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Top Selling Albums of the 80s

By Edited Oct 27, 2016 4 5
Best Selling Albums of the 80s
Credit: By JTF Guantanamo

The 1980s ushered in a new wave of music in part thanks to a cable television network called MTV.  Videos changed the way music was made. Suddenly the look was just as important, if not more important, than the music.

The hard rocking bands of the 70s that were not necessarily made for TV fell out of the limelight in favor of the hair rocking bands of the 80s, complete with make-up and elaborate costumes.

Video directors were more in demand than music producers and throughout the decade, videos were the driving force in the music industry and they created stars overnight that had the right look.

This visual format allowed other genres of music to explode into the mainstream such as Rap and Hip/Hop, Punk and New Wave and a new type of synthesizer heavy Pop music that produced one hit wonder after the other.

It also gave rise to the Pop mega stars such as Michael Jackson, Bruce Springsteen, Madonna and Whitney Houston just to name a few.

This period also experienced a change in the preferred listening format twice. Vinyl records gave way to cassettes, then cassettes to CDs toward the end of the decade.

This was the golden age of the music industry when sales were through the roof with lots of free publicity for their music on cable television.

And it all started with the launch of a cable channel on August 1, 1981 with “Video Killed the Radio Star”. Some would argue that it killed music for at least a decade too.

When I look back on that time I remember a lot of good and bad music. Face it, it was a radical departure from the sounds of the 1970s and whenever major changes in any industry occur like that, there are hits and misses. To say that the music in that decade was terrible misses the point. Each decade since the 50s has redefined itself musically, with each format leading to the next as the listening public grew tired of the same old thing and craved something different.

My point is, if you preferred the music in the 90s over the 80s, then you should recognize that the 80s begat the 90s. Without the excess of that decade, perhaps the new rock and hip hop that emerged in the 90s may have never occurred or been delayed.

However, millions of records were sold during the decade so someone was enjoying it.

So when all was said and done, who came out on top in album sales during the decade of decadence?

'80s Pop Hits
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What were the Best Selling Records of the 80s?

Music from the 80s
Credit: Angrylambie via Wikimedia Commons

20. Top Gun Soundtrack- (9.6 Million Sales) - Catapulted Tom Cruise to superstar status with its mass appeal and MTV inspired visuals and storyline. In fact, parts of the movie looked like a music video from the era.

Van Halen 1984
19. Van Halen- 1984 (10.1 Million Sales) - Guitarist Eddie Van Halen redefined what the electric guitar could do in the 70s and the band added a synthesizer heavy sound for the video age with big hits like "Jump", "Panama" and "I'll wait". This was the last album David Lee Roth recorded with Van Halen.

18. Whitney Houston- Whitney (10.8 Million Sales) – Whitney's  second album released in the decade, it did not sell as many copies as her debut, but featured hits such as "I Wanna Dance With Somebody, "So Emotional", and "Where Do Broken Hearts Go" and would have been considered a monster success for most other artists at the time.

Lionel Richie Can't Slow Down

17. Lionel Richie- Can't Slow Down (10.9 Million Sales) – Featured hits--"All Night Long," "Running with the Night," "Penny Lover," and a  song called "Hello" which he made into a creepy video  where he stalks a blind woman.

16. Madonna- Like a Virgin (10.9 Million Sales) – Rocketed her to stardom in 1984 with hits “Like a Virgin” and “Material Girl.

15. George Michael- Faith (11.2 Million Sales)

Michael left Wham for a solo career and his debut was a smash featuring the title hit, “One more try” and “I want your Sex”, all hitting number 1 on the USA Billboard Singles Charts. He was the prototypical video success of the 80s and he seemed to be at the right place at the right time.

14. U2- The Joshua Tree (11.8 Million Sales) – I have to admit I never liked U2. This

Michael Jackson Bad
album had a couple of songs on it that I hated. Every time they came on the radio, my finger shot to change the station. I have nothing good to say about this album so I will move along. 

13. Michael Jackson- Bad (11.9 Million Sales) – His follow-up to Thriller was another monster success spawning multiple videos that were in heavy rotation on MTV including the title track, “Dirty Diana”, "Another Part of Me” and “Smooth Criminal”. One of the best albums in any era.

12. Dirty Dancing Soundtrack- (12.5 Million Sales)

Another one that was not really one of my favorites. I don’t think I have ever seen this entire movie at once and I have no desire to do so. However, I did love Patrick Swayze and he is missed.

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11. Def Leppard- Hysteria (12.6 Copies Sold - One of my favorite albums of any era. I played this one throughout the late 80s probably more than any on this list. There is an episode of Classic Albums currently on Netflix instant download that is about the making of this album and how it took an unusual amount of time to make after their Pyromania album came out at the beginning of the decade. One of the best ever. I love "Armageddon it" and "Run Riot".

