When Halsey (born Ashley Nicolette Frangipane) first arrived on the music scene in 2014, Tumblr culture was at a peak and American Apparel still existed. Halsey’s fanbase was predominantly built by teenagers who propelled her music in early “Stan Twitter” communities and were inspired by the singer’s outspoken style—donning similar holographic tennis skirts, dyed hair and Adidas Superstars at shows.
After achieving this following, she released 2015’s BADLANDS and 2017’s hopeless fountain kingdom, while still being perceived mostly as an alternative artist. Flash forward a few years later, after her 2016 Chainsmokers collaboration “Closer” put her on the airwaves, and Halsey has become one of the most prominent soloists in pop music. Between releasing several chart-topping songs including “Without Me,” holding three Guinness World Records with BTS and appearing in A Star Is Born all before her 26th birthday, Halsey is inseparable from any conversation about the mainstream music scene today.
In honor of the fifth anniversary of Halsey’s debut album BADLANDS and the newly released live edition BADLANDS (Live From Webster Hall), we revisited the New Jersey songwriter’s best songs from throughout her discography.
The one that started it all, “Ghost” was initially recorded as a fun test session song with friends in Brooklyn. But it started gaining traction on Soundcloud, landing Halsey a record deal with Astralwerks in 2014. Sonically, “Ghost” took on a space-age electronic sound, appearing on both her first EP Room 93 and follow-up debut. “It was our single and, you know, SiriusXM started playing it which was awesome,” Halsey said in a Spotify commentary. “A lot of people give me a lot of weird looks for it because it’s like two minutes and thirty seconds long, it starts with the bridge, doesn’t make any sense, there’s like a rap, white girl part in the beginning in it, but we moved forward with it because we had faith in it, and I’m really glad we did… and it’s the fan favorite.”
Alluding to her September birthday, “929” is the closing song on Halsey’s latest studio album, Manic. Lyrically, she examines the cost of being in the musical spotlight since age 19 (“Who do you call when it’s late at night? / When the headlines just don’t paint the picture right?”) and past mistakes made along the way (“I’ve stared at the sky in Milwaukee and hoped that my father would finally call me.”)
Halsey’s second collaboration with K-Pop supergroup BTS (following “Boy With Luv”) was on Manic. “SUGA’s Interlude” features BTS member Min Yoon-gi, better known through stage names SUGA and Agust D, as he takes on the verses in this beautifully-crafted song about the ups and downs of music careers.
“Is There Somewhere” earns a spot on this list due to its production. Rumored to be about a love affair with a certain musician, “Is There Somewhere” starts slow but explodes towards the end when Halsey repeats the line “I’m sorry, but I fell in love tonight.” “I actually wrote and recorded this song on GarageBand at first, a couple months before I signed and I put it up on YouTube,” Halsey explained on the commentary edition of Room 93. “It basically just touches on the human intimacy of hotel rooms and how it’s like an alternate universe.”
The only entry from 2017’s hopeless fountain kingdom on this list, “100 Letters” opens the record after its initial Romeo and Juliet-themed prologue. Halsey details memories of a toxic relationship (“King Midas put his hands on me again / He said one day I’d realize why I don’t have any friends”) over a ticking electro-pop beat, intensifying the pace and meaning of the song.
Featured on the Birds of Prey soundtrack earlier this year, “Experiment On Me” is one of Halsey’s loudest, most aggressive songs. Halsey shares co-writing credits with Bring Me The Horizon’s Oliver Sykes and Jordan Fish, so it’s no wonder the song was played during one of Harley Quinn’s most intense fight scenes in the movie. “It’s one of the coolest songs I’ve ever made, I had so much fun in the studio with Oli and Jordan, and it was crazy for me,” Halsey said in a tweet about the track. “I’ve loved Bring Me my whole life, and I’ve been a fan since I was, like, fourteen years old, so getting to work with them was super surreal. But we hit it off, like, immediately, and what we made is really special, and it goes so well in the film.”
“Tokyo Narita” was one of many collaborative releases Halsey made with her ex-boyfriend and producer Lido, but this one especially remains a favorite among fans to this day. The 2016 song takes on a free-verse form, dropping references to Drake’s Views, Baby Bash and lines from both of the collaborators’ previous songs—Halsey’s “Drive” and Lido’s “Crazy.”
This song opens up with the sound of a storm, symbolizing both the impending doom and sadness tied to it. One of the slowest songs on BADLANDS, “Coming Down” allows Halsey to shine as a singer-songwriter. The track is a story of “a love like religion” becoming confusing and destructive, only to fall apart, as the title itself suggests.
Channeling the likes of Shania Twain and Carrie Underwood, Halsey’s “You should be sad” was her foray into country music on Manic earlier this year. “The most petty and heartbreaking songs all come from country,” Halsey said about the song on Twitter. “I wrote YSBS on my living room floor on my guitar.”
“Nightmare” hit the airwaves as Halsey’s most intense song (prior to “Experiment On Me”) when she released it as a single in May of 2019. But the song unintentionally took on an entirely new meaning when Alabama voted and passed the “Human Life Protection Act” two days after its release. While the bill has been pushed back in implementation, there was something stark about hearing Halsey over the radio shouting “I’ve been polite, but won’t be caught dead / Letting a man tell me what I should do with my bed.” It was intended first to be angsty, tackling exes and Halsey’s role as her own worst enemy. It is performed just as intensely live—usually accompanied by pyrotechnics and described among fans as “Punk-sey.” Oh, yeah, and Debbie Harry makes an appearance in the music video, too.