Guest Post: A Ranking of Taylor Swift’s Best Songs, Part 2

My friend Jon asked to guest post at Accidental Shelf-Browsing as his own blog is basically defunct; what he wanted to publish was his Top 10 ranking of Taylor Swift songs. This is considerably off-brand for this space (perhaps I am a fool for worrying about such things, but I do), so I said I would be interested in something that was very reflective about the aesthetic standards by which he made his judgements; I keep meaning to write a post about aesthetic standards and choosing between them, which his piece would then complement. The following is what he gave me. The usual disclaimers apply: Jon’s opinions do not represent my own, nor do I take responsibility for them. The only changes I have made are in converting formatting to something compatible with WordPress and in light copy editing.

Taylor Swift Speak Now - Pittsburgh

“Taylor Swift Speak Now – Pittsburgh,” by Ronald Woan. Source: flic.kr/p/9UX1U1

Because of its length, his post will come in two parts, which I have split arbitrarily in the approximate middle. This is Part 2. Part 1 can be found here (link).

If I recall correctly, I am the one mentioned below who observed Jon has strong deontological instincts.


An Objective and Unbiased Ranking of Taylor Swift’s Best Songs

Jon Wong

[continued]

  1. Mine
Song Catchiness:

60

Show-stopping Capabilities:

65

Lyrical Content:

70

Lyrical Quality:

75

Je-Ne-Sais-Quoi:

60

I admit that when I first drafted this list, I was inclined to leave Mine, the opening track to Speak Now, off the top 10 entirely. Then I listened to all the songs again in order to be fair to them. It only took one listen for me to realize I had erred in my original supposition that this song was not among her 10 best. My guess is that it has to do with Mine not standing out on a musical level, which speaks again to how important it is for *songs* to sound good. That seems like it would be self evident, but my years spent among indie-music elitists have shown me otherwise.

Mine is plenty catchy enough to listen to, but the standout qualities of this song lie in its lyrics. Taylor Swift is particularly good at writing ballads—an art that is perhaps a little rarer in pop music than in other genres, and this story of two partners taking on the world together is both cute and clever. It contains one of Taylor Swift’s very best lines: “You made a rebel of a careless man’s careful daughter,” as well as a chorus that changes with the context of the song with each revisit, which is something that artists frankly do not do often enough.

I’ve also always admired this song for the way it champions the idea that love can be enough. In fact, I believed that at her heart, Taylor Swift is an artist who recognizes that love is the best thing we do; it’s just that the process we go through to discover this for ourselves can sometimes be rife with pitfalls. In order for love to be enough, you have to make it a priority, which is why the phrase, “for better or worse” includes the “for worse” clause that people too often gloss over. But this song champions the beauty of making it through those tough moments: “We got bills to pay/We got nothing figured out/When it hard to take, this is what I thought about…” and “I remember that fight, 2:30 am/’Cause everything was slipping right out of our hands/I ran out crying and you followed me out into the streets…”

That’s what it means to love. It’s like, why do you put up with/deal with/push through the tough times with this person? Because you love them. That’s it. Love is its own justification, and I’ve always hated it when people weighed the “pros and cons” of relationships like it was something you can figure out by putting everything on a metaphorical scale. If we’ve gotten to the point where we’re weighing the pros and cons of being with the people we love, we may as well pack it in as a species.

  1. Stay Stay Stay
Song Catchiness:

75

Show-stopping Capabilities:

60

Lyrical Content:

70

Lyrical Quality:

70

Je-Ne-Sais-Quoi:

60

This is like the cutest song ever. It’s a love song that sounds saccharine even though the lyrics themselves are not, which is a bit of an oddity considering Taylor Swift is more than capable of writing about saccharine sentiments. Like, sure, she’s singing about two people who chose to stay together, but not unlike Mine, it’s largely about making that choice in the face of difficulties. The song even starts off with the lines, “I’m pretty sure we almost broke up last night/I threw my phone across the room at you.” Taylor Swift, for all the she sings about the liars, cheaters, and haters of the world, seems to be plenty aware that being her partner is no walk in the park.

