This Was the Best-Selling Album the Year You Were Born
From diva debuts to iconic movie soundtracks, these hit albums topped the charts.
There's nothing all that fun and glamorous about data. But when Billboard magazine began publishing end-of-year album sales figures in 1956, they produced the philosopher's stone of analytics, and the quantitative was rendered thrilling and aspirational. For the next half-century—until the disruptive ascension of streaming services—artists and executives alike would fight tooth and nail for that coveted number one spot. Below are the men and women who emerged from those annual fights victorious: Read on to discover the best-selling album the year you were born.
1956: Calypso, Harry Belafonte
America's love affair with the smooth Caribbean sounds of Harry Belafonte was in full swing by the time his second album, Calypso, dropped. Propelled by the popularity of its hit first track, "Day-O (The Banana Boat Song)," the album went on to be the first LP by a solo artist to sell over 1 million copies.
1957: My Fair Lady, Original Broadway Cast
Based on George Bernard Shaw's Pygmalion, My Fair Lady spent years as the toast of Broadway, as audiences packed the house night after night to watch Professor Henry Higgins teach Eliza Doolittle to drop her cockney accent and speak the Queen's English. Assuming those outside of New York's theater district might also enjoy the songs and story, the producers wisely decided to put the show on wax.
1958: My Fair Lady, Original Broadway Cast
With leads Julie Andrews and Rex Harrison delivering powerful, nuanced performances and mainstream breakthrough songs like "I Could Have Danced All Night," "Wouldn't It Be Loverly," and "I've Grown Accustomed to Her Face" packed into the track listing, it's no wonder the album dominated the charts for two years in a row.
1959: The Music From Peter Gunn, Henry Mancini
It's hard to overstate how popular some TV shows were when audiences had few other distractions and limited channels to choose from. Today, a title theme like Succession's may be popular enough to get meme-ified, but in 1959, the songs from NBC's detective drama Peter Gunn were beloved enough to not only be purchased, but to become the top album of the year.
1960: The Sound of Music, Original Broadway Cast
Though most would come to know of Maria von Trapp and the Trapp Family Singers' story from the Julie Andrews-led film six years later, Rodgers and Hammerstein's stage version of the tale was a smash hit in its own right. Starring Mary Martin and Theodore Bikel, the cast recording of The Sound of Music beat out the likes of Bob Newhart and the Kingston Trio for album of the year.
1961: Camelot, Original Broadway Cast
With the Kennedy dynasty coalescing and T.H. White's The Once and Future King dog-eared on nightstands around the nation, it's safe to say that America was going through something of a King Arthur phase in the late '50s and early '60s. Naturally, Broadway capitalized on that fervor with a musical about gallant knights and fair maidens. Just as naturally, lots of people bought the Camelot cast recording.
1962: West Side Story (Soundtrack)
Modernizing the classic love story of Romeo and Juliet by presenting it through the lens of feuding gangs and race relations doesn't intuitively seem like a recipe for success, but the reimagining clearly resonated with audiences entrenched in the civil rights strife of the era. The film adaptation of West Side Story won 10 Oscars, including Best Picture, and its soundtrack sold like hotcakes.
1963: West Side Story (Soundtrack)
Packed with certified bops like "Maria," "America," and "Tonight," it's easy to see why the West Side Story soundtrack dominated charts for two years straight. Or maybe everyone was really just into the Officer Krupke song. Who can say?
1964: Hello, Dolly!, Original Broadway Cast
In the same year that the Beatles dropped A Hard Day's Night, the best-selling album was the cast recording of Hello, Dolly!, a musical about a turn-of-the-century matchmaker. That should tell you something about just how into Broadway the country was at the time.
1965: Mary Poppins (Soundtrack)
The queen, Julie Andrews, once again destroys the competition, this time with her portrayal of a prim nanny who parties with cartoons and chimneysweeps. Disney's Edwardian London-set kids movie musical was basically the Frozen of its day, and the memorable Mary Poppins soundtrack was flying off record store shelves faster than you can say "supercalifragilisticexpialidocious."
1966: Whipped Cream & Other Delights, Herb Alpert & the Tijuana Brass
For Whipped Cream & Other Delights, Herb Alpert & the Tijuana Brass' fourth and most successful album, they dropped their usual Mexican sound to cover a bunch of contemporary hits. The racy cover, featuring a whipped cream-covered nude model, caused a fuss, but its goofy title song—which would go on to become the theme for The Dating Game—doesn't really match the photo.
1967: More of the Monkees, The Monkees
Originally formed to spoof the Beatles for an NBC sitcom, the Monkees wound up being so unironically popular that they sold a ton of records. The group's second studio album, More of the Monkees, would be their most successful, topping the charts for 31 consecutive weeks and going quintuple platinum.
1968: Are You Experienced?, The Jimi Hendrix Experience
The year before he would shred "The Star-Spangled Banner" at Woodstock, Jimi Hendrix released his debut album, Are You Experienced?, to instant commercial and critical acclaim. And if you've heard even a few seconds of the guy's fret work, this makes perfect sense.
