When I was growing up, pretty much the only way to hear your favorite song was via the radio. I didn’t have a lot of disposable income to buy any album I wanted, not even those singles that came out on cassette tape. I remember just listening to the radio in hopes of hearing that one song and stopping everything just to listen to the whole thing or belting it out with friends as we cruised around looking for something to do.
I’m a sucker for sappy songs. From my angsty, emotional teenage years, right up until my last road trip with the family this past week, I pretty much can’t get enough of songs about love, loss, and pain. I tried to make a top ten for my life to share with you, and I had to leave out way too many, but I got it down to 11. This list covers a broad range from childhood up to the present.
Note: If you’re not an Rdio member you’ll only be able to listen to 30 seconds of these clips, which should give you a good enough taste, but do yourself a favor and just buy them. They’re all worth it.
Creep by Radiohead
How could there not be Radiohead on this list? This was probably the first Radiohead song I was exposed to and I was pretty much sold from there on out.
Yellow Ledbetter by Pearl Jam
“Black” was probably Pearl Jam’s biggest ballad at first, but Yellow Ledbetter wasn’t on any album at the time and was a rare find on the airwaves. Many can’t even understand what Eddie’s saying, but it’s soulful all the same and there’s something kind of heartbreaking and hopeful about the guitar riff.
Soul to Squeeze by The Red Hot Chili Peppers
From it’s intricate and melodic guitar opening to Flea’s perfectly placed bass line, coupled with Anthony Kiedis’s poetic stylings, this was something different for the time. Like Yellow Ledbetter, it wasn’t on any “real” album, so it was another rare treasure when you actually had the radio on when it played.
If You Want Me to Stay by Sly & the Family Stone
In high school I really started to get into old school soul, funk, and R&B and this was probably the first ballad from this genre I fell in love with. When the drums kick in and lock into that solid groove, it sails right to the end. Maybe it’s not really a ballad, but it’s definitely a song of love and devotion that’s basically perfection and has stood beyond the test of time. This is my only “classic” on this list, and although there are plenty of classic soul AND rock ballads I love, this one was especially important as it really opened up my eyes to R&B/soul in general, and now I have a secret love for all R&B.
You Got Me by The Roots and Jill Scott
I loved The Roots long before this song became famous, but I’m pretty sure it was one of their first, real hits. And I’m pretty sure it’s their first track that falls under the “ballad” category. A perfect balance of lyrical and edgy, such a great break-up song.
Nothing Even Matters by Lauryn Hill (w/ D’Angelo)
Classic love song. Period. I was a little late to it, but it was one of my all-time favorite songs in college.
The Scientist by Coldplay
Coldplay had blown up after their first album, and on their second album was this gem. It encompassed so much as I had just graduated from college, was finding my place in the world, and it has since been a sort of anthem at various times in my life. I even sing it to the kids at bed time. The stage is set with mostly piano and vocals for the first time through the verse and chorus, and when the bass and drums come in on the second verse, all is complete.
Charlene by Anthony Hamilton
Hearing “Charlene” on the radio was the first time I heard Anthony Hamilton’s amazing voice. I had just moved to Oakland from Santa Cruz and I loved hearing this on early morning rides through the city on my way to work. My wife was pregnant with our first, and it was also the first time I had to travel for work, and this song was something that helped ground me in my hotel room thousands of miles from home. Still does.
I Will Follow You Into the Dark by Death Cab for Cutie
It’s hard to choose just one Death Cab song, but this one pretty much sums up everything a ballad should be. When this first came out, I loved listening to it in the car around sunset, with my wife in the passenger seat and Keana strapped in her car seat, peacefully watching the hills go by.
3 Rounds and a Sound by Blind Pilot
This album pulled on my heart strings from start to finish. This song though, somehow captures the beginning of life with our second child. It was a very hard transition and the sad beauty of this song was such a great soundtrack for that time.
Blue Ocean Floor by Justin Timberlake
And to close this out, something new(ish). I am not a huge Timberlake fan, but this track? Oh man. I’ve always respected his vocal talent, and he lays it out here. Beautiful melody, nicely executed. Great texturing and orchestration. Just a solid, soulful ballad for that late night drive.
Again, I’ve left so many out, but I think this captures a broad range of the ballads that have guided me through love, loss, and life in general. I’d love to hear some of your favorites in the comments below.