For this year’s update of our ongoing Greatest Pop Star by Year project, Billboard is counting down our staff picks for the top 10 pop stars of 2021 for the rest of this week. At No. 1. we remember the year in Taylor Swift — who rewrote industry rules and had one of the most impactful years of her storied pop career without even releasing an entirely new album.
“You guys turned a hard thing into a very, very wonderful experience,” Taylor Swift told an audience of diehard fans at a November screening of her All Too Well short film at New York City’s AMC Lincoln Square theater. Before unveiling the self-directed companion piece to the 10-minute version of the fan favorite epic of the same name, featured on the re-recorded Red (Taylor’s Version), Swift expressed gratitude to a group of supporters that helped turn a non-single breakup track from her original 2012 album into a signature song worthy of expanding past the double-digit minute mark. “All Too Well” could have been little more than a personally revealing footnote to her career, Swift pointed out; instead, the fans identified its intimate power, championed it, and ultimately revived it, to create one of the most eagerly anticipated revisited songs in pop history. “All of this is happening,” Swift told her audience, “because you made this happen.”
Well, yes and no. Swift is correct that the fandom that gathered around “All Too Well” — a long-form songwriting feat, with some of the most evocative lyricism of Swift’s career — in the nine years since its original release helped clear the path for “All Too Well (10-Minute Version)” as a capital-E Event stretching beyond the Swifties into the mainstream. Yet she deserves a ton of credit herself: No other popular artist harnessed that type of fan energy with as much passion and imagination in 2021 as Swift, across albums and platforms, on projects that challenged the modern music industry while still succeeding wildly within it.
Billboard’s Greatest Pop Stars of 2021:
Introduction & Honorable Mentions | Comeback of the Year: Willow | Rookie of the Year: Olivia Rodrigo | No. 10: Bad Bunny | No. 9: Dua Lipa | No. 8: Justin Bieber | No. 7: Drake | No. 6: BTS | No. 5: The Weeknd | No. 4: Doja Cat | No. 3: Adele | No. 2: Lil Nas X
Swift began 2021 still riding high from a triumphant 2020 – a year she reasonably could have taken off, having delivered her Lover album in August 2019 and watched her planned Lover Fest stadium shows fall victim to the pandemic the following year. Instead, Swift fell down a musical rabbit hole that yielded two full albums and, in hindsight, catered perfectly to her songwriting strengths. The first one, Folklore scored the largest debut week for an album in 2020 upon its July release, and companion piece Evermore earned the fifth-largest in December, both ending 2020 and starting 2021 atop the Billboard 200 albums chart.
With Evermore, Swift continued the sonic reinvention kick-started by Folklore, an unexpected alt-folk exploration recorded in secret during quarantine with indie vets like The National’s Aaron Dessner and Bon Iver’s Justin Vernon. Evermore would go on to spend three total weeks atop the Billboard 200 in 2021. Meanwhile, its hushed, woodsy single “Willow,” which launched atop the Hot 100 in December alongside the album release, grew into a radio success in the spring, ascending to No. 1 on Billboard’s Adult Pop Airplay chart in April.
Before that, however, Swift won another album of the year trophy. At the 63rd Annual Grammy Awards in March, Folklore took home the top prize — the third of Swift’s career, following wins for Fearless at the 2010 ceremony and 1989 in 2016. Not only did the win help Swift enter the record books, as the fourth artist overall and only woman with three album of the year wins (following Frank Sinatra, Stevie Wonder and Paul Simon), the accomplishment was also a bit of personal validation after Swift’s two previous albums, 2017’s Reputation and 2019’s Lover, were not even nominated in the top category. Once again, Swift thanked the fans, this time for embracing the artistic swerve of her 2020 output: “You guys met us in this imaginary world that we created,” she said in her acceptance speech, “and we can’t tell you how honored we are forever by this.”
One month later, Swift returned to that first album of the year winner of hers. In April, Fearless (Taylor’s Version) kicked off the behemoth endeavor of re-recording her first six studio albums. Announced in 2019, the project followed the acquisition of Swift’s master recordings by Scooter Braun’s Ithaca Holdings, as a way for her to essentially reclaim ownership over the period of her career that made her a household name. What could have been an industry curiosity based around a rights dispute instead played out like a widescreen revisit to a pivotal era of Swift’s career, as hits like “You Belong With Me” and “Love Story” were lovingly re-created, and previously unreleased tracks from the Fearless recording sessions were finally unveiled as “From The Vault” treasures.
The amount of care that Swift put into Fearless (Taylor’s Version) turned the 26-track set into a must-hear remake of the diamond-certified original, and fans embraced it as such. The full-length became the first re-recorded version of a previous No. 1 album to top the Billboard 200 albums chart upon its release, with the biggest debut week of 2021 at the time with 291,000 equivalent album units, according to MRC Data.
