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If you define "artist of 2011" as "artist who's experienced the most newfound success in 2011," no one has a better claim to the title than Adele. Last year, she was best known as one of the seemingly endless British artists riding the post-Amy Winehouse retro craze, wearing their soul influences like costumes. This year, thanks to a certain album called 21 and a certain few songs called "Rolling in the Deep" and "Someone Like You," both of which occupied their respective charts for weeks, Adele became something much more: the standard-bearer for vocal virtuosity, simplicity in arrangements and emotional catharsis. Who else could top the charts with only a voice and piano line, or consistently stun crowds without spectacle? Before, Adele was the next _____; now, everyone wants to be the next Adele. That's a mighty big accomplishment for one mere year.
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January 1: "Rolling In The Deep" Rolls Over The Charts
Technically speaking, Adele's "Rolling in the Deep" is a 2010 song; it was released in November of that year and cracked the U.S. charts on Christmas. These are technicalities. Just crunching the numbers proves how much "Rolling in the Deep" is of 2011; reached No. 1 in May and stayed there for seven weeks, dethroned only by party rock, and has sold more than 5 million copies to date. But beyond that, the song's become a cultural touchstone: a type-A breakup song that relies on vocal heft and rhythm, not a bombastic arrangement (the track's actually quite stripped-down), with a chorus ("we could have had it all!) that's a burst of immediate catharsis. No wonder "Rolling in the Deep" became an instant staple on singing competitions--always in need of tracks built for big voices--and was covered by seemingly every musician active this year (more on those later). The song's just that big, and like a snowball, the further it rolls on, the bigger it gets.
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February 15: BRIT Awards Devastation
As massive as "Rolling in the Deep" was, it wasn't her true breakout moment. That belonged to her other big song, "Someone Like You," which she performed at the BRIT Awards--one of the U.K.'s main pop award ceremonies--in February. Maybe her performance sounds less wrenching in retrospect--she's delivered more just as good, and certainly enough people have cried to the song since--but at the time, her spare and stunning rendition, its last few seconds delivering as much emotional weight as anything before with good reason. In just a few minutes, millions of people started to think that just maybe there was something else there.
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April 15: Rolling In The "Stone"
Being on the cover of Rolling Stone might not be quite as big a deal as it used to be, thanks to certain Gossip Girls and residents of the Jersey Shore, but it's still a pretty big deal. That honor went to Adele for the magazine's April 15 issue, inside which she opened up about her music (lots of craft), her ex (lots of drama, which will come up later) and her place in the industry (lots ahead.) "I don't make music for eyes, I make music for ears," she said--not a bad way to sum up her year to come.
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May 10: Adele's Ex Tries To Cash In
Who is this mysterious ex, anyway? It's the best-kept secret in pop music, an identity guarded as much as any given Witness Protection recipient. Anyway, whoever he is, he feels a little ripped off by Adele's success. Specifically, he thinks that because he was enough of a raging cad to inspire 21, that constitutes helping out with the songwriting. "He really thought he'd had some input into the creative process by being a p****. I'll give him this credit--he made me an adult and put me on the road that I'm traveling," Adele told British paper The Sun. Needless to say, Adele's ex has not received any royalties from either 19 or 21--nor will he, probably, considering they've made up. If only all lawsuits were this conciliatory.
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June 3: Tour Cancellations, Part One
For someone whose career is largely based on a voice that can be described as that voice, awed italics intact, laryngitis is a bit of a liability. So it was for Adele, who had to cancel first five shows, then her North American tour, on doctor's orders. Sadly, it wouldn't be the first time this happened.
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July 7: Wins The Day With Bonnie Raitt
Bonnie Raitt's "I Can't Make You Love Me" is one of the most heartbreaking songs of its kind, often imitated but seldom with as much subtlety. Adele, who performed the cover live at the iTunes Festival and who (as we've seen) knows a bit about heartbreak, agrees. "I think it's just perfect in every single way," she said, and the reverence can only have helped her take.
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July 14: Gets Endorsed By Patti Smith
If we made a slide for every cover of "Rolling in the Deep," this thing would be at least fifty pages long. We'd have to get pages up for all of the following and more: former Pussycat Doll / ostensible solo star / X Factor judge Nicole Scherzinger, child star Tajh Mowry, the Air Force, country group Little Big Town, Linkin Park, John Legend, Glee, et cetera, ad infinitum. That said, when music veteran Patti Smith not only covers your song--in this case at a Castle Clinton performance--but says "Adele--she's great!," you've done something thousands would faint at even considering. Something a lot like having it all.
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July 19: Shortlisted For The Mercury Prize
The Mercury Prize, in case you're unfamiliar (Adele's British; there's going to be a lot of British institutions in this slideshow), is awarded to the best album from the U.K. and Ireland. The shortlist of nominees usually ranges from the obscure to the omnipresent. No prize for guessing where Adele falls on that spectrum. She didn't win--that honor went to PJ Harvey, who to be fair has more than a decade of cred on Adele so far, not to mention a fantastic 2011 album. But nobody else in the industry could have been deemed as much of a front-runner. (Keep that in mind; it'll come up later.)