1969: In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida, Iron Butterfly
A mere half-decade prior, the most popular album of the year was the soundtrack to a kids' movie, but by the Summer of Love, tastes had shifted to embracing a 17-minute acid rock exploration of the Garden of Eden, the title song of In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida. If that doesn't put a fine point on the intensity and expediency of the era's cultural revolution, nothing will.
1970: Bridge Over Troubled Water, Simon and Garfunkel
Paul Simon and Art Garfunkel notoriously spent much of their brief time as the world's preeminent folk duo butting heads. Fortunately for all of us, before the discord forced them to go their separate ways, they released their fifth and most successful album, Bridge Over Troubled Water.
1971: Jesus Christ Superstar, Various Artists
Like the Prodigal Son, America was ready to return to the musical record flock only after some time indulging in the seductive songs of psychedelic rock. Having acquired a taste for the harder music during their time astray, the return to the Broadway fold was with Jesus Christ Superstar, Sir Andrew Lloyd Webber's audacious retelling of the story of Christ.
1972: Harvest, Neil Young
Canadian folk singer Neil Young tapped into the American youth's weariness with the conflict in Vietnam for his subtly anti-war fourth studio album, Harvest. Though critics weren't initially in love with the record, it sold well and has since come to be widely regarded as an all-time great album.
1973: The World Is a Ghetto, War
Signaling the country's ever-expanding tastes was the success of The World Is a Ghetto, the fifth album from Long Beach-based funk band War. A beautiful blend of jazz, soul, and psychedelia carried the album's central thesis that the planet is simultaneously messed up and beautiful.
1974: Goodbye Yellow Brick Road, Elton John
Written by Elton John's longtime creative partner Bernie Taupin, Goodbye Yellow Brick Road's title track is an allusion to Oz's main thoroughfare and a metaphor for one's desire to return to simpler times. The lyrics also reference dogs, owls, and a "horny-back toad," for all you animal lovers out there.
1975: Greatest Hits, Elton John
It might seem hubristic to have a greatest hits compendium by age 27, but Elton John's one of the few artists who could back up that hubris with talent. It also helped that, by 27, he was already able to pack Greatest Hits with certified bangers like "Your Song," "Daniel," "Crocodile Rock," and "Rocket Man (I Think It's Going to Be a Long, Long Time)."
1976: Frampton Comes Alive!, Peter Frampton
The album may have been called Frampton Comes Alive!, but anyone who's listened to it knows the main thing coming alive is Peter Frampton's guitar. We're still waiting for someone more scientifically minded to explain how blowing air into a tube makes a stringed instrument talk.
1977: Rumours, Fleetwood Mac
It's hard enough to do something as simple as getting a coffee with an ex after a breakup, so for Stevie Nicks and Lindsey Buckingham to set aside the rancor from their fresh split and record Rumours—not just a cohesive album, but also a best-selling and award-winning one—is nothing short of a heroic accomplishment.
1978: Saturday Night Fever, Bee Gees (Soundtrack)
When you think of the quintessential disco pose, you think of a leisure-suited John Travolta pointing to the sky on the Saturday Night Fever poster. And when you think of the quintessential disco track, it can't be anything but the Bee Gees' "Staying Alive," the first song on the film's hit soundtrack.
1979: 52nd Street, Billy Joel
Despite Billy Joel's five prior albums containing hits like "Piano Man" and "Only the Good Die Young," 52nd Street was the Bronx pianist's first to hit number one on the Billboard charts. He'd match the feat three other times in the years to come.
1980: The Wall, Pink Floyd
The U.K.'s premier anti-establishment prog rock act outdid themselves with The Wall, an operatic double album that touches on World War II, the British school system, addiction, and anti-fascism. And for a real trip, be sure to check out the album's accompanying film.
1981: Hi Infidelity, REO Speedwagon
With a genius bit of wordplay worthy of the bard himself, Hi Infidelity cheekily perverts the audiophile term "high-fidelity" into something of a welcome to unfaithfulness. And as any rock fan knows, musicians have a bit of a reputation for cheating on their spouses.
1982: Asia, Asia
In the early '80s, when it came to continental bands, there were only two names in town: You were either Team Asia or Team Europe. Asia settled the dispute about who was number one before it even began with their breakout debut album, also called Asia, and graced with Roger Dean's iconic cover art.
1983: Thriller, Michael Jackson
Michael Jackson's solo career pivot was set in stone with his Quincy Jones-produced sixth album, Thriller. It's hard to overstate what a cultural phenomenon the album was at the time, but its two-year chart dominance and 33x platinum sales are a decent indicator.
1984: Thriller, Michael Jackson
Beyond the iconic title track and equally iconic accompanying music video, Thriller's meteoric success was boosted by having "Beat It," "Billie Jean," and a handful of other all-time Jackson classics in its grooves. That sort of helps explain all the time spent at No. 1.
