In the age of Spotify, Apple and Google Music, the very idea of buying a compact disc is becoming a little bit ancient and we’ve seen album sales decline dramatically since the '70s and '80s. Thus, a lot of the entries in the top ten best-selling albums of all time stretch back to those decades. There are some classics here - and maybe a few surprises.
There are many ways to rank the best selling albums - by individual country, by certified sales or by the amount an album has shipped - so in a way, ranking the top ten is a bit of a moving target. Here, we started off by looking at Wikipedia, which traces sales figures back through RIAA, ARIA and a variety of national recording industry associations that report sales numbers.
We also looked at some instances of investigative reporting. For example, this phenomenal piece by Bill Wyman in the New Yorker shows that the numbers can vary pretty greatly and it's difficult to obtain exact figures.
However, the number one selling album of all time is a certainty.
We’ve decided to list the top ten best-selling albums, without including soundtracks or compilations. By this criteria, three albums fall out of the top ten: Whitney Houston’s soundtrack for The Bodyguard, The Eagles Their Greatest Hits (1971-1975) and the Bee Gees Saturday Night Fever. Here they are, in order.
#10 HOTEL CALIFORNIA – THE EAGLES
Although several albums sit on 32 million sales, it’s Hotel California that has the most certified copies, nudging out Celine Dion for tenth place (in addition to some little British quartet called The Beatles). If you’ve ever been to a karaoke bar in your life, you no doubt know the title track and probably have banged out a few lines yourself. The first of three concept albums on this list, Hotel California is nine songs of melodic rock but it is all about it’s title track – which has become such a cultural touchstone, it’s hard to look at the album without highlighting it.
#9 JAGGED LITTLE PILL – ALANIS MORISETTE
Featuring some stretched definitions of irony, Alanis Morissette’s Jagged Little Pill is estimated to have sold around 33 million copies. With a real alternative sound that doesn’t quite fit in to the rest of the top ten and all sorts of instrumental experimentation littered throughout the albums 13 tracks, it propelled Morissette into the limelight and captured her an Album of the Year Grammy.
#8 BAD – MICHAEL JACKSON
There’s no debating the appeal of MJ. The King of Pop absolutely ruled the '80s and Bad followed the huge success he found with Thriller. With nine singles over two years, including ‘The Way You Make Me Feel’ and ‘Man In The Mirror’, of course Bad comes in the top ten. It has sold an estimated 35 million copies.
#7 LED ZEPPELIN IV – LED ZEPPELIN
Containing some of the Zep’s biggest hits – ‘Stairway to Heaven’, 'When The Levee Breaks' and ‘Rock and Roll’ to name a few – it’s no real surprise to see Led Zeppelin in a list like this. Led Zeppelin IV stayed on the UK charts for approximately 90 weeks. Critically applauded, unlike their previous album Led Zeppelin III, IV sold 29 million certified copies and is estimated to have sold as much as 37 million. Despite accusations of plagiarism levelled at the band over the years, they have a legacy as brilliant as any rock band from the 70’s.
Just remember this when you’re in a guitar shop: No Stairway, Denied.
#6 COME ON OVER – SHANIA TWAIN
The highest selling album by a solo female artist, ever? Amazing. I’m surprised about it too, but Shania Twain was huge in the late '90s and this album contains 12 singles! It featured 16 tracks and nearly all of them became singles over a three year period from 1997 to 2000. Billed as a country album, it flirts with pop and rock sensibilities which helped it appeal to a non-country audience. You can definitely hear the country in songs like ‘Love Gets Me Every Time’ and ‘Don’t Be Stupid (You Know I Love You)’ but ‘That Don’t Impress Me Much’ and ‘Man! I Feel Like A Woman’ are pop bangers.
That does impress-a me much.
#5 RUMOURS – FLEETWOOD MAC
Fleetwood Mac’s eleventh album, released in 1977, remains their most successful, with an estimated 40 million sales. If we were looking purely at certified sales, this would come in at fourth place, with 27.9 million across the globe. During recording, a lot of personal drama bubbled to the surface which becomes obvious once you scan the track listing and lyrics. Despite that, the album was critically successful, merging the member’s varied backgrounds, anguish, independent writing processes and optimism into a coherent whole that is celebrated as Fleetwood Mac’s best offering.
#4 BAT OUT OF HELL – MEAT LOAF
When the guitars fade on the title track ‘Bat Out Of Hell’ and the piano begins to stir, you know you’re in for a ride. That’s what this album is all about – a young boy riding his motorbike misses a sudden curve and crashes, recounting the events of his life. It’s Rock Opera 101, an absolute scream at the top of your lungs banger from start to finish. It wasn’t an immediate success, having a troubled pre-production where it seemed nobody wanted to touch it and receiving a lukewarm critical reception on release, but its estimated 43 million sales (and the most album sales by an international artist in Australia) will make Meat Loaf feel a little better than he may have back in 1977.
When I think of Meat Loaf, this is the first thing I think of. (Yes, I totally ignore his 2011 AFL Grand Final performance)
#3 THE DARK SIDE OF THE MOON – PINK FLOYD
I’ve seen this album cover on far too many t-shirts, so the fact that it’s sold 45 million copies doesn’t surprise me, at all.
It stayed on the US charts for 741 weeks, but it’s not something I would immediately think of when talking about the top ten best selling albums. The album had only two singles and it’s not hard to see why - it’s just a little unusual, with instrumental tracks like ‘On The Run’ and ‘Any Colour You Like’, at first listen seem unlikely to have any real commercial appeal. It’s highly conceptual, but in the opposite way to Meat Loaf’s Bat Out Of Hell with its over the top pomp, which makes listening to it a particularly personal experience. The truth here is that the ten tracks that make up the album aren't merely singles, but rather, they're part of a cohesive audio experience spanning the entire length of the album.
And what an album.
#2 BACK IN BLACK - AC/DC
While the certified copies of Back in Black only sit at about 26.1m, its estimated the album has sold around 50 million copies worldwide, which easily slots it in at number 2 overall. Back in Black was released after the untimely death of lead singer Bon Scott, who passed away in 1980. Brian Johnson stepped in, the band continued on and the result was this – a bloody good rock album.
Interesting fact: Great White Sharks act calmer when listening to ACDC’s You Shook Me All Night Long, the first single off this album.
#1 THRILLER - MICHAEL JACKSON
Released in 1982, Michael Jackson’s Thriller has sold a total of 47.3 million certified copies – meaning every single person in Australia could own two copies and there’d still be some to spare. Thriller took home eight Grammys at the 1984 ceremony, the most won in a single night (now shared with the Smooth-containing album, Supernatural, by Santana).
Its title track has one of the best music videos of all time, a 14-minute piece of devilish cinema with unmistakable choreography directed by horror maestro John Landis. It spawned a meme – popcorn-chewing Jackson in his signature red-and-black jacket routinely appears on social media threads ready to explode into arguments – and redefined the music video.
It’s a landmark album that looks unlikely to be dethroned any time soon, perhaps ever, and cements Jackson as one of the all-time greats.