Most successful artists by decade

No matter how familiar one is to the music industry, he will still easily link the most successful artists to their decade, like the Beatles to the 60s or Michael Jackson and Madonna to the 80s.

Then, depending on your own age, artists from a certain moment in history will bring you an awful lot of memories – and others absolutely nothing.

This page enables you to relive the hottest artists of every decade, to go back to your teenage years and remember all these stars, the ones you continued to listen to, and the ones that will have you think “oh, I had forgotten about them!”. Let’s go!

Most successful artists by decade – how do we do

The figures written here to display the most successful artists by decade are based on the CSPC process, meaning that they embed together sales and streams of every format, up to date, of all the songs that were recorded during the related period.

For example, the Beatles‘ 60s figure is indeed their comprehensive career sales, minus Let It Be (the 1970 album) material and the subsequent ‘final’ singles.

In fact, while it may sound counter-intuitive, cumulative sales to date are way more representative of biggest artists from a period than sales during that period.

Also, the CSPC method makes sure to apply appropriate weightings to every format, avoiding fanciful lists like Wikipedia’s top selling artists page which mixes together claims in records sales when the very own definition of a record evolved quite a lot through the years and between the labels.

Please keep in mind some artists with strong results in several decades haven’t been studied so far, e.g. Neil Diamond or Kenny Rogers. All figures reflect the value as collected at the time of the artist’s respective articles plus up to date streaming data. The list of studied artists is available here.

Most successful artists by decade – the results

Rock’n’roll invade the 1950s, Elvis Presley steals the show

The king of the 50s is undoubtedly Elvis Presley. In a decade when selling 500,000 copies of an album was a miracle, the rock legend created a body of work which moved over 128 million units through the years.

Under normal circumstances, this would have been enough to destroy everyone else. While he has a comfortable lead, Frank Sinatra is an impressively strong runner up still.

The Voice, who debuted at the end of the 30s, is widely seen as the inventor of the album as we know it, with every song intended to be listened to as an ensemble, rather than a box of individual singles.

He did so with his 50s classic LPs like In the Wee Small Hours or Songs for Swingin’ Lovers!, the latter being the first UK #1 album ever.

So far, we studied only 2 artists with sales exceeding 10 million based on their 50s output, although arguably these pair would remain easily the top 2. Contenders for the top 10 spots, in no particular order, would be artists like Johnny Cash, Miles Davis, Ray Charles, Bill Haley & His Comets, Nat King Cole, Bing Crosby, The Kingston Trio, Johnny Mathis, Doris Day, Mario Lanza, Mantovani, Harry Belafonte, Jackie Gleason, Brenda Lee, Glenn Miller and more.

If you would like to look for the most successful artists over a specific period that you can choose, rather than by decades, it’s possible! Just head to the dedicated page and enter your period of interest:

The Beatles make the 1960s their own

Elvis Presley, the Beach Boys, and the Rolling Stones all recorded outstanding 60s success, with a catalog responsible for north of 100 million equivalent album sales each. Yet, they almost look weak compared to the Beatles.

This highlights how insanely popular they have been. They are the definition of the most successful artist in a decade.

Scoring nearly 400 million worth of sales with their 60s songs, they aren’t only leaders of the 60s, as they would lead any decade with this tally, actually, they would lead every decade with half of these sales!

Nearly all big ones have been scanned, with usual suspects hitting the top 10 like Simon & Garfunkel and Bob Dylan.

Classic rock continues to thrive through the 1970s

Hands down the most stacked decade, the 70s see their entire top 10 crack the 100 million barrier.

These years featured some amazing artists, most notably bands, from Pink Floyd to Led Zeppelin to Queen to the Eagles to ABBA.

Each of them secure more than 130 million equivalent album sales, with the former leading the way, although with a minimal lead towards the Eagles. Of course, Pink Floyd enjoyed some of the biggest albums of all-time during this decade, especially Dark Side of the Moon and The Wall.

Among solo acts Elton John was an unparalleled hit maker, and a very active one too, ultimately putting himself strongly among these legends. He claims the biggest selling decade up to that point among solo artists.

The 1980s summed up by Michael Jackson

Michael Jackson is a clear winner as the most successful artist of the 80s decade, with the second largest decade of all-time, only behind the Beatles‘ 60s total.

It is an almost natural conclusion as the American artist perfectly resumes everything related to this decade. No matter if we look at economics with the globalization, at social aspects with the empowerment of minorities, or the music industry itself with the explosion of MTV, Michael Jackson combines it all.

While productivity is a key factor to feature high on these lists, the US Pop legend is unique, amassing this monumental total of 185 million on the back of a mere 2 studio albums. Thriller and Bad stand as the #1 and #4 best selling albums ever, respectively.

The 80s is a pivotal decade as we see the list switching from rock legends to superstars.

All the big ones are there, with one more stacked top 10 featuring Madonna, up to that point the first female to feature that high, but also Phil Collins, Prince, Bruce Springsteen, George Michael, and more like Billy Joel or Whitney Houston in the top 20.

