Queen (32.5 million U.S. unit sales) snuck in at No. 10 on this list, but that understates the group’s enduring appeal — several of Queen’s songs, including We Will Rock You, We Are the Champions and Bohemian Rhapsody, will likely still be played and relevant many years from now, long after the music of several performers ahead of them on this list has been forgotten. Queen’s first two albums sold well in the UK before Sheer Heart Attack (1974) and A Night at the Opera (1975) brought the group to the attention of American rock fans.
9. Phil Collins
In 1970, this 19-year-old London native answered a classified ad looking for “a drummer sensitive to acoustic music …” Collins initially handled only the drum work for Genesis, which landed several albums in the UK top 10, but when he became lead singer after the departure of Peter Gabriel, the band unexpectedly found success in the U.S. Of course, he later became a prodigious solo performer, cranking out more Billboard Top 40 hits in the 1980s than any other artist.
8. Def Leppard
These British rockers were born in the British industrial town of Sheffield, but it took an American invention, MTV, to boost them to international fame. One of the first rock groups appealing to the MTV generation in the 1980s, Def Leppard has been frequently blasted by music critics, but their fans don’t care. Two of the group’s albums, Pyromania and Hysteria, have sold more than 10 million copies in the United States, and the group has total U.S. record sales of 35 million.
7. Rod Stewart
While Rod Stewart enjoyed notoriety in the UK in the late 1960s as lead vocalist for the Jeff Beck Group and later the group Faces, he found international fame in the most unlikely fashion. In 1971, he scored a minor hit with a solo effort called Reason to Believe, but the B-side of the record, Maggie May, began getting airplay and became a No. 1 hit in both Great Britain and the United States. (A memo to kids in the digital age: Songs placed on the B-side, or opposite side, of 45 rpm records, were songs the record company thought had no chance at being successful. Ask your parents for more info. Or maybe your grandparents.) The album with Maggie May, Every Picture Tells A Story, also held down the No. 1 spot on both sides of the Atlantic, a first. Stewart has gone on to sell 37 million records in the U.S., putting him in a strangely eclectic group of performers with 37 million sales: country star Tim McGraw, pop band the Backstreet Boys, and folk rocker Bob Dylan.
6. Eric Clapton
Clapton’s guitar work with British bands such as The Yardbirds and John Mayall & the Bluesbreakers during the mid-1960s inspired a popular phrase in the UK: “Clapton is God.” American audiences got a chance to appreciate his guitar skills when Clapton made his first visit to the U.S. with the power-rock trio Cream in 1967. Cream songs such as Sunshine of Your Love and White Room quickly made him a star on both sides of the Atlantic.
5. The Rolling Stones
If we added other factors into consideration on this list, such as concert revenue and enduring appeal, the Stones would be several notches higher, but based on just album/CD sales in the U.S., Mick & Co. rank fifth, with 66 million in certified sales. Despite some UK hit singles in the early 1960s, the Stones found a less friendly climate in the U.S. on their first tour in 1964; during an appearance on The Hollywood Palace TV show, host Dean Martin made several jokes at the band’s expense, even rolling his eyes after their performance, according to TV.com.
4. Elton John
The colorful pop star cut his musical teeth in Great Britain, but his first musical success came in the U.S. with the release of the album Elton John in 1970. The album hit No. 4 on the Billboard charts and spawned a top 10 single, Your Song. Sir Elton’s best-selling album in the U.S. is his greatest hits collection released in 1974, which has sold 16 million copies.
3. Pink Floyd
The psychedelic/progressive rockers had been popular attractions on the British club and university circuits for several years before the release of The Dark Side of the Moon in March 1973. Despite the phenomenal commercial success of that album, the group’s 1979 album The Wall is their best seller in the U.S., with more than 23 million units sold.
2. Led Zeppelin
The rock icons rose to international fame during several hard-partying American tours in the late 1960s and early 1970s. The band’s best-selling album? Led Zeppelin IV, (Black Dog, Rock and Roll, Stairway to Heaven, etc.) with more than 23 million units sold in the U.S. Surprisingly, the second-best-selling Led Zep album in the U.S. is the double-album Physical Graffiti, which is long on lengthy conceptual pieces and short on the short, powerful, classic rock staples that most fans associate with the band.
1. The Beatles
The band that famously opened the floodgates of the British musical invasion of the U.S. in the 1960s. In the half-century since, the group has racked up 177 million in total album sales, tops among all performers in the U.S. (Elvis Presley is second, with 134.5 million). As noted earlier, for every British star that has found success in the U.S., many others never caught on. Famous UK performers who never achieved the same type of stardom in America included Oasis, Adam and the Ants, UB40, The Pogues and Shakin’ Stevens, the top-selling UK singles artist of the 1980s.
(Editor’s note: Two hybrid bands, Fleetwood Mac and Foreigner, which featured both British and American performers, are not included on this list.)