Taylor Swift designed her 2012 album Red as her breakthrough into the pop market -- a crossover she pulled off with ease, elevating her to the rarefied air of superstars who can be identified by a single name. Red may not be flawless -- it runs just a shade too long as it sprints along in its quest to be everything to everyone -- but there's an empowering fearlessness in how Swift shakes off her country bona fides. Leaving Nashville behind, she rushes to collaborate with Britney Spears hitmaker Max Martin and Snow Patrol's Gary Lightbody, along with mainstream rock mainstays Dan Wilson and Butch Walker. Appropriately for an album featuring so many producers, Red isn't sequenced like a proper album, it's a buffet, offering every kind of sound or identity a Swift fan could possibly want. Taylor deftly shifts styles, adapting well to the insistent pulse of Martin, easing into a shimmering melancholy reminiscent of Mazzy Star ("Sad Beautiful Tragic"), and coolly riding a chilly new wave pulse ("The Lucky One"). Combined with the unabashed arena rock fanfare of "State of Grace," the dance-pop of "We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together," and the dubstep feint "I Knew You Were Trouble" -- not to mention the cheerfully ludicrous club-filler "22" -- Red barely winks at country, and it's a better album for it. It is, as all pop albums should be, recognizable primarily as the work of Taylor Swift alone: her girlish persona is at its center, allowing her to try on the latest fashions while always sounding like herself. Although she can still seem a little gangly in her lyrical details -- her relationship songs are too on the nose and she has an odd obsession about her perceived persecution by the cool kids -- these details hardly undermine the pristine pop confections surrounding them. If anything, these ungainly, awkward phrasings humanizes this mammoth pop monolith: she's constructed something so precise that its success seems preordained, but underneath it all, Taylor is still twitchy, which makes Red not just catchy but compelling.
by Stephen Thomas Erlewine