By David Martin
I’ve usually been on the outside looking in when a well-known musician dies, and fans are left grieving. A number of famous singers and songwriters, both of the critically-acclaimed and chart-busting varieties, have left us in recent years, and in a lot of cases it’s been someone who I respected, though not someone whose music I had a lot of personal history with. That all changed when I learned of Chester Bennington‘s suicide just a few days ago.
As the lead singer/screamer for Linkin Park, Bennington has brought solace and catharsis to a lot of fans who needed an outlet for their frustrations, most of whom were probably somewhere between junior high and college-aged at the turn of the century when Hybrid Theory broke them out in a massive way. I had just gotten out of a serious relationship that ended badly right around the time I was first getting into it. At the time, I had no idea what Chester had gone through in his personal life that made him need such an outlet for his rage, but I needed a way to get some of mine out of my system, and that album definitely fit the bill.
I was perhaps a teeny bit older than their target audience back then, and I took my fair share of flak for defending them at times, especially since I wasn’t otherwise into a ton of rap/rock or nu-metal acts, so the folks who followed other music I was listening to tended to scorn more commercial acts like Linkin Park who they saw as more formulaic. I didn’t care so much, since the formula worked exceedingly well for me. Other bands in this genre could maybe hook me with an especially audacious single from time to time, but generally they didn’t follow up with albums that were nearly as consistently enjoyable. I think what made Linkin Park unique within their genre (or at least among the bands that achieved commercial success within it) is that they weren’t afraid to let their geeky side show by infusing a lot of electronic influences and a keen pop sensibility into their otherwise aggressive sound. The interplay between vocalists made a huge difference, too. Bennington and Mike Shinoda together were much greater than the sum of their parts, with the trade-off between his anguished screams letting the listener feel the despair and Shinoda’s more defiant rap verses giving them the gumption to get back up and fight the oppressor becoming a trademark element of most of their songs. I’d heard all these ingredients before, but they’d never quite been mixed together in such an intoxicating way before.
My tastes changed a lot over the years as Linkin Park tried to break out of the box most of their fans and critics alike had assigned them to, resulting in an uneven string of mid-career albums that had some solid highlights, but that were difficult for me to get through. As I broadened my horizons, and the band broadened theirs when they realized the popularity of the style they had started out with was now deader than a doornail, I felt like I spent just about as much time making fun of them for ill-conceived artistic choices as I did saying “No seriously, you guys have got to hear this” to the nay-sayers when the band defied expectations in fascinating ways. Going back to a lot of my favorite songs of theirs from over the years, I can now see signs of Chester’s ongoing struggle with the repercussions of the abuse he suffered in his youth and the inclination toward self-harm that, sadly, ended up getting the best of him. Shinoda often seemed to be there as a sounding board, and it’s clear to me now that some of the venom he spit in a few of his raps may have been in response to those who had wounded his friend so deeply. I have no idea what sort of a personal friendship the two had, but at least as co-creators of the band’s music, they gave each other a yin/yang sort of balance that I didn’t fully appreciate until now.
It’s in that spirit that I’ve decided, as my way of remembering the impact Chester Bennington and his band have had on me as a listener, to go back and compile a list of my top 20 Linkin Park songs. First, I’ll go in-depth on the 10 songs that surprised and impressed me the most and have stuck with me over the years, and then just for fun, I’ll do a brief rundown of some honorable mentions that didn’t quite make the short list. Hopefully, if you’ve ever been a fan, something in this list will trigger a good memory for you… or at the very least a bad memory that a good song helped you to get over.
