We need to have a conversation about Coldplay.
Chris Martin’s band has been a punchline since that first fresh-faced beach walk, and there are some good reasons for that. When your debut album sounds less like a spongy facsimile of Bends-era Radiohead than a facsimile of Travis, themselves a spongy facsimile of Bends-era Radiohead, you invite ridicule. When you and your movie-star wife name your child Apple, you invite ridicule. When your band dresses up like French revolutionaries and/or the Beatles, not just for promo photos but interviews too, you invite ridicule. And when you release a concept album about “the story of a war against sound and color by a supremacist government” and call it Mylo Xyloto, you have come to embody the very essence of ridiculousness. Such awkwardly polite young Englishmen playing such wholesomely saccharine music with such shamelessly grandiose ambitions were always destined to be written off as lames.
Martin knows this. As he told The Telegraph in 2008, “We aren’t cool and never will be.” But as Chuck Klosterman explained in his 2002 essay collection Sex, Drugs, And Cocoa Puffs, it’s one thing to be cool and another thing entirely to be great. Klosterman presented Billy Joel as the evidence for his theory: Joel “has no intrinsic coolness, and he has no extrinsic coolness,” but as a songwriter he’s responsible for a baffling number of modern classics. Thus, Klosterman concluded, “there is absolutely no relationship between Joel’s greatness and Joel’s coolness (or lack thereof), just as there’s no relationship between the ‘greatness’ of serving in World War II and the ‘coolness’ of serving in World War II.” Ironically, in the first chapter of the same book, Klosterman goes on a rant about how much Coldplay sucks, a position he recanted in 2013’s I Wear The Black Hat. This wasn’t his rationale, but logically, he had every reason to revise his anti-Coldplay stance because Coldplay is exactly the same as Billy Joel. The fact that they are perilously uncool has no bearing on their greatness. And it’s time we all agreed that Coldplay is great.
The two low-key tracks they’ve released so far from their forthcoming Ghost Stories — the spectral “Midnight” and the groovy “Magic” — are among the best songs any musician has released this year. They are marvels of construction and execution, first-class singles that trigger the pop pleasure centers while incorporating sounds foreign to the Top 40. Do “Midnight” and “Magic” borrow heavily from Bon Iver and the xx, respectively, just as Coldplay has previously borrowed from indie-rock causes célèbre Arcade Fire, My Bloody Valentine, LCD Soundsystem, and Animal Collective? (It can’t be just me who heard some Merriweather Post Pavilion in Mylo Xyloto.) Sure, but it’s just a higher-pay-grade version of what Radiohead does. Thom Yorke and the boys have spent their whole career gleaning inspiration from lesser-known talents (DJ Shadow, Liars, Flying Lotus) and repurposing them in a more accessible context, and they’re still widely recognized as one of the greatest bands of their generation. Why not cede the same honor to Coldplay? Is it because their irrepressible earnestness isn’t balanced out by cynicism? You might say it’s because Coldplay still throws themselves into goofy shit like the dancing in the “Midnight” video, but have you seen Yorke’s dancing lately? Or, like, ever?
The pair of moody numbers Coldplay debuted at SXSW, “Always In My Head” and “Another’s Arms,” are similarly triumphant, but excellence isn’t a new trend for this band. Every album in the group’s discography is loaded with classic songs, from the sleepy folk-pop of “Don’t Panic” to the gleaming neon theatrics of “Every Teardrop A Waterfall.” Speaking of that span: The band has traversed an incredible stylistic gulf over these past 14 years. Their songwriting has maintained its essential core of vague arena-rock sentimentality, but the aesthetic trappings have evolved daringly from Coldplay’s humble beginnings. Their one major misstep was 2005’s X&Y, on which they pushed the pap to the forefront and betrayed their more adventurous instincts, but even the relentlessly cloying “Fix You” is a jam. (Just ask Chance The Rapper, one of the many MCs who’ve pledged allegiance to Coldplay over the years.) Besides, after veering too far into mush they hooked up with Brian Eno and made 2008’s Viva La Vida Or Death And All His Friends, as fine an art-rock achievement as we’ve seen this century and “exactly the record this band needed to make.” Go listen to the title track or “Lost!” or “Strawberry Swing” — they’re all fantastic. Shit, follow the thread further back and bask in the softhearted glow of “The Scientist” and “Yellow.” Power ballads don’t come any better.
It takes a special understanding of what moves the human spirit to accumulate two hour’s worth of songs that can bring an arena to its feet. Coldplay boasts that kind of catalog, and from the sounds of the early Ghost Stories material, it’s about to get even stronger. Some of that strength is due to sheer longevity — stick around long enough and eventually you rack up enough highlights that the lowlights start to fade out of memory — but that trick only works when you continue to release tremendous music, which is exactly what Martin and his anonymous bandmates have pulled off. Time has been good to those blokes behind “Clocks,” but they’ve been good to us, too.
