40. Now and Then (2008)
Released on the flipside of 2008 single Cold Shoulder, Now and Then really sounds like a B-side. A gently wistful two-chord acoustic ballad, it’s notable only as point of comparison: Adele’s voice sounds noticeably mannered next to her later work.
39. Sweetest Devotion (2015)
Writing about the joys of parenthood without making the listener bilious is tricky enough to flummox even Stevie Wonder at the height of his powers. The best thing you can say about Adele’s attempt is a) it’s bland rather than sickly and b) thank God she binned an album full of similarly themed songs.
38. Lay Me Down (2015)
Produced by Mark Ronson, decorated with faintly gospel backing vocals, but relegated to the bonus tracks of 25’s Japanese release, Lay Me Down is inconsequential, albeit enlivened by the unexpectedly earthy admonishment in its bridge: “I’m not gonna do it standing up.”
37. Love in the Dark (2015)
The fact 25 almost replicated 21’s record-breaking commercial success masked the fact that it was a noticeably less consistent album. Love in the Dark trowels on the orchestration, but the song lacks the edge of its predecessor’s big ballads. “This is neverending, we have been here before,” sings Adele. You can say that again.
36. Crazy for You (2008)
A relic from the era when Adele performed as an acoustic-guitar-toting singer-songwriter, Crazy for You is a decent, if inessential, example of a particular strain of post-Back to Black British pop, replete with hints of blues, country and early 60s R&B. The vocal, as ever, is great.
35. Right As Rain (2008)
Sixties-influenced soul from 19. Right As Rain is pleasant enough, and Adele sings the hell out of it, but the sense that she has yet to move out of the shadow of her influences clings doggedly to its perky three minutes.
34. Water Under the Bridge (2015)
Water Under the Bridge lays bare the drawbacks of working with blue-chip songwriters, in this case the omnipresent Greg Kurstin. It’s a perfectly serviceable bit of pop-soul, with a good chorus and a vague hint of tropical house, but it feels slightly boilerplate.
33. Tired (2008)
Amy Winehouse casts a considerable shadow over this track from 19 – you can hear her echoes in everything from its updated 60s soul feel to Adele’s vocal, which mixes a prematurely aged tone with an estuary accent (“I don’t get nuffin’ back”). Still, it’s a decent song and the tempo change is neatly done.
32. Daydreamer (2008)
It is largely forgotten that Adele was first framed as part of the young London singer-songwriter movement that also threw up Jamie T and Jack Peñate. 19’s acoustic opening track, its delicate fingerpicking against London-accented vocals, offers a reminder of why.
31. Remedy (2015)
A noticeably better take on the joys of motherhood than Sweetest Devotion, the best thing about this piano ballad is Adele’s vocal, which is powerful but relatively restrained by modern pop diva standards. Unlike a lot of her contemporaries, she gets that less is more.
30. Melt My Heart to Stone (2008)
Despite the obvious Winehouse influence, Adele imprints enough of her own personality to stop Melt My Heart to Stone sounding like pastiche. The high note she hits on the second line of the chorus is authentically surprising.
29. Can’t Let Go (2015)
Co-written and produced by Linda Perry, Can’t Let Go lurks among 25’s Japan-only bonus tracks, which seems a shame. Set to nothing more than piano and a scattered application of backing vocals, it has an insistent hook and a swing that distinguishes it from 25’s more leaden moments.
28. First Love (2008)
A curio from 19, First Love sets Adele’s voice against music box-like keyboards, the nostalgic sweetness of the setting at odds with a lyric in which she flatly tells the titular first love to sling his hook: “I’m bored to say the least and I lack desire.”
27. Send My Love (To Your New Lover) (2015)
25’s uptempo tracks weren’t the match of 21’s Rolling in the Deep, but you can still see why this Max Martin and Shellback co-write was a transatlantic platinum seller. It has a bulletproof tune, with a distinct hint of Abba about the chorus’s blend of sweeping melody and grittily disconsolate lyrics.
