“Folklore”: A Professor Reviews Taylor Swift, Album #8

I commented that, during Lover, Taylor seemed to be throwing musical ideas to the wall to see what sticks. Not so on Folklore, which features perhaps the most cohesive tone of any of her albums (even more so than the sequel Evermore). Here Taylor launches her artistry in new, chill directions, while both capturing the sad weariness of the pandemic era yet crafting a work that seems destined to live far beyond that moment in time. Even if some tracks miss the mark, the lofty heights here merit the album’s wide acclaim–an acclaim that now includes the Grammy for Album of the Year. That’s an honor shared with Fearless and 1989, which puts Folklore in rarefied company.

Folklore (released 2020)
“Isn’t it romantic how all of my elegies eulogize me?

“The 1” (6.5/10): Taylor doesn’t tend to lead off an album with her strongest songs, and this is no exception, although it does effectively set the reflective mood of Folklore.

“Cardigan” (8/10): This song does so many things so well, filled with regret and pain and passion and also an easy sense of ‘chill,’ all at the same time.

“Last Great American Dynasty” (9.5/10): Taylor’s storytelling emerges in full force here in a breezy, beachy tune that brings an important punch of positive energy to the album.

“Exile” (10/10): Taylor’s duets with men tend to turn out somewhere between ‘great’ to ‘awesome,’ and for my part, I think this expansive, powerful song is (so far) the best duet she’s ever done.

“My Tears Ricochet” (8.5/10): This follows the Track 5 tradition of highly personal, emotionally resonant songs that also serve as album standouts.

“Mirrorball” (10/10): There’s a moment in this song when the instrumentals fade to almost nothing and we’re left with Taylor, describing herself spinning on her tallest tiptoes, and to me it’s one of the most powerfully beautiful moments in any Swift song.

“Seven” (8.5/10): This is an achingly beautiful reminiscence of childhood, filled with equal parts sweetness and melancholy, and laced with beautiful imagery throughout (yes, I was tempted to give it a 7/10, but that’s definitely too low!).

“August” (9/10): Like “Last Great American Dynasty,” it’s a song with a breezy/beachy vibe, and it’s one of the more memorable songs on the album; when Taylor really gets into the song on the Disney+ Long Pond Studio Sessions, you can tell it’s one of her favorite Folklore tracks.

“This is Me Trying” (5/10): “I was so ahead of the curve that the curve became a sphere” is a cool line, but I’m sorry, the reverb/echoing just doesn’t do it for me on this one, especially when combined with the slow pace of the song; the Disney+ Long Pond Studio Sessions is a much improved version.

“Illicit Affairs” (7.5/10): This morality tale strives for greatness, particularly in the bridge-that-becomes-an-ending, but doesn’t quite get there.

“Invisible String” (9/10): I’m a sucker for self-referential Taylor, and this is self-referential Taylor that spans her entire career to date; it’s also an unabashed love song, which is a welcome change from the breakup-heavy themes on much of the rest of Folklore.

“Mad Woman” (4.5/10): If there’s a consistent weakness on Folklore, it might be the tendency for the lyrical ambitions to outpace the quality of the music, and that weakness is on display in this mediocre entry.

“Epiphany” (3.5/10): It sounds as if Taylor wrote this one after listening to one too many sappy pandemic car commercials back in April 2020.

“Betty” (8.5/10): Revisiting her country style was a bold choice, and it works; this is an instant classic (but sorry, James, I don’t think showing up at a party unannounced and insulting Betty’s friends is likely to win you many points, and “Cardigan” suggests it probably didn’t).

“Peace” (5.5/10): There’s artistry in the spare use of instruments, and the lyrical sentiment is sweet, but I also just can’t get too excited about this one.

“Hoax” (3/10): And by this point, if you’re going to serve up another slow, somber song, I’m sorry, it better be amazing; this one isn’t.

“The Lakes” (8.5/10): In a rich synthesis of lyrics and music, this song so beautifully and hauntingly embodies a deep sense of longing for beauty and nature, shared with someone you love.

Folklore mean = 7.35 (standard deviation = 2.26)

“Lover”: A Professor Reviews Taylor Swift, Album #7

Lover feels like a forgotten album. Assuming we count the Folklore and Evermore as the same album era (as suggested by Taylor’s Instagram post announcing Evermore), the Lover era is the shortest one–Folklore appeared just 11 months after Lover‘s August 2019 release. And really, it feels like the bright, summery era of Lover ended much sooner than that, once the pandemic lockdowns cast their shadow in March 2020. But it would be a shame to overlook this album. Yes, the song quality varies, and sometimes it feels like Taylor is throwing musical ideas at the wall to see what sticks. Even though she misses the mark on occasion, the strongest tracks on the album are outstanding examples of Swift’s artistry.

