update July 18, 2009

Where did I get my information for the Best Selling Albums of All Time?

The May 3, 1996 Entertainment Weekly published a list of the 25 Best-Selling Albums in the United States. Since then, I updated the list each month when Billboard reports on RIAA certifications. Lately, I have had to rely on the RIAA web site. The original listing distinguished albums with the same number of units shipped by looking at how long the album was at number one or on the chart. My updates put the most recently certified multiplatinum at the bottom of the tie-list on the assumption that it has sold less than albums certified at the same level at an earlier date.

What is the RIAA and how do they get their numbers?

The RIAA is the US record industry's trade organization. It issues gold and platinum certification awards for sales of 500,000 and 1,000,000, respectively. It awards multi-platinum awards for albums that sell multiples of millions. The sales figures represent albums sold through retailers, record clubs, and direct-mail accounts. Certifications are based on figures submitted by record companies. Some companies did not always open its books for RIAA certification, which explains why Songs in the Key of Life was not on the list until recently. Updated certifications may lag far behind actual sales, too. One sale of a multidisc album gets credit for each unit in the package. For example, each sale of Prince's Emancipation counts as 3 in determining its gold and platinum status. Thus, Prince only had sell one-third as many albums of Emancipation as he did for Chaos and Disorder to reach gold status. The RIAA also imposes a 100-minute minimum to be considered a true multidisc set.

Where's 2Pac, Foreigner, etc.?

A lot of older superstars are not on the list because the record industry has grown over the last forty years. Thus, a number one album in 1997 will most likely sell more than a number one album in 1957 did. On the other hand, some older albums benefit from replacement sales. For example, I've bought three different configurations of Thriller and Purple Rain in my lifetime. I've also bought compact disks of many other albums that I used to own on vinyl; not that there's anything wrong with vinyl.

Where can I find worldwide sales information?

Determining U.S. sales is difficult enough. Determining foreign sales is almost impossible, especially in Eastern Europe and the Pacific Rim, not to mention the vast amount of bootlegging in many countries. At least we now have Soundscan as a double check on record label's claims concerning U.S. sales. If I ever find a reliable source for worldwide sales, I'll make a web page for that. Guinness Book of World Records lists some worldwide toppers. For starters you can check out this Yahoo! news article on the best selling singles in the world. Entertainment Weekly reported in its May 1, 1998 issue that Candle in the Wind has sold 34 million copies worldwide and White Christmas has sold 30 million. I was planning to compile the random reports I see on worldwide sales, but there's just no reliable consistent source.

Who are the best selling artists of all time?

The Best Selling Artists of all time (based on combined RIAA certifications of all albums) are the Beatles, Garth Brooks, and Elvis Presley. The Beatles have the most consecutive #1 albums with 8 scored between 1965 and 1968.

Based on Joel Whitburn's Top Pop Albums 1955-2005 and subsequent RIAA certifications, these artists have the most gold and platinum albums (each album is counted only once even if the album was certified gold, platinum, and multi-platinum):

  1. Elvis Presley (65)
  2. Barbra Streisand (49)
  3. The Rolling Stones (41)
  4. The Beatles (40)
  5. Neil Diamond (38)
  6. Elton John (35)
  7. Bob Dylan (34) [two with the Band]

Joel Whitburn's Top Pop Singles 1955-2006 listed these artists as having the most gold and platinum singles. Does not include recordings certified as digital platinum or digital gold

1. Elvis Presley (24+28)
2. The Beatles (18+6)
3. Whitney Houston (14+8)
4. Madonna (19)

What are the best selling singles of all time?

Visit The Best Selling Soundtracks of All Time are also available.



(4 million copies)

According to Joel Whitburn, the top artists of the decades are:


  1. Elvis Presley
  2. Elton John
  3. Barbra Streisand
  4. Neil Diamond
  5. Chicago
  6. The Rolling Stones
  7. Bee Gees
  8. John Denver
  9. Paul McCartney
  10. Bob Dylan
  1. Willie Nelson
  2. Prince
  3. Kenny Rogers
  4. Alabama
  5. U2
  6. Michael Jackson
  7. The Rolling Stones
  8. Billy Joel
  9. Hank Williams, Jr.
  10. Pat Benatar

[source: Billboard, December 25, 1999,
page YE-18]


  1. Mariah Carey
  2. Janet Jackson
  3. Garth Brooks
  4. Boyz II Men
  5. Celine Dion
  6. Madonna
  7. TLC
  8. Whitney Houston
  9. Michael Bolton
  10. Toni Braxton
Click to join neosoul and get updated on the best selling music

Click to join neosoul