Some of the best artists (The Beatles, Madonna) never managed to release a truly great live album. Some of the finest live acts in history (Public Enemy, Manic Street Preachers) have got close but never quite pulled it off either.
Live albums are often little more than curios for completists or mementos for gig-goers. But when everything falls into place, a live album can be every bit as good, or even better, than what the band do in the studio.
Here are 13 of the best, along with some more-than honourable mentions.
13. Marilyn Manson – The Last Tour on Earth (1999)
Recorded between the release of Mechanical Animals and Holy Wood, a MM live album was never going to capture the raw insanity of the in-the-flesh Manson experience, or the clever-clever industrial-edged studio sound.
So what are you left with? Well, only one of the most unlikely crossover moments of the 1990s. A clutch of glampop classics played by a disgustingly hot live band, lapping up the adoration and egging it on with gloriously cheap pops (“Drugs, they say, are made right here in Cleveland”).
Like this? Try: David Bowie – Santa Monica ’72 (1994), Iggy And The Stooges – Metallic KO (1976, 1988, 1998)
12. Suicide – 23 Minutes in Brussels (1978)
Not all gigs go to plan. Originally released as a double-set with the less-messy 21½ Minutes in Berlin, this Brussels gig is an absolute shambles. Supporting Elvis Costello, abrasive synthpunk duo Suicide were not what the Belgians wanted on their stage, and boy did they let them know it.
Constant booing, chanting for the headline act, complete contempt in both directions. It all ends with Alan Vega’s mic being pinched, his nose being broken, and what sounds like a full scale riot.
Like this? Try: Bob Dylan – Live 1966, The “Royal Albert Hall” Concert (1998) , Atari Teenage Riot – Live at Brixton Academy (1999)
11. Kylie Minogue – Live in New York (2009)
Sex Kylie, Cute Kylie, Indie Kylie, Dance Kylie. She’s been through so many incarnations – but few gained much traction in the US. (Only ‘The Loco-Motion’ and ‘Can’t Get You Out of My Head’ troubled the Billboard Top 10).
But it was in NYC on her first American tour where she has her crowning glory. A stunning 2+ hour set of perfect pop songs performed to perfection. Hit after hit after hit, lushly arranged and bursting with energy – all topped off with a sprinkling of sassy chat.
Like this? Try: Girls Aloud – Live from the O2(2009), Leonard Cohen – Live in London (2009)
10. Underworld – Everything, Everything (2000)
On its release Everything, Everything seemed to get as much attention for its groundbreaking Tomato-FXd DVD as it did the music, but the recordings have endured.
Underworld have always been as hot on the road as they are in the studio and this set perfectly captures the way they ramp up that tension and give you those bursts of euphoric relief. Play its eight tracks at maximum volume and you feel like you’re there in the arena/dance tent with them.
Like this? Try: Daft Punk – Alive 1997 (1998) , Kraftwerk – Minimum-Maximum (2005)
9. The Rolling Stones – Got Live If You Want It! (1966)
Everyone agrees that 1970’s Get Yer Ya-Ya’s Out! – the first live album to top the UK charts – is the essential Stones live document. It’s not. This is.
It’s got fake credits, fake crowd noise, overdubs galore and even a couple of studio tracks snuck into the middle. It was only released as a contractual obligation. None of that matters.
It’s a snapshot of that moment when they straddled that rough R&B and brutal 200mph rock ‘n’ roll, before all the Midnight Rambling slowed them down and strung them out. Got Live If You Want It! is the Rolling Stones at their speedy best.
Like this? Try: Try: The Beatles – Live at the Hollywood Bowl (1977) and The Kinks – Live at Kelvin Hall (1967)
8. Johnny Cash – At Folsom Prison (1968)
The success of Cash’s 1955 single ‘Folsom Prison Blues’ got him invited to play at prisons all over the US, and in 1968 finally played at Folsom itself. A career-revitalizing release, Cash is backed by not only The Tennessee Three, but also his soon-to-be-wife June Carter and Carl ‘Blue Suede Shoes’ Perkins.
It’s a rollocking performance loaded with tales of crime and punishment. And it just about gets away with indulging some men who no doubt have done some bad, bad things.
Like this? Try: BB King – Live in Cook County Jail (1970), Elvis – Aloha From Hawaii via Satellite (1973/1998)
7. Lauryn Hill – MTV Unplugged No 2.0 (2002)
Or, The Disintegration of Lauryn Hill. If a live album at its heart is about capturing something real and raw, there is no better example. In 1996 The Fugees conquered the world with The Score. Two years later Hill achieved more critical acclaim with her solo debut The Miseducation of…. She’s still not released a studio follow-up.
