“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:
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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
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.
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
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
Let’s open this with a little historical context: rain delayed Hendrix’s Woodstock performance by several hours, and when he finally took the stage at 8 a.m. the next morning, less than a 10th of the festival’s 400,000 attendees remained. But those who rose before the previous evening’s high had worn off entirely and stuck around for the whole thing were certainly awarded with quite a treat, as it’s impossible to listen to this album and not be blown away by Hendrix’s guitar chops. Maybe New York Post reviewer Al Aronowitz put it best—describing the moment Hendrix kicked off his rockin’ rendition of “The Star-Spangled Banner”: “It was the most electrifying moment of Woodstock, and it was probably the single greatest moment of the ’60s.” If that’s not an endorsement, I don’t know what is.—Emilia Fredlick
It might not have been until 1977 when punk rock became somewhat of a household name, but its foundation was set in 1969 with the Motor City Five’s roaring arrival, Kick Out the Jams. The album was recorded live, appropriately enough at Detroit’s Grande Ballroom, but as the band’s later studio albums would prove, it was the only way to capture the restless amp-crankers. The band, who was also notoriously political with their association with the White Panther party, kicks the album off with a speech from crowd riler and “spiritual adviser” Brother J.C. Crawford. The album doesn’t lose pace from there, launching into the jarring “Ramblin’ Rose” before the unmistakable intro to the album’s title track: “Kick out the jams, motherfucker!”—Tyler Kane
1969 is a swaggering, sweltering experience of 1960s avant-garde goodness, with the gods of all things pointed in that direction. The members of The Velvet Underground, well after they’d broken up, fought and won back the rights to these recordings just in time to issue them in the ’70s. Originally fan-recorded from one of their prominent live sets, 1969: The Velvet Underground Live captures all the heart and live electricity of this eclectic outfit’s heyday.
In 2011, indie-dance giants LCD Soundsystem announced their breakup. They were to host one final farewell at Madison Square Garden in their home city of New York. When tickets went on sale, scalpers took the reins and ruined it for the rest of us. In response, LCD Soundsystem decided to play four “warm-up” shows before their final gig. The hype was built, and when they played for their final curtain call, what was left was a legacy, a documentary and the polished, live recordings from that night. What we have here is The Long Goodbye, arguably one of the most inspired, true-blue gifts a band could give back to its fans, in a live, visceral medium befitting their nuanced songwriting.
Bob Dylan may have stood at a crossroads of American music in Newport in 1965 when he plugged in, but he wasn’t the first. Nine years earlier, the popularity of Duke Ellington’s large band was on the wane with the rise of be-bop—Ellington didn’t even have a record deal. But at the Newport Jazz Fest, he showed that his band could still swing—and even improvise. Tenor saxophonist Paul Gonsalves took an uplanned 27-chorus solo during “at the urging of Ellington, collapsing from exhaustion when he finished. The crowd completely transformed during that solo from sedate appreciators to carefree revelers (the following track is listed as “Announcements, Pandemonium.” The resulting album revitalized Ellington’s career and captured a magical night of jazz.—Josh Jackson
In contrast to our previous entry, this album filled a void left when the performing artists disbanded. Still is a compilation of studio material, as well as a live recording of Joy Division’s last concert before the suicide of frontman Ian Curtis in 1980. Though a point of frustration with many fans due to its often overbearing mix, it still catalogues a moment in time that cannot be recreated. With one of the few recordings ever captured of the band playing “Ceremony,” it is a haunting farewell to an unforgettable legacy.
Although he’s nearly 80 years young, Leonard Cohen’s live performances are still hailed as some of the greatest events to be seen in music. Three-hour jaunts, full of costume changes and back-up singers. And hats. Lots of hats. So it’s no surprise that, nearly 45 years earlier, Cohen was already making waves. Live at the Isle of Wight 1970 is a time capsule to that testament. To a crowd of over 600,000, Cohen played the folksiest repertoire of his career and chiseled into place another live statuette in his legacy.
Bebop and free-jazz are embedded deep in the spirit of live improvisation and swinging notes. With an appropriate setting, the fathers of such wild and passionate mediums are at their best, together, in this live collection at a staple venue.
Stop Making Sense was a revolutionary film with an excellent live soundtrack. Hailed by many as one of the “greatest concert films of all time,” it was the Talking Heads and David Byrne at their finest. The ingenuity of the concert and its backdrops, mixed with the professionalism and innovation of the digital recording techniques used, came together to create a memory that will always remain groundbreaking by industry and fan standards alike.
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
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
’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.
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.
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.
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
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
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
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.