What Are the Best-Selling Albums of All Time?

Best Selling Albums of All Time Feat
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Best Selling Albums of All Time Feat
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Photo Credit: Douglas Johnson / CC by 2.0

What are the best-selling albums of all time? We look at the top ten based on total certified copies sold versus claimed copies sold — and why it’s so difficult to determine how many copies an album sells.

While it might seem simple to list the best-selling albums of all time, there’s more involved than you might expect. Artists and their record labels often post much higher claimed sales than can be certified by companies and organizations like the RIAA

It also makes a big difference when an album was released. The percentage of certified sales needed to support claimed sales figures increase the newer an album is, so albums released before 1975 are only expected to have their claimed figures supported by at least 30% in certified copies. 

Newer albums such as Adele’s 21 are expected to have their claimed figures supported by at least 70% in certified copies because more markets instituted certification systems by the ’90s.

There are instances where double-length (two-disc) albums count as two sales. This results from RIAA and Music Canada’s methodology, where each disc in a multi-disc set is counted as one unit toward certification.

As of 2016, certification no longer reflects the shipment of units alone. RIAA included streaming numbers to track and album sales based on the “album-equivalent unit” concept for certification purposes. This change gives “Greatest Hits” compilations an advantage in updating certification under the new criteria.

Below are the top ten best-selling albums of all time, in order by certified sales, but the claimed sales will also be listed beneath each one. For simplicity’s sake, “Greatest Hits” compilations are not included on this list.

#1 – Michael Jackson – Thriller 

Certified Sales: 51.2 million

Claimed Sales: 70 million

Going purely by certified sales, Michael Jackson’s Thriller is the undisputed champion. Released in 1982, the album’s music videos for “Thriller,” “Beat It,” and “Billie Jean” are all widely viewed as having transformed music videos from a niche concept into an art form. 

The album debuted when funk and disco were phasing out while rock and pop began dominating the airwaves. Thriller takes advantage of all these genres, leading to the best-selling album of all time.

#2 – The Eagles – Hotel California 

Certified Sales: 31.8 million

Claimed Sales: 42 million

While The Eagles’ Their Greatest Hits compilation technically beats out Hotel California with over 10 million more in certified sales, its status as a compilation album omits it from this list. Interestingly, both were released in 1976.

As a standalone album, Hotel California is the Eagles’ best-selling record of all time. It has often been featured on lists of the greatest albums, while its title track has been listed as one of the greatest songs of all time.

#3 – Shania Twain – Come On Over

Certified Sales: 30.4 million

Claimed Sales: 40 million

Almost a decade before Taylor Swift’s debut album, there was Shania Twain. Shania was so successful in the late ’90s as a country-pop crossover artist that there was a three-year period where you couldn’t avoid hearing one of her singles on the radio. Her 1997 album Come On Over is the best-selling country record of all time.

Of the album’s 16 tracks, 12 were promoted as singles over three years, such as “You’re Still the One,” “That Don’t Impress Me Much,” and “Man! I Feel Like a Woman!” The album sold consistently for years.

#4 – Led Zeppelin – Led Zeppelin IV

Certified Sales: 30.4 million

Claimed Sales: 37 million

Released in 1971 as Led Zeppelin’s magnum opus, the album was technically untitled, with many fans trying to interpret the four symbols each band member chose to include in the LP’s sleeve as a title. The album has been reprinted and reissued several times, helping to boost its sales numbers.

With only eight tracks considered “all killer and no filler,” the album features “Stairway to Heaven,” the band’s signature song. According to Led Zeppelin, the album is a “fully realized hybrid of the folk and hard-rock directions.”

#5 – AC/DC – Back in Black

Certified Sales: 30.1 million

Claimed Sales: 50 million

AC/DC’s seventh studio album but the first with vocalist Brian Johnson, Back in Black came out in 1980. The band embarked on a year-long world tour to support the album’s debut, cementing their place among the most popular live acts of the early ’80s.

#6 – Fleetwood Mac – Rumours

Certified Sales: 29.3 million

Claimed Sales: 40 million

The eleventh studio album by Fleetwood Mac, Rumours, was released in 1977 and showed immediate appeal with a mass audience. The album was so successful that the band embarked on a seven-month North American tour following its release.

The album became the band’s first number-one record on the UK Albums Chart, while the singles “Go Your Own Way,” “Dreams,” “Don’t Stop,” and “You Make Loving Fun” all reached the US Top 10. Much praise for Rumours has centered on its production quality and the harmonies between vocalists Stevie Nicks, Christine McVie, and Lindsey Buckingham.

#7 – Whitney Houston – The Bodyguard: Original Soundtrack

Certified Sales: 28.7 million

Claimed Sales: 45 million

Released in 1992, The Bodyguard soundtrack was essentially a Whitney Houston album to accompany the film of the same name, which starred the singer alongside actor Kevin Costner. The movie is considered one of the best made about the music industry and helped make the soundtrack sales successful. 

The record won Album of the Year at the Grammy Awards, supported by six singles that all received solid radio play — but its biggest break-out hit was “I Will Always Love You,” originally written by Dolly Parton.

#8 – Adele – 21

Certified Sales: 27.1 million

Claimed Sales: 31 million

Adele’s second album, 2011’s 21, dominated the charts in more than 30 countries as the best-selling album for two years in a row. The title comes from the singer’s age at the time of the album’s production, with her previous record being titled 19 and her next called 25.  

#9 – Alanis Morissette – Jagged Little Pill

Certified Sales: 25.4 million

Claimed Sales: 33 million

Alanis Morissette’s Jagged Little Pill is a pure alt-rock album released in 1995 at the height of the genre’s popularity. The record was her first international release and won five Grammy Awards, including Album of the Year. At the time, Alanis was the youngest artist to win the award at age 21, until Taylor Swift took that title at age 20.

#10 – Pink Floyd – The Dark Side of the Moon

Certified Sales: 24.8 million

Claimed Sales: 45 million

Considered to be one of the best records ever made, The Dark Side of the Moon is a 1973 release and a hallmark in progressive rock albums. It’s a concept album that utilized many experimental techniques at the time, leading to new sounds not heard before in music. The number of remasters and rereleases has helped increase the album’s sales.

Honorable Mentions

Other albums with impressive sales that didn’t quite make it to the top ten include Guns N’ Roses’ Appetite for Destruction (22.8 million certified sales), Metallica’s Metallica (22.7 million certified sales), the Saturday Night Fever soundtrack (22.1 certified sales), and Meat Loaf’s Bat Out of Hell (22 million certified sales).