The Top 40 Essential Live Albums

While it’s not possible to fully capture the rush and excitement of a live gig on record, there are a fair few albums that make a pretty good fist of it, as Gary Tipp discovers. Read on for Long Live Vinyl’s 40 Essential live albums…

At Folsom Prison – Johnny CashBut first, haven’t live LPs always been a curious breed? For many vinyl collectors they’re not an option, regarded simply as a contract-fulfilling stop-gap in an artist’s discography… Just products of convenience aimed at the die-hard fan, which an all-too-willing record company is happy to cash in on before the next album proper is ready to be released. Some are seen as being either packed with inferior run-throughs of the hits, in a glorified ‘Best Of’ package with the unwanted bonus of crowd noise over the top, or, conversely, full of extended bouts of indulgent jamming and even, heaven forbid, 20-minute drum solos. To add insult to injury, some recordings are so heavily overdubbed in post-production to iron out flaws, they end up a long way from being an authentic document of what was actually played on the night in question. 

So why is Long Live Vinyl dedicating a whole load of space to live albums? The simple answer is, because when they’re done right, as are the 40 great examples we list here, they can form an essential part of any record collection.

Landmark live albums such as The Who’s Live At Leeds, Yes’ Yessongs and the Ramones’ It’s Alive, for example, are a permanent record of a band’s classic line-up captured at the very peak of their powers. And sadly, as we all know, classic line-ups don’t last forever.

Other albums witness bands taking their own songs and running with them to inspired new places. For instance, Deep Purple’s Made In Japan sees a strong set of album tracks presented with different arrangements, stretched out to their limits to devastating effect. There are some bands – Hawkwind (Space Ritual) and Grateful Dead (Live/Dead) spring immediately to mind – whose artistic legacies have always been based primarily on live performance rather than studio recording.

Some of the best live albums can even provide an intimate connection with a performer who, due to trouble with time or geography, you never had the opportunity to see live. James Brown’s Live At The Apollo, for instance, was recorded in Harlem in 1962, but crackles with such atmosphere that you could have been in the room with him.

Live albums can even qualify as lasting slices of rock history, as Bob Dylan’s Live 1966 testifies – with the infamous anti-electric “Judas!” heckle caught on vinyl in perpetuity for all to hear. The same could be said of Iggy Pop’s Metallic KO, which captures the sound of bottles smashing into amps after narrowly missing Iggy’s head.

Yes - Yessongs40. Yes – Yessongs, 1973
Clocking in at comfortably over the two-hours-and-a-bit mark and across six sides of vinyl, this classic live triple showcases the Brit-proggers at their virtuoso peak. The epic set is a crowd-pleasing one that mostly cherry-picks from Fragile and Close To The Edge. Roger Dean’s fantasy-world gatefold artwork completes the ‘none-more-prog’ package.
Rarest edition: 1973 Atlantic.

39. AC/DC – If You Want Blood You’ve Got It, 1979AC/DC - If You Want Blood
If You Want Blood…
 was recorded on 1978’s Powerage tour, with much of the released cut coming from the final gig in Glasgow, Angus and Malcolm’s birthplace. This homecoming appearance was a rollicking riff-heavy affair, as you’d imagine, with raucous versions of Whole Lotta Rosie and The Jack whipping the crowd into a state far, far beyond frenzy. Rarest edition: 1978 Atlantic.

Kate Bush – Before The Dawn38. Kate Bush – Before the Dawn, 2016
The elusive Kate returned to the stage following a 35-year absence for a 22-date residency at the Hammersmith Apollo in 2014. Committing such a momentous and multi-sensory show to vinyl sounds like a thankless task, but such was the dazzling power of Bush’s performance that this triple album ranks as a worthy addition to her
near-peerless discography. Rarest edition: 2016 Fish People.

MC5 – Kick Out The Jams37. MC5 – Kick Out The Jams, 1969
Detroit’s inflammatory counterculture vultures MC5 had no truck with the flower-power culture of the day and their deafening debut was a hippie-baiting, politicised slab of rabble-rousing garage rock. This was punk before it was even invented. Elektra couldn’t handle the band’s shit-stirring stridency and promptly kicked them off the label.
Rarest edition: 1969 Elektra Mono, Orange label.

