The 27 Best Live Albums of All Time

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9. The Who, Live at Leeds
From the 15-minute-long rendition of “My Generation” to the band’s exuberant cover of Eddie Cochran’s classic “Summertime Blues,” The Who performs with no razzle-dazzle or glitz and glamour—Live at Leeds is just about the rock ’n’ roll, trademark slammin’ guitars and endlessly powerful vocals. The first side is chock-full of staples like “Substitute” and “Magic Bus,” and the second side takes us through the entire saga of the much-beloved Tommy and his pinball-related adventures. The Who are vibrant, unassuming and just so damn good that it’s easy to feel like you were really there, watching Pete Townshend smash a guitar and Roger Daltrey’s magnificent head of hair fly back and forth. It’s hard to believe that this album came so early in The Who’s touring career (thus explaining why there’s no “Baba O’Riley,” “Who Are You,” or “Won’t Get Fooled Again”...they hadn’t been released yet); they sing, play and perform with all the skill and unadulterated cool of legends.—Emilia Fredlick

8. The Allman Brothers Band, At Fillmore East
One year for my birthday, one of my best friends bought me At Fillmore East. I hadn’t been to many concerts at that point in my life, so I didn’t understand there is a certain energy that is trying to be captured with live albums. My mind was blown. I couldn’t even begin to comprehend Duane Allman’s gut-wrenching slide-guitar work, and songs like the near 20-minute jams “You Don’t Love Me” and the album closer, “Whipping Post,” begged for repeated listens, despite their length. This can be heard near the end of the former track when the band slows down, gliding into the “Joy to the World” section, and someone in the audience emphatically yells out, “Play all night!” At Fillmore East captures the talent of a band in its heyday that not only played well, but played well together, showcasing the group’s vigor, exquisite timing and precision in one of the greatest live albums of all time.—Wyndham Wyeth

7. Jeff Buckley, Live at Sin-E
’90s genius Jeff Buckley found his mortality too soon, drowning in 1997. Before then, he would release a ground-breaking album called Grace. And before Grace, he recorded a live album in New York’s Sin-E on a swarming evening in August 1993. The album features not only his unforgettable vocal range, amongst his covers of Leonard Cohen and Nina Simone, but also his ability to understand an audience and play with them, not just for them. The result is a majestic, sweltering double-disc album of some of the finest guitar and vocal interplay to be recorded. Live at Sin-E is another gem within the tragically limited catalog of Buckley, just as moving and inspired as his in-studio sessions came to be.

6. Nirvana, MTV Unplugged
The influence of shows like MTV Unplugged reminds us that the network used to actually cover music and in fact was a pioneer in the genre. When they featured Nirvana on their intimate series, the memory would stick out years later, amongst reality TV garbage and wasteful skit-shows. The album that accompanied the performance was just as majestic, offering a delicate, brooding vision of the ’90s grunge gods. We laughed, cried and sang along to all of Kurt Cobain’s fantasies and nightmares, candlelit and backed by an ensemble that couldn’t be beat.

5. Bob Dylan, The Bootleg Series Vol. 4: The Royal Albert Hall Concert
The contentious conversation about “Dylan electric” vs. “Dylan acoustic” has plagued good ol’ Bob’s career for decades, and The Royal Albert Hall Concert live album is a mapped-out dividend to that legacy. With half of the album consisting of his quiet, acoustic crooning, and the other filled with his louder, revolutionary, plugged-in sound, this collection didn’t just catalogue his mid-1960s world tour—it forever captured an artist’s progression and the challenges he faced amidst the changes he made.

4. James Brown, Live at The Apollo
On October 24, 1962, James Brown recorded his performance at the Apollo Theater despite his record label’s opposition. King Records didn’t think that this kind of live recording, one without any new material, would sell well. Brown ended up fronting the recording costs—which not only went on to earn commercial success, but ultimately become one of the most essential live albums respective to an artist’s catalog. At that time, he had developed a reputation as a transcendent showman, but it wasn’t until this record that he, along with The Famous Flames, shared that energy with a wider audience. From slow, soul-stirring ballads like “Try Me” to the frenetic double-time of “Night Train,” James Brown Live at The Apollo, 1962 captures the Godfather of Soul in all his glory.—Max Blau

3. The Band, The Last Waltz
An historic event, such as The Band’s “farewell” concert at Bill Graham’s Winterland Ballroom on Thanksgiving Day, 1976, filmed for posterity by Martin Scorsese, can either inspire musicians to greater-than-normal heights or distract them into bombastic overplaying. The Band rose to the occasion on this album as their best-known songs were bolstered by adrenaline, by Allen Toussaint’s horn arrangements and by the presence of so many friends and heroes. Bob Dylan, Muddy Waters, Van Morrison, Emmylou Harris, Dr. John, Neil Young, Eric Clapton and the Staples Singers all sang with the headliners, each benefiting from as good a backing band as they’d ever had. The album even included a studio session: three new songs, “The Weight” and two instrumentals combined into “The Last Waltz Suite.” An expanded version was released in 2002.—Geoffrey Himes

2. Johnny Cash, Live at Folsom Prison
The Man in Black was also no stranger to pinstripes as he’d been arrested twice in 1965—for smuggling Dexedrine capsules across the Mexican border and trespassing in Starkville, Miss., to pick flowers. But his interest in prisons dated back to 1953, when he saw Crane Wilbur’s drama Inside the Walls of Folsom Prison. His 1955 hit “Folsom Prison Blues” resulted in invitations from inmates around the country to come play their prisons, something he did fairly regularly early in his career. But it wasn’t until 1968, when drug abuse had led to career struggles that the singer approached Columbia Records with the idea for a live album from a penitentiary. He played two 24-song sets at Folsom with Carl Perkins, the Tennessee Three and his future wife June Carter, whittling the album down to 16 tracks. The venue is a perfect fit for a man who’d struggled with his own demons and could sing about them honestly without losing sight of his own redemption.—Josh Jackson

1. Sam Cooke, Live at The Harlem Square Club, 1963
This was the cut. In between the midst of a revolutionary career, as Cooke morphed from gospel god to soul singer, Live at The Harlem Square Club was a quintessential snapshot of the crowned king of croon. Against the wishes of executives and managers, Cooke pushed for and created an album that captured his real sound—raw, edgy, live and in every color imaginable. This is the album where we can view a glimpse into the essence of his songs, the very nature of his soul, no longer weighed down by the polish of his press-ready public image. Live at The Harlem Square Club reigns supreme as a shining example of what a live album could be, and what a live album should be—unfiltered, unencumbered magic of melody and harmony strung together on an evenly lit stage, to be heard in its most stripped-down form. This was that and so much more.

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