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On This Day In Music… April 3, 2011: Adele's '21' Breaks Madonna's U.K. Chart Record

'Adele took her anguish and heartbreak and turned it into unprecedented success.'

Source: WENN/Newscom/The Mega Agency / XL - Columbia

'21' is one of the biggest selling albums of all time.

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At a performance in the Royal Albert Hall in September 2011, Adele Adkins addressed the crowd. “Everyone knows what it’s like to lose someone in some shape or form,” she said, before adding, “whether it’s by choice or not.”

It’s as neat an encapsulation of the power and impact of her second album, 21, as you might ever hear. Released on January 24, 2011, 21 smashed straight into the British charts at No. 1 – and stayed there for 11 weeks, becoming, on April 3, the longest chart-topping album by a female artist in British history, beating the previous record set by Madonna’s Immaculate Collection. It would go on to accumulate a total of 23 non-consecutive weeks at No. 1, spend 78 weeks in the Top 10, and a total of 145 weeks in the Top 40.

It has since become the most downloaded album in British history, the biggest-selling album of the 21st century in the U.K., and the fourth best-selling album in the U.K. ever.

Its success was not wholly domestic either. 21 was the best-selling worldwide release of 2011 with 18 million units sold, and topped the charts in more than 30 countries. Among them was the United States, where it debuted at No. 1 and remained in the Top 10 for a total of 84 weeks, becoming not only the best-selling album of 2011, but also of 2012 – the first time an artist had achieved such a thing since Michael Jackson’s Thriller in 1983/4. To date, 21 has amassed sales of more than 32 million worldwide.

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How did an album of 11 sparse, soulful, intensely autobiographical songs create such a phenomenal impact? Because, like the lady says, everyone knows what it’s like to lose someone – whether it’s by choice or not.

Adele was already a moderately successful artist by the time she released 21. After being signed to XL Recordings aged just 17 (supposedly on the strength of her MySpace page), she released her debut album 19 in 2008, which peaked at No. 1 in the UK and produced the hit singles “Chasing Pavements”, which managed three weeks at No. 2, “Hometown Glory” (No. 19), “Cold Shoulder” (No. 18), and “Make You Feel My Love” (No. 4).

Work on the follow-up was initially slow, however, and, somewhat extraordinarily, between recording sessions she continued to pull shifts at the Rough Trade label and record store. Remembering that time in an article for the NME, XL’s Nick Huggett recalled that one day, “she asked if she could have a day off. She didn’t really explain why, but it transpired that she had a gig at the Hollywood Bowl with Etta James! She played a lot of stuff down… [Rough Trade staff] only found out a few months later.”

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Source: Danny Clifford/Hottwire.net/WENN/Newscom/The Mega Agency

Adele had been signed to the XL label when she was just 17.

But if early sessions were largely unproductive, it would be the breakup of her first serious relationship – with a man 10 years older than her – that would provide Adele with the inspiration for the songs that became 21. And once she started, the music came in a rush.

Almost every track on 21 deals with her heartbreak. Some, like album opener “Rolling in the Deep” are contemptuous – “Think of me in the depths of your despair,” she sings, “Make a home down there, as mine sure won't be shared” – while others, like “Set Fire to the Rain”, utterly bereft (“But there's a side to you that I never knew / All the things you'd say, they were never true / And the games you play, you would always win, always win”).

But it was 21’s closer, “Someone Like You”, that bit deepest. Accompanied only by a piano, the song’s lyrical intensity is elevated further still by the sheer emotional devastation in her delivery – if she soars in the chorus, the way her voice breaks as she sings “Don’t forget me, I beg” is among the most affecting, vulnerable, and downright saddest, moments in the history of popular music.

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adele someone like you
Source: Anneke Ruys/WENN/Newscom/The Mega Agency

The emotional vulnerability on '21' was astonishing.

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“Someone Like You” was released on the same day as 21, and after an extraordinary performance at the 2011 BRIT Awards on February 15, rocketed 46 places up the charts to No. 1, where it stayed for four weeks, shifting over a million copies in the process.

Adele had not only become a superstar, she had done so by laying her heart bare for all to see. Immediately after her stunning BRITs performance, she burst into tears.

“Her power or ability to turn something into a message that other people can understand is so important,” Paul Epworth, who produced and co-wrote three songs on 21, told Billboard. “She writes very close to the bone, and sometimes just says it in a way that hasn’t been said before.”

Typically, Adele herself described that the man who was the inspiration for most of the songs in 21 in scathing terms, telling the Sun, “He really thought he’d had some input into the creative process by being a pr--k. I’ll give him this credit: He made me an adult and put me on the road that I’m traveling.”

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Four months after 21 became the longest chart-topping album by a female artist in British history, the U.K.’s other superlative female singer songwriter, Amy Winehouse, tragically died from an accidental alcohol overdose. In an emotional statement, Adele acknowledged the influence and impact Winehouse had on her.

“[Amy] created herself,” she said. “That’s what inspired me. I see no appeal in having a very specific plan as an artist. Who f---ing cares if people don’t get it or don’t like it? I’d rather trust myself, to like what I’ve done and stick to my guns than make music I don’t like, wear clothes that don’t suit me and flutter between genres because I’m scared I won’t be relevant if I pass my ‘sell by’ date.

“Amy tattooed that in me. She made music because she was good at it and wanted to. And she was a huge artist who was always a bigger fan. That’s why I gravitated toward her and listened when she sang and spoke… Or snarled.”

In 2012, Rolling Stone updated its 500 Greatest Albums of all Time list, placing 21 at Number 137.

“Adele channelled her heartbreak and depression into one of the most visceral and best breakup albums of all time,” the entry read. “The album is mega, and it’s really just down to how good the music is and how excellent her voice is. Adele took her anguish and heartbreak and turned it into unprecedented success.”


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