26. My Same (2008)
As jazzy as 19 got, My Same’s finger-popping strut is really charming, the vocal performance assured enough to make you disregard the lyrics, which occasionally betray its author’s youth: “I like to sit on chairs and you prefer the floor.”
25. Don’t You Remember? (2011)
The tone of 21 is largely accusatory or passive-aggressive – that’s what makes it so believable as a breakup album – but Don’t You Remember? is suffused with regret, raking over personal failings to a smooth, country-rock-ish backing.
23. Why Do You Love Me? (2015)
Another 25 bonus track that deserved a better fate, the Rick Nowels co-write has a driving 60s girl group feel to it and call-and-response backing vocals. It didn’t necessarily fit in with the mood of the album, but including it might have made it feel more varied.
22. He Won’t Go (2011)
It was perhaps inevitable that the monster hits would overshadow the rest of 21, but that doesn’t mean the non-singles are of significantly lesser quality. He Won’t Go is an extremely classy, subtly orchestrated modern take on classic 70s soul with a great staccato hook.
21. Best for Last (2008)
You wouldn’t describe anything Adele has released as experimental – that really isn’t the point of Adele – but there’s a pleasingly ragged, exploratory feel about Best For Last, as if someone pressed record while her band were in the process of working out a song, that makes it unlike anything else in her back catalogue.
20. One and Only (2011)
In retrospect, what is striking about 21 is how assured it sounds compared to Adele’s debut. Case in point is the southern-soul pastiche of the great One and Only. It never overdoes the retro affectations, and the lengthy middle section that slowly builds to the appearance of a choir is particularly fantastic.
19. Take It All (2011)
The stark emotional nadir of 21, Take It All’s lyrics frequently appear to have been plucked verbatim from a dreadful final argument in a collapsed relationship: “Go on, go on and take it / Take it all with you.” There’s nothing to it except piano – by the jazz musician Neil Cowley – Adele’s voice and some backing vocals, but that’s all it needs.
18. When We Were Young (2015)
Adele was a fan of Tobias Jesso Jr’s solitary solo album, Goon, and the second big hit ballad from 25 was co-written by him. It’s more straightforward than anything on Jesso’s own album – no hint of Harry Nilsson-ish vaudeville here – but the combination worked, Adele’s performance heightening the moving lyrics.
17. Painting Pictures (2008)
Adele’s slender back catalogue is speckled with interesting musical directions she subsequently abandoned. So it is with Painting Pictures, which shifts from reverb-heavy solo guitar to surprisingly White Stripes-ish garage rock. Her voice works in that setting; it’s a shame she has never returned to it.
16. I Found a Boy (2011)
Produced by Rick Rubin, containing a lyrical nod to Ben E King’s Stand By Me, and audibly inspired by the kind of soul music that emerged from Alabama’s Fame Studios in the late 60s, I Found a Boy is stark, powerful and surprisingly raw, just an electric guitar and a compelling vocal.
15. Million Years Ago (2015)
One of 25’s more intriguing tracks, Million Years Ago’s lyric about the distancing effect of celebrity is slightly overwrought, but its French chanson-inspired tune – a close relative of Charles Aznavour’s Hier Encore with a dash of the old Mash theme, Suicide Is Painless, thrown in – is gorgeous.
14. I’ll Be Waiting (2011)
Another overlooked triumph from 21, I’ll Be Waiting is powered by swaggering blues piano, a pattering breakbeat and blasts of brass. Its smart twist on the album’s disconsolate mood is to wrap the heartbreak in euphoric music, so irresistible that the listener ends up sharing the lyrical mood of false optimism.
13. Hello (2015)
Following the commercial success of 21 should have been impossibly tricky. Its follow-up apparently had a troubled gestation, but you wouldn’t have guessed from the ease with which Hello assumed its role as the decade’s biggest comeback single, replete with opening lines that seemed to comment on the singer’s absence and a giant chorus.
