At the start of Adele’s career in 2008, another soulful British singer was at her peak: Amy Winehouse. Winehouse won five Grammys for Back To Black in the same year Adele released her debut, 19, their careers briefly flowing into one another.
Though Winehouse’s influence has always been present in Adele’s music, it’s never been more obvious than on 30—the singer’s most soulful work thus far. From the arrangements down to the song titles, the effect that one of the most prominent voices in soul in the 21st century has had on Adele rings clear as day.
With Back To Black, Winehouse penned arguably one of the best breakup albums of all time, revitalizing old-school soul music’s presence in pop music. The five Grammys she won for the album—Record of the Year, Song of the Year, Best Female Pop Vocal Performance for the single “Rehab,” Best Pop Vocal Album, and Best New Artist—would become the record for Most Grammy Awards won by a British female act, a record Adele would later break in 2011 following the smash success of 21.
In 2016, during a concert in Boston, Adele spoke about her predecessor’s effect on her from the get-go, especially Winehouse’s daring 2003 debut, Frank:
I know that America really caught on to her with Back to Black, but her first album, Frank… really changed my life. I went to music school when I was 14, and when I was like 15 and a half, Frank came out. I used to see her on TV or in magazine shoots with a pink electric guitar, and I used to think she was the coolest motherfucker on the face of the Earth.
Coincidentally, the school Adele mentioned in the interview happens to be London’s BRIT School, of which Winehouse was also an alum. “Because of her, I picked up a guitar, and because of her, I write my own songs,” Adele said. “The songs that I got signed with are the songs I wrote completely on my own. If it wasn’t for her, that wouldn’t have happened. I owe 90 percent of my career to her.”
In its own way, 30 feels like a thank-you to Winehouse and the mark she made on music. Where 25 leaned into full-bodied pop, riding the same wave as fellow U.K. artist Ed Sheeran, 30 digs into arrangements that lean more toward jazz and soul. Adele lets her vocals loose more often in free-forming runs.
While Adele and Winehouse share forebears like Mary J. Blige, Lauryn Hill, and Etta James, 30 distinctly connects to Winehouse with its mix of retro soul and pop. On “Cry Your Heart Out,” Adele creates a high energy with gospel sounds. The instrumentation, filled with bass, organ, bongos, and a vibraslap, swings to and fro. It directly hearkens back to the Motown-infused songs found on Back To Black, such as “He Can Only Hold Her” and “Tears Dry On Their Own” (which samples Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell’s “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough”).
Winehouse often looked to ’60s girl groups like The Shangri-Las when developing Back To Black, for a more accessible vehicle for her jazz inclinations. Adele’s 30 similarly reaches its peak exuberance on the groovy “Oh My God,” as layered vocals create heat with the steady beat of a bass drum guiding the song—all of it paired with tambourine and clapping. While Winehouse certainly didn’t invent the sound, one of the triumphs of her career was resuscitating and synthesizing the musical spheres of soul and jazz with pop throughout the 2000s.
On “All Night Parking,” Adele inserts piano melodies from the late American jazz musician Erroll Garner. Recorded in Electric Lady Studios, the song is also Adele’s first significant foray into R&B, conjuring the potent neo-soul for which Winehouse was famous. The track’s opening crackles like vinyl, an effect Winehouse used on Frank’s “(There Is) No Greater Love.”
30 is arguably Adele’s most soul-baring album, getting into the nitty gritty of divorce, self-love, and raising a child in a split home. As Winehouse did on Back To Black, here Adele also navigates the grief that comes with breaking the ties of love, washing herself in heartache.
The final track of 30, “Love Is A Game,” feels like a direct nod to Winehouse. At the heart of Back To Black lies the heart-wrenching “Love Is A Losing Game,” which calls out the foolishness of love. On “Love Is A Game,” Adele’s vocals escape like cloak-and-dagger spies as dynamic strings take center stage. The song is cinematic in its grandiose ambitions, anchored by a jazzy, almost gospel sound.
Vocal jazz is built on the foundation of women singing about the highs and lows of love, with women like Billie Holiday, Aretha Franklin, and Nina Simone laying the groundwork. Winehouse often found herself in the trenches of devotion, and with her riveting new album, Adele meets her there. Ten years after Winehouse’s death, Adele offers a soulful work about the depths of heartbreak, one which contains multiple connections to the woman who inspired her.