From dark electropop, to huge radio hits, and even a couple of adventures into a more rock sound – Halsey has been a dominating presence in the pop world. With a knack for unique production and smart songwriting, it’s no surprise she blew up.
My opinions of Halsey fluctuate constantly and seem to change with every single one of her releases. In this post, I’m going to unpack my opinions and try to give you a straight-up answer to the following question: is her full discography worth listening to?
The first pair of Halsey songs I heard were “Castle” and “Control” from her debut album. I instantly fell in love with her sultry singing style and original musical choices (I mean, that choir in the pre-chorus of “Castle” – who thinks of that?).
I am also a huge fan of basically anything with that alternative, dark electronic vibe, primarily due to discovering her early work. I can absolutely credit Halsey with making me fall in love with that type of music when I was like fifteen. I clicked with her stuff immediately and proceeded to check out the rest of “BADLANDS” shortly after.
Overall, I’d say this is a great first album for an up-and-coming pop star, capitalizing on the tail end of that time’s fascination with dystopian worlds (remember that?) with its reverb-heavy dark beats and ominous lyrics. “BADLANDS” was the perfect soundtrack to that entire era. Looking at it today with that trend out of the way and a few more years under my belt, though, I personally don’t think “BADLANDS” aged incredibly well. It’s not a bad album by any stretch and still holds up as a strong debut, but without the entire setting of 2015 as a backdrop, it struggles a bit to stand on its own. Many people won’t like this statement, but nostalgia alone is not enough to make anything good.
At the time, this album was already huge underground, but a little bit like what we saw more recently with Billie Eilish, it took until Halsey’s second big release before radio and mainstream listeners really caught on. I use loose terms when making this comparison because Eilish’s “dont smile at me” isn’t an official LP and Halsey’s smash hit collaboration “Closer” with The Chainsmokers did get heads turning her way.
However, one hit doesn’t determine whether an artist stays, and so it took until Halsey then released “Now or Never” and “Bad At Love” as singles for her next album “hopeless fountain kingdom” to confirm that she was indeed here to stay. I don’t love the former, but the latter is great – I’m really happy it got lots of traction.
On a quick sidenote, before I ever listened to “hopeless” though, I checked out her “Room 93” (2015) EP. It essentially sounds like a collection of “BADLANDS” B-sides, so overall I enjoyed it. “Empty Gold” is my favourite. Again, though, it didn’t age amazingly.
While “hopeless” was a fun listen that I believe did pretty well on the charts at the time, I didn’t (and still don’t) enjoy the full product in the way I do her previous album. It’s filled with individual gems that definitely deserve to be highlighted; “Walls Could Talk” is definitely my favourite. It sounds like an old Britney Spears song in the best way – it’s just a shame that it’s so short. “Bad At Love” is good too, and same with “Heaven In Hiding” despite it only featuring on the deluxe version of the album.
Here’s the difference, though: I enjoy every song on “BADLANDS” whereas “hopeless” has songs that I really dislike, and even worse, feel completely indifferent about.
Those that come to mind are (in order from dislike to indifference): “Lie (with Quavo)”, “Devil In Me”, “Now or Never”, “Sorry”, and “Strangers (with Lauren Jauregui)”. Artists can have weaker songs (it’s tough to make an album full of hits), but I personally find these are so weak that they detract from the overall experience of the album.
I will say, I do appreciate that “hopeless” is a concept album – it’s unusual for alt pop artists to put out concept albums, especially as that entire idea has fallen off in the last decade or so, from many genres. The last big one I really remember was “Danger Days: The True Lives of the Fabulous Killjoys” (2010) by My Chemical Romance. I personally love concept albums, so I love that Halsey attempted it on “hopeless”.
Then we have several collaborations, including “Eastside” with Benny Blanco and Khalid (which I thought was alright), the global hit “Without Me” (which I didn’t like at first, but it grew on me), and “11 Minutes” with YUNGBLUD and Travis Barker (which I really enjoyed). I heard all of these sort of here and there, as they came out and hit the radio. “11 Minutes” was definitely my favourite, but after an album I’d call lukewarm at best despite some good moments and these past few singles that kind of just made me think “meh”, I didn’t have much hope for Halsey’s future music.
And then she turned around and dropped “Nightmare” – holy fuck.
Pardon the language, but that’s the first thing I said when I first heard it. Suddenly I was right back on the Halsey train, and I stand by that song to this day. That chorus is one of the best she’s ever written, her voice sounds awesome throughout, and the song’s blend of pop, trap, and rock elements is so good. I still think it should’ve been on “Manic”.
