Music helps define us, helps describe us, and helps deliver us. For many people, music serves as a rallying call: a way to unite diverse groups of people under a common interest. The albums featured on this list have inspired generations and given birth to some of the most prolific movements of the 20th and 21st centuries. They are also the most popular albums of all-time, selling millions of copies across the world and often staying at the top of the charts for weeks at a time (years, in some non-consecutive cases). While you might expect to see some artists such as The Beatles and Michael Jackson, can you guess who makes the top 10 or even the top spot?
Focused mostly in the genres of pop, rock, and rhythm & blues, the albums on this list show how music really can transcend boundaries and borders, touching people from Canada to Japan to Finland to Brazil. One of the albums has been called “the most important and influential rock & roll album ever recorded” while another helped break down the color barrier in pop music. See if you can guess who will make this list of the 25 Best Selling Albums in History.
Madonna - The Immaculate Collection
Just beating out Michael Jackson’s album “Bad” for a spot on this list, Madonna’s “The Immaculate Collection” was released in 1990. Her first greatest hits album, it remixed 15 of her hit singles from the 1980’s and sold 30 million copies. One new song, “Justify My Love”, caused waves in the industry and in society due to its sexually suggestive music video.
James Horner - Titanic: Music from the Motion Picture
“Titanic” is one of the most highly regarded films in history. The most expensive film up to that point, “Titanic” easily made back its investment and was the highest grossing film for over a decade, bringing in $1.84 billion. (It cost a whopping $200 million to make.) Selling 30 million copies, “Titanic: Music from the Motion Picture” piggybacked on the film’s success. The composer, James Horner, was chosen after Enya declined.
Dire Straits - Brothers in Arms
“Brothers in Arms” by British rockers Dire Straits came out in 1985, the year CDs were coming onto the market. One of the first records aimed towards a more CD-market, “Brothers in Arms” was the first album where its CD sales beat out its vinyl sales. Selling over 30 million copies, the album also won Best British Album at the 1987 Brit Awards.
Bruce Springsteen - Born in the U.S.A.
The best-selling album of 1984, Bruce Springsteen’s “Born in the U.S.A.” is also the 22nd highest selling album of all time with at least 30 million copies sold. Springsteen embraced a livelier sound with electronic and pop elements, including the album’s most famous song of the same name. “Born in the U.S.A.” is notable for being the first CD produced in the United States. (Previous CDs were made in Japan.)
Bee Gees - Spirits Having Flown
With “Spirits Having Flown”, the Bee Gees tied the Beatles’ record of six songs making it to the top of the U.S. charts. Released in 1979 while the band was at its peak, the album sold 30 million copies and reached the number one spot on the album charts in many countries, including France, New Zealand, Norway, Sweden, and West Germany.
Elton John - Goodbye Yellow Brick Road
Elton John’s most successful album, “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road” sold 31 million copies and went eight times platinum by February 2014. The album talked about nostalgia for a simpler childhood and an American culture of days gone by, typified in songs such as “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road” and “Bennie and the Jets”. The song “Candle in the Wind” was originally written as a tribute to the deceased Marilyn Monroe.
Celine Dion - Let's Talk About Love
Coming after her widely successful album at #15 on our list, Celine Dion’s “Let’s Talk About Love” sold 31 million copies worldwide. Including the hit song “My Heart Will Go On” (which won the Grammy’s Record of the Year) from the movie “Titantic”, Celine Dion’s fifth album featured collaborations with many other famous artists of the time, such as Barbra Streisand, Carole King, and Luciano Pavarotti.
The Beatles - 1
Released 30 years after The Beatles disbanded, “1” is a compilation album including nearly every number one single of the group. The best selling album of the first decade of the 21st century, “1” sold 31 million copies and became the best-selling album of 2000 only five weeks after its release in November.
Michael Jackson - Dangerous
Sporting one of the coolest album artworks on this list, “Dangerous” was Michael Jackson’s 8th studio album and sold 32 million copies worldwide. The album notably featured the new genre of new jack swing (also known as swingbeat): a fusion of jazz, electronica, funk, R&B, and rap. Born out of New York city’s black clubs, new jack swing can best be heard in the single “Remember the Time”. MJ’s sister, Janet Jackson, was a major originator of new jack swing.
Mariah Carey - Music Box
Selling over 32 million copies, “Music Box” is pop and R&B singer Mariah Carey’s most successful album. Despite being criticized for its lack of energy, Mariah became widely popular in Asia where her album sales soared, especially in Japan and South Korea. One of the album’s singles, “Without You”, became her biggest hit and most recognizable song.
Celine Dion - Falling into You
One of only four singers to have two albums in our top 25 selling albums of all time list, Celine Dion became a common international name after winning the 1988 Eurovision Song Contest. Her best selling album, “Falling into You”, sold 32 million copies and won the Grammys for Best Pop Album and Album of the Year for 1996. “Falling into You” has made the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame’s Definitive 200 list as one of the best albums in history.
The Beatles - Sgt. Peppers Lonely Hearts Club Band
The Beatles’ album “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” claims top spot on Rolling Stone’s list of the Greatest Albums of All Time (despite only landing at #14 on our list with 32 million copies sold) and has been called “the most important and influential rock & roll album ever recorded”. The band’s 8th album, it departs from some of their previous work and explores new artistic areas, made possible since the band had retired from touring and would not have to perform the songs live. The concept for the album was centered on a military band from the Edwardian era of 1901 to 1910.
