The best live albums of all time

Darryl Sterdan, QMI Agency

, Last Updated: 2:03 PM ET

Hello, (insert your city’s name here)! Are you ready to rock? I can’t hear you! I SAID, ARE YOU READY TO ROCK?

Well, you’d better be. Because if you’re hearing those words, chances are you’ve shelled out the bulk of a week’s pay to see some massive touring band at your local EnormoDome — or, more likely, to watch the concert on a video screen because your view is blocked by people holding up their smartphones and $18 draft beers.

Yep, the concert-going experience has changed a lot over the decades. Ditto the live album. These days, they’re often an afterthought, something you can order online (or even buy right after the show) as a souvenir — assuming you don’t want to wait for the inevitable concert DVD with high-definition video, pristine 5.1 audio and bonus backstage footage. But back in the day — before every major concert was an eye-popping spectacle captured instantly for posterity, live albums were the best way for an artist to showcase their performances. More than that, they were a mandatory rite of passage. A live album was often a band’s fourth release. Often a double-LP set. And surprisingly often, live albums were immensely popular — plenty of superstars first topped the single and album charts with concert recordings.

With that in mind, while you wait in line with your wristband to go through the metal detector, you can peruse this alphabetical list of essential live albums. You wanted the best, you got the best. Enjoy the show.

ESSENTIAL LIVE ALBUMS YOU SHOULD KNOW

The Allman Brothers Band | At Fillmore East (1971)

The road goes on forever — almost — as the southern-rock pioneers dish up majestic blues and jazz jams highlighted by Duane’s slide guitar wizardry. Even better: The new six-CD box.

The Band | The Last Waltz (1978)

A guest list with everyone from Dylan and Neil Young to the Staples and Muddy Waters — and a set list with virtually every career highlight — make this the greatest sendoff in rock. Period.

The Beatles | Live at the BBC (1994) & On Air: Live at the BBC Volume 2

The screams of Beatlemaniacs overshadow most of the Fabs’ other live recordings — but these radio sessions and interviews capture not only the band’s music but also their personalities.

James Brown | Live at the Apollo (1963)

Are you ready for star time? The hardest-working man in show business earns his handle with this non-stop cavalcade of R&B hits and soul stirrers. Please please please please please get it.

Johnny Cash | At Folsom Prison (1968) | At San Quentin (1969)

He did not shoot a man in Reno just to watch him die. But you'd never know it from the conviction the Man in Black brings to these legendary prison shows. Folsom rocks; Quentin rocks harder.

Cheap Trick | At Budokan (1979)

They wanted you to want them. And everybody was happy to oblige after the Illinois pop-rockers broke through to the mainstream in the wake of this high-energy Japanese concert recording.

Deep Purple | Made in Japan (1973)

Lazy? Not a chance. The Gillan-fronted Purple MKII stake their claim as true highway stars with the mammoth jams and sturdy renditions of guitar-rock classics including Smoke on the Water.

Bob Dylan | Bootleg Series Vol. 4: Live 1966 — The 'Royal Albert Hall' Concert (1998)

AKA The gig where a heckler dubbed Dylan "Judas!" for going electric. And where Bob responded by telling his band (mostly The Band) to play Like a Rolling Stone "f---ing loud." As should you.

Peter Frampton | Frampton Comes Alive (1976)

He showed them the way, all right. Humble Pie alum Frampton became an overnight teen-idol sensation — and introduced the guitar talk box — with this unstoppable guitar-pop juggernaut.

Donny Hathaway | Live (1972)

Supple, subtle and jazzy, R&B/soul master Hathaway’s bi-coastal concert compilation belies the troubled nature of his own soul. Bonus points for Willie Weeks’ legendary bass solo.

KISS | Alive! (1975)

Admit it: You wanna rock ’n’ roll all night and party every day too. And love ’em or loathe ’em, the makeup-sporting foursome’s career-making concert compilation makes the perfect soundtrack.

Led Zeppelin | The Song Remains the Same (1976)

Does anyone remember laughter? Either way, it's impossible to make a list like this and forget about the British blues-rock gods' swaggering double-album. Get out your dragon pants.

Nirvana | MTV Unplugged in New York (1994)

Come as you are. Kurt Cobain and his Seattle grunge gods strip away the guitar distortion and hammering backbeats to expose the tender heart at the centre of their songs. No apologies.

The Rolling Stones | Get Yer Ya’s Out (1970) & Shine a Light (2008)

After 50 years and 20 live albums, you can’t pick just one Stones set. For the early days, you can’t top the raw-boned Ya Ya’s; If you want newer fare, the two-disc Shine can’t be beat.

Bruce Springsteen & The E Street Band | Live: 1975-85 (1986)

No one recording could completely capture the energy and passion of The Boss’s mammoth live sets — but this five-album, decade-spanning compilation comes about as close as you can get.