1985: Born in the U.S.A., Bruce Springsteen
Though it's often appropriated for patriotic endeavors, the Boss' seventh album, Born in the U.S.A., is actually a dark contemplation of a country rotting from the inside out. The album was a major success and the customer's always right—so if these songs make folks want to wave a flag, so be it.
1986: Whitney Houston, Whitney Houston
Every so often a singer comes along that forces everyone, audiences and industry suits alike, to shut up and take notice. Such was the case when Whitney Houston dropped her debut album, appropriately titled Whitney Houston. Though slow to gain momentum, it went on to become album of the year, go 13x platinum, and, most importantly, introduce the world to one of the best to ever earn the title "diva."
1987: Slippery When Wet, Bon Jovi
It seems as if every other album from this era went the double entendre route when choosing a title. Bon Jovi's most successful album backed up the Slippery When Wet wordplay with a bunch of classic songs now heard in sorority houses and karaoke bars around the world.
1988: Faith, George Michael
Before Limp Bizkit claimed "Faith" as their own with their exemplary cover in 1997, George Michael had a bit of success with the song himself. With Michael's vocals supported by an impeccable Bo Diddley beat, Faith's title song carried the album to the top of the '88 charts.
1989: Don't Be Cruel, Bobby Brown
In 1989, the Beastie Boys released Paul's Boutique, Madonna dropped Like a Prayer, the Pixies gave us Doolittle, and De La Soul put out Three Feet High and Rising. America said, "those are cool and all, but we are currently in a new jack swing phase," and bought Bobby Brown's album Don't Be Cruel instead.
1990: Janet Jackson's Rhythm Nation 1814, Janet Jackson
Don't worry. You don't need to have listened to Janet Jackson's Rhythm Nations 1 through 1813 to enjoy Janet Jackson's Rhythm Nation 1814. Just push play, let Janet Jackson serenade you, and look up Wikipedia recaps of the others if you get lost. All kidding aside, this album gave us hits like "Miss You Much," "Escapade," and yes, "Rhythm Nation."
1991: Mariah Carey, Mariah Carey
On the one hand, Mariah Carey is one of those rare debut albums that not only sounds great, but changed the music landscape forever. On the other, had it never introduced the world to Mariah Carey, we would not still be suffering through every national anthem singer's attempt to match her five-octave range.
1992: Some Gave All, Billy Ray Cyrus
Though the somber title Some Gave All alludes to the troops and their sacrifices, the sentimental track never really connected with Billy Ray Cyrus' fans. Instead, his and the album's success hinged entirely on the goofy middle school square dance lesson staple "Achy Breaky Heart."
1993: The Bodyguard, Whitney Houston (Soundtrack)
After a long hiatus, a soundtrack once again topped the charts, this time for The Bodyguard, a Whitney Houston and Kevin Costner romance. Critics panned the film, but that did not deter customers from picking up Houston's new insta-classic.
1994: The Lion King (Soundtrack)
The apex of Disney's animation renaissance was its retelling of Hamlet in the Serengeti. The film's Elton John-fronted soundtrack was chock-full of hits—and while "Circle of Life" and "Can You Feel the Love Tonight?" got most of the fanfare, we all know "Hakuna Matata" was the secret engine behind the Lion King soundtrack's success.
1995: Cracked Rear View, Hootie & the Blowfish
Darius Rucker doesn't get enough respect. The man fronted a band that collaborated with Bob Dylan and put out the best-selling album of '95, Cracked Rear View, and people are still referring to him as "Hootie"?
1996: Jagged Little Pill, Alanis Morissette
It's truly a shame that such a monumental, sea-change of an album has been overshadowed by the reveal that its breakout song, "You Oughta Know" was written about Full House's Uncle Joey. Hopefully music historians will have mercy on Alanis Morissette and give Jagged Little Pill its proper due.
1997: Spice, Spice Girls
Before Myers-Briggs personality tests sorted us all into 16 distinct personality types, one could only be categorized as a Scary, Baby, Posh, Sporty, or Ginger. These spice varietals and their representative girls took the world by storm with Spice in '97.
1998: Titanic (Soundtrack)
When you think about it, that "king of the world" front of boat move from Titanic that people did all the time in the late '90s was the original "planking" and one of the earliest physical memes of the modern era. The point being, if this big ship romantic tragedy was powerful enough to get that fad going, it should come as no surprise that it also sold a boatload of soundtracks. The inclusion of Céline Dion's smash hit "My Heart Will Go On" probably didn't hurt either.
1999: Millennium, Backstreet Boys
The opening salvo of the millennial boy band era was fired by some guys named AJ, Howie, Nick, Kevin, and Brian, and the world has yet to recover. Sparking Beatlemania for a new generation, the Backstreet Boys' third studio album, Millennium, took over the world, and cemented their place in the pop group pantheon.
2000: No Strings Attached, NSYNC
Nobody stays king of the hill forever, and the Backstreet Boys' dominance was toppled by a bunch of singing marionettes led by a ramen-coiffed Justin Timberlake. No Strings Attached went 11x platinum and forced us all to say "Bye, Bye, Bye" to a time before hearing these songs on the radio 24/7.