Best-Selling Albums of the Year for the Last 20 Years
After Michael Jackson’s legendary album “Thriller” topped the charts for two straight years in 1983 and ‘84, it seemed unfathomable that the music industry would see such dramatic dominance again. And now that the world has so many ways to listen to music and so much more of it than at any time in history — Spotify, for instance, says it holds at least 4 million songs that have never once been played — traditional album sales would certainly never reach “Thriller” or Whitney Houston levels again.
But greatness is greatness — or virality is virality. So whether there’s always an audience for something terrific or always an audience that believes something is terrific, our list of the best-selling albums of the 21st century proves that it’s not impossible to summon the King of Pop.
We sourced this list from the industry-leading Billboard 200 chart, and the sales figures for each album represent only U.S. figures for the year the album was released. All of these albums, save for the ones that were released in more recent years, have gone on to sell many more millions of copies.
You will find many familiar names on this list with few surprises, although a Christmas album and a TV soundtrack somehow made the cut. You will also find a cultural phenomenon on the level of “Thriller” involving an extraordinarily talented woman whose career is really only beginning even if she’d already made history before most of us had graduated from college.
2000: “No Strings Attached” by *NSYNC
Singles: “Bye Bye Bye”
Weeks at No. 1: Eight
The backstory: Right before this album came out, the boy band led by Justin Timberlake was caught in a messy legal battle over its representation by Trans Continental, saying the label’s “conduct with regard to *NSYNC is the most glaring, overt and callous example of artist exploitation that the music industry has seen in a long time.”
“No Strings Attached” also cemented the group as more than a Backstreet Boys knockoff, as the album sold a then-record 2.4 million copies in its first week.
Where are they now? By 2002 the band was no more. Timberlake remains a megastar in music and is by far the most successful former member (as readers will see later in this story), but a few other members went on to have some post-*NSYNC success as well. Just last year, Life&Style magazine detailed what the boys have been up to.
Joey Fatone starred on Broadway in the musicals “Rent” and “Little Shop of Horrors,” and currently runs the Fat Ones hot dog stand in Florida. JC Chasez put out a solo album in 2004 called “Schizophrenic” and he too has performed in musicals, starring in “Jesus Christ Superstar.” Lance Bass turned his attention to acting and even took third place in the 2008 version of “Dancing With the Stars.” Chris Kirkpatrick has largely avoided the spotlight but did appear in 2008’s “Gone Country” music reality show.
2001: “Hybrid Theory” by Linkin Park
Label: Warner Bros.
Singles: “Crawling,” “In the End,” “One Step Closer,” “Papercut”
Weeks at No. 1: None
The backstory: This rap-rock-metal hybrid was Linkin Park’s debut album, but that’s only the beginning. Its accomplishments include: best-selling debut album of the 21st century, with worldwide sales topping 30 million, and spending 150 weeks on the Billboard 200, despite never reaching No. 1.
Where are they now? Chester Bennington, the lead singer and heart and soul of the band, died by suicide in 2017. The remaining members have been on hiatus ever since. In August 2018, Alternative Nation reported that the remaining band members have not decided if they will ever make music or tour together again — however, they will never use a holographic image of Bennington if they do.
And as recently as February of this year, co-founder Mike Shinoda said the band is not looking for a new lead singer but isn’t opposed to something happening “naturally.” Shinoda also put out a solo LP in 2018 that Rolling Stone described as confronting “everything he’s gone through during the past 10 months in gritty detail.”
2002: “The Eminem Show” by Eminem
Labels: Aftermath, Interscope, Shady
Singles: “Cleanin' Out My Closet,” “Sing for the Moment,” “Superman,” “Without Me”
Weeks at No. 1: Six
The backstory: This was a big year for the rap star. Eminem was already an international sensation when “The Eminem Show” dropped, but it also came out the same year as Eminem’s movie, “8 Mile.” Its soundtrack was also a top-10 selling album of 2002. Eminem drew from his love of classic rock growing up to give “The Eminem Show” a unique sound and “to capture like a ’70s rock vibe.”
Where is he now? Eminem is still making music, albeit as a fully grown up father in his mid-40s who has a 20-something daughter and two younger kids. In 2017, he famously told his fanbase that they needed to choose between him or President Trump, of whom the rapper is not a fan. And although he’s put out several popular albums since “The Eminem Show,” nothing quite reached its heights.
