Ed Sheeran’s rise to the top of the pops has been one of music’s biggest success stories of the 2010s. Rolling Stone readers voted these five tracks of his as their favorite moments in his fast-growing catalog.
The pointillistic account of a woman packing up her recently deceased mother’s belongings is one of the quieter moments on ÷ (Divide). Written from the point of view of Sheeran’s mother, the ballad’s verses portray the mundanity of life in the face of death, while its chorus reflects on the presence of angels on earth. “My grandmother was very ill during the time I was making the record and passed away at the end of me making the record, so we wrote this song as a tribute,” Sheeran told Beats 1’s Zane Lowe. “My grandfather just turned to me [at the funeral] and he was like, ‘You have to put that out – that has to go on the record.'”
This tensely paced x track traces Sheeran’s first time taking ecstasy, which happened while he was at a pal’s wedding in Ibiza. “It was a wedding, and I was having a mojito, and my mate was like, ‘Do you want to try it? It tastes really bad if you put it in your mouth, but I’ll just put it in your drink and it’ll be fine,'” Sheeran told Spotify in 2014. The heightened emotion brought on by the drug is reflected in the lyrics, which portray the guilt he felt over a recent heartbreak. “During it all I felt a lot of things: I felt anxiety, I felt love, I felt warm, I felt a bit weird,” Sheeran said. “And afterwards, you spend all day just thinking about what you’ve been through.”
Channeling the stadium-rock ambition of U2 and the jangly arena-Americana of Mumford & Sons, this Benny Blanco-produced track was one ÷‘s first singles. Sheeran described it as “a love song for Suffolk” on BBC’s Radio 1, and its fondly nostalgic lyrics about “running from the law through the backfields” and “driving at 90 down those country lanes” bear that declaration out. (The video using students from Sheeran’s former high school as its cast does, too.)
Sheeran wrote this gently rolling ballad after visiting a temporary homeless shelter in East London to play some music. One resident named Angel was the space’s de facto ruler; signs spelling out “Angel’s Rules” were posted all over the building, and a volunteer pointed out that Angel was, in fact, pretty unruly until she was put in charge. When Sheeran came in to play, he was subject to her law as well: “She was actually a big Guns N’ Roses fan and made me play ‘Sweet Child O’Mine’ six times,” he told the San Francisco radio station KLLC in 2012. “I had a chat with her and a sit-down. … I was 18 at the time. Lived away from home for about two years, but I had never seen the dark underbelly of London. It was a bit of a wake-up call. I wrote this song for Angel.”
Sheeran’s sumptuous x devotional planted his blue-eyed soul flag, peaked at Number Two on the Hot 100, and won the Grammy for Song of the Year in 2016. Its plainspoken lyrics revel in the idea of togetherness in the short and long term, and it brings together old-school balladry and new-school moxie in a way that resonates across generations. “Van Morrison would have been very proud to write that,” Elton John told RS recently. “[Sheeran] reminds me of me when I first came to America, in 1970. It was all systems go. Nothing was impossible.”