Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Best Live Rock Albums of All Time?

I'm a sucker for music lists, even if most of them are completely worthless. Most best-of lists seems to list sub-par albums/bands just to be provocative or radical. I just read a great list over here of the top 25 Live albums of all time. It's a good list; featuring many that I wouldn't have thought of, but of course it's missing many of the best.

For your enjoyment (and mine), here is a Top 15 list of my favorites. Until there are live releases from Uncle Tupelo or Sonic Youth, this list is it. IMO, a great live album should not only consist of a great performance, but also show a side of the artist/band that you cannot get from their studio albums. Otherwise, what's the point other than a money grab (see numerous Rolling Stones releases).

(Because there are so many great live discs from the world of Soul, Bluegrass, Jazz, and Blues; this list will stick to only Rock and Roll)

15. Santana - Lotus

Not officially available in the United States until the early 1990's, this trippy document of Santana's 1973 tour of Japan almost belongs in the Jazz category. At this point in Carlos's career, his music was sounding more like the Miles Davis fusion bands of the time then a rock and roll outfit. Then again, Santana was never a typical rock and roll outfit. This amazing double- disc ride is full of killer instrumental jams that prove Carlos Santana truly is a guitar god. His guitar playing throughout is unlike anyone else on the planet; shocking, beautiful, and scary all at the same time. Those that only know Santana from the pop-tacular "Supernatural" disc will be in for the shock of their lives when they hit play on this baby.

14. Wilco-Kicking Telivision

By the time this disc was recorded during 3 nights in Chicago in 2005, Jeff Tweedy had been through the ringer. He had survived drug addiction, the Yankee Hotel Foxtrot saga, and the firing/hiring of his lead guitarist, drummer, and keyboardist. I would imagine the guy had something to prove as you can tell from listening to this great set. This was the first Wilco recording with the addition of guitarist extraordinaire Nels Cline and if you hadn't seen Wilco live lately, this disc must have come as a big shock to hear. The band and songs sound completely different then Wilco had in the past. Remember that scene in The Wizard of Oz when Dorothy comes out of the house in black and white into Oz and everything changes to color? This disc is the sound of Wilco walking into Oz.

13. Phish-A Live One

Yeah, I know. Phish. You either love them or they bore you to tears. But love them or hate them, there are few bands that can play live music like these guys. I put this one on here because it was my first induction into the bizzare world of Phish's music. There are hundred's of better documents of Phish live than this available in bootleg circles, but for officially released live documentation of their jammy greatness; this is just "sick" (as the kids say). It has it all; long jams (Tweezer, Stash) and the short poppy stuff (Bouncing Around the Room, Gumbo). Plus, it was recorded during the 1994 tour which for many Phans was the band at their peak. Listening to this great collection, I would agree.

12. Bauhaus-Press Eject and Give Me The Tape

If The Cure were Goth music's Beatles, then Bauhaus were The Stones. This single CD live set is proof that the key to Bauhaus wasn't just the eyeliner and black capes, but the amazingly brave and intricate music they made. Combine that with Peter Murphy's Bowie-meets-Dracula vocals, and you have one of the most underrated bands of all time. What surprises me most listening to this album is stripped of their studio effects and layered sound, Bauhaus actually sound more intense. Goth music mostly turned into formula by the mid-80's, but this is the perfect soundtrack to a time when the music really sounded brave and scary. No one was better at that than Bauhaus.

11. Rush-Exit Stage Left

Yeah, indie rock snobs you read this right. Freaking Rush! Come on lighten up and take a hit. The members of Rush are some of the best rock musicians on the planet and this disc documents them at the peak of their powers. I was 12 years old when this was released and it blew my little impressionable brain out of my ears. It still stands as the best document of Rush's greatness.
"YYZ" bitches!

10. Bob Marley and The Wailers-Babalon by Bus

I know I said I would stick to rock and roll, but Bob Marley is one of those few artists who's music transcends genres. Recorded in Europe in 1978, the audience is almost as exciting as the music. Bob was hitting the peak of his powers at this time and this killer set captures it to perfection. The setlist is great and this incarnation of The Wailers is on fire. If I had to own only one Marley disc, this would be the one. And that is saying something....

9. The Velvet Underground-Live 1969
While this isn't a document of the band during their best era (1967-1968), this is must have for any rock and roll fan. By the time this was recorded, VU had lost Lou Reed foil John Cale and the stunning chanteuse Nico. In place of their early material's eerie strangeness was a full blown twin guitar attack on the senses. While not blowing the audience away with power, the band sounds like they're trying to sing them to sleep with the wonderful ballads"Femme Fatal" and "I'll be Your Mirror. Recorded on a crappy tape machine feed directly from the venue's sound system, this set will certainly not please any audiophiles but don't let that stop you from basking in the brilliant noise.

