The 50 Greatest Live Albums Ever

30. Nirvana - MTV Unplugged in New York

Wary of the Unplugged format, Nirvana agreed to record this on the condition that their performance skipped the hits to explore their catalogue’s dark corners and rifle through Kurt Cobain’s record collection. Even then, Dave Grohl recalls, two days of rehearsals were “horrible”, the band struggling with acoustic instruments, the singer suffering from heroin withdrawal, the drummer hitting too hard. “That show was supposed to be a disaster,” Grohl concludes.

Against the omens, when Nirvana took the stage on November 18, 1993 it all clicked, right from the moment that Bleach’s lumpy About A Girl revealed itself as a tinglingly pretty pop gem. Highlights include the squeezebox-bolstered Jesus Doesn’t Want Me For A Sunbeam and the magical All Apologies, but the best comes last, when Cobain’s drawl breaks into a ravaged howl at the three-minute mark of Where Did You Sleep Last Night.

In retrospect it’s easy to read the signs that Cobain was not long for this world, from the funereal stage vibe to the icy cover of David Bowie’s already bleak The Man Who Sold The World. And five months later he was gone, making a transatlantic No.1 inevitable when the album was released posthumously. Unplugged or not, it’s electrifying.


29. The Rolling Stones – Get Yer Ya-Ya’s Out!

Recorded at New York’s Madison Square Garden on the band’s 1969 US tour – their first since the appointment of Mick Taylor as replacement for original guitarist Brian Jones – the impulse behind the Rolling Stones’ second live LP was less documentary, more simply a gauge of how well the new line-up was settling in. But the result was one of the first live albums to receive the kind of acclaim only the best studio albums had before, thereby kick-starting a taste for live albums that would flourish throughout the subsequent decade.

The sheer exuberance of the Stones’ performances on that tour – which also featured openers BB King, Chuck Berry and Ike & Tina Turner – is clearly captured in the grooves. It was also the first Stones tour since the death of Keith Richards’ original co-guitarist Brian Jones, whose increasingly drugged and emaciated state had effectively kept the band off the road for nearly three years. 

In his place stepped Taylor, a 20-year-old former John Mayall protégé whose extravagant gifts as a guitarist were first recognised internationally with the release of …Ya-Yas. He’d played on Honky Tonk Women and a couple of tracks on Let It Bleed, but this album and the tour it was recorded on gave notice of a new creative phase for the Stones that would see them record the best studio albums of their career.


28. Genesis – Seconds Out

"I love Paris in the springtime!” says an animated Phil Collins during Seconds Out, the live double album released by Genesis in October 1977. Recorded mostly over four nights at the Palais des Sports in June – technically not spring, but let’s not spoil the moment – the record documented the band’s Wind & Wuthering tour (though it includes only Afterglow from that then-too-recent-to-fillet album). 

With Collins comfortably ensconced as frontman/vocalist and Chester Thompson drumming, the music hit the sweet spot between the group’s old and new identities, as they showcased a blend of their classic prog – Supper’s ReadyFirth Of Fifth and The Cinema Show (the last was actually taken from a 1976 show with Bill Bruford in the drumstool) – and more focused favourites from the dawning of ‘the Phil era’, with Trick Of The Tail generously represented. 

While Genesis didn’t consider live albums to be massively important, to one generation of fans this offering was the way in, a first introduction to their catalogue. As such, there are some of us who still think of these versions as the definitive ones. 


27. Neil Young & Crazy Horse – Live Rust

Recorded on the tour to support Rust Never Sleeps (confusingly, a live album later overdubbed in the studio), Live Rust finds Crazy Horse at their fieriest. It takes a while to arrive, though: the first half of the album is Neil Young at his folksiest, gently taking the audience through his career, from Sugar Mountain – written for his teenage band The Squires – through Buffalo Springfield and finally on to My, Hey (Out Of The Blue).

It's lovely stuff, but the pace and volume are upped during the second half as the band arrive and the songs begin to sprawl, Young pulling in all different directions as the band remain resolutely in-pocket. What you get with Live Rust is the best of both Neil Youngs: the troubadour and the troublemaker. 

It also concludes with the finest versions of Like a Hurricane, Hey Hey, My My (Into the Black) and Tonight's the Night in the entire Young catalogue. 


