“Red” by Taylor Swift

This album has an understandably bad reputation, as it produced three singles that, prior to the release of 1989, had most casual listeners at least partly convinced that Taylor Swift had sold out. That said, Billboard did place this album on its list of ‘the Best Albums of the Decade So Far’ in 2015, and while I scorned them for this myself when I first saw that (and still think her other two albums in that time period would be better contenders), having now heard the entire album, I understand a little more why they made that choice. Apart from the three big hits and the Alt-Rock experiment “State of Grace”, pretty much everything on this album sounds pretty much like typical Taylor Swift material, and most of that material is actually quite lovely.

This is Swift’s most melodious album, with one great tune after another…not just the bubblegummy hooks heard on the album’s hit singles, but real, gorgeous, flowing melodies that actually carry through the emotional content of the songs. Most of them stick to the usual Swift subject matter of romance, although they’re varied enough in tone and detail to keep from getting monotonous. That said, “The Lucky One” stands out for providing a strikingly honest look at what it’s really like to be a pop music superstar, making a truly convincing case for her assertion that her life isn’t as easy and cushy as it seems from our perspective.

Some have accused the album of having too little authentic Country flavor, but let’s be honest here…Swift was always really a pop-folk artist in the vein John Mayer or Jason Mraz. She only got pigeonholed as a Country singer because she happened to come to prominence through the Nashville machine. And this is pretty much the point in her career that she stopped even pretending she was a Country singer, but that was a separate phenomenon from her brief flirtation with selling out. The bulk of the material on this album may sound slightly less Country than her previous three albums, but it still sounds like Taylor Swift’s trademark sound.

What hurts this album’s reputation so much is that, while the good songs vastly outnumber the bad on the actual album, not a lot of people actually listen to albums anymore, and very little of the best material got the kind of exposure that the three ‘sellout songs’ did. The touching album closer “Begin Again” and the desperately yearning title-song were each briefly a Top Ten hit, the sweet Ed Sheeran duet “Everything Has Changed” made the Top Forty, and the album’s devastating high point “All Too Well” got performed on the Grammy Awards broadcast, but none of them ever landed on the Year-End Charts or made much of an impact with pop listeners.

And to be honest, even the ‘sellout’ singles aren’t really as bad as they’re made out to be. Well, okay, the lead single “We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together” is pretty bad (except in the Punk Rock version heard on the 1989 tour…apparently even Swift’s most reviled single just needed a better arrangement to emerge as a classic). But the primary objection to “I Knew You Were Trouble” back when it came out was the simple fact that it was an electropop song coming from Taylor Swift, and after the vast success of the 1989 album, that doesn’t really seem like much of a problem anymore. As for the youth anthem “22”, its relentlessly upbeat bubblegum hook can get a little annoying after a while, but it does feature a genuinely smart and characterful lyric, even if “New Romantics” would do the same idea much better a few years later.

It’s really a shame that this album has such a negative reputation, though, because Swift has never made a bad album, and I’m ashamed to admit that even I didn’t know that until I actually listened to the whole thing. If you’re a fan who’s been turned off of this album by the quality of the singles (like I was), try giving the whole thing a listen, skipping the three big hits if necessary, and see if your overall attitude toward the album as a whole changes. Based on my experience, I’m betting it will.

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