Shape of You: Ten songs that showcase the musical evolution of Ed Sheeran

The year marks the 10-year anniversary of the British singer's debut single ‘The A Team’

BUDAPEST, HUNGARY - AUGUST 07:  Ed Sheeran performs on stage at Sziget Festival on  (Photo by Didier Messens/Redferns)
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Happy birthday Ed Sheeran.

As the singer celebrates his 30th birthday on February 17, his fans worldwide will surely mark the occasion by spinning their favourite tracks from the British singer-songwriter.

This year also marks the 10-year anniversary of Sheeran's recording career. His debut single The A Team was released in June 2011.

To say he has fulfilled his promise is an understatement. The proceeding years saw him evolve from shy artist to a quietly confident superstar who commanded stadiums around the world – while managing to maintain a steady head and sense of humour through it all.

As he told The National in a backstage interview after his sold-out show at Dubai's Autism Rocks Arena in 2017, it was the only way to guard against the pitfalls of celebrity.

“[I don’t want to be] dragged into that sort of world of being uptight,” he said. “I don’t ever want to think of this as a reality, as I am very fortunate to be able to do this.”

With four albums released that have sold more than a staggering 150 million copies, Sheeran's body of work comprises mostly heartfelt folk tunes and balladry, as well as the occasional dalliance with hip-hop and club sounds.

Here are 10 songs that sum up why he has become one of the most successful artists.

1. ‘The A Team’ (2011)

His debut single didn't exactly make a splash, but The A Team gave us an insight into Sheeran's intimate folk-pop style that would go on to take over stadiums.

The gently strummed guitar and Sheeran's smooth croon only accentuates the gritty lyrics featuring characters living on the margins of society.

2. ‘Lego House’ (2011)

While Sheeran's socially conscious songs can be clunky, his love songs always find him at his most genuine.

Lego House introduced us to his tender streak. Over a beguiling arrangement, Sheeran uses the toy as a metaphor for a seasoned relationship: "I'm gonna pick up the pieces and build a Lego house. When things go wrong we can knock it down."

3. ‘You Need Me, I Don’t Need You (2011)

This song is where Sheeran shows us he is a fan of hip-hop. While he celebrates the art form in interviews, the passion for the genre was first displayed in this wordy and bopping track. Over an acoustic strummed hip-hop beat, Sheeran is all metaphors and similes as he tries to woo someone with his brash demeanour. While he is too much of a nice guy for that, you can't deny the skills.

4. ‘Thinking Out Loud’ (2014)

While his rapping is all fun and games, Sheeran knows romantic serenades are his bread and butter. Thinking Out Loud remains the best of his love songs. It is a beautiful and understated soul ballad with swooning lyrics about a couple doing what it takes to be together.

“I'm thinking 'bout how people fall in love in mysterious ways,” he muses. “Maybe it's all part of a plan. I'll just keep on making the same mistakes, hoping that you'll understand.”

5. ‘Sing’

A collaboration with producer Pharrell Williams, this is probably the only Sheeran song you can play in a club.

The track seamlessly blends both their styles, with Sheeran bringing the folk and sentimentality and Williams supplying irresistible beats and an anthemic chorus. They should just collaborate on a full album together.

6. ‘Photograph’ (2015)

While sounding comfortable in love, Sheeran knows life isn't all bright and rosy. With lyrics surely to resonate with fans across the region, Photograph looks at the anxiety and heartache that comes with long distance relationships.

Except for the digitally programmed drums, the song has an organic feel with piano, guitars and lush strings.

7. ‘Shape of You (2017)

The fact this song is not one of his best but went on to top charts worldwide anyway just shows the power of his momentum.

That said, Sheeran managed to cleverly construct a song out of seemingly ringtone sounds and a blue-eyed soul chorus just on the right side of catchy.

8. ‘Castle on the Hill’ (2017)

A song fit for stadiums. With rippling riffs that channel U2, and open-hearted vocals recalling Mumford & Sons and Snow Patrol, this is Sheeran's biggest song in terms of sound.

That grandeur is matched by lyrics of open fields and "driving at 90 down those country lanes singing to Tiny Dancer."

9. ‘Even My Dad Does Sometimes' (2017)

If you skip past the singles and dig deeper into Sheeran’s albums, you will find some underrated gems.

This powerful track from has Sheeran accompanied by a plaintive piano while encouraging men to lean into their feelings. "It's all right to say that death's the only thing you haven't tried," he says. "But just for today, hold on."

10. ‘Afterglow’ (2020)

Released as a surprise last December, during his self-imposed social media blackout, Sheeran's latest track is a love letter in the era of isolation.

Addressing the partner he is cooped up with, he reminds her, and us, to appreciate life tender little moments: "Saturday morning is fading. The sun’s reflected by the coffee in your hand," he says. "I will hold on to the afterglow"