12. Cold Shoulder (2008)
Employed as producer in the wake of Winehouse’s success, Mark Ronson laudably doesn’t reanimate Back to Black’s retro soul sound on Cold Shoulder, leaning more to his hip-hop roots – breakbeat, atmospheric orchestration – and throwing in a weirdly psychedelic breakdown on this 19 highlight.
11. River Lea (2015)
Her bank manager would presumably disagree, but 25 might have been improved by more tracks with the spirit of River Lea, a Danger Mouse collaboration that feels relatively adventurous. It swathes its organ-led gospel-inspired sound with echo, creating an appealing dreamlike quality.
10. Turning Tables (2011)
A song provoked by another song. The ex-boyfriend who inspired 21 was incensed by hearing the sorrowful description of their relationship on Take It All, causing a row that ended the relationship altogether. Turning Tables – 21’s lushly orchestrated screw-you moment – depicts said row’s aftermath.
9. I Miss You (2015)
Perhaps it wasn’t so strange that Adele attempted to arrange a writing session with Phil Collins: there’s a distinct echo of In the Air Tonight about I Miss You’s atmospheric synths and thundering drums, distinguishing 25 by covering distinctly different musical territory to anything on her previous album.
8. All I Ask (2015)
All I Ask drafted in Bruno Mars for songwriting assistance, but it sounds less like something from his oeuvre than a showstopping ballad from a Broadway musical. You could decry it as perfect Sunday morning on Radio 2 fodder, but it’s a superbly written song; better, perhaps, than 25’s big hits
7. Skyfall (2012)
Skyfall is one of the best recent Bond themes – Adele and co-author Paul Epworth clearly had a whale of a time working John Barry references into its structure – and her performance is imperious. Uncowed by the franchise’s long history of classic songs, she never oversells her soaring vocal.
6. Set Fire to the Rain (2011)
Adele’s third consecutive US No 1 and – in a live recording – the winner of a Grammy, Set Fire to the Rain deserved its garlands. Adele’s vocal is powerful and impassioned without tipping over into melodrama, the arrangement adding cinematic class to the hell-hath-no-fury of the lyrics.
5. Chasing Pavements (2008)
One of a handful of moments on 19 that pointed in the direction of what happened next, Chasing Pavements was an extremely sophisticated pop song for a teenager to have come up with, its glorious chorus suggesting its author was a cut above the legions of post-Winehouse vocalists.
4. Rumour Has It (2011)
Her latterday image as all-conquering queen of the blockbusting weepy ballad obscures how good Adele is at tougher, pacier songs. Which brings us to Rumour Has It. Darkly powerful and driven by thumping drums and handclaps, it is possessed of both a middle section that reverts to slow-motion heartbreak and a wildly catchy hook.
3. Hometown Glory (2008)
The opposite of the songs on 25 that bemoaned how fame had isolated the singer from her old surroundings, Hometown Glory is a beautiful, piano-led love letter to London, where “the air is so thick and opaque”, that takes a rare, if vague, detour into politics: “The people and government … we ain’t gonna stand shit.”
2. Someone Like You (2011)
Adele’s ascent to superstardom was defined by live performances of Someone Like You on Later …, at the VMAs and, perhaps most famously, at the Brits. These renditions introduced a modern standard, one covered by metal bands, country singers and Katy Perry. Its subsequent ubiquity might have dulled the song’s impact, but it exploded for a reason.
1. Rolling in the Deep (2011)
Adele credited the producer Paul Epworth with Rolling in the Deep’s success, claiming he “brought my voice out … there are notes that I hit in that song that I never even knew I could hit”. You can hear what she means: it’s a song on which the music – ominous percussive thud; relentless, simple bassline – doesn’t seem like mere accompaniment, but a match for the sheer power of her vocal, which takes on an unforced aggression that one US critic compared to raspy 50s rock’n’roll pioneer Wanda Jackson. The result is forceful, tough and the best thing she has ever recorded – and Jamie xx’s minimal remix, which daringly warps Adele’s voice until it sounds like something from a chopped-and-screwed hip-hop mix, is pretty fantastic too.