Alanis Morissette - Jagged Little Pill
Selling 33 million copies, “Jagged Little Pill” is the most successful album of Canadian alternative rock singer Alanis Morissette. A chart-topper around the world, the album explored less positive themes such as relationship trouble and anger. Nominated for nine Grammy Awards, “Jagged Little Pill” won five of them, including Album of the Year. She was the youngest singer to hold Album of the Year until Taylor Swift won in 2010.
Led Zeppelin - Led Zeppelin IV
Technically an untitled album, “Led Zeppelin IV” was notable for omitting a title and the band name on its front cover, following the group’s desire for more anonymity after a less-than-successful third album. Often called one of rock’s greatest albums, “Led Zeppelin IV” sold 37 million copies and featured the band’s most popular song, “Stairway to Heaven”.
Shania Twain - Come on Over
The best-selling country music album to date, Shania Twain’s “Come On Over” held the number one spot on Billboard’s Top Country Albums chart for 50 non-consecutive weeks. The album has become the best-selling studio album by a female artist and the highest-selling album from a Canadian singer with 39 million copies sold. To broaden its global appeal, Twain worked with her husband and fellow song-writer to dampen the country music elements on the album.
Fleetwood Mac - Rumours
Fleetwood Mac’s most successful album, “Rumours” almost didn’t happen. The album is aptly named with the songs all alluding to problematic relationships. While preparing the album, two of the band members divorced, another two had relationship issues, and Mick Fleetwood found out his wife had an affair with his best friend. All the drama led to fantastic songwriting for the album which sold 40 million copies globally.
Bee Gees/Various Artists - Saturday Night Fever
The soundtrack to the film “Saturday Night Fever”, performed by the Bee Gees and various other artists, is hands-down one of the most successful albums in history. Besides selling 40 million copies, the record stayed on Billboard’s album charts for 120 weeks. “Saturday Night Fever” is one of the best examples of the disco fever which swept the world.
Backstreet Boys - Millennium
With over 40 million copies sold, “Millennium” is the Backstreet Boys’ most popular album. Coming of their debut success with the album “A Night Out with the Backstreet Boys”, the album sold 500,000 copies on the first day and still holds the record for the most shipments (11 million) in one year of any album in U.S. history. The group’s first record was broken in 2000 when rival boyband NSYNC sold more than 1 million copies of “No Strings Attached” in one day.
Various Artists - Dirty Dancing
Sensual and evocative, the film “Dirty Dancing” was eclipsed by its musical soundtrack, featuring artists such as Patrick Swayze and Otis Redding. It is the 7th highest-selling album in history (42 million copies sold) and topped the Billboard 200 album charts for 18 weeks. The Irish are huge fans of the soundtrack which often makes it back onto their charts; overall, it has spent 230 non-consecutive weeks in their top 30.
Eagles - Their Greatest Hits (1971-1975)
The highest-selling compilation album, “Their Greatest Hits (1971-1975)” assembles the best songs of the Eagles’ first four albums. Selling 42 million copies and certified 29 times platinum, the album is the second highest-certified album after #1. The album’s cover artwork caused minor controversy as some people assumed they photographed the eagle skull on a bed of cocaine.
Meat Loaf - Bat Out of Hell
One of lesser-known modern artists on our list, Meat Loaf’s position on this list may come as a surprise to most younger people – though the baby boomers will remember him as one of the best rockers of their time. His most successful album, “Bat Out of Hell” sold 43 million copies and derived musical inspiration from a diversity of artists including Richard Wagner, Bruce Springsteen, and The Who.
Whitney Houston/Various Artists - The Bodyguard Soundtrack
The most successful soundtrack album in history, the tracks to “The Bodyguard” were mainly recorded by Whitney Houston and a few other artists. Its most famous song – “I Will Always Love You” – has become an iconic love ballad the world-around and Whitney’s most famous song (even though it was actually written by Dolly Parton). The album sold 44 million copies and uniformly topped charts across the world, from Switzerland to Japan to Finland to Australia.
Pink Floyd - Dark Side of the Moon
The most popular progressive rock album of all time, Pink Floyd’s “The Dark Side of the Moon” developed its songs through the themes of greed, conflict, and mental illness (which had affected its former lead composer and lyricist). Sound engineer Alan Parsons was largely responsible for the album’s iconic sound. (He also worked on The Beatles’ albums “Abbey Road” and “Let It Be”.) Beyond its 45 million in record sales, “The Dark Side of the Moon” signaled a critical and important point in rock music history.
AC/DC - Back in Black
With 49 million in record sales, Australian hard rock band AC/DC really hit the big-time with their album “Back in Black”. Widely popular among youth of then and now, the album explored themes of sex, alcohol, and partying. The album’s cover is notably pure-black, a tribute of mourning to former lead vocalist Bon Scott who died after a night of excessive alcohol consumption. “Back in Black” has become known as one of the most defining rock albums of all time.
Michael Jackson - Thriller
The King of Pop tops our list with the highest selling album in history, spawning thousands if not millions of pop culture references and adaptations. “Thriller” far outstrips any other album, selling 110 million copies to date. Uniting elements from pop, post-disco, funk, and rock music, “Thriller” was instrumental for the racial integration of pop music. The album was so successful that it won eight Grammy Awards, the highest of any album in history.