Live albums have long gotten a bad rap. “Greatest hits played faster” is how the ’80s indie band Camper Van Beethoven once dismissed them. They’ve been caricatured as redundant indulgences best left back in the bygone arena-rock era of the ’70s. But I’ve always loved live albums. I appreciate the music, of course, but I also gravitate to the stuff around the music.
I like to hear the audience — their cheering, their catcalls, their off-beat clapping to the band. Sometimes, you can even hear the low hum of the room that it was recorded in. I like to imagine what it was like to be at the Village Vanguard in 1961. Or the Apollo Theatre in 1963. Or Madison Square Garden in 1969. Or Tokyo’s Budokan arena in the late ’70s. I never had the chance to visit those places, at those times, in real life. I can’t even experience those rooms now, or any other music venue, given the quarantine. But live albums have put me there, time and again.
Right now, we don’t have access to live music. Amid all of the pain our country is currently enduring, this might seem like a minor inconvenience. But for those of us who feel spiritually and emotionally enriched by concerts, these hard times have made the dull ache that comes with being shut off from an essential part of life feel all the more acute. How amazing would it be to once again gather with hundreds or thousands of strangers for a positive communal experience centered on life-fulfilling art? What once was commonplace now seems like science-fiction fantasy.
At a show, you live in the moment, with no idea of what will happen next. Even a terrible concert is unique because it’s fleeting — once it’s gone, you can only hold on to it with your memories. You can capture a video with your phone, but it’s not the same. The music won’t sound as good. You won’t feel the people next to you. It will just be another piece of data to be streamed on demand. It won’t be alive. We don’t have those moments right now, which means we’re not properly living. But we do have live albums.
Luckily, there have been some really good live albums that have already come out this year, from Father John Misty, Hiss Golden Messenger, Drive-By Truckers, and others. But I’ve also been digging into the classics. And I’ve been happy to discover (and rediscover) just how many great live records there are.
There are so many, in fact, that many live albums I absolutely love did not make my list of the 50 greatest live records. I was bummed to leave off Bob Marley and the Wailers’ Live!, Santana’s Lotus, Queen’s Live Killers, Iron Maiden’s Live After Death, AC/DC’s If You Want Blood You Got It, Bob Seger’s Live Bullet, Black Lips’ Los Valientes del Mundo Nuevo, and so many more. But if you’re going to undertake a task as serious as this one, you must have rules.
- Only one album per artist. I’m doing this in the interest of including as many different artists as possible, even if punishes those with multiple classic live albums, including the Grateful Dead, Neil Young, Bruce Springsteen, and Nina Simone.
- No “half-live” albums. I refer to albums that include both studio cuts and live recordings, like Pink Floyd’s Ummagumma, U2’s Rattle & Hum, Willie Nelson’s Honeysuckle Rose, The Byrds’ Untitled, The Kinks’s Everybody’s In Show-Biz, and Cream’s Wheels Of Fire.
- No egregiously overdubbed live albums. (This means you, Kiss’ Alive.)
- No bootlegs. If it’s not officially released, it wasn’t considered for this list. (Trust me, it gets complicated otherwise.)
- No “bonus disc” live albums included on the umpteenth “special” edition of a classic album. (Even when they’re great, including these would make this process really complicated.)
- No Frampton Comes Alive. (Pretty good album but still.)
More than anything while compiling this list, I treasured the live albums with the best moments — a funny anecdote shared before a song, a spontaneous scream in the midst of an intensely emotional performance, the sound of an audience held in thrall (or disgust) by what they’re hearing. I miss the music, but I also miss those one-of-kind fragments of time. So many have been lost already, due to all the canceled gigs we were supposed to see this year. I pray that more await us all.
50. Television — The Blow-Up
By the end of the ’70s — a time when lavish, multi-disc live albums became the norm for many artists — critics were bemoaning the medium as a facilitator of excessive, self-indulgent displays of show-offy musicianship. Put another way: There were too many damn guitar solos. And yet, around that time, one of the great live-album showcases for righteous guitar playing came in the delightfully gritty form of The Blow-Up by the legendary NYC band Television. While they came up in the same punk scene that fostered the Ramones and Talking Heads, Television wasn’t averse to classic rock-style guitar heroics, as evidenced by the extended, mind-blowing jams on “Little Johnny Jewel” and “Marquee Moon,” featuring the all-time two-guitar tandem of Tom Verlaine and Richard Lloyd, Gotham’s answer to Duane Allman and Dickey Betts.
49. Willie Nelson — Willie And The Family Live
At my house, this album is required listening every Fourth Of July, preferably while brats and hamburgers are simmering on a grill. What is Willie Nelson if not the sound of America? Willie And The Family captures Nelson’s eclecticism at the height of his fame in 1978 — there’s beer-chugging honky-tonk, jazzy ballads, stoner country rock, and laconic blues, all delivered with an off-handed casualness that feels like a warm body buzz. Some might say this album is a little too casual — Willie never seems to be trying all that hard — though the relaxed vibe of Willie And The Family ultimately feels inviting, like hanging out at the world’s biggest (and best) backyard barbecue.