Lover (released 2019)
“Combat, I’m ready for combat… I say I don’t want that… but what if I do?

“I Forgot That You Existed” (6.5/10): My feelings about this opening track definitely aren’t hate, not quite love, and a bit more than indifference.

“Cruel Summer” (9.5/10): The second song on Taylor Swift albums tend to be pretty great, and this one is no exception, even if the verses outshine the chorus just a little.

“Lover” (4.5/10): I’m sorry, Swiftie fans whom I can see picking up rocks to stone me, this slow and saccharine song makes me want to reach for the “skip” button.

“The Man” (9/10): Here Taylor delivers not only an energetic track, but also punchy and incisive social commentary that I’ll probably mention every time I teach muted group theory.

“The Archer” (10/10): I think I might be in the minority, but that’s OK; I’m ready for combat to defend this track, which contrasts a minimalist style that generates tension with some of the most introspective lyrics Swift has ever sung.

“I Think He Knows” (7.5/10): Sometimes Lover feels not like an ode to love, but an ode to infatuation, and it’s that sense that prevents this quite listenable track from becoming a sleeper hit.

“Miss Americana & The Heartbreak Prince” (9/10): I love epic Taylor, and this is epic Taylor; it’s tough to write allegorical political commentary that also works as artistry, but this track strikes that balance.

“Paper Rings” (6.5/10): A fun and energetic tune, but I prefer the stronger song that obviously inspired it (Hilary Duff’s “Breathe In, Breathe Out”).

“Cornelia Street” (10/10): This is one of the most brilliant songs of the album, with the effective build-and-release of tension that often characterizes Swift’s best work; the use of piano here is particularly effective.

“Death by a Thousand Cuts” (9/10): The music on the verses goes for epic and makes it there, and I enjoy the gently unnerving rhythm of the strings in the chorus.

“London Boy” (8/10): A novelty song, yes, and another “ode to infatuation,” yes, but this one is a nice dose of pure (campy) fun.

“Soon You’ll Get Better” (5/10): I feel badly giving such a low rating to such a heartfelt song, but it just doesn’t do it for me; fans of The Chicks might get more mileage out of it.

“False God” (4.5/10): I get what Taylor was going for here with the sultry saxophone, but it just doesn’t quite work.

“You Need to Calm Down” (7.5/10): It’s one of the most quotable and memeable Swift songs ever, but there’s a bit of irony that the queen of declaring her opinion and expressing her emotions (see album #3, “Speak Now”) now takes the role of telling others to keep their thoughts and feelings to themselves.

“Afterglow” (5.5/10): This bleh song screams, “Hey, in another album era, I would’ve been a thoroughly forgotten bonus track on the deluxe edition.”

“ME!” (8.5/10): I’m going to come down on the side of this much-criticized song; it’s playful, peppy, bright, and cheerful, glowing with some of the best attributes of the Lover era.

“It’s Nice to Have a Friend” (4.5/10): If this song didn’t have the high-pitched chanting thing going on, I think I’d like it a good deal better; the sentiment sure is cute and sweet (and it even mentions video games!).

“Daylight” (8/10): I’m a sucker for the “here’s what we learned today!” songs at the end of Taylor’s albums, and this is a strong one, filled with the expansive sense of hope that’s part of a new day (or new era in life).

Lover mean = 7.39 (standard deviation = 1.94)

“Red”: A Professor Reviews Taylor Swift, Album #4

Well, with the surprise announcement that her eighth album (Folklore) is dropping tomorrow, it seems like as good a time as any to drop my reviews for Red!

Overall, Red is a great album with great tracks, but I think sometimes fans focus on the standouts and forget some of the forgettable tracks. It is a great album, but it’s also an uneven album, resting in the long shadows of Speak Now and 1989 on either side. And yet, buried within rests the greatest song ever recorded by Taylor Swift.

“Red” (released 2012)
“Dancing ’round the kitchen in the refrigerator light…

“State of Grace” (8/10): In this effective album opener with a great rolling beat, we’re far from the epic pageantry of the end of Speak Now, instead crashing into a world of busy streets, traffic lights, pain, and shades of wrong.

