he art of the live album seems antiquated these days. Back in the 70s, artists like Kiss, Cheap Trick and Peter Frampton found their greatest success with live albums, enjoying multi-platinum sales and even spinning off radio hits, while other artists like The Allman Brothers and the MC5 enjoyed their greatest artistic and critical successes with live albums as well. However, somewhere along the line, in between popular rock moving away from the ideals of virtuosity and pure energy (and popular music moving farther away from rock in the first place), live shows becoming excessively easy to bootleg, and supposedly legendary live acts like Phish and Widespread Panic soiling many on the form, the live album essentially lost its power, becoming increasingly less of an artistic or commercial prospect and increasingly more like a mere collector’s item.
Here at Stylus, we present our list of the top 50 live albums of all-time, neither to support nor question this trend, but perhaps merely to demonstrate why the live album is an art worth saving in the first place. We may never see the likes of a Frampton Comes Alive! again (and to many, that isn’t such a bad thing in the first place), but as long as great artists are still touring with passion and a desire not to merely replicate the studio experience, the live album will remain relevant. We hope so, anyway.
#50: John Cale - Sabotage
The third bullet point on John Cale’s resume (right behind member of the Velvets and crucial proto-punk producer) is perhaps his most misunderstood. Sabotage adds to the reputation: critics called it a showcase for the dangerous and confrontational edge of the Cale persona. Me? I don’t get it. Cale’s tunefulness was hardly checked at the door. "Baby You Know" could be Springsteen's pervert doppleganger, "Dr. Mudd" is cleverly almost disco, and "Only Time Will Tell" and "Chorale" are Cohen-like nymphs of fragility. While Cale never had the ego to stride cocksure above the landscape like ex-partner Reed, his ability to sacrifice persona to the song itself ensured that performances like those on Sabotage captured another, slightly more elusive piece of the rock-and-roll myth.
#49: J. Geils Band - Live: Blow Your Face Out
Before the J. Geils Band transitioned to being a pretty decent pop group, they were a dirty R&B-influenced; bar band, with an intense sound that remains the epitome of its style—like a more impressive Faces. Live, the band could be stunning, and Blow Your Face Out captures not only the group's musical strength, but also its idiosyncrasies. Charismatic vocalist Peter Wolf remains entertaining even when not singing, and guitarist J. Geils and harmonica player Magic Dick both shine individually. But the group performs as a tight unit, focusing on its rock roots, but succeeding in every style it attempts, from country ("Truck Drivin' Man") to straight-forward Motown ("Where Did Our Love Go"). Even with the group locked in, the concert constantly feels as if the wheels are about to come off. It's not a house party until something gets broken, and the J. Geils Band provides plenty of encouragement.
#48: Laurie Anderson - United States Live
This was my introduction to the avant garde in American pop culture, or at least pop(ular) music. What a way to go. Anderson was a semi-known quantity by the release of this four-hour-plus set (5 records, 4 CDs), having famously hit #2 in the UK charts in 1981 with “O Superman,” which also won the Village Voice’s Pazz & Jop critics’ poll that year. But nothing prepared anyone—except those who’d seen United States performed live—for this. It misfires almost as often as it hits its mark, but for its mix of comment, art, and music, it still holds the power to astonish. This isn’t exactly a rockin’ good time, but as a document of the American avant garde in the early 80s, it’s invaluable.
#47: Curtis Mayfield - Curtis / Live!
If Mayfield's solo debut Curtis surpassed the expectations of people who thought of him merely as the guiding light behind the Impressions, his second release, Curtis / Live! went even further. Taking the sonic blueprint of Curtis and stretching it further and longer, jamming it harder and cooler, he even refigured early Impressions cuts to fit this new context, turning in smoking versions of "People Get Ready," "Gypsy Woman," and "Mighty Mighty (Spade and Whitey)," among others. Releasing a live record for your sophomore effort is brave in any genre—for a soul artist gone solo from a vocal group in 1971, it was the height of audacity.
#46: David Bowie - Stage
Now this is the way to sequence a live album—exile the hits on the second disc, frontload the first with the sepulchral instrumentals whose arctic drift lent your two most recent albums their unsettling majesty. Out of print for years, Stage was rereleased and rearranged a couple of years ago to reflect the universal acceptance of Low and Heroes as David Bowie’s crowning achievements; but let us imagine how an audience in, say, Houston responded to “Sense of Doubt” and “Warsawva,” both played in the first ten minutes, as the Thin White Duke, never thinner and whiter, accompanied his expert band on woozy chamberlain keyboard. As for the Ziggy Stardust material, well, they make splendid dinner-theatre material—by speeding up the likes of “Hang On to Yourself” and “Star” he schlocks’em up, winningly. But Bowie earns his reputation for incongruent hybrids on what is very likely the best live version of “Station to Station” recorded. Speed and schlock become art and ardor.