Which is kind of the point, right? We can all be insufferable on our worst days, and to insist that others are while we ourselves are not feels egocentric in the worst possible way. But we can try to be better, and we can try to understand that about, if not everyone around us, then at least the people we love. In the end, staying with someone for the long haul is a choice, and it’s not sustained by the illusion of perfection or the erroneous belief that you’re such a catch that anyone would be lucky to have you. It’s about recognizing that your partner chooses to put up with a lot of shit because they love you and not taking that for granted:

You took the time to memorize me
My fears, my hopes, and dreams
I just like hanging with you, all the time.
All those times that you didn’t leave
It’s been occurring to me
I’d like to hang out with you, for my whole life.

Did I mention it’s catchy AF? Because it’s catchy AF.

  1. This Love
Song Catchiness:

65

Show-stopping Capabilities:

75

Lyrical Content:

80

Lyrical Quality:

70

Je-Ne-Sais-Quoi:

70

Rounding out the top 5, This Love is the hidden gem of the 1989 album that was, frankly, rather underwhelming as a whole. It gets a bit of a bump for being the best song on the album, but otherwise, this song ranks up here for its gorgeous sentiments about love coming and going and coming back. It is the musical equivalent of something my best friend once told me about the non-linear nature of relationships: “If they loved you once, they can love you again.”

In a society that is overly concerned about moving onto the next big thing, it has sometimes felt like forward momentum is something people think anyone can and should simply seize every time things fall apart. The tech market is probably the best example of this mentality, with focus shifting from designing and building things that last to being the first to push forward new innovations that “transform” the market. I mean, does anyone really need a bendable screen? Can we actually perceive ultra high-definition resolutions on 5×7 inch phones? According to tech companies, the answer to both those questions is yes. Time will tell.

I’m rather disinclined to believe that people are equally replaceable. I’m even less inclined to believe the same about love. It touches us in a place that is too deep and too close to the core of who we are. Inasmuch as I (and many other songs/books/films) romanticize the idea of finding new love, I think we’re all sort of aware that we are being romantic to focus on something that, by definition, can only occur in the face of old loves falling apart or never having loved before, the latter of which I’m not even sure we can definitively say about ourselves at any point in our lives.

Perhaps the idea of a lost love returning is romantic too. However, given the choice between the romance of finding the love of your life among a sea of people and the romance of a lost love choosing to return because the kind of love you had for each other withstood the test of time and distance, I wonder if perhaps the latter is a nobler sentiment to believe in. It feels decidedly less romantic, but also decidedly more nuanced. Who knows. Either way, we have lots of songs about finding new love. We have fewer songs about love coming back from the dead. This is decidedly a very good song above love coming back from the dead.

  1. State of Grace
Song Catchiness:

70

Show-stopping Capabilities:

75

Lyrical Content:

75

Lyrical Quality:

80

Je-Ne-Sais-Quoi:

70

You could probably flip this song and This Love without much of a quibble from me. They’re the two songs I believe are in the top 5, but not the top 3. This song is as high as it is mostly because this is the song that contains what I believe to be Taylor Swift’s Greatest LineTM: “Love is a ruthless game unless you play it good and right.” It’s somewhat unfortunate that she’ll probably be best remembered for something like “We are never ever getting back together” or “Haters gonna hate” or something else angry. I don’t exactly know what her legacy will be. But I strongly believe that the best line or lines she’s ever written come from State of Grace. In its full context:

This is the state of grace
This is the worthwhile fight
Love is a ruthless game unless you play it good and right

These are the hands of fate
You’re my Achilles Heel
This is the golden age of something good and right and real.

I don’t know if there’s much else to say about this song. It’s the first track in Red and it’s one of the best opening songs to an album I’ve heard. Akin to the first line of a novel, it really does set the tone for the album, kind of in that “buckle your seatbelt, you’re in for a ride” sort of way. But I mean, really, it’s all secondary to that one line. I have been accused have having strong deontological leanings so I suppose you could argue this line simply appeals to that part of me. I stand by it being Taylor Swift’s Greatest LineTM.

  1. Begin Again
Song Catchiness:

70

Show-stopping Capabilities:

75

Lyrical Content:

80

Lyrical Quality:

75

Je-Ne-Sais-Quoi:

75

This song is… ugh, so beautiful. This is what finding new love is like. I know I went off about the hokeyness of finding new love a few paragraphs ago, but man, it’s hard to hold that against a song like this.

