Live albums are typically love/hate affairs. Especially in the rock ‘n’ roll realm, live EPs, LPs and bootlegs are dime-a-dozen and infrequently bring the listener closer to a favorite act’s concert aesthetic. However, several live works stand above the rest, giving quality glimpses into the unfiltered, out-of-studio performances that make bands great. The following list isn’t an all-time “best” compilation; rather, it includes five great live albums that all music fans should give a spin.
1. My Morning Jacket – Okonokos (2006)
Watching Jim James and co. shred live is akin to having an eye opening, drop-to-your-knees religious experience. Since their tours are typically once-a-summer spectacles, the Louisville-bred band bottled up their fervent in-concert energy and served it fresh with their live double-album, Okonokos. The album, which was recorded during their 2005 Z tour at the Fillmore in San Francisco, barrels through a hefty 120 minutes.
However, MMJ leaves no classic cuts untouched. The live versions of “Golden” and “Mahgeetah” receive intricately layered re-creations that set them drastically apart from their studio counterparts. Sure, it’s still not the same as actually being there, but even a canned version of a MMJ set will melt one’s face off.
2. Wilco – Kicking Televisions: Live In Chicago (2005)
When audiences filled Chicago’s Vic Theater from May 4-May 7, 2005, they were probably expecting to hear Wilco’s signature chilled, alt-country tunes. However, what the audience received (and is showcased on the band’s double-disc Kicking Televisions) was a Wilco with balls—a fervent re-mastering that sees tracks throw wily, jam-band punches and a no-holds-barred attitude.
“Spiders (Kidsmoke)” builds even more climatic than its studio counterpart and bursts with schizoid guitar, while “Misunderstood” packs chest-thumping drum and lead singer Jeff Tweedy’s understated melodic lyrics. The double-disc set reminds listeners that the 17-year-old group can bring the heat in any audible form.
3. Slightly Stoopid – Acoustic Roots: Live and Direct (2004)
In a post-Bradley Nowell world, there have been many Sublime imitators, but few have come close to conjuring the same sort of dub/ska magic. Perhaps it’s fitting that Slightly Stoopid, the So Cal band Nowell signed to his Skunk Record Label before his death, does Sublime-esque tunes proper justice. The title doesn’t deceive: the record is a 15-track barebones breakdown courtesy of guitarists Mike Doughty and Kyle McDonald. “Sensimilla”—one of the band’s many de facto tributes to California’s most well known cash crop—is undeniably catchy, while the stripped-down versions of “Collie Man,” “Mellow Mood” and “Wiseman” are simplistically infectious. Acoustic Roots is the live album for everyone: you, your wannabe Rastafarian friend and the frat brother from Psych 101 who showed up every other Tuesday for class.
4. U2 – Live at Red Rocks: Under A Blood Red Sky (1983)
Technically, this isn’t a LP or EP—it’s a full-length DVD of U2’s famous 1983 performance at the Colorado venue. However, the performance from the band on that rainy evening cemented their status as one of the great live acts in rock ‘n’ roll history. Whether you think he’s Lord Douche or just a really nice guy, Bono has a stage presence and a relationship with his audience that is unmatched. The track listing (which includes cuts from all of their albums pre-The Unforgettable Fire) includes such U2 classics as “New Years Day” and “October.”
The Edge fires through his guitar parts, while bassist Adam Clayton and drummer Larry Mullen Jr. continue to prove that they are two of the most underrated band members in the business. And the band’s performance of “Sunday Bloody Sunday” is not only the performance’s apex, but also, as Rolling Stone mentions, one of the defining moments in rock history.
5. Nirvana – MTV Unplugged In New York (1994)
The quintessential live album for ’90s rock ‘n’ roll fans. Released several months after Kurt Cobain’s death, the Unplugged performance was an intimate—if not unsettling—glimpse into the musical aesthetics of grunge’s most popular group. The LP is filled with beautifully assembled covers like David Bowie’s “Man Who Sold the World” and Lead Belly’s “Where Did You Sleep Last Night.” Nirvana also played acoustic versions of their tracks “Dumb” and “Come As You Are.” However, it was the haunted playing of “All Apologies” and the track’s final, elongated lines “all alone is all we are” that remind listeners that music lost Cobain too soon.