48. The Runaways — Live In Japan
The woefully underrated “queens of noise” — which include future solo stars Joan Jett and Lita Ford — were a pivotal segue band between the glam and hard rock scenes of the early ’70s and the punk explosion of the late ’70s. Their four studio albums released between 1976 and ’78 are perfect for anyone who wishes Kiss wasn’t made up for four hairy knuckle-draggers from the East Coast. But the best entry point into their ridiculously fun catalogue might very well be Live In Japan, which functions as a de-facto greatest hits album punctuated by the screams of adoring Japanese teenagers. Turns out their sleazy Sunset Strip swagger translates perfectly well internationally, with classics like “Cherry Bomb” and their tremendous cover of the Velvet Underground’s “Rock N Roll” functioning as screamingly effective arena rock.
47. David Bowie — Live Nassau Coliseum ’76
While there is practically a live album for each of David Bowie’s many guises, the one I always go back to is Live Nassau Coliseum ’76, which captures his foxy, coked-out “Thin White Duke” period. At the time, Bowie was caught at a fascinating nexus point between art rock, prog, and funk, an ungainly mix that he was somehow able to communicate to thousands of people in arenas as relatively straight-forward rock music. Even a song as complicated and epic as “Station To Station” hits with tremendous power thanks to Bowie’s incredible band, including the virtuoso guitarist Carlos Alomar and the powerhouse drummer Dennis Davis, who provide a smoking instrumental bed for Bowie’s beguiling vamps.
46. Warren Zevon — Stand In The Fire
While he is associated with the same laidback ’70s L.A. rock scene that fostered the Eagles and Jackson Browne, Warren Zevon set himself apart by being anything but mellow. The barbed-wire humor of his lyrics comes through on his studio albums, but it wasn’t until Stand In The Fire that Zevon’s bonafides as a rock ‘n’ roll wild man came to the fore. Recorded in 1980 and featuring material culled from his first three albums, Stand In The Fire more than lives up to the self-immolation imagery of the title, with Zevon energetically (if also drunkenly) howling amped-up versions of his songs for a festive audience at the Roxy in LA. In the book I’ll Sleep When I’m Dead: The Dirty Life And Times Of Warren Zevon, a Zevon associate says he saw Tom Waits and John Belushi wrestling on the floor in the bathroom at one of these shows. You feel that energy on the record.
45. Pearl Jam — 10/20/00 — Las Vegas
Of the dozens of live albums that Pearl Jam released from their 2000 tour, this one stands out as an especially emotional and moving performance. Set up as a 10th anniversary concert in the midst of a tumultuous period in the band’s history, the Las Vegas show essentially feels like a “friends and family” gig, with loads of rarities (including a cover of Elvis Presley’s “Can’t Help Falling In Love” and a snippet of Pink Floyd’s “Interstellar Overdrive”) and shoutouts to luminaries like band manager Kelly Curtis and record producer Brendan O’Brien from a surprisingly loquacious Eddie Vedder. But the real highlight of this LP is the debut performance of “Crown Of Thorns,” the Mother Love Bone oldie that Vedder revived in order to honor the long-time partnership between Jeff Ament and Stone Gossard. The gesture, and the inspired performance, is a real tearjerker.
44. Neko Case — The Tigers Have Spoken
While Neko Case is one of the great singer-songwriters to work in the Americana genre in the past 20 years, what really sets her apart from her peers is an excellent ability to interpret songs by a wide range of artists. This skill is spotlighted beautifully on her stunning 2004 live record, which leans mostly on traditional songs and well-chosen covers by acts such as Buffy Ste.-Marie (“Soulful Shade Of Blue”), Freakwater (“Hex”), Loretta Lynn (“Rated X”), The Shangri-Las (“The Train From Kansas City”), and The Nervous Eaters (“Loretta”). Of the originals included on the album, the haunting title track stands out as one of Case’s finest songs, thanks in part to the steady backing of the great unsung Canadian surf-roots band, The Sadies.
43. Jay-Z — Jay-Z Unplugged
In 2001, pairing Jay-Z with The Roots didn’t seem nearly as obvious as it does now. Back then, the chasm between underground and mainstream hip-hop seemed insurmountable, especially for those in The Roots’ circle. “We had a two-day summit meeting with our friends and our peers and everything. It was like the riskiest move I ever did in my life: ‘Shall I take this call from Jay-Z?'” Questlove recalled in 2011. Of course, such concerns seem silly in retrospect, given how well the MC and his backing band worked together on transitioning Jay’s Blueprint era hits to the Unplugged format. While Jay’s slight discomfort is apparent at the start — “Welcome to Jay-Z’s poetry reading,” he drolly announces — by the time they’re tearing into a transcendent “Heart Of The City (Ain’t No Love)” (featuring a tour-de-force vocal by Jaguar Wright) they sound like the greatest band in hip-hop.
42. Lou Reed — Live In Italy
With apologies to the unimpeachable 1969: Velvet Underground Live albums as well as memorable solo Reed joints like Rock ‘n’ Roll Animal and the uproarious Live: Take No Prisoners — one of the great “profane stage patter” records ever — I have to give the nod to this feral beast recorded during Lou’s 1983 tour. The main attraction here is Reed’s violent guitar interplay with the great Robert Quine, a valuable collaborator and eventual enemy who nevertheless pushed his patron to some of his most fiery playing ever. As good as those live VU albums are, I’m not sure they can quite top what Reed and Quine do during Live In Italy‘s positively apocalyptic 15-minute “Some Kinda Love/Sister Ray” medley, which sounds more like a switchblade duel than music.
