Billboard is celebrating the 2010s with essays on the 100 songs that we feel most define the decade that was — the songs that both shaped and reflected the music and culture of the period — with help telling their stories from some of the artists, behind-the-scenes collaborators and industry insiders involved.
Ed Sheeran kicked off his sophomore album x with back-to back upbeat singles, a sharp, Pharrell-produced acoustic jam titled “Sing” and a punchy bass-driven cheating song titled “Don’t.” While both became top 15 hits on the Billboard Hot 100, it was x‘s third single — a ballroom-ready, swoon-worthy ballad called “Thinking Out Loud” — that launched the British singer-songwriter to becoming the record-setting superstar he is today.
Ironically, the song wasn’t meant to be part of x, or frankly, a song at all. Sheeran and his longtime co-writer Amy Wadge got together for a friendly visit in early 2014, but naturally, a song resulted from their hang. And when Sheeran excitedly brought it to his team at Atlantic Records in the U.K. just two weeks before they were shipping x, it was clear “Thinking Out Loud” was something special — and a necessary addition.
“I remember thinking there was a maturity and more of a growl in his voice,” recalls Ed Howard, Sheeran’s A&R rep at Asylum/Atlantic. “That was on all the tracks on x, but that was the first time he used that grittiness and earthiness really effectively. It opened up a whole other layer of possibility for what the album could be.”
Before “Thinking Out Loud” was officially pushed as a single in September 2014, it was already clear that Sheeran had built a strong fan base. x debuted at No. 1 on the Billboard 200 following its June release, and Sheeran was selling out arenas around North America. But it was also immediately clear that “Thinking Out Loud” had a different kind of power: Not only was the song over-indexing on streaming platforms, but it quickly became a proposal moment at Sheeran’s shows. And once Sheeran delivered a ballroom dance routine in the song’s stunning video — which now has more than 2.8 billion views — “Thinking Out Loud” became a pinnacle in his career.
“This was the song that broadened his appeal and his fan base,” Elektra Music Group co-president Gregg Nadel, who has overseen each of Sheeran’s album marketing campaigns, says of “Thinking Out Loud.” “He’s a singer-songwriter, and these types of songs [are] the heart of what he does. The first record [appealed to] a younger demo. With ‘Thinking Out Loud,’ you started to see everyone coming to shows — parents and their kids.”
The explosion of “Thinking Out Loud” came on the heels of John Legend’s piano-driven love ballad “All Of Me,” which spent three weeks at No. 1 on the Hot 100 in May 2014. Though “Thinking” peaked at No. 2, its worldwide success served as proof that old-fashioned love songs still had massive commercial potential as streaming began to boom.
The song also solidified Sheeran’s place as one of the decade’s most beloved balladeers. His falsetto-heavy x track “Photograph” became a single in May 2015, reaching No. 10 on the Hot 100; in 2017, he released his third album, ÷, whose waltzing ballad “Perfect” would become Sheeran’s second No. 1 (after lead single “Shape Of You” topped the chart in January of that year). “It became clear that those were the songs that all around the world hung around the longest, and connected audiences to Ed in the strongest way,” Howard says.
“Thinking Out Loud” went on to win Sheeran his first two Grammys — including the coveted song of the year honor — in 2016, which added another layer to the song’s impact on the singer’s career. But while the Grammy wins were pivotal in Sheeran being taken more seriously by the industry, the track faced legal trouble six months later, when the family of Marvin Gaye’s “Let’s Get It On” co-writer Ed Townsend pursued legal action for lifting the melody, harmony and rhythm from the track for his “Thinking Out Loud.” The trial is still ongoing but currently delayed, and isn’t the only plagiarism issue Sheeran has faced in the past few years, as “Shape Of You” drew comparisons to TLC’s “No Scrubs” — though in that instance, Sheeran was quick to credit “No Scrubs” co-writers Kandi Burruss, Tameka “Tiny” Cottle, and Kevin “She’kspere” Briggs to avoid further legal action.
The “Let’s Get It On” litigation hasn’t put a damper on the impact of “Thinking Out Loud” or Sheeran’s subsequent superstardom, though: He has since landed two more No. 1 albums with ÷ and No.6 Collaborations Project, notched two more Grammy wins, and broke the record for the highest-grossing tour of all time with the ÷ Tour. Sheeran has asserted “Perfect” is better than “Thinking Out Loud,” but his original wedding-ready track is still the song sparking proposals at his shows, and will always be the hit that made Sheeran a household name.
“There’s nobody that can’t appreciate that song on some level,” Howard says. “From like, my parents, down to kids, all sorts of artists, and people who come from different walks of life and musical walks of life. It touched everybody.”