Most successful musical artists of all time
No matter how they come to music or what genre they fall into, almost every recording artist privately shares the same dream: to become an icon in the industry, transforming the face of music along the way. And while there are hundreds of talented and successful artists out there, very few will end up doing all of that. Most will have a hit or two, and many may even achieve a string of successful albums, but few will change the course of popular music or pave a new path for those who follow.
But of course, there have been a handful of modern musicians who have done that. Stacker has rounded up the 50 most successful musical artists of all time. These folks have been trailblazers and icons. They've sold millions of albums and singles, performed countless live shows, and even invented new genres.
In order to come up with this list, Stacker looked at data from both the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) and the Grammy Awards. The RIAA gives out certifications based on the number of albums and singles an artist has sold. Gold albums have sold 500,000 copies; platinum albums have sold 1,000,000 copies; multi-platinum have sold 2,000,000 (with increments of 1,000,000 thereafter), and diamond albums have sold 10,000,000 copies. Stacker then came up with an index to rank each artist that takes into account the total number of RIAA certified units (70%), Grammy wins (20%), and Grammy nominations (10%). Additionally, to be considered for this story, artists must have sold 10 million RIAA certified units.
Some artists found on the list are predictable, like Michael Jackson and The Beatles, while others might be more surprising, like Eminem and Kenny G. Read on to find out whether your favorite musicians made the cut.
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#50. Kenny G
- Certified units: 48 million (15 gold, 11 platinum, 8 multi-platinum, 1 diamond)
- Grammy wins: 1
- Grammy nominations: 17
One of the best instrumentalists of all time, Seattle-born saxophonist Kenny G has sold a whopping 75 million records throughout his career. His 1992 album “Breathless” topped 8 million copies in the United States alone, and his holiday album “Faith” also sold millions of copies. In the ‘90s, Kenny G worked with dozens of other big names in the music industry like Aretha Franklin and Natalie Cole. He and Whitney Houston also collaborated on several tracks for the “Bodyguard” soundtrack.
#49. Neil Diamond
- Certified units: 49.5 million (40 gold, 21 platinum, 12 multi-platinum)
- Grammy wins: 1
- Grammy nominations: 13
In March 2017, Neil Diamond released his 50th anniversary collection, marking five decades since he'd released his first hit “Solitary Man.” Diamond has sold over 130 million albums worldwide throughout his half-century-long career and has had 37 Top 40 hits. The Rock and Roll Hall of Famer's most well-known albums include “Home Before Dark,” “Serenade,” and “Moods.”
#48. Frank Sinatra
- Certified units: 27 million (34 gold, 10 platinum, 4 multi-platinum)
- Grammy wins: 9
- Grammy nominations: 31
Most famous during the “crooner-swooner” era, Frank Sinatra is best known for his swing style. “Ol' Blue Eyes” was not only a singer but also a well-known actor, starring in flicks like “Ocean's 11.” Some of his top albums include “Strangers in the Night,” “Come Fly with Me,” and “A Jolly Christmas from Frank Sinatra.”
#47. Alicia Keys
- Certified units: 15.5 million (6 gold, 5 platinum, 3 multi-platinum)
- Grammy wins: 15
- Grammy nominations: 29
Alicia Keys actually turned down a spot a Columbia University at the age of 16 in order to pursue music full-time. Five of the Grammy winner's six albums have gone platinum: “Songs in A Minor,” “The Diary of Alicia Keys,” “As I Am,” “The Element of Freedom,” and “Unplugged.”
#46. Simon & Garfunkel
- Certified units: 38.5 million (12 gold, 11 platinum, 7 multi-platinum, 1 diamond)
- Grammy wins: 7
- Grammy nominations: 11
Folk-rock duo Simon & Garfunkel got their start early; their rendition of “Hey Schoolgirl” peaked at #49 on the Pop Chart when the two were just 15 years old. But it was during the ‘60s and ‘70s that the duo became a household name with albums like “Bridge Over Troubled Water,” “Bookends,” and “The Graduate” soundtrack. The countercultural icons were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1990.
#45. Paul Simon
- Certified units: 13.5 million (11 gold, 6 platinum, 2 multi-platinum)
- Grammy wins: 16
- Grammy nominations: 35
Paul Simon found plenty of success outside of Simon & Garfunkel. After the group's split at the height of their fame in the ‘70s, Simon struck out on his own and released his most beloved solo album, “Graceland,” in 1986. At the end of 2018, Simon announced he'd no longer be writing music, essentially ending his seven-decade-long career.
#44. Phil Collins
- Certified units: 33.5 million (10 gold, 7 platinum, 6 multi-platinum, 1 diamond)
- Grammy wins: 8
- Grammy nominations: 28
Phil Collins got his start as the drummer for the band Genesis before becoming the group's lead singer and eventually striking out on his own. His first solo hit, “In the Air Tonight,” is an ‘80s anthem, and his albums “No Jacket Required,” “Face Value,” and “...But Seriously” are often regarded as some of the best records to come out of the era. While Collins' more recent work hasn't had quite the same levels of success, his “Still Not Dead Yet” tour has been selling out thanks to dedicated fans.
#43. Linda Ronstadt
- Certified units: 30 million (17 gold, 13 platinum, 7 multi-platinum)
- Grammy wins: 10
- Grammy nominations: 26
A true genre-bender, Linda Ronstadt has sung everything from rock to Latin to country to light opera. Most successful in the ‘70s and ‘80s, her top albums include gems like “Heart Like a Wheel,” “Canciones de Mi Padre,” “What's New,” and “Simple Dreams.” Diagnosed with Parkinson's Disease in 2013, Ronstadt no longer performs but she was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame on the first ballot in 2014.
#42. Van Halen
- Certified units: 56.5 million (14 gold, 13 platinum, 12 multi-platinum, 2 diamond)
- Grammy wins: 1
- Grammy nominations: 4
Since their self-titled debut in 1978, Van Halen has been credited with “restoring hard rock to the forefront of the music scene.” The hard rock group is probably just as famous for how much they partied as they are for how major their music was. Some of their most notable albums include “Van Halen,” “1984,” and “5150.”
#41. Kenny Rogers
- Certified units: 47.5 million (28 gold, 17 platinum, 7 multi-platinum, 1 diamond)
- Grammy wins: 3
- Grammy nominations: 19
Old school country music singer Kenny Rogers has a genuine talent for storytelling, which is evident in the number of records (120 million) he's sold. Currently in the midst of his final world tour, “The Gambler's Last Deal,” Rogers has been playing hits from some of his top albums like “Love or Something Like It,” “The Gambler,” “The Heart of the Matter,” and “Water & Bridges” in countries all over the world.