Taylor Swift has been at the top of her game for a long time: first, at 16, she arrived as a ready-made country star with records glistening like chrome bumpers on Ford pickup trucks, full of Nashville accents and wailing Telecasters.
Slowly, over the 12 years that followed, the banjos were packed away and she began to take over the charts. In an era of megastars – of Adele, Beyoncé, Ed Sheeran – she has still somehow managed to break record sales and dominate the news cycle. She has built her empire the old way, on songs and shows, demonstrated her business knack through canny endorsements and has ended up as one of the highest earning artists in music.
The Look What You Made Me Do singer has now begun the UK leg of her Reputation tour to dazzling reviews, with tickets currently on sale.
Still, for much of her celebrity her music has been overshadowed by gossip of her dating and of her many feuds. Underneath it all, though, is a deeply personal back catalogue that documents her growing up. Below are her best 15 tracks released to date.
15. This Is Why We Can’t Have Nice Things
Does anyone apart from Pusha T relish a good diss track as much as Swift? 2017’s Reputation might have its patchy moments of just-out-of-date beats but it’s also full of deliciously vicious moments. I Did Something Bad was a beautiful middle finger to an ex (Calvin Harris, apparently), Look What You Made Me Do cut down her critics and this track, which is effectively a more bitter Bad Blood, battered Kim and Kanye. “Friends don't try to trick you/Get you on the phone and mind-twist you” she sings in an apparent swipe at the ‘I made that b**** famous’ controversy, while underneath stuttering electro-pop clashes with tinkling piano. The chorus is Swift at her most bitingly patronising, smiling as she twists the knife in.
14. We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together
Swift managed her first US number one with We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together. The singer’s knack for an earworm is obvious here, with the song one of the simplest but strongest of her career. The rest of Red dabbles with pop but Swift’s country roots are still very visible here. A foot-stomping acoustic guitar riff is right at the heart of the track, which is a much lighter take on the relationship at the heart of All Too Well. The old Taylor might not be able to come the phone right now, but she was on top form here.
13. Our Song
Jaunty violins, talk about God, a Nashville accent that twangs like a banjo string: Our Song is Taylor in full country mode. It’s got all the hallmarks of her early verse-chorus-bridge songwriting, and Swift reportedly put it together in 20 minutes for her ninth grade talent show before the record company nabbed it for her debut album. Built around a colossal chorus, where her delivery cracks like a drum beat, Our Song is a vivid picture of her teenage years and a testament to Swift’s natural songwriting nous – a reminder that, despite the headlines, she’s built a career on talent, not merely hype and controversy. Tim McGraw, which starts the album, has much the same effect.
12. I Knew You Were Trouble
2012 album Red took Swift's popularity to new levels and the universal appeal of I Knew You Were Trouble was a key part of that success. The song became one of the most parodied tracks of the year but even adding screaming goats into the mix couldn’t the hamper its impact. It’s perhaps surprising that despite the song’s success, the chorus marked one of the singer’s most experimental to date, flirting with dubstep, pop and dance influences. It’s the perfect example of Swift’s early musical experimentations – as was the U2-esque album opener State of Grace – which would eventually pave the way for the reinvention on 1989 two years later.
11. Shake It Off
Shake It Off is perhaps the perfect song to explain Taylor Swift and seems to encapsulate the contradictions which have made her a star. For everything that’s toe-curling and cringeworthy (see: “this sick beat”, the whole “my ex man” riff), it’s also infectious, irresistible and triumphantly confident; Swift knows it’s geeky and doesn’t care. It’s a song to shimmy to – and then to kiss your crush to, when she asks the fella with the hella good hair to shake, shake, shake. Grab the white wine and go be basic – sometimes it’s fun.
While Swift can occasionally lean-in on her wry way of seeing the world, she’s also gloriously unafraid of big, dumb pop. 22 is almost comically simplistic: the opening guitar riff is just a watered down Wild Thing, the drum beat is mindlessly insistent – a bass kick on every single beat – and the main hook (“I don't know about you, but I'm feeling 22”) has all the intelligence of a failed GCSE. None of it matters; the song is a joyous riot, set in a world where there are no pressures, no bills and the sun only goes down so everyone can go to bed together. It is fun, it is silly, it’s happiness is infectiously single-minded and the best lines come right at the end: “You look like bad news, I gotta have you”. There’s even Nile Rodgers-style guitar thrown in on the chorus. Splendid stuff. No wonder it’s said to be Harry Styles’ favourite Swift song.
Much has been made of Swift’s big transformation from country singer to pop behemoth but even before she was out of her teens she was flirting with stadium friendly rock. Still, Fifteen had plenty of banjo all over it, while her voice charmingly twangs as she talks boys and cars and heartbreak. Of which, it’s the lyrics that make this one: the song itself is so polished and clean it could have been assembled on a Tennessee production line, but Swift manages to infuse it with a sense of failed teenage romance that feels real – unsurprising, perhaps, given it’s based on her and her best friend Abigail Anderson’s years at Hendersonville High School.
“In your life you'll do things greater than/Dating the boy on the football team/But I didn't know it at fifteen” she sings, “Wish you could go back and tell yourself what you know now”. Ain’t that the truth.
8. Love Story
Ten years ago, pre-Kanye-at-the-VMAs, Swift was, in Britain at least, still that country girl with that one catchy song. This was that song; a hopelessly romantic tale of teenage love, Shakespeare’s Romeo & Juliet over pop-punk guitars and key changes and, of course, a happy ending replacing the tragedy. Eight million copies sold, making it the best selling country single of all time and paving the way for the decade of massive success that followed.
