Pitch Perfect: The Best Selling Singles in Music History

By Pablo D. ReixaLast Updated Apr 2, 2020 5:33:06 PM ET
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Photo Courtesy: Miley Cyrus/YouTube

Music is significant in almost all our lives, no matter where you live or which type of sound you like best. It helps us process our emotions and has sometimes inspired major cultural revolutions. But only a few songs manage to obliterate every boundary and land a coveted spot as one of the best selling singles of all time.

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Some of the top songs are surprisingly one-hit wonders; others were made famous by some of the industry’s biggest music icons. They all made music history during the last 100 years. From pop wild child singers like Miley Cyrus and Kesha to extremely catchy Christmas songs, some of the best selling singles in the entire world just might surprise you.

30. “Kung Fu Fighting” - 11 Million Units

Let’s start things off with one of the silliest old-school songs that everyone knows. (Admit it — you know you do!) Kung Fu Fighting is an absolute icon in the music world. Although it turned out to be a one-hit-wonder sung by Carl Douglas, it is without a doubt one of the most successful (and fun) hits of all time.

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The song was created in just 10 minutes and wasn’t taken seriously by anyone — even the creator of the funky melody. For the first few weeks after its release, no one cared about the song. However, it eventually took off in dance clubs — and the rest is history.

29. “Believe” - 11 Million Units

The one and only Cher has been making music since the ‘60s. She first rose to mega-popularity when she made a duet with her then-husband, Sonny Bono, called "I Got You Babe." Cher had numerous hit songs over the years, but the biggest by far was the catchy "Believe," which has sold more than 11 million units (2020).

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The album of the same name also launched the start of the "Cher-effect," as it was one of the first projects to use the infamous Auto-Tune. Over the years, Cher became well known in the pop world and remains a household name today. Let's be honest, everyone has at least heard "Believe."

28. “Do They Know It’s Christmas?” - 11.7 Million Units

It’s no surprise that some of the best selling singles on this list include Christmas songs that have managed to earn the "timeless" title. Band Aid was a charity supergroup created with the intention of raising money for starving people in Ethiopia.

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The song became one of the fastest selling singles in the U.K. And the best part? Every time it is played on the radio, the income still goes to the charities supported by the band. The song's creators also support any re-recordings, as all their proceeds still go to charity. That was the main goal behind the song in the first place, and it has been hugely successful.

27. “Y.M.C.A” - 12 Million Units

If there’s a song that deserves the crown for being a timeless song with iconic choreography, it is definitely "Y.M.C.A" by Village People. The tune quickly became an anthem among the LGBT community. Although the lyrics themselves don't explicitly say so, its creators say it was definitely written for gay people.

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Featuring unique costumes and play-along roles, the song’s music video showcases the iconic choreography that is known around the world. No one is surprised "Y.M.C.A" has sold as many units as it has — the song is eternally catchy and fun!

26. “Time to Say Goodbye” - 12 Million Units

Although Andrea Bocelli sold more than 150 million records on his own, the world-famous tenor’s song with Sarah Brightman remains one of the most popular singles of all time. It has sold more than 12 million copies and is considered one of the most beautiful songs in the Italian language.

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The song sounds absolutely stunning in its own language, but once translated, the lyrics aren’t quite as smooth. Suddenly things become much less poetic. Some things are simply better left alone. The song was actually written for popular boxer Henry Maske and was performed at his final fight.

25. “I Want to Hold Your Hand” - 12 Million Units

Released in 1963, "I Want to Hold Your Hand" started off with an impressive pre-order of 1 million units at a time when "pre-order" still wasn’t really much of a thing. Of course, The Beatles were in their prime and had already made a splash with their previous top-selling singles.

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The group sought to create a song that would make them a hit name in the U.S., and they definitely succeeded. "I Want to Hold Your Hand" was their international ticket to fame, allowing The Beatles to expand past the British borders. It was later revealed that the song was completed in 17 takes.

24. “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” - 12.5 Million Units

Here’s another popular Christmas song that made the cut! Selling more than 12 million units over time, Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer was an immediate hit after its release. Invoking a sense of nostalgia with adults, the song was also adored by children who were excited by the Christmas spirit.

