Is Coldplay insufferable or just…fine? This is the question that has come to my mind throughout their 20-year-plus career. Many would argue the former. A decent amount enjoy the British post-Britpop turned arena pop rock group peripherally. And still others “stan” a band with some mild turns and a general, pervasive sense of bland, pretentious emotional exploitation. And yet, I was quite impressed with Coldplay’s 2019 release EVERYDAY LIFE, coming after the biggest gap between studio albums for the band (four years). I’ll get to how impressed I was with it in short order, of course, with this ranked list of Coldplay’s eight studio albums (I didn’t consider EPs or live albums for this list).
EDIT 10/22/21: Added MUSIC OF THE SPHERES.
#9 — GHOST STORIES (2014)
Favorite track: “Magic”
Frontman Chris Martin’s breakup album, coming off his divorce with Goop Queen Gwyneth Paltrow, is quite terrible. Seen somewhat as a return to the form of Coldplay’s earliest simple, acoustic-based albums, if not the quality, GHOST STORIES is the apotheosis of Coldplay’s “artsy” posturing. Its lyrical content is painful and its sound an endless parade of malaise. “Magic,” the album’s main single, is the most listenable track from GHOST STORIES, so I guess it deserves some special mention.
#8 — MUSIC OF THE SPHERES (2021)
Favorite track: “Humankind”
MUSIC OF THE SPHERES, subtitled “Vol. 1 From Earth with Love” (great, there’s more of this coming), is an incredible step back from Coldplay’s previous album, EVERYDAY LIFE. EVERYDAY LIFE was an exciting, good experiment that was a bold departure from the sound that has defined Coldplay for the better part of a decade. MUSIC OF THE SPHERES is a “return to form” of arena pop boredom, a record that channels Maroon 5 to the worst possible degree. There are so many features on it, like Selena Gomez and BTS, and the whole thing is full of the most annoying pop choral tropes, as opposed to the annoyingly catchy pop choral tropes. The attempt to be heady is once again painful, as MUSIC OF THE SPHERES is a concept album of a kind, focused on the dreamlike influence of space. The result is a record with strained hooks and loose, pointless interludes signified by, that’s right, emojis. There are tracks named with emojis, at least on Spotify. They technically have proper, written character names, but by scanning the track list on the streaming service, I’m told to absolutely not care about those songs because I don’t even know what to call them. MUSIC OF THE SPHERES is a bummer.
#7 — A HEAD FULL OF DREAMS (2015)
Favorite track: “Hymn for the Weekend”
A HEAD FULL OF DREAMS, coming just one year after GHOST STORIES, is purported to be the uplifting companion piece to that “dark” record. Instead, it’s just a marginally better foray into a brighter malaise, the definition of the arena, mass-marketed bullshit Coldplay itself has contributed to the creation of, and more importantly, spawned in the form of even more mediocre bands. There are beats and hooks here that don’t deserve this scorn, and in fact, “Hymn for the Weekend” has a choral arrangement that is lifted far above the other songs on A HEAD FULL OF DREAMS by Beyonce.
#6 — X&Y (2005)
Favorite track: “Fix You”
If Coldplay didn’t suffer a sophomore slump, they certainly experienced a “junior” one. The band’s third album saw them overreaching the simpler, more authentic sounds and themes of their first two records, with few remarkable results. From “Speed of Sound”’s shockingly obvious rehash of “Clocks” of A RUSH OF BLOOD TO THE HEAD to the annoyance “Talk” instills in me, X&Y just can’t compare to anything from the band’s first decade of work. X&Y was an important transitional album as Coldplay shifted into much broader, less self-aware realms. Even though better things were to come from the band, they were (almost) never quite as quietly confident, self-assured, or good as their first two albums. X&Y was the start of that, basically the rest of Coldplay’s career.
#5 — PARACHUTES (2000)
Favorite track: “Yellow”
OK, and so I immediately have to clarify that statement. PARACHUTES, Coldplay’s debut album, is more respectable than the next couple albums to follow on this list. It’s less pretentious. It’s more cohesive. It’s rawer. But here we come to my great frustration with Coldplay; sometimes, I just listen to those tracks with a guilty pleasure. You know, those tracks. And yet PARACHUTES still has a stink of a sort of Britpop co-opting/rejection, something I can’t fully get behind. And yet and yet…it’s good. It’s not revolutionary (although Coldplay would prove to influence the music industry at a large scale), but it’s a full enjoyable listen. There just aren’t many favorite singles on the record. And if I’ve explained Beck is an “album” artist, Coldplay is definitely more of a “single” artist, with a few exceptions. And, sorry, I don’t love “Yellow.” It’s fine.