41. Fela Kuti And The Africa ’70 With Ginger Baker — Live!
One of rock’s most notorious curmudgeons — as depicted in the scarifying documentary Beware of Mr. Baker — Cream and Blind Faith drummer Ginger Baker was driven to googly-eyed ecstasy in the presence of the great Fela Kuti, the Nigerian multi-instrumentalist and composer who was in the process of inventing Afro-Beat when this cross-cultural classic was recorded. After traveling to Africa to research the continent’s rhythmic traditions and music culture, Baker installed Kuti and his band in Abbey Road studio for this infectious jam session for a small audience of 150 people. While Baker was an acknowledged master in the rock world, he more than met his match on two tracks with Kuti’s drummer, the late Tony Allen, whose grooves on Live! demanded that even the most sedentary listeners get up and shake it.
40. Otis Redding — Live In Europe
If you like live albums that are impeccably recorded and performed in a nice, orderly fashion, you will not enjoy Live In Europe. If, however, you appreciate the sound of the best R&B singer ever dragging the best American R&B band ever, Booker T. And The MG’s, through a brick wall at 100 mph, you will definitely love Live In Europe. Released just five months before Redding’s untimely death in 1967 at the age of 26, Live In Europe finds the icon sounding more alive than he ever has on record, bounding through a selection of originals like “Respect” and “I Can’t Turn You Loose” as well as covers of the Beatles’ “Day Tripper” and The Rolling Stones’ “Satisfaction” that fiercely reinvent those British Invasion hits as fire-breathing soul bangers.
39. Built To Spill — Live
Fans and detractors alike have long accused Built To Spill of being a jam band, given their proclivity for stretching out on very long instrumental flights of fancy in concert. Thankfully, the band also known as “the other BTS” leaned into this on their first official concert album, 2000’s Live, which was recorded during their 1999 Keep It Like A Secret tour. The central tracks here are the two epics that add up to nearly 40 minutes— a faithful cover of Neil Young’s “Cortez The Killer” that might very well top any version of that song that Neil himself has officially released, and a similarly jammed-out version of “Broken Chairs” that climaxes with several minutes of blissful feedback. It speaks to how well Built To Spill pulls these songs off that the other seven tracks feel slightly disappointing for not also going on for 20 minutes each.
38. Joni Mitchell — Miles Of Aisles
Prior to the tour captured on Miles Of Aisles, Joni Mitchell had never played regularly with a band. But in the wake of Court And Spark, she hooked up with Tom Scott and L.A. Express, a supple and soft-rockin’ jazz-pop group, to make the era’s defining singer-songwriter music. The full-bodied and highly musical sound of Miles Of Aisles points toward Mitchell’s adventurous and polarizing work later in the ’70s, in which she fully backed away from the confessional folk she was synonymous with. While Miles Of Aisles does also include several solo performances, including classics like “Blue” and “A Case Of You,” Mitchell clearly was already looking forward. “You know, a painter does a painting and that’s it. He’s had the joy of creating it,” she says at one point. “No one ever said to Van Gogh, ‘Paint another ‘Starry Night’ again, man.'” Well said, Joni.
37. Wilco — Kicking Television
Kicking Television arrived after an extended period of upheaval for Wilco, when the band nearly fell apart while cycling through a series of lineups in the wake of Yankee Hotel Foxtrot. With Kicking Television, however, Jeff Tweedy landed on the version of Wilco that remains in place to this day. Listening to the live album, it’s easy to see why this Wilco was the one to stick with, as vital contributors like drummer Glenn Kotche and guitarist Nels Cline prove adept at playing whatever style Tweedy’s songs require, whether it’s the pastoral folk soul of “Jesus, Etc.” or the shredding post-rock excursions of “Spiders (Kidsmoke).”
36. Jimmy Smith — Root Down
Herbie Hancock is rightly celebrated for merging keyboard-centric jazz licks with hard funk on his landmark 1973 album Head Hunters. But it’s worth noting that the great organist Jimmy Smith was also working in this vein slightly before Hancock on his brilliant 1972 live record Root Down. While Smith’s work in the ’50s and ’60s was known for being fairly middle of the road, Root Down runs hot from beginning to end, with Smith’s infectious riffs playing off wah-wah guitars and hyperactive drums. Root Down also connected with future generations thanks to the Beastie Boys, who sampled the smoking title track on 1994’s Ill Communication.
35. MC5 — Kick Out The Jams
There is no better song introduction on a live album than “kick out the jams, motherfuckers!” John Denver could have said that on 1975’s An Evening With John Denver before playing “Take Me Home, Country Roads” and the gentle-minded hippies in the audience would have reflexively shivved each other to death. For the MC5, however, it was simply yet another invitation to chaos amid one of the most raucous stage shows in rock history. If Kick Out The Jams has a weakness, it’s that the songwriting never comes close to matching the amount of energy and spit exuded on stage. But what energy and spit! More than 50 years later, Kick Out The Jams still sounds like the most aggressive and freewheeling live record you could ever hope to hear.
