A Beginner’s Guide to Taylor Swift

By Aidan Judge

As an artist’s discography grows throughout their career, it can be difficult to determine where to start in terms of giving their music the proper listening it deserves. Legends like Dolly Parton and Bruce Springsteen have dozens of albums to listen to, and let’s be honest: the feeling can be overwhelming if you plan on listening to their music in full. Today, we’re going to focus on an artist whose discography is on the smaller side, but covers an extremely wide range of sounds, lyrics and topics in all of their music. Today, we discuss the one and only Taylor Swift. 

Ever since her debut album was released when she was just 16 years old, Taylor Swift has cemented herself as a staple of pop culture over the last fourteen years. From her very first single (“Tim McGraw”) up to her most recent (“cardigan”), Swift’s artistry and music can be described in one word: versatile. Ever since as early as her second album, Swift has explored a wide variety of sounds, genres and lyrical styles that make each of her records truly unique from one another. In one moment, you can be listening to soft, swaying country tunes and aggressive, futuristic synth-pop in the next. So since Swift’s discography covers such a wide range of genres, where does one start when trying to get into Swift’s music? Well, I’m here to help. Here’s a beginner’s guide to all things T-Swift. Buckle up. 

Taylor Swift and Fearless (Taylor’s prime country phases): Lovingly nicknamed the “Yee-haw” Taylor era by her fans, Swift’s first two albums are about as country as it gets for the genre-hopping artist. In her first two records, you’ll hear twanging banjos, soft acoustic guitar, and a strong southern accent that Swift herself no longer has. Swift’s self-titled LP is a classic country record, focusing on topics like teen love and trying to find your place in the world. You have your high energy break-up anthems likePicture to Burn andShould’ve Said No, coupled with emotional, tear-jerking tracks such as ”Cold as You”  and “Teardrops On My Guitar.” Overall, Swift’s debut record is a fun and lighthearted listen that doesn’t really have the lyrical depth of her forthcoming records. If you’re looking for a relaxing album with a distinct country sound, Taylor Swift is the listen for you. 

Moving on to Swift’s sophomore LP, Fearless, is where we start to see the first changes in Swift’s sound, lyrical content, and general themes within her work. Although Swift’s second album is also centered around topics such as love, heartbreak and growing up, the record presents music based on those topics in a more mature and hard-hitting way. We also begin to see elements of pop shine through in the tracks, such as the pop-rock sound of smash-hit “You Belong With Me” and the high-speed pop tempo of “Forever & Always. However, Fearless is still very much a country record, and acts as a grown-up version of its predecessor. If you want mature, whimsical country tunes with elements of familiar pop sounds, Fearless gets the job done. 

Swift’s next two albums, Speak Now and Red, represent Taylor’s shift to country-pop, and show the first significant shifts in track production and lyrical content. These two albums blow her first two records out of the water. After controversy regarding Swift’s writing ability following Fearless being awarded album of the year at the 2010 Grammy Awards, Swift decided she had to prove all of the people who doubted her abilities wrong and write her third album entirely solo. Speak Now is the product of the fire lit inside of Swift following this controversy. Clocking in at 67 minutes in length, Speak Now is Swift’s longest record, and is also much more deeply personal than her previous two. Swift’s third album details her most devastating heartbreaks, most infatuating loves, and directly calls out some of the people who have pushed her down in the past years of her life (See “Dear John” for Swift at her most heartbreaking anthem yet). The sound of Speak Now also feels distinct from her previous records, adopting a pop-rock sound for hit singles “Mine” and “Sparks Fly” while maintaining the familiar country sound the general public knows and loves her for. Speak Now is a body of work that best emphasizes Swift’s unmatched talent for songwriting. If you’re looking for gut-wrenching, everlasting ballads that will make your heart ache for Swift herself, take a listen to Speak Now (my personal favorite album of Swift’s). 

Moving forward, we reach Red– a fan favorite album that has some of Swift’s most iconic hits. It’s difficult to describe Red in one word because it’s such a versatile and multi-faceted album. As Swift herself has described, Red is a “true break-up album”, zeroing in on all aspects of broken relationships, heartbreaking truths and hopeless love. Often said to be one of Swift’s most somber albums, Swift’s fourth record is a cathartic adventure through a relationship gone wrong. Lovesick ballads like “All Too Well”, “Sad Beautiful Tragic”, and “Treacherous” are the backbone of the album, while passionate break-up anthems like “I Knew You Were Trouble” and  “We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together” provide fun, karaoke-inspiring tunes to dilute the pain of the record’s pain-staking tracks. Occasionally, a light-hearted and fun song makes its way into the mix, like “22” and “Stay Stay Stay.” Overall, many consider Red to be Swift’s magnum opus, and her first venture into a more pop-sounding album- a true heartbreak record that tells a cohesive story while creating relatable tunes to sing with friends. 

