After releasing Lover in August 2019 — an 18-song album, her longest track list to date — Taylor Swift has returned with the 16-song Folklore less than a year later, offering a daring new vision of her artistry without a bad song in the new batch. Along with the orchestral arrangements (Swift worked primarily with Jack Antonoff and The National’s Aaron Dessner on the new album) and bold, exploratory songwriting, Folklore should be marveled at for its consistency, as an hour-plus of ideas is presented with zero lags or missteps.
Yet, of course, we already have our favorites, the Folklore tracks that immediately stand out and, we expect, will be returned to most frequently. Here is our humble, preliminary opinion on the best songs on Taylor Swift’s Folklore — all 16 tracks, plus the bonus track, “The Lakes.”
17. “My Tears Ricochet”
A solo write for Swift that’s gothic in both tone and lyricism: a bitter parting becomes a literal death, as Swift admits, “I didn’t have it in myself to go with grace.” “My Tears Ricochet” builds into a sorrowful anthem, with backing vocals provided by co-producer Jack Antonoff supporting Swift before slipping into the ether.
16. “The Lakes”
The bonus track provides a sense of completion to the story of Folklore, as Swift escapes modern society with her beloved “muse” and finds artistic inspiration in the natural world (“A red rose grew up out of ice frozen ground / With no one around to tweet it,” she sings with a wink). The arrangement here, all symphonic flourishes and slicing violins, sets an even more dramatic tone for Swift’s rejection of the mundane.
15. “Illicit Affairs”
A song about the emptiness of adultery contains the same sort of songwriting bravado that can navigate a tricky theme: Swift’s voice rings out in a sharp stab in the second of every four lines, and on the key line of the chorus, the guitar lick circles a bit more pronounced, suggesting a cycle that can’t be broken.
Atop a warm orchestral bed, Swift adopts a sing-song tone to speak on trauma, first on a battlefield, then in a hospital room, grief flooding her voice as she channels the perspective of someone who cannot make sense of the senseless. “Epiphany” is affecting in its hushed tone and juxtaposition of scenes, as Swift’s voice cries out toward the end but then cedes to Dessner’s understated strings.
The standard edition of Folklore ends with a descending piano line that won’t end and a sense of melancholy that won’t solve itself. “Don’t want no other shade of blue, but you / No other sadness in the world would do,” Swift sings, wrapping herself in an imperfect reality instead of reaching for rose-colored glasses. It’s a fascinating coda, and one that directly conflicts with the sun-streaked “Daylight,” which ended Lover.
A vivid recollection of high school regret, “Betty” lets Swift weave a story of haphazard decision-making, the pain still felt years later, and an uncertain chance of public reconciliation. “Betty” plays with perspective — is this a memory of Taylor’s, or something reanimated and sewn onto characters? — but every detail is carefully constructed and rings true.
11. “The 1″
“The 1” starts off the album on a conversational tone, with Swift speaking in elliptical phrases about dreams, memories and the impermanence of time. Dessner’s influence is immediate, including the interplay between guitar and piano in the arrangement, but the track remains largely unadorned; imagine “The 1” as the natural evolution of Swift’s previous album opener, “I Forgot That You Existed” on Lover.
10. “The Last Great American Dynasty”
Before diving into “The Last Great American Dynasty,” it’s worth completing some Internet research on the story of Rebekah Harkness, whose marriage to Bill Harkness in 1947 made her exorbitantly wealthy and clashed with her subversive side — now, decades after her death, Swift owns her former home, dubbed the “Holiday House,” in Rhode Island. This marks a new type of storytelling for Swift, so steeped in historical observation and time-hopping, but still honoring the point of view of a remarkable woman who refused to conform to societal expectation.
9. “Mad Woman”
A guitar lick races around a piano line as Swift fires off more vitriol than contained on any of her previous tracks, including a well-placed f-bomb and the aggrieved thesis, “They say ‘move on’ / But you know I won’t.” This is a scorched-earth declaration that would have sounded too intense even for Reputation, but Swift leans into it unflinchingly, and the gender politics at play here — “No one likes a mad woman,” she sneers, before shrugging that criticism off and staying mad — make it especially worthwhile.
Justin Vernon contributed to this highlight on the album’s back half, and indeed, “Peace” sounds like Swift channeling the textures of Bon Iver’s i,i album, her thoughts arriving in sharp, potent blasts as programmed beats blink and an acoustic guitar wanders. Her songwriting is more ambitious, however, the skin of a relationship stripped back to reveal the bones, her passion making up for the lack of a traditional lifestyle.
7. “Exile” (featuring Bon Iver)
On this Bon Iver duet, Justin Vernon’s gruff voice over soft piano notes a unexpected tone on the album’s first half. Vernon sings of betrayal — after the first chorus, he howls in his falsetto — but the crumbling romance on display is prodded at from different angles (“You never gave a warning sign,” Vernon sings, then Swift replies, “I gave so many signs”). Swift recorded her vocals for “Exile” in Los Angeles, while Vernon recorded his in Fall Creek, Wisconsin; the distance is fitting, and lends a deeper layer to the affecting disconnect.
After vividly conjuring an early memory on “Seven,” the next song on the Folklore track list finds Swift moving further ahead in her recollections, to a summer romance in adulthood that was destined not to last: “Will you call when you’re back at school? / I remember thinking I had you,” she laments. “August” gains power during its bridge, when the relationship sours but Swift finds personal strength in the shambles.
5. “This Is Me Trying”
The second half of the album begins with Swift’s voice possessing a ghostly sheen, an organ yawning and electric guitars echoing, as one of the most straightforward choruses of the album takes shape: “I just wanted you to know / That this is me trying.” With that, “This Is Me Trying” showcases one of Swift’s core strengths: tossing out evocative lyrical details before zeroing in on a universal feeling in the hook.
Witness the detail and wisdom of Swift’s songwriting here — “When you are young they assume you know nothing,” she repeats, while also reflecting on experiences on the High Line in Manhattan and drunken dancing under a streetlight. As the stuttering percussion persists and the orchestration swells, she keeps transforming the chorus, memories rushing back to her until she reaches the apotheosis of her longing in a sensational display of emotion.
The gentleness of Dessner’s touch is fully on display here — strings, drums, synthesizers and acoustic guitar are brought in for a glimmering childhood memory — yet Swift is even more commanding, delivering one of the more nuanced vocal takes of her career. In front of the intricate production, she sing-raps before pulling back into a pleading falsetto, her imagery so steeped in authenticity you can smell the sweet tea and grass clippings of her yard.
A swaying, deceptively simple indie-folk song about personal contortion for the sake of romantic fulfillment, “Mirrorball” would fit snugly on any Pitchfork-approved playlist alongside other brilliant singer-songwriters like Clairo and Phoebe Bridgers. Packed with harmonies and live drums, the song keeps Swift’s voice as a breathy resignation, and the result is devastatingly pretty.
1. “Invisible String”
A stop-you-in-your-tracks love song that finds wonder in simplicity, as Swift reflects on the journey that led her to happiness, the lows that made her savor the highs more, and the serendipities that life affords us if we’re lucky enough. All the while, Dessner matches the sumptuous intricacies of her songwriting with unfussy plucks and beats. “Invisible String” is first-dance-at-your-wedding good, an emotional knockout that will endure within and outside of Swift’s towering discography.