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The song remains popular to this day, with many artists, including Destiny’s Child and The Supremes, covering it over the years. The lyrics "all of the other reindeer" have been misheard as "Olive, the other reindeer" so frequently that the phrase was used to create a book series and a television Christmas special called "Olive, the Other Reindeer."

23. “Da Da Da” - 13 Million Units

The German band Trio released an unlikely hit that managed to sell more than 30 million units in Germany and 30 other countries. The official English version of the song translates to "Da Da Da, I don't love you, you don't love me." It’s simple, it’s fun, and it’s easy to learn.

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The band described their music as New German Cheerfulness, and by the sound of it, they were definitely right. Unfortunately, the group split in 1987, but the legacy of "Da Da Da" forever lives on as one of the top 30 best selling singles in music history.

22. “Sukiyaki” - 13 Million Units

"Sukiyaki" by Kyu Sakamoto is the only Japanese song on this list. It has an alternative title of "I Look Up as I Walk," and the lyrics focus on a man who looks up to the sky in order to not cry. The original "Sukiyaki" title directly translates to a Japanese hot-pot dish with cooked beef.

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The song rose to popularity in the ‘60s and has sold more than 13 million units around the world. It’s now an important part of history and was one of the first pieces of music to be played by NASA for its astronauts in space.

21. “Sweet Mother” - 13 Million Units

Voted as Africa’s favorite song to this day, "Sweet Mother" is a happy-go-lucky tune featuring a celebration of motherhood. It’s often referred to as Africa’s unofficial anthem. Although the flamboyant Prince Nico Mbarga failed to repeat his "Sweet Mother" success with his later music, the single became a huge influence in African culture and is still appreciated by many communities to this day.

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Eventually, Mbarga left music to pursue his other passions. He passed away in a motorcycle accident in 1997, leaving behind one of the biggest legacies in African popular music.

20. “We Can’t Stop” - 14 Million Units

"We Can’t Stop" is definitely one of Miley Cyrus’ most controversial tracks. It featured her in a brand new light, officially grown out of her Hannah Montana role. The song was a dedication to Cyrus’ strong fanbase, who never stopped believing in her over the years through every up and down.

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Cyrus says that the drug references are definitely meant for her adult fanbase. The misheard lyrics of "Miley" versus "Molly" can also be interpreted in both ways, depending on the age of the listener. The popular song introduced a brand new Miley Cyrus era and was also accompanied by a shock-value music video.

19. “I Will Survive” - 14 Million Units

If there’s a number one karaoke anthem out there, it is definitely "I Will Survive" by Gloria Gaynor. It’s no wonder that this timeless tune has sold more than 14 million units across decades. The ultimate disco anthem quickly became one of the most empowering songs ever written. It’s about moving on from a bad relationship — with attitude!

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The single was first regarded as a B-side track, otherwise known as the less important song on the record, but Gaynor’s vocals and empowering lyrics soon took over the world. "I Will Survive" has been covered by countless amazing vocalists, including Charice Pempengco (Jake Zyrus), Diana Ross and Aretha Franklin.

18. “Wind of Change” - 15 Million Units

"Wind of Change" is an important historical song, serving as the soundtrack to political revolution as the anthem to the end of the Cold War. The song immediately rose to popularity, selling more than 15 million units since its release. It eventually became one of the best selling singles of all time and has been re-recorded in other languages.

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The band formed in 1965, but the Scorpions still perform to this day. They have released an impressive 18 albums. Although "Wind of Change" remains their biggest success, it’s definitely not their only hit. Remember "Love at First Sting" and "No One Like You?"

17. “You’re the One That I Want” - 15 Million Units

When you think about a karaoke duo song, "You’re the One That I Want" by Olivia Newton-John and John Travolta probably comes to mind. The energetic single was popularized by Grease, the movie version of the hit musical, and the song soon became known all over the world.

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Although Newton-John was reportedly nervous about playing her role in the movie, it instantly catapulted her into stardom. On top of "You’re the One That I Want," the pair also basked in the success of "Summer Nights." However, it didn't sell nearly as many copies as this signature song.

