In today’s climate, album sales are few and far between. Artists who used to sell millions in the first week are now selling hundreds of thousands (which is kind of hard to have sympathy for because it’s still hundreds of thousands!). Streaming has pretty much squashed the idea of a record sale, but some artists seem impervious to the changing industry. From Metallica to Michael Jackson, these artists are the best-selling of all time and each holds a major cultural significance.
Van Halen (56.5 million units)
Van Halen has long been heralded as the champion of shreddy hair metal. Despite selling 56.5 million records in the States, they only ever managed to squeeze out one No. 1 hit on the Billboard Hot 100. “Jump,” the lead single from 1984, proves you can be one of the most successful people in the world and still never make it to the top. Better luck next time, Van Halen (though, we’re certain they’re not sweating it).
Whitney Houston (57 million units)
Whitney Houston’s tragic death rocked the 2012 Grammy Awards. The singer tragically drowned in her bathtub after battling heart disease and narcotics abuse, but her legacy lives on. At one point, Houston held the Guinness World Record for most-awarded female artist of all time. Among her 415 career awards, she had six Grammys and 30 Billboard Music Awards.
Whitney Houston’s impact wasn’t just limited to fans. She launched an entire era of powerful women in music – from Alicia Keys and Jennifer Hudson to Leona Lewis, who all credit the singer as a major source of inspiration.
Metallica (63 million units)
Metallica basically defined modern metal. The band is considered one of the four founding fathers of the thrash metal genre along with Megadeth, Anthrax, and Slayer. Basically, if you were a teen in the late ’90s, you probably couldn’t escape their hit single “Enter Sandman.” Seriously, it seemed like it was played on the radio every five minutes.
Metallica is still kicking, though in their old age some original fans claim they’ve lost their edge. The guys are dads now – so just let it go. They’re still the best band to jam along to in Guitar Hero, which is probably why Harmonix gave them their own game.
The Eagles (101 million units)
Since forming in 1971, the Eagles have raked in six No. 1 albums, five No. 1 singles, six Grammy Awards, and American Music Awards. Their anthemic hits like “Hotel California” and “Take It Easy” have cemented the band’s status as American icons. Even today, there’s a huge chance you’ll hear “Hotel California” blaring from the speakers of beachside bars and cozy pubs.
The band’s first commercial success was arguably their masterpiece. Rolling Stone declared Hotel California one of the 500 greatest albums of all time. In fact, critics hailed their follow up The Long Run as a disappointment purely because nothing could possibly hold up to Hotel California’s greatness. Luckily, it didn’t matter too much because the band can still fill stadiums.
Mariah Carey (64 million)
No one – no one – has pipes like Mariah Carey. The pop queen was widely credited for being able to sing the highest note in all of humankind, which she nailed while belting “The Star Spangled Banner” in 2003. Those precious pipes have made her an icon and brought her five Grammy Awards (and the most iconic Christmas song of all time, if you don’t count “Jingle Bells”).
Mariah may have a ton of musical success, but she’s also the inventor of the most iconic diss of all time. In the midst of an alleged feud with Jennifer Lopez, the diva queen famously quipped “I don’t know her.” Years later, Vanity Fair declared it “the most crushing celebrity shade” of the summer.
Madonna (64.5 million units)
Madonna is constantly reinventing herself, which has allowed her to have a decades-long career that never feels forced or stale. If Michael Jackson is the King of Pop, Madonna is the Queen – and she’s got the songwriting skills to boot. Before becoming an international superstar, she performed as a drummer, guitarist, and vocalist in various groups. After reaching fame, the singer-songwriter produced and wrote some of her biggest hits including “Like A Virgin” and “Papa Don’t Preach.”
In recent years, Madonna has taken a political stance and beautifully spoke out about ageism in Hollywood and sex after middle age. Aside from a brief break after 2008’s Hard Candy, she’s pretty much never stopped since 1983. She’s released 13 studio albums, which sold a combined 64.5 million units worldwide, and acted in various films like Evita, which landed her a Golden Globe.
