- Halsey is currently one of pop music’s brightest stars with one EP and three albums under her belt.
- She has dabbled in a variety of genres and sounds, and her best songs are anchored by passionate, intimate songwriting – from her beloved deep cut “Gasoline” to the disarming single “Clementine.”
- However, not every track in her discography is a gem. Her second album’s token ballad “Sorry” is super hammy, while her G-Eazy collaboration “Him & I” is deeply uninspired.
- Insider considered listenability, lyrical quality, and production value to come up with the 10 best and 10 worst songs of the singer-songwriter’s career thus far.
- Visit Insider’s homepage for more stories.
Halsey, born Ashley Frangipane, is currently one of pop music’s brightest stars and most insightful lyricists at just 25 years old.
Since 2014, when she mindlessly posted her debut single on SoundCloud – the first song she ever cut, written in the makeshift basement studio of a relative stranger – Halsey has sold out arenas, dabbled in everything from K-pop to country, and scored a No. 1 hit on the Billboard Hot 100. She dropped her third studio album “Manic” in January, one of 2020’s best releases yet.
Insider weighed factors like listenability, lyrical quality, and production value to come up with the 10 best and 10 worst songs of the singer’s career thus far, including tracks from her newest album.
Note: This article has been updated since its original publish date.
“Is There Somewhere” holds a special place in the hearts of Halsey fans.
“Is There Somewhere” boasts the single most exhilarating moment in Halsey’s entire discography: When the procession of 80s-video-game synths have built to their climax, precisely two minutes and 29 seconds in, the beat briefly drops out and a whooshing sound rushes in. What takes over can only be described as: “if a tidal wave were made out of electropop pulses and sheer emotion.”
There’s no wonder why Halsey chooses this transcendent moment to enter the crowd during her performances, gripping the hands of people who can feel her feelings in their guts.
“Ghost” established Halsey as an electropop guru who’s not afraid to break the rules.
“Ghost” is weird. The song starts with the bridge, one ambiguous line that feels both vague and deeply personal: “I’m searching for something that I can’t reach.” It’s an unusual move, but one that set the stage for Halsey’s entire career. She’ll tell you exactly how it is, and she won’t even hesitate.
The verse opens with lyrics that are similarly disarming: “I don’t like them innocent, I don’t want no face fresh / Want them wearing leather, begging, let me be your taste test,” she sings, smirking, simultaneously self-aware and self-excoriating. “I like the sad eyes, bad guys, mouth full of white lies.”
The song’s short runtime, two minutes and 33 seconds, is stuffed to the brim with similar revelations, weaved through heart-pounding beats and glittering synths.
It makes sense that “Ghost” got label executives scrambling to meet with her, gushing to their teams: “‘I just met this girl. The music is phenomenal. She is a star. We have to get engaged immediately.'” Yes, those are exact words from an executive at Astralwerks, where Halsey eventually signed. Yes, she had precisely one song.
“Hurricane” shows her ability to channel highly specific personal details into an anthem that resonates with the masses.
“Hurricane,” with its cavernous production and twitchy flourishes, is an electropop triumph. It vibrates and pulses with house-party-at-2-am-in-New-York-City energy.
“Hurricane,” with its dark subject matter and striking specificity, really shouldn’t resonate unless you’ve dated a guy who lives in Bed Stuy and trips on LSD.
And yet, in Halsey’s hands, it does.
It becomes an anthem: a celebration of womanhood, growth, overcoming trauma, and betting on yourself in a desperate situation. It becomes, as she says when she performs the song live, a reminder that you don’t belong to anybody but yourself.
This song is the perfect example of Halsey’s songwriting ethos: “My objective isn’t to write what is going to be the most relatable,” she told Paper in 2015. “My objective is to write what’s going to be the most believable.”
“Roman Holiday” is a prismatic display of complex emotions in the package of a catchy pop song.
This deep cut on Halsey’s debut album is another example of her super-specific songwriting – and how she manages to illustrate her own experiences so vividly that you feel like they’re scenes in a movie, projected onto the inner wall of your chest.
Fittingly, “Roman Holiday” feels something like the Audrey Hepburn-starring rom-com that shares the same name – if it were rolled into Sofia Coppola’s “Lost in Translation,” combined with Wes Anderson’s “Moonrise Kingdom,” and sprinkled with gifs of people kissing on Tumblr.
It’s longing, grief, recklessness, daring, dread, a keen awareness of fleeting youth, and an overflowing heart rolled into one song.
Nothing goes harder than “Gasoline.”
It speaks volumes that “Gasoline” – a track that was only included on the deluxe version of “Badlands,” and certainly never released as a single – went platinum with zero promotion. This song is beloved by Halsey fans, and for good reason. Insider previously ranked it as one of the best songs of the 2010s decade.