#45: Grateful Dead – Europe ��72
Not long after the collective triumph of their two greatest studio albums, American Beauty and Workingman’s Dead, the Dead embarked on their first extended tour of Europe, and the result, Europe ��72, is nothing short of classic Dead. Of course, the record features such Dead set-list linchpins as “Truckin,” “Sugar Magnolia,” and “One More Saturday Night.” But it also marked the first vinyl appearance of tracks like “Tennessee Jed,” “Ramble on Rose,” and “Jack Straw,” and as with any Dead show, the songs performed live maintain a flexibility and spontaneity impossible to capture in a studio. Shortly after the release of Europe ’72 the band switched labels and suffered the loss of one of its founding members, Ron “Pigpen” McKernan, making it the last great album from the group’s original incarnation.
#44: Erykah Badu - Live
The queen of ��90s neo-soul released a live recording as her sophomore effort—and made it work. She didn’t even really have to try, because if there’s one thing Badu feels like live, it’s effortless. This album captures it all, from the expansiveness of her covers of Chaka Khan (the glorious “Stay”) and Roy Ayers (“Searching,” smooth as she does) to the grit and humor of the album’s lone new song, “Tyrone” (“I’m getting’ tired of yo’ shit / You don’t never buy me nothin’” is one of the greatest opening lines ever) and the lithesome, perfect takes on Baduizm favorites such as “Next Lifetime” and “On & On.”
#43: Bruce Springsteen - Live 1975 – 1985
By 1986, Bruce Springsteen was on top of the world. He had finally struck commercial gold with 1984’s Born in the USA, and the subsequent tour was a triumph, selling out stadiums and arenas around the globe. But before he turned his back on it all, with the introspective Tunnel of Love, “Brooce” had one last love letter to his fans in the form of this career-spanning three-disc retrospective. It’s all here, from the rollicking “Rosalita” and an epic “Growin’ Up” to a chill-inducing “Badlands” and a triumphant “Born to Run,” Springsteen and his crew bang it home song after song with precision, energy, and that inimitable, inspirational X factor that makes Springsteen the people’s champion, the man every guy wanted to be, and every girl wanted to marry. It ends with a magical rendition of Tom Waits’ “Jersey Girl,” showing that even though Bruce knows that he can’t go home again, he’ll never forget where he came from.
#42: Spacemen 3 - Performance
What Performance has over other live albums released by Spacemen 3 isn’t volume or rawness so much as structure; this is an almost ideally paced live show, from the shaggy-dog opening of Juicy Lucy��s “Mary Anne” to the truly epic pummel through “Suicide” that ends with looped crowd noise because, honestly, we need the break. Songs get smashed to pieces on the unyielding cliffs of J Spaceman and Sonic Boom’s guitars, they cover Sun Ra and the Thirteenth Floor Elevators as if they wrote the songs themselves, and they even play the best song ever titled “Come Together.” Performance is so intense, so transformative that some of us find ourselves rhapsodizing about its heady powers; it’s the live experience as something to be equally enjoyed and endured, the latter only feeding the former.
#41: Velvet Underground - Live: 1969
Set a tape recorder by train tracks overnight, listen to it in the morning, and you get: a low steady chug, a roar, and wind. What you don’t get is baseball stadium organ played with violence (“What Goes On”), a car-song-turned-lullaby (“Sweet Jane”), and a lead singer who in one minute banters with his audience about the Dallas Cowboys before launching into an exhortation to put jelly on your shoulder the next (“Some Kinda Love”). Lou Reed is so friendly that you want to braid his Afro, Doug Yule convinces you that John Cale was just a nightmare Reed had, and whether holding the rhythm or plucking limpid, graceful leads, Sterling Morrison soars as the album’s real star. All this—and Moe Tucker too, proving she’s a “real” drummer, thanks.
#40: The Band - Rock of Ages
The would-be Crackers toured relentlessly for the first decade-or-so of their existence, backing Ronnie Hawkins, Bob Dylan and others before realizing they had no need of a frontman. Recorded on New Year’s Eve, 1971, Rock captures The Band parsing their ridiculously rich rootsy catalogue with the benefit of a horn section playing charts arranged by Allen Toussaint. High points abound on the two hour-plus set (Richard Manuel’s ragged, desperate falsetto dissolving in the three part harmonies of “I Shall Be Released, the Aerosmith strut of “Up On Cripple Creek”), but it’s hard to beat Dozier-Holland’s “Don’t Do It,” now famous as the song that ended the Last Waltz concert and opened the Scorsese film. The reissue offers the additional pleasure of hearing Dylan totally flub the words to “Like a Rolling Stone.”
#39: Bill Withers - Live at Carnegie Hall
Bill Withers, one of soul's most underappreciated writers and singers, assembled a flawless setlist for his live album, and while too many live albums serve simply as sloppy greatest hits productions, this one utilizes the setting to further express Withers's strong personality. His between-song banter develops the tracks' emotional content, and the stellar renditions resonate on every listen. With a tremendous artist at his peak and the crowd constantly engaged, Live at Carnegie helps define Withers as a songwriter and a performer, and remains a unique experience in itself.