Bruce Springsteen (66.5 million)
Bruce Springsteen is arguably New Jersey’s most beloved treasure. With political anthems like “Born in the USA”and “War,” the artist managed to craft a brand of rock that deeply spoke to blue-collar America. As a result, he’s amassed 20 Grammy Awards, two Golden Globes, and an Academy Award. Is there even a trophy case big enough?
Though Springsteen rose to fame after Born to Run was released in 1975, he’s still performing and making a killing on his craft. He had the second highest-grossing tour of 2012, which brought him an estimated $33.44 million and has sold over 66.5 million records in America to date.
The Rolling Stones (66.5 million units)
The Rolling Stones are like the cockroaches of the music industry – you can’t get rid of them. Luckily, their fans aren’t sick of them yet and they’ve been touring for 56 years. For many, Mick Jagger and Keith Richards define what it is to be a rock star – they’ve got the dance move, the groupies, the substance abuse problems, and the unyielding drive. Their drive shot them right to the front of the British Invasion of the ’60s.
In a move that’s rather ironic for a magazine literally named after them (or that Bob Dylan song, it’s hard to tell), Rolling Stone rated the British legends as the fourth greatest artists of all time. Worldwide, the band’s album sales top 250 million, but stateside it’s left to a modest (but still wildly impressive) 66.5 million.
Barbra Streisand (68.5 million units)
Barbra Streisand clawed her way up in a male-dominated music industry with her numerous talents. The singer-turned-actress has pretty much won every award an entertainer could hope to win. She’s got 10 Grammys, nine Golden Globes, five Emmys and a Tony.
With films like Funny Girl and A Star Is Born, Streisand broke barriers for women. She’s the top-selling female artist in the United States and holds the record for having the most top 10 albums out of any other female performer (she’s got 34). When Yentl was released in 1983, she became the first woman to ever write, produce, direct and star in a major studio film. As it stands, she’s the only female to ever with a Golden Globe for Best Director.
George Strait (69 million units)
There’s a reason they call George Strait the “King of Country.” His cowboy look and decades-long career have set him apart from the leagues of other country artists and launched him into worldwide stardom. In the US, the country star has sold over 69 million records and his album Pure Country is six times platinum.
Strait has a bevy of accolades to his name. The Academy of Country Music named him artist of the decade during the new millennium and he’s a long-standing member of the Country Music Hall of Fame. Strait has been nominated for and won more Country Music Awards and American Music Awards with his seven No. 1 records than any other artist.
AC/DC (72 million units)
What would ’80s rock even be like if AC/DC never released Highway to Hell in 1979? Even Eddie Van Halen has name-dropped this record as his favorite in the band’s catalog. Strangely enough, the record never received the same commercial success as For Those About Rock, which peaked at No. 1 on charts worldwide. As one of Rolling Stone’s 100 greatest artists of all time, they’ve sold over 200 million records across the globe and 72 million in the States. Even famed producer Rick Rubin cited the band as the literal G.O.A.T when it comes to rock and roll.
Despite their massive success, there is one achievement AC/DC doesn’t get enough credit for – Angus Young can pull off a school uniform probably even better than Brittany Spears. Mid-thigh is a hard length for a grown man to pull off.
Pink Floyd (75 million units)
If Target and Walmart sell your band’s merchandise, you know you’re probably pretty big. That’s the case for Pink Floyd, whose intense, psychedelic concept albums garnered them a spot as one of the most popular bands of all time. Both Dark Side of the Moon (1973)and The Wall (1979) became two of the best-selling records of all time, and Dark Side may just have the most recognizable album artwork on the planet.
Though Pink Floyd’s psychedelic sound was pretty popular during the era, Roger Waters’ abstract lyrics earned them their spot in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Today, teens still queue up Dark Side of the Moon to the classic film The Wizard of Oz. As the urban legend states, the movie is perfectly narrated by the record if you start it as soon as the MGM lion roars. Is it a coincidence or Waters’ brilliant mind?
Elton John (78 million units)
Elton John is has a few credits to his name – a spot in the Grammy Hall of Fame, a decades-long feud with Madonna, a BRIT icon award, and 78 million record sales. The man wrote “Tiny Dancer.” Need we say more? He’s also a knight. In 1996, the star was made a Knight Bachelor for his extensive charity work (so, he’s Sir Elton John to us commoners). Not too many celebs are honored by the Queen, but Elton John deserves it for his cultural contribution.