He did, however, release two albums in 2018 and several collaborations with other artists. And in February 2019, Eminem dropped an extended version of “The Slim Shady LP” that, according to Rap Up, “consists of the original 20 songs, plus 10 additional tracks including rarities, a capellas [sic], freestyles and instrumentals.”
2003: “Get Rich or Die Tryin'” by 50 Cent
Label: Aftermath, Interscope, Shady
Singles: “21 Questions,” “If I Can’t,” “In da Club,” “P.I.M.P.”
Weeks at No. 1: Six
The backstory: There’s some debate over whether this is actually 50 Cent’s debut album, but it was certainly his studio debut. And it might not have happened this way if not for Eminem hooking up with 50 after Columbia dropped the Queens, N.Y. native over an incident in which 50 was shot nine times. “Get Rich or Die Tryin’” is also the 10th-best selling rap album of all time, based on U.S. sales.
Where is he now? Since this is the man who survived nine gunshots, it’s no wonder 50 Cent also survived bankruptcy. And in a 2018 profile in The New York Times about how he spends a Sunday morning, the controversial rapper sounds pretty low-key these days. He sleeps well, eats healthy, exercises, focuses on his music label and likes HBO’s “The Deuce.”
50 also apparently forgot that he owned a sizeable amount of bitcoin, until he realized that actually wasn’t true. And the rapper has also made a bit of an acting career for himself.
2004: “Confessions” by Usher
Singles: “Burn,” “My Boo,” “Yeah!”
Weeks at No. 1: Nine
The backstory: This album is certified diamond by the Recording Industry Association of America, having sold over 10 million copies domestically (and more than 20 million worldwide). “Confessions” is also appropriately titled, as Usher told MTV the album is a window into his personal life that his fans have never heard before.
There was also a second edition of “Confessions” released in late 2004 that featured four new songs, including the Alicia Keys duet “My Boo,” as a way to combat illegal sharing online in the peak days of music piracy.
Where is he now? Usher is one of the most successful recording artists of all time, but that doesn’t mean he’s any less human than the rest of us. And 2018 was proof of that. Usher announced that he and his wife were separating, and he also asked that a judge to dismiss a herpes lawsuit against the singer. It was his second very public bout with a herpes allegation, having reportedly settled with another woman for $1.1 million, according to Radar Online.
He also released his ninth studio album in 2018, so there’s that. And outside of music, he’s a successful investor with his own record label, cologne brand and part ownership of the Cleveland Cavaliers basketball team.
2005: “The Emancipation of Mimi” by Mariah Carey
Label: Island Def Jam
Singles: “Don't Forget About Us,” “It's Like That,” “Say Somethin',” “Shake It Off,” “We Belong Together”
Weeks at No. 1: Two
The backstory: “Mimi” marked a huge turnaround for Mariah Carey, as her career was in the dumps following her awful movie “Glitter.” She has described this album as a major turning point, effectively “emancipating” her from recent personal and career problems. Its initial sales of over 400,000 copies was the best opening week in Carey’s career at the time.
Where is she now? Mariah is still making headlines these days, sometimes for good and sometimes for bad. She’s embroiled in what seems to be a she-said-she-said set of lawsuits, in which Carey accuses a former assistant of blackmail while the assistant accuses Carey and her former manager of emotional, physical and sexual abuse. But she also extended a 2018 Vegas residency into this year thanks to its popularity, and will spend most of 2019 on a world tour.
Also in 2018, Carey bravely revealed that she has bipolar disorder, putting a megastar face on a still-stigmatized affliction in American society. And her latest album, released last year, was described by Rolling Stone as her strongest in years.
2006: “High School Musical” soundtrack
Label: Walt Disney
Weeks at No. 1: Two
The backstory: This wildly successful TV soundtrack was the first to hit No. 1 on the Billboard 200 since “Miami Vice” in 1986, and was the first made-for-TV movie soundtrack to top the chart. A sequel the very next year was nearly as popular, hitting No. 1 on the Billboard 200 upon release. It, however, lost the top album sales position to the very next entry on our list. “High School Musical” also effectively launched into stardom the careers of Zac Efron and Vanessa Hudgens.
