“Live. And in Color.” In the age of the Internet boom, we are blessed with the availability of so much music, so quickly produced, recorded and ready to be shared. Sometimes we overlook the opportunity for interaction, exultation and commitment to a performance moving across the stage in front of us. The color is live; the music is entering our ears as quickly as its coming out of mouths and instruments. The live moment can’t be overlooked. Here at Paste, we thought we’d take some time to remind all of us of 27 moments in history where the live sound prevailed, and the recordings that forever sealed those memories. The musicians could cut loose and play off the crowd, and the result can be much more interesting than studio perfection.
Here they are, the 27 Best Live Albums of All Time:
27. Jeff Mangum, Live at Jittery Joe’s
For the mysterious frontman of Neutral Milk Hotel, infrequent live appearances have been made acceptable mostly because of his impeccable flair for a stripped-down stage. This live album is no exception—an acoustic guitar, a voice riddled with dreams and a crying baby make Live at Jittery Joe’s fit for the first stop on this countdown to live-recording greatness. Set after the band released On Avery Island and in the years before the monumental In the Aeroplane Over the Sea, the album, which was recorded in a statement against the expense of eBay-centric bootlegs, contains a rustic edge that isn’t often seen of Mangum in the studio. It gives us this pressing necessity to experience the phenomenon live, and the beauty of a live album is remembered.
26. Thin Lizzy, Live and Dangerous
Live and Dangerous embodies the essence of live rock and roll. Pure and simple, recorded over two shows in 1976 and 1977, the double live album gave the band room to expose the strength of its presence. The songs were loftier, the instrumentation more grand and drawn out—the music felt more whole as the experience felt more poignant.
25. Joni Mitchell, Miles of Aisles
Miles of Aisles came at the perfect point in Mitchell’s career. At the time of this 1974 recording, she was still riding the success of epic albums like Blue and Ladies of the Canyon. Those works gave her enough mainstream credibility that she was allowed to have a bit of fun with her shows, making Miles of Aisles a collection of all the very best Mitchell songs, performed without any pretense. Recorded at the Universal Amphitheatre in Los Angeles, the album showcases Mitchell’s exceptional ability to lose herself in a song onstage. She never sounds like she’s working to please the audience, or even really aware that she’s being recorded for an album. She’s just strumming away at that guitar, soaking up the chords and letting her exquisite voice and lyrics shine through. And in a way, the imperfections of Mitchell’s performance are exactly what make it so perfect. Special props go to the stellar “Cactus Tree,” which is as rugged and heart-wrenching as ever, and “The Last Time I Saw Richard,” which mixes quiet profoundness with tidbits of humor. “Big Yellow Taxi”? Sure, it’s excellent, but there’s so much more to celebrate from this album.—Emilia Fredlick
24. KISS, Alive!
KISS was a band known for its live shows, with flames and stage sets that didn’t find as much a home among more polished, studio sounds. So when Alive! found life four albums into the band’s career in 1975, it was only natural that its impact would be tremendous. It was certified gold, and many can recount their first time hearing Alive! and defend its influence on making KISS a historic, household staple.
23. Cheap Trick, Cheap Trick at Budokan
Cheap Trick at Budokan became one of the band’s highest-selling records. Any idea that live sound is somehow lesser quality was completely shattered. It was also one of the first LPs to be printed on colored vinyl, a technique previously used specifically for singles and EP recordings.
22. Bill Evans – Sunday at the Village Vanguard
Culled from a Greenwich Village concert in 1961, Sunday at the Village Vanguard showcases Evans at the top of his game, with his finest working trio. Evans brought the impressionism of Debussy and Ravel to jazz, and his solos are wonders of construction, by turns melodically ruminative and sweeping, impossibly romantic and beautiful. But for all its nuanced delicacy, Evans’ piano work still swings in the best post-bop fashion, and there’s an insistent pulse to the music that belies its genteel exterior. “Accompaniment” is too weak a word for what drummer Paul Motian and bassist Scott LaFaro contribute to the proceedings. Here they’re egalitarian collaborators, and the almost telepathic interplay between the instruments is thrilling.—Andy Whitman
21. Fela Kuti, Live!
Fela’s revolutionary ideas were never separate from the music he created, and his live, almost shamanistic performances captured the essence of his inspiration. Leading the crowd and his band with the sound of his voice, the swagger of his walk, Kuti was a spiritual leader as much as he was a conductor. With a wave of his hand and a glowing yelp of his voice, he could turn a mood as he made history. Live! was his chance to make his impact on Africa—to learn about its sounds, to share in its artistic persuasions, and to turn the world’s eye upon its political climate in 1971. The collection is equally as poignant, and its beauty and immediacy can’t be escaped even today.
20. Janis Joplin, Janis Joplin: The Woodstock Experience
Kicking back and listening to Janis Joplin’s The Woodstock Experience, you really feel like you should be chilling on a blanket on the grass, lighting a cigarette and getting in the groove. So, Woodstock. Joplin’s amazingly raspy voice carries her through nearly an hour of continually hard-driving, heart-stomping tunes. There are all the classics, like “Piece of My Heart” and “Ball and Chain,” but her in-the-moment presence create the experience of hearing these classics in a whole new way. When Joplin chats up the audience between songs, she sounds absolutely exhausted (I mean, it’s almost like she’d been screaming at the top of her lungs for the past few minutes), but every time a new tune kicks off, she seems to say, “Fuck it all” and finds even more unstoppable energy in her. She gets violently loving in “As Good As You’ve Been To This World,” and channels her introspective, bluesier side on “Kozmic Blues.” It’s a rollicking hippie good time.—Emilia Fredlick
19. Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band, Live 1975-1985
As the album title might hint, this isn’t a recording of one individual performance. Rather, it’s an assembly of all the best Springsteen moments over a 10-year span. And man, the Boss just gets it. “Darkness on the Edge of Town” is a rockin’ ode to youthful nostalgia and broken dreams, “Backstreets” is equal parts wistful and world-weary, and “Growin’ Up” captures the rebellion and uncertainty of, well, growing up. That last track there is especially noteworthy for an excellent moment when Springsteen interrupts the performance to poke fun at his family members, who are attending the show, about the different things they wanted him to do with his life. As he tells the audience, “Some of you guys wanna be lawyers, and another one wants an author, but tonight I guess you’re both just gonna have to settle for rock ’n’ roll.” And that’s what Springsteen, and this series of recordings, is really about—not forgetting the struggles of reality, but letting music carry you through them.—Emilia Fredlick