#4 — VIVA LA VIDA OR DEATH AND ALL HIS FRIENDS (2008)
Favorite track: “Viva la Vida”
You know, I think part of the effect for my revulsion or general unease with a lot of Coldplay music is my association with its fans. As I was discovering The Smiths, The Cure, the Pixies, Blink-182, and more artists that I felt truly tapped into my adolescent angst, a bunch of jock-y dudes were walking around proclaiming Coldplay as the deepest or most emotional stuff they had heard. Weird, right? I just couldn’t, and really still can’t, move past that correlation. Coldplay really does just hit a lowest common denominator of artistic appreciation; they seem to represent a more complicated force in a some people’s playlists. And I think that’s just wrong. Anyways, VIVA LA VIDA OR DEATH AND ALL HIS FRIENDS is fine. A bit more whimsical than anything before, the record feels like the proto-concept album Coldplay would make with MYLO XYLOTO. The group benefited from Brian Eno’s production, yielding a more varied record than anything they had made before. And although there’s a general sense that a larger story was trying to be told with VIVA LA VIDA, it’s difficult to get behind it as a full, comprehensive, album-length listen. The half-title track is just shallow sugar pop rock, and a few others approach it in this manner, such as “Lost!” and “Lovers in Japan.” It’s fine, and only marginally worse than…
#3 — MYLO XYLOTO (2011)
Favorite track: “Paradise”
…MYLO XYLOTO. Eno returned to produce Coldplay’s full-fledged concept album, a silly tale of music and sound being repressed in a futuristic society, blah blah blah. You’ve heard it before. And you’ve heard the sounds of the album before, assumedly, and yet the probably too-slick production of the record lays some earworms. The synths and electronic sounds of MYLO XYLOTO represent the full transformation of Coldplay into a mega-commercial force that had gotten lost in the weeds a bit…just a bit though, because the insidious catchiness of songs like “Paradise,” “Hurts Like Heaven,” “Charlie Brown,” and “Every Teardrop Is a Waterfall” still make an impact. MYLO XYLOTO edges out VIVA LA VIDA, an album with a lot of similar elements, because its middling tracks are just a bit less middling, and because its hit singles are just that much more silly.
#2 — A RUSH OF BLOOD TO THE HEAD (2002)
Favorite track: “In My Place”
Up until very recently, I thought A RUSH OF BLOOD TO THE HEAD was probably the only “good” Coldplay album. The band evaded a sophomore slump with a record that belies their then and current overhyped sensitivity and sonic range. Rendered with a fuller sound that built off the acoustics of PARACHUTES with piano and electric guitar, A RUSH OF BLOOD TO THE HEAD carries a stronger downbeat than its predecessor. “In My Place” is a great little ballad, and “The Scientist” and “Clocks” are similar, standout, popular hits. They’re great songs. But A RUSH OF BLOOD TO THE HEAD also functions as a full, album-length listen, unlike anything before it on this list. It was an early, and brief, pinnacle for a band that evolved into, as I’ve reiterated, something to be, at the very least, skeptical of.
#1 — EVERYDAY LIFE (2019)
Favorite track: “Cry, Cry, Cry”
As I’ve written this piece, I’ve realized my enjoyment of Coldplay works in degrees. Degrees of aversion, degrees of mild amusement, degrees of guilty pleasure. Perhaps its fitting, as the band has slowly (well, maybe not so slowly) crept into something so blown out of proportion. Indeed, as I’ve somewhat explained, part of my dislike for the group has been defined by its place in fan’s minds and the music industry. Like so many other things people praise or deride, perhaps I’d feel much differently about Coldplay if they weren’t put on so high or low a pedestal. But they are, and so I don’t. However. Obviously, I’ve demonstrated an ability to enjoy them and at least give them a try as I’ve kept up with their album releases since VIVA LA VIDA. I proceeded with the thought that I’ve been justified in my feelings for the band, and thought Coldplay would never reach the, admittedly, slightly more than decent quality of A RUSH OF BLOOD TO THE HEAD. But EVERYDAY LIFE, in relation, blew me away. The album is an incredible centering of Coldplay’s chaotic neutrality, a jazzy, classically influenced record with a gospel track and a generally well-struck balance between the most somber and cynical the band’s ever been and a hint of bright light over the whole thing. Picking a favorite track from EVERYDAY LIFE was actually a difficult prospect, but “Cry, Cry, Cry” is probably the most fun on the record, and so a standout amid a listen to the full album. Which, by the way, is how the record should be enjoyed, not in bite-size single consumption but as a whole concept. I would say EVERYDAY LIFE is Coldplay’s least pretentious album, and that may be true, but we’re still working with Chris Martin and whatever commercial success does to a group’s collective mind. And we’re seeing some silly discourse in the wake of the band saying they weren’t going to tour for the album for environmental reasons. But the fact remains that Coldplay has not made something as cohesive, thorough, and principled as EVERYDAY LIFE.