Where are they now? Two more movies followed the original, with the second appearing on television again and the third receiving a theatrical release. While the original is still king when it comes to popularity, the franchise has definitely gained a cult following. But people do grow up, and iHeart Radio has proof that the cast of “High School Musical” has indeed aged — albeit quite well. Both Efron and Hudgens remain A-list stars. As you might imagine, Hudgens has performed in many musicals during the past 13 years, while Efron has done his share of indie movies and blockbusters.
Disney has announced a fourth installment of “High School Musical,” set to debut on Disney’s upcoming streaming service.
2007: “Noël”, by Josh Groban
Label: 143, Reprise
Singles: “Ave Maria,” “I'll Be Home for Christmas”
Weeks at No. 1: Five
The backstory: People just couldn’t get enough of Groban’s gold voice in 2007, but there’s no doubt he also benefited immensely from an early December appearance on “The Oprah Winfrey Show” — as many others have experienced — to make his Christmas collection the best selling album of the year. “Noël” also holds a Billboard 200 Christmas album record for consecutive weeks at No. 1 with five. In fact, the album’s success led to a 10th anniversary reissue with four new recordings among the six additional tracks.
Where is he now? Since this album’s success, Groban has done a little bit of everything in the entertainment world. He appeared on Broadway, he appeared on the small and big screens, he made more successful records and he dissed a Mariah Carey New Year’s Eve performance (but quickly regretted it and apologized).
His latest album, “Bridges,” was released in 2018, and he told Parade magazine that it felt like going home again musically — “more high energy, more pop-influenced, more world music, a few different languages, great orchestrations.” In the interview, he also compares his new Netflix series “The Good Cop” to the classic Peter Falk detective drama “Columbo.” But it sounds like that’s a bit of a stretch.
2008: “Tha Carter III” by Lil Wayne
Label: Cash Money, Universal Motown
Singles: “A Milli,” “Got Money,” “Lollipop,” “Mrs. Officer”
Weeks at No. 1: Three
The backstory: One of rap’s quintessential albums, “Tha Carter III” made Rolling Stone’s list of 500 Greatest Albums of All Time. Also appearing on the album are Jay-Z, T-Pain, Robin Thicke, Busta Rhymes, Static Major and Kanye West. In fact, Lil Wayne says Kanye was so amped to be part of it that he contributed at least 20 beats to album and Wayne had to tell him to “slow your roll.”
Where is he now? Wayne’s story is one of true redemption. After “Tha Carter III” launched him into the stratosphere of hip hop, he came crashing down hard. Wayne spent time at Rikers Island for gun possession and wrote a memoir about how much it changed him. But in early 2018, he was still languishing. High Snobiety pondered what exactly happened to Lil Wayne. None of his albums since had come anywhere close to “Tha Carter III,” and he’d been promising “Tha Carter V” for years. Well, we finally got it late last year, and Pitchfork said that’s a good thing; the album contains a level of maturity it certainly would not have when Wayne was at the bottom of his career and promising its release in 2014.
2009: “Fearless” by Taylor Swift
Label: Big Machine
Singles: “Change,” “Fearless,” “Love Story,” “You Belong With Me,” “You’re Not Sorry”
Weeks at No. 1: 11
The backstory: Taylor Swift described the title song to this album as the “best first date I haven’t had yet,” which should tell you a lot about her music — if you’re not already a confused teenage girl looking for answers to life’s mysteries from pop stars.
“Fearless” was Swift’s second album, and it made her into the star she is today. Swift has made millions of dollars — and millions of fans — writing about kissing, breakups, broken hearts and missed connections, and “Fearless” is everything Taylor wrapped into one album.
Where is she now? Since this album’s release, Swift has bestowed four more albums on the world. Each has gone multi-platinum. And perhaps the only thing more famous than Tay Tay is who Tay Tay is dating at any given moment. It’s easy to Google a Taylor Swift boyfriend timeline, but we’ll use this one from Women’s Health magazine. One of the great things about her romances is that she’s not shy to turn them into songs, which just adds to the mystique surrounding this galactic star.
For the record, she never discloses who the songs are about. One tryst in particular was her brief time with fellow musician John Mayer, who is 12 years older than Taylor and (likely) the subject of the scathing song “Dear John.” He apparently was not too kind to the then-20-year-old.
