Top 20 Live Albums

The Live album. Killed by rampant unlimited free bootlegs? Absolutely. Is that a problem? Definitely not. Let’s take a double gatefold look at 20 of the greatest live LP’s of yesteryear.

20. The Birthday Party – It’s Still Living (1985)

Recorded in 1982 at the Astor Theatre in Melbourne, It’s Still Living encapsulates everything this frightening band was about: violence, shock, volume and ferocity. The Birthday Party wrestle with continual technical difficulties, disfiguring the performance suitably; but they were never about perfection and polish. Nick Cave sounds unquestionably demented, as do the whole band, incorporating moments of dark humour between tracks (when introducing Release the Bats, Cave says “This is the song you love the most and we hate the most”), the band including Mick Harvey and Rowland Howard, provide a blistering sonic assault throughout. A fitting live document of one of the most challenging and important post-punk bands of the early 80s.

19. Miles Davis – Live Evil (1971)

Released after Miles’ exciting and forward thinking seminal masterpiece Bitches Brew (1969), Live-Evil is an accessible and important part of his groundbreaking electric period (1968-75). On this (mostly) live outing, Miles has gone full-on funky with a vengeance. Both unsettling and steamy, Live-Evil delivers 2 hours of pounding bass, spastic grooves and charged voodoo-funk; also notable for being the first album where Miles played his trumpet through a wa-wa pedal – an obvious Hendrix influence. Monstrous opener Sivad (Davis spelt backwards), the rhythmic freak-out of Funky Tonk, and the chic Selim, are enough to make this album essential listening for anyone mildly interested in challenging jazz/rock fusion.

18. Jane’s Addiction – Jane’s Addiction (1987)

A sensation on the mid-80s LA club scene, Jane’s Addiction’s debut album was this self-titled live affair (a rare thing in the history of rock) and recorded over a single night at the Roxy, punk’s original headquarters, for virtually nothing. Several of the tracks appearing here (the rollicking Pigs in Zen and their masterpiece Jane Says) would end up on their first studio album Nothing’s Shocking (1988). Elsewhere live materiel includes scorching Velvet’s (Rock and Roll) and Stones (Sympathy for the Devil) covers. It’s hard to believe this album came out in 1987, and love them or hate them, Jane’s Addiction offered an important contribution to 90s alternative rock scene, after the mostly hideous pomp and gaudiness of the 1980s.

17. Talking Heads – The Name of This Band is Talking Heads (1982)

Talking Heads first live album, The Name of This Band is Talking Heads (not The Talking Heads) features materiel collated from their four excellent albums beginning with their debut ‘77, and captures the band when they were still something of an underground attraction. Heavy on the African-meets-electronica rhythms of the Eno-produced, career-high masterpiece Remain in Light (1980), their show included percussionists, backup singers and a scintillating Adrian Belew on guitar. This double album displays the band’s musical and creative growth, more so than the much-heralded Stop Making Sense (1984) which is missing the scope and variety found here.

16. Thin Lizzy – Live and Dangerous (1978)

Bursting at the seams with raw energy and power, Thin Lizzy’s commanding live album was released in the mix of their hot streak of mid-70s albums (Fighting, Jailbreak and Bad Reputation spring to mind) and recorded over a number of dates in 1976 and 1977 on both sides of the Atlantic. Despite producer Tony Visconti’s ‘post-production’ studio fine-tuning, Live and Dangerous resembles a monstrous live classic in every sense of the word, and is the essential document from these (somehow) under-appreciated Irish hard rock legends.

15. The Band – Rock of Ages (1972)

Rock of Ages was originally a 2-LP set compiled from recordings made during The Band’s series of shows in late 1971 at the Academy of Music in New York City, where they were augmented by a five-man horn section, with arrangements by New Orleans legend Allen Toussaint and engineer Phil Ramone. The materiel consists of tracks lifted from their previous four albums, and sounds like a lovely, warm-hearted party, closing the chapter on the first half of their dazzling career.

14. Wilco – Kicking Television (2005)

Comparatively recent, this album contains materiel taken from four Wilco shows at Chicago’s Vic Theatre in 2005. The double live album captures a stellar band in full flight, summarising their decade-long career and showcasing their latest album (2004’s tremendous A Ghost is Born). Featuring their strongest ever line-up (including new avant guitar genius Nels Cline), Kicking Television parades Wilco’s live strengths by delivering their best tracks via legitimate noise experiments (Spiders Kidsmoke), and gorgeously well-written ballads (Jesus, etc.). A uniformly strong testament from one of rock’s most engaging acts.

13. Bill Evans – Sunday at the Village Vanguard (1961)

Simply one of the best piano-bass-drums jazz recordings of all time. Something of a companion piece to the Bill Evans Trio’s Waltz for Debbie (also 1961), the hushed dynamics of Sunday at the Village Vanguard was recorded over five sessions, and was to be the final recording featuring his trio, as bass player Scott LaFaro was tragically killed in a car accident shortly after the album’s release. Pure and thoughtful musicality permeates this quietly brilliant recording.

 

12. David Bowie – Stage (1978)

David Bowie’s ground-breaking Low and “Heroes” (both 1977) world tour with arguably his greatest ever ensemble, is captured over several dates in the US on the flawed live outing Stage. His long time rhythm section Raw Moon (Alomar, Davis, Murray) and Adrian Belew among others, join Bowie as he immerses himself in Euro-expressionist, synth-based music. From the concert-opening majesty of the six-minute instrumental Warszawa, to the electronic reworking’s of a handful of Ziggy classics, the performance is certainly artistically brave. Bowie was in career-best form as a vocalist too. This was when he still had an air of menace about him – before turning all smiley and tanned in the 80s.