Thin Lizzy | Live and Dangerous (1978)

The boys are back in town — and dishing up 76 minutes of singer-bassist Phil Lynott’s guitar-rock riffs and Irish-cowboy romanticism. Fun fact: Some of the songs were recorded in Toronto.

U2 | Under a Blood Red Sky (1983)

Before the stadium-sized stages, global domination and world-saving ambitions, U2 were just a great rock ’n’ roll band — as this EP of early hits reminds us every time we listen to it.

Various Artists | Woodstock: Music From the Original Soundtrack and More (1970)

Three days of peace and music distilled to three LPs — with timeless and/or career-making moments by Santana, Ten Years After, Joe Cocker, Hendrix and more. Just skip the brown acid.

The Who | Live at Leeds (1970)

Meaty, beaty, big and bombastic. Hear the mighty ’Oo rock out at maximum volume and swagger, crash-bashing out classics and covers of Cochran and Mose Allison. Way better than all right.

Neil Young | Rust Never Sleeps & Live Rust (1979)

Only Neil Young would put out two live albums from the same tour in the same year. And only Neil and Crazy Horse could make each so good that you have to bite the bullet and buy both.

ESSENTIAL LIVE ALBUMS YOU MIGHT NOT KNOW

The Band | Rock of Ages (1972)

Call it The First Waltz. Cut six years before their swan song, this captures The Band on point and at their peak, masterfully playing their hits with a horn section — but minus the VIP upstagers.

Jackson Browne | Running on Empty (1977)

Groupies, drugs, soundmen, encores and the endless road — the California troubadour honours them all on this live concept album, which was cut onstage, backstage and back at the hotel.

Miles Davis | The Complete Concert: My Funny Valentine Four & More (1992)

One show, two sides of the maverick trumpeter’s mid-’60s quintet: MFV seduces with romantic ballads while F&M blazes through post-bop brilliance (driven by teenage drummer Tony Williams).

The J. Geils Band | “Live” Full House (1972)

Forget Freeze Frame and Centerfold. This is the real Geils — a hard-driving blues powerhouse with a motormouthed maniac on the mic, tearing through tunes with sweaty, beer-soaked abandon.

Hawkwind | Space Ritual (1973)

Space is deep. But that doesn’t deter these British road dogs (including pre-Motörhead bassist Lemmy) from taking you on an epic journey through the cosmos. Fire up the orgone accumulator.

Humble Pie | Performance: Rockin’ the Fillmore (1971)

They don’t need no doctor. Hell, Steve Marriott’s British blues-rockers only needed one original song to flesh out their muscular renditions of Muddy, Willie Dixon and … Ashford and Simpson?

Jay-Z | Unplugged (2001)

What could be better than old-school Jigga in his Blueprint days, delivering his early hits in a stripped-down, intimate setting? Well, his backing band is The Roots. Hard to knock that.

Jerry Lee Lewis | Live at the Star Club, Hamburg (1964)

Although several years past his heyday, the Killer handily earns his nickname with this full-throttle, take-no-prisoners performance taped at the German dive where The Beatles paid their dues.

The MC5 | Kick Out the Jams (1969)

Political slogans and power chords go hand in fist on this incendiary debut from the original Motor City madmen. It's the sound that abounds and resounds and rebounds off the ceiling.

Van Morrison | It’s Too Late to Stop Now (1974)

Into the mystic, indeed. The mercurial Morrison is truly in the zone on his first double-live compilation, leading his big band through killer renditions of his blue-eyed soul and folk classics.

Lou Reed | Live: Take No Prisoners (1978)

Reed made several memorable live outings (both with and without The Velvet Underground) — but few are as entertaining as this rambling performance by an antagonistically chatty Lou.

The Stooges | Metallic K.O. (1976)

Raw power meets open hostility as a hilariously offensive Iggy Pop baits and berates an unruly crowd at the nihilistic final performance of the ’70s-era Stooges. The sound of self-destruction.

Talking Heads | The Name of This Band is Talking Heads (1982)

Stop Making Sense is the better concert flick CD. But for historical value, you have to pick this double set that balances one LP of original quartet recordings with a second of big-band grooves.

Tom Waits | Nighthawks at the Diner (1975)

Tonight in Raphael’s Silver Cloud Lounge: Beatnik troubadour Waits, rumbling and mumbling a freewheeling set of wry ballads, mordant monologs and tall tales, backed by a crisp jazz combo.

Frank Zappa & The Mothers | Roxy & Elsewhere (1974)

If you could only own one of the iconoclastic rocker and composer’s 40-some live albums, this energized, virtuosic and typically sardonic set from a Hollywood theatre will do just nicely.

darryl.sterdan@sunmedia.ca

Twitter: @darryl_sterdan

 


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