BACK TO LIVE: Nothing beats seeing your favourite band live, but one thing comes close – a recording of that band at their peak, playing what is often their greatest hits, with the added energy that comes from live performance.
So many great live albums have been made over the years – especially in the ‘70s and ‘80s. In the world of hard rock and heavy metal, the live album became an art form in itself.
For some bands, such as Kiss and Cheap Trick, it was a live album that provided them with their big breakthrough. For one artist in particular, Peter Frampton, a live album would be his biggest seller and define his entire career.
With the greatest live albums, it’s really all about timing. What they represent is a defining moment in a band’s career: for many, a coming of age as a truly great band. And that is as much a part of the magic as the music, the performance, and the atmosphere generated between band and audience in the heat of the moment.
And so – until you can experience the real thing – here they are: The 50 Best Live Albums Ever. As voted by you.
50. Ramones - It's Alive
The ultimate live punk album? We can’t think of many to top it. With barely a breath drawn by the band between songs, this is the sound of London’s Rainbow Theatre – so often the setting of cosy all-star jams – being battered into submission by the world’s fastest setlist. That's 28 songs in an hour, folks.
It really doesn’t get any better than Blitzkrieg Bop. Hell, bassist Dee Dee Ramone’s cry of “1-2-3-4” is anthemic in itself, but the ‘Hey Ho! Let’s Go!’ chant (apparently inspired by the Bay City Rollers) is, like all classic Ramones, a work of simplistic genius.
Three decades later, and the sweat still doesn’t smell stale.
49. Various: Woodstock: Music From the Original Soundtrack and More
In 2019 the 50th anniversary of the original Woodstock festival was celebrated with the release of an expanded, 38-CD, 432-track box set version of the original soundtrack, featuring 267 previously unreleased tracks.
It was possibly overkill, but the very fact that it was released at all pays testament to the initial release's longstanding cultural significance. If live albums are about capturing a moment in time, Woodstock: Music From the Original Soundtrack and More succeeded brilliantly, from the "brown acid" stage announcements to Jimi Hendrix's charged version of the Star Spangled Banner.
The rest of the cast is similarly stellar: The Who, Joe Cocker, Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young, Santana, Jefferson Airplane, Canned Heat, Sly & The Family Stone and more, and a performance from Ten Years After that would come to define their entire career. And that couple on the cover? They're still together.
48. Grand Funk Railroad – Live Album
Just as the band who made it gave new meaning to the description ‘power-trio’, so Live Album set the template for everything we now know as stoner rock. Sold as a ‘direct recording’ – ie no overdubs, no remixing, no nothing except slabs of sheet-metal – it was all about keeping it real (pity nobody thought to tell the sleeve-designer who used a photo of the band taken at the Atlanta International pop festival, even though none of the music was recorded there).
Even the most fervent Grand Funk Railroad fan from the 70s would have agreed that you really didn’t need to possess more than one of their two-inch deep studio albums, and you certainly didn’t dig the Funk lying on the floor listening to those records with your stereo-headphones on. You dug them where they lived, out on the road. Hence the tremendous sense of righteousness that accompanied the release of this, their fourth album.
Critics dismissed them as boneheaded proto-metal merchants, but in singer-guitarist Mark Farner – a fierce part-Cherokee frontman who took no shit and gave no quarter – Grand Funk Railroad became the embodiment of what it meant to be an all-American rocker, and the success of Live Album refutation that what critics said mattered at all.
47. Hawkwind – Space Ritual
The pinnacle of Hawkwind’s creativity. They worked closely with fantasy author Michael Moorcock on this album, which is based on his Eternal Champion concept, and it has an ingenuity that makes it a classic.
Every song is both self-contained yet part of an overall flow that really does make it a space-rock opera. The band even doffed the cap towards 19th-century poets Percy Shelley and Henry Wadsworth Longfellow on opening track Assault & Battery (Part 1), while Moorcock himself contributed three poems, narrating two of them. The album’s artwork added to the fusion of brilliance.
"What bands tended to do was clean the sound up to make it as much like a studio album as possible," author Ian Rankin told us. "Space Ritual was different. It was an grungy live sound, with lots of opportunities for things to go wrong. It was the first that made me feel like I was there, a propulsive, hypnotic show with all these wonderful bleeps, blips and droning guitars that were almost transcendental."
46. Aerosmith - Live! Bootleg
On July 4, American Independence Day, Aerosmith top-billed at the Texxas World Music Festival at the 100,000-capacity Dallas Cottonbowl, with Ted Nugent and Heart as support acts, along with Journey and Eddie Money.
