Adele’s 21, One Year Later: Steady As She Goes

Bigger Than the Sound takes a look back at 21's rather remarkable ride on the one-year anniversary of its release in the U.S.

Back in olde tymes, if something was a hallmark of consistency and dependability, it was proclaimed to be “so reliable you could set your watch to it.”

This was high praise, and not just because watches were, like, the iPhones of their day (minus “Angry Birds,” of course). No, there was a time when reliability was actually celebrated in this country, and everything unerring, unchanging or uninterrupted — from Studebakers to Johnny Unitas’ haircut — was thusly awarded watch-setting status.

Not surprisingly, that’s not exactly how things work anymore. Although, one could make the argument that Adele is doing her best to bring reliability off the back burner (back burners were also fairly common back then, both as a heating source and a simmering surface). Exactly one year ago today , she released her blockbuster 21 album in the U.S., and in the 52 weeks since , it’s not only broken records, won an armload of Grammys and singlehandedly revitalized the record industry, it’s also become the most dependable thing since Johnny U’s flattop.

To wit, 21 has spent a staggering 40 percent of the past year atop the Billboard albums chart, has never been lower than #7, and has held steady in the top three since December. It not only survived challenges from Lady Gaga, Britney Spears, Beyoncé and Rihanna, but sold more copies than all their records combined. Its songs have landed on the Billboard Hot 100, Adult Contemporary, Alternative, Dance, R&B, Rock, Pop and Latin charts and have become so ubiquitous, they were a running gag in a “Saturday Night Live” sketch. It won so many Grammys they just might let Adele give Neil Portnow’s keynote speech during next year’s telecast.

In short, it has become the kind of thing you can set your watch to — a permanent fixture in popular culture. And, really, when was the last time you could say that about anything, let alone an album?

What’s even more amazing is the fact that 21 has accomplished all this almost in spite of Adele herself. She battled vocal issues for most of the year and has played just 34 North American shows in support of the disc. In fact, besides a few television appearances, there’s a pretty good chance you haven’t actually seen her sing any of the songs off the album, though you’ve certainly heard them on innumerable radio stations. In that regard, 21 is not only a true crossover sensation, it’s a throwback to the glory days of the industry itself, when a handful of singles could push an album for months at a time and platinum plaques were handed out like bottles of water.

One year ago, did anyone think this was possible? Can anyone adequately explain everything that has happened since? The answers are probably “no” on both counts, though for one day, perhaps it’s best not to try and figure these things out. Because for 52 weeks, 21 has been so dependable, so dominant, that it has almost become more than just a mere album. It has become the rare zeitgeist-uniting sensation, a career-defining work, a constant in increasingly intermittent times. It is seemingly not of this era, only it has somehow come to define this era, and it shows no sign of slowing down anytime soon.

All those accomplishments not only merit genuine awe, but a well-deserved pause too. As remarkable for its massive sales as it is for its consistency, 21 has spent the past year proving everyone wrong and, in the process, might very well have established the new gold standard for reliability, circa 2012: You can set your iPhone to it. History in the making, people.

Where were you a year ago when Adele’s 21 was released? Let us know in the comments!