16. “(Everything I Do) I Do It for You” - 15 Million Units

When it comes to ballads, Bryan Adams definitely knows how to crank out some tunes with enduring appeal. One of his most popular songs of all time is "(Everything I Do) I Do It for You." Adams revealed that it took the team 45 minutes to create the song, and they instantly knew it was going to be a huge hit.

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He said that a feeling like that only happened a few times during his career. The song first appeared on the soundtrack of the movie Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves starring Kevin Costner, and it soon became one of the best selling ballads ever.

15. “Wrecking Ball” - 16 Million Units

"Wrecking Ball" was an instant success for Miley Cyrus. Although the song was originally meant for Beyoncé, Cyrus certainly managed to give the song stunning and raw emotions. She was reportedly going through a breakup at the time it was recorded. The surprising love song was extremely relatable and became one of Cyrus’ best selling singles, although she famously has more than one song on this list.

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Accompanied by a controversial video that raised quite a few eyebrows among parents, it was yet another song that marked a brand new Cyrus era and separated her from her Hannah Montana image. Fans had to accept that Cyrus had officially grown up.

14. “All I Want for Christmas Is You” - 16 Million Units

Ah, an instant timeless Christmas classic — "All I Want for Christmas Is You" only took 15 minutes to compose. The iconic Christmas song was written by Carey and her writing partner, Walter Afanasieff. She believed she managed to completely capture the essence of Christmas, and millions of fans agree she was right.

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Although her label was worried that putting out a holiday album wouldn’t be good for her career, the public proved everyone wrong. "All I Want for Christmas Is You" manages to get back on the charts every single year around Christmas time.

13. “Tik Tok” - 16 Million Units

Before there was the app TikTok, there was Kesha’s song "Tik Tok," her very first single and an instant success. It launched her career and her ultimate pop wild child image. The song was inspired by Kesha’s hippy lifestyle. Do you remember the lyrics "Wake up in the morning feeling like P. Diddy?" Exactly!

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Diddy’s actually a part of the song, saying "Hey, what up girl." The song’s rise to fame also crowned Kesha as the first female vocalist to have a number one debut single on the Billboard Hot 100. It’s still her best selling single to date.

12. “Party in the USA” - 17 Million Units

Is it starting to feel like Miley Cyrus is hogging the list? Let’s see if you can guess how many Miley Cyrus songs are on the list in total. Okay, so, "Party in the USA" might be her most successful song to date, but it’s obviously not her only huge selling record. This one is particularly notable, because it was Cyrus’ lead single from her first-ever album.

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The song had to be released earlier than planned due to potential demo leak threats, but it didn’t matter. Fans were so curious to hear Cyrus outside of Hannah Montana, that "Party in the USA" became an instant hit. She revealed that she didn’t write the song, and she never expected the song to be that huge.

11. “My Heart Will Go On” - 18 Million Units

This beautiful ballad comes with an instant association — Titanic. The truth is none of the professionals were fans of the song — not Dion, not the director of the movie, no one. Yet the song became an instant hit with viewers and is now completely synonymous with Titanic.

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It also appeared on a Dion album, which helped get it to the number one spot in several countries. Many believe "My Heart Will Go On" contributed to the overall success of the movie, proving everyone wrong. It’s often crowned as the best movie song of all time.

10. “Yes, Sir, I Can Boogie” - 18 Million Units

Not many songs from the ‘70s managed to take off with as much force as "Yes, Sir, I Can Boogie." A total European hit, this is what every boomer was vibing to back in the day. It really does make you want to get up and boogie! Baccara was the very first duo to ever achieve a number one song on the U.K. charts.

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The band’s rise to fame allowed them to compete in the 1978 Eurovision Song Contest, which is basically Europe’s musical Olympics for original songs. However, "Yes, Sir, I can Boogie" remains Baccara’s greatest success.

9. “If I Didn't Care” - 19 Million Units

We’re taking it way back to the ‘30s with this one. This true melodic classic will have you swaying and closing your eyes. It was The Ink Spot’s only huge hit, and it focused on some dark times in the music industry's history.

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Reportedly, each member was only paid $37.50 for recording the song. However, the contract was later destroyed by the studio, which meant the group could finally profit from one of the music world's biggest hits. The band officially disbanded in 1954, leaving behind a true legacy that shaped the world of music.

