Chart Watch

Chart Watch Extra: The Top 15 Album Acts Of The Bar-Code Era

Chart Watch

To paraphrase the famous subtitle of a 1960 Elvis Presley compilation, 50,000,000 Metallica fans can't be wrong. Metallica this week becomes the first hard-rock band-and only the fifth act overall-to top the 50,000,000 mark in album sales since Nielsen/SoundScan began tracking U.S. sales in May 1991.

There were charts before 1991, of course. Billboard first ran an album chart in March 1945. It became a regular weekly feature 11 years later. But precise sales figures weren't authenticated and made public until Nielsen/SoundScan brought the business into the modern bar-code-reading age (for better and for worse).

To mark the occasion, I'm counting down the top 15 acts that have sold the most albums in Nielsen/SoundScan history. Four of the artists on this list are so new that their entire chart careers are contained in the Nielsen/SoundScan era. Eminem debuted in 1999, making him the newest arrival on the list.

At the other extreme, three of the artists in the top 15 released their first albums in the '50s or '60s. Elvis Presley broke through in 1956, making him the act with the longest history on the list.

Five of the top 15 artists are country music stars, a sign of country's dominance in this period. Five are rock or hard rock acts. Three are pop. Surprisingly, only one, Mariah Carey, has an R&B connection. Eminem is rap's lone representative.

Five of the artists hail from outside the U.S. The Beatles and Pink Floyd both come from England; U2 originated in Ireland; and Celine Dion and Shania Twain were both born in Canada.

These are the 15 artists who have sold the most albums since May 25, 1991. The tallies don't count any albums sold before that date. Nielsen/SoundScan also maintains a running list of the top 200 albums in its history. I've included the total number of albums each of these artists has on that list, as well as the title of the artist's highest-ranking album.

1. Garth Brooks, 68,051,000. Brooks has seven albums (more than any other artist) on Nielsen SoundScan's running list of the top 200 albums in its history. Four of those albums are listed in the top 100, which is also a record. Brooks' best-selling album is 1991's Ropin' The Wind, which ranks #20. His eponymous debut album hit the country chart in May 1989, but it didn't crack the pop chart until May 1990. Brooks has been voted Entertainer of the Year four times (more than any other performer) by the Country Music Association.

2. The Beatles, 56,683,000. The most impressive aspect of the Beatles' tally is that it doesn't count the group's first 27 years of sales. Even so, the Fab Four has sold more albums since 1991 than any other group and any other rock act. The group first charted in February 1964 with Meet The Beatles! They have one album in the top 200, their 2000 hits compilation 1, which ranks #8. The Beatles were the first rock act to win a Grammy for Album of the Year (for 1967's Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band) and the first to win an Oscar for Best Original Song Score (for 1970's Let It Be). They were voted into the Rock And Roll Hall of Fame in 1988. Sadly, only two members of the group are still living. John Lennon was murdered in 1980. George Harrison died of cancer in 2001.

3. Mariah Carey, 51,370,000. Carey is the top-ranking female artist on the list. The pop/R&B star is also the only artist in the top 15 with an R&B base. Carey has five albums in the top 200, topped by 1995's Daydream at #47. Carey first charted in June 1990 with her eponymous debut album. In addition to her album achievements, Carey has two songs-"Touch My Body" and "We Belong Together"-on Nielsen/SoundScan's running list of the top 200 songs with the most paid downloads.

4. Celine Dion, 50,167,000. Dion is the only female artist with three albums in Nielsen/SoundScan's all-time top 50: Falling Into You at #10, Let's Talk About Love at #23 and All The Way...A Decade Of Song at #43.  She's behind Carey on this list because Carey has sold more albums overall, partly due to having more releases.  Dion has five albums in the top 200. She first charted with Unison in January 1991, four months before Nielsen/SoundScan took over tracking for Billboard.

5. Metallica, 50,111,000. Metallica is the highest-ranking hard rock act on the list. (AC/DC is runner-up at #26.) Metallica is on this year's short-list for induction into the Rock And Roll Hall of Fame. The band has four albums in the top 200, topped by 1991's Metallica at #2. That album spawned five chart hits, including "Enter Sandman." Metallica first charted in September 1984 with Ride The Lightning. Original bassist Cliff Burton was killed in a bus crash in 1986.

6. George Strait, 40,201,000. Strait is the only artist in the top 15 who has been voted into the Country Music Hall of Fame. He was inducted in 2006. Strait has one album in the top 200 (1992's Pure Country soundtrack at #168). The Texan first hit the country album chart in October 1981 with Strait Country. He first made the pop album chart in March 1984 with Right Or Wrong. Strait is a two-time CMA Entertainer of the Year winner.

