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What’s the Best Song on Red? Three Passionate Taylor Swift Fans Debate

16 minute read

After months of waiting, it is finally time to grab your favorite scarf, a tissue box and perhaps a maple latte or two because Taylor’s Version of her 2012 album Red is upon us.

Taylor Swift’s Red, her fourth studio album, catapulted the artist into pop stardom. The 16 tracks, plus six bonus songs on the deluxe version of the album, telegraphed to listeners everywhere that Swift is much more than a country artist. It contains what many consider to be the best song in her entire catalog (more on that later) and sees her transition from writing songs about sweeping romantic gestures and unrequited crushes to capturing the quieter, more painful moments of falling in and out of love. When Red debuted she was 22 years old and, through the album, applied a slightly more grown-up lens on love, using the songs to look at relationships with some distance. “It was all over the place, a fractured mosaic of feelings that somehow all fit together in the end,” Swift wrote in June 2021 of the album. “Happy, free, confused, lonely, devastated, euphoric, wild, and tortured by memories past.”

As part of her ongoing public effort to own all her masters, Swift is re-releasing the album along with her charity single “Ronan” and 9 bonus tracks featuring Chris Stapleton, Phoebe Bridgers, Mark Foster and Ed Sheeran. It follows her re-release of her 2008 album Fearless in April. Since the announcement of Red’s impending arrival, fans have been furiously dissecting every post Swift has made on social media in an attempt to gather clues about the bonus tracks and whether the musician would release any songs early (her use of a pizza emoji led many to believe a collab with the Jonas Brothers was in the works). Though there were no surprise early releases, a much-anticipated reward awaits: a 10-minute version of the piercing breakup anthem “All Too Well” and an accompanying short film starring Swift, Stranger Things’ Sadie Sink and Teen Wolf’s Dylan O’Brien.

In preparation for the album’s re-release, TIME’s biggest Swifties sat down to rank the original 16 songs on Red by each compiling their own individual rankings. Those rankings were then averaged to create overall rankings—as well as spark some healthy debate among our most devoted fans.

16. “The Last Time”

Individual rankings: Annabel 15, Andrew 15, Sam 13

Andrew R. Chow: “The Last Time” is the blowout loser of this poll, and the only song each of us ranked in double digits. It’s discount “Exile.” Still, I hope Gary Lightbody is doing well, wherever and whoever he is.

Samantha Cooney: Do we think Gary Lightbody banked more royalties from this song than from Snow Patrol’s entire back catalogue? The last 30 seconds rule, though.

15. “Everything Has Changed”

Individual rankings: Annabel 16, Andrew 8, Sam 15

Annabel Gutterman: Would people really care about this song if Ed Sheeran wasn’t on it? Listen, I love an acoustic Taylor Swift song more than anyone, but this is just a snooze. I always skip it!

ARC: If you came to this song confused as to why Ed Sheeran is famous, you won’t receive any clarity from listening. Still, I’m a sucker for a good snare brush beat, and the hook is pretty massive.

14. “Stay Stay Stay”

Individual rankings: Annabel 9, Andrew 9, Sam 16

SC: This is one of the rare Taylor Swift songs that I actively dislike. Red is a lyrical masterpiece about the complexities of love. This is a saccharine song that makes me, and I quote, “mad, mad, mad.” Someone please explain why this is on the album instead of “Better Man.”

AG: I really think this will be one fans rediscover on Taylor’s Version and realize they were wrong about it. Yes, it’s a little juvenile, but I love the simple sweetness of it! The bridge perfectly encapsulates that moment when a relationship just clicks: “I just like hanging out with you/ All the time.” So much of Red is looking back on what was. “Stay Stay Stay” celebrates the excitement of what everything could be.

ARC: Annabel, I completely agree with you on that line, except that you left out its all-crucial setup:

“You took the time to memorize me/ My fears, my hopes, and dreams/ I just like hanging out with you, all the time”

Taylor’s first few albums held dear to fairy-tale visions of love: big gestures, poetic proclamations, precise playbooks of how to win someone over. While this song’s subject seems to adhere to that kind of grandiosity, Taylor offers a much more mundane love language that can nevertheless be just as powerful—of sitting around with someone, doing nothing, and still loving it. Or as Kevin from The Office says: “Why waste time say lot word when few word do trick?” Sorry—dorky reference for an extremely dorky song.

13. “Starlight”

Individual rankings: Annabel 8, Andrew 12, Sam 14

SC: Red has a few ideas that don’t quite work, but it’s cool to look back on how Swift revisited and perfected them later in her career. “Starlight” feels like a rough draft to the far superior “The Last Great American Dynasty.” I’ll have a “marvelous time ruining everything” over a “marvelous tune” about Bobby and Ethel Kennedy’s marriage any day.

AG: I love that Taylor was inspired by a photograph of Bobby and Ethel Kennedy dancing and wrote this whole story about them! I agree, Sam—it’s so fun to see the evolution of her storytelling skills from this to LGAD. I don’t consider it necessarily inferior—it’s a more upbeat tune (perfect to dance along to!) which I’m not mad about.

