10 of the Best Live Albums of All Time

In the hands of a great artist or band, live music can be a transcendental experience, whether the musician uses the stage as a means to show off their virtuoso playing, like Prince, or as a set for their own sort of theatrical production, like David Bowie or Pink Floyd. Neither of those artists made this list, because no album, live or otherwise, ever captured their live experience. These are the albums that managed to set something exciting and spontaneous to record, so all of us listening from the comfort of home can imagine what it was like to be there for the original performance. These are 10 of the best live albums ever recorded.

1. At Fillmore East by the Allman Brothers Band

It was no mere coincidence that their live album At Fillmore East was the major breakthrough for legendary blues rockers the Allman Brothers Band, as their sound was always predicated upon their dynamic guitar interplay. This 75-minute-plus album features more than its share of whining guitar solos and lots more, as the band takes on many of their greatest songs, including “Whipping Post” and “In Memory of Elizabeth Reed,” and extends them to new lengths with its hypnotic improvised jams.

2. It’s Too Late to Stop Now by Van Morrison

Northern Irish singer-songwriter Van Morrison uses his voice the same way the members of his eleven-piece backing band, the Caledonia Soul Orchestra, use their instruments — wailing and improvising and responding in real time to the audience and other instruments. The soulful Morrison does deep cuts and big hits on his 1974 live album It’s Too Late to Stop Now, which captures him and his brass-heavy band at the peak of their considerable powers as performers.

3. Stop Making Sense by Talking Heads

The soundtrack to a concert film of the same name, Stop Making Sense plays something like a greatest hits collection improved upon with new, tighter version of the jittery new wave band’s best tracks. As the band expands from singer David Byrne alone singing an acoustic version of “Psycho Killer” into an enormous troupe of backup singers and extra drummers, the music never loses its unexpected strength of vision, as every element does something interesting but nonetheless works in harmony, all of it adding up to a portrait of the band at its best — crisp, paranoid, danceable, and original.

4. At Folsom Prison by Johnny Cash

The best performers establish a connection with their audience, and At Folsom Prison makes a great case for the Man in Black’s power as a performer. Recorded during two shows at the titular California prison in 1968, the album captures the rapport Johnny Cash has with his audience of convicts who respond with fervent laughs and cheers to his easygoing banter as well as his outlaw-themed song list. The unlikely connection, the vague sense of danger, and Cash’s legendary baritone voice are all captured in one unforgettable listening experience.

5. Roxy & Elsewhere by Frank Zappa and the Mothers

Frank Zappa wrote songs like no one else, as he turned oddball songs about nonsense subjects into impossibly complex and unpredictable arrangements. The dense musicianship of his mid-’70s albums is on full display in Roxy & Elsewhere, whose recordings are often spliced together seamlessly from separate performances, as is his fractured sense of humor. Songs like “Dummy Up” and “Be-bop Tango” are impressive works of both musical and comedic improvisation, and the entire album is a testament to Zappa’s almost unparalleled originality and creativity, in concert as well as on record.

6. Live/1975-85 by Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band

Bruce Springsteen makes the list for both quality as well as quantity, as this album, which serves as a summation for most of his peak songwriting years, spans 40 tracks and more than 200 minutes of pure rock and roll drama. Springsteen’s impassioned voice recreates the emotion of many of his greatest recordings, and his E Street Band function as an explosive, cohesive force behind him. For anyone seeking to understand why fans of the Boss feel the need to see him over and over again, this album works as a fine starter kit.

7. Live/Dead by the Grateful Dead

There’s a reason The Grateful Dead has historically inspired such a rabid fanbase, willing to follow the band across an entire continent just to see it live as many times as possible. That reason is preserved in crystal clear form on this recording of its concerts in late 1969, which critic Robert Christgau said contains much of the “finest rock improvisation ever recorded.” The six tracks that compose the bulk of this hour-plus album could only come from musicians with a legendary understanding of their instruments and of their own impressive abilities as a band.

8. Live at the Apollo by James Brown

James Brown hardly needs more than 30 minutes to make an unforgettable impression on an audience or a listener. His justifiably famous appearance at Harlem’s Apollo Theater is overflowing with the spontaneous soulful wailing and explosive brass that helped to establish the electric performer as perhaps history’s greatest soul musician. Each horn blow and each lyric has the power of a drum kick, and every moment is as unexpected as the one that came before it.

9. MTV Unplugged in New York by Nirvana

The first posthumous release following the suicide of Nirvana’s frontman Kurt Cobain gives fans a clear view of another side of the pioneering grunge band. The band members demonstrate the strength of their songwriting and band dynamic even when robbed of the unintelligible vocals and distortion-heavy production that made them famous. Nirvana’s MTV Unplugged session features both stripped back versions of album favorites and covers of classics like “The Man Who Sold the World,” all of which reaffirm why Nirvana was once the biggest band in popular music.

10. Live at the Harlem Square Club, 1963 by Sam Cooke

Sam Cooke’s record company originally deemed this recording too gritty and possibly damaging to Cooke’s pop stardom to release after its recording in the early ’60s, but it finally saw the light of day in 1985. Listeners could finally appreciate the raw talent on display during this Cooke concert, when the pop crooner allowed himself and his band to make a show of every song, drawing out certain passages for added drama and generally just pouring his soul out with every syllable he sings. There’s power and emotion in every note played, and the recording preserves it all perfectly.

Follow Jeff Rindskopf on Twitter @jrindskopf

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