“Red” (8/10): I like the song as a whole and “driving a new Maserati down a dead-end street” is classic middle-era Swift imagery, but for the first time in a couple of albums her vocal tone flirts with whininess.

“Treacherous” (9.5/10): The song’s worldview is deeply at odds with my own beliefs about interpersonal relationships (no–we aren’t “just skin and bone trained to get along”; yes–it is a choice to “get swept away” into the arms of a lover), but that aside, the haunting chorus (which occurs late enough in the song that you could mistake it for a bridge) really elevates the power of this track.

“I Knew You Were Trouble” (8/10): This song brings a harder edge musically than anything prior, signaling the country-Taylor era has reached deep twilight and the full transition to pop-Taylor is nigh.

“All Too Well” (10/10): Unfortunately, I won’t give this one higher than a 10. But for this song, and this song only, I will break my one-sentence-per-song rule. So many Taylor Swift fans consider this to be her best song. They’re right.

“All Too Well” is a sonic and lyrical masterpiece. First, the sound–from the soft intro and the gentle chord that concludes it, to the subtle lack of resolution in the ending, and everything in between, every instrument and note works purposefully yet carefully to create emotion. And oh does the emotion build, and I love how it catches the listener by surprise. Suddenly you’re no longer in the sweet passion of young love, but instead caught in a maelstrom of betrayal. And in that maelstrom Taylor drops maybe her most powerful lines ever: “Then you call me up again just to break me like a promise! So casually cruel in the name of being honest; I’m a crumpled up piece of paper lyin’ here, because I remember it all too well…”

That lyric is great, but I fear we ignore so much other great wordplay and imagery here. That little town street; getting lost upstate; autumn leaves; the embarrassing childhood photo album on the counter; the scarf in the drawer; and one of my favorites, dancing ’round the kitchen in the refrigerator light… the lyrics deliver punch after punch right in the feels.

I so much enjoy every 10/10 Taylor song, but hearing this one is like moving up to another level, like entering another dimension. It’s the perfect fusion of country Taylor and pop Taylor. Not every song can or should be this, but here in this song, Taylor produced her greatest work so far–and the thing was never even released as a single!! Perhaps someday she’ll top this, but for now, it is the absolute pinnacle and showcase of Taylor Swift’s art. Speak Now may be the better album on balance, but Red has the best song of them all.

“22” (8/10): “Happy, free, confused, and lonely at the same time” is such a perfect way to describe being 22, but someone diminished this song for me when they pointed out that Taylor often slurs the word “22” so badly that it sounds like “swimsuit.”

“I Almost Do” (5/10): One of the most unremarkable and forgettable songs in about two albums.

“We Are Never Getting Back Together” (7.5/10): I thought I liked this one more than I do, but after listening again, I think it’s almost a prototypical example of a Taylor song that I like OK enough but wouldn’t seek out when I’m looking for a song to play.

“Stay Stay Stay” (7/10): Taylor goes all in for playful and cute with this one, and it generally works.

“The Last Time” (9/10): I might be in a minority by giving this one a high score, but I like Swift and Lightbody’s voices together and the strong bridge kicks it up a notch.

“Holy Ground” (6/10): It’s the poster child for an OKish song that’s nobody’s favorite song.

“Sad Beautiful Tragic” (2/10): This lengthy, anemic, and exhaustingly repetitive song makes even “Last Kiss” look energetic.

“The Lucky One” (6.5/10): A poignant morality tale of the dangers of Hollywood, with themes she would revisit more personally and powerfully three albums later in “The Archer.”

“Everything Has Changed” (8.5/10): Another strong duet between Taylor and a male singer (this time Ed Sheeran), but I think “The Last Time” has just a bit more gravity to it.

“Starlight” (7.5/10): A thematically and musically upbeat song, and it’ll be awhile in the discography until Swift sounds this optimistic about romance again.

“Begin Again” (7/10): In contrast to the sweepingly epic songs that conclude Fearless and Speak Now, Taylor goes for reflectively thoughtful in the conclusion to Red; it mostly works, although it’s a track I might admire a bit more than I enjoy.

Red mean = 7.34 (standard deviation = 1.90)

“Speak Now”: A Professor Reviews Taylor Swift, Album #3

So now we come to Speak Now. And let me warn you upfront: This is my favorite of the albums… maybe, just maybe, my favorite album of all time. So, the scores are going to be pretty high, and yet… my favorite Taylor song is not on this album; that’s still to come.