2010: “Recovery” by Eminem
Label: Aftermath, Interscope, Shady
Singles: “Love the Way You Lie,” “No Love,” “Not Afraid,” “Space Bound”
Weeks at No. 1: Seven
The backstory: A statement on the liner notes perfectly sums up “Recovery”: “This album is dedicated 2 anyone who’s in a dark place tryin’ to 2 get out [sic]. Keep your head up … it does get better!”
Reviewers noted the personal nature of the songs, and his manager said “Recovery” would bring a whole lot of new fans to Eminem’s world. Collaborators for the album included artists Pink, Lil Wayne, Slaughterhouse and Rihanna.
Fun fact: Anyone familiar with Eminem’s music knows it comes with a parental warning. Heck, they should plaster a hundred of those black-and-white icons on every album cover. But being a parent himself, Eminem once said that when the stage persona comes off and he’s just being Marshall Mathers — i.e., a regular dad raising the kids — his home is free of purple language.
2011 and 2012: “21” by Adele
Label: XL, Columbia
Singles: “Rolling in the Deep,” “Rumour Has It,” “Set Fire to the Rain,” “Someone Like You, Turning Tables”
Weeks at No. 1: 24
The backstory: It’s astonishing enough that “21” was the top-selling album for two consecutive years, but that’s only the tip of the iceberg. One of the great breakup collections in history, it spent 24 nonconsecutive weeks at No. 1. No woman artist has ever had more weeks at No. 1 with a single album.
Perhaps even more impressive is that it has yet to leave the Billboard 200 since its release in 2011, which as of early January 2019 means it’s spent 395 weeks on the list. And the reviews for “21” were as glorious as the album — there’s a certain “timeless” quality to Adele’s vocals, which are filled with “soul” and “intensity” on the level of Van Morrison. It’s amazing to know how young Adele was while recording the album, as she chose her age during production for its title.
Where is she now? Since her two-year run atop the charts, Adele has released just one additional studio album. So fans are particularly excited that a new record is expected in 2019. There was a time, however, where her future was somewhat uncertain. Not long after the release of “21” she embarked on a long tour but had to cancel a good bit of it after injuring her vocal chords. Thankfully she did fully recover.
Her first release following “21” was the eponymous theme song for the Bond movie “Skyfall,” which earned her both an Oscar and Golden Globe for best song in 2012. Adele also became a parent in 2012, and revealed to Vanity Fair magazine in 2016 that she struggled with postpartum depression and other realities of motherhood.
2013: “The 20/20 Experience” by Justin Timberlake
Singles: “Mirrors,” “Suit & Tie,” “Tunnel Vision”
Weeks at No. 1: Three
The backstory: With 968,000 copies sold, “The 20/20 Experience” was Justin Timberlake’s best opening week of his career. It also had 2013’s best opening week. The album’s lead single, “Suit & Tie,” features rapper Jay-Z. “The 20/20 Experience” marked a return to music for Timberlake, who is known to be a perfectionist in the studio and seldom releases albums (this was only his third in 10 years).
Where is he now? It’s kind of easy to hate on JT. He was really dorky back in his *NSYNC days, made some incredibly suspect and ill-advised fashion choices, and has never really had to, um, face the music for any of it — namely the infamous Janet Jackson Super Bowl performance, aka Nipplegate.
In early 2018, Noisey took him to task for all of this and for being totally uncool now. But Timberlake is usually in on the joke, and he’s an attentive dad who has great things to say about being a father. And he was actually really good in “The Social Network.”
2014: “1989” by Taylor Swift
Label: Big Machine
Singles: “Bad Blood,” “Blank Space,” “New Romantics,” “Out of the Woods,” “Shake It Off,” “Style,” “Wildest Dreams”
Weeks at No. 1: 11
The backstory: Named after the year Taylor Swift was born, this album marked a departure from her country music ways with decidedly pop sounds. But fans still ate it up, buying well over 1 million copies in the first week. Swift said she drew inspiration from late-1980s pop music for the album, and generally just wanted a whole new sound. “I woke up every single day not wanting, but needing to make a new style of music than I'd ever made before,” she said during a live stream of the album’s first single release.
Fun fact: She’s obsessed with the number 13. She told MTV News: "Basically whenever a 13 comes up in my life, it's a good thing."