#38: The Allman Brothers - Live at Fillmore East
Definitely the finest album of Southern rock ever seriously influenced by Miles Davis, the original At Fillmore East even manages the same trick as Bitches’ Brew and A Tribute to Jack Johnson; producer Tom Dowd is as crucial to At Fill East’s sound as Teo Macero was to the Davis albums. Sure, the sublime “In Memory of Elizabeth Reed” was one performance, but the reputation-making performances of “You Don’t Love Me” and especially “Whipping Post” are subtly woven from a couple of nights to stunning effect. To this day the Allmans remain one of the few admirable acts lumped under the “jam band” tag, and on arguably their best official live album they bring the collaborative impulse and intelligence of the best jazz to bear on blues, hard rock, country music, gospel and the then-nascent beast that is Southern rock.
#37: Tom Waits - Big Time
The soundtrack to this singular, too-little-seen concept concert film finds Waits at his late 80s best. As with Talking Heads’ Stop Making Sense, these performances inevitably lose some of their impact removed from the film’s precisely calibrated visual design. Still, Big Time’s renditions of the Swordfishtrombones classics “16 Shells from a Thirty-Ought Six” and “Underground” effectively emphasize the weird brutality that defines Waits’ career-reinventing work from this period. If only he’d waited a few years to put this together, he might’ve rounded out the set with, say, “Goin’ Out West” and “Earth Died Screaming,” both of which would feel more than welcome here.
#36: Jeff Buckley - Live at Sin-E
The subsequent “Legacy Edition” demonstrated that Buckley was as digressive, cocky, long-winded, and self-regarding as his extraordinary talent suggested, but it is the original four tracks, released shortly before Grace, that are indelible. As on the album, Buckley pairs originals with covers and nearly blows his own songs away with his firecracker interpretations. Nearly. Stripped of his band, we get, in headspinning succession, Buckley the intense young songwriter (“This is a song about a dream…” he introduces the disc), Buckley the bluesman (“Eternal Life,” in a more nuanced reading than the album’s hard rock grind), Buckley the Frenchy coquette (Edith Piaf’s “Je N’en Connais Pas Le Fin”). Concluding and encompassing the set, Buckley plays ten minutes of Van Morrison’s “The Way Young Lovers Do.” The convulsive, octave-tripping scat break was the sound of Buckley flexing his wings for what should have been a long, remarkable flight.
#35: Aretha Franklin - Amazing Grace
While that voice (Aretha’s the finest singer of the past 50 years, hands down) can sing anything, Aretha’s rarely sung as passionately as she does when singing about Jesus. She can make any song gospel: just hear the way she brings the Rodgers & Hammerstein classic “You’ll Never Walk Alone” and James Taylor’s “You’ve Got a Friend” to church. With the Southern California Community Choir backing her up and the Rev. James Cleveland (the Kirk Franklin of his day) at her side, this is one of the Queen’s crowning achievements.
#34: Charles Mingus - Mingus at Antibes
Legendarily infamous as iconoclast, raconteur, firebrand, and bully, not to mention arguably the most structurally sound composer since Sir Duke, Charles Mingus consequently doesn't carry the same reputation for performative genius as Miles, Bird, or Coltrane, but that undeserved second-tier status shouldn't cause you to overlook the great man's historic 1960 set in Antibes. Most importantly, owing to Mingus' near-peerless excellence as a melodist and architect of indelibly digestible jazz sounds (though of course he was a master of the indelibly indigestible as well), Antibes isn't solely a showcase for stunning improvisation but also a storehouse of unforgettably tight signatures, patterns, and grooves, particularly the insistent "Wednesday Night Prayer Meeting" and the deathless "Better Get Hit in Yo' Soul."
#33: Keith Jarrett - The Koln Concert
Completely improvised from the moment Jarrett sat down to the last resounding note, The Koln Concert is a totally unique document—challenging, warm, bracing, alien, humane, atonal, sweetly nostalgic. At times, melodies like shards of standards from another dimension float through, but mainly it's nothing more than the free-floating orgiastic thundercloud of one human being communing with the wildest spirits through 88 keys.
#32: Jeff Mills - Live at the Liquid Room, Tokyo
Techno figurehead Jeff Mills has had a prolific recording career to be sure, but his reputation is really cemented by this release—one of the most dynamic DJ sets ever committed to disc. Recorded live on October 28, 1995, with no overdubs on three (yes, three) turntables, Live at the Liquid Room effortlessly recreates the live club experience with relentless energy, frenetic mixing (Mills juggles the three decks better than many jocks handle two), and yes, bad sound, dirty records, and screaming crowd noise. Mills’ pumping hard techno set (nearly half of which is his own work) is spectacular and the audience eats it up—you can really feel that crowd/DJ interaction here, which is much of the reason why this set is so special. Mills’ technique is stunning throughout, mixing 38 tracks with no one track staying on for much more than two minutes. Warts and all, Live at the Liquid Room is literally the next best thing to being there.
