Top 10 Live Albums
The best live albums, like the best concerts, don’t merely duplicate onstage what you can get from inside the comfort of your own home. The best live albums transcend the studio recordings from which they originate; they give you the feeling that something really magical happened in concert that particular night. Most of the records on our list of the Top 10 Live Albums document the artists during their peak years and at the top of their concert game. A couple even redefine the parameters of the live album. But none of them are quick cash-ins by bands looking to buy some time while their singer detoxes after the last tour.
The Stones’ tour in the fall of 1969 was one of their all-time best, even though the tragic and infamous Altamont concert (where a fan was killed by members of the Hell’s Angels, whom the Stones had hired as security) took place just a few days after the tour wrapped. The Stones, who’ve released something like 74 live albums, got their best concert record out of it too.
Even though he suffered from occasionally crippling stage fright and a penchant for singing with his back to the audience, Morrison was one of the greatest live performers of the early ’70s. Of course it helped that he was making the best music of his career at the time, but his restructuring of some of his greatest songs on the double ‘It’s Too Late to Stop Now’ (culled from Los Angeles and London shows in 1973) takes the tunes to new enlightened places.
Like ‘Rust Never Sleeps’ (see No. 4 on our list of the Top 10 Live Albums), ‘Running on Empty’ isn’t a typical concert souvenir. In 1977, Browne and his band recorded a bunch of new songs, most of them about being on the road, while touring. Some were played in front of audiences; some were recorded backstage, in hotel rooms and on the bus. The result is one of the greatest chronicles of touring life ever assembled.
The fourth volume of Dylan’s excellent ‘Bootleg Series’ dips into the vaults for the official release of one of the most famous concerts ever recorded. Dylan, with musicians who’d go on to form the Band, tore through England in 1966 with a volatile tour that turned downright hostile at times. The old folk fans weren’t at all pleased with Dylan plugging in and hauling out a band with electric instruments midway through his acoustic sets. Dylan responded by telling the group, ‘Play f—–g loud.’ Trivia: The concert was actually held at the Manchester Free Trade Hall, but it’s been misidentified as Royal Albert Hall for years, so the title stuck.
One of the most monumental live albums ever made, ‘Alive!’ turned Kiss into one of the biggest bands on the planet. For years fans have disputed just how “live” the double album really is: Overdubs were used to mask onstage mistakes, but some claim that nearly the entire album was re-recorded in the studio. Either way, it’s a monster concert document.
Even the Dead’s fans will tell you that their studio records don’t come close to the life-altering experiences of their live shows. The band has released tons of concert albums over the years, many of them part of the ‘Dick’s Picks’ series. ‘Live / Dead’ — recorded at three shows in their hometown of San Francisco in 1969 — was their first, and it perfectly captures the band at its mind-tripping, onstage-exploratory peak.
Borrowing a concept from Jackson Browne’s ‘Running on Empty’ (see No. 8 on our list of the Top 10 Live Albums), most of ‘Rust Never Sleeps” nine songs were recorded in front of concert audiences in 1978 who had never heard them before. It makes for an intriguing and personal record that doesn’t just regurgitate familiar old tunes for cheering fans.
Listening to Cheap Trick’s breakthrough live album, and the deafening screams of thousands of Japanese teenage girls, you’d think the Illinois quartet was the most popular band in the word. But they hadn’t even reached the U.S. Top 40 before ‘Budokan.’ This terrific record (recorded in 1978) changed everything. A rare case in which a live album is better, and more important, than any of the band’s studio LPs.
The first two Allman Brothers albums didn’t make much noise outside of a small but dedicated fan base. Then their two-night stand at New York’s fabled music hall in 1971 was recorded and released as a double album. Showcasing singer Gregg‘s soulful growl and guitarist Duane’s simmering leads, ‘At Fillmore East’ redefined live albums: They didn’t have to be cheap stopgaps between records; they could be career milestones.
On the surface, ‘Live at Leeds’ looks like a quickly assembled concert souvenir to keep fans happy while one of the world’s biggest groups worked on their next album. But the six tracks (recorded at a British university during their 1970 tour for ‘Tommy’) reshape familiar songs into blistering new cuts that showcase the Who’s growing reputation as one of rock’s greatest live bands. Other live records from the same tour are available, but none packs the raw power of the original ‘Leeds.’