The wave of the blue-eyed British soulstress started in the mid-Sixties with Dusty Springfield (the Queen of British soul) and has had two distinct boom periods. The first was in the mid Eighties and went hand in hand with the “New Romantic” MTV period that spawned soul influenced acts like Simply Red, Spandau Ballet and Wham! Worthy successors to the throne of Dusty were found in the likes of Annie Lennox, Tracey Thorn and Alison Moyet. Twenty years after the heyday of those artists, yet another wave of British females was kicked off by the emergence of Joss Stone. The teenager with the big voice was eventually joined by Amy Winehouse, Duffy, and yet another teenager with a voice beyond her years (but a much better idea of how to use it), Adele Adkins.

Adele wasn’t a child prodigy like Joss, and she didn’t have the dramatic tendencies of Wino, so it was unsure to tell where she fit into the landscape. Oh…how about her voice? That voice, combined with lyrics that put American lyricists in the same age range to shame, combined to put together 19, a solid album that sounded nothing like anything on pop radio at the time, but still managed to push nearly a million copies and win Adele the Best New Artist Grammy Award.

It’s actually been three years since 19 was released, so we won’t get into the fact that her second album’s title, 21, is inaccurate. Well, if it’s meant to capture the feelings that Adele had at the time the songs were written, maybe it’s not so inaccurate. Math nerd fail. What is accurate is the fact that 21 is an incredibly seasoned, soulful work, and a triumph of the marriage of art and commerce. Asked by label execs (I’m assuming) to create a more commercial piece of work, she joined forces with several “A”-list lyricists like OneRepublic’s Ryan Tedder and the venerable Dan Wilson (Trip Shakespeare, Semisonic). The result might be a sound slightly more immediate than that on Adele’s debut, but it’s still unmistakably hers. Particularly in Tedder’s case, this is a pretty miraculous achievement. Bottom line-everyone brought their “A” game. 21 is better than I expected, and although we’re only two months into the new year, I can easily see this ranking very high on my Best of 2011 list when it’s published.

Adele’s voice is full and throaty, and she successfully manages to avoid the default behavior for someone with a voice so big: “oversouling”. Where Joss Stone and Adele separate (despite being more or less the same age) is that Joss feels the need to engage in unnecessary vocal pyrotechnics (granted, she does it a lot less now, but still) whereas Adele just sings. The material on 21 has a similar late night feel as on 19, but there are a couple of tunes that add a little tempo to the equation. First single/lead track “Rolling in the Deep” has a more gospel vibe that most of what passes for “gospel” these days, while the sassy “Rumour Has It” sports a girl group/Motown vibe, similar to what Duffy was going for on her first album. ..only way less affected.

Despite the variations in tempo, Adele’s stock-in-trade is still ballads. “Turning Tables”, one of the songs co-written with Tedder, is actually 21’s best track, with a dramatic string arrangement and equally dramatic vocals from Adele. “Don’t You Remember” is another emotionally wrenching ballad, while “Set Fire to the Rain” rumbles with anger. She caps the album off with an excellent, sensitively rendered cover of The Cure’s 1989 classic “Love Song”. This modern rock classic has become something of an unlikely standard these days, and Adele’s spare version is the best cover yet.

It seems unfair to keep comparing Adele to other artists with similar backstories, and it would’ve been totally cool if 21 simply served as a solid placeholder until the next Winehouse release (of course, I can’t help but wonder if there’ll be another Winehouse release). However, 21 is much more than that. It’s a completely enjoyable, fully formed album that deserves to be listened to and appreciated on it’s own merits in addition to forming the latest link in the line of soulful British females.

Grade: A

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