Released in the US in early February, Adele's sophomore offering 21 is on track to become the highest selling album of 2011 according to Billboard. Adele's ascent has been fascinating for me as a music fan who is especially passionate about sounds that embrace a black American aesthetic. (I'm a Stax girl, but I can certainly appreciate a little Delta blues, Philly Soul, or Motown.) In her phrasing and the deliberate use of her voice's imperfections, Adele confidently calls upon those traditions and has her way with them. That she unfailingly pays homage to these influences in interviews and choice of cover material confirms her savvy, and for me, amplifies her appeal.
Just as striking is the unflinching "femaleness" of Adele's creative output. Consider her personal aesthetic choices: always heavy lashes and liner, hair teased up or flowing gently, a monochromatic palette, understated accessories, perhaps a pop of red nail polish. Her demure but sultry videos -- the clip for "Someone Like You," where she strolls contemplatively along the Seine is a perfect example -- are similarly stunning in simplicity. These visuals are delicate, but combined with the full-bodied expression of honest and often confrontational lyrics, Adele conveys a self-assertive voice that does not shy from complexity and dwells in the grey areas between strength and vulnerability.
Beyoncé and Jill Scott also made notable showings on the Billboard charts this year with vocalist-driven soul records that communicate a feminine sensibility. Beyoncé's content centers around declarations of transformative, monogamous love. Jill Scott's celebrates her sensuality, but with some caution ("I'm making you wait," she coos, "until the fifth date.")
It's been a while since I've noticed female soul singers storming the charts like this. There have been many one-offs; Amy Winehouse's Back to Black is an example. In The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill, Ms. Hill asserted a wise feminine soul while feeding the mainstream healthy images of black beauty. But that was an appalling thirteen years ago.
Adele, Jill, and Beyoncé will likely dominate next year's Grammy's. But I'm not certain there is enough of this kind of uplifting music swirling through the airwaves -- especially when so much popular culture lacks substance and still dabbles so heavily in misogyny.
In case there isn't, I offer the titles below. Each is a masterpiece that delights in some aspect of femininity. But more than elevating any particular gender, each encourages an honest and joyful reveling in one's spirit. Music at its best can be textured and soul-expanding: a balm for what ails us. It can accompany your own personal revolution, or encourage you to begin one.
"Free" Deniece Williams
In a sweet soprano that glides weightlessly across an equally sugary '70s groove, Deniece Williams contemplates the twin paths of romantic love and relentless individuality.
"Fool That I Am" Adele
My favorite recording by Adele. On the surface, it's sexy, smoky, melancholic -- another lament from a lovesick blues woman. But Adele's razor-like focus on the lyric, the confrontation of it, gives it bite.
"A Case of You" Joni Mitchell
Here, Joni Mitchell gives voice to quite possibly the most vivid description of infatuation in the history of recorded music: "Oh I could drink a case of you darling/still I'd be on my feet."
"Piece of My Heart" Big Brother and the Holding Company (with Janis Joplin)
"Darling Nikki" Prince
I guess now is when I should mention that this playlist is for adults. "Darling Nikki" is shameless fun and a reminder of the gift and power of female sexuality.
"I Wanna Be Down (Remix)" Brandy, Queen Latifah, MC Lyte, Yoyo
Brandy possesses what I find to be one of the most beautiful and underrated voices of the past several years. It's resonant and colorful. A triumvirate of female rappers assists here, and all tackle the subject of a crush (one of my favorite things, ask anyone) adding a welcome dose of self-awareness: "But I got flavor too/you need to get with me."
"Fall in Love (Your Funeral)" Erykah Badu
Revisiting a devilishly delicious Biggie lyric, Badu has some fun with her persona. Play this the next time someone suggests you might possibly have a Type-A personality, and laugh.
"Everything is Everything" Lauryn Hill
"You can't match this/rapper-slash-actress/more powerful than two Cleopatras/bomb graffiti on the tomb of Nefertiti" -- classic hip-hop boasting with references to female leaders in antiquity? We're never going to get anything comparable from Nicki Minaj.
"Lift Off" Kanye West, Jay Z, and Beyoncé
Beyoncé attacks this hook, easily upstaging Kanye and Jay Z by sounding like she's singing with every cell of her being. This is the type of effort we've come to expect from her. She says she is "supercharged." So are we all.