Frampton Comes Alive! – Peter Frampton36. Peter Frampton – Frampton Comes Alive!, 1976
The former Humble Pie guitarist with the well-conditioned bubble perm struck it multi-platinum with this sentimental set of radio-friendly AOR slushiness. One of the biggest-selling live albums of all time, it includes the hits Baby, I Love Your Way and Show Me The Way, complete with the curious ‘talk box’ guitar effect. Rarest edition: 1976 A&M.

35. Iggy And The Stooges – Metallic KO, 1976Iggy And The Stooges – Metallic KO
As much a historical document as a live album, Metallic KO was recorded at The Stooges’ final show at the Michigan Palace in Detroit in 1974. The sound isn’t exactly crystal, but it’s clear enough to pick up the sound of breaking glass as bottles are thrown at the stage from a fantastically hostile audience. Soon after the gig, Iggy checked into a mental hospital. Rarest edition: 1976 Skydog.

34. Nina Simone – At The Village Gate, 1962Nina Simone – At The Village Gate
Late in 1961, Nina Simone sat down at the piano at the cosy Village Gate club in New York and treated the hushed Manhattan audience to a majestic set of her unique brand of earth-shatteringly brilliant jazz-soul. Simone is captured intimately here in her early prime. Comedian Richard Pryor was the opening act – now that’s quite a double bill. Rarest edition: 1962 Colpix (US).

Mogwai – Special Moves33. Mogwai – Special Moves, 2010
The curtain-closers to many an indie festival, the Scottish post-rock vets’ sonic assault-and-battery on the senses has always translated well into the live arena. Captured over three nights in Brooklyn, the Glaswegians seamlessly deliver a rousing set of cochlea-crushing instrumentals – with Mogwai Fear Satan an especially powerful highlight, as ever. Rarest edition: 2010 Rock Action Triple.

Les Bains Douches 18 December 1979 – Joy Division32. Joy Division – Les Bains Douches, 2001

As magnificent as Unknown Pleasures and Closer undoubtedly are, Joy Division’s studio albums were dominated by Martin Hannett’s distinctive production and belied the band’s power and intensity as live performers. Les Bains Douches, recorded in 1979 shortly before Ian Curtis’s death, puts the record straight as post-punk’s most important band flawlessly blast through their set of classic songs. Rarest edition: 2001 Get Back, blue vinyl.

Sam Cooke – Live At The Harlem Square Club31. Sam Cooke – Live At The Harlem Square Club, 1985
The King Of Soul’s live performances were a far grittier, rawer and more explosive affair than his safer studio output. With record execs wary of preserving Cooke’s clean-cut persona, this sensational slab of vinyl was left to languish in the vaults, only to be released some 22 years later. Luckily for all, it finally found the light of day. Rarest edition: 1985 RCA.

Motorhead – No Sleep 'Til Hammersmith30. Motörhead – No Sleep ’Til Hammersmith, 1981
With Ace Of Spades first up on the setlist, this is the classic Motörhead line-up playing the classic Motörhead hits at a speed that is way beyond breakneck and an intensity registering many levels past fierce. With such a prodigious appetite for amphetamines, it’s highly unlikely Lemmy even had a snooze when he finally made it to his west-London destination. Rarest edition: 1981 Bronze gold vinyl.

Live At The Old Quarter – Townes Van Zandt29. Townes Van Zandt – Live At The Old Quarter, 1977
In July 1973, the late, great country bluesman Van Zandt performed a string of shows over five sweltering nights at the Old Quarter club in Houston, Texas. The performances were recorded on a portable four-track and succeed wonderfully in capturing the intimacy between a very talented songwriter, his guitar and an enthralled, sweaty audience. Rarest edition: 1977 Tomato (US).

Live In Europe – Otis Redding28. Otis Redding – Live In Europe, 1967
Fresh from stealing the show at the Monterey Festival, the Southern soulster was committed to vinyl on the Stax/Volt Revue European tour of 1967 at the Olympia Theatre in Paris. With Booker T. & The MG’s as his backing band, the Big O’s raw vocal power is captured in sensational form, with Try A Little Tenderness bringing the show to an emotional climax. Rarest 1968 Stax.

