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Essential Live Albums

Music | By Matthew for The Top 13 on April 27, 2010

The live concert album has long been a staple of jazz music, where it captures for a home listener the improvisation and synergy between musicians that define the best jazz performances. But in the world of pop music, the live album has been more of a mixed bag, as many are either a lazy cash-in or a means or fulfilling contractual obligations that bring nothing special to the table. Yet, some live albums have managed to capture the same spirit and vibrancy that typifies the best live jazz recordings and stand apart from the rest. With that in mind, here are the Top 13 Essential Live Albums from the world of popular music.

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James Brown - Live at the Apollo

1

James Brown - Live at the Apollo

1963

"So ladies and gentlemen it is now Star Time – are you ready for Star Time?" Those are the words uttered by M.C. Fats Gonder as he pumps up the audience for the Godfather Of Soul, kicking off the first - and our favorite - true classic live album of the rock and soul era. Recorded at the singer's own expense at Harlem's Apollo Theater in 1962, Brown – backed by his Famous Flames – sweats, squeals, and testifies through a show's worth of his hits on one of the grooviest, most electrifying live albums of the era. The singer's success was already taking off in a big way, but this album helped to propel him into the stratosphere.

The Who - Live at Leeds

2

The Who - Live at Leeds

1970

Much like the Rolling Stones' era-defining live record of that same year (which checks in a few spots down on this Top 13), Live at Leeds captured another wildly popular but not yet legendary British band on the threshold of greatness. This is a taut, muscular performance that proves that recording studio technology at the time simply could not convey the ferocious musical statement that The Who was making. Here they are at times as loud as Zeppelin, slinky as the Stones, tuneful as the Kinks, and ready to prove they would be just as big.

Johnny Cash - At Folsom Prison

3

Johnny Cash - At Folsom Prison

1968

After a few years in a wilderness of diminishing recognition, the Man in Black reemerged with this career-defining album that cemented his legend. Brilliant in concept and rough around the edges, Folsom reveals Cash as a showman for all people – even those behind bars. The excellent music is enhanced by Cash's witty, smart-assed banter between numbers. The expanded anniversary edition is recommended as it features several fantastic tracks not included on the original release.

The Rolling Stones - Get Yer Ya-Ya's Out!

4

The Rolling Stones - Get Yer Ya-Ya's Out!

1970

It may have taken six years of sharing the spotlight with the Beatles for the Rolling Stones to really find their sound, but this recording featuring performances from the Stones' two-night stand at Madison Square Garden in 1969 erased any doubt as to who would inherit the torch from the Fab Four. With the melodic muscle of new guitarist Mick Taylor in tow, the Glimmer Twins and company can be found here at their nastiest, gutsiest, blues-loving best. Ya-Ya's is rightfully considered by many to be the first great live rock album.

My Morning Jacket - Okonokos

5

My Morning Jacket - Okonokos

2006

Okonokos, the first great live record of the 21st century, harkens back in many ways to the classic concert albums of the 1970s by bands such as the Allman Brothers. Coming on the heels of their commercial and critical breakthrough with studio albums It Still Moves and Z, the Louisville band showcases here what they have always done best – perform live. Sprawling but never bloated or boring, it's a perfect example of a live record done right.

Talking Heads - Stop Making Sense

6

Talking Heads - Stop Making Sense

1984

A showcase for David Byrne and company at their commercial and artistic peak, Stop Making Sense is worth the price of admission for the high-powered version of "Life During Wartime" alone. This album also served as the soundtrack for the accompanying film, which topped our list of the Top 13 Concert Films. The 1999 re-mastered release of this album does the performance greater justice with superior sound quality and additional songs cut from the 1984 original.

Nirvana - Unplugged in New York

7

Nirvana - Unplugged in New York

1994

The king of MTV's popular series of acoustic-driven concerts and a definitive entry in the Seattle trio's small but memorable catalogue, Unplugged in New York helped to bring the live record back to the forefront of popular music. Nirvana was best known for their loud, heavy, grunge rock, but they blew minds by slowing and turning it down on this strong mix of originals and choice covers. This album was the band's final recording as a unit before Kurt Cobain's suicide, and it was a chart-topper around the world following its posthumous release.

KISS - Alive!

8

KISS - Alive!

1975

Plenty can be said about this band's garish yet undeniably fun live shows - few groups, if any, are more memorable in person. But on record, without the platform shoes and pyrotechnics to rely on, they had only their chops to prove themselves. Contrary to some naysayers, these guys weren't just show – KISS can play, and the hits collected here are a reminder that the band's 1970s catalogue was chock full of some of the most memorable rock tunes of the decade.

Otis Redding - Live in London and Paris

9

Otis Redding - Live in London and Paris

2008

This soul legend's immortal set at the 1967 Monterey Pop Festival had long been considered his landmark live recording until this compilation, recorded a few months prior to that show, was released in 2008. Backed as usual by the legendary MGs, this could very well be the definitive live recording of one R&B's greatest all-around artists. Over two discs, he powerfully works his way through nearly all of his original hits, and funky interpretations of the Beatles' "Day Tripper" and the Rolling Stones' "Satisfaction" stand brilliantly alongside them.

