Is Lana Del Rey a persona? The answer is pretty easy: yes, absolutely. Lana Del Rey isn’t a real person, it’s just a name that Elizabeth Grant has adopted to stand out in a crowded field of singers and songwriters. But for the past decade, the music world has seemingly become obsessed with learning just who and what Lana Del Rey really is.
That’s a testament to her prowess as a singular artist. Few singers are as immediately recognisable in sound and style as Del Rey is, from the sweeping strings to the noir overtones to the 1970s balladry and everything in between. Del Rey might not be as young as she was when she was singing about youthful love in real-time, but her ability to capture those moments has catapulted her into being one of the biggest singers in the world.
For her birthday, we’re looking at the 20 songs that best represent the singular persona of Lana Del Rey. From the fatalistic tones ‘Born to Die’ to the defiant embrace of life in ‘Hope Is a Dangerous Thing For a Woman Like Me To Have – But I Have It’, these are the essential tracks for understanding how Lizzy Grant became, then embraced, Lana Del Rey.
Lana Del Rey’s 20 best songs:
20. ‘Norman Fucking Rockwell’
Just as a warning – this list is going to seem pretty heavy on Norman Fucking Rockwell. Seven of the 20 songs placed here are from the 2019 album, which is already shaping up to be Del Rey’s masterpiece.
Since we’re going deep, we might as well start from the top with the album’s title track, which perfectly sets the tone for the hour of music that’s to come.
Not for the first time, ‘Cola’ showed Del Rey busting out of the gate with a lyrical jolt that threatened to overshadow the entire track. But that’s not fair to the rest of ‘Cola’, the perfect encapsulation of Del Rey’s early M.O.: escape, bad behaviour, fatalism, glamour and danger.
Taken from the everlasting Born to Die, ‘Cola’ is a distillation of every liquor she added to the adjoining mixer.
18. ‘Tulsa Jesus Freak’
At this point in her career, Del Rey has transformed almost completely into the kind of Laurel Canyon piano-focused singer-songwriter that she idolises. ‘Tulsa Jesus Freak’ lets just a little bit of electronic drum buzz into the mix, but never enough to overpower the track.
‘Tulsa Jesus Freak’ also doubles as a great example of Del Rey’s humour sneaking into her working, one “Ar-Kansas” reference at a time.
17. ‘Summer Bummer’
Like every artist, it took Del Rey a little while for her to find the sound that she was most comfortable with. We know now that it’s Joni Mitchell-style piano ballads, but in her early work, there were enough breakbeats and lurid references for Del Rey to be rap-adjacent.
‘Summer Bummer’ is where Del Rey jumps explicitly into the genre, complete with slick verses from A$AP Rocky and Playboi Carti.
She might have gotten famous for her laconic vocal style, but no mistake – not only can Lana Del Rey sing, but she can also scream.
With an assist from Miles Kane at the start, Del Rey proceeds to fully take over by letting her vocal cords get ragged in startling detail. The hushed seductress is the Del Rey we know; the pissed-off firestarter is a whole new side of the artist.
15. ‘Mariner’s Apartment Complex’
There’s an amazing glow that seems to surround all of the songs on Norman Fucking Rockwell. It feels warm and bright, with each reference to California or not to old-school classic rock coming off as a genuine acknowledgement rather than an eye-rolling pick at low-hanging fruit. As a vocalist, songwriter, and persona, Del Rey was never more confident than she was on ‘Mariner’s Apartment Complex’, positioning herself as a messiah ready to change the life of anyone who comes into her orbit.
It’s Del Rey calling her own shot, even if she’s insisting that she’s only doing “the best she can.” Turns out, that’s pretty damn good.
14. ‘Happiness is a Butterfly’
Don’t let the title of this song fool you – ‘Happiness is a Butterfly’ is easily one of the darkest moments on Norman Fucking Rockwell. That’s what happens when you confront the attitude of “what’s the worst that can happen?”
It’s classic fatalistic Del Rey, the kind that is refreshingly sparse on the album compared to the rest of her work. But it’s still an integral part of her persona, and in ‘Happiness is a Butterfly’, it gets the perfect grounding.
13. ‘White Dress’
The line between the Del Rey persona and the real Lizzy Grant at the heart of these songs can be blurred to great extents. Ultimately, if she really wanted to, Del Rey could go back to writing music under her own name, but the idea of Lana Del Rey is just too big and too important to let that happen.
That’s why it’s so essential to catch the glimpses of Lizzy Grant when you can find them, and few songs give you a glimpse behind the curtain the way ‘White Dress’ does.
12. ‘Love Song’
It takes balls to just let a love song be a love song. Music is absolutely overstuffed with generic ballads and unnecessarily shmaltzy odes. ‘Love Song’ isn’t that – it’s love, lust, and loss all pulled into one. It’s a desperate call and a wave goodbye all at once, with Del Rey uncertain about the future while still revelling in the present-day love she finds herself in.
It might not be the best “love song” ever written, but it just might be the culmination of all love songs before it.
11. ‘Brooklyn Baby’
It only took a little bit of guitar and a little less polish for Lana Del Rey to alert the rest of the world to the fact that she’s a capital-A artist. Everything about Del Rey, from her icy persona to her callback references to pop culture, comes under the microscope in ‘Brooklyn Baby’.