MY TOP 10:
1. The Catalyst
I’m just gonna rip this Band-Aid off right away. Yes, my favorite Linkin Park song of all time is the lead single from perhaps their most uneven, difficult, and misunderstood album – 2010’s A Thousand Suns. It’s an overly ambitious album, during which my reactions to various songs swing the most wildly from love to hate as one track melts into the next. But this song blew me away pretty much from the get-go. It’s heavily drenched in electronic sounds and DJ samples, which as I’ve noted were elements of the band’s sound from the very beginning, but you’d think the band had gone full-on techno from how some of the fans cried “sellout” when they first heard it. I love the way it builds up momentum as that click-clacking drum beat ticks off the time humanity seems to have left, while Mike and Chester bark out lyrics about the weapons humanity has built to destroy itself, leading our species to an inescapable end. It’s dark stuff – quite possibly the most bitter and ironic use of the phrase “God bless us, everyone”. But as the thematic centerpiece of the album, it’s a huge payoff after all of the lyrical warnings and musical foreshadowing and little bits of musical foreshadowing leading up to it. And the bridge with its simple repetition of “Lift me up, let me go” brings a huge amount of relief, as if to say we could elevate the human race beyond its warring tendencies if only we recognized our own hubris before it got too late. Linkin Park really did their homework on this album, and while I’m sure a lot of personal pain went into many of its songs, it felt like the first time they successfully created something that could be interpreted on both an individual and a collective level, with the fallout impacting more than just the person telling the story.
2. In the End
As much as I think Linkin Park has grown since their debut, I’m still fascinated at how well-crafted this massive single was, how a lot of people who don’t like the band seem to enjoy this one, and how well it holds up for me nowadays even when some of my other old favorites sound glaringly dated. It’s perhaps the best early example of the band having keen pop sensibilities beyond just the expected shouted lyrics and heavy guitars. The prominent, repeating piano melody pretty much defines this song, making a great springboard for Mike’s rap verses to jump off from, and the little melodic vocal bits that Chester adds to support Mike before taking over for the chorus do so much to add to the song’s momentum. Of all the songs on Hybrid Theorythat I viewed through my own bitter, post-breakup lens back in mid-2001, this one felt like the best way for me to articulate a desire to look beyond the anger, figure out what went wrong in a relationship where two people had ceased to recognize each other, and realize there was nothing either of us could have done to save it. Sometimes the hardest thing to admit is when a good thing has run its course, and dragging it out any further will only hurt all of the people involved.
Speaking of the piano, this emotional highlight that served as the lead-in to A Thousand Suns‘ final act probably seemed like it was going the traditional “power ballad” route at first. If you had told me before it came out that Linkin Park had recorded a slow, piano based song that gently built to the kind of audience sing-along, arena rock climax lighters were made for, I would have probably scorned them for doing something potentially any pop/rock act could do. But heard in the context of the album, it’s another great example of the personal and universal coming together, as the lyrics describe the heavens themselves collapsing and raining down around the protagonist as he stands in the ashes of a conflict he couldn’t manage to de-escalate. This song is filled to the brim with feelings of genuine remorse, aching for forgiveness and absolution, and ultimately letting go of all the anger and self-hatred. It was a huge leap forward in terms of maturity from a band expected to perpetually angst their way through life based on their first few records, and it gave me the opportunity for a few good “healing cries” in 2010 and 2011, when I was going through a year in my life when everything seemed to be falling apart around me.
4. Lost in the Echo
The opening track to 2012’s Living Things sure felt like a solid “win back the crowd” moment after the musical meanderings of their previous two albums, on which the band’s reach definitely exceeded their grasp. It may have been too little, too late for some fans at that point, but I loved how Living Things felt like a fresh update on their old sound, keeping the electronic elements in a more prominent position while still hitting fans fast and hard with rapid-fire rap verses, blood-curdling screams, and heavy guitars. It felt like the band was having fun again, and the bold defiance heard in this song in particular suggested that, despite all the anger at whoever had hurt them, they had found a way to let go and move forward and stop letting the memory of that hurt put a stranglehold on their personal growth. Rather than being preoccupied with proving their ongoing relevance to critics, here they seemed dedicated to doing what they did best while still throwing their listeners some interesting curveballs. I actually think Living Things is the band’s best album overall, but I’m probably in the minority for picking anything other than their first two.