For an artist who could be described as “punk” just as easily as “pop” – whose defiance, sincerity, and vulnerability are just as important as her talents for singing and hit-making – what song could speak to her budding legacy more than this passionate outsider’s anthem?
What song could capture her shape-shifting, multi-coloured discography better than one that digs its hooks into you from the very first note, one that samples her own work and ruminates on her own power?
“Gasoline” pulses and scintillates with defiant chaos, as Halsey builds a shrine for all the flaws in her code and laughs as it burns to the ground.
“100 Letters” is the pinnacle of Halsey’s sophomore album.
“100 Letters” is the first real song on “Hopeless Fountain Kingdom” and easily the best, evoking those little details that make a relationship feel rare when you’re in it and suddenly feel poisonous when it’s over – like rediscovering a forgotten love note in your pocket, the tastes of nostalgia and regret mingling on your tongue.
Both nostalgia and regret are present here, lyrically and sonically. The song’s percussive loops and bright flourishes are somewhat muddied by industrial clanks and moody guitars. The song shimmers and yearns, and yet, Halsey stands strong and resolute.
“100 Letters” is ultimately an ode to reclamation, to turning your back on people who look like King Midas when you realise the gold touch is a curse, not a blessing.
“Nightmare” is the most important and culturally significant song of Halsey’s career.
Fans were disappointed when Halsey announced that “Nightmare” wouldn’t be included on her third album, but actually, the song feels more powerful as a standalone single – a solitary beacon shining through the murky haze of May 2019.
Although it wasn’t written as a direct response to the circumstances in which it was released, it certainly sounds like a product of that moment.
As Jason Lipshutz wrote for Billboard, “The song release capped off a week in which the biggest news story in the United States was the restriction of women’s rights,” making it her “most vital” song to date.
“‘Nightmare’ makes its rage plain and its conclusion – that this, the current state, is not good enough – clear,” he wrote. “Her signature hits aren’t usually ripe for head-banging, but she gamely adopts the abrasiveness, taking the kinetic energy of the production and fashioning it into a rallying cry.”
“Clementine” is poetic, unhinged brilliance.
As I wrote when I named “Clementine” one of the nine best songs of 2019, Halsey is as much a writer, if not more so, than a singer or hitmaker.
She often describes her onstage career as a way to ensure that people listen to her words and understand her emotions – a drive that’s never been more apparent than on “Clementine,” an intimate, glittering ode to self-awareness that started off as a poem about having a black eye.
The spare production allows Halsey’s theatrical charisma to take centre stage: “When my hair stands on ends it’s saluting you” is a standout line, as well as the song’s central refrain: “I don’t need anyone, I just need everyone and then some.” The latter is echoed by pouts and wails in the background (“I don’t need anyone! I don’t need anyone!“), giving the song a weird, slightly unhinged quality that makes it all the more brilliant.
“929” boasts some of Halsey’s most insightful and vulnerable lyrics ever.
It’s very difficult to strip a song of instrumentation and create a great big empty space for your emotions to swell and marinate, to sing alongside gentle guitar plucks about cigarettes and death and sex and self-preservation, without sounding incredibly trite or try-hard.
And yet, “929” is tender and perceptive and deeply endearing.
Halsey illustrates her many-hued inner monologue in such a fluid, sincere, and uncomplicated way that it almost feels like a freestyle. Indeed, she revealed on Twitter that she only recorded one version of the song (“I was so out of breath and agitated by the end,” she wrote), which manifests beautifully in a stream-of-consciousness effect.
There’s no message or moral here; just a global pop sensation who’s also just a twentysomething human girl, scattering pieces of her psyche across a glimmering chord progression, daring us to make sense of them.
“3am” feels like a brilliant, pouty, pulsing adrenaline rush in the middle of the night.
If you read a previous version of this article, you would have seen “Killing Boys” in this spot instead. But after sitting with “Manic” for a couple of months, it has become abundantly clear that “3am” is a god-tier song in Halsey’s discography.
While “Killing Boys” is extremely strong conceptually and moderately strong in its execution, “3am” is thrillingly powerful on both fronts.
Halsey’s vocal style and confessional, conversational songwriting are perfectly suited for its punky, pouty blend of ’90s kitsch rock, mid-’00s pop, and modern grit.
Listening to this song feels like being drunkenly crumpled on your bedroom floor, craving attention, pulsing with brilliance and loneliness, all while you know you should be asleep. Anyone who’s had that experience, even once, will feel Halsey’s burst of energy on “3am” crash straight through their chest.
“New Americana” is the most grating and formulaic song on Halsey’s otherwise compelling debut.
Much of the criticism surrounding “New Americana,” Halsey’s first genuine hit, was actually just a misunderstanding of its satirical lyrics.
Critics insisted that she was trying too hard to write a “generational anthem” – while in reality, in her own words,the song is “self-aware,” “tongue-in-cheek,” and intended to be “a social commentary on pop culture.”