It wasn’t the only way that Swift’s towering legacy cast a shadow over the first half of 2021, either. In between the April release of Fearless (Taylor’s Version) and the June announcement that Red (Taylor’s Version) would be the next re-recorded album to arrive in November, Swift proved a key influence, and contributor, to another artist’s year-defining album. Pop singer-songwriter Olivia Rodrigo hasn’t been shy about her love of Swift’s music over the course of her breakout year, name-checking the superstar as a sonic and spiritual guide when “Drivers License” was released back in January, and receiving an Instagram shout-out from Swift during the debut single’s quick ascent.
Rodrigo’s debut album Sour took the adoration even further upon its May release: the heart-wrenching piano ballad “1 Step Forward, 3 Steps Back” borrowed from Swift’s own heart-wrenching piano ballad, 2017’s “New Year’s Day,” resulting in Swift and Jack Antonoff being listed as writers on the track. Two months after the album’s release, Rodrigo also added Swift, Antonoff and Annie Clark as co-writers to the post-breakup reflection “Deja Vu” due to the bridge’s similarities to Swift’s own complex-romance remembrance, 2019’s “Cruel Summer.” Rodrigo is pop’s rookie of the year with 2021’s biggest breakthrough album — which Swift gets some of the credit for, in ways both figurative and literal.
Delays in the vinyl shipping of Evermore pushed the album back to the top of the Billboard 200 when the record was finally sent out to fans in June, displacing Sour at No. 1 for a nice bit of teacher-student pop interplay. Swift stayed active all summer, guesting on two songs on How Long Do You Think It’s Gonna Last?, the latest album from Dessner’s Big Red Machine project — a charming continuation of the Folklore/Evermore era of gentle songwriting and rustic textures — and tossing out the Taylor’s Version re-recording of 1989’s “Wildest Dreams” to have a little fun with an unexpected viral moment the song was enjoying on TikTok.
But by then, the 1989 era wasn’t the one fans were anxiously awaiting to revisit. If Red (Taylor’s Version) had simply matched Fearless (Taylor’s Version) in terms of fanfare and listenership, Swift’s year would have still been pretty spectacular. Instead, her second re-recorded album wildly outpaced its predecessor in nearly every way, turning the release of “All Too Well (10-Minute Version)” into a cultural sensation — The short film! The remarkable SNL performance! The new lyrical allusions that launched a thousand Jake Gyllenhaal jokes! — and another chart-topper for Swift. With its November debut atop the Hot 100, “All Too Well (Taylor’s Version)” also became the longest No. 1 in the chart’s history — in the age of TikTok virality and dwindling attention spans, no less.
The expanded “All Too Well” wasn’t the only new revelation from the set, which also boasted new collaborations with Phoebe Bridgers, Ed Sheeran and Chris Stapleton on old “From The Vault” tracks; the Stapleton team-up, “I Bet You Think About Me,” has been getting airplay on Swift’s old stomping grounds of country radio. In the end, Red (Taylor’s Version) drove as much conversation as any of Swift’s recent all-new studio albums, and scored a blockbuster debut, with 605,000 first-week equivalent album units moved — good for the third-best debut week of 2021 with, it bears repeating, the majority of its songs released nearly a decade earlier.
Even without a proper new album in 2021, Swift sent three separate projects to the top spot of the Billboard 200 during the calendar year — the first female artist to accomplish that feat in the chart’s 65-year history. And in November, one final domino fell for Swift’s re-recordings project when iHeartRadio announced that it would now only be playing Taylor’s Versions of her older hits from each album as they rolled out – after streaming platforms had already given them prominent placement on main pages and major playlists. In addition to the impressive sales of her re-recorded albums, the reactions from the streaming and radio worlds underline the widespread acceptance that these new recordings have replaced the classic versions as the ones listeners will be digesting and caring about moving forward.
As Swift enters 2022, she once again has the chance to make history: Evermore is nominated for the album of the year Grammy, and a victory at the Jan. 31 ceremony would make her the most celebrated artist in the 64-year history of the category. While other popular artists are rightfully celebrating award nominations and chart achievements, Swift can do both, while also credibly changing the way artists can approach creative ownership and sonic shifts. If Swift changed the game in the mid-2010s when pivoting from country to pop, playing it top 40’s way and earning the splashiest commercial wins of her career, including the distinction of also being Billboard’s Greatest Pop Star of 2015, the past year found her rejecting the game entirely and drawing up her own rules. Now, she has the power to pull any sound she wants into her mainstream orbit, or make any industry institution reckon with her impact. She could release a 20-minute version of a song on her next re-recorded album, and you’d be foolish to bet against it becoming a hit.
Taylor Swift is making the type of moves within and outside of her music that elevate an artist from superstar to legend. Those moves are often very hard to execute, but no one who had been paying attention was the least bit surprised when she stuck each landing. Wind in her hair, Swift is here, and making it look all too easy.