January 2011: Adele Releases '21'

Adele in America, 2011
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Peter Kramer/NBCU Photo Bank/NBCUniversal via Getty Images

On Jan. 24, 2011, from the depths of some serious heartbreak, British singer Adele became a global phenomenon with the release of her second album, 21.

Though her debut album, 2009's 19, was a hit on both sides of the Atlantic and helped the soulful songstress earn a Grammy Award for Best New Artist, nobody could have predicted what the follow-up would have sounded like. Where 19 primarily evoked '60s-style R&B, 21 was centered in Southern soul and blues - the result of hearing such styles while on tour in America. Early sessions, which Adele intentionally tried to push in a more upbeat and contemporary direction, didn't come together the way she wanted, and she put things on hold. "“I wanted the songs not to have anything glittery or glamorous about them," she later explained to Rolling Stone.

She soon started recording again, a day after a huge life change: she and a romantic partner ended an 18-month relationship. "We'd had a fuming argument the night before," Adele recalled to The Sunday Times about her first day back in the studio. "I'd been bubbling. Then I went into the studio and screamed." The song that came out of those sessions: incendiary lead single "Rolling in the Deep."

21 initially came together over a series of transatlantic sessions with British producers Paul Epworth and Fraser T. Smith, followed by a chance meet-up with OneRepublic frontman and songwriter Ryan Tedder. With Tedder, she created another standout track, "Rumour Has It," and her recording process - just a 10-minute vocal session - left Tedder almost speechless. "She sang it once top to bottom, pitch perfect, she didn't miss a note," Tedder later told M magazine. "I looked at the engineer then at her and said, 'Adele, I don't know what to tell you but I have never had anyone do that in 10 years'."

A trip to America and a session with former Semisonic frontman Dan Wilson helped finish the album and gave her closure on the turbulent time in her life. "Even though I'm very bitter and regret some parts of [the relationship], he's still the most important person that's ever been in my life," she later told MTV of the song they wrote together, album closer "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."

From its release at the end of January (and a month later in America), 21 became a juggernaut. At a time when fewer and fewer listeners were buying albums, 21 reached No. 1 on the Billboard 200 for 13 non-consecutive weeks in 2011 and another 11 in 2012, becoming America's best-selling album both years. Astoundingly, the album continues to appear in the magazine's weekly charts, spending a total of 497 weeks there as of its 10th anniversary. In England, it's the second best-selling album of all time, having spent 23 weeks on top of the charts (including its first 11 weeks) and not leaving the Top 10 until August 2012. "Rolling in the Deep," "Someone Like You" and "Set Fire to the Rain" were all international Top 10 hits (reaching No. 1 in the United States) and helped push the album's worldwide sales past 31 million copies.

Just over a year after its release, Adele went home with six Grammy Awards for 21, including Album, Record and Song of the Year. This tied her with Beyoncé for most trophies awarded to a female artist in a single night. It also helped follow-up 25 smash sales records in 2015, and still helps keep fans satisfied as they wait for a new album.


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