Has any artist ever thrown down the gauntlet at the beginning of a year quite like Adele did with 21? Arriving on January 24, 2011 (in the United Kingdom, that is; it hit shelves in the States a month later), 21 quickly became not just the defining musical blockbuster of that year, but also of the still-young decade. No album since has had the same impact on the music world, or the world as a whole. 21 briefly made it feel like no one had ever heard another breakup album before. The mythology around the album (“Who broke Adele’s heart?” was a common question), along with the strength of the songs, made for a moment in music history that was genuinely monocultural. These days, it seems like there’s nothing everyone can share as common ground – period, let alone musically. 21 was different: a true four-quadrant classic that had something for everyone. From the pop music stans to the music critics to the songwriting classicists, Adele checked every box. Looking back, it feels like the last album that everyone could agree on. In terms of cultural significance, chart dominance, Grammy chances, and a million other metrics, every other artist who released something in 2011 was competing for second place.
While 21 dropped in January. I have never thought of it as a “winter” album. One of the (many) disadvantages to being a broke college student living in an outdated dorm in the winter of 2011 was that you had no good method to hear the latest music as it was breaking. Spotify hadn’t launched in the U.S. yet, paying for downloads via iTunes (or driving somewhere to buy a CD) wasn’t in the budget, and pirating music over the ethernet-only internet connection was both slow as hell and risky. That’s why I often went months without hearing the music that everyone else was talking about, 21 included. In this particular case, though, the delay proved to be serendipitous.
My favorite song from 21 is “Set Fire to the Rain,” a piece of music so visceral that it literally feels like a rainstorm and an out-of-control blaze at the same time. What it doesn’t feel like is a blizzard, or anything having to do with the winter season. For me, “Set Fire to the Rain” sounds like a rainy spring night, when it’s late as hell and you’re up alone with all your nagging doubts, insecurities, and heartbroken thoughts. It ain’t called “Set Fire to the Snow.” So when I finally found my way to 21 in the spring of 2011, in the midst of what happened to be an unseasonably cold and rainy season, something about it just clicked. It didn’t hurt that the album it happened to pair with in my heavy rotation that spring was just about as perfect a complement as you could imagine: Fleetwood Mac’s 1977 masterpiece Rumours.
Rumours and 21 have a lot in common. They are both, predominantly, about breakups. They both combine the doldrums of heartbreak with irresistible pop hooks. They are both albums that released early in the year (Rumours dropped on February 4) but sound more appropriate on muggy spring nights. They are both perfect pop albums, stacked with strings of iconic hit singles. They both won Album of the Year at the Grammys. They have both sold millions upon millions of copies. They both feel like albums that just about anyone could love. And they both seem to relish at the chance to strand the listener on the edge of a dark and stormy night and say “Good fucking luck.”
One of the things that makes 21 so impressive is how completely it demolishes the “sophomore slump” narrative. Adele’s debut, 2008’s 19, wasn’t an insignificant album: it was big hit in the UK and won Adele Best New Artist at the Grammys. But nothing about it ever would have led me to predict that the artist who made it would release something like 21. 19 was largely sparse coffeehouse blue-eyed soul. Even the songs that felt like they could have been anthems—specifically “Chasing Pavements,” the song that gave Adele her first appearance on the Billboard Hot 100—are underserved by somewhat sleepy production. A single listen to “Rolling in the Deep” was enough to tell you that Adele was ready to conquer the world. No more coffeehouse aesthetic; the songs on 21 were built for arenas and stadiums.
Not every piece of 21 is masterful. The singles are, for the most part, the clear highlights. “Rolling in the Deep” and “Rumor Has It” are the big, booming kiss-off anthems, with ace production from Paul Epworth and Ryan Tedder, respectively. “Set Fire to the Rain” and “Someone Like You” are the aching, heartbroken reflections—the former resilient, the latter shattered. “Turning Tables,” the album’s less-celebrated fifth single, lands somewhere in between, bathing Adele’s voice in moody piano and dramatic strings as she refuses to take her guy back: “I won’t let you close enough to hurt me/I won’t rescue you to just desert me.”
Those five songs make up less than half of 21, but they dominate its legacy so completely that it’s sometimes easy to forget what else is here. Like another stacked hit-machine album from the 21st century—The Killers’ Hot Fuss—21’s album tracks are enjoyable but rarely as vital as the Capital-H Hits. “Don’t You Remember,” in particular, is a bit of a momentum-killer in the track four slot, trailing an opening trio (“Rolling,” “Rumor,” and “Tables”) that is as good as any opening salvo in modern pop music. The bossa-nova-ish cover of The Cure’s “Lovesong,” meanwhile, doesn’t have quite the emotional punch of the original, and always tends to make me a bit antsy for “Someone Like You” to close out the record and break my heart. But there’s also the underrated side-two run of “Take It All,” “I’ll Be Waiting,” and “One and Only,” a trio of songs that sound so instantly vintage—from the soulful production flourishes to Adele’s top-tier vocal work—that it’s almost hard to believe they were on an album released only 10 years ago.
No album released in the 21st century has sold more copies than 21. As of this writing, the album has been certified 14x platinum by the RIAA. The next-biggest album released since 2000 is Linkin Park’s Hybrid Theory, which has gone 12x platinum. Only one other album from the 2010s has hit the Diamond certification: Adele’s own 25, which has gone 11x platinum. Taylor Swift, in many ways a more iconic and “famous” pop star than Adele, has only gone Diamond once, for 2008’s Fearless (which is 10x platinum). If I had to guess, we will never again see an album like 21. It’s the closest thing we’ve had in my lifetime to a Thriller: an inescapable, culture-defining, mass-appeal, hit-machine masterpiece that everyone has heard and can at least get.
In fact, it’s impossible to not understand why Adele’s music was so resonant with so many people. There’s the voice, yes, and the million-dollar production, and the set of singles so undeniable that they’ll probably be on radio playlists until the world explodes. But more than anything else, 21 left the mark it did because it felt so universally relatable. There’s a reason that heartbreak songs are such a durable medium, and that artists in every genre from every generation have made or will make breakup albums. When you’re reeling over your own broken heart, it’s comforting to listen to someone who knows exactly what you’re going through. 21 didn’t reinvent the breakup album, but it did hit all the notes perfectly: the sadness, the longing, the feeling that a piece of your heart is gone forever; the anger, the betrayal, the desire to make the other person hurt as badly as you do; the acceptance, the recovery, the resolve to stand up and try again—just maybe with your heart a little more guarded this time around. Some breakup albums tilt too far in one of those directions or another: they bask in sadness and self-pity, or give themselves over to self-righteous rage. By finding just the perfect balance of moods, emotions, tempos, and memories, Adele made the prototypical breakup album of the 21st century.