5. The Little Things Give You Away
While A Thousand Suns is definitely the band’s most political record, they were already dabbling in the topic of humanity’s tendency to destroy both the planet and itself on a few of Minutes to Midnight‘s better tracks. That album as a whole got off on the wrong foot with me when it dropped in 2007, and it’s still hard for me to stomach a listen to it all the way through. But its grand finale is a real jaw-dropper. I love how effectively everyone is used here, from the slow, eerie DJ loop that sets the mood and the slow, methodical, ominous guitar strumming at the beginning, to the intricate drum patterns as the song builds up steam, to the surprising guitar solo from Brad Delson, who before this album didn’t like the idea of doing ’em, to the melodic outpouring of compassion from Chester at the song’s climax where he laments a politician’s true colors showing through as the victims of his policies and his negligence see clearly that he doesn’t care how many of them have to suffer, so long as he gets results. Buried at the end of a difficult album, and far too long to have ever had a chance as a radio single, this song probably got overlooked by a lot of people, but without a doubt it’s one of the most tragically beautiful songs they’ve ever written, probably the best example of the band steering clear of their usual cliches and completely transcending the genre they were expected to stick to.
6. Guilty All the Same
While 2014’s The Hunting Party doesn’t contain as many individual tracks that I’d consider among their best, I liked how it followed up Living Things by paying homage to some of the heavy rock bands who were early influences on LP, rather than just another retread of LP’s old sound. The harsh, writhing-about-in-the-dark feel of this song’s exhaustingly long drum and guitar intro feel like a mini-tribute to Metallica, and in the middle eight, right when you’d expect Mike to drop a verse, they instead bring in old-school rapper Rakim. This is a brilliant way to frame what turns out to be a bit of harsh criticism for an industry that doesn’t quite know what to do with them, and that tries to mold them into something they no longer want to be. Despite its six-minute length, the band actually did have the gumption to release this one as a single. I don’t recall it being nearly as successful as their old stuff, but it served as fair warning that the gloves were off for this album, and dammit, they were gonna rock the hell out while giving zero craps about how far out of fashion heavy rock music seemed to have fallen by that point.
7. Burning in the Skies
As annoying as it was that LP had to open A Thousand Suns with two back-to-back interludes before finally giving us an actual song on track three, it turned out to be an amazing song. It’s another entry in the list of LP songs that buck expectations from the get-go, starting off with a subdued, shifting rhythm in a 6/4 time signature, based more around mellow bass and guitar riffs, before leading up to a melodic pop/rock chorus. Chester was pretty clearly in self-reflection mode rather than anger mode here, as he laments indiscriminately burning bridges and wasting resources, and only seeing the damage done once it was too late to stop it. This fits well into the environmental/nuclear holocaust theme of the album, but once again it also has personal implications, as some of us can be so self-destructive in our relationships that we self-sabotage them to avoid dealing with conflicts maturely. As fun as it could be to crank up old Linkin Park songs and scream at the top of your lungs from behind the safety of my car’s windows when I was pissed at someone, this song was a good “stop and think before you do something that can’t be undone” kind of moment that prompted me to work a few personal conflicts out instead of just rudely saying sayonara.
8. Easier to Run
If you’re an old-school fan, you’re probably annoyed that it’s taken me this long to get to anything from Meteora. That album honestly has a high concentration of songs that I really like – there really isn’t a bad song on it. But I guess I was in a different place in 2003 than I was in 2001, so while I remember enjoying that album as a straight-through listen quite a bit, I guess more of my personal angst at the time was directed inward rather than outward, as I now felt like I was the one failing in a relationship, rather than pointing my finger at the other person. “Easier to Run”, despite its obvious melodic and dynamic similarities to “Crawling”, was the standout on that record, because once again it felt like a moment of clarity from Chester where he recognized his tendency to avoid problems and self-sabotage relationships, rather than doing the mature thing and working through the pain. Mike doesn’t have as much to do here as he does in some of the band’s more iconic songs, but I love the cadence of his refrain: “If I could change I would, take back the pain I would, retrace every wrong move that I made, I would.” It gives me the good kind of chills every time.