34. B.B. King — Live At The Regal
B.B. King’s career was so long and enduring that multiple generations came to know him long after he become an icon, when he was a kindly old man who rarely left his stool on stage. But in 1964, when this album was recorded at Chicago’s Regal Theater, King was one of the great live acts of his era, a master with a seemingly endless array of the sweetest guitar licks on Earth, supported by a crack band with a punchy horn section. Live At The Regal captures this period beautifully, showing King at the height of his charisma and musical potency. It goes without saying that this is some of the finest live blues you’ll ever encounter, but what I love is the excited squeals of the audience. Before he was a national monument, B.B. was one hell of a sex symbol, and his interaction with the adoring Regal crowd is practically erotic.
33. Beyoncé — Homecoming
Beyoncé’s 2018 Coachella performance is likely the most famous single concert of the last decade, though it is remembered primarily as a visual extravaganza. The soundtrack, however, shows that even when you strip the concert of the eye-popping spectacle, the music more than enough stands on its own. Much like the Talking Heads’ Stop Making Sense, Homecoming in many ways is structured like a greatest hits album, taking the listener through the many phases of Beyoncé’s career for the purpose of articulating the overall greatness of the artist. Though what ultimately makes Homecoming a defining live album for a generation is its sense of scale — truly no other artist right now has the ability to sound this enormous without feeling any need to justify or explain that grandiosity.
32. Led Zeppelin — How The West Was Won
For many years, the best way to hear Zeppelin at their live peak was via bootlegs. The soundtrack to the trippy, excessively lemon-squeezey concert film The Song Remains The Same is a fascinating curio, but it doesn’t quite deliver the goods. It wasn’t until the early aughts that How The West Was Won offered an official (and great-sounding) representation of Led Zeppelin at its finest, compiling performances from two LA area shows in June 1972. While the many Zeppelin bootlegs that continue to circulate are in some ways preferable — I highly recommend doing a casual Google search for “Led Zeppelin Supreme Destroyers” — you can’t really go wrong with this era of the band, in which they deftly balanced pure excess (the 25-minute “Dazed And Confused”) with delicate melodicism (the acoustic set featuring sparkling versions of “Going To California” and “That’s The Way”).
31. Nina Simone — Nina Simone In Concert
Nina Simone doesn’t sing songs so much as inhabit them, digging deep into the text and subtext and manifesting its heart and soul with her one-of-a-kind voice and spirit. On her albums, the orchestrations occasionally get in the way of that voice. But on her many live albums, including this 1964 classic, Simone’s ability to become whatever her material requires and make the audience feel every single word is spellbinding. Recorded over three different performances at Carnegie Hall, Nina Simone In Concert is celebrated as a civil rights protest record, in ways that are both direct and devastating (“Mississippi Goddam”) and subtle and slyly funny (her absolutely titanic version of “Pirate Jenny,” from The Threepenny Opera). But what this album also asserts is the supreme singularity of Simone’s talent. There’s nobody that sounds like her on this record.
30. John Prine — John Prine Live
The late, great John Prine (of course) wrote many incredible songs, a good number of which are featured on this delightful album released in 1988. But how magical is it, not long after his death earlier this year, to hear the man simply tell stories, which he does often on John Prine Live? The between-song patter on this album is as good as the tunes, like the winding anecdote about how he wrote “The Oldest Baby In The World” based on a tabloid headline or the brief overview of Sabu Dastagir’s cinematic career that precedes “Sabu Visits The Twin Cities Alone.” For those who loved Prine’s music and mourned his passing, this album somehow brings him back to life.
29. The Roots — The Roots Come Alive
It’s hard to think of an active live band more versatile than The Roots, who as the house band on The Tonight Show is tasked with supporting every kind of musical act there is. The Roots Come Alive documents them at a relatively early point in their history, when they were just starting to build a national audience in the wake of the landmark 1999 LP Things Fall Apart. While that album was acclaimed as an ambitious and panoramic work that bridged hip-hop and old-school soul, The Roots Come Alive feels like the full blossoming of their warm, elastic live sound, with keyboardist Kamal Gray and drummer Questlove shining especially bright as Black Thought slays it over their impossibly funky instrumental beds.
28. Townes Van Zandt — Live At The Old Quarter, Houston, Texas
Back in the pre-Covid 19 days, every town had at least one bar in which lonely troubadours sang sad songs on their acoustic guitars for minuscule audiences. Most of the time, those performances were forgettable. Live At The Old Quarter, Houston, Texas, however, captures the single greatest example of that kind of show. It’s impossible to fathom walking into a Houston dive and hearing a genius play one perfect song after another for a fitfully interested audience, but that’s exactly what this album is. Van Zandt is in great form, playing nearly all of the tunes that he later became famous for: “Pancho And Lefty,” “If I Needed You,” “Rex’s Blues,” “Don’t You Take It Too Bad,” and many more. But what’s most striking about Live At The Old Quarter is how empty the bar sounds. You can literally hear the beer bottles clank between songs. The feeling of intimacy is incredible, if also a tad depressing. If success was determined solely by talent, Townes would have been playing the Astrodome.
27. John Coltrane — Live At The Village Vanguard
In 1961, John Coltrane set about alienating much of his audience by pursuing a musical direction that to many seemed abrasive, atonal, even headache-inducing. You can hear that shift happen in real time on Live At The Village Vanguard, particularly the 16-minute track on side two, “Chasin’ The Trane,” in which Coltrane tears off long, wild solos that completely upended the conventional view of proper jazz at the time. Critics were divided on whether this represented the sound of the future or merely noise. Hearing the album now is to appreciate an acknowledged classic by one of jazz’s biggest icons without dampening the fire or forward-thinking ambition of the music, which still has the power (depending on your point of view) to bedazzle or befuddle.