7. Tim McGraw, 37,171,000. McGraw debuted in 1994, which makes him the highest-ranking artist whose entire career is reflected in this tally. McGraw first hit the pop and country charts the same week in April 1994 with Not A Moment Too Soon, which illustrates the much greater ease of crossover in this era. That album is #86 on the all-time top 200. It's the highest of three McGraw albums on the list. McGraw's wife, Faith Hill, is #61 on the list. They are the only couple in which both husband and wife rank in the top 100. McGraw was CMA's Entertainer of the Year in 2001.

8. Alan Jackson, 36,201,000. Jackson is a three-time winner of the CMA Award for Entertainer of the Year, a total topped only by Brooks. Jackson first hit both the pop and country album charts in March 1990 with Here In The Real World. He has one album in the top 200: 1995's The Greatest Hits Collection at #105. Only one track on the album, the spirited "Chattahoochee," crossed over to the Hot 100.

9. Pink Floyd, 34,986,000. Pink Floyd has one album in the top 200: 1973's The Dark Side Of The Moon, which ranks #32. The classic, which spawned the progressive rock group's first chart hit, "Money," is the oldest album in the top 200. Pink Floyd first charted in December 1967 with The Piper At The Gates Of Dawn. The band was voted into the Rock And Roll Hall of Fame in 1996. Guitarist Syd Barrett died in 1986. Keyboardist Rick Wright died on Sept. 15.

10. Shania Twain, 33,672,000. Twain is the only female country artist in the top 15. (Reba McEntire is runner-up in 22nd place.) Twain has three albums in the top 200. Her 1997 blockbuster, Come On Over, is the #1 best-seller of the Nielsen/SoundScan era, with sales of 15,467,000 (nearly half of her total). Twain, who was born Eileen Regina Edwards, was named CMA's Entertainer of the Year in 1999. Twain first hit the country album chart in July 1993 with her eponymous debut. She first made the pop album chart in March 1995 with The Woman In Me.

11. Kenny G, 33,340,000. The saxophonist is the only instrumentalist in the top 15. (Mannheim Steamroller is runner-up at #51.) Kenny G, who was born Kenny Gorelick, has two albums in the top 200. His 1992 smash Breathless is #39. 1994's Miracles-The Holiday Album, the best-selling holiday album of the Nielsen/SoundScan era, is #56. Kenny G first hit the album chart in March 1984 with G Force.

12. Eminem, 33,078,000. Eminem is the only rapper in the top 15 (Jay-Z is runner-up at #32). Eminem first charted with The Slim Shady LP in March 1999, more recently than any other artist on this list. He has four albums in the top 200, topped by 2000's The Marshall Mathers LP at #14. Like Carey, Eminem has two songs-the Oscar-winning "Lose Yourself" and "Shake That" (with Nate Dogg)-on Nielsen/SoundScan's running list of the top 200 songs with the most paid downloads.

13. U2, 32,473,000. The band from Dublin has won 22 Grammys, more than any other group. The haul includes two awards in each of the "Big Three" categories-Album, Record and Song of the Year. U2 first charted in March 1981 with Boy. The band has one album in the top 200-1991's Achtung Baby at #113. U2 was voted into the Rock And Roll Hall of Fame in 2005.

14. Backstreet Boys, 30,655,000. Want to stump your friends? Ask them, "Who is the only act in Nielsen/SoundScan history with two albums at or above the 10 million mark in U.S. sales?" You'll get a variety of answers, but I bet nobody brings up this boy band, which indeed holds the distinction. Here are the stats: 1999's Millennium has sold 12,103,000 copies. The group's debut, Backstreet Boys, has sold 10,101,000 copies since its release in August 1997. (The group also has a third album in the top 200.) Backstreet Boys are the top-ranking pop (as opposed to rock) group and the top-ranking boy band. (*NSYNC are runner-ups, at #23.)

15. Elvis Presley, 30,042,000. If Nielsen/SoundScan went all the way back to March 1956, when Presley exploded onto the charts with his eponymous debut album, he would doubtless be #1 on this list. Presley has one album in the top 200-2002's Elv1s: 30 #1 Hits at #200. Presley was named the recipient of a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award in 1971. He was voted into the Rock And Roll Hall of Fame in 1986 and the Country Music Hall of Fame in 1998. Presley died in 1977 at age 42. He's the only solo artist in the top 15 who is no longer living.

A Postscript: I was reading the message boards for Chart Watch the other day and came across a comment that these numbers are only shipment figures, not sales figures. The reader was confusing Nielsen/SoundScan figures with the gold and platinum certifications awarded by the Recording Industry Assn. of America (RIAA).

Let me give you an example of how the two organizations sometimes differ: Rihanna's current album, Good Girl Gone Bad, was certified double-platinum (2 million) on Aug. 14. Yet its current sales total is 1,812,000. How can that be? Because the RIAA counts shipments, while Nielsen/SoundScan measures sales. The great advantage of the Nielsen/SoundScan numbers is that they are so precise and accurate. So don't believe everything you read in the message boards-or anywhere else. (Except here, of course.)

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