12. “We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together”

Individual rankings: Annabel 7, Andrew 16, Sam 10

SC: This song started the unfortunate trend of Swift releasing the most generic pop song as the lead single (see: “Shake It Off,” “Look What You Made Me Do”). But the “hide away and find your peace of mind with some indie record that’s so much cooler than mine” is a genuinely hilarious, self-aware moment. And, really, who hasn’t dated someone who thought they were morally superior just because they loved the Decemberists?

AG: We could debate the merits of this song for a long while, but I’d just like to point out its importance in the arc of Taylor’s career. Before Red, she was a country star; “We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together” was one of her first entries into the pop universe. There would be no 1989 if we didn’t get songs like this one first. Everyone has to start from somewhere!

ARC: You’re exactly right about the transitional quality of this song; it aspires to pop but only comes away with the genre’s cloying qualities as opposed to its sugar rush. It feels like Taylor cosplaying as Carly Rae Jepsen.

11. ​​”Begin Again”

Individual rankings: Annabel 12, Andrew 13, Sam 8

SC: I gotta say, I think we underrated this one. Just like a great first date after a bad breakup, “Begin Again” is the glimmer of hope we need after an album of pure heartbreak. This song isn’t just about finding someone new. It’s about finding someone who really sees you after a relationship that made you feel so misunderstood. Plus, no one wants this album to end with the Kennedy song!

ARC: This song sounds like it was written in reaction to the final scene of (500) Days of Summer.

10. “The Lucky One”

Individual rankings: Annabel 14, Andrew 7, Sam 11

See below.

9. “I Almost Do”

Individual rankings: Annabel 11, Andrew 11, Sam 9

See below (again).

8. “Sad Beautiful Tragic”

Individual rankings: Annabel 10, Andrew 14, Sam 6

ARC: Red will never be my favorite Taylor album because it sags a lot in the middle with these MOR indie ditties. This trio of songs isn’t bad, but it isn’t good, either.

SC: Admittedly, my music taste skews heavily toward sad indie ditties, but here’s my counter. Swift’s albums always seemed to align with exactly what I’m going through when they’re released, which is why I’m such a big fan. When Red came out in 2012, I was an 18-year-old dealing with my first, real heartbreak. That’s why I’m more drawn to its slow burns of sadness, like “I Almost Do,” “Sad Beautiful Tragic” and “The Lucky One,” than some of the more iconic pop tracks on this album. I’m just trying to feel my feelings, OK?

7. “I Knew You Were Trouble”

Individual rankings: Annabel 13, Andrew 6, Sam 7

AG: This is my least favorite of the generic (read: Max Martin) pop songs on the album. I actually like the build-up to the chorus, but then do not enjoy that static-y sound that happens with “trouble, trouble, trouble.”

ARC: “Trouble” might not have aged particularly well, but do you guys remember how genuinely exciting it was when it came out? At the time, Kristin Wiig’s impression of Swift on SNL was still one of wide-eyed naivete; Swift was a country megastar whose crossover into the pop stratosphere was far from assured. And here she comes in “Trouble,” sporting bangs and streaked black eyeliner, shrieking over a dubstep drop, a genre that was only in the process of being absorbed into the mainstream: neither Spring Breakers nor Aviciii’s “Wake Me Up” would start warding off mosquitoes in America until the following year.

But of course, the song’s greatest legacy is that it produced one of the funniest memes of all time before we even knew what a meme was.

6. “22”

Individual rankings: Annabel 4, Andrew 10, Sam 12

AG: Come on, you guys. I can’t not be sentimental about this song. I don’t care if it’s far from the peak of Taylor’s lyrical abilities. She’s describing a night out where what happens actually doesn’t matter as long as you’re just being yourself with the people you love.

I experienced this song in three eras: In high school, I screamed it with my friends at dances and parties, romanticizing a period in my life that hadn’t happened yet. Then when I was 22, I 100% lived it: “happy, free, confused and lonely in the best way.” Now, there’s this comforting pang of nostalgia that comes over me whenever I hear it.

SC: Annabel, I know how much this song means to you, so I’ll be brief. I had fun dancing to this song on my 22nd birthday and have had zero desire to listen to it since.

AG: Ouch.

5. “Red”

Individual rankings: Annabel 6, Andrew 4, Sam 5

AG: The titular song! It’s breezy and boppy. The lyrics aren’t anything to write home about, but it’s just so fun. I love that we get a callback to this song on Lover through “Daylight”—“I once believed love would be (burning red)/ But it’s golden.”

ARC: It’s a far more interesting take on synesthesia than most musicians can muster. Although actually, has anyone asked Billie Eilish or Pharrell if this song is actually red?

