It’s not the first Taylor Swift album that probably comes to mind for most casual pop listeners — it’s not her best-selling or most-acclaimed LP, and it didn’t produce her biggest chart hits. But Speak Now will always hold a special place in the heart of her biggest fans, as a critical step in her evolution from country darling to global pop icon, as the only album in which she was the sole writer on every track, and as simply one of her strongest, most revealing, and most captivating collections of songs to date — a standard-setter for all pop singer-songwriters at the beginning of the 2010s.
Since many of us here at Billboard consider ourselves among those top-percentile Swifties, we couldn’t hold our peace on her classic junior album with its 10th anniversary coming up this weekend (Oct. 25). So we’ve written about each of its 14 tracks — with 11 different Billboard writers taking on one or two of their favorites. Hear us out below, as we speak on one of the most essential and best-enduring pop albums of the last decade.
“Mine,” the leadoff cut and first single off Speak Now, is quintessential Taylor Swift — then and now. There’s a boy, there’s a girl and plenty of dreamy imagery of an all-consuming love. Sure, she’s matured in her story-telling — and her musings on relationships — as she’s grown older in the decade since. But the tale “of a careless man’s careful daughter” captures the magic of teenage angst and yearning. “Mine” certainly escapes the lead single criticisms often lobbed at Swift, with a sweet beginning that swells into a pop-country chorus for the ages. And 10 years later, every time you hear the song, it’s still “like the first time.” — DENISE WARNER
2. “Sparks Fly”
When listening to a Taylor Swift song, I want three things: a romantic storyline, creative lyrical metaphors and a hook meant for scream-singing. “Sparks Fly” checks off all the boxes. Her fantasy of a green-eyed bad boy whom she wants to kiss in the rain and lead her to dimly-lit rooms is a little more sultry than we were used to from a 2010, curly-haired Swift — but that’s exactly what makes the song a standout on what was then easily her most-mature album. Also, the lyric, “I’m captivated by you, baby, like a fireworks show”? For a song called “Sparks Fly”? Genius. — RANIA ANIFTOS
3. “Back to December”
She’d already released plenty of fiery breakup anthems by the time of her third album, but Swift has said Speak Now second single “Back to December” was the first time she ever apologized in a song. As a result, the sweeping ballad about wanting to go back in time to change one’s mind is incredibly affecting. To hear Swift declare and own a previous mistake (to fellow Taylor and Twilight star Taylor Lautner, as confirmed by him four years ago) was both comforting and empowering all at once — and proved that it’s OK, and sometimes even necessary, to swallow one’s pride in the name of love. — LYNDSEY HAVENS
4. “Speak Now”
“Speak Now” — as in, “Speak now, or forever hold your peace,” that lynchpin moment after “I Do” that usually ends in silence but occasionally results in an act of romantic boldness — raises the stakes from Swift’s breakthrough smash “You Belong With Me,” as her declarations of true love have graduated from high school prom to a wedding ceremony. Yet the title track is delicate in its lyrical details, from the misbegotten bride wearing “a gown shaped like a pastry” to the acknowledgement by Swift that her torching the impending nuptials is out of character. “I am not the kind of girl / Who should be rudely barging in on a white veil occasion,” she shrugs, “but you are not the kind of boy / Who should be marrying the wrong girl.” The urgency of “Speak Now” ultimately serves as a thesis for the rest of the album, as Swift refuses to have her emotions ignored, black-tie affair be damned. — JASON LIPSHUTZ
5. “Dear John”
For those who thought Taylor Swift only adopted rap later in her career, please see this straight-up spicy, post-breakup diss track. Rumor has it that Swift penned the dreamy-yet-searing takedown about John Mayer, after her brief relationship with the guitar-wielding troubadour ended. “Dear John, I see it all now that you’re gone/ Don’t you think I was too young to be messed with?” she asks with palpable pain and fury on the chorus, allegedly highlighting the 12-year age gap between herself and her ex. It might not exactly be “The Story of Adidon,” but from the livewire electricity running through the whole near-seven-minute epic, no doubt she was “Charged Up” over the betrayal. — CHRISTINE WERTHMAN
‘Taylor as underdog” may be well-trod terrain in Swift’s oeuvre at this point, but never has she taken aim at her detractors as squarely — or as relatably — as she did on “Mean.” With its indelible banjo line and sweetly barbed lyrics, the single remains an anthem tailor-made for every starry-eyed dreamer who was ever bullied for not belonging, and moved to the big ol’ city with something to prove to the haters back home. Fast forward 10 years and, if you’re really lucky, the song might also sound like sweet vindication — because now you’re the one writing about it for Billboard. — GLENN ROWLEY
7. “The Story of Us”
Remember the “Love Story” from Fearless? Well, it’s a tragedy now, obviously. “The Story Of Us” was written after an encounter with an ex — widely believed to be John Mayer — at the 2010 CMT Music Awards, and leans more pop-rock than it does country. (Swift spoke about the awkward event in interviews, and the message “CMT AWARDS” was hidden in the album booklet.) The single sees Swift committing to a pretty straightforward metaphor — this particular relationship did not have a happy ending — but the tightly played and cleverly penned story stays thrilling, even if you already know how it goes. It also boasts one of the more frantic choruses on Speak Now, paving the way, however unintentionally, for future Swift bangers like “Shake It Off” and “The Man.” Next chapter! — GAB GINSBERG
