The Best Album of 2017: Lyrical Hope and Real-Life Tragedy

31,076 minutes. That's how much time, according to the good people at Spotify, I spent listening to music in 2017. And that's only one music service.

spotify-2017-wrapped.png

That doesn't include 6 months of a free subscription to Tidal (that's a half year access to all of Jay-Z's music for freeeeee). That doesn't include scanning radio stations in my car (Rock on 93.3 and rap on 97.9). It doesn't include playing whatever old scratched up CD will play in my car (burned copies of old Kanye albums, mostly). 

So on Spotify alone, I listened to nearly 520 hours of music. Excessive? Perhaps. But I love music.

I have playlists dedicated to 90's music, to praise and worship music, and to Christmas music. Playlists for old pop and current pop. Playlists for old soul music and new R&B. And a playlist dedicated to the top 100 Bruce Springsteen songs.

The accessibility of music is amazing. There was a time 25 years ago when I would sit at the stereo with a blank cassette in the tape deck ready to hit record when a song I liked came on the radio, sometimes settling for the last half of the song if I missed the beginning. Now I tap my phone a few times and listen to essentially any song I want (except for the great Aaliyah, may she rest in peace). 

In 2017, I experienced a ton of great music. A lot of old stuff (my 90's rock playlist gets a ton of plays), but some great new music. And among it all, one album from last year stands out above the others.

There were some great albums released last year, and I'm not even including Taylor Swift's Reputation. The headline album for the year was Jay-Z's newest 4:44, which felt exactly how it should have felt: a grown man, married with kids, just talking about life the way the rest of us do. Kendrick Lamar continued his reign as the 21st century's closest replica of Tupac with his release Damn

Women ruled the throne at times as well, mainly with relatively new acts such as Lorde, Lana Del Ray, and SZA, each putting their touches on phenomenal records. There was a new Drake album (meh) and two new Future albums (not bad). 

On the country front, Chris Stapleton continued to own the industry with his albums From A Room: Volumes 1 and 2. In an era of polished up pop-country, Stapleton continues to put out music that hums like an old jukebox in some 70's honky-tonk dive that would feature George Jones and David Allan Coe in concert on summer weekends. There were lesser known albums as well, such as Gang of Youths’ Go Farther In Lightness that feels a lot like Bruce Springsteen covering unreleased Kings of Leon songs, or vice versa. Then there's Petit Biscuit's album Presence which is largely electronic instrumentals, ideal for concentrating background noise.

But the album that owned the year came from a group that may or may not really exist anymore. A band that hangs in an odd quandary of living, breathing talent with a key member missing. This group, of course, is Linkin Park, who could not have had a more turbulent 2017. 

The band's 7th studio album One More Light was released May 19 of last year. Full of dark but often hopeful lyrics (as is the modus operandi for Linkin Park), One More Light felt more purposeful than past Linkin Park albums. Which made the events of July 20 even more puzzling. That’s the date when lead singer Chester Bennington hanged himself, roughly two months after the new album’s release.

According to data, the suicide rate in the past 15 years has risen 25%. Suicide is the second-leading cause of death among 15-34 year-olds. In 2015, over 9 million adults reported they had thought about suicide at some point.

But of that 9 million-plus, and of those that do follow through with taking their own life, we rarely if ever get as much as a glimpse into their thoughts. What they see in the mirror, what they hear in their ears, what they read, and mostly, how they feel.

For well over a decade now, we’ve gotten a glimpse into the mind of Chester Bennington. The hurt, the pain, the scars that inevitably did not heal inside his mind. Songs such as “In The End”, “Numb”, and “Bleed It Out” point to the typical rock angst many groups exhibit. But One More Light felt different. It felt almost…hopeful.

  Photo credit: billboard.com

Photo credit: billboard.com

The first line of the first song is typical Chester: “I’m dancing with my demons…I’m hanging off the edge.” But just as the song “Nobody Can Save Me” seems destined for darkness, by the time it hits the final chorus, Chester sings “Only I can save me….been searching somewhere out there for what’s been missing right here.” This feels like the album where Linkin Park, Bennington specifically, makes peace with whatever invisible demons he’s wrestled with.

The album carries well on its own, but the single “Heavy” featuring Kiiara opens the vault of someone mentally breaking down.

I don’t like my mind right now

Stacking up problems that are so unnecessary

Wish that I could slow things down

Wanna let go, but there’s comfort in the panic

I’m holding on, why is everything so heavy?

Holding on, so much more than I can carry

 

“Heavy” is not as rage driven as so many previous Linkin Park songs have been. When their debut album Hybrid Theory came out in 1999, I was a testosterone-driven 18-year-old navigating my freshman year of college. Songs like “Crawling”, “One Step Closer”, and “In The End” were detrimental to keeping sane during an insane time of life. And though the lyrical content was drowning when divorced from the music, it was still simply something to turn loud when angry or needing extra motivation.

One More Light felt like the album where Linkin Park not only grew up some but was beginning to find the light at the end of the tunnel. Sure the album has its heavier cuts, including some incredible rhymes on “Good Goodbye.” And for the most part, the band didn’t write the songs. Still, the tragic irony rings deep on several cuts, none more so than the title track.

As the next to last song on the album, “One More Light” is a frank heart-to-heart about the suddenness of death, sung beautifully by none other than Chester Bennington.

Who cares if one more light goes out?

In the sky of a million stars

It flickers, flickers

Who cares when someone's time runs out?

If a moment is all we are

Or quicker, quicker

Who cares if one more light goes out?

Well I do

 

Imagine being given hope by one who feels hopeless. Imagine being cared for by one who feels the most alone. Imagine being at peace with your demons while the one standing beside you is succumbing to theirs.

It would be irresponsible to laud an album even partly based on the tragic death of an artist. But the correlation just adds another layer to what might be the best Linkin Park album ever. It’s sad the band’s most mature album to date is also their last album ever, at least with the voice that helped make them so beloved. The legacy left behind with One More Light will not be dark, though part of its chapter will be. And even that dark chapter will hopefully lead to fans shining a light on their own mental health.