Welcome to Dissected, where we disassemble a band’s catalog, a director’s filmography, or some other critical pop-culture collection. This time, we take a look at Taylor Swift’s full discography in celebration of Midnights, released in October 2022.
All right, here’s the thing — ranking Taylor Swift‘s discography is not an easy task.
When considering a songwriter whose work spans so many different eras, it’s only to be expected that different people will have different personal connections to parts of her catalogue. I’ve written in the past that less stellar tracks from Swift can be treated like smudges on a crystal wine glass set — everything is still pretty beautiful, and often much better than collections that might be found elsewhere.
Swift’s journey from girl-next-door country act to pop star to woodsy poet has been over a decade, meaning her fan base has grown up with her. In recent years, folklore and evermore offered a chance for doubters to see Swift’s songwriting power on full display, but the truth is that her pen has always been her sword. Songwriting prowess is not new here — it’s just taken different forms as Swift has transformed from teenage wunderkind to a confident and careful adult.
For this ranking, we consulted Swift’s catalogue through a few different lenses. We dug into the album artwork (I Can Picture It), the best and worst tracks on the album (The 1 and Tolerate It, respectively), and analyzed her lead single rollout. Naturally, we highlighted lyrics from each album that feel like a personal attack (there are always a few), selected the best music video from each era (If This Was a Movie), and highlighted the best bridge from each collection (‘Cause Baby, I Could Build a Bridge). Our overall thoughts are summarized in the section marked Call It What You Want.
Looking back, it’s pretty amazing that the very brave seventeen-year old, curly-headed girl who sat on the CMAs stage and bravely sang her debut single, “Tim McGraw,” to Tim McGraw himself would go on to be, arguably, the biggest pop star in the world for a time.
If you revisit that performance, though, you’ll see that Swift already has a certain boldness to her. She didn’t know just how long, difficult, wonderful, magical, and miserable the road ahead of her was, but she was ready for the adventure. Her life experience has always informed her work, and the result is a collection of stories that will be part of the pop culture landscape for a very long time.
Without further ado, our ranking — are you ready for it?
— Mary Siroky
10. Lover (2019)
Runtime: 60:01, 18 tracks
I Can Picture It: A stark reversal from the reputation era, the album art for Lover is all glitter and rainbows. Every photo around the album is draped in a hazy filter, often peppered with doodles and stickers. It felt like a bit too much of a juvenile move for Swift, who was approaching 30 at the time. The kaleidoscopic vision was intended to extend to Lover Festival, which fell victim to COVID.
The 1: What’s so frustrating about Lover the album is that “Lover,” the song, is arguably the best song Swift has ever written. It’s a perfect ballad and a lyrical masterwork, elevated here by strong production choices from Jack Antonoff. The minimalist touch makes the intimate nature of the song truly shine — everything feels open and inviting, as though Swift is performing it in the room herself.
Tolerate It: There are many misses on Lover (again, not fun to say, but the frantic “Paper Rings” and overdone, Google Maps-esque “London Boy” are far from Swift’s best work). Worst of all, widely agreed to be the biggest miss of her career, is the lead single, “ME!” featuring Brendon Urie of Panic! At the Disco. “ME!” was an utter disaster from the jump, and Swift’s attempt at damage control (removing the highly-ridiculed interlude of, “Hey, kids, spelling is fun!”) only brought more attention to the trainwreck. The song can be read as tongue-in-cheek, but the self-awareness didn’t come through to enough of a degree to save the song.
Why Wasn’t This the Lead Single?: Say it with me: Justice for “Cruel Summer!” It’s the brightest spot on the album, and Swift reportedly had plans for the track that were derailed, once again, by COVID. Perhaps the entire album experience would have been different if “ME!” hadn’t been its introduction; “Cruel Summer” has the kind of pop melody in the chorus that can’t be shaken. Swift is known for writing a great bridge, and “Cruel Summer” has one of her best. “He looks up grinning like a devil” has to be one of the most fun Swift lines to yell at the top of your lungs.
Lyrics That Feel Like a Personal Attack: “Who could ever leave me, darling?/ But who could stay?” This simple set of questions found on “The Archer” is the kind of tragic introspection Swift brings fully to life a few years down the road in folklore and evermore.
If This Was a Movie: “You Need to Calm Down” was a star-studded, fun event and rare foray into the political for Swift, but it’s, again, the magical title track that holds up as the best video from the Lover era. The primary color theme lands well here; Swift backup dancer and collaborator Christian Owens brings the titular lover to life in gentle, captivating fashion; it’s tender and just fantastical enough without losing the track’s groundedness. No notes!
‘Cause Baby, I Could Build a Bridge: Yes, once again, we are back to “Lover.” It’s the bridge that probably launched a thousand first dances at weddings: “My heart’s been borrowed and yours has been blue/ All’s well that ends well to end up with you/ Swear to be overdramatic (and true) to my lover.” Presumably, this was the mix of nostalgic, playful, and honest that Swift was going for elsewhere on the album. It works best here.
Call It What You Want: Ultimately, Lover isn’t a bad album — at all! It’s at the bottom because it was clear at this point at this point in her career that Swift could do so much better. It feels a bit too much like an unnecessary course correction from reputation, rather than a collection of themes Swift was really interested in pursuing. She has such a rich and interesting discography that the standards are sky high. — M.S.