#31: Spiritualized - Fucked Up Inside
Initially only available via mail order and subsequently released in very limited quantities, Fucked Up Inside chronicles Spiritualized’s first major tour across seven tracks, but it might as well be one long song. Even in the band’s early days, Jason Pierce and Co. have a dynamic onstage presence, playing off each other like wily veterans. In direct comparison to the later, more readily available live chronicle recorded at the Royal Albert Hall, Fucked Up Inside is rougher around the edges, a bit looser and relaxed with the smaller line-up and shorter running time. With a set drawing largely from the band’s debut Lazer Guided Melodies and peppered with follow-up single “Medication” and Spacemen 3 chestnut “Walking With Jesus,” Fucked Up Inside shows that sometimes less really is more.
#30: The Fall - A Part of American Therein, 1981
Strangely enough, “The NWRA” and “Hip Priest” are actually the least compelling parts of this compilation that culls together bits of an American tour, as if Mark E. Smith and company thought they needed to ease the States into their monolithic, barbaric yawp. It’s the album’s second half, starting with an intense “Cash ��n’ Carry,” that truly conveys what a fearsome group they were. (The Fall at its best isn’t just Smith ranting over any old mess, it’s the World’s Best Rockabilly Can Cover Band.) From the faintly spectral “An Older Lover” to the gleefully noisy “Deer Park,” they demonstrate why they mean more to music than a hundred more famous acts—this isn’t a sound that wants you to like it, it’s out there doing it’s own thing, drinking and falling down and getting back up again.
#29: Sam Cooke - Live at the Harlem Square Club
You'd think grittier, more outwardly pained voices like James Brown's or Otis Redding's would have insurmountable advantages when it came to sweaty concert work-outs, but for my dime it's Sam Cooke's Live at the Harlem Square Club that stands as the most vivid snapshot in the history of performance soul. Grit didn't define Cooke's recorded career, so when his supple tenor even suggests it here the effect is revelatory. There may be hurt and confusion at times, but Cooke retains a staggeringly masterful level of control over the proceedings, elevating the show above the suffering and creating a more effectively breathtaking form of drama in its place. Contrived as it may be, I don't know if I've ever heard a more thoroughly spine-tingling moment on any live disc than the build-up to "It's All Right/For Sentimental Reasons," Cooke lulling you first with banal-seeming advice on waking up your lover if you think she's been unfaithful and waiting until she gets the sleep out of her eyes, then effortlessly, stunningly slipping into song. A single heart-stopping "baby" and he's gone.
#28: The Jam - Dig the New Breed
When Paul Weller broke up the Jam in 1982, they were at the peak of their popularity. Shortly after that final curtain came down, Dig The New Breed was issued as a thank you to the fans for their support. A compilation of live moments dating as far back as 1977, Dig still plays like a unified document—save a stray horn section the band remained a power trio from first moment to last (on stage at least). While the set list features a handful of hits (“Going Underground,” “Start”), there’s also some key album tracks (a roaring “Set the House Ablaze” and surprise album closer “Private Hell”) and a charged cover of Eddie Floyd’s “Big Bird.” Dig The New Breed has been replaced by the expanded Live Jam, but in this case, less equals more. Seek out a copy for a peerless portrait of one of the era’s best live acts.
#27: Japan - Oil on Canvas
A far cry from Japan’s aptly-named Adolescent Sex days, Oil on Canvas was actually a mixed bag of instrumental studio castoffs and assorted live snippets. The setup smacks of contractual obligation—the collection came out in 1983, two years after the eloquent Tin Drum—but the majority of the album serves as a career-spanning live retrospective that actually touches quite nicely on the band’s immovable highlights. Predicting many of the stylistic hallmarks that would take clearer form during David Sylvian’s early solo career, Oil on Canvas nonetheless captures the essence of the group that had impressed upon the New Wave movement such cuts as “Quiet Life” and “Gentlemen Take Polaroids.”
#26: Van Morrison - It’s Too Late to Stop Now
Rock’s quintessential wild-eyed Irish eccentric—sorry, Bono—is clearly in his element on this vital 1973 set. Morrison shifts seamlessly from ethereal folkie to charismatic soulman, often within the space of a single song. The covers, most notably Sam Cooke’s “Bring It on Home to Me,” are a treat, but the selling point here is the charge of energy inserted behind catalogue staples like “Into the Mystic” (the source of the album’s title) and “Cyprus Avenue” (the lone Astral Weeks inclusion). The two are possibly the definitive versions of each.