Speak Now (released 2010)
“I had the time of my life fighting dragons with you…

“Mine” (8.5/10): By Speak Now Swift had established her reputation as a storyteller, and this album’s opening song signals that she’s going to play to that strength.

“Sparks Fly” (9.5/10): With Taylor in the pouring rain, it’s like “Fearless” (the song) version 2.0, and it kicks off maybe the best streak of songs on any Taylor Swift album.

“Back to December” (10/10): In this perfectly-composed song, Taylor demonstrates her capacity for self-reflection, regret, and apology.

“Speak Now” (9/10): The title track of the album seems relatively forgotten these days, and that’s a shame, because it’s a great example of Taylor Swift storytelling (and the giggle in one of the final renditions of the chorus is a great touch).

“Dear John” (9.5/10): It’s quite a feat that Taylor sustains such powerful emotion over the course of a song that runs over six and a half minutes, and she does it with formidable confidence.

“Mean” (10/10): This super-fun song foreshadows track #6 on a future album, when indeed she is living in a big ol’ city and shaking off the hate, hate, haters…

“The Story of Us” (9.5/10): I think this is one of the more underappreciated Swift singles, and although I can see how some might not like the “next chapter” transition in the middle of the song, for me it works and fits with the “love is a story” theme that stretches across her early albums.

“Never Grow Up” (8/10): I intended to rate this one lower, but then I listened to it, and was struck by the simplicity of Taylor with only a guitar for instrumentation; if Speak Now were a concert, this would be the song midway through where the singer sits down on a stool with a spotlight on her and chats with the audience for awhile.

“Enchanted” (10/10): Strong, passionate, sweeping, epic–it’s what I enjoy hearing from Taylor Swift, and on an album full of incredible songs, it’s a standout.

“Better Than Revenge” (9/10): I confess this song is a bit of a guilty pleasure since I don’t think it’s a great idea to revel in revenge 🙂, but my appreciation of it is held back by how Taylor overplays her hand–impugning the sexual character of her targets was a step too far.

“Innocent” (8.5/10): A bit of a sleeper on the album, Taylor’s olive branch to Kanye is sweet–too bad that didn’t last (even if it did spawn one or two good songs later).

“Haunted” (9.5/10): Remember back in “Sparks Fly” how Taylor wanted something that would haunt her when her lover wasn’t around?–well, now he’s gone, and that’s exactly how she feels.

“Last Kiss” (4/10): The only real clunker on the album, this 6+-minute song might have been decent if it had been about half as long; in other words, Taylor doesn’t pull off another “Dear John” with this one.

“Long Live” (10/10): The closing track of Speak Now succeeds where the closing track of Fearless failed, offering an expansive, epic song that sums up the theme of the album, sticks the landing, and yields one of the best Taylor Swift songs of all time.

Speak Now mean = 8.93 (standard deviation = 1.55)

“Fearless”: A Professor Reviews Taylor Swift, Album #2

Taylor’s first album was strong, but Fearless is a big step up in quality, memorability, and epic sweep. Here, she establishes the foundation for everything she’s done since, although in some ways she’s still finding her feet as an artist.

Fearless (released 2008)
“We were both young when I first saw you.
I close my eyes, and the flashback starts...”

“Fearless” (7.5/10): #TS2 leaps out of the gate with a dance in a rainstorm in a best dress, effectively setting the theme and tone of the album.

“Fifteen” (7/10): A bittersweet reminiscence of youth and its transience–a theme Taylor picks up again, and sometimes better than she does here.

“Love Story” (10/10): It remains Taylor’s most iconic song even today, and deservedly so–it’s the moment when she vaults from pretty good to outright amazing, and seldom looks back.

“Hey Stephen” (6/10): A decent change-of-pace song that sits in between some better songs, but the “shine, shine, shine!” in the bridge is a bit cheesy for my taste (and I say that as someone who likes “ME!” …).

“White Horse” (8.5/10): The emotional punch at the end really elevates this ballad.

“You Belong With Me” (9.5/10): A Swift classic that generated an outstanding and cute video, and then her VMA award… with Kanye grabbing the mike and starting their feud, eventually leading to more drama drama down the album road.

“Breathe” (9/10): A bit of a forgotten treasure; allowing the orchestral strings to carry the emotion of the song (rather than a steel guitar, as she might’ve done if this were on Taylor Swift) foreshadows her shift to pop.

“Tell Me Why” (4/10): And after several steps forward, she takes a step backward with a song that’s reminiscent of the forgettables on the debut album.

