It’s not the saddest part of today, but it’s still absolutely heartbreaking that Chester Bennington didn’t live to see rock’s history writers come around on Linkin Park.
It would have happened — absolutely would’ve, eventually. The band was too big, too influential, too talented, too smart, too innovative. Sure, they had the misfortune of their commercial and artistic apex coming at a peak for mainstream rock music at its most blunt and least imaginative, and the double misfortune of being directly influential on a lot of the bands responsible for making it so.
But that was never Linkin Park themselves. Their best music was electric, boundary-pushing and undeniably vital. Dismissing them along with the thudding misogyny that marked nu-metal deep into the ’00s is no fairer than writing off Nirvana with the middling bands of ’90s post-grunge. As I wrote when discussing Hybrid Theory in a ranked list of Diamond-selling albums — and yeah, don’t forget just how huge that album was, arguably bigger than any other rock album this century — “For all the skeptics who view Linkin Park as a bunch of whiny, repetitive, dull, uncreative mooks: No, you’re thinking of every other popular band from that time.”
Chester Bennignton, who was found dead Thursday (July 20) at age 41 of an apparent suicide, didn’t dominate Linkin Park the way most frontmen of his time did — at their best, the band’s nervous system was directed in equal parts by Bennington’s paint-scraping primal scream, Mike Shinoda’s keep-calm-and-carry-on rhyming and Joe Hahn’s lucid-nightmare samples and soundscapes. But that’s not to say that he was inessential, or indeed that he was anything less than epochal: His shredded-throat shrieking was the whiny, guttural, unignorable voice of a musical generation, as inextricable to the sound of ’00s rock as, well, Chris Cornell’s voice was to the ’90s. He was the band’s not-so-secret weapon, capable of unleashing holy hell at a measure’s notice, making their songs captivating even when they otherwise sounded like they were just spinning their Xbox controllers.
But it wasn’t always about brute force with Bennington: His yawp had a piercing clarity to it, too, which helped facilitate Linkin Park’s eventual evolution away from the nu-metal moment that birthed them into more straightforward stadium rock, and in recent days, to something more resembling alt-pop. Subtlety would never be his strong suit, but his voice was more malleable than he was often given credit for: Had he come up a decade earlier, he could’ve growled with James Hetfield and Dave Mustaine; had he come up a half-decade later, he could’ve out-emoted Chris Carrabba and Patrick Stump standing on his head.
Ultimately, Bennington’s legacy will be the songs — gorgeous, thrashing pop-metal assaults that were as heavy and visceral as Korn but as immaculately produced and structurally unimpeachable as *NSYNC — and the fact that, while critics of the early ’00s were scouring every grungy New York club for the New Rock Revolution, Linkin Park were actually providing it, with music that pushed rock into the 2000s unafraid, rather than trying to chain it to memories of the prior century.
Here are the band’s 15 best.
15. “Leave Out All the Rest” (Minutes to Midnight)
A full decade before they courted sell-out accusations on 2017 No. 1 album One More Light, Linkin Park essentially set the template for their post-metal existence with early Minutes to Midnight climax “Leave Out All the Rest,” a gently glowing power ballad that sounds particularly self-eulogizing today: “Help me leave behind some reasons to be missed… Keep me in your memory/ Leave out all the rest.” If all of One More Light was this strong, LP could’ve done the album with Max Martin and Shellback and even hard-core LP fans would’ve had no cause for complaint.
14. Linkin Park & JAY-Z, “Numb/Encore” (Collison Course)
The full Collision Course defense will have to wait for another day, but suffice to say, when JAY-Z decides you’re enough of an artistic peer to spend a mini-album intertwining your back calatog with his, it’s not a memory that you run from.
13. “In Pieces” (Minutes to Midnight)
Skankin’ Park! For all their instrumental and rhythmic strengths, Linkin Park rarely made boogieing a priority — “I will not dance, even if the beat is funky,” Shinoda strangely protested on A Thousand Suns‘ “When They Come for Me” — leaving this ska-inflected penultimate M2M cut something of a catalog anomaly. Not that too many fans in Vans were gonna be screaming “Pick it up, pick it up!” to this one either, with its eerie melody, ripping late-song guitar solo and typically thick production, but it does at least present a fascinating alternate universe where LP were more influenced by Rancid than Reznor.
12. “Heavy” feat. Kiiara (One More Light)
If fans did have a reasonable complaint about One More Light, it was that the single was obviously the best thing on it: Consider the title ironic if its top 40-geared production and Tranter/Michaels co-write is your insisted focus, but know that what always really made LP weightier than your average nu-metalers was the self-lacerating emotional brutality, not the superfiltered guitars. “And I drive myself crazy, thinking everything’s about me,” Chester and guest vocalist Kiiara insist apart and in unison, a lyric of shocking self-awareness for a nu-metal vet, but one that showed that fame, fatherhood and a couple of decades’ distance from his teenage self hadn’t cured his self-destructive solipsism.