8. “Never Grow Up”
While Taylor Swift often writes about very specific moments in time — even going so far as to name songs after the exact ages they’re referencing — the guitar-driven, wistful “Never Grow Up” performs the magic trick of feeling relatable to any listener at any age, depending on his or her perspective. In the first verse, are you the child or are you Swift’s narrator — who could be an older sibling, a parent, a grandparent, maybe an aunt or uncle? In the final verse, are you the young adult in her first apartment or the parent who made sure to pack a childhood night light, just in case? When Speak Now was released 10 years ago, I had a different answer to those questions than I do now, as my 5-month-old daughter’s little hand is wrapped around my finger. The magic of this song, and its universal message of trying to hold on to your own innocence and/or shielding the innocent ones around you, is that “Never Grow Up” is able to grow up alongside Swift’s fans. — KATIE ATKINSON
The way this song opens, with nothing more than some glimmering production and repeated guitar chords, allows Swift’s lyrics to take a front seat, spotlighting her expertise at scene setting (“Your eyes whispered ‘have we met?’/ Across the room your silhouette starts to make its way to me”). As the production takes a slight turn to alternative with a quick electric guitar riff and steadying drumbeat, Swift begs, “Who do you love?” — capturing the rush and inevitable all-consuming nature of a just-met stranger becoming an official crush. It’s a vulnerable question she asks only to herself, and spends the rest of the song wondering, leaving listeners equally in the dark but enchanted all the same — an engaging storytelling tool she’s returned to time and time again. — L.H.
10. “Better Than Revenge”
For anyone who feigned shock at the pettiness and ferocity Taylor Swift presented on Reputation, go listen to “Better Than Revenge,” that entire album’s spiritual forebearer. While the sound strays fairly close to pop-punk rather than the country-almost-pop that permeates the rest of Speak Now, the lyrical content couldn’t be closer to a much later song like “I Did Something Bad,” as the singer (allegedly) lays lyrical waste to the actress who “stole” Joe Jonas’ affection from her, Camilla Belle. Swift’s sharp barbs also get mixed in with clever jabs at herself (“she thinks I’m psycho ’cause I like to rhyme her name with things” stands out), putting the stars songwriting in its purest, least distilled format on “Better Than Revenge” — which makes it a fascinating listen a decade later. — STEPHEN DAW
Debuted at the 2010 MTV Video Music awards, one year after The Incident, “Innocent” was delivered as something of an olive branch from Taylor Swift to Kanye West, a pat on the shoulder to basically say, “I get it.” But as much as the song aimed to take the high road, Taylor’s hurt over Kanye’s stage-crashing and ensuing fallout couldn’t help but shine through over its gorgeous alt-country production. Stabs at empathy like “Wasn’t it easier in your firefly-catching days?” smart of light condescension, and comments like “32 and still growing up now” feel edged with just as much spite as sympathy. She wasn’t entirely over it yet, and today “Innocent” is all the more fascinating a chapter in 21st century pop’s most revealing feud for its extremely relatable attempt to be the bigger person, even when you’re not totally done feeling small. — ANDREW UNTERBERGER
On an album full of grade-A, truly excellent breakup songs, “Haunted” could easily fall to the wayside as a lesser single. But 10 years later, Swift’s penchant for the melodramatic — especially with lyrics like “It’s getting dark and it’s all too quiet/ And I can’t trust anything now” — make for an extremely compelling deep cut. Perhaps “Haunted” stands out simply because it doesn’t follow the breakup song formula; instead of offering quiet acoustic guitars and nearly-whispered lyrics, the track bursts with angst, fear, and desperation thanks to its belted chorus, relentless drum line and stirring string downpours. — S.D.
13. “Last Kiss”
Patience is an underrated virtue of Speak Now, easily Taylor Swift’s longest-running LP to date at 67:29, even though its track list is four songs shorter than 2019’s Lover. Its best songs unfold slowly, carefully, delicately — no moreso than on the six-minute penultimate ballad, “Last Kiss.” The chorus doesn’t show up until nearly two minutes in, and continues taking its time from there, saying more in its silent ellipses than it does with any actual lyrics: “I never thought we’d have a last… kiss… / Never imagined we’d end… like… thiii-iiis…..” It’s sort of a sequel to Fearless‘ “Forever and Always,” but if that breakup song was about the thunderstorm of emotions that immediately follows heartbreak, “Last Kiss” perfectly captures the calmly cruel devastation that quietly sets in afterward, an exquisite sigh that seems to last a lifetime. — A.U.
14. “Long Live”
I always say that if Taylor Swift and I met IRL, we would be instant friends — after all, we have a lot in common (namely our penchant for cats and British boys). Because of songs like “Long Live,” I think the feeling would be mutual. While Taylor has nailed the art of the love song, the last track on Speak Now feels special because it’s her first love song dedicated to her fans: us! Towards the end of the album closer, she even takes things down a notch for a special, near-spoken address: “Will you take a moment/ Promise me this/ That you’ll stand by me forever…” It’s a moment that makes us feel like we’re all part of the same club — and really, we already are. — MIA NAZARENO