The Most Popular Artists of All Time — According to the Charts

Number 10

Billboard’s most recent ranking of the all-time top artists placed Chicago at number 10, which is a bit higher than 2008’s listing that saw Chicago at number 13. But even that’s relative as (according to music biographer William Ruhlman) Billboard’s rankings for Chicago place it as the second-best American rock band, just behind The Beach Boys. No matter how you look at it, it's an impressive feat considering the band underwent so many lineup changes and had some troubles sorting out its identity as a combination of an underground group, slow ballad singers, and arena-fillers pumping out rock anthems.

Bruno Mars is the most popular artist from an album ranking standpoint, though. His debut album Doo-Wops & Hooligans (2010) stayed on the charts for 477 weeks. It’s not hard to see why either. While AllMusic said it was an uneven debut for Mars, it was likeable enough thanks to its unique sound.

The number 10 spot for the all-time songs (based on sales, radio time, and chart rankings) goes to Olivia Newton-John’s “Physical.” One other honor “Physical” had — admittedly a more dubious one — was ranking as one of the most bizarre music videos of the 1980s in our opinion.

Number 9

Billboard called Stevie Wonder the 9th best artist of all time. It’s a significant step up from Chicago in terms of chart performance too, as Wonder had 10 hits in the #1 spot, 28 in the top 10, and a total of 63 songs to land elsewhere on the charts. On top of all that, he was also one of the youngest stars to debut on Billboard with “Fingertips.”

If you look at the length of time an album’s been on the charts, though, you’ll find Nirvana's Nevermind (1991) taking the number nine spot. As of July 2020, it’d been on the charts for 480 weeks, following a stellar debut that (cliche as it sounds) changed the face of music. It also broke a tie with Bruno Mars' Doo-Wops & Hooligans (2010), both of which were previously on the charts for 450 weeks each during 2019.

The 9th most popular song of all time is Ed Sheeran’s “Shape of You,” which is rather ironic. It was originally created during a songwriting session where Sheeran helped write songs for other singers, and this one had Rihanna’s name on it. The New York Times said Sheeran didn’t really think much of it at the time, as it was just one among many others rapidly conceived, created, and arranged.

Number 8

Taylor Swift comes in as the 8th most popular artist of all time according to Billboard. The country-turned-pop star has seen 6 of her albums and 5 of her songs each at #1. Two of those chart-toppers come from Swift’s 1989 (2014) album: “Shake it Off” and “Blank Space,” with the former remaining on the charts for a full 50 weeks.

The 8th longest-lasting album on the charts is the original cast recording for Alan Lerner and Frederick Lowe’s My Fair Lady.The classic — if slightly sympathetic to the patriarchal Henry Higgens — tale of the Cockney flower girl turning into a societal lady is ranked as the most popular Broadway/West End recording of all time and has been on Billboard charts for 480 weeks, even outclassing The Phantom of the Opera. These numbers are from 2019 though, and while Billboard hasn't provided updated rankings for the album, it's probably been on the charts for at least one extra week since then.

On the other end of the spectrum, the unforgettable ‘90s hit “Macarena” from Los Del Rio is the 8th most popular song of all time. Originally created on a whim by flamenco duo Antonio Romero and Rafael Ruiz, the song underwent a handful of changes — including swapping the name from "Magdalena" to "Macarena," reportedly so it wouldn’t be mistaken for breakfast — before finally becoming an international sensation in 1995.

Number 7

Billboard’s #7 greatest artist ever is Michael Jackson, whom you knew was bound to make an appearance somewhere in there. He actually took his sister Janet’s place in 2019 after being 8th in 2008, whereas she’s dropped to 14. After another early debut on the charts, Michael Jackson had a famous string of chart-topping hits ranging from “Billie Jean” to “Beat It,” and Thriller (1983) was once the best-selling album of all time in the U.S. (until a recount gave that honor to The Eagles Greatest Hits). Regardless, it’s interesting to consider the album's legacy, because in terms of length on the charts, Thriller loses out to the other albums mentioned here with just 365 weeks.

