Coldplay’s Pop Report Card: We Grade Their 7 Albums

Carl Williott | February 3, 2016 9:00 am

Coldplay may still be one of the biggest bands in the world, but they’re an odd choice for the Super Bowl Halftime Show in 2016 as opposed to, say, any time between 2005 and 2012. On the other hand, they fit right in with the Super Bowl’s love of legacy rock acts. And that’s the sort of cognitive dissonance that has followed the band throughout its career. 

For an act that’s long been derided as the apotheosis of vanilla, Coldplay has paradoxically undergone numerous sonic transformations over the course of seven LPs, starting as monochromatic rainy-day rock only to become hypercolor poptimists. So ahead of the British band’s February 7 performance at Super Bowl 50, let’s assess their whole run by examining it album-by-album for our latest Pop Report Card.

1. Parachutes (2000)

Two things were working against Parachutes in its time. First was “Yellow,” which overshadowed everything else about Coldplay’s debut. The song was just too catchy and self-assured, giving the band that destined-to-be-one-hit-wonders stench. The other problem was that Coldplay was accused of being an anesthetized Radiohead outgrowth, The Bends for basics. But when you revisit this album free from those associations, you realize it’s a charming collection of overachieving mope-rock.

Songs like “Don’t Panic,” “Sparks” and “Trouble” glisten and sway with a wistful glow, while cuts like “Shiver” and “Spies” chime in with bursts of energy. It’s incredibly balanced for a debut, and never less than pleasing. That’s exactly why they’re hated and exactly why they’re good. GRADE: A-

2. A Rush Of Blood To The Head (2002)

Coldplay’s sophomore effort starts off with the bleak “Politik,” its opening sweep immediately reminiscent of the swollen chords of “Yellow.” It’s as though the band wanted to remind you they were supposed to be one-hit wonders just so they could spend the next five songs showing that “Yellow” wasn’t even close to the majestic power ballad perfection they were capable of.

The legendarily weepy “The Scientist,” the shimmering “In My Place,” the tumbling “Clocks” and the towering “God Put A Smile Upon Your Face” — that run soared higher and had bigger choruses than just about anything in rock or pop at that moment. But things dropped off precipitously after that, with a string of monolithic midtempos. The good is really good, remembered-by-an-entire-generation good. Forget-they-were-supposed-to-disappear good. But the rest is exactly the sort of blandness you might’ve mapped out for a band that hit it lucky with “Yellow.” GRADE: B+

3. X&Y (2005)

X&Y was the point when everything got bigger but the emotions couldn’t match it, when the sense of catharsis or tension was gone (save for “Square One” and “Fix You”). But as Coldplay became more emotionally blunted, the band also began experimenting in surprisingly admirable ways (borrowing from Kraftwerk, planning a Johnny Cash collaboration). Unfortunately, these potentially bold choices were swallowed up by the benign behemoth that the band had become at that point.

Still, this album is not as bad as people remember. They used a digital wall of sound to create soft space-rock — for a band that supposedly aped Radiohead, this was the anti-Radiohead tactic — and because of this widescreen approach, even misfires like “What If” and “A Message” still have parts that feel momentous. They’d harness that mammoth production scope for the rest of their career, but here it smeared the details out of the picture. GRADE: C+

4. Viva La Vida or Death And All His Friends (2008)

The band’s most ambitious and rewarding album built on X&Y‘s cinematic sprawl, employing beautiful textures crafted with the oversight of Brian Eno and Jon Hopkins. From the triumphal organ drone of “Lost!” to the shoegazing “hidden” song after “Yes” to the album’s ambient fadeout, the experiments actually register this time, without diluting the band’s heartfelt melodies.

Following the lumbering and numbing X&YViva was vibrant and varied. They display more versatility on “42” than they had in three albums combined, and “Strawberry Swing” and “Viva La Vida” are the prettiest things they’ve ever done. Follow-up Mylo Xyloto will be remembered as the colorful Coldplay album, but this is the one that found them working with the brightest, biggest palette. GRADE: A

5. Mylo Xyloto (2011)

This had all the makings of a Be Here Now-level, head-up-their-asses blunder: a concept album about a fascist government outlawing music and color, with a Rihanna feature to boot. But Mylo Xyloto turned out to be the perfect vehicle for Chris Martin‘s romcom-climax-scene emoting and the band’s infatuation with outsize, spectral textures.

After tip-toeing down the art-rock path on their previous album, the theatrics here were focused on big-tent bombast. The cerebral pleasures of Viva were gone, so tracks such as “Paradise” and “Up In Flames” had the over-inflated facelessness of late-era U2 and Grey’s Anatomy soundtrack cuts, but songs like “Princess Of China” and “Hurts Like Heaven” proved the band could still reach thrilling heights by melding the euphoric with the morose. GRADE: B

6. Ghost Stories (2014)

A necessary retreat after the overblown aesthetic of Mylo Xyloto, Ghost Stories made the band human again — and ironically, it introduced this strategy with the decidedly non-human “Midnight.” After that bit of misdirection, the album was mainly heartbreak and the type of small-scale balladeering you’d find scattered throughout Parachutes. But unlike the many sad-sack moments from throughout Martin’s songwriting career, the lyrics here were specific and pointed, so the emotions resonated on a new level.

The histrionics were mostly reined in, another move demonstrating their commitment to evolving between albums. It’s a restlessness that pop artists at that level, that far into their careers, rarely exhibit — let alone ride to success. GRADE: B

7. A Head Full Of Dreams (2015)

coldplay a head full of dreams album cover artwork

Lead single “Adventure Of A Lifetime” hitched its wagon to the disco-pop trend that had already passed by, but it was still an invigorating rush following the hushed relationship regrets of Ghost Stories. The title track mines similar territory, resulting in one of the most purely fun songs of their entire catalog. But as refreshed as they sounded there, the misses sound like a band without a center of gravity, flailing to find something that works. High-profile collaborators not named Tove Lo are used as scenery and genre hops are executed with the grace of a dad latching onto new fads to impress his kids.

Though AHFOD provided moments to be optimistic about Coldplay’s future, the low points — particularly the weep-by-numbers groaner “Everglow” and that five-track slog at the end — sound like the Coldplay that detractors had been describing all along: bland, boring, broad. GRADE: C-

How would Coldplay fare if you were handing out the grades? Let us know in the comments.