They also played a few low-key club shows, billed as Dr. J. Jones And The Interns, which were recorded by Jack Douglas for the live album that was released on October 27. They named it Live! Bootleg, and the titled implied, it was, by design, the antithesis of Peter Frampton’s sweet-sounding mega-hit Frampton Comes Alive!
"I love that record," Slash tells us. "That to me is the quintessential live rock’n’roll album of all time. It’s amazing. The way that Live! Bootleg starts with Back In The Saddle, that whole intro with the crowd going crazy and the flash-pots going off, that whole build-up, made it so exciting to me."
"The great thing about live records at the time was if you didn’t have any other records by the band, you could get a good cross section of their material all on one album," says broadcaster Eddie Trunk. "I remember getting Live! Bootleg, putting the poster up on my wall, and to this day, I think it is an unbelievably underrated live record. And it is actually a true live record. It just reeks of the ‘70s - it really puts you into the space of when the songs were recorded."
45. Alice In Chains - Unplugged
Alice in Chains Unplugged marked the second to last performance from singer Layne Staley, who was battling the crippling addiction to heroin he'd poignantly chronicled through the band's agonising lyrics.
This performance is a chilling portrait of the tragic downfall of one of rock's most charismatic and enigmatic frontmen, from glam rock loving metal star to bedraggled junkie.
But AIC's down-tuned sludgy heavy metal somehow lends itself to the acoustic format. Every song transforms from powerful, angry catharsis to haunting lament. And these small but poignant shifts add a tragic and heart-wrenching depth to the entire album.
44. Jethro Tull – Bursting Out
In April ’78, just after the release of Heavy Horses, Jethro Tull toured the UK and Europe. The resulting Bursting Out, released in October, was a live double album that showed the band in great shape, with a tracklist that runs the full Tull gamut - from folk whimsy to rock crunch – and provided a decent overview of the band's career.
"Make no mistake: in terms of sheer professionalism, Jethro Tull are without peer," wrote the infamous Lester Bangs, perhaps the last journalist you'd expect to fall for the charms of a Lancastrian folk-rock group led by a wild-eyed flautist.
"They stand out by never failing to deliver a full-scale show," he continued, "complete with everything they know any kid would gladly pay his money to see: music, volume, costumes, theatrics, flashy solos, long sets, two encores. Jethro Tull are slick and disciplined; they work hard and they deliver."
43. Scorpions - World Wide Live
While 1978's Tokyo Tapes might be the hardcore fans' favourite, 1985's World Wide Live captures Scorpions at their commercial peak, with the occasional flower-powered excursions of the Uli Jon Roth era consigned to rock's great dustbin. Instead, the performances were relentlessly taut and ruthlessly delivered.
"Every performance here is a killer," guitarist Rudolf Schenker told us. "It was recorded at so many cities across the world, and our producer Dieter Dierks came on the road with us and spent ages going through every recording we made to find the best version of each song.
"It was a long job, but worth it. This represented how exciting everything was for us at the time, because we were headlining massive venues."
42. Humble Pie – Performance Rockin’ The Fillmore
They were impressive enough in the studio, but playing live was where Humble Pie really excelled. This sprawling double album, recorded in New York in May 1971, is a magnificent showcase for Marriott’s searing vocals and his fierce interplay with fellow guitarist Peter Frampton.
Apart from the rampaging might of Stone Cold Fever, the songs are spirited covers, from the slow jam of I’m Ready to extended versions of Rolling Stone and the R&B classic I Don’t Need No Doctor. Perhaps the pick of the bunch is a titanic reconfiguration of Dr. John’s I Walk On Gilded Splinters, stretched out dramatically over a wholly compelling 24 minutes.
41. Jimi Hendrix - Band of Gypsys
For a record delivered as a contractual get-out, Band Of Gypsys is some live album. With a new rhythm section after the break-up of the Experience, Jimi Hendrix headed off in different directions to explore the new musical territories of funk and R&B, and did so with a new-found precision and regenerated energy and creativity. His playing here is, in places, truly wonderful and masterfully controlled.
Hendrix was on the brink of new horizons, and Band Of Gypsys was, as he might have said, “a first step” at not only reshaping his direction but that of rock performances. The spontaneous improvised spirit was definitely picked up in the 70s by the Allman Brothers Band, Led Zeppelin and the Grateful Dead, among others.
"It’s not a perfect recording," Joe Satriani told us, "but I’m listening for the heart and soul. He changed the course of music in one evening. If it only contained that version of Machine Gun, that would be enough for me. That’s the Bible, the grimoire of electric guitar."