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Ask Billboard: Battle of the Divas, Round 3

Two weeks of discussions about album sales for Mariah Carey, Whitney Houston and Madonna have led to answers ... and more questions.

Ask Billboard is updated every Friday. Submit your burning music questions to Gary Trust at Please include your first and last name, as well as your city, state and country, if outside the U.S.


Hi Gary,

I have found your recent analysis of album sales for Madonna, Whitney Houston and Mariah Carey to be very interesting. If you look at the statistics of singles sales, as opposed to those of albums, who leads then?

I would guess that Madonna would have definitely had the most singles released by a wide margin, but that Whitney and Mariah have both had some huge selling-singles in the U.S.

Many thanks,

Robert Cooper
London, United Kingdom

Hi Robert,

Our discussion of albums sales of three of music biggest female stars has certainly prompted many e-mails and reader comments. Yours is the first, however, to inquire about singles sales.

Again, before we run the numbers, a major point to remember: sales data for Nielsen SoundScan dates to 1991. So, any singles released by Madonna and Houston in the ’80s (or by Carey in 1990) only show sales since 1991 in SoundScan’s database. We can only guess at the number of singles that Madonna’s “Like a Virgin” and Houston’s “I Wanna Dance With Somebody (Who Loves Me),” for example, actually sold while they were current hits in the ’80s.

Still, the 18-year span of SoundScan data is a hefty sample size, and Madonna, Houston and Carey have all released material in that stretch.

Ultimately, all we can do is present the figures and explain as clearly as possible the parameters of each statistic cited.

With that in mind, here are the singles sales totals for each artist. Nielsen SoundScan separates totals for physical singles from digital tracks, so we’ll present the sums of both configurations:

Physical singles:
17,172,000, Mariah Carey
14,744,000, Whitney Houston
10,554,000, Madonna

Digital tracks:
11,120,000, Mariah Carey
10,307,000, Madonna
3,320,000, Whitney Houston

Carey, thus, leads in both categories, while Houston has sold more physical (CD, cassette) singles than Madonna since 1991. Madonna, however, has moved a significantly higher number of digital tracks in that span than Houston, according to Nielsen SoundScan. That should not come as a surprise, as Madonna has been more prevalent on radio than Houston this decade, when digital sales overtook those of physical singles. (Since 2000, Madonna has logged nine top 40 hits on the Billboard Hot 100 vs. Houston’s two).

What are the biggest-selling hits for each artist?

Whitney Houston
Physical single: “I Will Always Love You,” 4,591,000
Digital track: “I Will Always Love You,” 575,000

Mariah Carey
Physical single: “One Sweet Day” (& Boyz II Men), 2,334,000
Digital track: “All I Want for Christmas Is You,” 1,156,000

Physical single: “Music,” 1,136,000
Digital track: “4 Minutes” (featuring Justin Timberlake), 2,476,000

And, since all three artists are also currently charting with new singles, let’s look at the digital sales of each title to date:

Mariah Carey, “Obsessed”: 526,000
Madonna, “Celebration”: 64,000
Whitney Houston, “I Look to You”: 32,000

Want more comparisons of women wielding great power on Billboard charts? Read on.

Hi Gary,

I get what you’re saying about the album sales of Carey, Houston and Madonna, but can you please break down the number of albums released by each artist, so people can understand that, yes, Madonna has sold more albums than Houston, but Madonna and Carey have both offered at least four more albums than Houston. Even with less product, Whitney still has the numbers to be up there in the discussion. In other words, the other two artists have sold more albums, but Whitney perhaps averages better sales per album.


John Harris
Seattle, Washington

Hi John,

Interesting angle. Let’s count studio albums, soundtracks, holiday sets and greatest hits/remix collections that have charted on the Billboard 200 in the SoundScan era (1991 to date) to come up with an average sales sum for each.

Since 1991, Carey has released eight studio albums, one soundtrack, one holiday set and four greatest hits/remix collections (14 total).

Madonna’s count stands as such: seven studio albums, two soundtracks and three greatest hits/remix collections (12 total).

And, Houston’s: two studio albums, two soundtracks, one holiday set and one greatest hits/remix collections (six total).

Tallying the totals, here is the average sales number for each artist’s Billboard 200 charted studio, soundtrack, holiday and greatest hits/remix efforts in the SoundScan era:

Whitney Houston: 3,308,000
Mariah Carey: 3,151,000
Madonna: 1,645,000

Here, Houston is tops – and averaging even 1.6 million in sales per album over almost two decades is no small feat for any artist. Among the three performers, Houston’s “The Bodyguard” soundtrack is the only set to pass 10 million in sales, according to Nielsen SoundScan, since 1991. The album has sold 11,808,000 copies.

Dear Gary,

Lately you have given the latest U.S. SoundScan album figures for Madonna, Whitney Houston and Mariah Carey. Could you please do the same for another diva: Celine Dion?

All the best,

Warsaw, Poland

Hi Chris,

Celine Dion has sold an incredibly impressive 50,807,000 albums in the SoundScan era (just a tad shy of Carey’s 51,837,000 in that span).

Here are Dion’s top sellers:

10,780,000, “Falling Into You (1996)
9,461,000, “Let’s Talk About Love” (1997)
7,869,000, “All the Way…A Decade of Song” (1999)
5,077,000, “These Are Special Times” (1998)
4,501,000, “Colour of My Love” (1993)
3,294,000, “A New Day Has Come” (2002)
2,339,000, “Celine Dion” (1992)
1,790,000, “One Heart” (2003)
1,222,000, “Unison” (1990)
1,055,000, “Taking Chances” (2007)

Thanks again to everyone who’s e-mailed regarding our discussion about which female artists have sold the most albums in the U.S., per Nielsen SoundScan and the Recording Industry Association of America. For a complete listing of the artists with the most units certified – according to the RIAA – please check out the RIAA’s handy list. While Madonna, Mariah Carey and Whitney Houston were the focus of most reader questions, Barbra Streisand leads the RIAA’s rankings among women, with Madonna second, Carey third and Houston fourth. Celine Dion, Shania Twain, Reba McEntire, Britney Spears, Linda Ronstadt and Enya round out the top 10 among solo female artists.

And, according to Nielsen SoundScan since 1991, Streisand, the RIAA’s leading lady, has sold 20,334,000 albums.