Rolling Stone Readers Pick the Best Ballads of All Time - Rolling Stone
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Rolling Stone Readers Pick the Best Ballads of All Time

Watch clips from the winners, including Prince, Pearl Jam, Marvin Gaye and Led Zeppelin

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Last week we asked our readers to vote for their favorite ballad or slow jam of all time. Votes were all over the place – from tracks by Pearl Jam to Elvis Presley to Lionel Richie. In the end it was very close, and there was a tie so we had to expand our standard top 10 to a top 12. If this survey has reinforced anything, it's that our readers really, really love Led Zeppelin.

By Andy Greene


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12. ‘With Or Without You’

Until 1987 U2 hadn't really written a song you could dance to at prom. That changed with "With Or Without You," the first single from The Joshua Tree. The bittersweet ballad gave the band their first Number One single in America, and it hasn't left their setlist since – though it's never sounded better than it did on the 1987 tour. The version from their ill-fated movie Rattle and Hum is the best, and contains the extra "summer stars" verse that the fans love so much.

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11. ‘Hey Jude’

If you counted all the time Paul McCartney has spent singing "Hey Jude" over the last 40 years it might very well add up to a whole month of his life. The song is just too perfect a crowd sing-along for him to ever think about keeping if off the setlist, and over the years the "nah nah nah nah nah" segment has crept up towards five minutes. The longtime Macca fans may be tired of the ritual, but for the vast majority of the audience it's one of the best parts of the show and Paul aims to please. If John Lennon was alive, it's probably a safe bet he'd still be doing "Imagine" every night.

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10. ‘Freebird’

Maybe, just maybe, yelling out "Freebird" at a concert that wasn't Lynyrd Skynyrd was funny one time back in 1974. Every since , however, it's been just about the most obnoxious and annoying move in the world. It hasn't been annoying enough to rob the song of its power, though. Originally written by Skynyrd frontman Ronnie Van Zandt as a tribute to the late Duane Allman, the song took on new meaning as Skynyrd went through tragedy after tragedy. Guitarist Gary Rossington is the only original member of the band still in the line-up, and when they close the show with "Freebird" they have a long list of people to dedicate it to.

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9. ‘Black’

Pearl Jam have a lot of songs that bring down the house, but nothing gets the crowd screaming along to every word like "Black." The tale of lost love is one of the group's earliest songs, and the riff dates back to before Eddie Vedder even joined the band. It was one of the earliest lyrics that the frontman wrote when he joined the group, and he has since sung it 450 times.

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8. ‘Let’s Get It On’

Has a hornier song than Marvin Gaye's "Let's Get It On" ever been written? Probably not. Just two years before he cut the song, Gaye released the politically charged LP What's Going On. This time around he was more focused on matters of the heart than the head, but the LP was even more musically inventive than Gaye's previous work. The song hit Number One all over the world, and was a high point in Gaye's hugely successful career.

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7. ‘Wish You Were Here’

Syd Barrett was only in Pink Floyd for a tiny fraction of the band's long career, but his ghost was lingering over them during the group's entire run. Their 1975 LP Wish You Were Here was dedicated to their former leader, and the songs "Shine On Your Crazy Diamond" and "Wish You Were Here" are explicitly about him. This story may sound apocryphal, but photo evidence from the sessions proves the band's story that a deeply confused and drug-addled Barrett stopped by the studio during the making of the album. It was the last time any member of the band saw Barrett. He died in 2006.

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6. ‘Purple Rain’

Prince has had bigger hits than the title track to 1984's Purple Rain, but over the years it's become his most beloved work. Clocking in at nearly nine minutes on the album, Prince cut it down to 4:05 for  radio and saw it climb to Number Two on the Billboard Hot 100. It's been a key part of most of his tours since 1984, and was the highlight of his amazing Super Bowl halftime set in 2006.

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5. ‘Let It Be’

The Beatles were barely functioning as a band when Paul McCartney wrote "Let It Be." It's tempting to speculate that the song is partially a message to his feuding bandmates, but that's most likely a stretch. "It has nothing to do with the Beatles," John Lennon said in 1980. "It could have been 'Wings.' I don't know what he was thinking when he wrote it. I think he was inspired by 'Bridge Over Troubled Water.'" If anything, it was the other way around. McCartney wrote the song a full year before Paul Simon wrote "Bridge Over Troubled Water." Like "Hey Jude," McCartney has played the song at almost every solo concert since he wrote it.

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4. ‘November Rain’

Guns N' Roses didn't release their Elton John-inspired epic "November Rain" until 1991, but by that point Axl Rose had been picking away at the work for at least eight years. Former bandmate Tracii Guns says he remembers Axl working on the piece during their early days together, claiming he didn't have it quite right. The band tried to cut it for 1987's Appetite For Destruction, but they held back until the sessions for Use Your Illusion. The song has proved to be one of their most enduring works, and one of the few tracks from the bloated Use Your Illusion albums that Axl's new incarnation of Guns N' Roses play in their set. They played a powerful version of the song with Elton John at the 1992 MTV Video Music Awards.

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3. ‘Wild Horses’

The Rolling Stones cut "Wild Horses" at Alabama's Muscle Shoals studios during their 1969 American tour. "It almost wrote itself," Keith Richards wrote in his memoir Life. "Once you've got the vision in your mind of wild horses, what's the next phrase you're going to use? It's got to be 'couldn't drag me away.' That's one of the great things about songwriting; it's not an intellectual experience. One might have to apply the brain here and here, but basically it's capturing moments."

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2. ‘Something’

The Beatles only allowed George Harrison to contribute one or two songs per album, but he always made them count. His 1969 love song "Something" has proved to be one of his most enduring works.  "I wrote it at the time when we were making the last double album," Harrison said in 1969. " And it's just the first line, 'Something in the way she moves' which has been in millions of songs. It's not a special thing. But it just seemed quite apt. I usually get the first few lines of lyrics and melody both at once. And then I finish the melody usually first and then I have to write the words…But John gave me a handy tip once, which is, once you start to write the song, try and finish it straight away while you're in the mood. And I've learned from experience. Because you go to back to it and then you're in a whole different state of mind and it's more difficult. Sometimes it's easier but on the whole it's more difficult to come back to something. So I do it now, try and finish them straight away."

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1. ‘Stairway To Heaven’

If the entire genre of Classic Rock had to be reduced to one song it would probably be "Stairway To Heaven." It's been played a squajillion times on the radio since it came out in 1971, and it doesn't show any signs of going away – much to the chagrin of Robert Plant who has repeatedly said that some of the lyrics make him squirm. He's only played it handful of times since Led Zeppelin split in 1980, even refusing to bust it out on Page & Plant's reunion tours in 1995 and 1998. At Led Zeppelin's one-off gig in 2007 he did agree to revive the song, but don't expect the words "bustle in your hedgerow" to ever leave his lips again.

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In This Article: Led Zeppelin

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