At the end of the day, live music is always better. A live performance captures a band’s talent in ways that no studio recording could ever do. It showcases a band’s impact and interaction with an audience. The experience of actually seeing a live show is truly unmatchable.
Unfortunately, there are times when we cannot see a band perform live. The next best thing then becomes a recording of the band’s live show. Though it does not fully capture the personal experience of actually being at the show, it still shows the musical group in their most natural element. Recording studios are very foreign in the way they put music together. A live show is a real band’s bread and butter. They learned their material together and perfect it by listening to the reaction of the crowds they perform in front of. Instead, recording studios often have individual band members play small segments of a song and then slowly piece them together into one final, polished work.
The best live albums are made by bands that have mastered the art of the live performance. Some bands prefer the way the studios work. Those are bands that normally do not tour as much. But the truly great bands all put on truly great concerts. Some of those concerts were so great they felt compelled to fix them in time by stamping them on a record. These records were then bought and cherished by the true fans of the artists. Dedicated fans of a band will take the live experience over a studio recording any day because of the way the live recording encapsulates the spirit and essence of the band and the people who enjoy their music.
Here are the 10 greatest live albums of all time.
10. Bob Marley — Live!
Bob Marley’s first live album was recorded on July 19th, 1975 at the Lyceum Theatre in London. The band was on tour following the release of their Natty Dread album, which was the Marley’s first work to gain international appeal. Natty Dread was made following the break up the original Wailers lineup. Bob Marley’s Live! was part of the first series of concerts where the world would be introduced to the I-Threes, Marley’s group of female background singers. It was also the first time the public would hear reggae’s definitive rhythm section made up of Carlton and Ashton “Family Man” Barett. The album includes great recordings of “No Woman No Cry,” “Get Up Stand Up,” and “I Shot the Sheriff.” The live version of “No Woman No Cry” from this album is probably the most famous version of the song released on any Marley record.
9. James Brown — Live at the Apollo
Live at the Apollo was one of James Brown’s best-selling albums. It was recording at a show in New York’s Apollo Theatre in late 1962. The record was then released to the public in early 1963. R&B disc jockeys would often play the album in its entirety; only stopping to flip over the record. The high point of Live at the Apollo is a quick six minute medley in which Brown rattles off nine different songs. The medley begins and ends with the massive R&B hit “Please, Please, Please.”
8. The Rolling Stones — Get Yer Ya-Ya’s Out
Following the death of their founding member Brian Jones, The Rolling Stones would enlist the services of guitarist Mick Taylor in 1969. The Stones’ album Get Yer Ya-Ya’s Out was recorded during show from New York and Maryland. This was the first tour that included Taylor. Following this live album, the Rolling Stones would go on to record some of their most famous works, including Let It Bleed and Sticky Fingers. Some of the songs from Let It Bleed, such as “Midnight Rambler,” were actually first released on this live album. Get Yer Ya-Ya’s Out was the first live record to ever make it to the top of the charts in the United Kingdom.
7. Bob Dylan — Live 1966: The ‘Royal Albert Hall’ Concert
Bob Dylan’s 1966 concert at the Manchester Free Trade Hall was one of his fans’ most sought after bootlegged recordings. In 1998, Live 1996: The ‘Royal Albert Hall’ Concert was release. Though it was recorded at the Manchester Free Trade Hall, the record was placed under the title Royal Albert Hall because a disc jockey misinformed the public when he was promoting the show on his station. The album was recording during Dylan’s infamous 1966 tour when he began to use electric guitars at the disapproval of his fans. The first disc of the two disc set is comprised of acoustic folk songs. The second is an electric set featuring Dylan’s backing band, The Hawks. The Hawks would later become known as The Band. At many different points on the second disc, you can hear members of the crowd yelling at Dylan for turning away from his folk roots. Before the final song, “Like a Rolling Stone,” you can faintly hear one person yell “I’ll never listen to you again.” Dylan famously responds “You’re a liar” and the song begins.