However, Eminem’s Curtain Call (2005) album (a collection of the rapper’s biggest hits) is the 7th longest-lasting album on the charts. As of July 2020, it ranked in the Top 200 for 490 weeks and was the 1st hip-hop album to stay on the U.K. charts for more than 400 weeks. That puts Eminem in with giants like Amy Winehouse and ABBA as far as the U.K. charts are concerned.

The Black Eyed Peas have the 7th most popular song in chart history. "I Gotta Feeling” was also nominated for a Grammy in 2011 and iTunes’ most downloaded song of all time as of 2012.

Number 6

Barbra Streisand takes Billboard’s #6 spot of all time, and while she hasn’t had as many #1 or top 10 hits as other artists (just 5), Streisand’s seen 41 of her songs land on the charts. Those that did rank high tended to say there for a while too, like “Evergreen,” which charted for an impressive 25 weeks. Considering that Streisand didn’t even break the top 25 in the 2008 listings, the improvement is quite the achievement.

Guns ‘N’ Roses’ 2004 Greatest Hits album is the 6th longest-running album on the charts. This was shortly before the band’s big breakup, which might explain why it’s been on the charts for at least 499 weeks.

The 6th most popular song couldn’t be more different than the previous names, as it’s “Party” from LMFAO featuring Lauren Bennett and GoonRock. When “Party” debuted, it sparked a huge increase in digital sales, with 228,000 downloads during its initial release period. It even kept Katy Perry out of the top spot for a while, according to Billboard.

Number 5

Madonna dropped a few spots from being 2nd in 2008 to #5 on the Billboard charts. But regardless of rank shifting, Madonna’s track record with the charts is pretty impressive. Nearly 60 songs have made it to Billboard’s Top 100,  with 38 in the Top 10, and 12 at #1. More impressively, there’s not necessarily any change in success throughout her multi-decade career with “Crazy for You” topping charts in 1985, “Vogue” in 1990, and “Music” in 2000.

In a very different light than Madonna, you might recognize Johnny Mathis as the voice behind many holiday songs on the radio every winter. But his 1958 Greatest Hits collection proves he was every bit the equal to crooners like Frank Sinatra and Bing Crosby, and it stayed on the charts for 490 weeks.

If you listened to the radio in the ‘90s at all, you probably heard the 5th most popular song of all time, LeAnn Rimes’ “How Do I Live.” It was something of a departure for the singer, who made an impressive debut at a young age by sticking to country and uplifting covers. But it was a worthwhile change, with critics gushing praise over Rimes’ performance.

Number 4

Mariah Carey takes the spot for best female artist of all time. While USA Today suggests Carey is mostly known for her legendary holiday music, Billboard sings a different tune. Of Carey’s 19 hits to own the top spot, just the one we all know and love was a holiday tune — and that didn't happen until 25 years after it released. Others, like “Dreamlover” and “We Belong Together” come from the first half of the 1990s when Carey was at the height of her popularity. Outside of those, she’s also had 48 songs total on Billboard and 28 in the top 10. Although it may be fewer than Madonna, it’s those #1 hits that make Mariah Carey stand out as the top female artist.

You’ll get another round of tonal whiplash if you use album rankings as a metric though as Metallica’s 1991 self-titled album, (better known as The Black Album), takes the 4th spot in that regard. According to music critic Steve Huey, the album's success may have been a calculated play for the band after their previous efforts were deemed sloppy and lacking in structure. This time around, Huey says Metallica opted for a “streamlined” approach that made commercializing their sound and songs much easier — and it worked. Metallica was on the charts for 578 weeks.

As for hit singles, that title belongs to Mark Ronson and Bruno Mars as the 4th most popular artists ever. “Uptown Funk” lasted a full two weeks at Billboard’s top spot on The Hot 100, and it was a fitting payoff for a single and album that almost didn't happen. Ronson told NPR how incredibly difficult it was just to put the song together — especially his guitar part — but when Mars played drums with the rest of the band, everything seemed to just fall into place.