#25: Underworld - Everything, Everything
The key question behind almost every live album released by an electronic group is the same: what’s the point? Everything, Everything doesn’t necessarily answer this question—outside of vocalist Karl Hyde’s crazed, half-preacher, half-beat poet rantings, it’s basically the sound of a series of buttons getting pushed. But what Everything, Everything demonstrates is that there doesn’t need to be a point, as long as the artist knows what buttons to push. On this 2000 live release, Underworld craft a perfect musical experience for their audience, with a choice tracklist, brilliant structuring, and versions of “Pearls Girl” and “Born Slippy (Nuxx)” that somehow manage to better their classic originals. But as in any great gig, Underworld saves the high point for the encore, a rapturous 12-minute mind meld of “Rez” and “Cowgirl.” One listen, and you’ll never be satisfied with their uneven full-lengths again.
#24: James Brown - Sex Machine
Sex Machine may not have the historical significance or the zeitgeist factor of either of James Brown's Live at the Apollo albums, and its inclusion of three studio tracks may cause some purists to dismiss it as artifice, but it’s arguably the most spirited, thrilling, energetic, and concise document of James Brown ever recorded. Rarely has Soul Brother #1 ever torn through cuts the way he does here, partially, if not mostly, due to the phenomenal assemblage of musicians, among them: Maceo Parker, Fred Wesley, sideman Bobby Byrd, Johnny Griggs, and a young, then-relatively-unknown bassist named Bootsy Collins. The album is pure sweat-soaked exhilaration, peaking with the frenzied rapture of "I Got the Feelin'/Give It Up or Turnit a Loose”—Brown scats, howls, aches, and, at the storm's peak, unleashes a mind-boggling scream that is equal parts carnality and catharsis. Then, without losing a beat, the band brings it back to the beginning, he does the whole thing all over again, and Mr. Dynamite has suddenly become The Godfather of Soul.
#23: John Coltrane & Thelonius Monk - Live at Carnegie Hall
This album has all the trappings of a classic: two legendary figures, great compositions from a fertile period, and a killer backstory (the recording was lost for more than 40 years). Thelonious Monk with John Coltrane shows skill and expression, but the later live recordings on this Carnegie Hall release reveal more insistent takes on the music, with both "Nutty" and "Epistrophy" allowing the artists to get carried away (the latter surpassing its studio version easily). The quartet disregarded comfort with Monk's compositions and pushed themselves—rather than discovering beauty amidst the fluctuating success of ambition, they simply found flawless peaks.
#22: Otis Redding - Live in Europe
On this 1967 set, Redding sounds like a man on a mission, hungry enough to eat Europe alive if it didn’t pay him his due. Compressing ten songs into a scant 36 minutes and backed by the never-been-hotter Stax house band Booker T and the MGs, Redding tears through Southern Soul classics with the fizzing urgency of a lit fuse, one song tripping into the next. The mix is muddy and heavy on audience noise, but it’s plenty clean enough to catch Redding’s proto-rap breaks on “Can’t Turn You Loose” (“You think I’m gonna stop, I ain’t gonna stop…”) and his affectionate introductions to songs, many of which he wrote. Don’t miss the breathless, hoarse coda to “Satisfaction,” and the moment when, after calling his audience in on “Fa-fa-fa-fa,” Redding steps back in and tells them, “Alright, let me handle it…” and does.
#21: Jay-Z - Unplugged
It’s fair to assume that Jay-Z accepted this gig for no better reason than to prove that he can do anything—design a successful clothing line, run one of rap’s foremost record labels, even make Linkin Park sound good. But the real charm here is that hip-hop’s Renaissance man actually sounds like he’s having the time of his life, backed by the Roots for what he calls his “poetry readin’.” If Jay’s only half-successful at on-the-spot self-censorship (some “shits” and what have you inevitably slip in), he does a bravura job of reinventing back-catalogue staples from Reasonable Doubt to The Blueprint. “Ain’t No Nigga” is the seemingly impromptu audience sing-along, and “Song Cry” sounds genuinely soulful, with Hov himself shedding a tear or two. Jay takes a deep breath before launching into the first verse of “Big Pimpin’,” at which point there’s no question who’s running this rap, er, stuff.
#20: Jimi Hendrix - Band of Gypsys
Ditching Noel Redding, Mitch Mitchell, and their Artie Ziff afros and aligning himself with bassist Billy Cox and the bruising drums of Buddy Miles, Band of Gypsys showcases Hendrix at his most visceral, as each vertebrae-shattering riff pays tribute to the dead bluesman that wrote the first draft of his musical blueprint. His 12 minute rendition of “Machine Gun,” is often regarded as one of the finest guitar performances of all-time, and it isn’t hard to see why. A mess of snarls, squeals and apocalypse, the song purposefully evokes visions of soldiers exploding in Vietnam. As he sings his deranged and drugged dirge, Hendrix seems to capture the spirit of the times at the precise moment when the idealism of the 60’s met the hung-over glaze of the “Me Decade.” Indeed, one doesn’t need to hear the whirling stomp of the third song “Changes,” to know that the end was near.
