Taylor Swift is a towering figure in popular music and for good reason. She has produced nine superb albums and deservedly won numerous Grammys for her work. Despite this, it saddens me to say, she doesn’t get the credit she deserves as a songwriter. At this point, I would list her among the best songwriters in the history of American popular music. Still, some of my friends dismiss her because, at least until recently, her music has been slickly produced and perhaps also because she is so popular. For music afficionados who disdain the torrent of drivel that pours out of the pop music industry this is an understandable reaction. But, alas, for all of the slick production, Taylor Swift is a
masterful songwriter. So I’ve decided to make a list of what I regard as some of Swift’s best songs, particularly from a songwriting standpoint. But the recorded performances and arrangements inevitably figure in my thinking as well.
I am going to list these chronologically and completely ignore Swift’s first three albums, strong as they are. This means I am bypassing such early classics as “Back to December,” “White Horse,” “Mean” and, my personal favorite from her early period, “Sparks Fly.” And there are many other great tunes I could have included, some of which I actually enjoy more than many of the songs on my list (e.g., “I Knew You Were Trouble,” “Holy Ground,” “We are Never Getting Back Together,” “I Know Places,” “Shake it Off,” “Getaway Car,” “Don’t Blame Me,” and “Paper Rings”).
If you’re not very familiar with Swift’s music or you haven’t closely inspected her lyrics, I invite you to do so as you go through this list. The videos links include lyrics.
- “All Too Well” (Red, 2012) – This is one of Swift’s many break-up songs, but which poignantly expresses lingering regrets and features especially powerful arrangement dynamics. This song is a clinic in both songwriting and production. Check out Swift’s live performance of the song at the Grammys in 2013.
- “The Lucky One” (Red, 2012) – This is the song that first got my attention regarding Swift’s songwriting talent. A powerfully communicated message about the destructive effects of immense fame—an uncommon theme in popular music. MGMT’s “Time to Pretend” might be the best in that category, but Swift’s “The Lucky One” is right up there.
- “Blank Space” (1989, 2014) – Art often imitates life, and sometimes it intentionally imitates lies or exaggerations about life. This song falls into the latter category, as Swift explains in this live performance at the Grammy museum.
- “I Did Something Bad” (Reputation, 2017) – At first blush this song seems like a confession, but it’s actually more likely a declaration of innocence in the face of unjust accusation. “They say I did something bad” goes the refrain.
- “This is Why We Can’t Have Nice Things” (Reputation, 2017) – Swift is the master of the musical rebuke, and this one is as good as they get, presented in a musical form that is reminiscent of a Broadway musical and accented by Swift’s clever humor (another quality of great songwriters).
- “Death by a Thousand Cuts” (Lover, 2019) – This song is the perfect marriage of form to content—blending a poignant melody with a tragic lyrical theme. And it is loaded with great lines. So good.
- “Invisible String” (Folklore, 2020) – There are probably ten songs from Folklore that I could include in this list. The album is that consistently strong. But this one stands out to me for its lyrical subtlety.
- “The Last Great American Dynasty” (Folklore, 2020) – A song about philanthropist Rebekah Harkness who married into the wealth of Standard Oil tycoon William Harkness. Swift purchased a Rhode Island property once owned by the Harkness, hence there is a personal connection.
- “No Body, No Crime” (Evermore, 2020) – A crime drama in a song, complete with a clever twist at the end. Is there anything songwriting-wise this woman can’t do?
- “Marjorie” (Evermore, 2020) – An emotionally powerful song about Swift’s grandmother that also works in some instructive life maxims, without being either maudlin or preachy. All couched in a that misty musical ambience that pervades both Folklore and Evermore.