These days we often hear about K-pop albums selling more than a million copies, so it may come as a surprise to learn that K-pop album sales were hard to quantify for a long time, and it’s still hard to verify sales figures reported before accessible digital reporting.
In 2010, the Korea Music Content Association (KMCA) introduced the Gaon Music Chart, and since then it has been tracking sales, and in recent years began certifying records, much like the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) and Recording Industry Association of Japan (RIAJ) do for those markets.
But even though Gaon figures are now considered accurate, there were multiple attempts in the past to track album sales in South Korea - including by the Recording Industry of Korea - but it remains difficult to verify early K-pop album sales for a variety of reasons, even for albums that were reported by chart trackers at the time of their immense sales.
In its early days, South Korea’s pop music industry witnessed widespread misreporting of sales, sometimes by accident but sometimes intentionally to reduce reported income.
Piracy was also a serious issue, as many popular artists’ sales and early-era internet downloads were never formally tracked, although there was an attempt to calculate illegal sales and downloads on the Gilboard Chart – a portmanteau of Billboard and the Korean word for road, in reference to street sellers of cassettes, LPs, and CDs.
Despite all this, we still have attempts at accurate reporting and estimates of album sales, and as K-pop continues to grow, so do the figures. Although album sales dropped when streaming arrived in South Korea, and few albums sold anywhere close to a million copies during the late 2000s and early 2010s, the past few years have seen a renaissance of K-pop album sales, and artists now regularly sell millions of albums.
It’s mostly boy and girl groups that hit those high figures, but last year saw Baekhyun, a member of boy band Exo, sell more than one million copies of his Delight album, and as time goes by, more soloists will likely join the bestsellers esteemed list.
For this list, K-pop refers to formal idol teams produced by entertainment companies; Seo Taiji, DJ Doc, Clon, Roo’ra and other acts from the ’90s are precursors to the modern K-pop industry who also sold millions of albums. Additionally, various album editions, such as repackaged versions, have been calculated together.
Here are the 20 bestselling K-pop albums of all time.
20. Exo – XOXO (2013, 1.29 million sold)
The biggest album of 2013 featured Exo’s singles Wolf and Growl; the latter rocketed the group to becoming one of the top boy bands.
19. Blackpink – The Album (2020, 1.33 million sold)
Blackpink are the only K-pop girl group to sell more than one million copies of an album. Last year, the long-awaited first LP, fronted by the single Kill This Love from the quartet, was one of the five bestselling South Korean records.
18. H.O.T – I Yah! (1999. 1.38 million sold)
Fronted by the intense rock-infused single I Yah! – inspired the tragic deaths of more than 20 kindergarteners in a school fire due to neglect – this album was a huge success for its musicality as much as its call for societal reflection.
17. Seventeen – Haeng:garæ (2020, 1.41 million sold)
This celebratory EP saw a lot of love from fans, and also went viral with the addictive single Left & Right.
16. Wanna One – 1X1=1 (2017, 1.45 million sold)
Wanna One may have only been together a short time after being created on a competition show, but their debut EP 1x1=1 (To Be One) and its follow-up repackaged edition 1-1=0 (Nothing Without You) kicked off their career in a big way.
15. NCT 127 – Neo Zone (2020. 1.48 million sold)
Last year’s Neo Zone and its sequel exhilarated with the combative singles Kick It and Punch and B-sides that refreshingly relayed NCT 127’s sonic style, finding much love with listeners.
14. H.O.T – We Hate all Kinds of Violence (1996, 1.5 million sold)
H.O.T’s first album was their biggest hit by far, setting the stage for their career of singing about societal issues while simultaneously having a lot of fun through the contrasting singles Warrior’s Descendant and Candy.
13. H.O.T – Wolf and Sheep (1997, 1.5 million sold)
H.O.T’s second album proved the band’s staying power through singles Wolf and Sheep, Full of Happiness, and We Are the Future.
12. Exo – The War (2017, 1.67 million sold)
Whether it was the reggae-infused Ko Ko Bop or the anthemic Power, Exo’s album and its sequel, The Power of Music, took the boy band’s energy and musicality to new heights.
11. g.o.d. – Chapter 4: Road (2001, 1.73 million sold)
Philosophical and introspective, g.o.d’s fourth album and its single Road were the group’s most critically acclaimed releases, and left an immense legacy - the title song was remade in 2019 by many other South Korean singers to commemorate g.o.d’s 20th anniversary.
10. g.o.d – Chapter 3: Lies (2000, 1.84 million sold)
The back-to-back million-plus selling hit albums Road and Lies were built on the success of g.o.d hits Lies and One Candle, which became signature songs for the group.
9. Exo – Don’t Mess Up My Tempo (2018, 1.96 million sold)
Between the a cappella-heavy Tempo and the smooth Love Shot, Exo aimed for the hearts and hit big with their bestselling album to date.
8. BTS – Love Yourself: Her (2017, 2.36 million sold)
The first album of BTS’s Love Yourself series, fronted by the single DNA, is the first of their seven albums on this list that have sold more than two million copies.
7. BTS – Love Yourself: Tear (2018, 2.37 million sold)
With Love Yourself: Tear, BTS explored the idea of Fake Love, continuing their thematic exploration of self love and bringing their career to new heights.
6. BTS – Wings (2016-2017, 2.37 million sold)
The earliest BTS album to sell millions of copies, Wings and its sequel, You Never Walk Alone, were propelled by the iconic singles Blood Sweat & Tears, Spring Day, and Not Today.
5. NCT – Resonance (2020, 2.7 million sold)
NCT 2020’s two-part album featuring all 23 members in the current line-up and four diverse singles: Make a Wish (Birthday Song), From Home, 90s Love, and Work It.
4. BTS – BE (2020, 2.71 million sold)
A new edition of BE was released last week, so updated sales may push the coronavirus-era album from BTS even higher up the list as listeners continue to seek solace in the EP and single Life Goes On.
3. BTS – Love Yourself: Answer (2018, 2.74 million sold)
The final album in the Love Yourself trilogy, Answer made waves with its bombastic single Idol, which drew on traditional Korean elements and featured a collaboration with Nicki Minaj.
2. BTS – Map of the Soul: Persona (2019, 3.94 million sold)
With nearly four million copies sold, Persona found a lot of love, and is bolstered by the charming featuring Halsey, and Make It Right.
1. BTS – Map of the Soul: 7 (2020, 4.4 million sold)
Last year’s anniversary release celebrating the seventh year of BTS’ seven members together as a band is the bestselling South Korean album of all time, with Gaon recording more than 4.4 million copies sold.