9. Breaking the Habit
This is probably one of Meteora‘s best known tracks, and it’s easy to forget now that its approach was a rarity for Linkin Park back in those days – no heavy guitars, no rapping, no screaming (though Chester comes close). Just a swift, killer backbeat to make sure the flow of the album isn’t interrupted, a bevy of electronic effects, and a killer lead vocal from Chester. This might be my favorite example of Chester taking ownership of a song he didn’t even write. I feel like Mike got pretty good at writing songs from the perspective of his bandmate over the years – a lot of stuff you’d assume Chester wrote about himself may have actually come from Mike or some of the other band members. Mike actually started this one about another friend who was going through a drug addiction and trying to kick the habit, but when he played it for the band, Chester pretty much broke down crying upon realizing how much he identified with it due to his own struggles in that area, and it just made sense for Chester to be the one to sing it on the album. The lyrics are broad enough that it could really be about any bad habit you’re trying to break, really. I feel like a lot of folks related to it for that reason. But it doesn’t feel generic for me, because once again I can see that theme of coming to terms with your own self-destructive tendencies rather than just blaming everyone else, that pops up again and again in a lot of the songs Chester sang over the years. (Also, the Anime-inspired music video is pretty cool.)
The very first track on Hybrid Theory hits you right away with the quintessential Linkin Park sound – chopped-up beats and DJ-effects, a siren-like guitar melody that gives way to heavy power chords, and Mike Shinoda’s cold, machine-like rap verses. But wait… did I somehow manage to forget that before we ever heard Chester sing, he was actually rapping the chorus of this song? I treated it like a novelty when he’d do funky sprechgesang-type vocals in later songs like “Blackout”, but here he was on the band’s debut record, tag-teaming with his bandmate to pummel us with the same terrifying efficiency as a well-timed panic attack. If you’ve ever had panic attacks and know the kind of tricks your mind and body can play on you, then you’ll know what this song’s talking about. I was impressed at how scary accurate these lyrics were when I first heard the song – and I quickly set about memorizing every syllable of Mike’s verses so that I could spit them back at the stereo while I was driving. It was good stress relief when I felt one of those bouts of loneliness and self-doubt coming on.
11. Castle of Glass
Another heavily electronic track from Living Things that easily became a favorite of mine. Mike sings lead here, and while his vocal style may be more introverted and less iconic than Chester’s, I like how seamlessly the two of them blend together as this eerie track rattles its way toward a strong melodic climax.
12. Roads Untraveled
Yet another highlight from Living Things – a good example of the band doing something weird with a huge melodic payoff at the end. You just don’t see it coming from the weird, dissonant chimes, the mellow piano chords, and the almost whispered vocals from both Mike and Chester in the early verses. They took a fascinating sonic detour here, and showed no regret for the more conventional road not taken.
Another heavy-hitter from The Hunting Party with a well-placed guest appearance. System of a Down’s Daron Malakianabsolutely pummels this song with his jackhammer guitar riffs, while Mike and Chester team up to count the cost of being an actual rebel in parts of the world where such things can get you thrown in jail or worse, while here in America we talk a good game on their behalf, but most of us have never truly known that level of persecution.
“Forgotten”, while rougher around the edges than most of Hybrid Theory, was honestly never a favorite of mine from that album. And I didn’t know what to do with this lonely, alienated version of the song from 2002’s remix album Reanimation at first, since it had only passing similarity to the original, some of Chester’s vocal parts were warped beyond recognition, and most of Mike’s verse lyrics were completely new. But slowing it down and focusing the lyrics more on urban blight eventually made the song stand out to me as an unexpected highlight, especially when Chali 2na comes in with a guest verse near the end.