The critical consensus on Mastermind is that it finds Rick Ross in coast mode; per our own Tom Breihan’s review, “It’s that old Ross persona with none of the energy of his best music.” But Rozay affirmed his bawse status last week by beating Pharrell to land his fifth #1 album. Mastermind moved 179,000 copies — fewer than God Forgives, I Don’t’s first-week sales of 218,000 in 2012, but enough to far outpace Pharrell’s G I R L, which logged 112,000 in sales for a #2 debut. Billboard notes that Mastermind’s top-spot debut puts Ross in the company of DMX and 2Pac as rappers with five #1 albums, bested only by Nas and Kanye west (six each), Eminem (seven), and Jay Z (13!).
Other top 10 debuts include Glee star Lea Michele’s Louder at #4 with 60,000 sold, country group Eli Young Band’s 10,000 Towns at #5 with 36,000 sold, and Ashanti’s R&B comeback Braveheart at #10 with 28,000 sold. The Frozen soundtrack stays strong at #3; it has sold 1.3 million copies to date and 994,000 in 2013 and is expected to become the first album to sell a million copies in 2014 this week. The rest of the top 10 is a quite tasteful Beck (#6), Lorde (#7), Schoolboy Q (#8, down from a #1 debut last week), and Eric Church (#9).
Over on the Hot 100 singles chart, Pharrell’s “Happy” remains at #1 for a third straight week, likely thanks in part to his appearance on the Oscars. Another Oscar beneficiary is Broadway actress and singer Idina Menzel (Rent/Wicked), whose “Let It Go” from Frozen won for Best Original Song and promptly leapt from #17 to #9. (The hubbub over John Travolta mangling Menzel’s name, viewable below, probably didn’t hurt either.) It’s a good thing Menzel’s there, too, because the rest of the top 10 is unconscionably static.
Foster The People – “Best Friend”
It’s no “Pumped Up Kicks,” but Foster The People has finally kicked out another song that grabs your attention rather than simply exists. The influence of 2013’s disco-funk revival is palpable, and even though Mark Foster is arguably the least funky man in music, he pulls this song off.
Iggy Azalea – “Impossible Is Nothing”
Does it seem possible that the best Eminem song in years is actually by a 23-year-old Australian woman? Impossible is nothing.
Sevyn Streeter – “Next (Remix)” (Feat. Kid Ink)
Besides penning tunes for the likes of Alicia Keys, Kelly Rowland, and Trey Songz, Sevyn Streeter is the songwriter behind a bunch of Chris Brown hits as well as her own smash Brown duet “It Won’t Stop.” Hold that association against her if you like, but the woman knows how to construct an R&B hit. That’s evidenced on “Next (Remix),” in which she wonders, with convincing bewilderment, “How can my ex-boyfriend be my next boyfriend?” Talentless breakout rap star Kid Ink, another rising urban radio star orbiting Brown’s dark star, is there to play the boyfriend she can’t shake.
Ronika – “Shell Shocked”
Q: Is this song more heavily influenced by Gloria Estefan’s “Rhythm Is Gonna Get You,” Paula Abdul’s “Straight Up,” or Madonna’s “Holiday”? A: Shut up and dance!
Elliphant – “Revolusion”
Elliphant is affiliated with Diplo’s Mad Decent label and Dr. Luke’s Kemosabe Records, but “Revolusion” leans more towards Wes Pentz’s edgy, globetrotting tendencies than Lukasz Gottwald’s state-of-the-art radio bait.
NEWS IN BRIEF
- Taylor Swift tops Billboard’s list of the 40 highest paid musicians with $39,699,575.60 in 2013 earnings. (Surprisingly, Bon Jovi is all the way up at #4; notably, Beyoncé far out-earned Jay Z.) [Billboard]
- Diddy has allegedly bid $200 million to buy Fuse TV and merge it with Revolt TV, which he launched last year. [Bloomberg]
- Alicia Keys, Kendrick Lamar, Pharrell, and Hans Zimmer collaborated on a song called “It’s On Again” for The Amazing Spider-Man 2. [Idolator]
- Lily Allen agreed with a critic on Twitter that her new singles are “rubbish.” [The Independent]
- Bill O’Reilly thinks Beyoncé’s “Partition” video harms children. [Spin]
- will.i.am and Pharrell have settled their trademark dispute over the phrase “I am.” [The Hollywood Reporter]
- Lorde is releasing her own makeup line. [Sugarscape]
- Kylie Minogue’s new album Kiss Me Once is streaming in full. [The Guardian]
HOLD ON WE’RE GOING HOME
[Coldplay photo by Tim Mosenfelder / Getty Images]