A year and a half ago, I was only just coming around to the idea of liking Taylor Swift’s music. But some of those songs have continued to grow on me, and Taylor’s recent album release prompted my partner Heidi and me to finally revisit all of her previous works in full. Over the weeks leading up to Midnights, we listened to each album, in order, and I’ve now gone through them once again in preparation for this piece. Thus, what follows is my personal ranking of Taylor Swift’s entire discography, ranked from lowest to highest.
First, though, a disclaimer: this is a completely subjective list, and I didn’t grow up on these albums like many others did—even mine and Heidi’s rankings are slightly different—but I’ve tried to justify my choices somewhat. I’m just having fun here. You get it.
Okay, let’s get started.
#10: Taylor Swift.
This is not a bad album by any means. In fact, it’s an extremely strong start, but it’s only natural that an artist with a lengthy discography—especially an artist that started at the age of seventeen—would improve significantly over time. Unfortunately, that means Taylors self-titled album gets relegated to last place overall; a foreshadowing of Taylor’s eventual greatness, but ultimately a starting point from which she develops in every aspect.
“Our Song” is the obvious standout from this album, but the other good tracks feel more or less balanced out by the forgettable ones, and the result is an album that sounds, compared to the rest of her albums, decidedly like a starter album.
Fearless takes the country-pop sound of Taylor Swift and refines it, resulting in an album with more hits, fewer weak points, and a better overall impression on the listener. “Love Story,” “You Belong With Me,” and “The Way I Loved You” aren’t just the highlights, they achieve the heights that Taylor would come to reach over the rest of her career, aging well and staying memorable for years afterward. These songs—and for that matter, these first three albums as a whole—still sound good within Swift’s discography, not in spite of their distinct country flavor, but because of it. This is the place where her sound started, and it started good.
#8: Speak Now
Speak Now is, to me, the perfect finale to the first three, country-pop-centric albums. Taylor perfects the sound of her original era, and the album forgoes significant stylistic evolution in favor of development in other areas. This is the first album that includes some of what would become Swift’s signature moves: reflective but scathing songs about specific men who mistreated her (“Dear John”), and songs that not-so-subtly address and refute her critics (“Mean”). Speak Now sets the stage perfectly for her to move forward from her country origins into her eventual core pop sound—giving hints of it, but still sounding decidedly like good ol’ Taylor Swift.
However, next is the first divergence in my list from strict album order.
#7 and #6: Evermore and Folklore
These two “sister albums” are, unsurprisingly, paired together and occupying essentially the same spot on the list, though Folklore is my favorite of the two and so officially speaking ranks higher than Evermore on this list.
Folklore earns some points, first of all, for having one of my favorite album covers from Taylor. As for the pair of albums, I value the stylistic direction a lot—from Red onward, all of Swift’s albums integrate elements from other genres (other than country and pop, I mean) tastefully and effectively. Folklore and Evermore lean in the direction of indie folk/indie rock very deliberately, and seeing as this is my home turf as a listener, the sounds of these albums appeal to me aesthetically in a way none of her other work does, and I think the sounds of Bon Iver and The National pair well with Taylor, despite not necessarily being among my favorite indie artists themselves.
Overall, Folklore marks the high point of the set of albums that are not, in the scope of her entire discography, quintessentially Taylor. From my perspective, these next five albums represent the most important aspects of her sound. I see how one might make the same argument for Folklore and Evermore, but to me, those albums don’t play to her strengths as much. In fact, it is a testament to her skill as a songwriter and a musician that those albums are still so good, but they are not high points of her work in total so much as high points of her genre flexibility and range. Both Folklore and Evermore are aesthetically cohesive in a way that I highly value, but they do not feel, to me, like Taylor at her absolute best.
These two comfortably acoustic albums are the closest to my personal musical niche, and for this reason they outrank the first three, which are the furthest from it. But from here on out are the big hitters.
By changing the one visual constant of the first three albums—the swirly-font Taylor Swift—the album immediately tells us that this is going to be a Taylor who sounds different. And it’s true. Red takes all the best of Swift’s previous country sound and redistributes it as a layer on top of a not-entirely-brand-new but certainly refreshing pop sound as the core of the music.
