Why is Coldplay hipster kryptonite? Why have most self-respect indie kids long abandoned Coldplay to the realm of painfully saccharine, popular radio-ready mainstream bilge? I think the key words are “popular” and “mainstream.” The gist of it is simple: Coldplay is too popular. Too many normal people know about Coldplay and like them.
Here are my picks for the best albums released in 2008. It pains me to agree with Pitchfork on #1, but alas... there can really be no other at the top spot.
It’s stifling hot in L.A., gas prices are surpassing $5/gallon, and the L.A. Film Festival is going on down the block in Westwood Village. This can only mean one thing: Summer is here!
In honor of this wonderful, extreme season, I’ve put together my annual summer music mix (I actually make several of these, to help pass the time in my new hour-plus commute). This year’s mix—comprised entirely of songs released within the last several months—is heavily electronic, 80s-nostalgic, more happy than morose, and a guaranteed good time.
Thanks to iTunes (and I promise they are not paying me to say this), you can locate and download these songs ala carte, with ridiculous ease. Hooray digital capitalism! Anyway, here’s the playlist. My soundtrack to the summer of ’08.
Coldplay, “Strawberry Swing” – Arguably the best overall song on Coldplay’s new album, this track—with its cheery rhythms and sunny guitar riffs—waxes nostalgic about blue skies, swings, and young love.
The Radio Dept., “Freddie and the Trojan Horse” – Sweden’s new-wave shoegazer outfit presents the perfect summer song from their wonderful new EP. It’s sweet like a popsicle.
Mates of State, “Help Help” – This bouncy, synth-bass-heavy pop gem from the husband/wife duo known as Mates of State is the best song off of their recent album, Re-arrange Us. You’ll love it, I promise.
Weezer, “The Greatest Man Who Ever Lived” – This song is a goofy good time. Borrowing a melody from a familiar Shaker hymn, Rivers Cuomo throws down a rock-opera of a pop song that features about a dozen kitschy mutations of its catchy chorus. Lots of fun. M83, “Graveyard Girl” – If you haven’t heard the new album from French electronica geniuses M83, I highly recommend you check it out. The new single, “Graveyard Girl,” is a blissful shoegazer anthem with a hilarious video (see below).
Sigur Ros, “Festival” – My favorite song off their new album, this 9-minute opus builds from nothing to a grandiose climax that will doubtless shake the rafters in concert. Truly breathtaking.
The Notwist, “Good Lies” – The first track off this German electronic band’s new album is perfectly joyful, even in it’s solemnity. Cut / Copy, “Hearts on Fire” – Listen to this song and you’d think you were listening to New Order or something else from the dancefloor 80s. But no, this is 2008 music from Australia. And it’s super cool.
Vampire Weekend, “Mansard Roof” – The Afro-pop hipsters from NYC may be a little overrated, but their bouncy tunes, like “Mansard Roof,” are absolutely perfect for summer. Check out the summery vid:
[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JlgNFwoApec] Wolf Parade, “California Dreamer” – What’s a summer mix without a song about California? This new Wolf Parade song (from their just-released, At Mount Zoomer) is an epic anthem that alternates between delicate balladry and headstrong rock energy.
The National, “You’ve Done it Again, Virginia” – Every summer mix needs a few somber entries, and The National is always good for that. This new song from their recent Virginia EP features more luxuriant Sufjan piano and their usual "Gatsby with a cocktail" tragic elegance.
Cat Power, “Ramblin’ (Wo)Man” – This song from her recent Jukebox album is a sweetly feminine riff on Hank Williams’ song, “Ramblin’ Man.” A jazzy, sexy song for humid summer nights.
Ladytron, “Ghosts” – Britain’s favorite electro-goth-pop band’s new album, Velocifero, is fantastic. And this song is the first breezily haunting single. See below for the trippy video:
[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9yaEwcmrR4Q] Matt Wertz, “5:19” – This first single from Matt’s upcoming album, Under Summer Sun (to be released in August) is a lovely acoustic number with hyper-melodic hooks, perfect for summer love and heartbreak.
Fleet Foxes, “Ragged Wood” – One of the best discoveries of 2008, Seattle’s Fleet Foxes offer Beach Boys-esque harmonies with Appalachian and Irish traditional ancestry. It’s gorgeous, and the formidable “Ragged Wood” is a perfectly sweet/somber track to sample.