The song begins with the line, “Take a deep breath in the mirror/He didn’t like it when I wore high heels/But I do,” which I find noteworthy in contrast to this line from You Belong With Me: “She wears high heels, I wear sneakers/She’s cheer captain, and I’m on the bleachers.” This is the kind of thing that a younger version of me might have latched onto as a contradiction. Now, I see it as a progression, since it’s been two albums since You Belong With Me was released. The teenage-crush Taylor Swift, who compares her sneaker-wearing, bleacher-sitting self to the popular, high-heel wearing, cheer-captain other girl, is by this point in her life a young twenty-something whose heart has hardened slightly through the slings and arrows of outrageous dates fortunes. She also wears high heels and likes it. Growth.

Soon thereafter, Taylor Swift pens another one of her great verses:

Walked in expecting you’d be late
But you got here early and you stand and wave
I walk to you
You pull my chair out and help me in
You don’t know how nice that is
But I do.

I’ve always admired this passage for the way it illustrates the way we can see greatness in people even though they don’t always recognize that greatness in themselves. I’ve found that that’s how love works—we live with our great qualities all our lives, and to us, they are simply qualities, shorn of modifiers. So we don’t notice when people overlook them. But every so often, someone comes along who recognizes the greatness in us for what it is. If we’re lucky, we recognize the greatness in them too. It’s why the best relationships are ones where both partners feel like they’re the ones who got lucky.

Begin Again is perhaps the most hopeful song in Taylor Swift’s discography—one that reminds us that no matter how “done” we can sometimes feel with love, we should never completely forsake its capacity to heal. Because love really is the best thing we do. It allows us to see the good and to do right by people. Without it, I feel like it becomes too easy for people to lean further and further into this weird type of… virtuous egocentrism where the concern they have for suffering and inequality becomes disproportionately centered around a select number of issues—usually the ones they relate to on a personal level.

I would go on about virtuous egocentrism if I had the time and space, but to get back to the original point, Begin Again is super good. Because we’ve all been there on the recovering end of a failed romance, wondering if we were too this or too that or not this enough or not that enough. And sometimes, it’s our capacity to love again, love more, or love better that saves us so that we in turn can save others.

  1. Fifteen
Song Catchiness:

75

Show-stopping Capabilities:

75

Lyrical Content:

80

Lyrical Quality:

80

Je-Ne-Sais-Quoi:

75

The song that made me sit up and pay attention to Taylor Swift as an artist for the first time. I have some recollection of having written about this song before and talking about why I thought it was so poignant. I suppose I ought to ding this song for being about the freshman experience when virtually no freshmen are fifteen when they walk through the doors on the morning of their very first day. I still don’t really know why this song wasn’t called Fourteen or even Thirteen, depending on birthdate. But I digress…

This song captures the excitement and trepidation of being a freshman in a way very few songs do: “You say hi to your friends you ain’t seen in a while, try and stay out of everybody’s way.” Then Taylor Swift writes an obvious and yet strangely poignant statement about love: “When you’re fifteen, and somebody tells you they love you, you’re gonna believe them.” When I heard that line, I was struck by its simplicity, its truth, and the way it felt like a response to people who roll their eyes about first loves and young romance. I mean, that’s pretty much the answer to any question about why teenagers do the things they do or respond the way they respond to everything: they’ve never had to do it before. They haven’t yet become jaded or aware or cautious about these things. Which is not to say that experience or caution or self-awareness is bad, it’s just that neither is passion or intensity or the willingness to believe someone when they tell you they love you, especially when you’re thirteen fifteen. Moreover, inasmuch as Taylor Swift sounds like she’s pleading with us to understand what it’s like to be fifteen, I also feel like there’s a veiled criticism of adulthood here. We hear the line, “When you’re fifteen,” and it makes the adults in us nod half sympathetically, half pityingly at the idea that when somebody tells you they love you, you’re going to believe them. But it seems to me to be quite a terrible thing if that becomes less true with age and experience. So you’re telling me that when I’m 25 and somebody tells me they love me, I should be wary about the authenticity of that statement? Seems like a rather depressing indictment of adults and adulthood.

Taylor Swift, to her credit, also acknowledges in her last verse the inevitability of learning caution from experiences of broken promises: “Back then I swore I was gonna marry him someday, but I realized some bigger dreams of mine/Abigail gave everything she had to a boy who changed his mind/And we both cried.” I’ve always wondered why Taylor Swift is crying in this context. Is it like a sympathy cry with Abigail? Or does it refer to the way she had to go back on her word to pursue her bigger dreams? Either way, the people-go-back-on-their-word lesson is a harsh one to learn, and not one that I’m particularly eager to champion, (a) because it makes us less generous as a species, and (b) I don’t think we should simply lie back and accept that people are liars and cheats who are subject to the whims of their base instincts and unable to commit to anything sacred.

