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For The Record: Why Lana Del Rey's 'Born To Die' Is One Of Pop's Most Influential Albums In The Past Decade
The sound and aesthetic of 'Born To Die,' released in January 2012, created a blueprint for numerous artists and cultural movements during the 2010s — and beyond
When Lana Del Rey released her sixth album Norman Fucking Rockwell! in 2019, it felt like a coronation. Beyond the immediate critical approval, the album was nominated for a number of GRAMMYS, including Album of the Year, and appeared on major publications’ “Best of the Decade” list. It was a fitting reward for a pop mainstay, but it didn’t happen in a vacuum — and it doesn’t quite capture just how influential she has been for an entire decade.
Upon the release of her major-label debut, Born To Die — released 10 years ago today, on Jan. 27, 2012 — Lana Del Rey arrived as a game-changer for pop and music as a whole. With an orchestral production flair and a deep sense of melancholy in her lyrics, she planted the seeds not only for her own success, but for the sounds that would guide some of the decade’s biggest pop stars.
While it’s not Del Rey’s first album (she digitally released a self-titled album under the spelling Lana Del Ray in 2010), Born To Die did serve as her sort of formal introduction to the world. At the time, though, the pop landscape wasn’t exactly ready for her gloomier vibe: Dominated by the likes of Katy Perry, Lady Gaga, a young Justin Bieber, and a newly minted One Direction, early 2010s-era pop was defined by brightness in sound and optimism in spirit. Sure, they sometimes sang of heartbreak and pain, but the pain was temporary, and usually backed by uptempo beats and bright, open synths. The stars and their music might have been sad for fleeting moments, but they were not necessarily sad at their core.
In comes Lana Del Rey, who was freshly signed to a deal with Interscope Records, and wasted no time shifting the perspective of pop music with the Born To Die lead single “Video Games.” The slow, sparse intro of chimes and harp — which opens into a symphonic flood — was unlike anything happening in pop at the time; there’s not even percussion until a snare drum comes in over the second half of the track. And while Del Rey’s voice has undeniable power, she lets it shine through a controlled and steady march, never belting.
The rest of Born To Die sticks to this sound, never straying from Del Rey’s vision of baroque pop. The title track begins the album with prominent strings, a common thread throughout the album — from the crescendoing roar of “National Anthem” to the eerie, haunting “Dark Paradise.”
It was a bold and unexpected choice in the context of pop music at the time. What’s more, it wasn’t just done in a single song: Here was a full album that could embrace the trends of where pop was headed, drawing more from hip-hop than rock — deftly weaving hip-hop’s influence into the record with ad-libs and perfectly placed beats — while still making it sound like a full orchestral suite.
Beyond sounding different, Born To Die felt different. There was no veneer of melancholy layered amongst danceable beats; all 12 tracks radiate a deep, profound sorrow. More than just mourning superficial breakups, Del Rey’s anguish reaches farther, whether it’s a world designed to pit women against each other in the name of “love” (“This Is What Makes Us Girls”); the commodification of beauty and womanhood (“Carmen”); or a profound nihilism and loneliness (“Summertime Sadness”).
The latter track introduced Lana Del Rey to a more mainstream audience 18 months after Born To Die's release, when French DJ Cedric Gervais dropped "Summertime Sadness (Remix)." The GRAMMY-winning remix amped up the downtempo original with synth-laden production and punchy beat drops, ultimately turning the track into a sleeper hit — and Del Rey's biggest to date — by landing at No. 6 on the Billboard Hot 100.
Yet, the albums that followed Born To Die showed that tasting commercial success didn't steer the singer away from her unique stylings. And even if the "Summertime Sadness" remix had something to do with listeners catching on, Del Rey's sad-to-the-core music clearly made an impact: Born To Die went platinum in January 2014, five months before its follow-up, Ultraviolence, debuted at No. 1 on the all-genre Billboard 200 albums chart. (Not only is BTD now certified 3x Multi-Platinum by the RIAA, it has also spent 400 weeks — more than 7 years' worth — on the Billboard 200.)
The truth that Del Rey unveiled has pervaded throughout pop in the decade since. It's hard to imagine something like Lorde's intimately vulnerable Melodrama or the divorce-inspired tales of Kacey Musgraves' star-crossed or Adele's 30 resonating quite as deeply without Born To Die coming first.
Sonically, it hasn't been uncommon for some of the biggest pop stars on the planet, from Kesha to Ariana Grande, to incorporate string arrangements into their tracks. Del Rey herself continued to pioneer the symphonic sound over the years, most heavily on 2015's Honeymoon.
Taylor Swift herself, whose sister albums folklore and evermore share a similar somberness to the softer moments on Born To Die, has acknowledged Del Rey's monumental place in the world of pop. While accepting the Billboard "Woman Of The Decade" award in 2019, Swift called Del Rey "the most influential artist in pop," adding that her vocal stylings, lyrics and aesthetics have "been repurposed everywhere in music."
