Back in the days of physical sales, the actual number of albums sold was as big deal as they are today with streams and views. The problem was that you could never get an exact count of how many were really sold, so there were always a lot of numbers thrown around that sounded good on paper, but most likely had no basis in the real world (Michael Jackson’s 120 million sales of Thriller comes to mind here). In the United States, the RIAA is the most reliable source since it certifies Gold, Platinum and Diamond awards based on scans of the product barcode during checkout at retail. Here’s a list of the 20 best selling artists of all time in the U.S. according to the RIAA.
Most of the slots on the chart are taken by legacy artists like you’d expect, but there are some surprises. Garth Brooks coming in at #2 is one, and the appearance of George Strait and Mariah Carey is another (at least for me).
Keep in mind that the U.S. was between 55 and 60% of the world-wide sales at the time (although it’s supposedly much less in The Beatles case). Also, the chart below just measures album sales and not singles, which were very substantial at one time.