26. Bill Withers — Live At Carnegie Hall
If Bill Withers was nervous about recording a live album at a venue as hallowed as Carnegie Hall, he doesn’t show it on the masterful Live At Carnegie Hall. What makes this album so captivating is how utterly cool Withers is, even when he’s leaning into the hard funk of “Use Me” or delivering the hard truths of “Grandma’s Hands.” There’s never a moment here when he’s not in complete control of the music or, more important, the quiet. The most powerful performance on Live At Carnegie Hall, “I Can’t Write Left Handed,” is a deep and gutting song about war that Withers never oversells, because he doesn’t have to.
25. My Morning Jacket — Okonokos
“We are the innovators, they are the imitators,” Jim James sings at the start of Okonokos. It might seem like a strange boast — My Morning Jacket, after all, was a southern rock band who put out a double live album at a time in the aughts when southern rock and double live albums seemed like the opposite of innovative. But the power of Okonokos is how MMJ was able to take something that might have appeared anachronistic, and execute it so well that a whole new generation could appreciate the form. Drawing mostly from the band’s best albums — particularly At Dawn, It Still Moves and Z — Okonokos is unapologetically expansive and epic, demonstrating beyond a shadow of a doubt that MMJ ranks among the very best live bands of their generation. On Okonokos, they bring together the operatic emotionalism of classic rock with the exploratory weirdness of the era’s best indie music.
24. Phish — Amsterdam
A box set collecting three concerts performed by one of the top jam bands ever in the weed capital of the world? The jokes practically write themselves. But true believers know that some of the most adventurous rock music of the ’90s is contained on this album, which was recorded during one of the greatest years in Phish history. Few bands have ever improvised with a higher batting average than Phish on Amsterdam. Even when they venture impossibly far into the sonic wilderness, like on the 30-minute marathon version of “Stash,” they always maintain a firm grasp on coherence. In spite of their goofy hippie image, Phish has the ability to take their jams into dark and unforeseen places, like the incredible 21-minute debut performance of “Carini” that quickly devolves into an all-out noise meltdown that’s far closer to Sonic Youth than the Grateful Dead.
23. Tom Petty And The Heartbreakers — The Live Anthology
Most live albums are about documenting one great night in an artist’s career. The Live Anthology, meanwhile, covers many great nights spread out over the course of 30 years. In the process, an argument is made on behalf of Tom Petty And The Heartbreakers being the most consistently great live American rock band of the late 20th century. Listening to The Live Anthology, it’s awfully hard to disagree. The hits (“American Girl,” “Free Fallin’,” “The Waiting,” literally dozens more) are predictably awesome, whether they come during the band’s punk-ish prime in the ’70s or their more laidback era as wizened southern-rock vets in the aughts. But there’s also a bevy of killer songs that never made it on albums, including two all-time greats: The Allman Brothers-like “Melinda,” and the fever-dream talking blues “Lost Without You.” The result is a reliable comfort listen that reveals fresh nuances with each spin.
22. Miles Davis — Black Beauty: Miles Davis At Fillmore West
By the late ’60s, rock ‘n’ roll and funk had stolen the musical thunder from jazz, marginalizing many of the genre’s greatest artists. Miles Davis, however, actually grew his audience by absorbing rock and funk and demonstrating that he could reinvent that music just as surely as he had jazz. Black Beauty: Miles Davis At Fillmore West documents this period at its height, on a night when he was opening for the Grateful Dead. He had just released Bitches Brew and recorded Jack Johnson, and was making his first forays into rock venues. Black Beauty shows that Miles had been studying the Dead and other jammy rock bands almost as closely as they were studying him, though the excellence of his band — including drummer Jack DeJohnette and keyboardist Chick Corea — as well as Miles’ own peerless vision keep this from being merely an act of bandwagon jumping.
21. Little Feat — Waiting For Columbus
When live albums were at their height in the ’70s, they were actually a way for mid-tier bands to vault to the superstar level. It was especially helpful for acts who never could seem to make studio albums that had the same vitality as their live shows. This gambit worked for arena-rockers like Kiss, Cheap Trick, and Peter Frampton, and it also worked for the LA band Little Feat, a critical favorite who finally scored a platinum album with their 1978 live set, Waiting For Columbus. While the band’s studio work during the ’70s was strong, Waiting For Columbus is infused with a party-hearty vibe that made it the go-to album for their growing audience. Mixing jammy rock with New Orleans funk and left-field prog flourishes, Waiting For Columbus also synched with the sound of FM radio like none of Little Feat’s previous releases, making it one of the era’s most recognizable live records.
20. Neil Young And Crazy Horse — Live Rust
No boomer-era fave responded to the punk revolution of the late ’70s as shrewdly as Neil Young. While most of his peers were either mired in career doldrums or preoccupied with looking back at the ’60s, Neil cut his hair and cranked the amps to 11, proving with a vengeance that he could actually play louder and harder than any of the snotty kids who followed in his wake. He emerged with this tougher, contemporary guise on his classic 1979 album Rust Never Sleeps, and reiterated it on Live Rust, blowing out older songs such as “The Loner” and “Cinnamon Girl” along with newer, pure amphetamine rockers like “Sedan Delivery.”
