Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Top 10 Live Albums Since 1975

There have been many lists and compilations that rank best live albums of all time, and they're typically front-loaded (justifiably) with the usual suspects - The Who Live at Leeds, Johnny Cash at Folsom Prison, The Allman Brothers At Fillmore East, etc. Instead of wading into the fray of why I consider one of those classics to be more worthy than another, I've decided to do my own list, but to focus on the years 1975 to present to eliminate most of the same titles that you'll find on everyone's list.

Before we get to the ranking, I'd also like to impart what I believe makes up a good live album:
  1. It should rework the original material and not just be an attempt at replicating the studio song
  2. It should feel "live" with audience sounds and interaction and
  3. The music should be able to stand on its own - e.g. it should be good enough to pop up in a mix of studio music without throwing things off.
With that as our criterion, here we go:

10) Joe Jackson Live 1980/86 - Recorded across four separate tours, this two disc set compiles most of his best known work to that point. He includes three very different treatments of "Is She Really Going Out With Him" which I think is incredibly interesting. It is likely the only song that most of the mainstream know him for, and it is likely the one he's grown increasingly tired of playing. The trio of versions is a tip of the cap to fans of the song, while allowing latitude for him to stretch his creativity. It is an interesting idea, and one I've not seen replicated on other live albums.

9) Roger Waters The Wall Live in Berlin - This live album and subsequent video was held at the site of the former Berlin Wall in 1990. Logistics and scheduling meant that the all-star lineup that Roger Waters originally envisioned did not come together, but even with secondary choices, there were some stellar performances on this disc. These notable include "In the Flesh?" by Scorpions, "Comfortably Numb" by Van Morrison, "Hey You" by Paul Carrack, and "What Shall We Do Now?" and "Young Lust" both knocked out the park by Bryan Adams. The album was created in the height of the animosity between Waters and the rest of Pink Floyd, which is a shame as the grandiosity of the event and the venue deserved the full Pink Floyd treatment. A huge opportunity lost.

8) Bob Seger and the Silver Bullet Band Live Bullet - Like other live albums of the time, this live album set the stage for Seger to break through into the mainstream, and with his follow up Night Moves he did all that and more. The concert was recorded in front of a home audience in Detroit, and their love for the band (and vice versa) comes clearly through the speakers. "Travelin' Man/Beautiful Loser" and "Rambin' Gamblin' Man" are great examples of significant live improvements on the studio originals.

7) Neil Young and Crazy Horse Live Rust Perhaps the seminal album with Crazy Horse, this 1978 release captures Young and band in a snapshot of that creative period. Classics from this album include both "Hey Hey, My My" and its inverse, "Cortez the Killer" complete with a reggae ending, and over eight minutes of "Like a Hurricane."

6) Kiss Alive - This was the album that propelled Kiss to its meteoric rise, but it is not without its controversy. Rumors abound on the amount of overdub work that was conducted on the album, with some calling into question its categorization as a live album altogether. The debate rages, and frankly that's what keeps this album at nothing better than 6. It is too bad, as there are some incredible songs. Upping the tempo from the studio albums, "Strutter" and "Deuce" both got an electrical charge. "Cold Gin" and the interplay with the audience captures the auditorium concert scene at that time perfectly, and "Black Diamond," complete with the sound of pyrotechnics exploding the in the background at the end, captured the Kiss live concert experience perfectly. This is on of the first albums I ever bought and still remains one of my favorite albums of all time.

5) Talking Heads Stop Making Sense - Recorded at the height of their craft, the album was built to support the movie of the same name as a soundtrack. Unfortunately, in the first release, the recording edited down the movie in a substantial way. Despite that, some of the tracks that remained are simply incredible, and are arguably better than their studio versions. Examples of this include "Psycho Killer," and "Heaven." Their new treatment of Al Green's "Take Me to the River," (a cover of their cover?) was really original and enjoyable as well.

4) Tragically Hip Live Between Us - There is nothing like a Tragically Hip live show, as there's nothing like the stage presence of Gord Downie. He's a force of nature; jerking around the stage, and spewing out words (or other songs altogether) in parts of the music. That whole experience was captured perfectly by this album. Literally every track can stand alone on this album, but ones of note include "Nautical Disaster," "Blow at High Dough," "Grace, Too" and "Fully Completely." It remains a horrible shame that the Tragically Hip has not completely broken through to the US, as the music they've made since the 80's has been enjoyed and treasured in Canada for decades. They're an incredible band, and worthy of the many accolades their countrymen bestow upon them.

3) Roy Orbison A Black and White Night Recorded roughly a year before his death, this album caught Orbison in the midst of a musical love letter by those he previously inspired. Backed by a band that included the likes of Bruce Springsteen, Elvis Costello, k.d. lang, Jackson Browne, and Bonnie Raitt, the music made this night was fantastic. Orbison was in great voice for this event, and despite some recording snafus, what was captured was a real gem. What a remarkable career capstone.

2) Nirvana Unplugged - Recorded at the height of their craft, the Unplugged recording was remarkable in how Nirvana's songs were changed in the stripped-down format. "Something in the Way," and "Polly," in particular became very different songs in this format, and in many respects sounded better than the original. Likewise the Bowie cover of "The Man Who Sold the World," I believe to be one of their top 10 songs in their catalog. Cobain's interplay with the audience is clunky, but the music makes up for it. What a great album.

1) Peter Frampton Frampton Comes Alive - Like other recordings discussed previously or not (Kiss, Bob Seger, Cheap Trick) Frampton's live album was his breakthrough. Perhaps this is because the live album affords the opportunity for previously recorded material to mature and otherwise be re-worked. That was clearly the case with this album. Many of the tracks on it are unremarkable in their studio form, but when Frampton hit that San Francisco stage, the material he brought with him was a hell of an improvement. It was so good, in fact, that this album became a career black hole for Frampton from which very little future creative light could escape. While he remained productive ever since, he was never again able to deliver the commercial success of Comes Alive. As consolation, he owns the #1 live album ever recorded since 1975. At least in my opinion.

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