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.