19. Waylon Jennings — Waylon Live
When Waylon Jennings became one of the breakout stars of the “outlaw” country movement of the early ’70s, he made a point to play venues far removed from the traditional country circuit, like the notorious Max’s Kansas City in New York City, the site of many historic Velvet Underground shows. That’s because in many ways what Jennings was playing was not conventional country music, but rather a twangier take on rock ‘n’ roll. You can hear that mentality come through loud and clear on Jennings’ hit 1976 LP Waylon Live, in which he and his band, The Waylors, come on like Texas’ answer to the Rolling Stones. Jennings’ sneering bravado on rockers like “T For Texas” and “I’m A Ramblin’ Man” and his brooding sensitivity on ballads such as “Good Hearted Woman” carries the album, but a vital supporting actor is Ralph Mooney, the pedal-steel wizard who lifts tracks like “Rainy Day Woman” straight up to the sky. “Pick it, Moon!”
18. Cheap Trick — At Budokan
Just when you think live albums have become predictable, here comes a bar band from Rockford, Ill. who somehow have become as big as The Beatles … in Japan. So they go to one of the country’s most famous arenas — where the actual Beatles once performed, along with countless sumo wrestlers — and record their concerts in front of thousands of screaming Japanese teenagers. And then that album is what ends up also making them stars in the U.S. Even now, more than 40 years after it came out, Cheap Trick’s At Budokan is one of rock’s oddest underdog stories. It would be impossible to believe if the music didn’t happen to be incredible — after this album, the American public couldn’t believe that a band capable of writing “Surrender” and “I Want You To Want Me” wasn’t already famous.
17. Aretha Franklin — Live At Fillmore West
Aretha fans will be justifiably peeved that I didn’t put Amazing Grace here. While that album is undeniably stirring — both as a showcase for Franklin’s unparalleled voice as well as her religious intensity — I tend to put on this secular album recorded around the same time at one of the most iconic hippie-era venues more. While Amazing Grace finds Aretha returning to the comfort of the church, Live At Fillmore West shows her venturing into the less certain environs of the early ’70s rock world. She covers Stephen Stills’ “Love The One You’re With” and Bread’s “Make It With You,” as well as delivers her definitive rendition of Simon & Garfunkel’s “Bridge Over Troubled Water.” In the end, Franklin is able to exist in both the rock world and the church, bringing it all home with a rampaging, uplifting performance of “Spirit In The Dark” with surprise guest star Ray Charles.
16. The Rolling Stones — Get Yer Ya-Ya’s Out! The Rolling Stones In Concert
When this album opens with Sam Cutler’s announcement that The Rolling Stones are “the world’s greatest rock ‘n’ roll band,” you have about two seconds to be incredulous. Then “Jumpin’ Jack Flash” kicks in and removes all doubt. Recorded during a multi-night stand at Madison Square Garden — just about a week before their infamous Altamont concert — Get Yer Ya-Ya’s Out! first and foremost is a testament to how quickly Keith Richards locked in with Mick Taylor on their first tour together after the termination (and eventual death) of founding guitarist Brian Jones. The way they weave in and out of each other on “Midnight Rambler” and “Sympathy For The Devil” helped to define what two-guitar rock bands would sound like for the next several decades.
15. Jimi Hendrix — Songs For Groovy Children: The Fillmore East Concerts
If I could include multiple Jimi Hendrix live albums on this list, I would have definitely also added Live At Monterey, which documents his star-marking performance at the Monterey Pop Festival in 1967. However, if I have to pick one, I’m going with this box set covering his Band Of Gypsys concerts at the Fillmore East as New Year’s Eve 1969 turned to New Year’s Day 1970. Ejecting The Experience in favor of bassist Billy Cox and “fatback” drummer Buddy Miles, Songs For Groovy Children is remarkable both for the music it contains — I can never hear enough versions of “Machine Gun” — and the lost potential it hints at. Had Hendrix lived, the funky hard-rock sound of these shows suggests he would have had a pretty amazing run in the ’70s.
14. Van Morrison — It’s Too Late To Stop Now
For decades, Van Morrison has cultivated a reputation as the surliest rock legend on the planet. This often extends to his live performances, which he treats with the enthusiasm that most of us save for visiting the dentist’s office. However, in the past, Morrison has recorded several memorable live albums, the most celebrated being It’s Too Late To Stop Now, from 1974. Supported by an 11-piece band dubbed the Caledonia Soul Orchestra, Morrison threw himself into his most famous songs with messianic gusto, singing the likes of “Gloria,” “Domino,” “Caravan,” “I’ve Been Working,” and especially “Listen To The Lion” like he was about to retire permanently from the stage. In some ways, in terms of this Van Morrison, he was right. When Morrison later accused Bruce Springsteen of stealing his mojo, he probably had this album in mind.