Live At Monterey – The Jimi Hendrix Experience27. The Jimi Hendrix Experience – Live At Monterey, 2007
Before flagrantly abusing health-and-safety regs by dousing his instrument in lighter fluid and setting it ablaze, consummate showman Hendrix had used his Strat to fry the minds of the festival crowd. Nobody had played rock guitar like Jimi before he arrived on the scene – few have grazed his cosmic sphere since. Rarest edition: 2007 Experience Hendrix (US).

Stupidity – Dr Feelgood26. Dr. Feelgood – Stupidity, 1976
Dr. Feelgood’s hard-driving, stripped-down take on the Delta blues made them live legends on the pub-rock circuit. Stupidity catches the band at the peak of their perspirational powers, with Wilko’s choppy guitar butting up against Lee Brilleaux’s ballsy vocals. It was the first live album in the UK to go to No. 1 on the first week of release. Rarest edition: 1976 United Artists, with bonus single.

The Last Waltz – The Band25. The Band – The Last Waltz, 1978
The Last Waltz was The Band’s farewell concert on Thanksgiving Day 1976 at San Francisco’s Winterland Ballroom. It was an epic, sentimental affair and a suitably star-studded send-off, with turns from Ronnie Hawkins (the man they first backed), Muddy Waters, Eric Clapton, Neil Young, Joni Mitchell, Van Morrison and Bob Dylan (the man they most famously backed). Rarest edition: 1978 Warner Brothers.

It's Too Late To Stop Now – Van Morrison24. Van Morrison It’s Too Late To Stop Now, 1974
Backed by the strings and horns of the 11-piece Caledonia Soul Orchestra, Morrison’s 1973 US tour spawned a classic live album. It’s Too Late To Stop Now was recorded at shows in LA, Santa Monica and London, and finds Van The Man at the top of his powers, with a collection of songs perfectly showcasing his own individual blend of jazz, rock and soul. Rarest edition: 1974 Warner Brothers.

Live At The Regal – BB King23. B.B. King – Live At The Regal, 1965
With the release of Live At The Regal in 1965, the long-reigning King Of The Blues served up one of the genre’s greatest concert albums. The Chicago venue was well known for serving up an atmosphere and the crowd’s excited reception to King’s virtuoso playing virtually jumps out of the grooves. Luther Allison’s Live In Chicago is also highly recommended. Rarest edition: 1965 HMV.

David Bowie – Live Santa Monica 7222. David Bowie – Live Santa Monica ’72, 2008
The official albums David Live and Stage fell short of capturing the full essence of Bowie’s major-artist status as a live performer, the strongest testament of which is this 1972 extended live radio broadcast. Available for years as a much-sought-after bootleg, this is the sound of Ziggy and his arachnid bandmates on the verge of conquering the world. Rarest edition: 2004 EMI.

Neil Young – Live Rust21. Neil Young & Crazy Horse – Live Rust, 1979
Neil Young fans are spoilt for choice when it comes to live albums, more than any artist on this list. Live Rust, recorded during his 1978 Rust Never Sleeps tour, is a career-spanning run-through that sees him take on the dual mantle of folky acoustic songwriter and the leader of hard-rocking partners-in-crime Crazy Horse. Live At Massey Hall 1971 is well worth getting. Rarest edition: 1979 Reprise.

Live! – Fela Kuti With Ginger Baker20. Fela Kuti with Ginger Baker – Live!, 1971
After sitting behind the drums for Cream and Blind Faith, the legendary sticksman visited Nigeria to pursue his fascination with African music. It was there he linked up with Afrobeat legend Fela Kuti, and the two appear together on this undeniably funky album, along with Fela’s band Africa ’70, featuring fellow rhythm master Tony Allen. Rarest edition: 1971 Regal Zonophone.

Made In Japan – Deep Purple19. Deep Purple – Made In Japan, 1972
Recorded over three nights in August 1972 in Osaka and Tokyo, Made In Japan is one of the first great live offerings to the unholy altar of heavy metal. The beloved Deep Purple Mark II line-up, with Ian Gillan on vocals, take on a classic set of Purple songs and stretch them out to their logical limit. Highway Star and Space Truckin’ stand out as highlights. Rarest edition: 1972 Purple Records first press.

Live/Dead – Grateful Dead18. Grateful Dead – Live/Dead, 1969
Live performance was the true expression of the Dead’s art, and the Haight-Ashbury sextet liberally spread their own brand of trippy, avant-garde, psychedelic jam all over this legendary double. The epic Dark Star kicks off the improvisational proceedings and fills one of the four sides, as does the cover of Bobby Bland’s R&B classic Turn On Your Love Light. Rarest edition: 1969 Warner Bros.