“Graveyard” was an excellent follow-up, and while I didn’t like “clementine”, I was actually excited for the upcoming album coming out in early 2020.
I wasn’t disappointed by “Manic” in the way that I was for “hopeless”. Once again, there were lots of high points – “3am”, “929”, “Graveyard”, “Without Me”.
However, again, a lot of moments fell quite short for me, though – “Ashley”, “I HATE EVERYBODY”, “killing boys”, “Forever … (is a long time)” (until the last ten seconds – those electronics and that percussion should’ve come in way sooner).
What I will say is that the songwriting is a lot stronger on “Manic” – it’s more honest, and I think it’s because Halsey wasn’t hiding behind her concept like on the previous album. I know I praised her for doing a concept album, and sometimes those help an artist sound more cohesive, but I also don’t think that on “hopeless” she managed to find that sweet spot between honest, not-too-vague lyrics and tying in the overarching concept/vision she had for the album. Hey, it happens.
This why I much prefer the honest lyrical approach she takes on “Manic” despite once again delivering a final product that I struggled to enjoy as a whole.
Additional general thoughts
Specific discography aside, one of the things I respect the most about Halsey is her steadfast commitment to the idea of albums, despite the clear fact that singles now dominate the industry. I’m not necessarily talking about just concept albums – I’m talking about making an album sound like it is not just a bunch of singles and filler thrown together, and going through the active effort of creating something cohesive.
Does it always work for Halsey? No. But when it clicks for her (especially on “BADLANDS”), it really clicks, and I love seeing a pop artist that isn’t afraid to add things like interludes and overtures to their albums. Even though I don’t like a song on say, “hopeless”, it’s not like it sounds half-finished or lazy – just because it doesn’t do it for me doesn’t mean that it’s an incomplete song, because you can just tell that Halsey works hard on every song on her albums. It’s refreshing, because few other big names are doing this – Lady Gaga does it well, and in my opinion, that’s about it.
I will also say that while I generally enjoy Halsey’s voice and some of her music, I do think that compared to other alternative and pop singers, she is slightly overrated. There are much stronger and more versatile vocalists creating more cohesive projects. I recall back in 2015, people were calling “BADLANDS” the darker, maximalist flipside to Lorde’s “Pure Heroine” (2013) and just… no. This is a bad take.
If you’re going to make a comparison, your two albums or singers need to be on similar ground, and Lorde’s abilities far exceeds Halsey’s, in my opinion (I also think “Pure Heroine” is a nearly untouchable pop album, so I’m definitely biased).
That doesn’t mean that Halsey sucks or that her stuff isn’t worth listening to, because she’s talented and hardworking as fuck, and some of her music is really, really good.
I just don’t think it’s the best thing ever like many people seem to think.
Finally, I want to say that I really respect Halsey. She does lots of great activism, she quit smoking cigarettes last year after a decade, and despite being a pop artist for whom people hold a lot of expectations, she’s willing to take risks with her art – even if those don’t always pay off in some people’s eyes. Judging from her songs, she’s a very resilient person who’s been through some tough times, so from the little I know about her real personality and character, I definitely respect her.
Now for our big question: is it worth it to listen to Halsey’s full discography?
I’m torn, because when she clicks, she produces pure gold, and those tracks are 100% worth listening to. I know for a fact that many of the songs I mentioned negatively really worked for other people – heck, the mere amount of streams she gets tells you that. This suggests that her music can be pretty polarizing. So yes, in a way.
Ultimately, however, I think I have to go with “no” as my overall answer (not a hard, resounding “no” but more of a “eh, probably not”). I’m saying this because of the too-large amount of what I find to be lukewarm, unoriginal material in her discography.
Again, though, there’s still some stuff that’s worth listening to. “No” to “should I listen to her whole discography?” but “yes” to “should I listen to some of it?”.
It’s a bit like only having trail mix handy when you’re craving candy. The M&Ms are the best part of the mix, and it’s not that the nuts and seeds and raisins are terrible – it’s just that now you have to sift through the other “meh” stuff to get to the candy.
I think that’s a good analogy, because no one really craves so-so music, right?
Of course, that doesn’t stop you from checking all of Halsey’s stuff out, but here’s my personal recommendation for how to approach her discography.
Listen to “BADLANDS” in full. 100%. If you like it, do the “Room 93” EP too.
I’d then recommend you go for the between-albums collaboration singles and the songs I name-dropped positively from “hopeless” and then do the same with “Manic”.
If you’re head-over-heels for that stuff, great, check out the rest of her music. But if you’re not totally sold, I’d argue that you shouldn’t bother with the rest.
What are your thoughts on Halsey? Leave a comment below to start a conversation!