Best-Selling Musicians of All Time (By U.S. Album Sales). To detail the best-selling musicians of all time by album sales, it’s helpful to first take a look at the music business — which isn’t what it used to be.
Long gone are the days when an artist could put out an album or CD and fans would rush to the store to buy a copy — and obsessively study the artwork and liner notes. That model, much to the chagrin of many musicians, ended in the late 1990s with the advent of streaming services that enabled people to download individual songs for free or a nominal price. While common now, this was a big deal at the time.
If you’re too young to remember this cultural milestone, Google “Napster and Metallica.” The heavy metal band’s drummer, Lars Ulrich, led the charge against Napster, a pioneering file-sharing internet service that allowed people to share digital musical files for free. Metallica sued Napster in 2000, alleging copyright infringement and racketeering. For a while, Ulrich became the much-maligned poster boy for greedy rock stars, but the courts ruled in Metallica’s favor and Napster eventually filed bankruptcy.
But by then the genie was out of the bottle.
Other file-sharing services popped up and today people consume and download music, videos, and other media through iTunes and a host of other companies. This has caused album sales to plummet. But on the other hand, a tween without any album sales or experience performing live can now put out a music video or song and become an instant star (We’re looking at you, Justin Beiber).
Indeed, the musical landscape is vastly different from the heydays of the 1970s, ‘80s, and ‘90s, when vinyl and CD sales peaked. This helps explain why the best-selling artists, as outlined below according to the Recording Industry Association of America’s certified U.S. album sales, all rose to prominence decades ago. But even as musical tastes and styles have changed, these acts have remained popular across multiple generations.
The following are the best-selling artists of all time...
The Beatles Certified Units Sold (in millions): 178 The four lads from Liverpool, England — John, Paul, George, and Ringo —first arrived in the United States in 1964. Music would never be the same. “Beatlemania” swept the nation and in less than a decade the band released a dozen albums, each one a defining cultural moment. The band broke up in 1970, but the Beatles are still deeply relevant and continue to influence new generations of musicians.
Garth Brooks Certified Units Sold (in millions): 148 Brooks rose to prominence in the early 1990s with a unique sound that mixed elements of country, rock, and pop. He supported a string of No. 1 records with wildly popular world tours, earning 2 Grammy Awards, and 17 American Music Awards in the process. After an extended hiatus, Brooks recently launched a comeback tour and released a new album in 2016.
Elvis Presley Certified Units Sold (in millions): 136 He’s known as the “King of Rock & Roll” for good reason. When he arrived on the scene in the 1950s, he scandalized mainstream America with his hip-swiveling performances. But it was his music — a powerful mix of rock, blues, country, and gospel — that made an indelible mark. While Elvis died in 1977, he’s still an iconic figure, and every year millions of people make the pilgrimage to Graceland, his former residence in Memphis, Tennessee.
Led Zeppelin Certified Units Sold (in millions): 111.5 Synonymous with rock ‘n’ roll excess and debauchery, Led Zeppelin helped create the template for heavy, guitar-driven music. Hailing from England, the band released its first album in 1969 — which critics savaged. But with the combustible mix of Robert Plant on vocals and Jimmy Paige on guitar, Led Zeppelin garnered a rabid following, headlining sold-out area tours throughout the 1970s.
Eagles Certified Units Sold (in millions): 101 Hailing from Los Angeles, the Eagles were a dominant musical force throughout much of the 1970s, producing radio-friendly rock/pop tunes like “Hotel California” and “Life in the Fast Lane.” The Eagles disbanded in 1980 but reunited in 1994 to record the album “Hell Freezes Over” and then “Long Road Out of Eden” is 2007, followed by an extended tour.
Billy Joel Certified Units Sold (in millions): 82.5 Starting with his iconic “Piano Man” tune in 1973, Billy Joel has enjoyed a prolific and successful career that spans decades. While he hasn’t released any new material since 2001, with more than 30 Top 40 hits Joel continues to tour and perform before sold-out crowds. Moreover, Joel is a Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductee and has won six Grammy Awards.
Michael Jackson Certified Units Sold (in millions): 81 First as the electrifying, prepubescent frontman of the Jackson Five and later as a pioneering solo artist, Michael Jackson more than earned his “King of Pop” moniker. His career exploded in the early 1980s with the advent of MTV and hit songs/videos like “Billie Jean,” “Beat It” and “Thriller.” While his controversial personal life sometimes overshadowed his music, Jackson, who died in 2009, remains an iconic figure in the world of music and pop culture.
Elton John Certified Units Sold (in millions): 77 A prolific singer, pianist, and composer, Elton John had his first hit, “Your Song,” in 1970. It was the start of a career that has spanned five decades and produced seven No. 1 albums and five Grammy Awards. Previously known for his flamboyant stage costumes and antics, John is now a noted activist in the fight against AIDS and a champion for LGBT issues.
Pink Floyd Certified Units Sold (in millions): 75 Known for their moody, psychedelic, and progressive music, Pink Floyd rose to fame in the 1970s. As their popularity grew, the band embarked on elaborate world tours noted for extravagant light shows and stage production. Through various incarnations, the band released 15 albums, including “The Dark Side of the Moon” in 1973, which is one of the top-selling albums of all time.
AC/DC Certified Units Sold (in millions): 72 Hard-driving, straightforward rock delivered with a guttural growl and insanely catchy guitar riffs propelled AC/DC to superstardom. While the Australian band formed in 1973 and had several hit records with original singer Bon Scott, casual music fans likely didn’t take notice until 1980, when the band released “Back in Black” with new vocalist Brian Johnson. While head-banging guitarist Angus Young is still with AC/DC, recent health and legal issues have plagued the band, which is now on its third singer — Axl Rose.
