For this year’s update of our ongoing Greatest Pop Star by Year project, Billboard is counting down our staff picks for the top 10 pop stars of 2021 for the rest of this week. At No. 3, we remember the year in Adele — a long-dormant pop titan who returned late in the year and proved herself still one of the industry’s mightiest forces.
If you had Adele on your mind back in January, maybe you were celebrating the 10-year anniversary of her blockbuster 21 album (alongside the singer) – or maybe you were still pondering why she decided to host Saturday Night Live in fall 2020 without anything to promote. After all, it had been more than five years since the world had heard a musical peep from the commercially dominant pop superstar – and at that point, news-deprived fans were surviving off an occasional Instagram post here or some fruitless hints from podcast interviews with a British comedian pal there (her new tracks were “ah-mazing,” Alan Carr broadly promised).
It would be months before there was any real clue as to what was possibly in store. Until then, fans followed crumbs about Adele’s personal life throughout the year – her divorce from Simon Konecki, the father of her 9-year-old son Angelo, was finalized in March, and she went public with her new boyfriend, high-profile sports agent Rich Paul, in September – strongly suspecting that these weren’t merely gossip items, but potential emotional fodder for heartbreakingly intimate songs to come.
Billboard’s Greatest Pop Stars of 2021:
Introduction & Honorable Mentions | Comeback of the Year: Willow | Rookie of the Year: Olivia Rodrigo | No. 10: Bad Bunny | No. 9: Dua Lipa | No. 8: Justin Bieber | No. 7: Drake | No. 6: BTS | No. 5: The Weeknd | No. 4: Doja Cat
And they were right. The buzz began the first day of October, with mysterious billboards and light projections displaying the number “30” popping up from Dubai to New York. Adele’s name didn’t need to be attached in any way: The world knew that 30 was coming before there was any formal announcement. And even though the star turned 33 (or “Thirty Free,” as she put it) in May, savvy fans knew that her 19, 21 and 25 albums were all titled for her age when she wrote the bulk of the material, not when they were released – and she had separated from her ex-husband during that pivotal year. When asked what the album was about during a surprise Instagram Live on Oct. 9, Adele simply (and virally) confirmed what was already plain to see: “Divorce, babe, divorce.”
The first taste of the personal project was “Easy on Me,” for which she gave a full 10 days’ warning – a lifetime in 2021 pop music – with an Oct. 5 teaser announcing the song’s Oct. 15 release. In a joint cover story for U.S. and U.K. Vogue (a first for the fashion bible), Adele explained that the lead single and the bulk of the album were written for her son — at least, eventually. “I just felt like I wanted to explain to him, through this record, when he’s in his 20s or 30s, who I am and why I voluntarily chose to dismantle his entire life in the pursuit of my own happiness.” The plaintive piano ballad was hardly the bombastic tour de force some might have expected after nearly six years of silence, but its understated strength and nimble vocal runs clearly resonated with Adele-starved listeners. The single debuted on the Billboard Hot 100 after just five hours of chart activity, going on to top the tally the following week and spending seven nonconsecutive frames (so far) at the pinnacle.
By early November, the promo train for Adele’s big return kicked into high gear, from yet-unreleased song “Hold On” soundtracking an Amazon holiday ad to sitting down with Oprah Winfrey for a glossy garden-side interview and performing in front of a stars-only audience (Drake! Selena Gomez! Seth Rogen, for some reason!) at L.A.’s Griffith Observatory for the splashy One Night Only CBS special. We finally knew, after years of anticipation, that the album was coming on Nov. 19, and yet it still couldn’t come quickly enough. (Someone else knew the album was coming Nov. 19 too: Taylor Swift seemingly moved her long-planned Red (Taylor’s Version) release date up a week to avoid the Adele juggernaut.)
All this to say – Adele went into the release of 30 with beyond-sky-high expectations, and when the fateful day finally arrived, a funny thing happened: She, quite simply, delivered. Her retro vibes and master-class vocals were all still there, but the soaring album also included some of the most experimental sounds of her career, with productions that recall Billie Eilish as much as Billie Holiday. Adele transports her open-book songwriting into the modern music world (the sultry “Can I Get It,” the “My Little Love” voice notes), while still keeping a foot firmly planted in the classics (sweeping opener “Strangers by Nature,” the cinematic “All Night Parking”). Along the way, the already-beloved awards darling managed to turn out the best reviews of her career: “Life is messy and not always built for three-minute pop songs with perfect hooks,” read a glowing 8.2 review from Pitchfork – which did not even review the first two Adele albums upon their initial release. “Adele was always more complicated than that, and now she has an album that ups the stakes and nuance of her artistry.”
And while a lot was made of whether she could still move a million copies in one week in the streaming era, like she had with the record-shattering 25, the answer was no. Instead, she merely clocked the best-selling album of 2021 after just a few days of release, starting with 839,000 equivalent album units earned in the U.S. that first week – and sold a full million in less than three weeks. 30 debuted atop the Billboard 200 and has held firm at No. 1 for three weeks straight (again, so far).
Now that we finally have Adele back in our lives, she’ll bring her peerless live vocals (and unrivaled between-song banter) to her first-ever Las Vegas residency starting in January, where she’ll play the Colosseum at Caesars Palace twice-weekly through April and will reportedly rake in a record $2.2 million per show. The residency immediately sold out when it went up for sale last week, and some fans are seeing tickets reselling for as much as $35,000. And if history repeats itself, this album cycle should continue at least through early 2023, when Adele will likely dominate that year’s Grammy nominations with 30.
So did the world miss Adele? Clearly. The pop star’s power to simultaneously live her private life while also musically pulling back the curtain with each album release hasn’t waned over the decade-plus since we met her. Instead of buckling under the pressure of high expectations, Adele more than thrived in 2021, releasing one of her best albums while charming the world one press appearance at a time. If she’s not breaking records and making history with each new album anymore, she’ll simply have to settle for trouncing the available competition instead.
Will we have to wait another six years before hearing new music, though? We hope not – but even if her next album isn’t until 47, we’ll still be ready and waiting to cry our eyes out at Adele’s next visceral masterpiece.
Tomorrow, Billboard finally reveals our top two pop stars of 2021.