Red starts incredibly strong, and builds up momentum into “I Knew You Were Trouble,” whose chorus proves that Taylor is not afraid to use synth sounds and voice effects as part of that new pop sound. But the album then immediately turns to “All Too Well,” a heartbreaking, bitter ballad, the recent 10-minute recording of which only adds to its emotional impact and status as an all-time favorite of many a swiftie. What follows is “22,” which rounds out a trifecta of songs that, right in a row, showcase Swift’s emotive range as well as her now well-earned experience at songwriting. She is not just talented, she is practiced and skilled, and it’s undeniable with how many excellent tracks there are on this album.
Being the newest album, Midnights is perhaps the placement I’m least confident about. It takes time for an album to have its full impact, both culturally and on a given listener, so it’s too early to tell if it will ultimately place higher or lower for me, after it’s had some months to settle. But between “Anti-Hero,” “Karma,” and “Bejeweled,” Taylor’s pop bangers hit as hard as ever in 2022, and that is enough to earn a spot even above Red.
If Red establishes Taylor’s new, essential pop sound, 1989 embraces and reinforces it. In my opinion, 1989 doesn’t really hit its stride until “Style,” but once it does, it hardly loses momentum in quality for the rest of its run (“Bad Blood” notwithstanding) and the result is perhaps the most well-rounded album in Swift’s discography. It has all the strengths of the previous albums, few of the weaknesses, and a pacing that makes it much stronger in its entirety than the sum of its parts.
Lover is probably the only album on this list that benefits from personal emotional bias, based on the time it was released. Not only was it my primary introduction to Taylor Swift, but it is an album focused thematically on romance, released in the summer of 2019, while I was dating and falling in love with my now partner and spouse, Heidi.
With that in mind, Lover contains some of the highest highs of Taylor’s work. “Cruel Summer,” “The Man,” “Paper Rings,” and “Death By A Thousand Cuts” would probably all make the list of my top ten Taylor Swift tracks, and that remains true even with “You Need to Calm Down,” “Soon You’ll Get Better,” and “ME!” weighing the album down in various ways. On paper, that might not necessarily place it above 1989, but knowing the album better than most of the others also doesn’t hurt.
When I began this ranking, I really did not expect Reputation to end up at the very top. But it’s got a lot going for it.
First, it’s the most direct “fuck you” to the press of all her works. Not just some songs, but the entire album, satirizes the image of Swift as painted by the press, leaning into it and taking an obvious pleasure in indulging the absurdity of it all—if you’ve seen the music video for “Look What You Made Me Do,” you’ll know what I mean.
But it uses that frame to experiment with sound, too. The first thing you hear on the album are these three, low pulsing synth bass notes that set the tone for the rest of the album even clearer than the cover art already did, if that’s possible. And that tone is defiant and angry, but also infectiously confident, without being so overwhelming as to obscure Taylor’s stylistic range, emotional depth, and songwriting prowess. This album doesn’t include quite as many all time favorites of mine as Lover, but it does include “I Did Something Bad” and “Dancing With Our Hands Tied,” songs that are almost frustratingly effective and catchy for how far they are outside of Taylor’s typical genre wheelhouse, right alongside songs like “King Of My Heart” and “Dress” which, in their own way, still feel so quintessentially Taylor.
In fact, that’s the main reason why Reputation feels to me like it stands above the rest. It sounds just as much like core Taylor Swift as 1989 or Red, but it also has the stylistic stretching and aesthetic cohesion of Folklore and Evermore. It is in some ways her most campy, playful album, but also her first foray into more thematically adult material, and it brings it all together in an impressive blend before suddenly reducing all that heavy synth back down to a simple piano and guitar for “New Year’s Day,” one of her best closing songs to date.
Accomplishing all this in a single album is nothing short of incredible, but I shouldn’t be that surprised. Sometimes, things are popular because they’re really, really good.
Philip Rienstra (‘21) majored in writing and music and has plans to pursue a career in publishing. They are a recovering music snob, a fruit juice enthusiast, and a big fan of the enneagram. They’re currently living in Grand Rapids with their partner, Heidi.