13. Bruce Springsteen And The E Street Band — Passaic 9/19/78
There are number of shows that Bruce Springsteen performed on the Darkness On The Edge Of Town tour that started out as beloved bootlegs and have since been released via Nugs.net, including performances from Los Angeles, Houston, and Cleveland. All of those shows — or the bootleg from Winterland in San Francisco on that tour — are absolutely dynamite. You could also go with other treasured live albums like Hammersmith Odeon London ’75 or the mammoth Live/1975-85 box set. But for me, Passaic 9/19/78 gets the edge as the definitive Springsteen live release, because it captures Bruce and his band at the absolute zenith of their powers when they still had something to prove. For all of the grandeur of Hammersmith Odeon London ’75, the sense of purpose and very real fury that powers Passaic 9/19/78 comes through loud and clear when Springsteen cuts loose his guitar, especially on the best-ever version of “Prove It All Night,” which opens and closes with his extended soloing. You can find killer shows from any Springsteen era, but no album rocks as hard as this one.
12. James Brown — James Brown Live At The Apollo, 1962
James Brown’s Live At The Apollo is the Fast/Furious franchise of live albums. There are four of them in all, recorded at different points in his career though with an underlying unifying theme of deathless funk. But is as often the case with franchises, the original from 1963 is the most iconic. For those who hadn’t yet seen The Godfather of Soul in person, Live At The Apollo testified to his boundless energy and his band’s mathematical precision, all of which drove audiences into a frenzy. A relatively scant release clocking in at just 31 minutes, Live At The Apollo feels like it blows by in half that time, though Brown does slow things down considerably for the slow-burn scorcher “Lost Someone,” in which the women in the audience scream as loud as James himself.
11. Johnny Cash — At Folsom Prison
Here’s a live album in which the audience is as much a part of the show as the performer. When Johnny Cash sings in “Folsom Prison Blues” that he shot a man in Reno just to watch him die, and a bunch of inmates sitting in the actual Folsom Prison spontaneously cheer, well … let’s just say that dozens of narratives could be discerned in that reaction. And yet, in spite of the foreboding setting, At Folsom Prison sounds like a performer connecting with an audience with uncommon empathy. Cash sings hard-luck songs (“Cocaine Blues,” “25 Minutes To Go”) and jokey asides (“Flushed From The Bathroom Of Your Heart”) with that same “voice of God” baritone, somehow making it all seem conversational. He makes prisoners feel like free men, and the listener at home like an outlaw.
10. Donny Hathaway — Live
This troubled soul genius took his own life in 1979 at the age of 33, cutting short what promised to be one of the great careers in R&B history. Hathaway’s talents as a songwriter, musician, and interpreter of popular songs are on full display on Live, one of the most ecstatic and joyous of all live records. Recorded at The Troubadour in LA and the Bitter End in New York City, Live has the feel of an intimate club show that positively explodes with a performer’s talent and infectious personality. In terms of covers, Hathaway boldly takes on the likes of Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Going On” and John Lennon’s “Jealous Guy” and somehow manages to make them his own. But the centerpiece is the absolutely blazing rendition of Hathaway’s own “The Ghetto,” which features an extended keyboard solo by Hathaway that you wish would never end.
9. The Allman Brothers Band — At Fillmore East
You remember back when you used to go to concerts, and someone in the audience would inevitably get snarky and request “Whipping Post”? This album is the reason why. Only nobody can actually play “Whipping Post” like the Allman Brothers Band. The staggering 23-minute version from At Fillmore East is justifiably celebrated for the blazing guitar work of Duane Allman and Dickey Betts, the best two-guitar team in rock history, but what really makes that track (and the entire album) cook is the two-drummer tandem, Jai “Jaimoe” Johanson and Butch Trucks. While the Allmans taught a generation of southern rock bands to get freaky with their guitar solos, the band’s secret was always that they swung harder than anybody in the game, then and now.
8. The Band — The Last Waltz
Purists will insist that Rock Of Ages is the better live album by The Band, and they’re not wrong — based purely on how well The Band plays, that’s the LP to go with. But The Last Waltz isn’t just about The Band, nor is it even just about music. The Last Waltz might as well be called Classic Rock: The Album, given that features so many boomer monuments in one place: Bob Dylan, Neil Young, Joni Mitchell, Van Morrison, Mavis Staples, Neil Diamond, and Eric Clapton, along with the biggest legend of all, Muddy Waters, who sounds like he played this gig right before passing permanently into the realm of myth. Sure, cynics can call it bloated and overdubbed within an inch of its life. But can you really hold on to your cynicism after hearing Van warble “ray-dio” in “Caravan,” or Rick Danko’s heartbreaking tenor on “It Makes No Difference”? Why would you want to?
7. Talking Heads, Stop Making Sense
Like The Band, Talking Heads have a less famous live album, The Name Of This Band Is Talking Heads, that is arguably better than the more famous one. I came very close to putting the less famous one on this list, but come on! You can’t deny Stop Making Sense, the most ingeniously constructed live album ever, especially the complete version that was released in 1999. Starting with David Byrne playing “Psycho Killer” by himself, then adding the essential bassist Tina Weymouth, and then slowly growing in sound as more band members join in with each song, the performance creates an incredible sense of anticipation, like an unforgettable party that somehow keeps adding cooler and cooler guests. Actually, there’s no party that’s ever been that fun, except for Stop Making Sense.
6. Nirvana — MTV Unplugged In New York
MTV Unplugged In New York in some ways is the depressing flip side of Stop Making Sense — both albums are thoughtfully constructed, with each number feeling like a chapter in a larger narrative that builds to an overwhelming climax. But whereas Stop Making Sense is very much an expression of life, MTV Unplugged In New York dwells on death and the afterlife, concluding with the harrowing howls at the end of the heart-stopping “Where Did You Sleep Last Night.” The short breath that Kurt Cobain takes before concluding the song hints at his exhaustion, but his voice has never sounded better on record than it does here, a perfect balance of defiance and resignation that stands as his most eloquent epitaph.