#19: Can - Can Box Live
So much emphasis is placed on Holger Czukay's revolutionary tape-splicing and Can’s masterful use of the studio that it's easy to forget how spliff-droppingly awesome the band were live. Can Box Live prove that the two main ingredients of the band remain: the monstrousness of their groove and the wobbly strangeness of all their unsettling mutations atop it—but in an even more unstable, rocking, and loose format. Smoldering like the molten core of a volcano, Can live are a beautiful proposition to view from a safe distance—but get too close and your ass could get burned right the fuck off.
#18: Neil Young - Live Rust
Live Rust presented the writer of “Thrasher” and “Welfare Mothers” as an artist who says fuck it to the schism that made his oeuvre the most infuriating and rewarding of the decade. In other words, Young doesn’t square the infantilism of “Sugar Mountain” and the Wages of Fear apocalypse of “Sedan Delivery”—both are engulfed by the twin tidal waves of “Cortez the Killer” and “Like a Hurricane.” Concluding with the tasteless elegy “Tonight’s the Night” suggests that Young’s as guileless as his fans when it comes to objectives. He believes in neither America nor myths; he believes in platitudes, entropy, and gargled vocals.
#17: Johnny Cash - At San Quentin
Cash's onstage banter during At San Quentin is just as valuable as the stripped-down, shit-kicking country tunes. On the essential 2000 reissue, the entire set is presented, painting a picture beyond the scope of the original LP release. Cash's everyman appeal shines through, and by the time he drops the angry, bitter "San Quentin" (twice in a row, no less), he and the prisoners are unified. These men would follow him to hell. In between, things get maudlin ("I Still Miss Someone"), funny (unlikely hit "A Boy Named Sue"), and religious ("He Turned the Water Into Wine"), but Cash never loses that connection. Cash wears the outlaw hat so convincingly because he has been there himself. Never before or since have an artist and audience bonded on record so closely.
#16: Bob Dylan - Live 1975 Rolling Thunder Revue
Nobody yells "Judas," but what this amalgamation of Rolling Thunder concerts lacks in historical color it more than makes up for everywhere else. Dylan's notoriously haphazard habits in the studio are liberating on stage, and the troupe he assembles—Roger McGuinn, Rambling Jack Elliott, T-Bone Burnett, Mick Ronson, about four thousand more—is not only a lucky marvel of chemistry but the best backup Dylan ever enjoyed. The setlist makes all the necessary stops, but as good as the "Mr. Tambourine Man"s and "Blowin' in the Wind"s are, what you're going to come back to is the snarling, loping litany of injustice Dylan and company make of relative obscurity "The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll." This is no greatest-hits tour. This is a fiery excavation of twenty-two Bob Dylan songs that, with few exceptions, improve on their studio versions. Oh, and Scarlet Rivera.
#15: Joy Division - Les Bains Douches 1979
Joy Division expressed displeasure upon the release of Unknown Pleasures with the way Martin Hannett made them sound. It's only long after the fact that we have the kind of official release that gives you an idea of what they meant. You truly have not heard “Shadowplay” or “New Dawn Fades” or “Atrocity Exhibition” until you’ve heard Les Bains Douches. The range exhibited here is breathtaking, from the grippingly abrasive takes on “Insight” and “Atmosphere” to the shoulda-been-a-hit highs of “Transmission” and “Dead Souls.” Les Bains Douches offers a different kind of thrill than their immensely controlled and compelling studio efforts, and no fan of the band can afford not to check out their red-in-tooth-and-claw live presence here.
#14: MC5 - Kick Out the Jams
Unique in that it was released without a proper studio album to support it, the (dare I say it) raw power of Kick Out the Jams nevertheless provided a blueprint by which all hard rock afterwards had no choice but to follow. On that Halloween night in 1968, on MC5’s home soil in Detroit Rock City, the rhythm section of Davis and Thompson ploughed through eight breakneck beats, Fred Kramer and Fred “Sonic” Smith played their guitars into molten metal, and Rob Tyner screamed for a “testimonial.” This was punk that quite awkwardly burst out long before it was supposed to be born. And that’s just what MC5 wanted. “Kick out the jams, MUTHAFUCKAS!”
#13: Radiohead - I Might Be Wrong: Live Recordings
Considering how definitive Radiohead’s full-lengths are, the way they completely re-invent some of their most well-known and beloved album tracks on I Might Be Wrong is nothing short of stunning. “I Might Be Wrong” becomes the block-rocker it always had the potential to be, “Everything in Its Right Place” is turned from an ominous mantra to a crowd-pleasing barnstormer, and most notably, the backwards weirdness of “Like Spinning Plates” is recast as a torch ballad (causing at least one audience member to scream out “LIKE SPINNING PLATES!!” in the shock of recognition). Add the only officially released version of fan favorite “True Love Waits,” and you’ve got the only truly essential Radiohead release since Kid A.
