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Rock’s Greatest Live Albums: Top 40 Ranked
Billy Joel made excellent records in his early career, but nearly every song on this collection (recorded at various venues on his 1980 tour) sounds better live. The single LP was so packed he didn’t even bother to include “Piano Man.”
Progressive rock at its finest. This triple (!) live LP came on the heels of the only two albums recorded with the band’s best lineup (Chris Squire on bass, Jon Anderson on vocals, Bill Bruford on drums, Steve Howe on guitar and Rick Wakeman on keyboards) -- ‘Fragile’ and ‘Close To The Edge.’ But Bruford quit at the beginning of the tour, so most of this album features Alan White, whose playing was much better suited for the arenas that Yes was now headlining.
The classic version of “Lola” comes from this live album, and that alone earns it a spot on this list.
Like a lot of other albums on this list, there’s at least a bit of post-production sweetening here, but the final result is one of the greatest albums -- “live” or otherwise -- in ‘70s hard rock.
Coming off of their best album, 1981’s ‘Moving Pictures’ was the perfect time for Rush to show off their live prowess; the heavy prog rock band somehow went from cult phenomenon to arena headliners. The album was so packed with classics that even “Limelight” (a song from ‘Moving Pictures’ that was an ode to playing live) didn’t make the album, despite being a recent radio hit. Neil Peart’s drum solo in “YYZ” is so iconic, many fans who aren’t even drummers know it by heart.
For some reason, Petty never had a definitive live album, but this collection, with performances from 1978 through 2007 is an amazing collection that shows that Petty and the Heartbreakers were one of the best live bands in the ‘70s, ‘80s, ‘90s and the ‘00s.
As the ‘70s came to a close, punk rock bands were making the hippies from the ‘60s look obsolete. Neil Young was an exception and this raging, roaring live album with Crazy Horse shows why: on songs like “Hey, Hey, My, My (Into The Black)” and “Sedan Delivery,” they play as furiously as the Sex Pistols. Not that they left psychedelic jams in the past: “Cortez The Killer” and “Like A Hurricane” were improvisational gems, and Young still was great at playing solo folk, as he demonstrated on “Sugar Mountain” and “I Am A Child.”
If you never had the opportunity to see Lynyrd Skynyrd during Ronnie Van Zant’s lifetime (and let’s give props to Johnny Van Zant, who has done a great job fronting the band for decades), this is the closest that you’ll get. They released this after having only three studio albums, which gave them more than enough material for a double live album. Besides showing off their southern pride on “‘T’ For Texas” they also provied themselves to be blues-rock equals of their idols in Cream on Robert Johnson’s “Crossroads.” And of course, this album has the definitive -- “What song is it you want to hear?” -- “Freebird.”
Recorded at the Woodstock festival in 1969, Joplin performed ten hours later than scheduled, and partially due to that, she wasn’t as transcendent as she was at her Monterey Pop Festival performance a few years earlier. But Jopin at less than full power is better than most artists on their best night, as evidenced here. Robert Plant, Steven Tyler, Ann Wilson and Axl Rose are among the singers still carrying Joplin’s influence today.
Recorded in 1980 and 1981 during Ozzy’s first tours as a solo artist. His two albums with his original guitarist Randy Rhoads (who tragically died in a plane crash in 1982) held up to his earlier material with Black Sabbath, and his live band (Rhoads, bassist Rudy Sarzo and drummer Tommy Aldridge) packed almost as much of a punch as Sabbath. Someone send this (along with ‘Blizzard of Oz’ and ‘Diary of a Madman’) to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame voters, already: Randy Rhoads needs to be inducted.
It’s a rough and ragged live album, and that’s appropriate: we’re talking about the Runaways here. Opening with “Queens Of Noise” (a theme song of sorts), they owned iconic songs like the Velvet Underground’s “Rock and Roll” and the Troggs’ “Wild Thing.” And their own classic, “Cherry Bomb,” holds its own against those two timeless jams.
In the ‘80s, Queen kept cranking out pop singles, but by the end of the ‘70s, they were still very much a rock band and that’s on full display here. While the critics didn’t love the album, they didn’t get Queen anyway, and for years, this was the only authorized documentation of a Queen concert.
In 1984, when this album was recorded, Maiden was graduating to arena-headlining status, and they did it without having to rely on hit singles: they were the rare band to achieve that kind of popularity without having to hear complaints of “selling out.” It might have been hard to imagine them headlining such big venues with original singer Paul Di’Anno, but Bruce Dickinson, who had fronted the band for three studio albums at this point, had the voice and the presence to deliver Maiden’s metal to the largest venues imaginable (and they still play to enormous crowds today, particularly overseas).
This album, recorded in 1969, came at a particularly great era for the Stones; Mick Taylor had just replaced Brian Jones a few months before, tightening up the band’s live sound. This was also the last tour before they started adding extra musicians: you’re just hearing Taylor, Mick Jagger, Keith Richards, Bill Wyman, Charlie Watts and longtime touring pianist Ian Stewart. The classic version of “Midnight Rambler” comes from this album.
