Books and Culture

Michael Jackson's iconic 'Thriller' is 36 today — and it's still the world's best-selling album 

Michael Jackson performing "Thriller" in 1988.
George De Sota | Getty Images
Michael Jackson performing "Thriller" in 1988.

Thirty-six years ago, Michael Jackson released an album that cemented his status as the world's biggest pop star.

"Thriller," released on November 30, 1982, went on to become the world's best-selling music album in history. The iconic album, featuring hits like the title track as well as "Beat It" and "Billie Jean," has sold over 33 million copies, and counting, in the United States alone, according to recent numbers from the Recording Industry Association of America.

While the Eagles album "Their Greatest Hits 1971-1975" recently passed "Thriller" in terms of all-time American sales (with 38 million, according to RIAA), Jackson's classic album is still recognized as the best-selling album ever in terms of global sales. While estimates vary, "Thriller" is said to have sold at least 66 million copies globally, according to the Guinness World Records, while others have claimed the album has sold over 100 million copies worldwide.

What is clear is that the release of "Thriller" kicked off a period of massive earnings for Jackson, with Forbes reporting that the "King of Pop" pulled in $134 million (from album sales, touring and other sources) in just the two years following the album's release. In total, Jackson earned over $1.1 billion during his lifetime, according to Forbes, which also noted that the singer's estate continues to collect massive amounts of posthumous cash ($700 million in the first five years after Jackson's 2009 death, the publication reported in 2014).

While a classic album like "Thriller" obviously was, and continues to be, a major earner for Jackson and his estate, the singer also made money by staying busy through a variety of ventures, from a clothing label to endorsements for brands like Pepsi.

Despite his global success and massive earning power, Jackson was adamant about not getting complacent with his career. For that reason, the singer said he refused to display his numerous awards (13 Grammy Awards, for example) in his home. He didn't want to sap his work ethic.

"I try not to think about it too hard," Jackson told Geraldo Rivera about his success in a 2005 interview. "I don't want my subconscious mind to think that I've done it all: 'You're done now.' No. That's why I don't put awards or trophies in my house. You won't find a gold record anywhere in my house, because it makes you feel you've accomplished [everything]. But, I always wanna feel, 'No, I haven't done it yet."

With the ongoing rise of music streaming resulting in fewer album sales in today's music industry, "Thriller" and other classic albums are likely safe, for now, in their spots atop the all-time rankings for album sales. In 2017, US album sales dipped nearly 18 percent, to roughly 169 million copies sold, according to Nielsen. And, mega-stars like Taylor Swift (whose "Reputation" led all album sales last year, with 1.9 million sold) tend to be the only musicians who sell a significant number of albums anymore, whether that be in physical or digital sales.

Here are the 10 best-selling albums ever in the US, based on certified album sales, according to RIAA:

1. Eagles, "Their Greatest Hits 1971-1975", released 1976. (38 million units sold)

2. Michael Jackson, "Thriller", released 1982. (33 million)

3. Eagles, "Hotel California", released 1976. (26 million)

4. Billy Joel, "Greatest Hits Volume I & Volume II", released 1985. (23 million)

5. Led Zeppelin, "Led Zeppelin IV", released 1971. (23 million)

6. Pink Floyd, "The Wall", released 1979. (23 million)

7. AC/DC, "Back In Black", released 1980. (22 million)

8. Garth Brooks, "Double Live", released 1998. (21 million)

9. Hootie & The Blowfish, "Cracked Rear View", released 1994. (21 million)

10. Fleetwood Mac, "Rumours", released 1977. (20 million)

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