8. The Grateful Dead-Europe '72
Picking one live Dead set is usually like picking your favorite kind of wine. It depends on the mood and your listening situation. "Europe 72" has it all however. First of all, it was recorded in 1972. The discussion could end there. 1972 was the best year for The Dead in terms of show-to-show quality ratio. Secondly, this set was recorded during the ridiculously fantastic Europe tour, which is the pinnacle of the band's touring life for many Deadheads. Add to all this the fact that it was the only place the non-bootleg community could hear new Dead classics like "Ramble On Rose", "Jack Straw", "He's Gone", and "Tennessee Jed" and you have yourself a keeper. As an owner of over 1000 dead shows, since this is a mix compilation of different shows I tend to not play it much. But for people who just want a great commercially released document into what The Dead were all about, this is the one to own.

7. Husker Du-The Living End

Recorded on the band's final tour in 1987, this is as perfect a live document one could want from one of the loudest and best bands ever. While I personally wish it contained more material from 1987's perfect "Warehouse: Stories and Songs" album, I can't complain about any live Husker Du release. The sound here is so loud, up front, and in your face that you feel fatigued sitting there listening to it. I'm sure that was the idea. For those who missed the small window of opportunity to see Husker Du live and for those who were lucky enough to, this disc is a pure treasure.

6. Neil Young-Live at Massey Hall, 1971

This 17 song treasure chest recorded in Neil's home turf of Canada may not top "Live Rust" as the fan favorite live release, but to me
this is much more special. For one, it features a full solo-acoustic Young show in pristine quality recorded before he was a household name. Young had yet to release the "Harvest" cd, but this set features many of the songs that would wind up there. The crowd treats them as the instant classics they would become. While listening to this, you feel as if you are listening to a truly magical night. And isn't that what great live discs are for?

5. The Band-Rock of Ages
"Rock of Ages" is not just notable for being the last great album by The Band, but it's also one of the greatest live discs by any band. Recorded on New Year's Eve in 1971, the set captures The Band at the end of a tour with their musicianship in top form. As great as their 1976 masterpiece "The Last Waltz" is, this is The Band without the pomp and circumstance that marked that gig. Featuring a horn section with arrangements by the great Allen Toussaint, this is as close to a perfect live album as they come. We all know how great their first two studio discs were, but "Rock of Ages" takes those versions and rocks them up and down. Make sure to get the newer released Deluxe Edition which features the 5 song encore with Bob Dylan making a perfect set that much more essential.

4. The Who-Isle of White Festival, 1970
The Who's "Live at Leeds" gets all the praise, but this unearthed treasure released in 1996 is the better set. For one, it contains a complete version of their masterpiece "Tommy" and it also contains three then-unreleased tracks from the aborted Lifehouse project ("Water", "Naked Eye", "I Don't Know Myself"). If you wanted to know what all the fuss was about with The Who, this is the one to crank up. If you already love The Who, this is essential. It may not sound as pretty as "Live at Leeds", but this is The Who in all it's glory; warts and all.

3. Bruce Springsteen & The E Street Band-Hammersmith Odeon: London 1975
This first officially released complete Springsteen show could not be a better example of how the E Street band got their reputation as the greatest live act on the planet. Recorded during Bruce's first ever tour of Europe, this 2006 release sounds absolutely fantastic. Bruce had something to prove (living up to all the media hype) and you can tell from listening that he knew it. It also features a Bruce fan's wet-dream setlist including a 17 minute blowout of "Kitty's Back". This set needs to be heard by any lover of rock and roll, and owned by any casual Springsteen fan.

2. Nirvana-Unplugged in New York
I remember first hearing that Nirvana was going to be on "MTV Unplugged" and thinking "huh?". Who knew how transcendent the show would actually be? As a huge Nirvana fan at the time, nothing in their repertoire prepared us for what we heard when the show aired. Stripped of all the distortion, Kurt Cobain showed he could be as tender and he was pained. Add the bizarre covers (Bowie, Leadbelly, Meat Puppets, The Vaselines), a great selection of Nirvana tracks, the fact that this was Kurt Cobain's last artistic gift to us, and you have one of the most intense and unique live albums of all time.

1. Bob Dylan-Live 1966
What can I say about this that hasn't already been said? This concert was legendary well before Sony officially released it in 1998. You have CD 1: Bob Dylan performing simply amazing solo, acoustic versions of all new material. The beauty of these versions and the words themselves just take you away to another world. Disc One alone would make my number 1 pick but then you have CD2: Very loud electric rockers with The Hawks (AKA The Band) backing him up. Of course this show is famous for the guy who yells "JUDAS" at Bob during the electric set. While I can imagine what a shock it was to hear Dylan this way at the time; listening to this set in amazing sound quality after all these years, you can actually hear the sound of modern music changing forever. Thanks Bob!

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Tremendous selection, surprisingly broad genres there. But seriously, no It's Too Late To Stop Now? I'd have that at number 2 for sure.

Plus when it comes to 'rock' live albums, wouldn't you pick the Neil Young & Crazy Horse Fillmore release over the Massey Hall one?