#12: Portishead - PNYC: Roseland Live
The 90s produced exactly two indications that trip-hop was made by real people and not depraved, inhuman geniuses. The first is Tricky’s comical turn as a space-henchman in Luc Besson’s The Fifth Element, and the second is PNYC Roseland Live. Considering the emotional roller coaster of Portishead’s two preceding studio albums, PNYC came out of nowhere with an orchestra and singer Beth Gibbons in full-on croon mode. This jazzy set is notable for psyched-out, wall-of-sound re-thinkings of many of Dummy’s best cuts, but it’s perhaps best-remembered for its unexpected hit: the brass-enhanced re-invigoration of Portishead’s “All Mine.”
#11: Talking Heads - Stop Making Sense
The central proposition of Stop Making Sense is essentially paradoxical—the world’s most awkward band getting comfortable in their own skin. Stop Making Sense features the Heads at their peak of confidence, using drum machines, set gimmicks (in the definitive ’99 re-issue, the band members are introduced one at a time in each of the first four tracks), background vocalists, and an expanded band. Aside from essentially making Speaking in Tongues totally irrelevant by featuring superior takes of most of the album’s best tracks, SMS features panoramic live takes on “Once in a Lifetime,” “Life During Wartime” and even the Tom Tom Club’s “Genius of Love” that come dangerously close to equaling the classic originals. If previous live document The Name of This Band is Talking Heads showed why Talking Heads were one of the best bands of the early 80s, Stop Making Sense showed why they were also one of the biggest.
#010: Miles Davis - Live – Evil
Much has been made of the live / not live controversy surrounding this set (the second disc was recorded in Columbia's Studio B), but the thing of real importance about Live Evil is that it is a document of transition. A fiery, uneven transition that in some ways is the quintessential sound of electric Miles—teetering between the Hendrix-inspired rawbones of Bitches' Brew and the urban in-the-pocket groove of On the Corner. Parts of it smoke, parts simmer, and parts sound like bloody Nurse With Wound, but every minute of it is vintage big-sunglasses Miles, caught between rock 'n' roll and a hard place, leading his Merry Men through the choppy waters of protoplasmic fusion jazz.
#09: The Clash - Live: From Here to Eternity
It lurches from end to end of the band's career, it's sequenced with a distracted (and distracting) eye towards commercial viability, and it's got nothing you wouldn't expect—but this band could play, and you'll be surprised at how incompletely you understood that. You'll also be surprised at how good a thicker, jumpier "Train in Vain" is; at how much more forgivable—marvelous, even—"Should I Stay Or Should I Go" sounds when actually performed for the thousands towards which it always so nakedly reached; and at how perfect a keystone is the hoarse bleat from which Mick Jones squeezes every drop of wobbly tune. There's no specific context here—it's an hour of the Clash playing a bunch of songs at a bunch of concerts, no doubt with a bunch of guitars. If you like the Clash it's great; if you don't that's your own lookout. No wait—still great.
#08: Led Zeppelin - How the West Was Won
If you’ve ever wondered why almost every teenaged boy at one point or another regards Led Zeppelin as the greatest band to ever live, all you have to do is listen to the first 15 minutes of How the West Was Won, which features the heart-palpitating, spine-tingling crunching thrust of “Immigrant Song,” a raucous seven-and-a-half minute rendition of “Heartbreaker,” and the song that wins every 13-year old’s heart: “Black Dog.” Taken from two otherworldly shows from June 1972 and not released until 2003, the collection encompasses most of the group’s greatest songs from their first four albums. Compare the studio versions to their live renditions, though. As each note thrashes, flails and explodes like colorful fireworks into the wine-dark sky, you’ll find yourself hearing these songs anew—and wondering why they didn’t put this out far earlier.
#07: Kraftwerk - Minimum-Maximum
The idea of a Kraftwerk live album almost sounds like a bad joke—the basic concept of Kraftwerk was to deny the humanity behind the music’s makers: why should anyone want to hear or see them in the flesh? But, as it turns out, if robots are better at crafting immaculate, seamless, symphonic LPs than humans, apparently they’re also way ahead of us when it comes to getting the party started. Kraftwerk are much better crowd-pleasers than anyone could expect, whether they’re breezing through suites of new material, kicking out the electro-funk jams, playing an actually palatable nine-minute version of “Autobahn,” or playing foreign language versions of “Pocket Calculator.” Turns out, when the working day is done, robots just want to have fun too.
