  "We are alone in our changing minds / We fall in love 'til it hurts or bleeds, or fades in time" has a grim, pragmatic poetry to it.  On the chorus, she wails "And I never saw you coming" in a way that stretches it out to a full 10 seconds.  It's a fitting line for this song, whose greatness always seems to catch me off guard.

1. Speak Now (Speak Now)
I made a joke once where I said that "Taylor Swift's third album is the greatest heel turn in wrestling history."  A number of songs on Speak Now could be held up as examples, but the title track is the most representative of Taylor Swift in full-on villain mode.  For the uninitiated, this is a song where she waltzes into a wedding she wasn't invited to and steals the groom away.  No, seriously.  Why does she do it?  Simply because she feels like she deserves the guy more than the bride-to-be does.  What's more, she makes the whole thing sound like the centerpiece of a cute, fluffy romantic comedy.  But picture this song from the perspective of the bride and it becomes absolutely horrifying.

I don't know what it says about me that my favorite Taylor Swift song is also her meanest, but I can't help it if this song is otherwise perfect.  It's a wonderful combination of whirling instrumentals, a sugary sweet melody, and great detail-driven lyrics.  The chorus -- and really, the whole song -- feels like it's mathematically calculated to be the greatest thing ever.  I've defended Swift's voice many times on this list, but this is the shining example that I use to make my point, because it sounds rich and honeyed here.  The way she holds that diving "don't waaaaiiit" in the chorus nests in your brain for days.  "Speak Now" may be a cruel song on paper, but the execution couldn't be more delightful.

And that's my list, which has been proven with pure science and objective reasoning, meaning it's correct and unassailable.  But if there are any Taylor Swift fans out there, I'd love to hear your thoughts in the comments!  Feel free to even share your own lists.

1 comment:

  1. I just crunched some numbers and calculated the average placement of the songs on each album and here's how it turned out:

    1. Fearless: 34.667 (good lord this album is insanely consistent)
    2. 1989: 45.563
    3. Red: 45.737
    4. Speak Now: 47.059
    5. Taylor Swift: 54.643
    6. Soundtracks/Unreleased: 76

    I have a tough time ranking Taylor Swift's albums, but I'd say that's a pretty accurate picture of how I would order them if I was forced to. Maybe I'd bump Speak Now ahead of Red, because even though it's a very bloated and uneven album, I have alot of warm feelings about its high points. But otherwise, the numbers don't lie!