Fifteen begins and ends with some variant of the line, “Take a deep breath as you walk through the door,” which I think bookends the sentiments in the song particularly well. It hints to us that shit’s about to get cray for the next however many years it takes for people to “find themselves,” and that navigating that time is going to be messy. Not to mention that with the ubiquity of post-secondary education, we’ve found an excuse for people to extend their adolescence into college so you might have to strap yourself in for longer than you use to. This song could probably just as easily have been called “Eighteen” and been about going to college with a few minor lyrical substitutions.

Setting aside the college-is-good-for-the-brain-bad-for-the-soul soapbox I feel myself on the verge of climbing up onto, this really is a beautiful song. It’s sad, poignant, and nostalgic without getting overly down on being young. But not quite as sad and poignant as the song that takes the number one spot on the objective and unbiased list of Taylor Swift’s biggest and best songs.

  1. Back to December
Song Catchiness:

75

Show-stopping Capabilities:

80

Lyrical Content:

80

Lyrical Quality:

75

Je-Ne-Sais-Quoi:

80

When I started this list, I suspected that this might end up being number one. After Taylor Swift established herself as a bona fide pop star in and around the early 2010s, I remember thinking that she was missing that one amazing, show-stopping song that I could definitively say was the “best thing she’s ever written.” Katy Perry had Teenage Dream, Rihanna had Umbrella (and later, We Found Love), Taylor Swift had… I guess it would have had to have been Fifteen at that junction. When the Speak Now album dropped, I wondered if I would hear that song. I have this habit, when I’m listening to an album for the first or second time, of hitting repeat at the end of certain tracks like an aural double-take—like “Wait a minute, was that track as good as I subconsciously noted?” Sometimes, it’s not as good as I thought it was. Other times, hearing the song a few times confirms my initial impression. Back to December fell into that latter category. Not only that, but I distinctly remember saying out loud, “Holy shit, this song is amazeballs!”

Back to December is amazeballs. This is especially true considering it isn’t even on Taylor Swift’s best album (that would be Red) and beat out all the great tracks I would hear in the years to come. It’s a song about asking for second chances, and at the heart of what makes it amazing is how… unpretentious it comes off: “So this is me swallowing my pride, standing in front of you, saying I’m sorry for that night.” There’s no attempt to blame the “situation” or any hint that breaking up was something she “had” to do. On the flip side, she doesn’t paint a pathetic picture of herself, the way some artists do when they ask forgiveness. You don’t get the sense that Taylor Swift (in the context of his song) is *prostrating* herself at the feet of her ex-boyfriend. She’s asking—not begging—for forgiveness, and her ability to walk the line between the two extremes paints the most beautifully sincere apology I’ve ever heard in… any song ever.

Your guard is up and I know why/Because the last time you saw me is still burned in the back of your mind.

These days I haven’t been sleeping, staying up playing back myself leaving/When your birthday passed and I didn’t call.

I’d go back in time and change it, but I can’t/So if the chain is on your door, I understand.

There isn’t really much more to say about the song itself because it paints its own sentiments so very clearly. Between this song and the sentiments expressed in This Love lies an expanse that I’m still waiting for Taylor Swift to someday take a crack at exploring, though based on her latest album, that ship may or may not have sailed. Maybe I’m being overly pessimistic. Either way, Back to December is the best possible start to a redemption story. Even in love (and perhaps especially so), there needs to be space for redemption. Otherwise, we’re left with the notion that loving someone is an all or nothing act, and this writer would argue that luck and circumstance play too great of a role in the course of our lives to expect that love—even the kind that is faithful, eternal, and forever—can win out against all the odds, all the time.

It’s possible that part of my appreciation for this song has to do with recognizing that while there is beauty in believing in the kind of great love we gravitate towards when we’re thirteen fifteen, perhaps the capacity for great forgiveness is a necessary component of the greatest love. After all, it’s easy enough to believe in love on your wedding day. But do you believe in love when it fucks up horribly and you’re called upon to forgive? I don’t know. Truthfully, I’ve never known. What I do know is that forgiveness begins with a song like Back to December. That’s what makes it the best song of Taylor Swift’s discography.

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