When she released her debut album 19 in 2009, Adele established herself as one of pop’s best new voices, delivering torchy, soul-steeped tunes that appealed to both suburban moms turned off by Amy Winehouse‘s outsized, afoul-of-the-law persona and heartbroken teenage girls who repurposed her uplifting lyrics for Facebook status updates.
Adele’s global success should’ve resulted in a second album about coping with the pratfalls of success. Instead, the girl sounds like she’s been through hell and more heartbreak – and lived to tell about it. But what a boon for her music: 21 is one of the most tuneful pop records of the year, and while the 22-year-old has said in interviews that she found inspiration in contemporary Nashville pop, 21 borrows liberally from every great American music tradition, from Motown and Tin Pan Alley to ’70s AM Gold and R&B.
21‘s best tracks find Adele coping with broken relationships and the damaged psyches of dudes who’ve done her wrong. Lead single “Rolling in the Deep” plays like the catchiest girl-group tune the Supremes never recorded, with Adele vowing revenge – “There’s a fire starting in my heart/ Reaching a fever pitch, and it’s bringing me out the dark” – over thunderous handclaps, thudding pianos and gospel backing vocals. “I’ll Be Waiting” is even hotter: Adele makes her finest Dusty in Memphis soul moves over sexed-up horn stabs and a choogling piano-drum-bass groove.
Adele hired a host of producers to helpthe album, among them Rick Rubin, OneRepublic’s Ryan Tedder and Paul Epworth, and 21 occasionally suffers from too many cooks in the studio. (The Tedder-produced, string-soaked ballad “Turning Tables” sounds like a second-rate version of her breakout single “Chasing Pavements,” while “Don’t You Remember” hews too closely to the Whitney Houston playbook: mournful verse, big chorus, bigger bridge…aaaaand key change!) But Adele’s booming, gale-force pipes and her convincing tales of heartbreak make 21 such a pleasurable listen. Is it mean to hope she never finds a guy who treats her right?