Instead, there’s this. No beats, no frills, no sweeteners. Lauryn and an acoustic guitar. Plaintive, heartwrenching new songs, and rambling self-help monologues. Many dismissed it as career suicide, but it’s actually a statement of beauty and rare honesty.
Like this? Try: Joni Mitchell – Miles of Aisles (1974), Jay Z – Unplugged (2001)
6. Talking Heads – Stop Making Sense (1984/1999)
Jonathan Demme’s 1984 movie is one of the few actually watchable concert films in existence. An actual movie, rather than a failed BBC-at-Glastonbury style attempt at documentary. It works almost as well without the visuals, and you should skip the 1984 “album” and go straight to the 1999 “soundtrack” version for the whole show.
The running order reads like a best-of and the arrangements are gorgeous, from the acoustic guitar and tape of ‘Psycho Killer’ to the aural overload of ‘Girlfriend Is Better’.
Like this? Try: Gary Numan – Living Ornaments ’79/’80 (1981), Radiohead – I Might Be Wrong: Live Recordings (2001),
5. Nirvana – MTV Unplugged in New York (1994)
A band heavier than heaven unplug (sort of) and tear you apart you with the lightest of touches. They don’t play The Hits, but instead cover The Vaselines, a (then) little-played Bowie album track and Lead Belly-arranged oldie. Most remarkably, there’s a trio of Meat Puppet songs featuring the Kirkwood brothers as special guests.
Most great live albums dutifully capture a band at a moment in time. Unplugged in New York is a wilfully revisionist take, undertaken by the group themselves while they’re still a going concern.
Like this? Try: Neil Young – Live Rust (1979), Simon & Garfunkel – The Concert in Central Park (1982).
4. James Brown – Live at the Apollo (1963)
Funded by the man himself, Live at the Apollo captures lightning in a bottle. A shade over half an hour of the the tightest, hottest R&B ever stuck on plastic – in a studio or on stage or anywhere.
James Brown (& The Famous Flames) inspire squeals of delight from the Apollo crowd and you feel almost compelled to join in yourself. An intoxifying mix of bump and grind. When it hits ‘Please Please Please’ you drop to your knees like the man himself, begging for more.
Like this? Try:Aretha Franklin – Live at Fillmore West (1971/2005), Curtis Mayfield – Curtis/Live! (1971)
3. The Velvet Underground – Live at Max’s Kansas City (1972/2004)
Most will opt for the more polished 1969: The Velvet Underground Live double album, but it’s the rickety …Max’s Kansas City that gets the nod. A contractual obligation recorded on Brigid Polk’s tape recorder.
Nico and John Cale were long gone. Mo Tucker was on maternity leave. Jim Carroll is audible throughout slurring about a double bloody Pernod. And yet.. It’s just utterly righteous. Take away every bell and whistle and you’ve still got the greatest songs in rock ‘n’ roll history, played in their spiritual home.
Like this? Try: Kevin Ayers, John Cale, Brian Eno and Nico – June 1, 1974 (1974), Jerry Lee Lewis – Live at the Star Club, Hamburg (1964)
2. Ramones – It’s Alive (1979)
ONE, TWO, THREE, FOUR! Joey, Johnny, Dee Dee and – for the last album on drums – Tommy. Recorded live at the Rainbow on New Year’s Eve in 1977, it’s the timing that makes It’s Alive the perfect live album.
The Ramones had released three of the greatest rock ‘n’ roll albums in history in the past 20 months. They were over in England where they were treated as the heroes they were. 28 songs in 54 minutes – it’s the ultimate Ramones statement.
Like this? Try:MC5 – Kick out the Jams (1969), The Who – Live at Leeds (1970/1995/2001)
1. Sam Cooke – Live at the Harlem Square Club, 1963 (1985)
Sam Cooke’s first live album Sam Cooke at the Copa released shortly before his death was a great collection of songs, but its understated vibe didn’t do justice to raw power and sheer soul of the man or his politically and emotionally-charged performances.
Just over 20 years later came this masterpiece to put the record straight. Godly soul music that packs a punch and has the audience feeling every single rasped note.
Like this? Try: Donny Hathaway – Live (1971), The Clash – From Here to Eternity (1999)