Live - Donny Hathaway17. Donny Hathaway – Live, 1972
The result of performances recorded at the Troubadour in Hollywood and the Bitter End in New York, lost-too-soon soul legend Donny Hathaway and his band tear up both venues to deliver a joyously groovy album. There are covers of Jealous Guy and You’ve Got A Friend, but set closer Voices Inside (Everything Is Everything) and funky hit single The Ghetto steal the show. Rarest edition: 1972 Atlantic.

1969: The Velvet Underground Live16. The Velvet Underground – 1969: The Velvet Underground Live, 1974
The Velvets were a different beast after the departure of avant-garde noisenik John Cale, but as these recorded shows in Dallas and San Francisco prove, they were still a mesmerisingly powerful live act. With Doug Yule in tow on bass, Reed, Morrison and Tucker artfully belt out tracks from all the studio albums, including the yet-to-be-released Loaded. Rarest edition: 1974.

Curtis/Live! – Curtis Mayfield15. Curtis Mayfield – Curtis/Live!, 1971
Carving out his solo career after leaving The Impressions, Curtis Mayfield deployed his mix of sweet honeyed soul and blistering funk before a highly appreciative audience at New York’s Bitter End Club in 1971. The intimacy of the venue meant there was no room for strings or horns, which, in turn, only served to heighten the up-close-and-personal live experience. Rarest edition: 1971 Buddah.

Hawkwind – Space Ritual

14. Hawkwind – Space Ritual, 1973
Demented intergalactic rockers Hawkwind’s riff-laden legacy is rooted in live performance rather than studio recording, which explains why 1973’s Space Ritual is considered the band’s defining masterpiece. Recorded over two nights in Liverpool and London, the line-up boasts a pre-Motörhead Lemmy and manic poet-in-residence Bob Calvert. The iconic sci-fi sleeve was designed by Barney Bubbles. Rarest edition: 1973 United Artists.

13. Aretha Franklin – Aretha Live At Fillmore West, 1971
Backed by King Curtis’ mighty band, Aretha brings her gospel-charged soul to San Francisco’s premier rock venue. The set opens with a piledriving version of Respect and is followed by a number of contemporary covers such as Eleanor Rigby, Love The One You’re With and Bridge Over Troubled Water. Spirit In The Dark is a duet with Ray Charles, who was plucked from the crowd to join her. Rarest edition: 1971 Atlantic.

Talking Heads – Stop Making Sense12. Talking Heads – Stop Making Sense, 1984
David Byrne opens with a solo version of Psycho Killer before building up to an expansive Take Me To The River with a full nine-piece band, where the Heads are joined by the mighty Bernie Worrell of Parliament fame. As the music gets bigger, so do Byrne’s suits, so spare a thought for his dry cleaner. 80s art rock was never more funky. Rarest edition: 1999 EMI .

At Fillmore East – The Allman Brothers Band11. The Allman Brothers Band – At Fillmore East, 1971
The Allman Brothers Band took Southern-rock jamming to new, unexplored heights. On their day, the telepathic guitar team of Duane Allman and Dickey Betts was without peer and, as the four sides of this classic live double testify, it was definitely the dazzling duo’s day. Three months after the album’s release, Duane was killed in a motorcycle accident.
Rarest edition: 1971 Atlantic gatefold.

Thin Lizzy - Live And Dangerous10. Thin Lizzy – Live And Dangerous, 1978
Recorded in London in 1976, and Philadelphia and Toronto in 1977, with further post-production in Paris, Live And Dangerous is one of rock’s great live doubles and taps into the band’s explosive energy as onstage performers and Phil Lynott’s considerable charm as a frontman. The use of overdubs has always been a contentious issue, with some churlish critics suggesting And Dangerous would be a more appropriate title.
Rarest edition: 1978 Vertigo.

Live! – Bob Marley And The Wailers9. Bob Marley and The Wailers – Live!, 1975
After a disastrous UK tour two years before that split up the original band, Bob Marley returned in total triumph for this electric and emotional landmark gig at London’s Lyceum Ballroom. The performance was captured in perpetuity by The Rolling Stones’ mobile studio, which was handily parked outside the venue. The definitive version of No Woman, No Cry was released as a single off the album. Rarest edition: 1975 Island.