Rolling Stone heralded Elton John as one of the most influential musicians of Rock and Roll. He’s used his massive success to push for LGBTQ rights and has been heavily involved in AIDS-related charities since the ’80s, and even established his own foundation. Despite his success, 2018 marks the end of catching him live. He’s embarked on his three-year farewell tour.
Michael Jackson (81 million units)
After starting his career alongside his brothers in the Jackson 5, Michael Jackson became a full-fledged icon. The top-selling artist was so renowned and so beloved that his funeral was broadcast in Times Square. His career is just a string of endless hits (from “Billie Jean” to “Thriller”) and epic dance moves (he coined the Moonwalk). Not to mention that Jackson broke down racial barriers throughout his career.
“Thriller’s” cinematic music video changed the entire industry. It proved that videos could be more than just a vessel to promote a single, and was selected for inclusion in the National Film Registry by the Library of Congress. Today, people still perform the iconic “Thriller” dance at Halloween parties across America.
Billy Joel (82.5 million units)
It’s pretty much impossible to exist in the modern world and have never heard a Billie Joel Song. The Long Island-native is the Piano Man and has sold over 82.5 million records. With songs like “Uptown Girl,” “Piano Man,” and “We Didn’t Start The Fire” (yup, he wrote that too), he’s racked up six Grammy Awards and 23 nominations. His songs are so iconic, they’re even fodder for SNL skits and Blockbuster flicks (who can forget Brittany Murphy charming everyone in Uptown Girl?).
Today, Joel is still performing for audiences everywhere and christened the renovated Nassau Coliseum in his home state (which was, of course, packed). He’s a Rock and Roll Hall of Famer and has been inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame, but most of all Billie Joel is a Long Island treasure.
Led Zeppelin (111.5 million units)
Led Zeppelin is so iconic that they managed to win a Grammy for Best Rock Album in 2014 despite breaking up in 1980. The band are widely credited as being the purveyors of stadium psychedelic rock and achieved eight consecutive number one albums in the UK. Rolling Stone even hailed them as the “heaviest band of all time.”
Everything Zeppelin touched during the ’70s turned into gold. In 1970, “Stairway to Heaven” was the most requested and most played song on American rock radio despite never having been released as a single. Today, that song is so notorious that you probably hear it every time you step into a Guitar Center, where some guy noodling around on guitar will almost always be ringing those iconic arpeggios.
Elvis Presley (136 million units)
Elvis Presley was more than just a top-selling musician. He was a movie star and a military man. After achieving massive fame from hits like “Hound Dog” and “Love Me Tender,” Presley was drafted into the army. He served for two years before being honorably discharged and donating his whole salary to charity. He also got his iconic haircut during basic training.
Because of his massive success, Presley has been inducted into five music halls of fame – from the Grammy Hall of Fame and the Country Hall of Fame to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Even today, he remains one of the most culturally significant people in the history of American pop culture. Plus, who doesn’t love a good Elvis impersonator?
Garth Brooks (148 million units)
According to the RIAA, Garth Brooks is the best-selling solo artist in the United States and has released 12 albums since beginning his country career in 1985. He’s the only artist to ever release seven diamond albums – seven (diamond only happens when you’ve sold over 10 million copies). Who has that level of musical consistency?
While some people struggle for years, Brooks was a success since his very first try. His debut self-titled album peaked at No. 2 and set the tone for the rest of his career. Even Bruce Springsteen doesn’t have this country star beat when it comes to blue-collar anthems.
The Beatles (178 million units)
The Beatles take home the gold when it comes to best-selling artists, with over 178 million units sold. No one has been able to top their success, and decades later, the legendary group’s brand of ’60s rock still touches the hearts of millions. Why? Because their songs are relatable (barring the bizarre drug-fueled anthem “I Am The Walrus”).
Throughout their career, the group somehow managed to constantly reinvent themselves – from the clean-cut look of A Hard Days Night to the LCD-laced tracks of Yellow Submarine. Yet, their music was cemented with an air of nostalgia. You can’t help but love these Liverpool lads.