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August 28: Stuns The VMAs
Given all the critical and commercial fawning over Adele's 21--and there's only going to be more as we go on--it's a bit astonishing that while Adele was nominated for seven VMAs, behind Katy Perry's 10 and tied with Kanye West, she only won three, all in technical categories like Best Art Direction. Sure, you probably don't remember "Rolling in the Deep"'s video (it's got broken glass, and Adele sings a lot) as much as the song, but it's still a surprising figure. Good thing Adele stole the show anyway with (again), "Someone Like You," unadorned and near-perfect. And these are the same VMAs, remember, that contained Beyonce's pregnancy announcement, an extended Jo Calderone monologue and various antics by shufflebots. All Adele needed was her voice.
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September 23: Sells 10 Million
Ask some people--preferably those who get starry-eyed about clear voices and "authenticity"--and they'll tell you that Adele is saving the music industry. This is a slight exaggeration--digital sales are as much to blame--but it's not for lack of Adele sales. In September, 21 broke 10 million sales--an astonishing number even if buying albums wasn't seen as passe. Later, the album would spend the most time since the gilded '90s atop the Billboard 200 album chart, and all this isn't counting the various records and plaudits that "Rolling in the Deep" and, later, "Someone Like You" earned. Would it be too harsh to ask what you've accomplished this year?
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October 4: Tour Cancellations, Part 2
You can sing your way through heartbreak, but you can't sing your way through vocal problems--that only makes them worse. In October, Adele was forced to cancel her U.S. tour again after what turned out to be a vocal cord hemorrhage that required throat surgery. As she wrote on her blog: "if i continue to pick up everything before i have properly conquered these problems and nipped them in the bud. i will be totally and utterly fucked. singing is literally my life, its my hobbie, my love, my freedom and now my job. I have absolutely no choice but to recuperate properly and fully, or i risk damaging my voice forever." There are a few bright sides, at least--she got that surgery and says she's fine now and will be able to sing come February and the Grammys, and the fact that so many people were so upset just proves how much she's meant to people during such a sudden career surge.
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October 14: Wale And Childish Gambino? Sure, Why Not
Here's a weird-but-overlooked thing about 2011: it's a year in which Adele joined Wale and Childish Gambino--aka Community actor Donald Glover--in a mashup group called The Gangbang. Or boiling that down to the weird part, it's a year in which paragon of restraint Adele was involved in something called The Gangbang. Does it surprise you, though, that Adele makes a pretty good hook singer? It shouldn't. The task, after all, involves singing.
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Nov. 9: Gets In On The Live DVD Game
As you've gathered from the past few slides, this wasn't the most fortunate year for fans wanting to see Adele sing live--or for Adele of course. Fortunately--like Lady Gaga and Beyonce before her--she announced a DVD, Live at the Royal Albert Hall, a recording of a September concert in London that got a trailer in early November and was released at the end of the month. We've watched it, and it's pretty great--the singing's on point, of course, but it's also where Adele gets to show off some, for lack of a better phrase, diva-ing out. There's this one particular laugh we'd describe, but you should hear it for yourself.
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Nov. 15: A-OK After Throat Surgery
Let's be clear here: even though Adele said she's OK, that means Adele said she'd be OK after vocal rest (i.e. as little talking as possible, let alone singing any big choruses) and really strict maintenance. Nevertheless, it's still nice to be able to quote Adele on something hopeful. Like this: "I'm doing really well, on the mend, super happy, relaxed and very positive with it all. The operation was a success and I'm just chilling out now until I get the all clear from my doctors. " Chilling out is good, right?
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Nov. 10: Mashed Up By "Glee"
Of course Glee was going to do a "Rolling in the Deep" cover--not doing so would've been a ridiculous oversight. It'd be a less ridiculous oversight not to do "Someone Like You," and it'd be an oversight to us not to at least acknowledge the sassy, shoulda-been-a-single "Rumour Has It." Thanks to the Troubletones, a.k.a. Santana and Mercedes, no oversights were had. Hooray!
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Dec. 1: She's Basically Already Swept The Grammys, OK?
OK, so Adele didn't get nominated for the most Grammys of anyone--that would be Kanye West, with seven nominations to Adele's six. But just look at the surrounding chatter (the Grammys are always surrounded by chatter; it's music critics' sport of choice.) There are three opinions that recur almost every time. One involves Skrillex and is irrelevant here. One speculates endlessly at how Kanye really got snubbed, failing to earn an Album of the Year nomination for an album (My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy) that was definitely intended as Of-The-Year. The last is about how Adele will probably win everything, because she probably will. That picture you see? It's more like a prophesy.
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Dec. 5: Takes Over Twitter, Finally
During December, lots of people take stock of their lives. Out with the old, in with the new. Out with the old, PR-staffed Twitter accounts that post bland updates about Adele's career; in with Adele tweeting herself, showing the personality she's always shown in interviews and in concert, and posing like Beyonce. See? You can be accomplished and totally awesome!
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December: The Awards Come Rushing In
For our No. 2 artist of the year, we should probably end our recap with a high note. But which to choose? That time Adele scored the most downloaded song and album on iTunes? The time "Rolling in the Deep" became Billboard's No. 1 song? The time Adele was crowned their No. 1 artist of the year? The umpteen times that publications, lists and fans everywhere will bestow praise upon 21 and its singles for their year-end lists? It's impossible to choose one, because it'd miss the point. Adele's year has been all about cultural dominance, something not even vocal problems or a planned break between albums can undermine. (And for 2012? "Rumour Has It" isn't a single yet. Ahem.) It's probably obvious to end with this, but it's also the only sentence that makes sense: in 2011, Adele truly had it all.