Musicology: Second Single Artists

At this point in their career, it’s hard to start off any article about Coldplay without requoting Jay-Z — who recently told The New York Times that Chris Martin & Co. are “next in line for the biggest band in the world, period.” Sure, it’s an exercise in hyperbole. But it’s hard to argue with a group who’s sold thirty million copies of just three albums — two of which have won multiple Grammies, all of which have garnered critical acclaim and commercial success akin to U2’s 1980’s back catalogue.

On June 17th, the reign continues with Viva La Vida or Death and All His Friends, Coldplay’s forthcoming fourth LP. I’ve already gushed over the disc’s title track, and now that you’re inevitably acquainted with the song via its iTunes commercial you might agree: “Viva” is four minutes of beautiful orchestral chug, careful to avoid those piano triads that made “Clocks” and “Speed of Sound” sonically identical. Bottom line: if “Viva” isn’t a midseason lock for ’08’s Record of the Year, then I don’t know what is. (Sorry, Flo Rida.)

Furthermore, the track is shaping up to be Coldplay’s first American #1 — what with its unwavering hold on iTunes’ pole position, ever-increasing radio play and recent 30-spot jump on the Billboard Hot 100. There’s just one problem: it’s not the proper first single from Viva La Vida. Instead, Coldplay offered “Violet Hill” for digital download more than a month ago, making “Violet” the official first single off the new CD. Much moodier and more melancholy than “Viva,” “Violet Hill” made a tiny commercial wave, generating little interest outside of the 2 million who downloaded it for free.

That said, Coldplay’s decision to push a decidedly stronger single to secondary status isn’t entirely unfounded. In fact, three other huge names in pop music have developed as “second single artists” — a strategy that seems more and more feasible given the immediate availability of music on the internet. After the jump, I’ll count them down and give the singles as proof.

1. A Rush of Blood to the Head (2002)
Coldplay lead their second album with “In My Place,” the single credited as a solidifying force that brought the band back together after a near break-up following Parachutes. “Place” peaked low on the Billboard charts, but paved the way for “Clocks” — the dynamic, Grammy-winning single that stopped the Travis comparisons and started the U2 comparisons.

2. X&Y (2005)
High off the critical acclaim for A Rush of Blood to the Head, Coldplay took “Speed of Sound” to #8 on the Billboard charts to anoint X&Y; more monumental, however, was the massive commercial success of “Fix You,” the album’s second single. “Fix You” earned big bucks via TV branding on shows like The O.C., and it continues to be a sweeping concert closer.

1. The College Dropout (2004)
Kanye’s foray into the music biz as a solo artist began with “Through the Wire,” the soulful lead single from his first disc. Its #15 Billboard peak was eclipsed, however, by “All Falls Down” — the disc’s second single and highest placer at #7.

2. Late Registration (2005)
Kanye tested “Diamonds from Sierra Leone” to lead Late Registration, a plan that backfired in a big way: the single halted outside of the Billboard Top 40. Then came “Gold Digger” as a second single, which remains one of the longest-running #1s in Billboard history.

3. Graduation (2007)
With Graduation, Kanye repeated the same trick from Late Registration: “Can’t Tell Me Nothing,” the lead single, stalled at #41 on the Billboard Hot 100; “Stronger” topped the charts and became one of last year’s biggest singles.

1. Thankful (2003)
“A Moment Like This” — Kelly’s American Idol coronation song — was the first single from Thankful. “Miss Independent,” the second single, was the one that established her and the Idol franchise as an entirely legitimate player in the pop world — not just another reality TV show and reality TV show winner.

2. Breakaway (2004)
In the States, Kelly lead Breakaway with its title track, which hit a respectable #6 on the Billboard Hot 100. But much bigger was second single “Since U Been Gone,” which reigned at #1 for weeks and won Kelly her first Grammy for Best Female Vocal Performance.

1. Love.Angel.Music.Baby (2004)
Gwen has a unique habit of getting her ya-yas out with a first single, opting to show quirkiness as opposed to commercial appeal with her first stroke. Such was the case with “What U Waiting For?,” her first solo single that peak so low (#47) it cast doubts upon her viability as a solo artist. Then came “Rich Girl” (#7) and “Hollaback Girl” (#1), the latter of which became the first iTunes track to reach one million downloads.

2. The Sweet Escape (2006)
Again, the choice for lead single from The Sweet Escape was an odd one: the Pharrell-produced “Wind It Up,” which peaked at #6, contained interpolations from “The Sound of Music.” But the second single, a title track duet with Akon, hit #2 and was the most-downloaded iTunes track of 2007.



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