Come on, you know this one. “CRAAAAAAWLING IIIIIIN MY SKIIIIIIIN!” Everyone who has ever made fun of Linkin Park probably uses this song as exhibit A. Sure, it’s overbearing. But it’s not just the razor blade-throated chorus that does it for me – it’s the eerie synth effects, the moody verses about feeling like some alien force is making its way through your own veins, and the interesting lyrical snippets such as “Against my will, I stand beside my own reflection” that always made it more intriguing to me than your typical expression of depressive teen angst.
16. Lies Greed Misery
You’re probably tired of hearing me singing the praises of Living Things by now, but I can’t help it. This cheeky little “screw you” song always made me chuckle, from the way Mike owns the stage and tells you the rules in no uncertain terms in the hip-hop styled verses, to the way Chester sounds like he’s having more fun than ever screaming at someone he’d like to see get hoist by their own petard in the bizarrely danceable chorus.
17. With You
Another oldie but a goodie here – definitely a go-to choice for me as I licked my wounds when that breakup back in 2001 was still at its most painful. The nasty arguments and cold silent treatments thankfully never got to the level of physical abuse in that particular case, but I could still empathize with Mike’s bitter lyrics about feeling completely distant and alienated from someone who once loved him and now merely just occupies the same room. And when Chester growled “Even when you’re not with me, I’m with you!”, I had to admit that in my most petty moments, I kind of thought such a punishment – to be forever haunted by the person you dumped – would be poetic justice.
18. One Step Closer
This was my first exposure to Linkin Park, by way of my brother, who made a point of emphasizing that the entire bridge was just “Shut up when I’m talking to you!” I thought that sounded pretty stupid, so I had to hear it for myself. Then I realized that my early-twenty-something self actually thought it was kinda cool. And the rest was history.
Another remix from Reanimation, this took the already enjoyable “Points of Authority” to a new level by transplanting it to a weird, dystopian soundscape, even while keeping its lyrics and its overall rhythmic cadence the same. Mike’s “Forfeit the game” verse is still one of my favorites of his.
20. Waiting for the End
And we end the list with another unconventional Linkin Park song that was mostly pop/rock, with some slight hip-hop overtones, nothing really heavy about it, but that managed to be one of their more memorable singles. It was a strong dose of (relative) positivity in the midst of A Thousand Suns‘ grim midsection – like an anthemic ode to a resistance movement. As always when Mike and Chester take up equal space in an LP song, you can feel the tension between his weariness and wanting to give up and just let the struggle be over already, and Mike’s determination to stand up and fight until the last punch has been thrown.
While I wrote a largely negative review of Bennington’s final release with the band, One More Light, and you’ve probably noticed that nothing from it cracked my top 20, I did feel like some personal issues had genuinely been worked through in the lyrics on that album. There was still some anguish, but the material seemed like it was trying to be less aggressive, more melodic, more determined to stand up and fight the enemy within than to wallow in defeat. At times it felt like Chester was trying to see things from the point of view of others who were reaching out to him, and give himself a reason to continue on due the tragedy of others snuffing their own lives out that he had already borne witness to (most notably his friend Chris Cornell, lead singer of Soundgarden). Some of those songs are especially hard to listen to now, but they’re perhaps more worth hearing than I gave them credit for when I reviewed the album. (Believe me, I was much kinder than some of their old-school fans, who took the change way too personally and were pretty vicious in their attacks toward the band, which notably pissed Chester off quite a bit. I’m not gonna say negative fan reception taken to a way too personal level was specifically what prompted his suicide… but if he was already going through such heavy stuff, it couldn’t have helped.) If you were ever into the band at all, and you can now make it through that record’s title track without at least getting a little misty-eyed over how he lost the struggle to take his own advice, then you’re a much colder and more cynical person that I will ever be.