6. The Who — Live at Leeds
The Who’s Live at Leeds album is highly regarded as one of the greatest live recordings ever made. It was recorded during two shows at the University of Leeds while the band was on its Tommy tour. Live at Leeds was released in 1970 and was a huge success. It is the only live album The Who released with their original lineup. Their rendition of Eddie Cochran’s “Summertime Blues” went on to become a hit single and their 14 minute long performance of “My Generation” captures the band’s spirit better than anything they could ever put together in a studio.
5. Peter Frampton — Frampton Comes Alive!
Following four poorly performing albums, Peter Frampton decided he would try to make a live album. The result was Frampton Comes Alive! It was recorded during Frampton’s 1975 tour and was release in the early half of 1976. The album was a huge success. It sold over six million copies and was on the Billboard 200 Album Charts for 97 weeks. The album’s recordings of “Show Me The Way” and “Do You Feel Like We Do” are still some of Frampton’s most highly played songs on the radio.
4. Johnny Cash — At Folsom Prison
Johnny Cash’s first single was “Folsom Prison Blues.” The song was recorded in 1955 and was used as a metaphor to describe Cash’s frustrations during his time in the United States Air Force. Years later, on January 13th, 1968, Johnny Cash would actually be able to play in the prison he made into a folk legend. Initially At Folsom Prison was not a big seller. This is attributed to the fact that Columbia Records was more interested in promoting pop music than country at the time of its release. However, the album did eventually go on to sell over three million copies. The album starts off in great fashion with Cash singing “Folsom Prison Blues” to the inmates of the prison from which his song takes its name.
3. The Grateful Dead — Live/Dead
The Grateful Dead are widely citing as being the greatest live musical act of all time. This opinion is given much weight from their 1969 live album Live/Dead. This was the first live album the Dead released. The band’s lineup from 1968 to 1970 is considered to be the finest one the band ever had. The album Live/Dead included all five original members and the addition of drummer Mickey Hart and organist Tom Constenten. It would be the last album Constenten made with the band. This album would make this list even if it only had one song. “Dark Star” was a staple of the Dead’s live concert. The record includes a 23 minute long version of the song and goes directly into “St. Stephen” and “The Eleven,” an extended improvisation piece written in 11/8th time.
2. Nirvana — MTV Unplugged in New York
By the time Nirvana appeared on MTV’s Unplugged, they had already changed the sound of rock music. Nirvana sat down on November 18th, 1993 to play a small acoustic concert to about 200 people in the Sony Music Studios in New York City. This concert would later air on MTV’s hit series Unplugged. Following the death of Kurt Cobain, there was a huge demand for unreleased Nirvana material. MTV Unplugged in New York was the first album released following the band’s break up. Nirvana decided against playing signature songs such as “Smells Like Teen Spirit” because they felt it would not translate well to the acoustic nature of the show. Instead, this album really captures the depth of Cobain’s song writing ability, and features songs from some of the band’s biggest inspirations. The highlights of MTV Unplugged in New York are “Lake of Fire,” featuring two members of the Meat Puppets, and a version of Lead Belly’s “Where Did You Sleep Last Night” that will send shivers down anyone’s spine.
1. The Allman Brothers Band — Live at the Fillmore East
Live at the Fillmore East by the Allman Brothers Band is the best example one can make of a live album, capturing everything a rock and roll show is supposed to be. It was recorded in March of 1971 at the Fillmore Auditorium in New York City. The album became the band’s first platinum release and launched their career to new heights. The second disc of the double album features extended versions of “Mountain Jam” and “Whipping Post,” the Allman Brothers’ most famous song. Live at the Fillmore East was the final album that featured guitarist Daune Allman who died shortly after in a motorcycle accident. In 2004, the album was selected for preservation by the Library of Congress who deemed it “culturally, historically, and aesthetically important.”