#40. Adele: 25
It only took a week for 25 to become the album heard ‘round the world. Adele’s third project quickly became the best selling album of 2015, despite not being released until November 20th. It broke the previous record for most albums sold in one week by more than a million units, and became the first album to ever sell three million copies in one week (the final first-week number was 3.38 million). Even more impressive, she surpassed the previous record-holders for most opening week sales—*NSYNC for their album No Strings Attached—in just three days. In fact, 25 was breaking records before it was even released. When debut single “Hello” came out it became the first single to sell more than a million copies in a single week. “Hello” even recently became the quickest song to reach one billion views on YouTube (putting the final nail in Psy’s coffin of irrelevancy).
25 saw such groundbreaking success because Adele has discovered the sweet spot at the intersection of innate talent, universal charisma, and easy listening. There’s no denying that she’s a vocal powerhouse. She has a wide vocal range, a strong grasp on dynamic contrast, and an impressive intuition for how to shape her timbre and articulation. She also possesses a charm that knows very few demographic boundaries—something that sets her apart from contemporaries like Taylor Swift and Beyonce. But what makes 25 such a bestseller is its universal accessibility.
In some ways Adele is the Steven Spielberg of the music industry, and 25 is her biggest blockbuster yet. Undeniably talented, she makes hits that are strategically catered towards the masses, and prefers tried and true tropes and techniques to unnecessary risk-taking and artistic experimentation. She knows what has sold in the past, and knows how to repackage it for global audiences. Just as many of the largest blockbusters of 2015 were sequels, reboots, and remakes, much of 25 builds strongly on previously successful songs. For example, the harmonic and melodic framework of “Million Years Ago” borrows heavily from hit songs like Train’s “50 Ways to Say Goodbye” and the theme from The Phantom of the Opera.
25 also employs some impressive musical sleight of hand that’s designed to bedazzle listeners. A perfect example is the gospel ballad “When We Were Young.” The triumphant high note Adele hits as the track reaches its final chorus blew many fans and critics away (it takes place just after the 3:50 mark, if you're listening along below). In reality, this note isn’t very high for Adele; she reaches one that's much higher on “Hello,” although it received much less critical fanfare. That’s because “When We Were Young” uses forced perspective to wow listeners. Adele and cowriter Tobias Jesso Jr. cleverly frame the entire track in a lower register, and use the song’s chorus to establish a specific note as the song’s unofficial “vocal ceiling.” Adele avoids any vocal embellishments that would reach higher than this ceiling—as a result, it's subconsciously hammered home as the upper extent of her range within the song. When she suddenly leaps above this ceiling to the song’s climactic high note, she creates the illusion of majestically holding a note that’s wildly above her vocal range, even though she can easily sing higher than this. And while this may seem duplicitous, it's without a doubt fair game, and doesn't mean Adele is any less talented. On the contrary, she not only has a killer voice, but she and her team have a nearly unsurpassed knack for how to captivate audiences on a global scale. 25 is the new textbook for how to turn a pop album into a global phenomenon.