Recording a single song in the studio is usually a full day’s work. Hours can be spent tweaking drum sounds, getting a dozen guitar takes and overdubbing vocals. It takes a perfectionist to sit in the producer’s chair, making sure every note is in its place. So when a band can press “record,” step out on stage, and capture something more spectacular in a single take, it’s an accomplishment. These 10 songs are just a handful of the many times that the magic of an audience triumphs over the most advanced recording techniques. I could have continued the list with The Avett Brothers, Frightened Rabbit, Phish, The Hold Steady, R.E.M., The Dave Matthews Band, Wilco and countless others, but these 10 stood above the pack.
1. U2 – “Bad” from Wide Awake in America
A great live makes the most of naturally epic songs like U2 does here with “Bad”—the slow build, the musicians playing off each other and the emotional peaks.
2. Johnny Cash – “Folsom Prison Blues” from Johnny Cash at Folsom Prison
The song takes on a whole new meaning with the cheers of inmates in the background. Cash had long wanted to perform in a prison, but he had to wait more than a dozen years after the initial release of “Folsom Prison Blues” for his record label to warm to the idea.
3. The Rolling Stones – “Midnight Rambler” from Get Yer Ya-Ya’s Out!
The live version, released in 1970, is over nine minutes long, giving Keith Richards the space to riff. Hunter S. Thompson reportedly wrote Fear and Loathing while dropping the needle on this track over and over.
4. Talking Heads – “Life During Wartime” from Stop Making Sense
The soundtrack to one of the all-time great concert documentaries features back-up singers, a sprinting David Byrne and more energy than Three Mile Island.
5. Townes Van Zandt – “White Freightliner Blues” from Rear View Mirror
Van Zandt is ably backed by fiddler Owen Cody and guitarist Danny Rowland on an album that routinely outdoes its studio counterparts.
6. Simon and Garfunkel – “Mrs. Robinson” from Live 1969
Recorded just before the release of Bridge Over Troubled Water, this version of “Mrs. Robinson” features a full band, making it sound much more like The Lemonheads’ uptempo cover. Listen for the sweet organ buried in the chorus.
7. The Smiths – “Bigmouth Strikes Again” from Rank
Rank catches The Smiths at their peak, and Morrissey’s growling on “Bigmouth” are unmatched by the tamer studio release.
8. Nirvana – “All Apologies” from MTV Unplugged
Often the joy of a live album comes from hearing a familiar song in a completely new context, and this stripped down version of “All Apologies” is more powerful at its bare essentials. MTV’s Unplugged series would capture more great moments, but none quite so unexpectedly magical as this one.
9. My Morning Jacket – “One Big Holiday” from Okonokos
One of My Morning Jacket’s best songs got even better with this 2005 recording from The Filmore in San Francisco.
10. The Allman Brothers – “Whipping Post” from At Fillmore East
While this list is far from complete, it’d be a farce without this quintessential 25-minute jam from New York’s Filmore East. Duane Allman and Dickie Betts swap guitar solos before Gregg Allman joins in on organ, and the band completely loses its collective mind.