11. Mott the Hoople – Live (1974)

Released at the peak of the band’s popularity, Live was the only official live document of Mott the Hoople, a world-class live act, although the 30th Anniversary reissue has rectified many of the original issues that marred this collection, such as song selection (mostly B-sides and album filler), and limited materiel (eight tracks and one lengthy medley) from two classic shows: New York City (Gershwin Theatre) and London (Hammersmith Odeon supported by Queen no less). Despite these shortfalls the album captures one of the great British 70s glam-rock ensembles ever to don thigh-high yellow plastic boots, H-shaped guitars and permanent shades.

10. Lou Reed – Take No Prisoners (1978)

Lou Reed’s contribution to the double live album extravaganza of the 70s-era was the controversial Take No Prisoners, recorded entirely live (not an overdub in sight) at the Bottom Line in New York City on his masterpiece’s (Street Hassle) promotional tour. The album is essentially a crisp sounding, comedy/spoken word affair (Lenny Bruce an obvious influence), capturing for better or for worse Lou at his chattiest; delivering 15-minute monologues over his best known materiel, all accompanied by his white-hot band of the day. 

9. The Doors – Alive She Cried (1983)

Released during the bands renaissance period of hyper-popularity in the 1980s, Alive She Cried consists of materiel recorded between 1968 and 1970. It includes two tremendous covers (an MA15+ version of Them’s Gloria, and a loose rendition of Willie Dixon’s Little Red Rooster) and five originals (including a colossal 10-minute version of Light My Fire, a rollicking You Make Me Real, and the blues-experiment The Wasp from their final album) spanning their all-too-brief career. The album is succinct and brief, and like 1968’s Absolutely Live, now utterly redundant due to many reissues and rereleased live packages throughout the decades.

8. The Velvet Underground – 1969: Live (1974)

Among all of their live releases (and there are many), this album represents the finest live recording of the late-60s era Velvets: Lou Reed, Sterling Morrison, Moe Tucker and Doug Yule. Essentially recorded by a fan and released long after the band had dissolved, 1969: Live shows the band still had plenty of vivacity, sounding tight and alive on every track (Reed’s funk-vamp guitar playing has never been better), on an amateur yet definitive document of this latter day Velvets incarnation.

 

7. Kiss – Alive! (1975)

Kiss relied on their loud bombastic live show to win over the record buying public and in 1975, and with the release of this impeccable double live set win them over they did. Simply one of the greatest live albums of all time, Alive! launched the band from cult attraction to global superstars, and remains their most essential album in any format. The faultless materiel consists of well-selected tracks lifted from their three muddy, low-budget, low-selling early albums (Kiss, Hotter Than Hell, Dressed to Kill), without a single dud over the 2-LPs, and the subsequent mega-publicity and constant touring saw Kiss headlining sold out arenas around the States within the year.

6. The Who – Live at Leeds (1970)

Coming hot on the heels of the band’s success at Woodstock, and rock opera Tommy (1969), Live at Leeds’ distinctive brown cover, designed to look like a bootleg, is a tour-de-force of dexterity and power from one of the greatest live bands of all time. The album (originally a six track LP) manages to harness The Who’s kinetic energy and volcanic on-stage performance, capturing the band at a pivotal moment in their history, and delivering in spades

 

5. Iggy & the Stooges – Metallic KO (1976)

Something of a semi-official bootleg for years, the definitive 12-track version of Metallic KO is the only rock album where you can actually hear beer bottles smashing against guitars, as the audience-baiting Iggy and the Stooges (“you can suck my ass you biker faggot sissies”) deliver their final performance to a hostile Michigan Palace in Detroit. At the time Lester Bangs called it “documentation of the Iggy holocaust at its most nihilistically out of control” and he wasn’t far off. It’s an awesome horror movie of a rock show, and as good as live rock and roll gets.

4. Led Zeppelin – How the West Was Won (2003)

Recorded from a couple of 1972 Californian shows, these tapes circulated for years as bootlegs before being compiled by Jimmy Page, finally receiving official release in 2003.  Far superior to Led Zep’s official live document The Song Remains the Same (1976), How the West Was Won perfectly captured the ferocity, grace and improvisation of their live shows to tape. It has everything a live Led Zeppelin album should contain: massive guitars, gigantic drums and an ethereal energy glazing timeless classics.

3. The Allman Brothers – Live at the Fillmore East (1971)

Recorded over three nights at the Fillmore East in New York City in early 1971, this live double LP with its seven lengthy songs spread over four vinyl sides, epitomises the Allmans extended Southern rock jams at their most elastic (Whipping Post), bluesy (Statesboro Blues) and jazzy (In Memory of Elizabeth Reed).

 

 

 2. The Rolling Stones – Get Yer Ya-Ya’s Out! (1970)

Mostly put together from two Madison Square Garden concerts in late 1969, this outstanding album is the definitive Stones live rock record. Their first tour with new guitarist Mick Taylor, and the first album where he appeared fully and prominently, the band at the time had pretty much everything to prove. And deliver they do: the 9-minute blues-grind workout of Midnight Rambler being worth the price of admission alone. The album title was taken from the Blind Boy Fuller song, its cover design inspired by Dylan’s Visions of Johanna.

1. Bob Dylan – The Bootleg Series, Vol 6: Live 1964 (2004)

Eventually released in 2004 but available as a bootleg for decades, this performance at the Philharmonic Hall in New York City touring his Another Side.. album is quite simply Dylan’s greatest ever recorded acoustic performance. Introducing for the first time remarkable tracks from the forthcoming Bringing it All Back Home (Mr Tambourine Man, Gates of Eden and It’s Alright Ma), this recording captures a young Dylan at arguably his artistic pinnacle, masterfully performing folk, blues and rock with the effortless confidence, gravity and humour of a seasoned performer.

 

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