Redding was one of the greatest singers in the world in the late ‘60s, and on this album, he was backed by one of the greatest bands: Booker T & The MGs. Together, they were a force of nature. Highlights included “Respect” (Otis sang it before Aretha), his cover of the Rolling Stones’ “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction” and the Beatles’ “Day Tripper.”
This also happens to be the Yardbirds’ debut album; their lead guitarist at the time was a young Eric Clapton who quickly outgrew the band but his playing here holds up to nearly anything he’s done since.
There are so many Pearl Jam performances to choose from, as they’ve released authorized bootlegs of all of their shows for more than ten years. But this show had a special energy to it: it was the last concert ever at Philadelphia’s Spectrum, it was on Halloween, it was across the highway from a New York Yankees/Philadelphia Phillies World Series game, and it was the longest show the band had ever played at that point. It featured, among other surprises, their first performance of “Bugs,” and the rarely performed “Out Of My Mind” and “Sweet Lew.” Not to mention a cover of “Whip It” in full Devo costumes.
Originally available as a bootleg, it was later legitimately released, and some may prefer ‘Ziggy Stardust: The Motion Picture’ from this same tour. But the Santa Monica show was recorded months earlier, when Bowie was still all-in with the ‘Ziggy Stardust’ persona and has a bit more intensity and less weariness. The band, led by guitarist Mick Ronson, was in top form.
Of course, AC/DC’s biggest success came with singer Brian Johnson, but as a live band, they were at their best when the late Bon Scott gripped the mic. As the late Malcolm Young once said about the album, “We were young, fresh, vital and kicking ass."
This is the 1992 show where Kurt Cobain was rolled onto the stage in a wheelchair while wearing a hospital gown. He, and the band, were still having fun with their success, even as they questioned it. They were on top of the world thanks to the meteoric success of ‘Nevermind,’ and they played most of that album. Cobain gave a shoutout to his 12-day old daughter and led the audience in chanting, “Courtney, we love you!” The performances were furious and proved why Nirvana was the band that everyone was watching, and listening to, in ‘92.
Stop Making Sense’ is generally regarded as one of the greatest concert films ever, but even divorced of the visuals, the live album is a classic. Talking Heads made great records, but these live versions of “Girlfriend Is Better” and “Life During Wartime” top the originals.
The line, “I shot a man in Reno, just to watch him die” might get a rise out of a lot of audiences. But when Johnny Cash sang it for an audience of inmates at Folsom Prison, it obviously took on a new meaning; some of the faces looking back at Cash may actually have done just that, and they were paying the price. Cash sings some of his heaviest numbers, including “25 Minutes To Go” and “Dark As A Dungeon,” but maintained his sense of humor in his in-between song banter, and also on “Busted.”
Elton John himself has cited this as his best live recording. The album title commemorates the date that it was recorded, and on November 17, 1970, he wasn’t yet a star. It’s hard to imagine these days, but in 1970, Elton John was an up-and-coming artist with something to prove, and he played like his life depended on it. He hadn’t yet added guitarist Davey Johnstone to his band; back then, it was just the trio of him, bassist Dee Murray and drummer Nigel Olsson. Legend has it that Elton cut his hand during the show, and by the time it was over, the piano keys were covered with blood. And it sounds like it.
‘The Royal Albert Hall’ is in quotes because (as most Dylan fans know) this concert t was actually recorded at the Manchester Free Trade Hall during Dylan's world tour in 1966, but the much-bootlegged show was often falsely attributed to the Royal Albert Hall on the illicit recordings. The show is legendary for its second set, which featured an electric rock band, much to the horror of Dylan’s folkie fans. The acoustic songs are great -- Dylan was a master solo performer, even though he was losing interest -- but the electric set was Dylan as his most defiant; it’s almost punk rock at points.
Sure, Cheap Trick’s first three albums were great, but when you want to hear “Surrender” or “Hello There” or “Big Eyes” or “I Want You To Want Me,” you’re gonna reach for your ‘At Budokan’ LP. Like some of the other live albums on this list, it took the band from the trenches and made them stars.
When Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band hit Europe on their ‘Born To Run’ tour, the hype was so overwhelming that there was a certain skepticism from the audience, and even Springsteen was annoyed with his record label. But this show, recorded on November 18, 1975 launched him as a major star in Europe; he remains incredibly popular there to this day.
Like Led Zeppelin, Deep Purple took their muscular blues-based compositions to different places in concert via their improvisational jams. Singer Ian Gillan really shines here, particularly on “Child In Time” (possibly his finest moment). This album is one of the blueprints for live heavy metal for decades to come.