Rock stars weren’t completely gone just yet with a new generation getting big. These included U2, AC/DC, Bon Jovi in the top 10 and a bit below others like Metallica, Iron Maiden or Guns N’ Roses.

Kudos to Queen, who top 100 million sales just like they did from their 70s material. They are only the second – after Elvis Presley -, and still the last to date, to record over 100 million sales off their catalog from two distinct decades.

Females’ big 4 overwhelm the 1990s

The superstars era was in full force during the 90s, especially divas, with Celine Dion, Mariah Carey and Whitney Houston ranking at 1, 2 and 4, respectively. Their figures are also very high as decades from the first two are the strongest decades ever for solo artists after Michael Jackson‘s 80s.

They completed the big 4 of female singers, along with Madonna, who was also selling tremendous amounts, here listed at 10 despite selling a lot of albums off her 80s material during that decade.

On top of the 5 female artists top 10, the 90s also saw new music genres explode. Country is represented by Garth Brooks at 3 and Shania Twain at 9, while rap music almost made it for the first time with 2Pac at 11.

Another 90s phenomenon were boy bands, the Backstreet Boys couldn’t miss from this top 10.

Then, rock music also embarked into new ways as highlighted by a Grunge artist at 5 with Nirvana, metal kings Metallica at 7, Alternative pioneers R.E.M. at 14 and Britpop icons Oasis at 15.

The 2000s reshuffle the cards

While rap was knocking at the door in the 90s, it completely revamped the house in the 00s. Eminem crushed the decade with a total approaching 140 million. It’s worth noting that from there the totals are still increasing pretty fast, as they had less time to build up so far and as most of these artists are streamed a lot still.

The lack of time to amass high sales, and the stronger pure sales of the first half of the decade, shot artists huge early on to the first positions, with Linkin Park, Coldplay and Britney Spears filling the top 4.

This also means that positions are subject to change in the future. Kanye West, listed at 11 with 48 million as I’m writing these lines, is likely to climb all the way to #6 in upcoming years as his 00s catalog is hotter than the 5 artists ahead of him.

With no female artist in the top 3, we are left believing they weren’t doing as well as in the 90s. In truth, the density was much stronger, with 25 of them inside the top 50 against 14 in the previous decade.

Even more special to the 00s is the complete absence of leftovers. Each the 60s, the 70s, the 80s, and the 90s have artists in their top 10 who were already top 10 in the prior decade.

The most successful artists of the 00s decade are all new at this level, but most are even quite simply new. Out of the top 10, 5 artists released their debut in the 00s, 2 debuted earlier but got their commercial break through in the 00s (Black Eyed Peas and Nickelback), 2 got their real first one out in 1999 (Eminem and Britney Spears), leaving Robbie Williams as the dinosaur, with a debut in late 1997.

This situation continues all the way down to the top 16, with the biggest non-novelty acts being ironically Madonna and U2, who weren’t in their second but in their third decade!

Clash of the titans in the 2010s

So far, the 10s are marked by the terrific battle between Taylor Swift and Drake, claiming almost the exact same total on very high waters, both are still candidates to the throne among the most successful artists of the 10s decade.

At first, Adele looked like a surefire #1 for the decade, but her lack of productivity saw artists like Ed Sheeran move ahead. Then, BTS seemed poised to climb higher and higher. Each of the top 5 artists would have ranked at 2 in the 00s, which shows how strong they have all been.

Ultimately, Taylor Swift and Drake prevailed thanks to their dense and highly successful catalog, which is still doing wonders week after week. Right now the former seems likely to create a gap over Drake, but don’t rule out the Canadian star just yet as he is impressively strong himself.

Speaking about Canada, they improve the 90s madness that saw 3 of their stars in the top 20, by appearing 3 times in the top 10 thanks to Justin Bieber and The Weeknd on top of aforementioned Drake.

And then, we need to come back to South Korean legends BTS as they are the very first non-English speaking artist to feature in a top 10, which is no small achievement.

You can also read our ranking for best-selling artists of the 2010s right here.

The 2020s, a new world in the making

The 2020s are still very young, with no artist reaching 50 million so far, a threshold that would be a minimum to be inside the top 10 in the long run. The top 10 at the moment is mostly made of artists benefitting from their ongoing traction from the previous decade, so it’s strongly subject to change.

With two non-English speaking artists in the top 3, we can notice how streaming is making the music industry more global than it has ever been.

What’s also pretty safe to say is that both Bad Bunny and Taylor Swift will remain in the top 10 even when all is said and done.

The Puerto Rican king has been smashing like crazy since 2020, claiming the most streamed album ever on Spotify with a Latin record!

As for Taylor Swift, sky is the limit for her as she seems bigger and bigger as time pass, putting her name in the conversation not among today’s top stars, but among all-time biggest ones along with the Beatles, Elvis Presley, Michael Jackson or Madonna.

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