10. Bon Jovi- Slippery When Wet (12.9 Million Sales)

This album transformed Bon Jovi into global superstars with hit singles "You Give Love a Bad Name," "Never Say Goodbye," and "Living on a Prayer." Oh yeah, he wore really tight pants, had long hair and the girls loved him. They still do.

Dire Straits
9. Dire Straits- Brothers in Arms (12.9 Million Sales) – I personally never really found their music appealing. However, regarding “Money for Nothing”, when you include MTV in the song’s chorus, you are assured of being played on the network. Great marketing move.

8. Bruce Springsteen- Live: 1975-85 (3CD) (13.1 Million Sales) – A 3 CD set that included material from various setting including huge tours to small studio rooms.

Prince Purple Rain

7. Prince- Music from the Motion Picture "Purple Rain" (13.6 Million Sales) – I remember going to see this movie when I was in high school. A friend of mine had a Toyota Cellica and used to play this constantly for months. Great Album. Crappy Movie.

Phil Collins

6. Phil Collins- No Jacket Required (13.8 Million in Sales) – I will admit, I was a Phil Collins fan when he was in Genesis and during parts of his solo career. The man was a hit maker and this album included “Sussudio”, One more night” ,”Don’t lose my number” and my personal favorite “I don’t wanna know”. Great album.

Whitney Houston
5. Whitney Houston- Whitney Houston (14.2 Copies Sold) – When I saw Whitney Houston in that “How will I know” video as a young man, I was in love. This was her debut album and launched several number one hits including the one I just mentioned plus "You Give Good Love," "Saving All My Love for You," and the "Greatest Love of All."  It’s too bad she went down the path she did.

4. Guns N' Roses- Appetite for Destruction (15.6 Copies Sold)

“Sweet Child O Mine” is a classic and “Welcome to the Jungle” rocks. Enough said.

3. Bruce Springsteen- Born in the U.S.A. (15.9 Million Copies) – The title song is a bitter diatribe about a Vietnam vet who feels forgotten by his country.  Uplifting stuff, right? But the rest of the album is a pop filled,  radio-friendly compilation of some of the 80s best music including "Glory Days" and "Dancing in the Dark," with a young Courtney Cox in the video.

Born in the USA

 2. AC/DC- Back in Black (19.1 Million in Sales) – This album was recorded after the death of the original lead singer Bon Scott and is mostly about drinking and chasing women. Good stuff.  But when you hear the start of "You Shook Me All Night Long," you can’t help but get into the mood to rock.

You Shook Me All Night Long

1. Michael Jackson- Thriller (29.3 Copies Sold) - Michael Jackson was one of the greatest entertainers ever, and a true weird-o. They seem to run hand-in-hand. There is no denying that this is the best album of the 80s in terms of sales but also pure quality. It was made for MTV too with hits like the title song which became the first 20 minute video on MTV, “Billy Jean”  and “Beat it” among many others. A truly great album.

Billie Jean


If you lived through the 80s, you know that music was a mixed bag. There was a lot of great music that was created during that decade, but if you go back and listen to some old cassettes, or just watch some videos on VH1 Classic, you will end up rolling your eyes or laughing during every song. 

After all, it seems like every video had to have some strange occurrence in it, like someone walking through a bowling alley with a horse, or some other fish out of water scenario meant to portray how cool they were.

But some of my best memories are from that era and I have converted most of my 80s music to digital format to play on my iPod and iPhone. I even have a smart playlist called 80s Music and I think it is up to about 400 songs now.

Despite the silliness of some of the music that came from that decade, there is no question from looking at those figures above that a lot of money was made by someone.

They say that trends or styles have a way of circling back around with time, but I am not sure we will ever see a period of music like the 80s for quite a while. 

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Feb 26, 2014 8:35am
80's MTV --- "Video Killed the Radio Star"
90's MTV ---- Realty Show Killed the Video Star
Feb 27, 2014 10:55am
Some incredible music on this list. It's ironic that the year before "Like a Virgin" came out, Madonna's debut album was released and went nowhere. Do you have a favorite album on this list?
Feb 27, 2014 12:12pm
I don't think there has ever been a bigger fall from grace than Whitney Houston. There was a time when some considered her the greatest singer in the world and the perfect role model. She was everywhere! Then she met the wrong man. Good article.
Feb 27, 2014 2:15pm
Hysteria was my favorite.
Feb 28, 2014 5:33am
I still use Back in Black for workout music. Nice article.
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