An Adele album release is a global event, a unifying moment in an entertainment world that has long ago stopped functioning as a monoculture. Blockbuster album sales and smash singles occur every few years, when the British superstar leaves her creative cocoon and graces us with her presence; her top 40 sensibility is reliable, her vocal brilliance is undeniable, and the way she shrugs off genre trends and increased expectations of artistic output in the streaming era makes her a singular figure in the pop stratosphere.
So what happens when an artist whose name has become shorthand for universal adoration releases a project that documents private turmoil? 30, Adele’s long-awaited fourth studio album, is a snapshot of a woman reckoning with the complex feelings brought on by a divorce and its effect on her young son, under the most intense of social microscopes. It’s also the sound of a timeless artist transforming her struggles into vital art, as she looks toward different personal and professional directions without betraying the personality and technical power that made her a towering figure in modern music.
Although risks are taken with her sound — 30 includes some of the most dizzying uptempo songs of Adele’s career — they are bypassed by her commitment to lyrical honesty. Adele’s new album was always going to be one of the most notable events in music this year, but a blockbuster release is rarely this emotionally affecting.
Although every song on Adele’s new album is worth diving into headfirst, we already have a few favorite. Here is our humble opinion of the best songs on Adele’s 30:
12. Strangers By Nature
Although the opening line of the album, “I’ll be taking flowers to the cemetery of my heart,” nods to the post-divorce project that follows, the lynchpin line is of the sweeping “Strangers By Nature” comes later, with “No one knows what it’s like to be us.” With a grand string arrangement and dreamy production, Adele gives us a window in the intimate problems of a timeless star, and offers a sorrowful melisma once the strings drop away.
11. My Little Love
Voices echo like ghosts on “My Little Love,” before the aching humanity of Adele and her son, Angelo, is captured via voice notes that are placed within the song and then comprise its outro. The effect is painfully intimate: amidst the stream-of-consciousness guilt and reckoning with the repercussions of an uncoupling, Adele answers her son’s questions about her feelings, then addresses herself while choking back tears. “My Little Love” can feel claustrophobic as a confession, but Adele has never been bolder in her song construction.
10. Woman Like Me
Almost every divorce film includes a shouting match, the unsettling documentation of why two characters are like oil and water. On 30, that scene is “Woman Like Me,” which finds Adele at her most furious and spiteful as she lashes out at her man’s complacency and whiny disposition. Her words sting, thanks in part to the lack of production flourishes: the song begins with sorrowful finger-picking, but ends with Adele calling back the chorus to hammer home the fact that she’s done with lowered expectations.
9. Hold On
The comedown from the fight on “Woman Like Me,” “Hold On” finds Adele exhausted in her self-defeat – “I swear to God, I am such a mess” is how the second verse begins. Yet she picks herself up, thanks to encouraging piano stabs and a choir that’s credited to “Adele’s crazy friends” in the liner notes; she transforms loneliness into solitary peace, sustains herself with gradual self-belief, and nails the big flare-up in the finale.
8. All Night Parking (with Erroll Garner) Interlude
Compact and subtly gorgeous, “All Night Parking” lets Adele supply her own call-and-response vocals as late jazz legend Erroll Garner’s piano serves as a backbone. Within an album of breakup and post-breakup songs, “All Night Parking” provides Adele an opportunity to let her hair down and sink into an exciting new prospect, even from afar — the trumpet here serves as a nod back from a long-distance beau.
7. Cry Your Heart Out
Following “My Little Love” and its real-life tears, Adele gives us an abrupt transition into cheer-up mode on “Cry Your Heart Out,” which pushes forward with a Greek chorus of encouragement behind her and a doo-wop shrug toward the unknown. “I created this storm / It’s only fair I have to sit in its rain,” Adele sings amidst playful vocal runs, piano sprinkles and bongo slaps.
6. Easy On Me
The woeful crooning on “Strangers By Nature” leads beautifully into the widescreen plea for understanding on “Easy On Me,” the smash first single from 30 that’s fully unlocked in the context of the album. Positioning the song as the second track here allows Adele to prepare the listener for the emotional devastation that follows — there will be raw feelings after this radio-ready piano ballad, and she wants her audience to be gentle with them.
5. Oh My God
As Adele seeks the opulence of adult temptation on “Oh My God,” the slinky production stomps into a siren call, with voices beckoning her toward satisfaction at the song’s conclusion. The Greg Kurstin-helmed track boasts the album’s most full-bodied production, with claps, organ, keys and rumbling bass supporting Adele’s journey “teetering on the edge of heaven and hell.”
4. Love Is A Game
“Love Is A Game” provides a fitting closing statement on Adele’s owned flaws and open heart, with the string arrangement here harkening back to the beginning of the album, the Wurlitzer providing some sonic depth and the ballad morphing into a roof-rattling anthem when the percussion kicks in. Consider “Love Is A Game” the album’s post-credits sequence, a fond farewell following the narrative resolution that fans should embrace.
3. I Drink Wine
When Adele talks about making music for listeners in their thirties and forties, she’s probably thinking about a song like “I Drink Wine” — although the mid-album highlight isn’t just an ode to fancy imbibing. Somewhat jaded, slightly bitter, but mostly realistic about her age and perspective, Adele reflects on how her priorities have changed as the soon-to-be karaoke bar favorite glides along with an arrangement that, ironically, would have sounded at home on 21.
2. Can I Get It
The first time Adele linked up with Max Martin and Shellback, the result was “Send My Love (To Your New Lover),” one of 25’s more uptempo (if understated) pop moments that served as a slinky kiss-off. Now, Adele has translated that hit-making dynamic into something more flirtatious and undeniably fun: “Can I Get It” is a sophisticated sex jam with a three-chord riff and a whistle hook, and it works on every level. As Adele expresses a need for fulfillment, the drums kick in a for an unfiltered pop-rock blast, and 30 boasts a song with even more radio potential than “Easy On Me.”
1. To Be Loved
Piano and vocals — those are the two sounds on “To Be Loved,” and they are all that are needed to produce the most masterful moment of 30. Above Tobias Jesso Jr.’s keys, Adele details the painful decision to separate from another, and the belief that true love is worth that sacrifice: “Looking back, I don’t regret a thing,” she concludes, washing away her lowest moments with the strength that they produced. “To Be Loved” may be Adele’s most mesmerizing powerhouse vocal performance in a career full of them — she lands the huge notes and tiny details effortlessly, and we’re simply left with our jaws on the floor.