Lana Del Rey’s massive popularity can be explained by many factors. She has a sexy and evocative voice; she immerses her listeners in a world of vivid and roiling emotion; she occupies her own artistic lane, mixing baroque pop, torch songs, hip-hop beats, and different strands of rock into a style that’s distinct in mainstream music.
She’s a rock star who takes the rock-star project seriously. Her retro, shapeshifting persona is built on iconography and ideas that range from Roaring Twenties glamour and boozy film-noir fatalism to the open road and California self-invention. Her career represents a tribute to the wild, scattershot story of 20th century American culture.
Now for some qualifications and counterpoints. To date, Lana has released one pretty awesome record, one that’s pretty good, and a handful of mixed bags. Her sad-girl emoting can become tiresome when stretched across a full album. The imagery in her lyrics is often ham-fisted and cliched.
She has songs with titles like “Diet Mountain Dew,” “Coachella – Woodstock in My Mind,” and “When the World Was at War We Kept Dancing.” On two separate tracks she sings about drinking PBR “on ice.” (Something not recommended by or for anyone but doddering grandpas in Wisconsin.) And there’s that preposterously crass line from “Cola.”
In short, Lana is a tricky case. The highs are high, the lows are low, and they often follow right after each other. She doesn’t let you comfortably settle in and enjoy the ride. She keeps you on your toes.
Ultimately, I think the positives far outweigh the negatives. So what if she hasn’t mastered the album format? So what if she can be ridiculous? What matters most is that she has the songs, the voice, and the mystique. When it’s all working, she’s a force. At her best, she can totally transport you to a different world.
Lana’s new album, “Norman F***ing Rockwell,” comes out on Friday. Among the songs already released as singles are “Mariners Apartment Complex,” “Doin’ Time” (a Sublime cover), and “The Greatest.”* The early returns are encouraging. On the whole, Lana seems to be aiming for more of a singer-songwriter vibe (something she tested out on her last record, “Lust for Life”) but without sacrificing her sturdy pop appeal.
To get you primed for the new material, I’ve compiled a list of 10 Lana songs you can’t miss. While the list is career-spanning (with the exception of her false-start debut, “Lana Del Ray”), I didn’t include her most popular singles. Tracks like “Video Games,” “Blue Jeans,” “Summertime Sadness,” “Ride,” and “Love” don’t need any boosting. We’re looking beyond the hits.
1. ‘Million Dollar Man’
Smoky, sultry, and languidly paced, “Million Dollar Man” is a choice cocktail made with the right proportions. It offers a satisfying contrast to the overblown style that too often prevails on “Born to Die,” Lana’s major-label debut record.
Against a glossy, reverberating soundscape, Lana lists off one familiar signifier of Americana after another: the Boss, Elvis, driving fast, Los Angeles, Tom Petty (“Honey, put on that party dress”). If Lana wants to insinuate herself into the deeply American worlds of “Free Fallin’” and “Mary Jane’s Last Dance,” I can’t help but cheer on her efforts.
3. ‘Cruel World’
“Ultraviolence,” Lana’s third full-length record, opens with what may be her best song. A feverish blend of psychedelic rock and “the wall of sound,” “Cruel World” spreads the essential elements of Lana’s appeal—the voice, the persona, the references—across a huge sonic canvas that magnifies and elevates the drama she’s trying to convey.
4. ‘Brooklyn Baby’
Dan Auerbach’s ace production is the star of “Brooklyn Baby,” as he mixes echo-drenched vocals, a twinkling guitar line, and rumbling drums into a little sweltering world unto itself. Lana, meanwhile, engages in some funny self-caricature, satirizing her cool-girl image with overwrought boasts about jamming to beat poetry, smoking hydroponic weed, and having a boyfriend who’s “in the band.”
5. ‘Old Money’
Lana may have arrived on the scene as the “gangster Nancy Sinatra,” but I welcome it when she drops the swagger and goes for pure elegance. On the stately ballad “Old Money” (such a Lana song name), the melody is lovely, the strings gleam, and those undulating “oohs” and “aahs” feel like angelic reveries.
With its guitar distortion and downtempo moodiness, “Flipside” showcases a mode that I would love to hear more of from Lana: ‘90s alt-rock queen. Considering that she came of age in that glorious decade and has cited the likes of Nirvana and Courtney Love as inspirations, it shouldn’t be too much to ask.
If Lana’s aim with “Honeymoon” was to channel the mysterious magic of “Video Games” through an even more distinct baroque-pop sound (i.e., one that’s built on stillness and empty space as well as strings), then she succeeded. “Honeymoon” is elegant, eerie, and emotional all at once.
Here’s Lana singing “The Godfather,” except her version combines swaying old-world pageantry and a few dashes of Italian, with references to beatboxing and soft ice cream. The cinematic vibes really kick in during the chorus, which is so grand and emotive that it makes wayward passion seem like an exalted pursuit.
Not only is “Change” the prettiest song that Lana has ever recorded, it’s also one of the most unaffected and stripped-down. Backed only by a piano, Lana rethinks her detached approach to the world’s problems (with nods to Sam Cooke and Bob Dylan) while delivering a soulful melody that keeps unfolding and going to places of delicate beauty.
10. ‘Venice B***h’
Strikingly different from everything else Lana has done, “Venice B***h” is nearly 10 minutes of dreamy psychedelic folk-pop that wanders all over the place, takes a few detours into experimental jam territory, and then wanders some more. It’s out-of-focus in a sublime kind of way, like a hazy, half-remembered drive on the Pacific Coast Highway.
*In the past month, Lana has also put out a cover of Donovan’s “Season of the Witch” (off the “Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark” soundtrack) and a standalone single “Looking for America,” which she wrote in response to the mass shootings in El Paso and Dayton.