The history of recorded music begins with a fragment of the French folk song “Au Clair de la Lune,” captured by an instrument called a Phonautograph in Paris in 1860. Unfortunately, no playback mechanism existed, so nobody ever heard it.
Fast-forward — by way of Thomas Edison, who invented the playable wax cylinder; Peter Goldmark, who invented the vinyl record; James Russell, who gave the world the CD; and countless others — to 2021, when (according to Music Business Worldwide) some 60,000 songs are uploaded to Spotify every day. (Here are 35 musicians with legendarily long careers.)
In terms of global sales, recorded music in all formats from the U.S. alone generates almost $22 billion in annual revenue. A healthy portion of the amount brought in each year is generated by a comparatively small group of superstars — hitmakers who, despite changing tastes and the fragility of careers at the top, have managed to have immensely profitable and internationally celebrated careers, selling many millions of singles and albums. (These are the best-selling pop albums of all time.)
To identify the artists with the most hit albums, 24/7 Tempo reviewed the total number of certified album unit sales for the 2,650 artists with at least one Gold album as designated by the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA). A Gold album is one certified to have sold at least 500,000 units. Higher categories are Platinum (1 million minimum units), multi-Platinum (2 million minimum units), and Diamond (“10,000,000 and counting,” according to the RIAA). Our list includes the 50 groups and solo artists who have sold the most certified units. The most popular album for each artist and its release date are also taken from RIAA data.
The results span decades and numerous musical styles. Artists from Bob Dylan to the Backstreet Boys, 2Pac to Tim McGraw, Taylor Swift to Barbra Striesand are included. Whatever the genre, these performers are the most popular and in many cases influential of our era.