7. Blank Space
Blank Space is a minimalist masterpiece that paradoxically is crammed with hooks (something she manages again, like a magic trick, on Clean). The song in itself is actually surprisingly slow-moving; chords are long, drawn-out and the drums snap but are unhurried. The genius here in is Swift’s vocals, which are catchy enough that the whole thing seems to be one long chorus. Blank Space also marks the beginning of Swift sending herself up; in it, she satirises her media image as a man-obsessed, relationship addicted nightmare who serially dates for songwriting material. Hilariously, the key line (“Got a long list of ex-lovers/They'll tell you I'm insane”) has often been misheard – including by her own mother – as “all the lonely Starbucks lovers”, which rather changes the point somewhat. The video is a work of art too, introducing the world to the ‘new Taylor’ – before the new Taylor became the old, dead Taylor. Oh, and look out for her slip up at 3.40, it’s hilarious.
6. New Year’s Day
The beautiful, reverb soaked piano that flutters through New Year’s Day is a sign of what could be to come for Swift – not now, perhaps, but maybe in 20 years. It could be played then and just as good. If All Too Well is her great grown-up heartbreak track, this is her great grown-up love song. Whereas 1989’s You Are In Love used a similar sound for a rip of Bruce Springsteen’s Street’s of Philadelphia, here it’s more of a James Blake vibe. The beauty is in the simplicity; this is a love as rational as it is passionate. The metaphor is about being there for the good times (the party at midnight) and the bad (cleaning up bottles on New Year’s Day). There is a stroke of brilliance, too: “Please don't ever become a stranger whose laugh I could recognise anywhere” she sings as a reprise, realising what too few of us do until it’s too late: love is as fragile as it precious.
5. You Belong With Me
Taylor has a long-standing love affair with power chords and pop-punk goodness. On Red, there’s Holy Ground, before that was Speak Now’s girl-breaking-free-to-rule-the-world Long Live and before that was You Belong With Me on Fearless. It’s sometimes criticised for being too similar to her other early hits but in truth, it’s just the best example of them. It’s also wonderfully full Taylor: she plays the self-deprecating dork in love with her best friend, and the video is completely, brilliantly hysterical. There are all the elements needed: crashing guitars, unrequited love, a little teenage angst. It’s far from perfect: the lyrics are her corniest, the premise is cliched and the country embellishments have been tactlessly tacked on as if purely to placate the country audience. But, in the end, it’s catchy, sweetly endearing and you’ll be singing along merrily. If you want another fill of the good stuff, put on Fearless, which is just a little less catchy but with a better guitar solo.
Little known, not on any albums and barely performed live – to date it’s only been aired twice, with the first version live on a Stand Up to Cancer telethon the one to listen to – Ronan perhaps seems a unlikely entry on the list, but it stands the Swift song that aches the most, and is unlike anything else she’s written. Over the chime of trembling guitar chords, she sings as the voice of Maya Thompson, a mother who lost her four-year-old Ronan to cancer. Written after reading Thompson’s blog, Swift articulates the unsteady, insistent rhythm of grief with painful clarity. In the end, like in life, the loss stings the sharpest in the little things. “And it's about to be Halloween, you could be anything you wanted” she sings, her voice shaking and her eyes glassy with tears, “If you were still here.”
3. Out Of The Woods
Like the heartbroken logic in All You Had To Do Was Stay (the song Ryan Adams’ did best on his mixed 1989 cover album), it’s the naivety in this one that makes it so damned sad. Jack Antonoff produced a piece of driving rock dressed up as radio-pop, the stuttering drums and Blade Runner synths casting shadows over everything, the choir on the chorus giving it enough size to fill stadiums. It’s one for anyone who’s been wrapped up in a love that’s left them shaky with the uncertainty of it all, who’s gone to sleep and woken up with the same thought, of praying they’re getting as much love as they're giving.
Like a designer parading a new collection down the runway, Swift showcased her new direction perfectly on this aptly titled track. Pulsating synths drive the verses along before a huge sing-along chorus kicks in, marking a dramatic change from her guitar-led earlier compositions. It’s a formula that Swift would return to time and time again in her later work, not least on the similar Getaway Car from 2017 album reputation. The song remains a highlight at Swift’s live shows — after all, pop hooks as good as this will never go out of style.
1. All Too Well
Everyone jokes about the lost scarf, but this is Swift’s most sincere tale of heartbreak and is heartbreaking itself. Though it takes a handful of listens at least to ‘get’ this track, it’s worn out and weary and the hurt goes deep. Swift says it was one of the hardest to write, and it’s one of the hardest to listen to; she sounds like she’s singing right from the bones and it’s searingly, uncomfortably intimate. Having it on doesn’t feel so much like listening as eavesdropping: other ruminations in her back catalogue are broader, relatable, but here we’re hearing her specific turmoil. Nowhere else on record does she sound as cut up the way she does halfway through this one – Jake Gyllenhaal, you realise, really broke her heart.
Plenty of Swift songs are overwrought, but the drama here is sincere: her voice trembles with pain, and the song, which starts sparse, swells and hardens up like a lump in the throat. It’s little surprise the original cut was 10 minutes long; the song is cinematic, with a touch of Raymond Carver in the sparse, classically American lyrics: “'Cause there we are again in the middle of the night/We're dancing round the kitchen in the refrigerator light”.
When she gets to end of it, there are lines that induce a wince: “You call me up again just to break me like a promise/So casually cruel in the name of being honest” she says. Then you hear her lost to her heartbreak: “Time won't fly, it's like I'm paralyzed by it/I'd like to be my old self again/But I'm still trying to find it”. Love – especially when it cools – changes everything.