As I make my way through 2010s music, I figured I’d take a break from mere reviews to do a bonus People’s Album of the best selling album of this particular decade. The ‘10s were much less a decade of blockbuster album releases than the ‘00s or ‘90s before them for a number of reasons. The death of the monoculture, major record labels’ shifting influence, and physical media’s decline all made it hard to put out an album that simply everybody was listening to. Not to mention the effects that streaming had on how people consumed albums, or whether they bothered to listen to entire albums at all. It made for a weird decade for the album’s cultural relevance, and yet despite that, there were still a few that managed to break out and capture people’s ears, as well as their money.
Release Date: January 24, 2011
Copies Sold In The U.S.: 11.8 million
Why Was This Popular?
Because America Loves It When Talented People Are Sad
The 2010s were a decade when pop music turned decidedly sad, and while I wouldn’t classify Adele as a typical example of this, I think she did cash in somewhat on the public’s desire to listen to really sad, really catchy songs. I’m not sure if it was because listening to music on headphones and computers made music feel a bit more intimate than in the past, while wallowing in melancholy felt a bit more natural. Whatever the case, I have a hard time holding up Adele as an example of this trend because I’m hesitant to call her music pop.
I know, that’s a little ridiculous, since I’m writing this piece about how popular her music is, which of course is what “pop” is short-hand for. But pop music tends to refer to a certain demographic between the ages of 15 and 25, and the key to 21’s success was that it managed to capture the hearts of those outside of pop’s normal demographics. Yes, this was modern music your mom wouldn’t be embarrassed listening to, and yet was also somehow music you wouldn’t be embarrassed listening to with her. After all, Adele wasn’t like the outlandishly dressed singers of the early 2010s like Lady Gaga and Katy Perry and such. She was actually talented! Or, at least, she was transparent enough about that talent that it wouldn’t take a Bradley Cooper movie to convince you (or your mom) otherwise.
Broadly speaking, pop music tends to reflect a kind of artificiality and instantly pleasurable aesthetic, but Adele stood firmly against that. She didn’t dress weird, she didn’t use electronic instruments, and she didn’t necessarily try to make you feel good. She just let her big, boisterous voice do all the talking, while the instruments were always tucked a little further back in the mix, so that every time you listened to her songs you were convinced that you were listening to a world-class talent. That’s not to so that she wasn’t, or that 21’s production style was a calculated marketing move. It more just illustrates why an artist so out-of-step with pop trends would stand out in an era of impeccable artifice.
How out-of-step or out-of-time Adele sounds also probably contributed to why she appealed to both a young and old audience of (I’m guessing) mostly women. Her sound is clearly indebted to the past, as classic soul and R&B is an apparent influence, but it’s never specific enough to evoke a certain era. This combined with the fact that much of 21 was written in response to her then-recent break-up, I think was what also made the album appeal to younger women. The 2010s was a decade where celebrities’ personal lives were omnipresent on the internet and social media, while the confessional aspect of songwriting lent itself seamlessly to the internet’s possibilities for connecting with the listener on a more personal basis.
Did It Deserve To Be Popular?
Despite the fact that I’ve spent 30-something posts writing about why albums from eras that I wasn’t born in or our just vaguely remember were popular, this is the album that makes me feel the most phony writing about. Because even though I was actively engaged with new music as much as ever in 2011, I don’t really have any distinct memories of when this album came out. Sure, I remember Adele being a thing in the public consciousness, but it wasn’t until a little later that I actually ended up hearing “Rolling In The Deep” or “Someone Like You”.
Though this once again gets at the fragmented nature of listening to music in the 2010s. Even someone like myself, a self-described music nerd, could somehow completely miss out on the biggest album of the decade. This is partially because I was pretty far down my own indie rock rabbit hole at the time, and not terribly concerned with what was popular with the general music-listening public. That said, I don’t think this kind of snobbery is necessarily unique to this decade. I’m sure it was easy for a certain type of music fan in 1994 to only pay attention to Pavement and Guided by Voices and Stereolab, while ignoring the Boyz II Men’s and Garth Brooks’s of the world. But the internet certainly made it easier to block out mainstream music by ignoring things like radio or music videos and honing in on your own preferred little corner of the musical world.
So despite my assumption years earlier that Adele’s music wasn’t for me, I will admit that this is a very good album, if in kind of a boring way. As I mentioned earlier, the production is fairly no-nonsense piano-driven balladry, and even the more bombastic moments on the record come from sweeping string arrangements or choir-like vocals. Not exactly touches on the cutting edge of aural innovation.
Yet the less-than-daring nature of the instrumentation and arrangements on 21 tends to work in the album’s favor. This is because the songs are pretty darn good (or in the case of “Rolling In The Deep”, iconic) and Adele’s conviction singing these songs is often mesmerizing. She’s clearly a great vocalist, but despite how titanic her vocals often sound, she never sounds like she’s showing off for the sake of showing off. Instead, she seems to be more focused on using these songs as a kind of therapy for her recently dissolved relationship, but doing it in a way that has just enough of a pop sensibility to keep the listener coming back for more.
Would I Spend Money On This?
Probably. Considering it’s a product of the early streaming era, you could say I already did by listening to it through a streaming subscription. But that’s not really paying money for music.
It’s the rare modern pop album that I imagine would sound good on vinyl, so maybe if it was used and marked down (not that it ever would be). Also, I like the idea that Adele albums are the few albums worth physically buying, since they add to the economy of the music industry in ways that no other artists consistently do.