For more than a decade now Taylor Swift has been a lightning rod for praise and criticism.
Yet she’s a true survivor; propelled by an insatiable sense of ambition, Taylor has moved from country to pop and beyond, building a singular catalogue in the process.
2021 brought a plethora of activity for fans, with Taylor using down-time to launch an audacious bid to wrestle back control of her art through a helter-skelter burst of re-recording.
Amid the headlines, though, all focus was on the songs themselves – gorgeous jewels, mini-masterpieces of guilty, envy, and desire, her ability to frame a narrative and build an emotion with just a few words remains unrivalled.
To open a New Year, Clash writers picked out their favourites from Taylor Swift’s catalogue.
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Right Where You Left Me
Encapsulating the numbing pain that follows traumatic encounters, Taylor paints a bittersweet picture that invites us into the slowed-down world of a person completely stuck in time. The song revels in country-core and folk-pop with its banjo and harmonica instrumentation. The sonic progression is catchy and ominous, paralysing and pulling the listener in and out of the narrator’s emotions. While the lyrics seem specific and personal to the singer, it sums up the chaos of our ever-changing world today, where a global pandemic has left many people overly aware of the power of time, and stunted by its passage. A lot of us may still be clinging onto a version of ourselves that no longer exists, that ceased to exist when the pandemic began, and this song reminds us of that tragic feeling.
Although it’s painfully sad, there is hope laced within the song as we anticipate the return of her lover, no matter how futile a thought it may be. As always, Swift masters storytelling with her use of imagery from the forlorn dim light, dropped hair pins, shattered glass, and collected dust. (Sahar Ghadirian)
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The 13th track of 1989, ‘Clean’, always followed an incredibly heartfelt speech on her tour, with one of the most important lines being: ‘the moment you realise you’re not the opinion of somebody who doesn’t know you or care about you, that’s the moment you’re clean’. A masterclass in songwriting, the poetic slow pop track is about acceptance following heartbreak. As time passes, it simultaneously heals, and Taylor never wants listeners to forget that. She also wisely notes that “just because you’re clean doesn’t mean you don’t miss it…”
What makes ‘Clean’ so special is how it’s formed its own meaning for fans. To her, the song explores the shift from what used to be common habits in a relationship to becoming shelved memories that rarely cross her mind. To many fans, the idea of ‘Clean’ is literal, both empowering and validating, helping them navigate their tribulations from mental illness, addiction, and abuse. (Sahar Ghadirian)
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You Belong With Me
There is something instantly captivating about the teenage innocence of ‘You Belong With Me’. The second single from Taylor Swift’s ‘Fearless’ (2008) album, it’s three minutes fifty-two seconds of up-tempo goodness spread across perfervid banjo chords and a catchy hook. Beyond its undeniable reliability, the track stands out for the intentionality of the composition. Its most memorable moments are each preceded by cleverly constructed emotional crescendos.
The accompanying visuals see Swift take on the role of both antagonist and protagonist for an entertaining retelling of the plight of the girl next door. Directed by Roman White the video even has the perfect fairytale ending with an unassuming ‘nerd’ getting her dream boy.
Not only is ‘You Belong With Me’ an earworm, remaining one of Swift’s most popular songs to date, but is also arguably responsible for cementing her transition into the pop arena by incorporating all the crossover elements her fans have grown to love. (Ray Sang)
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Things I could talk about forever = Taylor Swift’s insane ability to articulate niche feelings.
The first time I heard ‘august’, I remember being floored by how specific all the emotions are, painting such a vivid picture while still allowing it to be the lightest track on ‘folklore’. As though it’s full of literal sunshine, august has magic in it. When you listen to it, it’s like a full body joy experience as it barrels towards that full orchestra major chord climax. I could listen to it forever. (Lucy Harbron)
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My Tears Ricochet
The ULTIMATE track five, ‘My Tears Ricochet’ is easily one of Taylor’s most gut-wrenching tracks, and definitely one of her most beautiful. Dipping its toes into the betrayal and heartbreak caused by the Scooter Braun incident, it never becomes too non-fiction or story-telling.