The artist refuses to back down or apologise for her work, so ‘Brooklyn Baby’ became a line of demarcation – this is Lana Del Rey, take it or leave it. Quite a few listeners decided to take it.
10. ‘The Greatest’
What does being on top really mean for Lana Del Rey? Does it mean being so omnipresent that she can effect real change in the world? Or is it just about being ahead of Kanye West? The apocalyptic soundtrack to a massive fall, ‘The Greatest’ proved that Del Rey knew she was right at the forefront of culture.
Although it reads like Del Rey was on her way out, ‘The Greatest’ has only served to solidify Del Rey’s legendary status in the years since its original release.
9. ‘Summertime Sadness’
Certain songs act as markers in Del Rey’s timeline: ‘Video Games’, ‘Cola’, ‘Young and Beautiful’, and ‘Doin’ Time’ all work in that regard, but few songs in her repertoire are as time-and-place sensitive as ‘Summertime Sadness’ is.
The biggest objective “hit” of her career, ‘Summertime Sadness’ has soundtracked many a depressed August afternoon in the decade since its release, but its longevity only serves to confirm its massive impact on the world of pop.
8. ‘Young and Beautiful’
Was Lana Del Rey shallow? Did she take glamour and seduction at face value without any substance under it? That was what you had to decide as a listener, especially when she was getting shit for it during the earliest days of her career. ‘Young and Beautiful’ is a defiant embrace of that perception – may be losing your looks is a tragedy. Maybe it’s ok to know how good you are. Maybe saying “rock and roll” really is more important than playing rock and roll.
‘Young and Beautiful’ is the musical equivalent of Del Rey challenging her harshest critics to blink first, with its appearance on the soundtrack to Baz Lurhman’s hyper-stylised version of The Great Gatsby being the perfect icing on the cake.
7. ‘Born to Die’
For an entire swath of potential fans who weren’t sure if they were truly on board with Del Rey’s style after ‘Video Games’, the time to check out was on ‘Born to Die’. Del Rey has had a couple of these make-or-break moments, but only ‘Born to Die’ fully confirmed that the doomed romance, fatalistic love, and swooning scope of her ambitions were here to stay.
No other artist uses strings like Del Rey, and that opening trill on ‘Born to Die’ just might be the most cinematic moment in her entire body of work.
How did you feel about ‘Love’ on your first listen? Did it feel as though Del Rey was putting you down for having vintage tastes when she channels those exact same tastes? Did you feel like you were personally attacked? Well, good, because that’s part of the Lana Del Rey experience. You should also have listened a little closer – it doesn’t matter what you’re taking in, because being young and crazy is a universal feeling.
‘Love’ is a celebration, not a kickback, even if you’re just dragging yourself back to the coffee shop.
With more than a full decade behind her, it’s hard to remember when exactly Lana Del Rey came into full view. We got bits and pieces over the course of her first few tracks, but ‘Ride’ was all the glitz and gloom of the Lana Del Rey experience compacted into the most potent pop moment of her earliest years.
There was plenty of criticism around lines like “dying young and playing hard / That’s the way my father made his life and art”, but it was a window into the Del Rey persona, even if it also started a coordinated dissection into where Lizzy Grant started and Lana Del Rey ended.
4. ‘Blue Jeans’
Being sad is actually really intoxicating. That one glib comment could probably encapsulate the entire Lana Del Rey experience, but something has to be the absolute height of the sentiment. Enter ‘Blue Jeans’. Although love is central to the song, it’s prickly and complicated.
Like the perfect mix between ‘Stand By Your Man’ and Drive, ‘Blue Jeans’ is Del Rey’s original sound and persona at its most potent.
3. ‘Hope Is a Dangerous Thing For a Woman Like Me To Have – But I Have It’
Although she built her name on the kind of sweeping arrangements and smokey drama that defined old-school cinema, Del Rey had plenty of literary bona fides that made her lyrics the perfect fodder for fans and critics alike to dissect.
The doom-laden darkness of Sylvia Plath is a tricky foundation to build a song on top of, but ‘Hope Is a Dangerous Thing For a Woman Like Me To Have – But I Have It’ actually refuses to indulge in the excess or fatalism that even Del Rey herself formerly surrounded herself with. Instead, ‘Hope’ is the perfect embrace of life, and the perfect way to close out Norman Fucking Rockwell.
2. ‘Video Games’
It seems relatively quaint nowadays – the novelty of a viral hit, the expectations that kept growing exponentially as the song became bigger, and the seemingly titanic fall from grace that one sleep Saturday Night Live performance may or may not have had on the young Lana Del Rey.
She lived through it and so did we, so now we don’t have to create any hangups that keep us from blasting ‘Video Games’ as loud and bombastically as possible, a full decade after we all knew that we had to remember the name Lana Del Rey.
1. ‘Venice Bitch’
The sprawling highlight of Del Rey’s best album, ‘Venice Bitch’ is the apex of everything great about Lanna Del Rey. Even better, it’s Del Rey knowing that she’s hitting a peak, indulging in nine minutes of pure excess that unfurls into her most singular track. Lana tells us at the top that she’s “fresh out of fucks forever”, and goes on to prove it with an entire album’s worth of hooks, biting lyrical turns, and intoxicating bliss distilled into one song.
Nothing in her entire discography is remotely like it, and no other artist could have possibly pulled off a song as amazingly grandiose as ‘Venice Bitch’ like Lana Del Rey.