11. “Waiting for the End” (A Thousand Suns)
A seeming anomaly in the LP catalog, but really just an unusual consolidation of their undersold strengths: the band’s burgeoning Coldplay aspirations mixing with their old-school hip-hop fascination and latent reggae toasting instincts passed down from ’90s forefathers 311. (Not to mention a swipe of the “Runaway” piano plinks that must’ve left Kanye livid if they ever passed through his radar.) It was a little too confusing to be massive, but so were most of the best Linkin Park songs of this period.
10. “The Little Things Give You Away” (Minutes to Midnight)
Traditionally, it was the very big things that gave Linkin Park away, as they seemed to lack the patience for the interludes and ballads of creeping quietude that made the more riotous songs on Nine Inch Nails albums land with such viciousness. M2M closer “The Little Things Give You Away” doesn’t get there either, but there is a sense of restraint to its sinister grandeur that at least puts it in league with the best Brand New deep cuts, unfolding slowly enough that the title phrase doesn’t even really make its presence felt until it builds as a chant nearly five minutes in. If there’s such a thing as Linkin Park for non-Linkin Park fans, it’d probably be this.
9. “Bleed It Out” (Minutes to Midnight)
Despite beginning with Mike Shinoda counting off “Here we go for the hundredth time…,” “Bleed It Out” sounded like no LP single before it: Built off handclaps, tambourine, an imagined live energy and guitar that slices through the song like a hot knife, “Bleed” imagined Linkin Park as some strange musical hybrid of Pearl Jam and Sly and the Family Stone, with only the vocalists’ seething negative energy giving it an obvious connection to LP past. The song was enough of a reflexive fist-pumper to cut through some of its musical contradictions — becoming their second of three platinum-certified singles off the underrated Minutes to Midnight — but a decade later, it still feels like the band at their most unsafe, and uniquely thrilling for it.
8. “Blackout” (A Thousand Suns)
It sounds like Linkin Park as produced by Porter Robinson, except that Robinson wouldn’t even release his debut single for another year. “Blackout” is one of Linkin Park’s most fascinating compositions: a big-tent synth hook with a shockingly discofied strut — kept only from potential dance-floor deployment by one of Chester’s all-time most unhinged vocals, shouting and vamping as if he wants to ensure the thing never gets played on Z100. It’s still pretty irresistible, though, even when it gets swallowed by static at the midway point and resumes with another ahead-of-its-time dubstep breakdown. Linkin Park’s subsequent club excursions have never totally convinced, but “Blackout” shows how they could’ve been far more effective leading the EDM pack than following it.
7. “Points of Authority” (Hybrid Theory)
LP at their most weaponized: “Points of Authority” wasn’t even a proper single until its inferior Reanimation remix (by the dude from Orgy, go figure) was released in ’02, but it stands as one of their early signature songs because it scorches at every turn: Shinoda’s carnival-barking intro, Brad Delson’s rumbling-belly fretwork, even Hahn’s blisters-on-mah-fingers scratching. But it’s a Bennington showcase first and foremost: “You like to think you’re never wrong/ You have to act like you’re someone” is about as boilerplate second-person excoriation as you’ll find in nu-metal, but delivered through Bennington’s piercing wail it feels like a near-generational rallying cry.
6. “Breaking the Habit” (Meteora)
The song whose half-time drum-n-bass beat made a lot of ears not previously attuned to Linkin Park perk up for at least three minutes. The song’s skittering beat and wire-taut guitar picking made something inscrutable out of one of the band’s most Incubus-like melodies, while the lack of any Mike Shinoda rapping was an early sign that the band would not allow themselves to be consumed by established formula. Bennington’s repeated insistence of “I’m breaking the habit tonight” seems to show newfound fight for the often fatalistic frontman, until you listen closer and realize his solution for doing so is a permanent one — his doom spelled out by his final “tonight” dissolving into the ether, a final futile shout.
5. “The Catalyst” (A Thousand Suns)
Linkin Park never took more chances than they did on 2009’s A Thousand Suns, an album that sounds like a band self-consciously trying to make their masterpiece and very nearly getting there. “The Catalyst” was something like Linkin Park’s “Paranoid Android,” a shape-shifting, grand statement lead single deployed on radio like a smart bomb; unlike Radiohead, LP actually had the commercial clout for it to detonate, with the song becoming a No. 1 rock and alternative hit. With its proggy structuring and remorseless forward drive, It won’t be the first Chester song anyone thinks of today, but it might be the one that keeps him on their mind until tomorrow.