Instead, ‘My Tears Ricochet’ turns into a funeral lament that perfectly vocalises all the sadness and anger and displacement that comes with a mega heartbreak. When the bridge kicks in, there’s no doubt that this is some of her best work as the echoing high notes seem to pour 100 different feelings out of them. (Lucy Harbron)
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Welcome To New York
‘Welcome To New York’ opened Swift’s ‘1989′, the album that fully removed her from her country roots and supplanted her squarely in contemporary pop territory. Produced with One Republic’s Ryan Tedder, ‘Welcome To New York’ was laced with fizzing electronic hooks and a thrilling, wide-eyed energy evoking the spirit of the city that never sleeps. The line ‘Everybody here was someone else before,’ seemed to embody NYC’s enduring capacity for personal reinvention, while also perhaps being allegorical for Swift’s own stylistic transformation between ‘Red’ and ‘1989′.
Elsewhere, the song feels like a high-speed race around the bright lights of the big city, a singular reference to a broken heart hinting at a backstory that is rapidly overtaken by succumbing to New York’s persuasive charms. Swift would do something similar on ‘London Boy’ from ‘Lover’, but for this listener it lacked the authentic vibrancy of ‘Welcome To New York’. (Mat Smith)
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The Last Great American Dynasty
‘Folklore’, Taylor Swift’s eighth album, changed the theme slightly as she mentioned that many of the songs came from fictional encounters and plotlines that she had created in her mind.
Yet, Swift’s storytelling and personal touches seeped through the entire record. Therefore, one of the songs that completely captured the essence of the ground-breaking album is ‘The Last Great American Dynasty’. It starts with the retelling of the story of socialite Rebekah Harkness, who once owned the same Rhode Island coastal mansion that belongs to Swift now, and ends up using Harkness’ fierce traits to eventually switch the premise to the 32- year-old’s time at the compound. Whilst the first half of the song focuses on Harkness, her actions, and what the others in the neighbourhood perceived her as, the second half cleverly uses those actions to translate Rebekah Harkness’ reputation to Swift’s, both in that same neighbourhood and to the world.
‘The Last Great American Dynasty’ ties together the pop icon’s country past to her recent sound and proves that she hasn’t forgotten the genre that was her leeway into superstardom. But the same track also brings together the second-hand storytelling she started to try out in folklore to the first-hand encounters she has used in all of her previous work. The melody and harmonies portray a beautiful connection of pure comfort whilst the lyrics are a testament to Taylor Swift’s genius. (Lauren DeHollogne)
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Dear John is a clever wordplay to refer to the (in)famous “Dear John letters” and her ex- boyfriend, musician John Mayer, therefore showing by the mere title alone that this will be an emotional passage of time. The song stands together with other heart-breaking tracks in Taylor Swift’s catalogue like ‘All Too Well’, ‘Happiness’, yet is particularly tough-but-beautiful to listen to because of the innocence portrayed in every part of the six minutes and 44 seconds.
“Don’t you think I was too young?”, Swift croons throughout, as we are reflecting on the age gap between the then 19-year-old, singer and her romantic partner Mayer who was 32 at that time. Yet, ‘Dear John’ still doesn’t feel like a real reckoning, and it definitely isn’t holding John Mayer accountable towards his actions, but rather shows all the reasons to why Swift is heartbroken, in which she often blames herself as “I should’ve known” is another line she often repeats.
‘Dear John’, is not just a tragically-magical track in Swift’s repertoire but also a tale of caution. One can only wonder how this tune will be transformed in the re-recordings as the now-legendary artist has recently turned 32 herself. (Lauren DeHollogne)
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Back To December
Soft flourishes of guitar and strings behind a wintry backdrop, ‘Back to December’ isn’t as Christmassy as the title could suggest, but it’s great for the heartbroken (and the heartbreakers). Full of accountability, Swift holds her hands up, swallows her pride, and sings boldly about her regret towards a former lover – in a similar vein to ‘champagne problems’.
There’s a fondness to the country pop track which makes the singer’s guilt ache with extra remorse. The song’s apex unfolds with the bridge as she attempts to fix uncovered memories, and change where she went wrong. Unrealistic and almost impossible, she realises it’s too late, and the idea of loving someone is simply not enough: ‘I’d go back in time and change it, but I can’t’. Taylor doesn’t shy away from vulnerability and laying her insecurities bare; apologising, and expecting nothing in return. (Sahar Ghadirian)
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Soon you’ll get better
Too many people shrug ‘Lover’ off as all sugar-coated pop tracks. And to those people, I’d like to challenge them to sit through ‘Soon You’ll Get Better’ without shedding a tear. Written about her mum’s battle with cancer, I’d argue this is her most personal track ever penned. Compared to the rest of the record, it’s small and fragile, harking back to earlier albums and smaller productions.
