The live album used to be a rock and roll institution. Before Live Nation and Ticketmaster made concerts feel as special as shopping at The Gap, concerts were a near-mystical opportunity to commune with a band, usually in your hometown. Musicians were still special back then because their every word wasn’t trotted out in blogs, YouTube interviews and Twitter campaigns.
For those who were unable, due to age or remoteness, to attend concerts, the live album was your only shot for tapping into the raw energy of a performance; to hear the way the artist sounded playing in front of ten thousand people. The between-song banter might be one’s only window into the personality of the singer, so cloaked was the rock star mystique of old. The only window into the artist’s personality was what they showed you in the album sleeve and liner notes.
I loved my live albums when I was a kid and I have been disappointed by the relative lack of notable ones in the past twenty years. Sure, there have been some really good ones, but iconic? Not so many. Here are ten of my favorite non-bootleg live albums of all time:
This was my indoctrination into KISS, and what a fine entree it proved to be. Paul Stanley’s faux-Southern patter strung together a jaw-dropping parade of hits that stand up today with any classic rock from the 70s. The real triumph of this album was that KISS were known as a live band because of their preposterous stage antics, from spitting up blood to breathing fire, not to mention the kitschy costumes. Without any theatrics or visuals, Alive! nonetheless bottled the energy of a KISS concert in a way that gave the album both intimacy and bombast. I was seven when this came out and probably got my copy by age 8, but listening to songs like “Cold Gin” made me feel like a grown up. 18, at least.
9. Thin Lizzy—Life
Ireland’s greatest-ever rock band released this double live LP in 1983 and while many claim that Lizzy’s best is actually Live and Dangerous, this album represents their full catalog in all its majesty, as well as boasting appearances from original members, rendering it the band’s definitive live statement. How could it not be? Frontman Phil Lynott disbanded Lizzy shortly thereafter, making this the cap of a stunning career. Live versions of “Cold Sweat” and “Roisin Dubh” are impossible to beat.
8. Slash—Made in Stoke 24/7/11
The greatest live album of the past ten years, for sure. This is Slash’s return to his hometown, the UK’s Stoke-on-Trent, in 2011 and it covers hits from his years in Guns N’ Roses, Velvet Revolver, Slash’s Snakepit and his solo work. It also marks his first release with his new band—Myles Kennedy and The Conspirators (drummer Brent Fitz and bassist Todd Kerns)—who had first teamed up to support Slash’s 2010 solo debut. Myles turns in a respectable Axl Rose where appropriate, respecting the songs without sounding like a goofy impersonator. The songs are loose and hard-charging; these aren’t just rehashes of studio cuts, they’re extended, enhanced, and thoroughly jammy. Which is a good thing.
Go to a dive bar, find the nearest hipster wearing an ironic trucker cap and drinking a PBR and ask him if he owns this album. He’ll look at you as if you just revealed his penis size to the rest of the bar, and bitterly spit something along the lines of, “Fuck yeah, bro. Who doesn’t?” The point? Well, the main point is that I hate hipsters who loiter in dark bars and wear ironic trucker hats, confusing such activity with keeping it real. Secondly, I love this Johnny Cash album and I don’t want to admit that I like the same album as the trucker hat crew without slamming them a little bit first.
6. The Rolling Stones—Stripped
Yeah, yeah, I know there are live albums that capture the Stones when they were more vital (read, “younger”) and when they still had something to say, but so didn’t a lot of bands back then. What makes this disc so supremely good is that it was released well after the band’s prime, boasting lush, energetic takes on their classics with plenty of zip. This is the sound of a band aging gracefully. I still remember hearing this album for the fist time—I was playing pool at Lakeview Links in Chicago and the bartender threw on “Dead Flowers,” which for my money, is now the best version of the song available. The more I plugged into the album, the greater the treasures I found. This is a smoking party album from beginning to end.
5. Iron Maiden—Live After Death
Recorded in Long Beach, CA on St. Patrick’s Day in 1985, this (now) double album caught Maiden when they were clearing out a massive space for 1986′s thrash explosion. Even then these songs, including “Run to the Hill,” “Hallowed Be Thy Name,” and “Number of the Beast,” were timeless classics. Fantastic sound quality, nuclear energy, and a gang of paint peeling hits. If someone doesn’t understand the concept of metal, play them this album.
This towering giant of classic rock captures a band bleeding the very essence of Southern rock and is the only true challenger to my number one pick. Live jams that never felt indulgent or frivolous, plus gritty, late night blues that sounds like the band just sold their souls for a bottle of whisky and a bag of black tar. “Get On With Your Life” should go into the Smithsonian as the epitome of Delta blues gone white boy. If it’s 3 a.m. and you still have people over, this album needs to go on as soon as humanly possible. At least that’s what I used to do. No one every complained.
There’s a bit of trickery with this release. The album, released in 1978, is named after a song which not only isn’t on the album, but which wasn’t released until a year later, as part of Highway to Hell. It opens with one of AC/DC’s greatest musical statements of all time, the explosive six-stringed conflagration known as “Riff Raff,” and charges hard right through the final notes of “Rocker.” High energy, great song selection, and even some funny banter from Bon Scott (“Are there any virgins in Glasgow?”). The band were just about to crack into the next tier and still had a massive chip on their collective shoulder (to be fair, it’s still there), and in these ten muscular blues rock anthems, you can hear them practically daring the world to try and get in their way. Oh, and the cover shot of guitar player Angus Young impaled with a guitar made a great Halloween costume back in high school.
2. Wilco—Kicking Television; Live in Chicago
I’ve seen Wilco more times than I can count (although one time I was passed so many joints during the first song that I didn’t make it to the third song without having to flee the venue, staggering into the cold Chicago night, hoping to find a taxi to the safe haven of my couch). I’ve seen them when they were absolutely on the money, and I’ve seen them at their suckiest. I’ve seen Jeff Tweedy play live and I’ve seen members of Wilco jump in with Golden Smog, creating a de facto Wilco lineup with special guests. Of all the shows I’ve seen, this album most accurately reflects the vibe of one of the band’s better live shows, including the droney dissonance and all the other stuff they brought into their sound after the commercial majesty of Wilco A.M. Unique and utterly gorgeous.
Greatest live album of all time. Captured the then-loudest band in history at their peak, and while classic rock enthusiasts continue to haggle over Beatles v. Stones and Sabbath v. Zeppelin, The Who remain one of the most important bands in history. On this delicious, turbo-charged platter, you can hear the seeds of punk rock being sewn. Tommy was still very much at the top of their agenda, suggesting Townshend’s creative migration to the verdant fields of bombast, but the double live madness is splattered with early classics as well, that together present a picture of a grotesquely-talented group of musicians who viewed risk as nothing more than an opportunity to change everything, and that they did.