26. Johnny Cash - At Folsom Prison

The real jailhouse rock. Johnny Cash had been performing in prisons for 10 years, but this 1968 show captured him at his rawest, singing of crime, troubled conscience and life behind bars. His connection with the inmates is electric, especially on rap-sheet rockers Cocaine Blues25 Minutes To Go (Cash’s unhinged vocal foreshadows punk) and Dark As A Dungeon.

It’s a total communion, artist and audience living the songs together. To break the intensity, Cash interjects funny asides such as: “This is being recorded for an album, so I can’t say ‘hell’ or ‘shit’ or anything like that."

"I've always idolised 'The Man In Black'," masked alt.country star Orville Peck told us. "This was the first Johnny Cash album I had ever listened to when I was a kid. But it wouldn't be until I was much older that I would fully appreciate the groundbreaking elements of this incredible live album."


25. Judas Priest – Unleashed In The East

One of the greatest live metal albums ever made, Unleashed In The East was overdubbed (Rob Halford has admitted that he was suffering from flu when these shows took place, and this ruined his vocals) to the extent that it was jokingly rechristened Unleashed In The Studio, yet it’s powerful and atmospheric.

Recorded in Tokyo, the album includes definitive versions of landmark tracks Victim Of ChangesThe RipperSinner and Exciter, plus a masterful interpretations of the early Fleetwood Mac’s darkest song, The Green Manalishi (With The Two Pronged Crown).

This was the first Priest album to make the UK Top 10 – peaking at number 10 – and the US Top 100, making it to number 70.


24. Bruce Springsteen & the E Street Band - Live/1975-85

For an artist whose reputation was sealed by the burning intensity of his live shows, it was a surprise Bruce Springsteen waited so long before putting out a live album. By the time he did, he was already playing stadiums, and Live/1975-85 was the motherlode: ten years of recordings spread across five discs, going back as far as 1975's tour promoting Born To Run.

It was almost like it was too much to consume. For years following its release you could find unwanted, unloved copies of the box in second hand stores, and only since the vinyl revival has its value climbed to the kind of amounts you'd expect.

With good reason. Live/1975-85 is testament to both the E-Street Band's unrivalled power as a live unit, and to Springsteen's untouchable command of a live audience. Just listen to Springsteen's heartfelt introduction to The River, or the acoustic mini-set given over to songs from Nebraska, or the climactic, life-affirming Born To Run. In the absence of a three-and-a-half hour show from the Boss, this is a pretty decent substitute. 


23. Motörhead – No Sleep ’Til Hammersmith

Everything louder than everything else was their motto, and that’s how it sounded on No Sleep ’Til Hammersmith. It featured the definitive Motorhead line-up: Lemmy on bass and vocals, ‘Fast’ Eddie Clarke on guitar, ‘Philthy Animal’ Taylor on drums. And they were riding high off three back-to-back classic albums: Overkill, Bomber and Ace Of Spades

There is a manic intensity in their speed-driven attack, and a general sense of on-the-road lunacy summed up when a roadie introduces the track (We Are) The Road Crew by screaming into the mic. Ditto the album’s title: the battle cry for a campaign of ransacking and pillage.


22. Rory Gallagher – Irish Tour ’74

Irish Tour ’74, a two-million selling vinyl double, has long been thought his best – a masterclass in improvisational blues rock with breathtaking guitar solos. In effect it was three-sides a soundtrack to a Tony Palmer film of the tour, plus one side of after-hours jamming recorded on the Ronnie Lane Mobile Unit.

While the sound quality is variable – partly due to the fact that they couldn’t get insurance for Ronnie Lane’s Mobile Studios in the more troubled areas of Northern Ireland – the album never loses its primal, raw urgency. It’s the sound of a band leaning out over the precipice – something Rory Gallagher deliberately encouraged, making up the show as he went along. 


21. Queen – Live Killers

By the end of the 1970s, Queen had become a true-blood mainstream band – the sort who regularly enjoyed a huge chart impact. So it wouldn’t have been a surprise to anyone if their live shows were starting to suffer. But they didn’t.

Recorded earlier in 1979, the double Live Killers album was all the proof anyone could need that Queen were one of the best live bands in the world, and they could teach anyone a few tricks.

We Will Rock You opens up, and this metallic, bombastic and ferocious delivery just stuns. The inspired medley of Death On Two LegsKiller QueenBicycle Race and I’m In Love With My Car works so well you’d swear this was the way the songs were created.

There are few better live albums than Live Killers, and the absence of the visual impact only serves to heighten the band’s sheer musical audacity and verve.

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