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ACL Festival: 10 reasons to warm up to Coldplay

British band has been earnest in trying to evolve its sound

Patrick Caldwell
Chris Martin, left, Johnny Buckland and the rest of Coldplay have their detractors, but you can't deny their knack for singles and live shows.

It might sound absurd to mount a defense of Coldplay, a band that's won seven Grammy awards, played every festival, generally enjoyed positive press and nabbed more than 50 million worldwide sales. Not a lot of people feel the need to shed tears for the sweeping, ever-sensitive foursome from London; at the end of the day front man Chris Martin, drummer Will Champion, lead guitarist Jonny Buckland and bassist Guy Berryman can always go to sleep on their enormous piles of money.

But for all its success, few contemporary bands inspire such vitriol and derision. In this sense Coldplay has something in common with the Black Eyed Peas — another simultaneously popular and despised band from the aughts. That disparity also makes Coldplay this Austin City Limits Music Festival's equivalent to the Eagles last year. Both bands have sold tens of millions of records and play to enormous crowds while also being widely mocked .

"I have never encountered one person who has a kind word to say about Coldplay," wrote Andy Gill in the Independent in 2008, in a piece titled "Why I Hate Coldplay. "None of my personal or professional acquaintances, nobody in the street or the local café, not a single soul will admit to liking Coldplay or purchasing their music. Indeed, most seem to agree that they epitomize everything that's wrong with modern rock music. So who's buying all their albums?"

New York Times music critic Jon Pareles called them "the most insufferable band of the decade." British music mag NME awarded "Viva la Vida" 8 out of 10 points and went on to nominate it as one of the worst albums of the year. Perhaps the largest bastion of bleeding-edge music criticism, Pitchfork, has responded to Coldplay's four albums with a collective "meh," awarding them, chronologically, scores of 5.3, 5.1, 4.9 and 6.9. Even Chris Martin is aware of his place on the hipness pecking order.

"I always thought that if you were a 16-year-old and liked Coldplay you'd keep it quiet," Martin told the Telegraph in 2008. "We aren't cool and never will be."

"The reason why we do well is because U2 is still on holiday," Martin cheekily told "60 Minutes" that same year. "So, you know, as soon as they come back, we drop down the ladder a bit. We're in our last week of substitute teaching."

At the risk of forever revoking any pretensions to music snob-dom, I feel the need to say the following: poppycock.

Because though Coldplay is far from contemporary music's most thrilling band, it's still a winningly restless, smart bunch, with an expert sense of melody, a savvier lyrical sense than it is generally credited for and a voracious appetite for influences. Its four albums and accompanying boatload of memorable singles comprise an impressive body of work.

In an attempt — likely futile — to polish the band's image, I submit 10 reasons the time has come for a critical rethinking of Coldplay . Consider them 10 reasons Coldplay are worth catching on Friday, even opposite a pop provocateur as entertaining as Kanye West.

In Favor of Coldplay

1. The band hasn't stood still. It would have been easy for Coldplay to replicate its breakout hit — the lilting and mopey "Yellow," off debut "Parachutes" — ad infinitum. But for all the "all Coldplay songs sound the same" criticisms, the band's made a noticeable effort to diversify with each release. Each represents an honest attempt at growth, from the greater assurance propelling "A Rush of Blood to the Head" to the spacier, Kraftwerk-inspired sounds on "X&Y" to the Brian Eno-produced big tent sonic inclusion of "Viva la Vida."

2. The band is ambitious. Martin has occasionally caught flack for talking up Coldplay within the same context as U2 or Radiohead, or openly voicing his desire to write a song as good as Paul McCartney's "Yesterday." And though that might seem like folly — Coldplay will never hit the creative heights of U2 at its giddy zenith — ambition is one of the principal virtues of a pop band.

3. They wrote "Clocks." Come on, you can't deny it: "Clocks," the centerpiece of the album "A Rush of Blood to the Head," is a brilliant radio single. All cryptic and faintly ominous lyrics wrapped up in a fiendishly memorable piano line, there's a reason "Clocks" was inescapable for more than a year after release. Few songs straddle the delicate/anthemic divide so effectively. Which leads us more broadly into ...

4. It's a great singles band. It takes a lot — talent, insight, musicianship and more than a bit of luck — to write and record a hit single on the scale of "Yellow." It takes an almost inconceivable amount more to crank out as many as Coldplay has, from "Trouble" to "Talk" to "Viva la Vida," with a solid catalog of just-as-good midtier songs like "God Put a Smile Upon Your Face."

5. Martin's distinctive voice. Coldplay has something of a reputation for being a Radiohead clone with the sharper edges sanded off. There's some truth to that, and Martin's wobbly falsetto is obviously influenced by Thom Yorke, though Yorke has greater range. But Martin is a distinctive, recognizable singer with a character all his own, an underappreciated attribute for a contemporary pop front man. It'd be a lot harder to pick, say, Train front man Patrick Monahan out of a lineup.

6. They are capable of rocking. When Martin accepted a Grammy award in 2009 for best rock album for "Viva la Vida," he joked that the band was "not the heaviest of rock bands, as you may have noticed — we're more of a limestone rock band." That self-aware quip cuts to the heart of Coldplay's music, which is more concerned with sensitive atmospherics or uplifting bombast than pulse-pounding rock. But Coldplay is in fact capable of rocking, and it's exhilarating when it does, like the prickly guitars and nervous angst of "A Whisper" or the unapologetic six-string solos that consume the bulk of "42."

7. The live show is dependably solid. Like their countrymen Muse, Coldplay craft songs that demand stadium-ready live spectacle. The band almost always delivers, with live shows that are tight, exciting, sincere and loaded with the necessary lights. And set lists strike the ideal balance of huge singles and album cuts.

8. Martin never wrote a song explicitly about Gwyneth Paltrow or his children. He reliably dodges questions about his wife and children in interviews, keeping the personal private. That sensibility shows up in his songwriting, which tends to traffic in themes. Martin's lyrical approach — vague, but earnest — is one of his savviest attributes, its broadness allowing him to relate to a wide swath of listeners in a way that's still personal.

9. The band knows how to conduct itself. Coldplay is practically a model for how a global band can behave responsibly and charitably in the 21st century without lapsing into self-righteousness — arguably something they pull off with greater ease than U2. From the way the band runs on consensus and splits its proceeds evenly to its choice to donate 10 percent of profits to charity to Martin's fair trade activism, Coldplay's done a fine job of doing the right thing without being too preachy about it.

10. There are more deserving targets. In a universe where the aforementioned Black Eyed Peas have pop culture ubiquity, LMFAO's "Party Rock Anthem" sits smugly atop the Billboard charts, and the Gym Class Heroes, Nickelback and Ke$ha remain commercially viable, even Coldplay's detractors have to concede that there are greater evils in pop music.