Portishead - Roseland NYC Live

10

Portishead - Roseland NYC Live

1998

Although Portishead only had two albums to its credit at the time, the trip hop band was accompanied at this 1997 concert in New York City by a full symphony orchestra to recreate select tracks from Dummy and Portishead. The result is a compelling take on their already-brilliant catalogue that stands above the studio originals and is an essential item in the Portishead discography.

Jerry Lee Lewis - Live at the Star Club, Hamburg

11

Jerry Lee Lewis - Live at the Star Club, Hamburg

1964

The Killer himself once famously said that his biggest regret was that he "would never get to attend a Jerry Lee Lewis concert." That's quite a boast, but had this 1964 live performance been the only recording he ever released, it would have been justified. One of the great "lost" albums of rock history, this album documents Lewis in ferocious form as he bulldozed through 14 original hits and covers following his fall from grace in the United States. Rock and roll has never sounded more primal.

The Ramones - It's Alive

12

The Ramones - It's Alive

1979

This recording of the punk godfathers' New Year's Eve gig at London's Rainbow Theatre in 1977 treats listeners to 28 of the fastest, catchiest rock tunes ever recorded – and in less than an hour's time. For a band that never had any real hits, it sure sounds like a greatest hits album and catches the Ramones at their peak. One caveat – this recording is rumored to be rife with studio overdubbing, so purists may also want to look into the rawer, overdub-free Live in NYC 1978 for a more authentic experience.

Jeff Buckley - Live at Sin-é

13

Jeff Buckley - Live at Sin-é

2003

Recorded at a small club in Manhattan during the summer of 1993, a year or so before his classic album Grace was released, the late artist performed an assortment of originals and covers for an audience that was largely unfamiliar with him. At 26, Buckley's talent was already in full bloom and this album is one of the best relics of his brilliant but short-lived artistry. Originally released as an EP, this show is now available in a much more generous two disc offering that captures these intimate, stark performances in their entirety.

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Comments Leave a comment

blix 

Individual music tastes are what they are, but I would have included Under a Blood Red Sky, How the West Was Won and The Last Waltz.

7:34 AM   Apr 27, 2010

DiscountSounds 

Absolute travesty that Jackson Browne's Running on Empty isn't included. Loaded with great tunes recorded not only live on stage, but also in a hotel room, backstage and even on the tour bus. Almost all the songs are about the experience of being on the road and unlike any other live record, it truly takes you on tour with the band. For shame, The Top 13.

7:45 AM   Apr 27, 2010

KungFuJay ★★

LOL

3:51 PM   Apr 27, 2010

rjasonf 

Live at Leeds is number 1 for me, amazingly powerful. Iron Maiden's Live After Death is a great Live album as well. I'd put it somewhere in the middle of the list. Haven't heard a couple of these, new things to look for, nice list

8:04 AM   Apr 27, 2010

oshoney 

great list. thought Stop Making Sense would be higher, but it's hard to knock any of the other ones down.

8:06 AM   Apr 27, 2010

oshoney 

also, some kind of Miles Davis should have made it on here, but he's got so many i guess it would be hard to pick one - though i'm partial to Live-Evil, but i guess it isn't strictly a live album. In Person at the Blackhawk could have worked, too.

8:10 AM   Apr 27, 2010

jason ★★

I think jazz albums were not included in here, but if they were I'd agree. Too many good jazz live albums.

8:12 AM   Apr 27, 2010

rjasonf 

i think live jazz albums would have to be a whole separate list of their own. So many good ones.

8:14 AM   Apr 27, 2010

oshoney 

ah, i didn't read the beginning carefully enough. you are correct.

10:23 PM   Apr 28, 2010

jason ★★

I would've included Neil Young - Live at Massey Hall on here.

8:11 AM   Apr 27, 2010

velasquezjoe 

Humble Pie - Rockin at The Filmore

9:22 AM   Apr 27, 2010

cjyoho 

Not to fill up the list with Unplugged or grunge albums but Alice In Chains Unplugged album belongs on the list. And you could include any of the hundreds of Pearl Jam live albums.

12:40 PM   Apr 27, 2010

Rocketfueler 

Were you required to name x-number of obscure niche-bands?

Live in New York City
Bruce Springsteen, 2001

3:51 PM   Apr 27, 2010

jason ★★

Obscure? Really? I guess you mean Jeff Buckley, Portishead, or My Morning Jacket, though they're far from obscure. Everyone else on the list is legendary.

4:22 PM   Apr 27, 2010

stillathreat ★★

I was wondering who the Who and Kiss were, as well.

5:30 PM   Apr 27, 2010

bludevil007 

Led Zeppelin's BBC Sessions are my favorite live recordings of all time.

I also think people will put the White Stripes' latest near Okonokos in the future. Both are great.

1:36 PM   Apr 28, 2010

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