Coldplay’s epitaph might someday read, “One of the biggest bands of their time … and the butt of countless insults.”
After the British rock quartet became popular in the early 2000s with songs like “Yellow” and “The Scientist,” it didn’t take long for a backlash to strike. Coldplay’s sin was making sappy and uncool music that just so happened to move millions of units. For this, they were branded “the most insufferable band of the decade,” “the band most likely to put you to sleep,” and – best of all – a purveyor of “bedwetters’ music” (which, in its pithy and amusing harshness, rivals the “s**t sandwich” review in “Spinal Tap”). Nobody seemed to like Coldplay, except for their numerous fans, who are no doubt excited for their ninth album debuting on Friday.
Ultimately, Coldplay lived down the mockery and disdain by reconquering the world a few more times. Powered by their capacity for pretty melodies, arena-scale hooks, and relatable emotions, they released more hit singles (“Viva La Vida” and “Paradise”), won a bevy of awards, played the Super Bowl 50 halftime show, and, in 2016 to 2017, headlined the fifth highest-grossing tour of all time. There have been bumps along the way, but Coldplay has basically moved from strength to strength, solidifying their place as a global juggernaut. Here in 2021, it’s no stretch to say they’re one of the five biggest bands in the world and have been for much of the past two decades.
This isn’t to argue for Coldplay’s “greatness.” Their body of work is too spotty for that kind of praise. It’s impossible to overlook all the cloying sentiments and clunky lyrics. Rather, Coldplay is a talented, big-thinking group that strikes gold enough to justify continued, even if not full-time, interest. They’re ideally suited to be in the third or fourth tier of your favorite bands. It’s a low-pressure kind of relationship. Their highs are pretty high, and their duds are easy to walk away from and forget.
Plus, there’s lead singer Chris Martin to factor into the equation. Yes, he’s a hyperactive and overly earnest dork – part golden retriever and part Hillsong worship leader. But he also seems to be one of the nicest and most genuine guys in the celebrity world. Watch him in an interview and you’ll observe someone who radiates good humor, modesty, and wide-eyed gratitude for all he’s accomplished. Martin tries. Hard. He cares. A lot. Through his music, he just wants to give you a hug and brighten your day. And he’s funny (here with an assist from Ricky Gervais).
But in the end, only the music matters. Below, you’ll find ten Coldplay tracks that encompass some of their best work and demonstrate how they’ve evolved over time. With the exception of 2015’s “A Head Full of Dreams,” all of their albums (or album eras) are represented. This includes their newest LP, “Music of the Spheres,” out now. Listen without prejudice and you might come away with more of an appreciation for this uniquely loved and loathed band.
‘Such a Rush’ (‘Safety’ EP)
The best of Coldplay’s Radiohead imitations, “Such a Rush” begins as a murky slow-burn and later erupts to life. The tense, patient build-up only makes the payoff that much more satisfying.
‘Don’t Panic’ (‘Parachutes’)
Because Coldplay is synonymous with soaring anthems and big, heavily applied emotions, it can be weird to revisit their early work and encounter something as dreamy, wistful, and in-the-middle as “Don’t Panic.” Even the lyrics have an unresolved quality, with scenes of catastrophe and hopeful sentiments positioned side by side.
‘Politik’ (‘A Rush of Blood to the Head’)
“Politik” opens Coldplay’s second LP on a fittingly epic scale. Massive and booming, with a loud-quiet-loud dynamic that even grunge heads could appreciate, it’s the sound of soon-to-be superstars flexing their prowess and self-confidence. Especially when played live. Below, watch Coldplay kick off their headlining set at Glastonbury 2002 with the song’s majestic clamor and see if it doesn’t feel like you’re watching a band assume the status of world conquerors.
‘Things I Don’t Understand’ (‘X&Y’ B-side)
“X&Y,” Coldplay’s labored and overlong third record, represents the weak link in their peak run from “Parachutes” to “Mylo Xyloto.” One saving grace is that the band dabbled in postpunk during this period, with the bass-driven B-side “Things I Don’t Understand” as perhaps the most textbook example. It glides along and glows like a trip across the night sky.
‘Lovers in Japan’ (‘Viva la Vida or Death and All His Friends’)
Produced by the great Brian Eno, “Viva la Vida” is dotted with adventurous soundscapes that signaled a new chapter for Coldplay. See album highlight “Lovers in Japan” especially. It’s a swirl of different textures: a chiming piano line, marching drums, ambient layers, Jonny Buckland’s ascending guitar hook, and more. All of it coalesces beautifully on the outro, when every element is powered up and reaching for the heavens. If Coldplay has a raison d’etre, it’s delivering moments of wonder and uplift like that one.
‘Hurts Like Heaven’ (‘Mylo Xyloto’)
Here are two angles on “Hurts Like Heaven.” As a slick and spunky call-to-action tune that will quickly become lodged in your brain, it’s Coldplay’s “Dancing in the Dark.” As a bundle of dorky, neurotic energy, it’s basically Chris Martin’s personality in the form of a song. Both tell pretty much the same story: “Hurts Like Heaven” is a blast.
‘Ghost Story’ (‘A Sky Full of Stars’ EP)
It’s both forgivable and a shame that “Ghost Story” didn’t make the final cut for Coldplay’s sixth LP, “Ghost Stories.” On the one hand, a spikey little rock song in the vein of Pearl Jam would not have fit comfortably on a subdued synth-pop album that channels the likes of Drake and Bon Iver. On the other, one of Coldplay’s finest top-to-bottom performances in years was denied the wider audience it deserved. As it is, “Ghost Story” will have to settle for perpetually “underrated” status, ballyhooed in YouTube and Reddit comments but mostly unknown elsewhere.
‘All I Can Think About Is You’ (‘Kaleidoscope’ EP)
For fans of “the old Coldplay,” “All I Can Think About Is You” probably felt like a long-overdue gift. Not that the band was pandering to these voices. Between the distortion and wooziness at the start of the song and the expansive, piano-led climax (think “Clocks” on steroids), Coldplay found a way to thread the needle between exploring new territory and reviving past glories. It’s a balancing act they should attempt more often.
‘Arabesque’ (‘Everyday Life’)
“Everyday Life” is Coldplay’s “kitchen sink” album. Instead of following the pop playbook that had largely shaped their three previous LPs, they upended the formula by fooling around with disparate genres like gospel, doo-wop, choral, and classical. Best of all is “Arabesque,” a jazzy Afrobeat war march that stomps along and goes out with a cosmic bang (and an eff bomb). It might be the coolest track Coldplay has ever recorded.
‘Coloratura’ (‘Music of the Spheres’)
Considering Coldplay’s grandiose inclinations, maybe it was only a matter of time before they went prog. “Coloratura,” the second release from “Music of the Spheres,” is a sprawling, 10-minute space fantasia that stands in marked contrast with the bloodless pop of the official singles. Among the song’s ingredients: a Theremin, Latin phrases, the names of various astronomical bodies, a towering, David Gilmour-esque solo, and maybe even a dash of Dante’s “Paradiso” (with a celestial melody replacing the celestial rose). The lesson is obvious: Going big and bold > chasing hits.