“You’re Not Sorry” (3.5/10): My low rating here may say more about me than Taylor or the song, as this is the kind of folksy, slow country song that I don’t care for.

“The Way I Loved You” (6.5/10): I find the lyrics in the stanzas to be a bit labored, but hey, water imagery at 2 AM is vintage Swift.

“Forever & Always” (8.5/10): The emotion is intense as Taylor recounts her feelings about Joe Jonas’ famous 27-second breakup call, although I could wish for a bit more inspiration from the bridge.

“The Best Day” (7.5/10): As a father of daughters, this sweet song hits me in the gut; your mileage may vary.

“Change” (4.5/10): When it looks like you’re straining to be epic, you’re not actually being epic; and so although #TS2 is an excellent album, it doesn’t stick the landing the way all of the upcoming albums do.

Fearless mean = 7.08 (standard deviation = 2.10)

“Taylor Swift”: A Professor Reviews Taylor Swift, Album #1

Yeah, I’m a 41-year-old male, and I listen to way too much Taylor Swift. And I’m also a social science professor, so that means I like to analyze things in the social world.

So, over the course of the past year, it only makes sense that I took some spare time to (a) rate all of TSwift’s songs on a 1 to 10 scale (for us quantitative types) and (b) to give due respect to qualitative forms of analysis, I also wrote a one-sentence review of each song.

(Can I put this on my annual report for the university? Probably not… *sigh*… although it would’ve been fun to include this in the packet when I went up for tenure… I’m sure that would’ve sealed the deal… good thing it turned out OK anyway…)

Now it’s time to share those reviews with the world, and no, I’m not putting them through peer review; just posting them on my blog! We start with the debut album (Taylor Swift), probably my least favorite of her albums, but the one that started it all (and with much to commend it).

Analysis notes: 1-4 = not very good; 5-6 = decent; 7-8 = good; 9-10 = great; 10s are reserved for true Taylor masterpieces. I did think about things like musical and lyrical quality, but ultimately the numbers represent how much I enjoy the song. So if you disagree, more power to you, and feel free to let me know why you think I’m wrong! Of course, we’ll also be looking at means and standard deviations for each album (how could we not???).

“Taylor Swift” (released 2006)
“Don’t know what’s down this road, I’m just walking,
Trying to see through the rain coming down.”

“Tim McGraw” (6/10): An acceptable ballad that establishes a floor for better ballads later on.

“Picture to Burn” (8/10): This song has great energy and the banjo injects a good dose of fun.

“Teardrops on My Guitar” (7/10): A classic Taylor song and a strong example of her country artistry, although I wish it built to a better climax.

“A Place in This World” (9/10): An underrated gem that always reminds me of its role in the 2010 Ramona and Beezus movie.

“Cold as You” (3/10): Yes, I know it’s the first of the much-lauded “Track 5” songs, but still, I find this one rather grating and I would skip it if it came on Pandora.

“The Outside” (5/10): A pleasant enough song that’s listenable, but also not particularly memorable.

“Tied Together with a Smile” (5/10): I never think about this one but when I listen to it, it’s OK enough.

“Stay Beautiful” (5.5/10): The lyrics on this one are uncharacteristically indistinct, particularly in comparison to later Taylor (something about a guy named Cory, and a radio? I dunno…), but overall it’s a forgettable song that’s maybe a bit more fun than the other forgettable songs on this album.

“Should’ve Said No” (7.5/10): A worthy hit single that aurally and lyrically echoes “Picture to Burn,” but for my money, I think “Picture” is the slightly stronger song.

“Mary’s Song (Oh My My My)” (8/10): In the debut album she hadn’t quite mastered the art of being epic, but in this forgotten treasure, she’s getting there.

“Our Song” (8.5/10): The song that ended the original version of the album is sweet, fun, and catchy, and I confess I enjoy songs that are self-referential (the song concludes with Taylor sitting down to write the song).

“I’m Only Me When I’m With You” (6/10): The beat, fast pace, and steel guitar make it a bit more memorable and energetic than much of this album’s other songs.

“Invisible” (3.5/10): I confess that young Taylor can sound whiny to my ear, at times, and she does here; the song is also so dull that halfway through I found my mind wandering.

“A Perfectly Good Heart” (5.5/10): It’s a decently OK song but not much more than that.

“Teardrops on My Guitar (pop version)” (7/10): Oh look, it’s a slightly different version of a song I’ve already heard on this album; but what “pop version” of a song still has steel guitar in the background?

Taylor Swift mean = 6.30 (standard deviation = 1.77)