Even if you can’t get out to a concert, a great live album by your favorite artist can bring a lot of excitement to your living room, especially when you listen to it on vinyl, and over a quality audio system. Just make sure your turntable is on a stable rack or shelf, so you can really crank it up!
Here are 10 of the very best live albums of all time. For that extra bit of realism when listening, fire up a “lighter” app on your smartphone and wave your hands high in the air.
After three relatively tame studio LPs, with their career in a tailspin, Kiss took the bold leap of releasing a double live album, consisting of performances from their Dressed to Kill tour in the summer of 1975. After years of controversy, the group came clean in the early 2000s and admitted that the recording was heavily massaged in the studio. Regardless of whether this is a pure live record or not (many other bands would follow this model in years to come), there’s no question that Alive! captures the Kiss vibe better than any other recording out there. Far from an audiophile pressing, the vinyl version is slightly compressed … but, on the other hand, that means you can turn it up that much louder.
Where Kiss’ Alive! couldn’t be more raw, Joni Mitchell’s first live recording feels like a cross between a studio session and an intimate coffeehouse performance, though most of these tracks are taken from shows at the Universal Amphitheater in Los Angeles in 1974. Part of the allure of this album comes from her backing band, the LA Express, who consisted of some of the best studio jazz cats at the time. The vinyl version is open, airy and delicate, and the sparse bits of audience applause are so well blended, on a great system, you’ll feel as if you’re really there. As a bonus, Mitchell’s voice never sounded better.
This record is one of the most densely packed 42 minutes and 27 seconds in power pop history. And, reminiscent of ’60s-era Beatlemania, the band’s hyper-energetic performances are delivered over a wall of screaming Japanese fans. Much like Kiss, Cheap Trick muddled around the Midwest for years, building a strong live following, yet having modest record sales. That all changed at the close of 1978 when At Budokan was released in Japan. It wouldn’t make it to America until February of 1979, but by then rabid Trick fans had already found a way to get their hands on the album. Decades before the internet, this record went viral from one record collector sharing it with another. Ah, the joys of vinyl.
This seminal recording captures Peter Frampton at the peak of his popularity and musical prowess, and shortly after its release in 1976, it became the best-selling live album of all time. Regardless of your age, you probably know most of the songs, which are still in heavy rotation on classic rock stations today. The recording quality is stellar, and the performances spot on — so good, in fact, that Frampton would never equal this level of sales and radio play again. It’s a truly timeless rock classic.
Punk, power pop and new wave would steamroll over the heavy rock that dominated live venues at the end of the ’70s, and so the ’80s brought a more stripped-down approach to live performance. There’s no better example than Stop Making Sense. This 1984 live set is both theatrical and intimate at the same time. Featuring a big band riffing behind lead singer David Byrne’s memorable oversized suit, the Heads romp through 19 songs, but on vinyl, you’ll only get to hear nine of them (all that would fit on a single disc). All the tracks are high-energy from beginning to end and capture a sense of abandon that Talking Heads studio records do not. Check out the concert film of the same title (available on several streaming services) to add an additional dimension to your understanding of this influential band.
A true pioneer of electronic music and perhaps the woman that defined the term “performance artist,” Laurie Anderson’s Home of the Brave is a hybrid, with five of the eight tracks captured live. Keeping the groove the same, and the recording quality high throughout, they blend right in with the three studio tracks. She’s accompanied on this album by an all-star lineup of backing musicians, all in service of Anderson, her clear violin and voice synthesizers. It’s art school music at its best.
Jeff Beck has been tearing up arenas for decades, with a number of live albums to his credit, but this one, recorded at Ronnie Scotts club in London in November of 2007 is the most enticing snapshot of this guitar hero yet. It features a number of classic tracks spanning a large cross-section of his discography, and the performance is tight and dynamic. There isn’t a note out of place, and the recording beautifully captures the acoustic environment of this nightclub setting.
Nirvana’s Unplugged is probably the record most associated with the long-running MTV series of the same name. It’s been reported that Cobain was having a tough time with the producers of the show, yet managed to do the entire Unplugged performance in one take. Sadly, it ended up being the band’s final recording before the world lost lead singer Kurt Cobain. In addition to being an incredibly rich recording, the way Nirvana’s normally hard-driving songs translate to a slower, acoustic pace reveals another facet of this band’s talent. Who knows where Nirvana might have gone after this?
Jay-Z’s collaboration with the Roots took the Unplugged concept to another level. The extraordinary skills of all parties involved makes for a record that nearly defies genre, and the combination of beats, jazz riffs, and Jay-Z’s ability to shift gears smoother than a Bentley makes for a hip-hop masterpiece. To everyone that ever uttered the words “hip-hop isn’t really music,” consider yourself schooled. This is as good as it gets.
Capturing Beyoncé’s 2018 Coachella performance, Homecoming is the biggest-sounding record on our list. The sheer amount of musical power cut into these grooves almost demands to be turned up loud. Really loud. This record is so dynamic it will push your music system to its limit … and if you have subwoofers, Homecoming will put them to the test. The range of style presented here is mind-bending and, of course, Beyoncé’s range takes no prisoners. It’s almost as if she’s channeling Ella Fitzgerald, Diana Ross and Aretha Franklin simultaneously, while putting her own spin on it in real time.
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