George Strait Certified Units Sold (in millions): 69 No wimpy, watered-down, pretty-boy country music for George Strait. At a time when the line between country and pop continues to blur, Strait, a Texas native, is known for his authentic “back-to-roots” musical style and cowboy persona. Strait launched his career in the early 1980s and subsequently released seven No. 1 country albums. In the 2000s, Strait was named Artist of the Decade by the Academy of Country Music and was elected into the Country Music Hall of Fame
Barbra Streisand Certified Units Sold (in millions): 68.5 In addition to a notable and award-winning acting career, the multi-talented Barbara Streisand is also one of the best-selling music artists of all time. Streisand’s first foray into the spotlight was as a recording artist in the 1960s, performing theater and cabaret standards. She transitioned to more contemporary music in the 1970s, with pop hits like “The Way We Were.” Streisand continued to release hit records throughout the 1980s and ‘90s and make occasional concert appearances. During her career, she has won eight Grammy Awards and was inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame four times.
The Rolling Stones Certified Units Sold (in millions): 66.5 In the 1960s, the Rolling Stones were the bad-bay alternative to the Beatles. While the Beatles were upbeat and poppy, the Stones had a dangerous swagger to them, with songs like “Sympathy for the Devil” and “Street Fighting Man.” At the forefront of the British Invasion, the Rolling Stones — led by the iconic duo of Mick Jagger and Keith Richards — played a compelling mix of rock, blues, and soul, all the while setting the standard for over-the-top rock star debauchery. More than 50 years after they started, the Rolling Stones are still releasing albums and selling out arenas.
Aerosmith Certified Units Sold (in millions): 66.5 “The Bad Boys from Boston” ruled the 1970s rock landscape along with other pivotal acts like Zep Zeppelin and AC/DC. Fronted by charismatic frontman Stephen Tyler and guitarist Joe Perry, Aerosmith melded rock, metal, blues, and glam into a nice sleazy package that helped the band sell millions of gold and platinum albums. As the band’s popularity waned in the 1980s — partly due to drug use and inner turmoil — they had a hit collaboration with Run-D.M.C (“Walk this Way”), which heralded a second wave of success, including multiple top-selling albums and popular music videos. Infighting still plagues the band, but they continue to release albums and are currently on their farewell tour — which reportedly could last several years.
Bruce Springsteen Certified Units Sold (in millions): 65.5 Bruce “The Boss” Springsteen, one of the world’s most successful American singer-songwriters, struggled to make a dent in the music industry when he started in the early 1970s. His first several albums — a blend of folk, country, and rock — impressed some critics but were largely ignored by fans. But then, in 1984, came “Born in the USA,” and everything changed. One of the best-selling albums of all time, the record catapulted Springsteen into superstardom, and today, the New Jersey native is one of the most celebrated personalities in music, known for his honesty, heartfelt songs, and energetic, four-hour-plus concerts.
Madonna Certified Units Sold (in millions): 64.5 Madonna’s unique and boundary-pushing blend of empowerment and sexuality was custom made for MTV, which she shrewdly used to launch her career in the early 1980s. With hit songs like the upbeat “Like a Virgin” and “Material Girl,” Madonna not only made a huge splash in music, but she also became a trendsetter in the world of fashion. She parlayed her success into several film roles, but music has remained her focus. During her career, she has released 13 albums, including Rebel Heart in 2015, and has been recognized by the Guinness World Records as the best-selling female recording artist of all time.
Mariah Carey Certified Units Sold (in millions): 64 Like Madonna, Maria Carey is another pop music princess who rose to fame thanks in large part to MTV and, in her case, a powerful, high-octave singing voice. She released her first album in 1990, which produced four chart-topping singles, including “Vision of Love.” She followed this up with a string of other successful albums and was named the world's best-selling recording artist of the 1990s at the World Music Awards. Carey also branched out into acting, and in 2016 launched her own reality TV show, “Mariah’s World.”
Metallica Certified Units Sold (in millions): 63 Metallica is unique in that it is one of the few thrash/heavy metal bands that has been embraced by both critics and fans, releasing multiple albums that debuted at No. 1 on the Billboard 200 chart. Formed in 1981 in Los Angeles, Metallica quickly rose to fame thanks to its aggressive, uncompromising songs that — unlike the glam/hair metal bands of the 80s -- explored personal and socially conscious issues, including war, death, and mental health. While the band has changed its style and sound over the years, it remains as heavy as ever, with an impressive 10-record catalog.
Whitney Houston Certified Units Sold (in millions): 57 With an astounding seven consecutive No. 1 Billboard Hot 100 songs, Whitney Houston was a hit-making machine during the 1980s and ‘90s. Originally from Newark, New Jersey, Houston first displayed her impressive singing chops at her church choir. After working briefly as a fashion model, Whitney released her first album in 1985 to widespread acclaim. She soon rose to international prominence with a string of hit records, as well as high-profile appearances in movies like “The Bodyguard” and “Waiting to Exhale.” After years of struggling with drug abuse, Houston died in 2012.
Van Halen Certified Units Sold (in millions): 56.5 When Van Halen released its debut album in 1978, featuring the hit single “You Really Got Me,” it was a much-needed shot of adrenaline and attitude into the musical landscape. Fronted by vocalist David Lee Roth, one of rock’s ultimate frontmen, and pioneering guitar virtuoso Eddie Van Halen, the band from Pasadena, Calif., roared through much of the 1980s, releasing five more hit records before infighting and egos broke the band apart. Van Halen replaced Roth with Sammy Hagar, and the band would go on to release several more hit records. Now Roth is back, although Van Halen hasn’t released any new music since 2012’s “A Different Kind of Truth.”