These Top 10 Lists are impossible. I don’t know why we subject ourselves to doing them, but we do. And picking the Top 10 Best Live Albums is a particularly tough one, as easy as it might seem on the surface.
It’s hard enough just to get the performance/recording of actual live albums right, let alone properly assessing them in some form of a list. There’s always that impossible tightrope walk between the best performances and the hit songs; between the idea of releasing one complete show and mixing together the best sounding tracks from different nights. Depending on the band, and the expectations of their listeners, there are a myriad of stumbling blocks and inevitable drawbacks to the pursuit of a good live album.
It’s an oxymoron within itself, the live album. Truly LIVE music isn’t really live when you listen back to it later. At its worst, it’s simply the songs you know but with canned crowd noise. But at its best, it can actually convey the energy and joy of the original performance (just as a “studio album” can capture a great take, that was technically played “live,” even if just in front of 3 engineers and not 3,000 screaming fans).
The difficult thing in identifying what I would deem the Top 10 Best Live Albums, for me, is the fact that it could be argued that the bands I most admire as live acts haven’t really made a truly great live album. Prince, The Roots, Radiohead, The Who, Black Crowes, and Led Zeppelin have all made attempts, but for some reason they haven’t quite nailed it yet on an official live release. (Maybe The Who and Zeppelin have come close, but for some reason they lack a flawless go-to set). U2, while they’ll make the honorable mentions list with Under a Blood Red Sky, I still feel like they are missing a career-spanning (but not too monstrous) live set.
This brings us to Bruce. Obviously Springsteen and his E Street Band are at the top of the Great Live Rock Acts list. And while he’s put out a few decent official live offerings, and helped reaffirm live albums (and jump start box sets) with his Live 1975-85 release, for some reason I still feel like he doesn’t have an official live album that really does his show justice. The audio disc from the Hammersmith ’75 DVD comes close, so that will have to do until he takes a page from the Pearl Jam playbook and starts releasing more shows from the vault (the 1978 Darkness tour in particular).
Speaking of Pearl Jam, they have released so many individual shows as well as a few other live collections that they have plenty of great live albums but perhaps so many that they lack the definitive set that would make the list.
And maybe that’s just it. It’s Live music. Perhaps the best musical acts make you feel something that makes it that much harder to translate through just the audio. The flip side is that not all the artists on my list will strike you as all time greats, but this is about the live album itself, catching lightning in a bottle. Absent from the list will be (what I assume are) the top-selling live albums like Frampton Comes Alive or KISS Alive or Eric Clapton Unplugged or anything from the Rolling Stones … Also missing would be other well-known and allegedly legendary live albums like Cheap Trick At Budokan, Neil Diamond’s Hot August Night, and The Band’s Before the Flood and Rock of Ages. Nothing against them and their place in live album lore, just not my cuppa tea.
Now, let’s get on with the list(s). Keep in mind that some/all of the honorable mentions could be in my Top 10 if I were to make the list on another day. And the Top 10 coulda been in any order, except for #1.
First, the honorable mentions:
Jerry Garcia Band – Kean College
Jimmy Page & the Black Crowes – Live at the Greek
Tom Petty – Live Anthology
Little Feat – Waiting for Columbus
The Police – Live!
James Brown – Live at the Apollo [Oh who are we kidding, this could be #1.]
Bright Eyes – Motion Sickness
Neil Young & Crazy Horse – Live Rust
Wilco – Kicking Television
Thelonious Monk Quartet with John Coltrane – At Carnegie Hall [1956 recording discovered by a Library of Congress engineer in 2005. Yea, go get this right now.]
Johnny Cash – Live at Folsom Prison
Burning Spear – Live in Paris
Billy Joel – Songs In the Attic [That’s right, Billy Joel is on this list. Don’t sleep on this set comprised of his earliest material.]
U2 – Under a Blood Red Sky
Simon & Garfunkel – The Concert in Central Park
Bob Dylan – The Bootleg Series, Vol. 4: The “Royal Albert Hall” Concert
The Top 10 Best Live Albums:
10. Jimi Hendrix – Jimi Plays Monterey (1986)
Okay, this is a sentimental pick, I used to have this on cassette. Maybe Jimi should be in that earlier paragraph about the truly great acts that just don’t have one go-to “best” live album. Not to imply that it’s without merit. This blistering 1967 performance is the one that really broke him in the U.S. We all know about the guitar playing, but the way he sings Dylan’s “Like a Rolling Stone” and makes it his own… sweet talk indeed.
9. Wynton Marsalis & Willie Nelson – Two Men With the Blues (2008)
This is what I’m talking about: a one-off between strange bedfellows, this album breathes with the life of two living legends just doing what they love and displaying how much common ground there is between allegedly different genres. Backed by Marsalis’s impeccable band, Wynton and Willie sound relaxed yet still on top of their game. Just a fun album that never disappoints.
8. Talking Heads – Stop Making Sense (1984/1999)
An essential part of any rock music collection, Stop Making Sense serves a solid best-of collection of their early/peak period. [Gotta get the expanded 16-track remastered edition from 1999, not the original 9-song release from 1984.]
7. Avett Brothers – Live Vol. 3 (2010)
Capturing the band just before it made it kinda big with the release of I and Love and You, this set is a great example of pure energy combined with offering a nice cross-section of their catalogue. And lots of screaming. A great introduction for the uninitiated as well as an essential souvenir for any fan of the Avetts.
6. Nirvana – MTV Unplugged in New York (1994)
It’s an interesting paradox that such a loud, rockin’ band, largely remembered for exploding (but maybe not inventing) grunge, that one of their most rewarding albums is a subdued affair. It really displays the power and quality of the songwriting and proves that it wasn’t all just bombast and ear-splitting volume and stage-diving, instrument-smashing madness. There was quiet madness too. (Wait is it a “paradox” or is it ironic? Or an oxymoron? I don’t know, Kurt wouldn’t have given a shit.)
5. White Stripes – Under Great White Northern Lights (2010)
Another more-recent release, this set finds the blazing duo, during their 2007 Canadian tour, full of all the energy and timeless charm that made them great. Their whole body of work is on display, and, as usual, Jack White is an absolute monster.
4. Miles Davis Quintet – Cookin’ at the Plugged Nickel (1990)
His band at the time (1965): Wayne Shorter, Herbie Hancock, Ron Carter, and Tony Williams. Legendary.
3. Grateful Dead – Europe 72 (1972)
Lots of live stuff to choose from with the Dead. Their greatest music was always played on stage, not in the studio. With apologies to Live/Dead, Dead Set, Reckoning, and especially the sterling-sounding underrated Without a Net from 1990, Europe 72 is the pick.
2. Bob Marley & the Wailers – Babylon By Bus (1978)
This stellar live release gets the nod over LIVE! from 1975, mostly cuz it’s twice as long. Both are essential and deserve to be on this list.
1. Allman Brothers Band – At Fillmore East (1971)
You are on too many of the wrong kind of drugs, and you’ve managed to glue your ear holes shut if you disagree with this choice of the #1 Best Live Album of all time. This is what it’s all about (and this is the album that probably inspired people to invent phrases like “this is what it’s all about”). It’s all here; not just the flawless performance, but the various styles that melted into their pot are the underrated factor about the appeal of the Allman Brothers Band. Sure, they were great musicians who could really stretch out and jam without straying too far into mindless noodling, but they also delved much deeper than their “Southern Rock” label and incorporated blues, jazz, folk, psychedelic rock, and whatever else they could cram into their legendary performances. This is still the standard for great live albums.