2015: “25” by Adele
Label: XL, Columbia
Singles: “Hello,” “Send My Love (To Your New Lover),” “Water Under the Bridge,”
“When We Were Young”
Weeks at No. 1: 10
The backstory: As we’ve already learned when it comes to album sales, anything Adele touches turns to gold — or, in this case, platinum and diamond. In its first week in the U.S. alone, “25” sold well over 3 million copies, making it the best single week of sales since Nielsen SoundScan started tracking purchases in 1991. “25” is certified Diamond by the Recording Industry Association of America, having sold over 10 million copies domestically.
Like her other recordings, this album is age-related in that it reflects how the singer felt and saw the world at 25 years old (for the record, she was a mere 27 when it debuted). But in the years between “21” and “25,” Adele had become a mother and a more introspective person in general.
Fun fact: Adele is a generational talent with a deeply soulful voice who has been called “simply too magical to compare ... to anyone.” So it might come as a surprise that her self-proclaimed biggest influence was none other than the Spice Girls, a group who personifies plain old pop music. But it’s true. Adele told Celebs Now: “Even though some people think they’re uncool, I’ll never be ashamed to say I love the Spice Girls because they made me who I am. I’m deadly serious about that.”
2016: “Views” by Drake
Label: Cash Money, Republic, Young Money
Singles: “Controlla,” “Hotline Bling,” “One Dance,” “Pop Style,” “Too Good”
Weeks at No. 1: 13
The backstory: Drake’s hugely popular fourth album was also the first to hit 1 billion streams on Apple Music. It combines the artist’s usual genre-mashing of R&B, hip hop, pop and Jamaican dancehall. Despite its success, “Views” was met with some harsh criticism. Reviews cited a lack of creative growth and claimed a self-absorption in the music.
Where is he now? The 32-year-old Canadian is only a few years removed from this global hit, so he’s still pretty much doing what he was then: performing and making money. Drake was tied for fifth place in 2018 on the Forbes Five list of hip hop’s richest with an estimated net worth of $100 million. Also last year, he released his fifth studio album, “Scorpion,” which debuted atop the Billboard 200.
The biggest development in Drake’s life, however, is his decision to take a break from music so he can focus on film projects, according to The Hollywood Reporter. Those include a Netflix deal to revive a British crime drama called “Top Boy” and producing a documentary about NBA star Vince Carter, who played for Drake’s hometown Toronto Raptors. He’s also known as quite the bandwagon basketball fan.
2017: “÷” by Ed Sheeran
Label: Asylum, Atlantic
Singles: “Castle on the Hill,” “Galway Girl,” “Happier,” “Perfect,” “Shape of You”
Weeks at No. 1: Two
The backstory: In a nod to the way music is consumed nowadays, “÷” had oodles more streams (134.6 million) in its first week than sales (322,000). In a notable controversy, Sheeran gave TLC a writing credit on “Shape of You” following its release and mega-success for borrowing from the group’s 1990s hit “No Scrubs.”
In the UK, the streaming success of every single track on “÷” was so intense that it led to monumental changes in how streaming-based listens are calculated as to not drown out other artists.
Where is he now? The biggest news for this boyish Englishman in the short time since he took the music world by storm is that sometime in 2018 he secretly wed his fiancee, hockey player Cherry Seaborn. And before that he amassed quite the real estate fortune in a Suffolk village two hours outside London.
Fans might be sad to know that he’s not planning to release a new album this year, according to BBC, but he has something in store. “Something that isn’t pushed on radio. Something that’s not what I usually do, that just clears the air a little bit,” Sheeran told BBC. He also pointed out that it won’t be the first time he’s taken a hiatus between albums, and that “I’ll never not make music. It’s my hobby. I wouldn’t enjoy life if I didn’t do music.”
2018: “Reputation” by Taylor Swift
Label: Big Machine
Singles: “Delicate,” “End Game,” “Getaway Car,” “Gorgeous,” “Look What You Made Me Do,” “New Year's Day,” “...Ready for It?”
Weeks at No. 1: Four
Although official sales figures for 2018 were not available as of this writing, Billboard named Taylor Swift’s late 2017 release as the top charting album of 2018. Billboard’s chart year actually starts at the beginning of December the previous year, and that was the week “Reputation” debuted on the charts. The album sold over 1 million copies in its first week.
Fun fact II: Swift’s stadium tour for “Reputation” grossed $345.7 million worldwide. That means that over the course of her career, Swift’s tours have brought in almost $1 billion total. That’s quite the reputation.