Born To Die also ushered in plenty of cultural influence, too. As Tumblr sees a resurgence, so does the sad-girl persona that is "Tumblr Girl," largely a mirror of Lana Del Rey's aesthetic. In fashion, flowing dresses, frilled jackets and flower crowns (which are now festival staples) can all be traced back to Born To Die's single art and music videos.
Though turning West Coast Americana into an art form is not a new phenomena, Del Rey popularized it on an unprecedented scale while also utilizing it to further her lyrical message. She flipped symbols of the American Dream — flags flowing, muscle cars speeding down the highway — from images of triumph into portrayals of sadness, like the male protagonist carrying Del Rey's bloody body from the wreckage in the "Born To Die" video.
Del Rey adds to those themes within her lyrics, smartly criticizing the rose-colored glasses that have tainted American history. Take Born To Die single "National Anthem," whose patriotic imagery builds up a dream relationship before revealing the pitfalls of a manifest-destiny mindset in the bridge. "We're on a quick, sick rampage/ Wining and dining, drinking and driving/ Excessive buying, overdose and dying/On our drugs and our love and our dreams and our rage," she sings.
The singer/songwriter has refined this approach since Born To Die, eventually perfecting it on Norman F****** Rockwell!, an album named after one of the most recognizable American artists and searing in its cultural criticism. Del Rey first continued her Americana disillusionment with 2021's Chemtrails Over The Country Club, which sonically delved into sparser folk elements. Her second 2021 LP, Blue Banisters, brought back the emotional intensity of her early Born To Die days with even greater maturity and lyrical flair.
Ten years in, Lana Del Rey has gone from boundary pusher to trendsetter within music and culture. She allowed pop to be sad, further pushed it towards its future of hip-hop and orchestral sensibilities, and crafted powerful imagery as poignant as it was memorable.
As she charted a path for something different, she also cemented herself as a critically and culturally adored pop star. Born To Die didn't just introduce the world to Lana Del Rey — it allowed her to mold it for years to come.
N.W.A's DJ Yella, Ice Cube, Dr. Dre, and MC Ren
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N.W.A Are 'Straight Outta Compton': For The Record
What started as an attitude that helped put Compton on the map grew into a worldwide music revolution celebrating the streets
A debut album that landed like a sledgehammer, 1988's Straight Outta Compton has become a legend in its own right. The featured N.W.A lineup was Dr. Dre, Eazy-E, Ice Cube, and MC Ren. The album was produced by Dr. Dre and DJ Yella, and released on Ruthless Records, the label co-founded by Eazy-E and N.W.A manager Jerry Heller two years before.
Although it sold well initially, its landmark status rested on the controversies surrounding its gangsta lifestyle themes and attitudes. Its provocative tracks described the world N.W.A knew through their own eyes, including the title track, which elevated the group's hometown of Compton, Calif., "Express Yourself" and "Gangsta Gangsta." The album also included "F*** Tha Police," which resulted in the FBI and U.S. Secret Service sending threatening letters to Ruthless Records and the group's banishment from many venues.
Credited as one of the most influential hip-hop records of all time, in 2015, Straight Outta Compton the film appeared, dramatizing the 1988 impact of the album, with Ice Cube portrayed by his son O'Shea Jackson Jr. Confrontations with law enforcement and antagonism based on "F*** Tha Police" form a core element of both the 2015 drama as well as the drama on the streets that has never stopped.
Among the album's many aftermaths, Eazy-E died in 1995, Ice Cube went on to produce and star in his extensive filmography and the adventures of Dr. Dre touch on many other histories, including those of Eminem and Kendrick Lamar. Meanwhile, in recognition of its critical importance to music history, Straight Outta Compton was inducted into the Recording Academy's GRAMMY Hall Of Fame as well as the Library of Congress' National Recording Registry.
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Alanis Morissette's 'Jagged Little Pill': For The Record
Learn about the singer/songwriter's big GRAMMY night at the 38th GRAMMY Awards with her third studio album
For a generation of music lovers, the '90s hosted a boon of hits that have now attained classic status. Alanis Morissette's Jagged Little Pill is arguably at the top of the list.
Released June 13, 1995, as her third studio album, Morissette worked on the project exclusively with producer/writer Glen Ballard. She plumped the depth of raw emotion to craft the LP's 12 alt-rock tracks, marking a departure from her previous pop-centered releases.
The Canadian native's honest approach to Jagged Little Pill flipped the industry upside down. The album went on to reach No. 1 on the Billboard 200 and produce three No. 1 Billboard singles: "You Oughta Know," "Hand In My Pocket" and "Ironic."
