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Best Of 2011

Artist of the Year: Adele

by Rachel Devitt

Artist of the Year: Adele

About this playlist

Here at Napster we've spent a lot of time ruminating on all the great music that came out this past year--here's our comprehensive, genre-by-genre guide, in case you missed it. So now there's only one thing left to do: Officially name our 2011 Artist of the Year. Some years this is a tough choice. Not this time.

What did you hear when you turned on the radio in 2011? Sleek, club-friendly production. Wispy, purred vocals. Songs designed for blowing up places, being sexy and knowing it, and dancing 'til the world ends. And of course, beats, beats and more insistent, persistent beats. And we kept hitting repeat-peat-peat-peat-peat on all of it.

And then there was Adele.

Since the January 2011 release of her sophomore album, 21, the preternaturally talented British singer-songwriter has been absolutely everywhere, from the top of the charts (where her smash single "Rolling in the Deep" remained perched for seven weeks) to Glee. Yet she often seemed like an anomaly, an old-soul oasis in a desert of dance-pop that stretched as far as the ear could hear. Amid frenetic booty-shakers stocked with '90s dance music, dubstep and house references, Adele proffered vintage R&B, dusty country grooves and '70s singer-songwriter gold. The frostier every other ice queen got, the more her own lusty, husky hot toddy of a voice alternately warmed and broke us through her gorgeously exposed songs. Even her physical presence, sensual and adamantly earthy, seemed in polar opposition to the otherworldly robo-waifs around her.

So what made us fall so collectively hard for Adele this year? Well, for one major, significant, can't-be-overlooked thing, there's that voice. At once fierce and vulnerable, seductive and introspective, lushly resonant and capable of hushed intimacy, her vocals are imbued with a power and grace most 21-year-old singers (hell, most 40-year-old singers) can't even begin to wrap their vocal cords around. Yet even with all that considerable skill (her lung capacity alone is rather staggering--does she ever breathe during "Someone Like You"?), it's a voice that draws you in, rather than alienating you with melismatic acrobatics and untouchable technical abilities.

In fact, everything about Adele is welcoming, open, accessible. She not only makes us feel like we know her, she makes herself feel knowable. You can't throw a (cursed) engagement ring without hitting a breakup anthem these days--Kelly Clarkson alone practically owns her own genre of kiss-off songs. But where Clarkson, Beyoncé and even Rihanna all eventually wall off some part of themselves, breaking the aural link between our pain and theirs, Adele has mastered the art of at least appearing beguilingly unguarded. Take for instance the one-two punch that opens 21: "Rolling in the Deep" and "Rumour Has It," two tracks that burn with scorned, soul-licking flames, but also bravely straddle that fine line between strength and self-doubt many of us know so well.

"Staged" is an important word to remember with Adele, though. Because while everything about her seems accessible, knowable and real, it's a theatricalized reality. Which doesn't make her less authentic--it just makes her more fabulous. After all, we want our pop stars to stay fabulous, or else what's the point? Her gut-wrenching intimacy and excruciatingly quiet inner pain are sweepingly, dramatically translated into song, creating a kind of spectacle of earnestness not unlike, say, Lady Gaga's earnest spectacularity. In fact, when you get down to it, maybe Adele isn't the polar opposite of the dance-pop divas on the charts, but, rather, the flipside to the same coin. 2011 was a rough year, one fraught the world over with economic difficulties and political struggle, hardship and heartbreak. And everyone dealt with it in her own way: Artists like Katy Perry, LMFAO, Pink, Dev and J.Lo called us to forget our troubles on the floor, helped us drink and party and dance our pain away. But Adele gave all that pain a voice.