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What Really Are the Ten Biggest Selling Rock Albums of All Time?

Updated on December 27, 2012

I have often seen the question asked, "what are the biggest selling rock albums of all time?" It is a question that may seem simple but is really quite tricky. If you ask what are the biggest sellers only in the United States, you can simply check the Recording Industry Association of America's Top 100 list and then just pick out what you consider rock.

What you come up with is still not definitive, however, as a lot has to do with your opinion of what exactly a "rock album" is. The biggest selling album in the United States is Michael Jackson's Thriller, but I do not consider that a rock album. If I look at the RIAA'a Top 100, my rock album list would be this...

  1. Their Greatest Hits 1971-1975 by The Eagles
  2. The Wall by Pink Floyd
  3. IV by Led Zeppelin
  4. Back in Black by AC/DC
  5. Rumours by Fleetwood Mac
  6. The Beatles (aka "The White Album") by The Beatles
  7. Appetite for Destruction by Guns N' Roses
  8. Boston by Boston
  9. 1967-1970 by The Beatles
  10. Jagged Little Pill by Alanis Morissette

But there is no Recording Industry Association of the World, and even if there were, there are some countries that are notorious for allowing the sale of less than reputable versions that would never be counted. Do we try to include these or not? So really, figuring out a world wide top ten is going to include at least a certain amount of guesswork.

Ah, but what about Wikipedia? Don't they have a list of the top selling albums worldwide of all time? Well... yes, they do. But to get an idea of the accuracy of their list, consider this...

Wikipedia lists Pink Floyd's Dark Side of the Moon as the second best selling album worldwide at 50 million copies. The RIAA says 15 million of those were in the United States. So Pink Floyd must have documented sales of 35 million in other countries, right? Wrong! This figure was taken from an offhand remark made in an article about the remastered Pink Floyd albums being released in deluxe sets, There is no indication the writer researched this or intended it to be an accurate count.

Keep in mind that Pink Floyd's The Wall sold 23 million in the United States and that according to Wikipedia it only sold another 7 million worldwide for a total of 30 million. The Wall is by far one of Pink Floyd's most popular albums in any country. To think two-thirds of its sales have been in the United States is a little preposterous. Of course, maybe the fact that the source of the information is another offhand comment made in an article five years ago with no clear source could be the reason why...

The third album on the Wikipedia list is AC/DC's Back in Black which sold more than 22 million in the United States and Wikipedia says has sold 49 million worldwide. Where did they get the info? A New York Times article. But at least that article sites the band's record label, Columbia Records, as the source of the information. Is it accurate? That's hard to say, but probably is a better guess than the Dark Side of the Moon estimate.

So how do we come up with an accurate list of the biggest selling rock albums of all time? Well, we probably do not. But we can do a little research, and make some educated guesses. To come up with my list, I used sources such as the RIAA Top 100, Britain's Official Chart Company, Japan's Recording Industry Association of Japan, Italy's Federazione Industria Musicale Italiana and other organizations around the world that track actual sales. Heck, I even checked with the Recording Industry Association of New Zealand! Then I factored in some estimates based on things like artists that did well in other Asian markets probably did well in places like China where no data was available. This is what I came up with (keeping in mind it is my personal opinion of what is rock music which means Thriller still does not make the cut).

"The Wall" - Pink Floyd
"The Wall" - Pink Floyd
"Back in Black" - AC/DC
"Back in Black" - AC/DC
"Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Band" - The Beatles
"Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Band" - The Beatles
"Dark Side of the Moon" - Pink Floyd
"Dark Side of the Moon" - Pink Floyd
"Rumours" - Fleetwood Mac
"Rumours" - Fleetwood Mac
"IV" - Led Zeppelin
"IV" - Led Zeppelin
"Their Greatest Hits 1971-1975" - The Eagles
"Their Greatest Hits 1971-1975" - The Eagles
"Bat Out of Hell" - Meat Loaf
"Bat Out of Hell" - Meat Loaf
"Greatest Hits" - Queen
"Greatest Hits" - Queen
"Hotel California" - The Eagles
"Hotel California" - The Eagles

For better or worse, there you have it. It should be noted that there are several problems with this list from the start. For instance, though Queen's Greatest Hits makes the list, practically every country has a different track listing for this album. The album and CD versions have different track listings. This is really unfair to The Beatles who came close with their albums 1964-1966, 1967-1970 and the simply titled 1. If The Beatles had only one hits package, it would most certainly have placed in the Top Ten. Of course, there is also the problem of putting music into genres as well. After all, my mom always considered The Eagles to be "country rock," whatever that is!


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