There are so many absolutely heart-shattering lyrics in this track, it’s hard to try and pick one out. But regardless of sound or song writing merit, I think a track this beautiful and personal deserves a slot in her best work. (Lucy Harbron)
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This is me trying
Taylor attacked me with this one. Adopting a wildly different sound with its relentless synth and drum backing, this is me trying manages to put into words and sound the exact feeling of trudging alone in life. It’s so dark and sparse compared to any of her other work, and seemed to open up the doors of what a Taylor Swift track could be for ‘folklore’, ‘evermore’ and beyond. It’s one of the first times her voice ever sounded this mature and jagged as the bridge seems to bite at your ears, and the difference leaves me with my jaw on the floor time and time again. (Lucy Harbron)
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‘Champagne Problems’ deserves a place on Taylor’s Best of list purely for the eight lines of its bridge. Shakespeare wishes he wrote that bridge; Jane Austen is rolling with envy in her grave. The perfect cherry on top for this beautiful storytelling track, the bridge of ‘Champagne Problems’ is without a doubt some of Taylor’s best work as it flows between metaphor and brutal honesty. It comes unexpectedly and hits every single time, a literary masterpiece. (Lucy Harbron)
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With an opening riff that incorporates funk-pop, ‘Style’ is slowed-down synth perfection. Hearing the muted intro feels like you’re standing in a club queue, desperate to get in after hearing the blaring bounce of everyone inside. The inescapable high of the precarious and oftentimes anxiety-inducing relationship Taylor recalls is full of familiar references. The attention to detail will mesmerize any One Direction fan, and the lyrics harken back to a time now gone. There is something thrilling about “You got that James Dean daydream look in your eye / And I got that red lip classic thing that you like”, as it formed the bios and captions of many Twitter, Tumblr, and Instagram accounts back in 2014.
Taylor’s play on lyrics is incredible as ever, especially the repeated ‘take me home’ that rules the song’s bridge. Was it an accidental reference to 1D’s second studio album ‘Take Me Home’? Nothing is accidental in Taylor Swift’s world. (Sahar Ghadirian)
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I could write a 1000 word essay on why ‘Cruel Summer’ should’ve been ‘Lover’s lead single. It deserved more, and so I made it my duty to listen to it approx. 100 times a week as compensation. I don’t know what Taylor and St Vincent put in this song but it is highly addictive.
Nothing gives me serotonin like screaming “I don’t wanna keep secrets just to keep you” at top volume in the car. The structure of this song that seems to build and build without ever hitting a roof is designed to send listeners feral and it succeeds ever time. (Lucy Harbron)
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No longer plagued by innocence ‘Happiness’ tells the story of a mature long-lasting relationship that was faltering and ends up broken. The soft harmonies fit the soft-spoken yet hard-hitting lyrics magically. As the song progresses Swift as the narrator goes back-and- forth in her telling of the relationship between the protagonist and the ex-partner. Letting the listener know, “There’ll be happiness after you – But there was happiness because of you”, but also translates pure bitterness that is often seen at the end, “I hope she’ll be a beautiful fool / Who takes my spot next to you / No, I didn’t mean that / Sorry, I can’t see facts through all of my fury,” and eventually also the loss of love through simple sentences like, “I can’t make it go away by making you a villain / I guess it’s the price I pay for seven years in heaven / And I pulled your body into mine every goddamn night now I get fake niceties.”
‘Happiness’ is a continuation of Swift’s songwriting in tracks like ‘All Too Well’, yet this time there’s no youthful glow. And although the innocence of youth makes certain emotions like the ending of a relationship seem way more intense, it also gives off the protective power of the not-knowing of what comes next. The maturity level in ‘Happiness’ makes the track all the more devastating. Because, yes, you are now capable to condense the feelings and seeing both sides of the story, but, the hopefulness of the future is losing its power and the nostalgia of the past is gaining quickly.
That’s why ‘Happiness’ is not just a song that allows the listener to dwell in the emotion of a love gone wrong but also the overarching theme of the loss of innocence, the kind of innocence that will never ever return, and therefore, ‘Happiness’, is not just another creation of Swift’s beautiful mind, it’s the end of an era and the beginning of a new one. (Lauren DeHollogne)
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