4. “One Step Closer” (Hybrid Theory)
If you could reduce the nu-metal era to one sound bite, it’d either be Jonathan Davis scatting in tongues, Fred Durst telling you precisely where to stick that cookie, or Chester Bennington insisting with zero room for negotiation: “SHUT UP WHEN I’M TALKING TO YOU!” The full scope of what Linkin Park were capable of was hardly projectable from the contents of “One Step Closer,” but it proved that they were the very best of their moment at at least one thing: Empowering suburban youths across the globe to tell their parents exactly what they really think. No band ever need accomplish more than that on their debut single.
3. “Shadow of the Day” (Minutes to Midnight)
The first true about-face of Linkin Park’s career came with this lighter-waver, whose coruscating guitars, soft bass rumble and fading-firework synths served as the zephyr lifting the most straightforwardly soaring vocal of Chester Bennington’s career. It was a pretty big risk at a time when metal was still a mainstream enough proposition for a band to have something to lose by abandoning it, but Linkin Park had the melodic instincts to make it sing and the instrumental support to make it massive, the song letting in more light with each verse and chorus until the guitars push the blinds all the way open, bathing the chorus in glorious, undeniable sunlight. Forget Coldplay — “Shadow of the Day” credibly posits that Linkin Park could’ve been an American U2 if they’d really wanted.
2. “Faint” (Meteora)
Before abandoning their shiny reupholstered version of grunge’s loud-quiet formula, Linkin Park perfected it on “Faint,” 2:43 of the most pulse-raising rock music of the ’00s. It’s Shinoda and Bennington’s most efficient relay race, the former captivating with each perfectly paced syllable on the verses before passing the baton to the latter for his spine-chilling, throat-shredding caterwaul: “Don’t turn your back on me/ I WON’T BE IGNORED!!” It’s a defining moment for both vocalists, but it’s still that sweeping, tantalizing string riff that steals the show, hooking you before your preconceived notions about Linkin Park even have a chance to prejudice you against it. At the time, it was frequently mashed up with the similarly narcotic violins of Britney’s “Toxic” — just further proof that Linkin Park had the ammo to hold their own on pop’s battlefield.
1. “In the End” (Hybrid Theory)
You know that Limp Bizkit never even had a Hot 100 top 40 hit? That Korn only had one, and if you can name it in fewer than eight guesses you probably work for Billboard? Well, Linkin Park took “In the End” all the way to No. 2 on the Hot 100 in 2002 — as the fourth single off Hybrid Theory, incredibly.
And they were able to take a fundamentally top 40-unfriendly genre one spot from Hot 100 immortality for a simple reason: “In the End” was one of the best pop songs of the 21st century. So many parts of “In the End” have become iconic that it’s easy to take one or more for granted. The opening piano riff is iconic, of course. The opening line is iconic (“I tried so hard…”). The chorus (“But in the end… it doesn’t even matter“) is iconic. The bridge (“I PUT MY TRUST…IN…YOU”) is at least iconic-adjacent. And the last piano echo, a final sob over the tear-stained track, is iconic.
But what makes “In the End” so special is how even the connecting tissue of all these unforgettable moments is immaculately crafted — the conscious/subconscious interplay between Shinoda’s main vocal and Bennington’s distant-memory backing, the subtle production glitches that delicately suggest a fractured psyche, the bleary-eyed guitars that at least try to lend a sympathetic shoulder to Bennington’s chorus wailing. Few songs in any genre have this much care put into their composition; for early ’00s rock, it towered over the pack like Chester himself, perched on the gargoyle in the song’s video.
Of course, it’d be myopic to not mention at this point how “In the End,” like so many of Bennington’s songs, seems to hint very clearly at suicide. There’s no triumph over adversity to be found in the song, no strength in self, nothing but trying so hard and it all falling apart anyway — even sonically, the slow bleed of the song’s outro leaves little to the imagination. As with Chris Cornell, depression and fatalism was such an inextricable part of Bennington’s lyrics and persona that we eventually became desensitized to them — to the point where, despite our familiarity with songs like “In the End” and “Breaking the Habit” and “Heavy,” his suicide still comes as a total shock.
Still, despite the relative explicitness of its subject matter, “In the End” has an inherent solidarity and beauty to it that stands apart from Bennington’s real-life story. The song’s sentiment may sound like quitting, but no Linkin Park fan would ever say it felt that way when singing along to it. LP songs like these served to validate the feelings of total hopelessness its young fans may have been going through at the same time, to find some kind of fortitude in admitting and sharing them, and watching them prove relatable enough on a mass scale that the song comes one Jennifer Lopez and Ja Rule duet away from being the biggest hit in the country. No one could ever say, not even after today’s events, that it didn’t even matter.