In The Ones of the ’10s, I’m reviewing every single that hit #1 on the Billboard Hot 100 in the 2010s and working my way up into the present.
Adele- “Someone Like You”
HIT #1: September 17, 2011
STAYED AT #1: 5 weeks
It must be one of the strangest feelings ever. At one moment, you’re a rising singer who just had success with your first album. You’re starting to get noticed for your songs and your talent. Yet nothing could prepare you for what would come next. You release your second album centering around a bitter breakup and out of nowhere it becomes the biggest album in the world. Now you’re the biggest artist that matters in the world and everything you do will get you immediate acclaim.
That’s where Adele was in late 2011. When she released her sophomore album 21 in February 2011, few would have expected it to sell at the insane levels it sold at. 21 became the album that everyone had to have. Everyone was listening to Adele. The album had launched with what is arguably Adele’s best work in “Rolling In The Deep,” a fiery post-breakup rage anthem that slowly rose to #1 in May and dominated 2011 becoming the year’s top-selling single according to Billboard.
How do you follow up a single like “Rolling In The Deep?” One would probably go the old route of rehashing the formula that got them big. But Adele did a 180. She followed it up with the album closer: a barebones piano ballad singing about the conflicting feelings of a breakup wondering what your ex is up to while trying to move on with your life. What we wind up with is another pop masterpiece.
Like “Rolling In The Deep,” Adele wrote “Someone Like You” in the immediate aftermath of her breakup specifically on learning her ex was marrying another woman soon after they split. Adele began writing the first verse and melody on her acoustic guitar and after the bruising attacks of “Rolling In The Deep” wanted to write a more reflective take, “Well, I wrote that song because I was exhausted from being such a bitch, with “Rolling In The Deep” or “Rumour Has It.” I was really emotionally drained from the way I was portraying him, because even though I’m very bitter and regret some parts of it, he’s still the most important person that’s ever been in my life, and ‘Someone Like You,’ I had to write it to feel OK with myself and OK with the two years I spent with him. And when I did it, I felt so freed.”
Adele further described herself as struggling emotionally while writing “Someone Like You” and found the writing process to be helpful in healing from the breakup, “When I was writing it I was feeling pretty miserable and pretty lonely, which I guess kind of contradicts ‘Rolling in the Deep’. Whereas that was about me saying, ‘I’m going to be fine without you’, this is me on my knees really. We were so intense I thought we would get married. But that was something he never wanted… So when I found out he does want that with someone else, it was just the horrible-est feeling ever. But after I wrote it, I felt more at peace. It set me free… I didn’t think it would resonate… with the world! I’m never gonna write a song like that again. I think that’s the song I’ll be known for.”
For “Someone Like You,” Adele worked with veteran songwriter Dan Wilson. Many of you will know Wilson as the frontman of the ‘90s alt-rock band Semisonic who are mainly known for their 1998 classic “Closing Time” which has remained popular over the years despite not charting on the Hot 100. (“Closing Time” peaked at #11 on Billboard’s Radio Songs chart. It probably would have charted on the Hot 100 if not for arcane Billboard rules related reasons that prevented songs not released as singles to chart in the ‘90s.) After Semisonic broke up in 2001, Wilson went on a solo career occasionally releasing records but more importantly he found his true work as a behind the scenes songwriter and producer for other artists.
The only other major music Dan Wilson worked on before “Someone Like You” was co-writing six tracks on the Dixie Chicks’ 2006 album Taking The Long Way including their statement-making lead-single “Not Ready To Make Nice.” (“Not Ready To Make Nice” wound up being the Dixie Chicks’ highest-charting single peaking at #4. It’s a 6.) Taking The Long Way won the Grammy for Album of the Year and “Not Ready To Make Nice” won Song and Record of the Year at the 2007 Grammy Awards meaning Wilson got to share each award as a co-writer.
Adele wound up working with Dan Wilson after her 21 producer Rick Rubin paired them together despite not knowing much about each other. Initially, “Someone Like You” was going to be a much bigger arrangement than what came out. Adele had originally recorded the song with a full band and orchestra before working with Wilson. Wilson, in an interview with Songfacts, never intended to use the more stripped-down demo version he and Adele recorded for the album despite thinking their version was better, “I heard this one and it was nice, but it didn’t seem better than the demo. I didn’t give it much thought beyond that because I trusted the people involved. I figured between Rick and Adele, it was going to turn out amazing. I just didn’t know that they would achieve that by using my demo.”