4. “State of Grace”

Individual rankings: Annabel 5, Andrew 5, Sam 3

SC: “State of Grace” sets the tone for the rest of the album: don’t expect any Prince Charmings or happy endings this time around. Her lover isn’t a “saint,” and Swift admits she’s “loved in shades of wrong.” It’s the perfect opener for an album that’s all about the ecstasy, agony and complexities of love between two imperfect adults. It’s also a soaring rock song that makes me want to see Swift go full Springsteen.

3. “Holy Ground”

Individual rankings: Annabel 3, Andrew 3, Sam 4

SC: Finally, a bop I can get behind! This is the Red song that makes the most frequent appearances on my Spotify playlists. It makes me want to dance, and it perfectly evokes that warm feeling of remembering someone who used to mean something to you.

AG: If you don’t immediately start dancing in the first 20 seconds of this song, something is wrong with you! I don’t make the rules!

ARC: This had to have broken Taylor’s previous record for syllables per minute. I also think this is the introduction of “New Yorker Taylor Swift?” Great song, although I never liked that “hoo-lay-ee” refrain.

2. “Treacherous”

Individual rankings: Annabel 2, Andrew 2, Sam 2

SC: I’m so glad we all love this song, which I feel is criminally underrated. “Treacherous” has some of Swift’s best-ever lyrics (“All we are is skin and bone/ trained to get along”) and her second-best bridge. It also shows just how much Swift has evolved since the enchanted encounters and flying sparks on Speak Now: she knows the object of her affection is bad for her, but she’s in for the ride anyway.

ARC: What is her best bridge, Sam, and why is it “Dear John”?

SC: Ugh, it is “Dear John.” “You are an expert at sorry/And keeping the lines blurry/Never impressed by me acing your tests” walked so the entirety of Red could run!

ARC: If we’re giving out superlatives, I think this is also her best prechorus (which contains the lyric you just mentioned) and also probably her sexiest song.

AG: People are sleeping on “Treacherous” and I am hoping Taylor’s Version will change that. This is a gorgeous song and it is so deceiving. It starts off moody and soft and there’s this gentle, twinkly quality to the acoustic beat that makes it sound like a Fearless song. Then, the pace picks up at the exact line Sam mentioned (one of my all time favorite Taylor Swift lyrics) and it just keeps building to its brutal end. It seamlessly blends pop and country and gives way to a beautiful ballad about risking your heart when you know things might end badly.

SC: Being friends with Annabel also means getting “nothing safe is worth the drive” sent to you, unprompted, at least once a day.

AG: I don’t even like driving and here we are!

1. “All Too Well”

Individual rankings: Annabel 1, Andrew 1, Sam 1

SC: “All Too Well” is the best song on Red. It’s also the best song in Taylor Swift’s entire discography, and one of the best breakup songs ever written (it’s in my personal canon with “The Last Time I Saw Richard” and “If You See Her, Say Hello.”) A collage of muted memories builds to a bursting bridge you’re never quite ready for—until you’re screaming “you call me up again just to break me like a promise/ so casually cruel in the name of being honest” alone in your apartment. (Sorry to my next-door neighbor.) The song is quietly powerful: it’s just a woman telling the truth about the good and bad of her relationship—and not allowing her ex to rewrite their history.

ARC: +1000 for your “The Last Time I Saw Richard” shoutout, Sam.

It’s become almost too fashionable to anoint “All Too Well” as Taylor’s best song these days, which is why I tried my very hardest to rank it somewhere else. But I couldn’t—it’s too damn good. The little visual cues that serve as sepia Polaroid snapshots of vivid moments; the perfectly strange turns of phrase (“Autumn leaves falling down like pieces into place”). This song has a smell, just like her old sweater.

The song’s composition also perfectly aligns with the sonic era Taylor created it in. With its booming snare, overdrive guitars and wall of sound, it’s hard to imagine it having the same impact when dressed up in the clothes of the metallic “Reputation” or the cloistered “Folklore” eras, for example. I’m very excited to watch the song’s 10-minute film, because it’s always had a cinematic quality. I love her turn at the end from wistful to vicious; it’s practically a superhero (or supervillain) origin story.

AG: I know, I know. It’s boring to have this at number one. It’s very expected. But how could “All Too Well” be anywhere else? I’m pretty positive we could have done a roundtable ranking every single line of this song. (For what it’s worth, my number one is “Cause there we are again in the middle of the night/ We’re dancing ‘round the kitchen in the refrigerator light”). This song is the centerpiece of Taylor Swift’s discography—it announced to the world that she transcends genre and is here to stay.

Songs about heartbreak are so often about what one person did or how the other responded. There is blame to be placed and someone is mad or sad at the person they once loved. There is no blame in “All Too Well.” As she looks back on these seemingly meaningless moments that built this relationship that’s now over, Taylor Swift is asking for an explanation as to why it had to end and can’t pinpoint where the unraveling began. She’s mining these memories and realizes it doesn’t matter at all—“Maybe we got lost in translation/ Maybe I asked for too much”—because she knows it happened, “it was rare, I was there, I remember it all too well.”

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Write to Samantha Cooney at samantha.cooney@time.com and Annabel Gutterman at annabel.gutterman@time.com