It’s true that those critics totally missed the point, but it’s also true that “New Americana” isn’t a great song. It’s uber-formulaic and becomes grating after maybe the second or third listen.
In 2017, even Halsey herself said she thought it was the worst song she’d yet released.
“Him & I” is just so bad.
G-Eazy is a bad rapper.
Halsey actually makes this song better, but she can’t save it – especially when she doesn’t really sound like herself, crooning a sappy chorus that arguably describes a toxic relationship (something her fans actually noticed when the song came out, long before the couple split).
In retrospect, knowing how their relationship fell apart (he cheated, like, a lot) and how she’s described him since (as selfish and hollow and abusive), this particular collaboration leaves an even more unpleasant taste in your mouth.
“Now or Never” was an underwhelming lead single with a surprisingly generic sound.
This isn’t to say that “Now or Never” is a bad song by any means, but it did portend the radio pop-heavy era of “Hopeless Fountain Kingdom,” during which Halsey somewhat lost her edge.
The lead single for her second album, cowritten by Rihanna’s “Needed Me” collaborator Starrah, was the most obvious pop song she had yet released.
In the words of New York Times critic Jon Caramanica, it’s “appealing only in the most conventional ways.”
“Empty Gold” relies too heavily on over-the-top production and cheesy metaphors.
“Empty Gold” is just… too much. It’s full of metaphors and phrases that are too cheesy to be genuinely compelling, like “Dark as midnight sun” and “I must confess / How hard I tried to breathe through the trees of loneliness.”
It’s the only track on Halsey’s debut EP that betrays it as the work of a 19-year-old Tumblr blogger, who had very little experience turning her musings into songs.
“Sorry” is extremely hammy.
“Sorry” is the token ballad on Halsey’s second album, so it’s meant to be sentimental – but it crosses the line from sentimental to melodramatic so often that it’s almost cringey.
Every line sounds like something I wrote in my journal in middle school.
“Angel on Fire” sounds like a cheap Evanescence knockoff.
“Angel on Fire” is built upon ornate, cinematic production – which actually works well for Halsey’s invocation of Icarus from Greek mythology, who infamously flew too close to the sun, as a way to grapple with the trappings of fame and celebrity.
Unfortunately, those interesting elements are overshadowed by what can only be described as preteen emo poetry: “Nobody seems to ask about me anymore / And nobody seems to care ’bout anything I think,” she sings in the pre-chorus. “And nobody seems to recognise me in the crowd / In the background screaming, ‘Everybody, look at me.'”
Heavy-handedness can be effective, but here, it mostly just feels like Halsey was listening to a little too much Evanescence.
“Don’t Play” is a rare moment of inauthenticity.
Like much of Halsey’s work, “Don’t Play” does boast some witty lyricism, but it ultimately feels too calculated to have any real emotional depth. It’s too transparently engineered with a specific impact in mind – “I want this song to make me sound like a badass” – to feel like any kind of genuine.
Halsey is far more badass when she’s being raw or tender than when she’s bragging about a trip to Saint-Tropez that’s filled with Dom Pérignon and cocaine.
“Lie” is corrupted by an iffy chorus and unnecessary feature from Quavo.
“Lie” could’ve been an album highlight if the whole song sounded like the first verse: a brutally honest stream of consciousness, reminiscent of spoken-word poetry, with minimal production. I mean, “I gave you the messiest head / You give me the messiest head” is just brilliant.
But that poignant simplicity is quickly ruined.
Halsey tries to empower her desperate command by belting its final word in the chorus – four times in a row, using an overambitious melody – when it would actually benefit from a quieter brand of deep, smouldering rage.
All that said, the song’s greatest sin is its second verse, helmed by Migos rapper Quavo.
Not only does he sound out of place, but he’s also been accused of making homophobic comments – which makes him feel like an especially egregious choice for an album that proudly features queer lyrics and storylines.
“The Prologue” was unnecessary.
We all know that “Hopeless Fountain Kingdom” was a concept album based on “Romeo and Juliet” – Halsey hammered the inspiration in every interview she did about the project, and all her visuals and music videos from that era played off of Baz Luhrmann’s 1996 adaptation – so to introduce the album by literally reading the prologue of Shakespeare’s play was just unnecessary and, dare I say, a little eye-roll-inducing.
“Not Afraid Anymore” is a cookie-cutter soundtrack song.
“Not Afraid Anymore” sounds like it could’ve been written or sung by any top 40 artist, which is hardly a compliment when it comes to an artist whose crackling personality and confessional lyricism are keys to her success.
Halsey’s contribution to the “Fifty Shades Darker” soundtrack is just very predictable and deeply forgettable – and, as we’ve seen from brilliant soundtracks like Kendrick Lamar’s for “Black Panther” and Lady Gaga’s for “A Star is Born,” being made for a movie is no excuse for lazy songwriting.