Adele and Wilson worked around various melody ideas on the piano before deciding to keep the arrangement small and minimal to highlight the emotion and the lyrics. Talking to Billboard, Wilson noted he and Adele wrote “Someone Like You” with as many personal details as possible instead of watering it down in a more open-ended style for mainstream audiences to relate to.
Once Adele and Wilson sent their demo out, Wilson’s instincts turned out to be right as their version was an immediate hit with everyone including Rick Rubin, Adele’s manager, and her mom. They eventually scraped the orchestral version and it was Adele’s collaboration with Wilson that made the cut for 21. At first, “Someone Like You” didn’t perform very well on the Hot 100 which isn’t too much of a surprise considering it’s a minimal piano ballad competing in an era of loud electropop and rising EDM and dubstep. It wasn’t until Adele’s performance of the song at the 2011 MTV Video Music Awards that helped to secure its place at #1 as the performance spawned a huge amount of interest with listeners and radio stations reaching #1 soon after the awards ceremony.
Lyrically, “Someone Like You” is a far cry from “Rolling In The Deep.” Where the later was written from Adele in the immediate aftermath of a breakup spitting out whatever thoughts she had while giving her ex the middle finger, “Someone Like You is a more flushed out contemplative look back at the relationship. Her ex has found a new girl but Adele still has unresolved feelings about the relationship. In the second verse, Adele shows up to remind him of what they used to be and how happy it all was when they were together. On the pre-chorus, she sings of desperately wanting to start over and if he still cares about her. That’s before realizing on the chorus that it wasn’t meant to be singing about finding someone who will remind her of her ex while wishing her ex the best remembering his words, “I’ll remember, you said “Sometimes it lasts in love, but sometimes it hurts instead”.”
Like with “Rolling In The Deep,” Adele manages to sell the hell out of this song once again making her pain relatable to a wide audience. Once again, Adele performs the song with an amount of class and maturity that other singers in her vein couldn’t possibly pull off. And of course, Adele just sings beautifully as always with each note she sings. In the second half of the chorus, Adele is literally crying and stretching her voice to its highest limits. Dan Wilson suggested Adele to sing the part in a higher register to show off her vulnerability which took a bit for Adele to get into finding her singing uncomfortable. That was a good decision cause hearing her almost break down lends more authenticity and emotion to the song. You can just feel it when she hits those high notes.
That feeling applies to the entire song. Listening to “Someone Like You,” you can just feel the heartache and acceptance that Adele is singing about which probably explains its use for parody when people like a good cry. What truly makes “Someone Like You” work is the fact that Adele just quietly accepts it all. There’s no amount of anger or bitterness here. She realizes that life must go on giving off a mature adult reaction. If “Rolling In The Deep” was anger then “Someone Like You” is acceptance. It makes sense as the final track on 21.
And while I’m sure the full orchestral version would have been great on its own, there’s no way it would have beaten the version we got. Many times, people will go minimal in the instrumentation as a lazy tactic but here it serves the song well and fits with what it is trying to convey. The piano adds a lot of emotion and color to the song and fits with the reflection and accepting subject matter. It helps you pay attention to the lyrics and Adele’s delivery which is the right way to go. It’s a quiet and wistful accompaniment to a quiet and wistful song. Sometimes, minimal production can make a good song when done correctly like any other production technique.
During “Someone Like You’s” run at #1, Adele suffered what could have been a career-ending setback right as she was riding high when she developed a hemorrhage on her vocal cords leading to immediate surgery and the cancellation of her American tour to recover. This setback though wasn’t enough to dampen Adele’s success as 21 continued to sell in big numbers becoming 2011’s biggest-selling album. And the singles from 21 kept coming. She’ll be back again in this column soon enough.
BONUS BEATS: Here’s a pretty funny 2011 Saturday Night Live sketch where Emma Stone and the cast cry along to “Someone Like You:”
BONUS BONUS BEATS: Here’s a pre-fame Lizzo covering “Someone Like You” in a 2011 video on her YouTube channel:
(Lizzo will eventually appear in this column)
BONUS BONUS BONUS BEATS: Here’s Dan Wilson’s cover of “Someone Like You” that he included on his 2017 album Re-Covered:
THE 10S OF THE ‘10S: Lady Gaga’s rock-infused love track “You and I” featuring guitar work from Queen’s Brian May peaked at #6 behind “Someone Like You.” It’s a 9.