5. Keith Jarrett — The Köln Concert
Music is not sports, in that it’s not a competition. But audiences do flock to live music, in part, because we want to see talented people perform incredible physical and mental feats that just don’t seem humanly possible. Take this scenario for example: Imagine sitting behind a piano on stage, by yourself, in front of an audience of paying customers and having no idea what you’re about to play. An anxiety dream for most of us is the set up for The Köln Concert by the incomparable jazz pianist Keith Jarrett, arguably the most downright awe-inspiring live album ever. Composed of four improvised solo piano pieces, ranging in length from seven to 26 minutes, The Köln Concert was preceded by a comedy of errors portending disaster: Jarrett (a veteran of Miles Davis and Art Blakey’s bands) was tired by the long drive to the gig in Cologne, Germany; he was provided with a substandard piano that took several hours to tune; even his pre-show meal arrived late. And yet, Jarrett still connected with his mystical muse, and produced music of astonishing power and beauty, all while softly grunting and moaning as his fingers moved across the keys with the deftness of angels traversing the clouds.
4. The Grateful Dead — Sunshine Daydream [Veneta, OR, 8/27/72]
The Dead have officially released more live albums than anyone on this list, along with the thousands of bootlegs of practically every concert they ever played. But this show — played on a scorchingly hot late summer day for an audience of naked, drugged-out hippies who apparently couldn’t keep tabs on their kids for more than two seconds — deserves serious consideration as the best gig they ever played. Fresh off the overseas tour documented on the classic Europe ’72 LP, The Dead was suddenly blessed with the best songs of their lives, including “Jack Straw,” “Playing In The Band,” “Bertha,” and “He’s Gone.” But it’s the improvisations that truly make Veneta a standout even amid one of the Dead’s most storied periods, including what is considered by many the best ever version of “Dark Star” and an effortlessly beautiful “Bird Song” that feels like one of this band’s finest mind melds.
3. The Who — Live At Leeds
Let me be specific here: The 14-track version issued in 1995 is the one you want, not the (too short) six-track original from 1970 or the (too long) 33-track “deluxe” edition from 2001. The 1995 one is the greatest hard-rock live album ever made, and possibly the best hard-rock LP of any kind. Recorded on Valentine’s Day 1970, Live At Leeds captures The Who when they were in the midst of their non-stop post-Tommy tours. They were playing two-hour-plus heaters nearly every night, before drugs and alcohol slowly rotted away the feral intensity of the band’s engine, drummer Keith Moon. Given how aggressive The Who were at this time, it’s amazing how melodic and even light-hearted this album seems. (“A Quick One While He’s Away” manages to be both hilarious and almost unbearably spiritual.) They truly were having the time of their lives murdering a different audience every night.
2. Sam Cooke — Live At The Harlem Square Club, 1963
In the fall of 1964, not long before his death, Sam Cooke released Sam Cooke At The Copa, a velvet-smooth live record composed of standards done in the style of mainstream pop stars like Perry Como and Nat King Cole. The album was intended to make in-roads with a white audience, which made it preferable at the time to another live album that Cooke recorded the previous year at Miami’s Harlem Square Club. The much grittier Harlem Square Club recording was actually shelved by Cooke’s record label for sounding too rough; it wouldn’t see the light of day until 1985, at which point it immediately overshadowed Cooke’s Copa album … and most other live albums. On Live At The Harlem Square Club, Cooke claims his rightful place as one of the best and most influential singers of the modern pop era. He is equally capable of delivering romantic ballads like “Cupid” and barnstormers like “Feel It (Don’t Fight It)” with a mix of soulful rasp and sly charisma that sounds like the blueprint for every significant pop star who followed, for an audience that gave him the rabid response he deserved.
1. Bob Dylan — The Bootleg Series Vol. 4: Bob Dylan Live 1966, The “Royal Albert Hall” Concert
What sets this album apart from all the others on this list — aside from its quality — is that the other live records captured performances in which audiences appreciated what they were hearing. (In some cases, the cheering might have even been sweetened a bit in post-production.) But the “Royal Albert Hall” concert — actually recorded in Manchester, England in May of 1966, and not officially released until 32 years later — is infamous precisely because people hated what they were hearing, so much so that they booed the musicians and even called the guy out front “Judas.” (Weird note: When you play this album on streaming services, the booing is mistakenly edited out, because the jeers were tucked on the CD as “pregap” tracks.) The fact that the electric half of this concert, in which Bob Dylan is joined by the Hawks, sounds absolutely incredible makes the jeering all the more dramatic and the performance actually courageous. (I don’t want to give the acoustic half short shrift because it’s also fantastic, but the electric portion is the main attraction here.) Along with capturing wonderful live music in real time, no other live album that I can think of puts you in the middle of an historic moment quite as vividly as this one. You are there, witnessing Dylan change the course of rock history, and staring at your fellow audience members in disbelief: What is wrong with you? How can you not love this?! Play fucking loud, Bob!
Some artists covered here are Warner Music artists. Uproxx is an independent subsidiary of Warner Music Group.