#06: The Who – Live at Leeds
Quotidian drama and combustible violence marked The Who more than any other 60s rock legend, so it should come as no surprise that they created the era's greatest live document as well. All that inarticulate adolescent yearning and pent-up fury spilled out in savage, lacerating takes on the hits "Substitute" and "My Generation," but the real distillation of the band's brutally self-abnegating ethos comes in their cover of "Summertime Blues," alternately indignant, hilarious, and physically punishing. A 1995 remaster amends several critical cuts, including absolute essentials "Tattoo," "I'm a Boy" and "A Quick One While He's Away," while a subsequent deluxe edition in 2001 would bring to light the remainder of the band's near-complete showcase of Tommy.
#05: Nirvana - MTV Unplugged in New York
This album should never have worked. Nirvana’s grunge signature was Cobain’s fierce, furious, frantically distorted guitar, and reframing it to suit MTV’s latest conceit should have torn out the heart of Cobain’s songs. Astonishingly, they sound natural and damn-near perfected. Cobain, Grohl, and Novoselic play with a loose, tangled empathy that stretches and contracts to let the songs breathe. The angst of Cobain’s guitar takes up residence in his voice, which has never sounded more potent. Dave Grohl fidgets and noodles nervously, irrepressibly between songs. The record is inescapably read in the light of Cobain’s suicide, but he sounds at home onstage, with quips about David Geffen and needing more guitars; “I guarantee I’ll screw this one up,” he announces before the definitive version of “Man Who Sold the World; “Yeah, like he only screws one up,” Grohl responds. But the album closes with the tortured dirge of “Where Did You Sleep Last Night,” reminding us that as comfortable as he seemed, as magnificent as he was, Cobain always knew he’d screw it up.
#04: James Brown - Live at the Apollo
More than Sex Machine, more than Love Power Peace, and certainly more than any of his mixed bag of studio efforts, this is the ultimate proof of J.B. as pop’s ultimate performer—and, arguably, its most accomplished star, period. In terms of range, both musical and emotional, this legendary 1963 set runs the gamut. The opener, “I’ll Go Crazy,” remains an instant jolt of let’s-go adrenaline, but pay particular attention to the tremendous restraint with which Brown—known more as a primal force than a tender balladeer—delivers the next number, “Try Me.” The performance reaches a poignant peak with “Lost Someone,” our bandleader sounding palpably, affectingly wounded, before finishing off with “Night Train,” a funky suggestion of things to come.
#03: Talking Heads - The Name of This Band is Talking Heads
Years after their influence faded, the curious had to rely on VHS copies of Stop Making Sense to review Talking Heads’ amazing live prowess. Now that their influence is acknowledged as definitive on a half-dozen acts who ooze the weirdness but not the funk, it’s time for owners of this double-disc live compilation, re-released in 2004 after more than 20 years of obscurity, to face facts: (1) The guitars of David Byrne and Jerry Harrison never sounded more “African” than on pre-Remain in Light goodies like “Warning Sign”; (2) “Born Under Punches (The Heat Goes On)” is an obscure remix of a cut on side four of Donna Summer’s Bad Girls; (3) Byrne’s grunts, anhedonia, agoraphobia, and embrace of pussy-as-salvation make him a lovable, full-fledged member of the human race; (4) True Stories and Naked were inevitable.
#02: Johnny Cash - At Folsom Prison
While a great live album captures a moment, the best live albums exist as testaments to their creators, as definitions of their essence. On At Folsom Prison, Johnny Cash, grappling with amphetamine addiction and personal troubles, inscribes his legend into stone. Every single strain of his personality is tied together: weary storyteller, jaded outlaw, hopeless romantic, impassioned activist, rustic folkie. Unified, Cash becomes a super/everyman—someone that common people understand but don't have the slightest clue how to replicate or imitate. And for a man both above and below the law, what venue is more suitable than a prison? From the onset, with those deep, drawling introductory words and the scorching "Folsom Prison Blues," the artist and his audience synergize, knowing that what's taking place is unique, monumental even. At Folsom Prison functions as the crest and the curtain-raiser of Johnny Cash's career, an album of raw passion and unfiltered humanity.
#01: Bob Dylan - Bootleg Series, Vol. 4: Live 1966, “Royal Albert Hall” Concert
It's rock's most famous concert. The one after Dylan went electric and freaked everyone out. The one where someone called him Judas and his band played beyond belief anyway. The one that got bootlegged, misnamed, and became symbolic of an entire world-changing career. The second half gets most of the attention, but the opening acoustic set, which Dylan plays alone, contains a string of brilliant compositions and confident performances. "It's All Over Now, Baby Blue" encapsulates more meaning than studied explications ever dig out, and the captivating "Mr. Tambourine Man," which closes the set, makes even that fantasy concede to true sight.
Then everything goes crazy. Dylan and his backing band the Hawks (essentially what would become the Band) play with a vehemence they never possessed again, right through that final scene, where Dylan has the Judas exchange and tells the band to "play fucking loud" and they turn "Like a Rolling Stone" into the taunt of a knowing victor.
Forget the history. Here's why this disc matters: because nothing you play after it does.
By: Stylus Staff
Published on: 2006-10-30