Number 3

Elton John didn’t change places from 2008 to 2019, so he’s still ranked as the 3rd best-charting artist of all time with admittedly fewer #1 hits than other artists (9) but a grand total of 67 songs to make it on Billboard’s Hot 100 — with 27 of those in the top 10. “Crocodile Rock,” “Bennie and the Jets,” and “Island Girl” are some of his solo hits to claim the top spot, but a good many others were duets with other famous stars, like “Don’t Let The Sun Go Down On Me” (with George Michael), “Don’t Go Breaking My Heart” (with Kiki Dee).

Based on albums, this spot goes to yet another greatest hits compilation album: Journey’s Greatest Hits (1988). It's lasted for 623 weeks on the charts primarily through the strength of some of the most recognizable rock ballads and arena rock songs in history — from the obligatory “Don’t Stop Believin’” to “Be Good To Yourself,” “Faithfully” and “Girl Can’t Help It.”

From a song perspective, Bobby Darin is the 3rd most popular artist because of his rendition of “Mack the Knife.” It’s a variation of a song from Bertolt Brecht’s “The Threepenny Opera,” itself a play on the idea of Handel’s street performances for the lower classes. This one is focused on the play's dramatization of Jack the Ripper, and Darin’s 1959 rendition turns it into a jazzy big band piece.

Number 2

Unsurprisingly, The Rolling Stones are the 2nd best artist of all time, according to Billboard. Their record might come as a bit of a surprise, though. For how significant the Stones were in shaping modern rock culture, the band had only 8 songs at #1 despite seeing 57 make it somewhere on the Hot 100 and 23 pushing up to the top 10.

The second biggest artist of all time based on album duration is yet another compilation album with Legend: The Best of Bob Marley and the Wailers. Legend stayed on the charts for 672 weeks as of March 2020, and music critic Stephen Erlewine praises it as one of the most versatile albums. Erlewine calls it beautiful and simple, calling it perfect for “fair-weather reggae fans” and basically everyone else with a passing interest in Marley’s sound.

“Smooth” makes Santana the 2nd most popular artist in terms of overall sales and radio time, and it was a big part of his comeback too. By the 1990s, Santana was all but nonexistent and rarely played on the radio — as Santana himself told Rolling Stone — but still full of ideas and playing gigs. His children commented how the music world essentially ignored him, so when famed producer Clive Davis invited Santana to play at Radio City Hall, Santana readily agreed. The idea for “Smooth” plus Davis realizing how vital Santana was for keeping music diverse eventually led to the smash hit’s creation and unexpected success.

Number 1

If #2 wasn’t a shock, then the all-time best artist ever won’t be either. The Beatles had 71 songs make it on The Hot 100, 34 in the top 10, and 20 songs  — far more than most other artists on this list — land at the top. These run the gamut from the classics like “I Want To Hold Your Hand” and “She Loves You” to the much more touching “Hey Jude.” Chances are, we won’t be seeing any changes to this one anytime soon.

Speaking of icons, Pink Floyd claims the top album spot with their Dark Side of the Moon (1973) album and it's not even close. Having stayed on the charts for a staggering 950 weeks, Erlewine says it was the first time Pink Floyd showed a bit of focus, being determined at last to take their sound experiments and turn them into viable songs.

But even if the last two seemed obvious, the top selling song of all time might be a bit of a surprise. “The Twist” by Chubby Checker gets that accolade — except it wasn’t completely his, according to Blair Jackson. Hank Ballard of The Midnighters first recorded the song in the late 1950s, either as a rip off an earlier song of his or because the way the band moved inspired him (Jackson says different versions of the story exist). But it was Ernest "Chubby Checker" Evans' performance on American Bandstand that turned the song into one of the most unforgettable tunes of all time.