Nine Inch Nails, “Discipline” – For something edgier, try this fantastic new single from NIN’s The Slip—the album Trent Reznor gave away for free online this spring.
Death Cab for Cutie, “I Will Possess Your Heart” – This 8 minute song is slow to build and mostly instrumental, but there is something quite dreamy about it. Its travelogue video is a perfect accompaniment to those of us traveling abroad this summer:
I wasn’t quite sure what I expected when I bought Coldplay’s new album earlier this week—I suppose I expected it to be a lot of patented sappy love songs and stadium anthems for the middle class preppies in the suburbs (I bought my copy in Starbucks, after all). But I have to say, this album shocked me—in a very good way. Is this really Coldplay? These songs are inventive—even progressive! They still have that ethereal “to the rafters” grandeur to them, but—amazingly—they are more restrained and nuanced than anything they have ever done.
From the gorgeous, electronic instrumental opening (“Life in Technicolor”) to the ghostly hidden coda track (“The Escapist”… aka part II of “Death and All His Friends”), this is an album of lush musical diversity and sonic subtleties. It’s exquisite. It’s not radio-friendly in the least (apart from the title track), but it may very well prove to be their most popular album. It’s certainly their best since Parachutes.
It’s also an album that—in some ways—represents what an album could (should?) be in this era of the death of the album. It is fitting that Coldplay’s “Viva la Vida” song has been in all the iTunes ads this spring. This is an album for the iTunes age. With ala carte music consumption, music has re-oriented itself to songs over albums, randomized playlists over coherent LPs. Viva la Vida is an album in the sense that it is one collection of songs released together, but other than that it seems to be something altogether different. These songs have little to do with one another, and some sections of some of the songs have little to do with other sections.
Indeed, I wonder how we can categorize “songs” in the context of this album. Several tracks on Viva have more than one musical thought going on. Track 5 is the clearest example: “Lovers in Japan / Reign of Love” is a couplet of an upbeat rock number and a mournful electro-ballad, respectively. You might say the latter (which is my favorite song on the album) compliments the former, but I’m hard-pressed to see them as anything more than two completely separate emotional moments juxtaposed because, well, sometimes our moods change that fast.
Other songs on the album don’t even name their dual sections. Track 6, “Yes,” begins as an eastern-inspired minor chord anthem about sexual frustration (featuring Chris Martin singing in the lowest key he’s ever attempted) and then becomes a breezy shoegazer romp (apparently called “Chinese Sleep Chant,” but not advertised as such on the album cover). Same goes for the final track, “Death and All His Friends,” which ends on a rousing, rhythmically-daring note, only to be followed by the aforementioned fade-out song (“The Escapist,” also unadvertised). Many of these multi-section songs could easily have been split into separate tracks, but they weren’t. Why? It’s almost as if Coldplay is rewarding iTunes buyers by giving them two-for-one specials; or perhaps they are just showing how interesting an album of haphazard shifts and unpredictable turns can be.
The album feels totally incoherent, but in a coherent sort of way. It feels like an album of the 21st century, where our only frame of reference is, in fact, disjointedness. The album mimics our digitally fragmented lives, when everything is on shuffle and our attentions and cares and feelings are so interchangeable and fluid that sixty minutes of musical narrative (even five minutes of one song) have a hard time connecting with us. Indeed, Coldplay’s lyrics on this album are hardly narrative at all—just words and thoughts and random images, strewn together paratextually in the way our laptop screens bind together our images, emails, memories, interests, and connections. We are a windows world now; our interfaces are multifarious and rarely singularly focused. Sometimes we feel mournful (“Cemeteries of London”), sometimes joyful (“Strawberry Swing”), but hardly ever do we feel wholly one or the other. Coldplay’s album is the musical embodiment of this.
The title alone (Viva la Vida or Death and All His Friends) shows how eclectic this album really is. The use of Spanish indicates the international feel of the music, and the nonsensical bonus title shows that the album is, well, anything you want it to be. Viva borrows bits and pieces of world music (Middle-eastern, North African, Latin American, etc) and borrows from a wild array of styles—everything from shoegazer to tribal organ to electronic minimalism. It’s pastiche of the highest order, and I absolutely love it.