As of 2015, sales of the album surpassed 15 million copies in the United States, making it one of only three albums to reach that milestone behind Metallica's self-titled album (16.1 million) and Shania Twain's Come On Over (15.6 million).
Further solidifying its legacy, a musical stage production based on the LP will premiere in spring 2018.
Jagged Little Pill also brought Morissette her first four career GRAMMY wins at the 38th GRAMMY Awards. She took home the coveted award for Album Of The Year and Best Rock Album, while "You Oughta Know" earned Best Female Rock Vocal Performance and Best Rock Song.
"I actually accept this on behalf of anyone who's ever written a song from a very pure place, a very spiritual place," Morissette said during her Album Of The Year acceptance speech after thanking Ballard. "And there's plenty of room for a lot of artists so there's no such thing as the best."
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Kendrick Lamar, 'DAMN.': For The Record | 2018 GRAMMYs Edition
Celebrate the Compton rapper's successful fourth album, which brought home a total of five GRAMMY wins on Music's Biggest Night
Kendrick Lamar's phenomenally successful fourth LP, DAMN., landed with a bang in mid-2017 that saw fans digging voraciously into the full media experience of the album's release in an intense manner.
There were rumors based on tweets, there were secret second album release theories, there were even guesses at the tracklist's double-meanings that actually turned out to be true. Altogether, it made for a moment in pop culture that coalesced into an explicit public statement: Lamar was no longer content to merely capture the attention of hip-hop purists and music scenesters with their ears to the street; he was here to convert new listeners over from the mainstream without sacrificing the authenticity of his core sound. And along the way maybe raise a few middle fingers in the direction of his oftentimes befuddled political detractors.
"The initial goal was to make a hybrid of my first two commercial albums," Lamar explained to Zane Lowe on Beats 1 Radio. "That was our total focus, how to do that sonically, lyrically, through melody – and it came out exactly how I heard it in my head. … It's all pieces of me."
Lamar's soul-bearing reaped obvious rewards at the 60th GRAMMY Awards, with DAMN. generating a total of five GRAMMY wins, including Best Rap Album, Best Rap/Sung Collaboration ("LOYALTY."), Best Rap Song ("HUMBLE."), Best Rap Performance ("HUMBLE."), and Best Music Video ("HUMBLE.").
Along with its successes on Music's Biggest Night, DAMN. also proved to be a commercial windfall for Lamar, with lead single "HUMBLE." clocking in as his first-ever No. 1 single on the Billboard Hot 100, with supporting singles "LOYALTY." And "LOVE." both charting in the Top 15. For its own part, DAMN. debuted at No. 1 on the Billboard 200, has been certified double-platinum by the RIAA, and ended the year as the No. 1 album of any genre for 2017, by chart performance.
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Alabama Shakes' 'Sound & Color': For The Record
Wilder than before, the band's fusion of country and soul with immersive rock on their 2015 album defined a sound all their own
Alabama Shakes' 2012 debut Boys & Girls was such a wild success, no one expected the band would get even wilder on 2015's Sound & Color. But the band took their music way out, exploring a spacious, country-soul rock sound that would be more completely their own if it didn't seem so timeless.
"We're just a normal group of people who believe in writing and making something, and honestly, it was truly from a point of having fun," lead singer/guitarist Brittany Howard told our oral history of the album. "It wasn't to get famous or anything like that. We wanted to play gigs, that was our goal, but we didn't have anywhere to gig."
Bassist Zac Cockrell, guitarist Heath Fogg and drummer Steve Johnson write together with Howard, and the band shared in their Best Rock Song win, at the 58th GRAMMY Awards for "Don't Wanna Fight," as songwriters, in addition to winning Best Rock Performance. Sound & Color also won Best Alternative Music Album that year.
Alabama Shakes' 2012 debut brought them 55th GRAMMY Awards nominations for Best New Artist and Best Rock Performance for the song "Hold On." As a single, it remains their biggest hit so far, having reached No. 93 on Billboard's Hot 100. The following year the band was nominated for Best Rock Performance again, for "Always Alright" from the soundtrack to Silver Linings Playbook. A truly admired band, their album sales suggest Alabama Shakes falls better into the category of classics-makers than hit-makers. Their debut reached No. 6 on the Billboard 200 in 2013 and Sound & Color reached No. 1 in 2015.
Although Alabama Shakes hasn't released an album since Sound & Color, their performance of "Joe (Live From Austin City Limits)" drew another Best Rock Performance nomination at the 59th GRAMMY Awards. Earlier this year at the 60th GRAMMY Awards, Alabama Shakes' performance of "Killer Diller Blues" won Best American Roots Performance, the band's fourth win. The song was originally recorded by Minnie Lawlers, and as for other artists participating in the Jack White and Bernard MacMahon 2017 project American Epic: The Sessions, all final recordings were made on an antique 1925 Western Electric direct-to-disc system. How's that for a historic recording?