No artist owned 2011 quite like Adele, and she's poised to sweep the major awards at the Grammys on Sunday. If she does, she would become the first performer since the Dixie Chicks in 2007 to win awards for album, song and record of the year.
The surest bet is Adele's ubiquitous Rolling in the Deep, a favorite to win in the best song category (for songwriting) and for best record (which honors the performer and producer). Despite massive radio airplay across multiple formats, the song still feels fresh — perhaps because it is so intelligently designed, so understated, so devoid of gimmicks. The British singer's second album, 21, is a less convincing statement, pockmarked with lesser songs, but it's easily the best of a mediocre crop of album-of-the-year nominees.
The awards should cap what has been a stunning leap into stardom for Adele Laurie Blue Adkins, 23. Her 2008 debut, 19, cast her as just another in a wave of British neo-soul singers, a milder version of beehived rabble-rouser Amy Winehouse. 21 put some rhythmic drive into her folk-pop sound and was anchored by a handful of indelible tracks; the ballad Someone Like You was nearly as beloved as Rolling in the Deep.
The latter cut through some heavy competition on the charts — buzzing, hard-hitting singles from Nicki Minaj, Britney Spears, Rihanna, Katy Perry and Lady Gaga, among others — to dominate like few songs have done. It became the year's top seller (5.8 million), and 21 outpaced every album, also selling 5.8 million units and reigning atop the chart longer than any album since the Titanic soundtrack in 1998.
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Besides her commercial successes, Adele was a critical favorite, with two songs ranked inside the top 10 and 21 placing at No. 6 in the Village Voice's annual Pazz and Jop poll of the nation's critics.
Artistic integrity combined with savvy pop production has a way of building such rare consensus and knocking down genre and demographic boundaries. Adele co-writes all her music, plays guitar and sings in a voice soaked in gospel ecstasy and blues ache. For all the potential melodrama in her songs — many are about wrenching breakups — she rarely overemotes or oversings. She's not about vocal gymnastics, but straightforward storytelling.
Her no-nonsense approach is matched by Paul Epworth's production on Rolling in the Deep, in which little more than a thumping kick drum, a percussive piano and a guitar push the song toward a hand-clapping breakdown, with a choir testifying in the background. It's a great moment, but it's not ecstatic or celebratory in the traditional sense of most gospel-rooted gestures. Instead, it conveys resolve. Adele acknowledges regret without once suggesting that she's about to break down. Sadness, yes. Sentimentality, no. She sees the world for what it is, unflinchingly, a certain determination powering her voice and allowing her narrator to move on past the pain. The song sounds like the work of an empowered adult confiding in her peers.
Next to the perfection of Rolling in the Deep, 21 is lacking. It's an erratic album that would've had some serious competition from Kanye West's excellent My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy had it been nominated (it was released in 2010 but fell within the Grammys' 2012 eligibility period). Despite getting seven nominations, West was shut out of the top categories, including best album; even his less accomplished but more commercially successful collaboration with Jay-Z, Watch the Throne, missed the cut. It would've represented the only serious threat to what's shaping up as an Adele coronation.
The singer is scheduled to give her first public performance at the Grammys since undergoing treatment for vocal cord trauma five months ago. She's likely to perform Rolling in the Deep, and if she does, she might have to reconsider the line "We could have had it all." At the end of the night, she just might.