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Adele – 21

  • Release date: 24 December 2011
  • Label: XL, Columbia
  • Catalog #: 1092

In 2015, Adele had been all over the place for years. She published her debut album at age 19, two years after completing the prestigious BRIT School, and was signed to the British label XL at age 18 as a result of a single her buddy uploaded to MySpace that attracted attention. It achieved triple platinum status in the US and sparked widespread adulation that bordered on mania. She sulked on the Vogue cover, sung on Saturday Night Live, won the Grammys, and provided the music for James Bond films.

Adele never appeared to envision herself as the stereotypical pop star; in interviews, she was giddy and crude and frequently used what critics and fans referred to as a “cackle.” She refused to make her 2015 album, 25, available on streaming sites, one of the few pop supremacy pronouncements made back then by singers like Beyoncé and Taylor Swift. The bet paid off: Sales of her physical recordings were so strong that some believed Adele may have single-handedly saved the industry.

While Adele’s debut album brought her widespread recognition, her follow-up, 21 from 2011, propelled her into the Guinness Book of World Records; 21 is said to be the female solo artist’s longest-running No. 1 album in the annals of the U.S. and UK charts. Her reputation as a musician who could create once-in-a-generation landmarks with her music was established by the album. The album 21 is full of enormous songs that are graceful and shimmering and that bend but never shatter under the weight of Adele’s voice, which has an operatic quality similar to that of Amy Winehouse. Before a concert on the day that would have been Amy Winehouse’s 33rd birthday, Adele said that Winehouse was responsible for “90%” of her career.

Aside from the vocal similarities to Amy Winehouse—the gritty, growling voice that could extend into enormous belted notes, frequently over jazzy piano—Adele struck me as a pop artist who had been thrust out of her social or historical context. Adele claimed that while writing the record, she looked to country music as she mingled soul, pop, and jazz. She used to look up to Etta James. Her performance of “Lovesong” on 21 quivers and crawls, hovers above a scratch, one of the album’s more sombre pieces, was recorded during the Cure concert she attended with her mother for the first time. Beyoncé praised her by saying, “She takes you to places other artists don’t go to anymore—the way they did in the 70s.” Adele purposely created her songs to be timeless.

Although 21 isn’t really a concept album, the songs on it were written by Adele when she was that age and are centred on the end of what she would call a “rubbish relationship.” Over the course of three months, she penned 21; typically while inebriated. “I was completely off my face writing that album,” she recalled to Vanity Fair, “and a drunk tongue is an honest one.” While penning the lyrics, she would consume two bottles of wine and chain smoke. Later, she would review what she had originally written. It left her emotionally damaged. A few years later, she admitted to The New York Times, “How I felt when I wrote 21, I wouldn’t want to feel again. I was wretched, I was lonely and I was depressed.

These songs may have a melodramatic undertone, but that’s only because there are such huge stakes involved. She begins by singing in absolutes before rushing to add the nuances. The lyrics “I was over/Until you kissed my lips, and you saved me” are all-or-nothing, and Adele wrote “Set Fire to the Rain” to be a camp anthem for a queer audience, but its sonic surcharge and all-or-nothing lyrics are at home on the album, tucked between titanic high notes that roar over cinematic piano and pleas about love dying. The weight of all these grandiose melodies piled on top of one another can make listening to the entire album in one sitting feel a little exhausting. Adele wants to disarm you, but you’re left grasping at the wisps of synthesisers that occasionally mark the end of a ballad.

Adele understood that 21 would follow her throughout the remainder of her career. My concern was, she said, “How do I follow up 21.” “But I’m unable to, as it had such a significant impact on so many people’s lives. I’ll never be able to match that again. She observes as others try on the persona of Adele in the BBC experiment video. She plays apprehensive, even saying, “I’m going to be sick,” maybe alluding to her past experiences with stage fright. But when it’s her turn to sing, it takes the row of impersonators only a split second to realise who she is. They make cartoonish mouth flopping motions while touching each other’s arms. They participate and sing her.

Stream Adele’s 21 and let us know what you think

Adele’s 21 Tracklist

  1. Rolling In The Deep
  2. Rumour Has It
  3. Turning Tables
  4. Don’t You Remember
  5. Set Fire To The Rain
  6. He Won’t Go
  7. Take It All
  8. I’ll Be Waiting
  9. One And Only
  10. Lovesong
  11. Someone Like You
  12. I Found A Boy
  13. If It Hadn’t Been For Love
  14. Hiding My Heart
  15. Need You Now