Once upon a time, U2 were a post-punk band who wore their hearts on their sleeves; they were trying to take over the world, they hadn’t yet discovered sarcasm, they still thought mullets were cool and they didn’t bother with stage production of any kind. ‘Under A Blood Red Sky’ caught them towards the end of the era before they were huge rock stars, but were intent on stepping into the shoes of the Who and the Clash.
A great singer can sing anything; Franklin was one of the greatest (maybe *the* greatest) and so when she hit the storied rock venue the Fillmore West, she had some appropriate covers in her set: the Beatles’ “Eleanor Rigby,” Stephen Stills’ “Love The One You’re With” and Simon & Garfunkel’s “Bridge Over Troubled Water.” Those interpretations held up to her own repertoire, which included “Respect” and “Dr. Feelgood.” Bonus: Ray Charles shows up for “Spirit In The Dark.”
Released at the peak of Motorhead’s career, it follows their ‘Overkill,’ ‘Bomber’ and ‘Ace of Spades’ albums - records that had impossibly fast jams. And, crazily enough, they got even faster on ‘No Sleep.’ Motorhead released a lot of live albums, but this is the best of them.
The studio version of “No Woman No Cry” from 1974’s ‘Natty Dread’ was lovely, but the live version, taken from this album, is the definitive one. How did reggae cross over from Jamaica to huge audiences in America? ‘Live!’ had a lot to do with it.
By 1975 when this album was recorded, former Humble Pie singer/guitarist Peter Frampton had released four solo albums, none of which made much impact. But, true to the album’s title, some of the songs came alive in concert; ‘Frampton Comes Alive!’ topped the album charts and was the best selling album of 1976, making Frampton a huge star.
Seger tells the audience during the second concert taped for this album, “As I told everybody last night, I was reading in Rolling Stone where they said, ‘Detroit audiences are the greatest rock & roll audiences in the world.’ I thought to myself, ‘S---! I've known that for ten years!’” That audience may well have inspired the performances here, which are now iconic. In 1975, when the album was recorded, Seger was huge in the Motor City, but soon after the release of this album, he became one of America’s biggest rock stars.
“You wanted the best? You got the best! The hottest band in the world: KISS!” That quote, which opens every KISS concert to this day, has become something of a cliche in recent decades. But in 1975, it was actually true. And even though a lot of post-production tightened up the live album, it captures the excitement of KISS’s live shows back when KISS weren’t yet a merchandising machine and they still had something to prove.
Santana hadn’t yet released their debut album, but after their performance at the 1969 Woodstock festival, they were stars. Listen to this album and you’ll understand why. Even if their entire career ended here, they’d still be legendary. “Soul Sacrifice” is one of the greatest live performances ever.
Recorded at the Fillmore East in New York In March of 1971 the album was released in July of that same year, just three months before leader and guitarist Duane Allman’s tragic death. ‘At Fillmore East’ truly marked the end of an era, and saw one of rock’s greatest talents in peak form. The rest of the band were incredible as well -- particularly singer Gregg Allman. This is improvisational rock music at its finest.
While Brown wouldn’t have considered himself “rock and roll,” he certainly made an impact on any rock and roll frontperson with his records and his live shows. Mick Jagger, Roger Daltrey, Steven Tyler and Bruce Springsteen all took note of Brown’s power as a live performer (and Springsteen surely noted the tight ship that Brown ran when it came to leading his band).
Yes, this is the historic 1967 concert where he blew minds, torched his guitar and became a star in the U.S. (he was already popular in the U.K.). That context is useful, but even without it, this performance shows the Jimi Hendrix Experience at the top of their game. Hendrix made some iconic songs his own (“Like A Rolling Stone,” “Wild Thing” and of course, “Hey Joe”) and showed that his own material could hold up to those classics.
Better late than never: it took more than two decades after Led Zeppelin’s dissolution for the band to put out the definitive live document of their live prowess. Compiled from two 1972 shows, it showcases the band at the peak of their powers. Their shorter songs pack a mighty punch, but they also flex their improvisational muscles on extended versions of “Dazed And Confused” and “Whole Lotta Love.” And of course, their acoustic set (with “Going To California,” “That’s The Way” and “Bron-Y-Aur Stomp”) was gorgeous.
The Who’s studio albums make up one of the greatest discographies in popular music, but none of them matched the raw power of ‘Live At Leeds.’ In recent years, the Who’s concerts have featured Pete Townshend and Roger Daltrey with five other musicians, and sometimes, a full orchestra. Back then, they made more noise with just John Entwistle and Keith Moon. These days, you can buy an extended version of ‘Live At Leeds’ with 30+ songs. The original tracklist included just six: three covers (“Young Man Blues,” “Summertime Blues” and “Shakin’ All Over”) and three originals (“Substitute,” “Magic Bus” and a 14-minute long “My Generation”). And while we should be grateful for every last second that was captured for the full length, it was the original six-song version that inspired most of the hard rock and heavy metal bands of the ‘70s (and surely alienated some of the Who’s early-’60s mod fans).