Live At The Apollo Vol 1 – James Brown8. James Brown – Live At The Apollo Vol. 1, 1963
Living up to his ‘hardest working man in showbusiness’ tag, James Brown put in an extra shift at the Apollo Theater on 24 October, 1962. For his strenuous efforts, Mr Dynamite was rewarded with a blisteringly thrilling and wildly soulful recorded set. Full of fantastic horns, emotional intensity and sweat by the bucket, Live At The Apollo sets the gold standard for live-performance albums. Rarest edition: 1963 London.

It's Alive – Ramones7. Ramones – It’s Alive, 1979
The classic line-up of Joey, Johnny, Dee Dee and Tommy attempt to break the land speed record, with 28 frantically adrenalised mini-anthems clocking in at comfortably under the hour mark. Recorded at the Rainbow Theatre in London, there’s no time for stage banter (unless ‘1-2-3-4’ counts), for extended guitar solos, power ballads… or even breath.
Rarest edition: 1979 Sire.

Get Yer Ya-Ya's Out! – The Rolling Stones6. The Rolling Stones – Get Yer Ya-Ya’s Out, 1970
Pulling mainly on live versions of material from Beggars Banquet and Let It Bleed and recorded on their infamous 1969 US tour, this is The Stones at their kickass, satanic peak. Highlights include essential versions of Midnight Rambler and Sympathy For The Devil, with the baby-faced Mick Taylor unsurpassable on lead guitar. Jagger’s onstage banter is mainly concerned with his trousers not falling down. Rarest edition: 1970 Decca first press.

Jerry Lee Lewis – Live At The Star Club Hamburg5. Jerry Lee Lewis – Live At The Star Club Hamburg, 1964
The Killer taps into a great ball of fury to summon up the feral spirit of rock ’n’ roll at The Beatles’ old haunt in Germany. Never before had a poor piano been pounded so mercilessly as during this incendiary fireball of a show. Lewis is backed by The Nashville Teens, who gamely attempt to keep up with his ferocious bullet-out-of-gun delivery.
Rarest edition: 1964 Philips.

Nirvana – MTV Unplugged In New York4. Nirvana – MTV Unplugged In New York, 1994
Recorded five months before Kurt Cobain’s death and released posthumously, what this acoustic 14-song farewell note lacks in wattage it more than makes up for in stripped-down splendour and raw emotion. With eight originals and half-a-dozen covers, including Bowie’s The Man Who Sold The World, the show-closing rendition of the traditional song Where Did You Sleep Last Night is a chillingly fraught postscript. Rarest edition: Geffen 1994 white vinyl.

Live 1966 – Bob Dylan3. Bob Dylan – Live 1966, The “Royal Albert Hall” Concert, 1998
The quotation marks in the title of the fourth volume in Dylan’s archive series attest to the fact the concert in question actually took place at Manchester’s Free Trade Hall. An easy mistake… The LP is not only an incalculably important document in the history of popular music, it’s also a majestic and thrilling performance from the cocksure Bob and his electric Hawks. Rarest edition: 1998 Columbia (US version).

Live At Leeds – The Who2. The Who – Live At Leeds, 1970
Such is the reverence afforded to The Who’s live performance in the refectory building at Leeds University on 14 February 1970 that a heritage Blue Plaque now marks the spot. After playing festivals at Woodstock and Monterey, Townshend, Daltrey, Entwistle and Moon were a seriously tight stage act with a mountain of sound, boundless creativity and aggressive energy to burn. The crowd at the uni were fortunate enough to be bombarded with all three. Rarest edition: 1970 Track first press with black stamp and insert.

At Folsom Prison – Johnny Cash1. Johnny Cash – At Folsom Prison, 1968
Cash was fascinated with the notion of performing at the maximum-security facility since penning his second Sun single, Folsom Prison Blues, back in 1955. 13 years later, he was onstage in front of a ward-full of volatile cons desperate for entertainment. Johnny kept the outlaw songs and gallows humour coming thick and fast with Cocaine Blues and 25 Minutes To Go falling just the right side of incitement to riot. Read the full story in our feature on p52. Rarest edition: 1968 CBS.