1989, reputation and Lover are all a part of Swift’s full-on pop era. After the massive success of Red, there was only one thing Swift knew she had to do, and the general public knew as well: make a full genre shift to pop music. After losing album of the year at the 2014 Grammy awards, a passionate fire was lit inside Swift once again, and the idea for 1989 actually came to her in a dream in the middle of the night following her loss. As soon as the Red era concluded, Swift was back to work, this time on her first fully-fledged pop album. The product, 1989, ended up being one of the most successful pop albums of all time, and is still charting on the Billboard Top 200 albums to this very day, six years after its release. 1989 is about everything you could ask for in a pop record- fun, catchy bops, emotional anthems to scream in the car, and some of the most irresistibly splendid music production Swift has ever released. From classic pop hits “Shake It Off”, “Blank Space” and “Bad Blood” to powerful, heartfelt love songs “Out of the Woods” and “Style”, Swift cemented her legendary status with this album by creating a treat for all pop fans around the world. If you want an absolutely essential listen for Swift’s discography, 1989 is one of them. 

Swift’s next album, reputation, proved to be her most ambitious and shocking record yet. After a major scandal regarding rapper Kanye West’s single Famous and its derogatory lyrics towards Swift and the shady phone conversation between both artists, Swift became a victim of “cancel” culture and disappeared from the public eye for more than a year. When Swift returned, her sixth studio album was completed, and she had a lot to say. reputation is a concept album that talks about dark, vengeful concepts such as revenge and anger. Swift’s sixth LP is definitely her darkest and most uncharacteristic album, marked by synth and trap-inspired revenge songs “Look What You Made Me Do” and “I Did Something Bad”. Even though reputation is a middle finger to all the haters, there are still quite a few heartwarming and wholesome tracks on the otherwise dark and brooding record. Songs “Call It What You Want”, “King Of My Heart” and “Gorgeous” provide a bubbly break from the loud and outrageous albums that otherwise characterize the body of work. If you want to hear Swift’s side of the story after the never-ending drama from 2016, reputation is a must. 

Less than two years after the release of reputation, Swift decided to go in a completely different direction following her dastardly sixth studio album. This time, Swift returns to form with the bright and sunny Lover. If Lover were to be categorized into a specific genre, it would likely be bubblegum pop. A majority of the songs on Swift’s seventh LP are upbeat, high-spirited tracks about finding that person you want to spend the rest of your life with. Although the album is mostly energetic and spirited songs like “ME!”, “Paper Rings” and “Cruel Summer”, the record also takes a turn onto the more serious and ardent sides of love, as seen in “Lover”, “Cornelia Street” and “Afterglow.” The album also discusses topics Swift has never brought up in her previous discography, addressing issues like sexism in “The Man” and homophobia in “You Need To Calm Down.” Although Lover is a mostly positive and uplifting record, there are a handful of songs that discuss more serious and saddening topics, making a complicated and multi-faceted record. If you want to feel a wide range of emotions all about falling in love, give Lover a try. 

folklore is yet another genre-hop, as we come to Swift’s most recent album. The thing about folklore is that it was dropped completely out of nowhere- the first ever surprise album drop in Swift’s career. Like I stated before, if there’s one thing Swift has mastered, it’s the art of songwriting, and Swift’s legendary way with words makes its presence known on Swift’s first alternative-folk record. Collaborating with famous alternative artists Aaron Dessner and Justin Vernon, Swift crafts a smokey, chill record with an emphasis on unique lyrics and simplistic production. The lyrics are probably the best of her entire career, with nearly every track on the record being a highlight. Whether you’re in an uplifting mood for something like “betty” or “the 1”, or in a sad and somber mood for something like “my tears ricochet” or “epiphany”, folklore is just one of those albums that has an insanely high amount of re-listening ability. It’s a record that you’ll never find boring, and has so many layers and details to unpack that one listen simply wouldn’t suffice. So, if you’re feeling ready to cozy up with a blanket and listen to a record about love and its drawbacks, folklore is the album for you. 

And we’ve done it! There is a beginner’s guide to what Taylor Swift you should listen to. As you can see, Swifts discography covers an enormously large range of sounds, topics and moods to experience while listening. There’s no true way to define Swift’s music, but I hope this gave guidance on just how incredibly versatile the singer-songwriter is. Alright, off to listen to Swift’s entire discography again.

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