8. “It’s Now or Never” - 20 Million Units

Although many people can list plenty of Elvis Presley songs, some of them may not realize which of his songs was his best selling gem. This classic features the same melody as the Italian favorite "O Sole Mio." Presley first heard the song when he was still in the U.S. Army in Europe. As soon as he was discharged, he asked his record company to translate the song.

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Presley’s version was a huge influence for Barry White, who first heard the song while he was still in prison. Priscilla Presley claimed that "It’s Now or Never" remained Elvis Presley’s favorite of his own songs as well.

7. “I Will Always Love You” - 20 Million Units

Very few have the chops to sing "I Will Always Love You" as well as Whitney Houston. Many have tried, and many have failed. This timeless classic is full of emotion and incredibly complicated vocals.

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Written by Dolly Parton, "I Will Always Love You" was personally picked by Kevin Costner for the soundtrack of the movie The Bodyguard starring Houston herself. The original version of the song — sung by Parton — had more of a country sound. It was turned into the emotional ballad we all know and love by Houston. The rest is musical history.

6. “We Are the World” - 20 Million Units

Created and recorded to support African victims of famine, "We Are the World" was written by Michael Jackson and Lionel Richie. The song was inspired by Band Aid’s success with "Do They Know It’s Christmas." Not only did "We Are the World" replicate that success, it far surpassed it!

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The song was recorded on the night of the 1985 American Music Awards. All the featured artists were asked to leave their egos at the door during the recording. Interestingly, Prince was asked to join, but he refused due to his policy of not collaborating with other acts.

5. “Rock Around the Clock” - 25 Million Units

This is the anthem that gets every boomer up and dancing. The fast-paced tune first hit the airwaves in 1953 and was the first rock song to stay on the charts. At that time, using the term "rock and roll" was unheard of in the music scene. The meaning has changed since then, of course, as you really wouldn't call this rock music today.

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Bill Haley & His Comets added a unique country twist, which turned "Rock Around the Clock" into an instant success. The song was the U.K.’s biggest-selling single in the ‘50s, and it remains one of the biggest selling singles of all time.

4. “In the Summertime” - 30 Million Units

If there’s a summer anthem that remains a true classic, it’s definitely Mungo Jerry’s "In the Summertime." Featured on plenty of soundtracks, this is the ultimate feel-good summer song. Written by the group’s lead singer — yes, Mungo Jerry is a band — the song was inspired by typical American beach movies.

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It doesn’t feature a chorus, but it does have a catchy melody that’s all about celebrating life. It pops back up on the charts every summer and remains one of the top-selling singles in the world. Only three other songs have managed to beat its impressive number of sales.

3. “Silent Night” - 30 Million Units

While "In the Summertime" is a dance tune, "Silent Night" is the exact opposite. Written in 1918, it was performed for the first time by Joseph Mohr and Franz Gruber. It remains one of the most popular Christmas carols of all time and has been translated into more than 300 languages.

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The song was popularized by Bing Crosby in the ‘30s and has sold more than 30 million units around the world. It has many different musical interpretations. In fact, you can listen to more than 26,000 different versions and covers of Silent Night!

2. “Candle in the Wind” - 30 Million Units

Known now as the anthem to Princess Diana’s life and death, Elton John’s re-released "Candle in the Wind" instantly became a timeless classic. Selling more than 30 million units, the song talks about a promising life that ended way too early.

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Originally released in 1973, the song was first written as a tribute to another fallen star, Marilyn Monroe. When Princess Diana tragically died in a car accident in 1997, the entire world froze at the loss of the "People’s Princess." Elton John was stunned and knew that he had to dedicate a revamped version of the song to the beloved princess.

1. “White Christmas” - 50 Million Units

Is there really any surprise that the best selling single of all time is a Christmas song? Bing Crosby was fortunate enough to have two of his popular Christmas classics set sales records in the music world.

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"White Christmas," first released in 1942 as part of the Holiday Inn movie soundtrack, is an absolute timeless classic. The song is simple, featuring only eight lines, but it captures the beautiful longing for a snow-filled Christmas. Many have tried to beat Crosby's impressive record, but as of 2020, they have all failed. This really proves that nothing can beat Christmas nostalgia!