One of the best parts about going to concerts is the collective experience — you, the band and the rest of the crowd all participate together in the event, each of you doing your part. But like so many other things right now, live venues are shut down for the time being due to COVID-19, the possibility of their reopening still months away, if not longer.
So how do you replicate that live experience?
Some artists are doing intimate concerts from their home, while others are posting old shows on their YouTube page. Both help. Then there are live albums, which are often done as a way for bands to capitalize on successful tours by selling fans an audio souvenir. The big problem with most concert albums, however, is that they just make you wish you were there — they rarely capture the full power of the live show, which is often so much about the visuals and the sheer pleasure of watching the artist up there on the stage. No album can replicate that.
That said, I’ve put together a rundown of 13 terrific live albums, comprising several different genres, that might help you get through this concert-less period. And I didn’t necessarily go with the tried-and-true records you usually see on these lists. Sorry, The Last Waltz, I love you as a movie but not so much as a record. And my apologies to the Allman Brothers Band’s At Fillmore East, which I know is revered but does very little for me.
My hope is that my picks feature at least one or two artists you don’t consistently listen to — if so, the live album is an excellent intro to that act. Overall, though, these are just great albums, period. You didn’t have to be at the show to get why they’re terrific.
James Brown, Live at the Apollo (1963)
Why’s It Historic? If there’s one knock on Brown — a worthy candidate for the title of 20th century’s greatest entertainer — it’s that he never released a definitive studio masterpiece, just an endless supply of fantastic singles. Because of that, greatest-hits and live albums are a superb introduction to the singer, but start first with this 1962 concert, which, famously, his label didn’t want him to do. Recorded with Brown’s own money, Live at the Apollo features only a handful of songs — including intros and instrumental bridges, it clocks in at a slim 31 minutes — but it ripples with the performer’s energy and soul. Mr. Dynamite played this gig like he had something to prove to the world, and he emphatically did. (Also worth seeking out: Brown’s 1970 Sex Machine, which is partly live and entirely astounding.)
What’s Its Best Moment? The way he makes “Try Me” both sad and sexy at the same time. This was always one of his best ballads, but this version is especially choice.
Frank Sinatra, Sinatra at the Sands (1966)
Why’s It Historic? There are many different Sinatras — balladeer, Rat Packer, showboat — but this live album honors the Vegas hep-cat, all class and groovy tunes. Backed by the Count Basie Orchestra, Sinatra luxuriates in his own magnificence, but without the shtick that would later turn him into a parody of himself. Sometimes, Sinatra’s between-song patter can be cringe-y — let’s just say that “edgy” humor in 1966 was a little different than it is today — but Sinatra at the Sands typifies the smoke-filled, gin-and-tonic suaveness that generations of men have tried to emulate ever since, often unsuccessfully.
What’s Its Best Moment? “Don’t Worry ‘Bout Me” is sad-eyed Sinatra, which is my favorite Sinatra. Jazzy and mournful, this rendition sounds like last call at the bar, with everybody else in the place leaving with their special someone. Sinatra’s resonant, despondent voice locates the song’s every sigh and lament. He makes getting your heart stomped on seem downright noble, even heroic.
Johnny Cash, At Folsom Prison (1968)
Why’s It Historic? “Hello, I’m Johnny Cash.” With those words, one of country’s most towering figures kicked off the genre’s greatest live album, recorded for the inmates of a California prison in early 1968. “I think John believed he was just making the public more aware of the conditions in the prisons,” famed photographer Jim Marshall said of the shows, which he documented. “I don’t think he saw himself as [a spokesman]. I think he saw himself as an entertainer who could make a difference in their lives even for an hour.” At Folsom Prison was also a boon for Cash, who was creatively stifled at the time. In the process, he made an album that chronicled his outlaw persona, boundless empathy for the downtrodden and that incredible voice.
What’s Its Best Moment? If you get the extended edition, you’ll get to hear fun behind-the-scenes audio of the prisoners being instructed how to cheer after Cash introduces himself. (Even someone like Johnny Cash had a little showbiz in him.) But “Folsom Prison Blues” remains the standout track, an anthem turned into a show of sympathy for his very captive audience.
Aretha Franklin, Amazing Grace (1972)
Why’s It Historic? This is Franklin’s best-selling album and the most commercially successful live gospel album of all time, recorded over a two-day span at an L.A. Baptist church. Want more reasons to check out Amazing Grace? The accompanying documentary, filmed back in 1972 but only finally released in 2018 because of complicated legal and technical issues, will show you a commanding young Franklin testifying and wailing, sweating buckets while singing songs of divine faith. But Amazing Grace works beautifully enough as an album, offering spiritual comfort and stirring uplift as only a true believer can provide. For a lot of atheists, this is as close to church as they’ll ever get.
What’s Its Best Moment? Franklin turns Marvin Gaye’s “Wholy Holy” into a paean to peace, love and the lord almighty. Backed by a harp, piano and a transcendent choir, the Queen of Soul delivers one of her most impassioned performances, envisioning a better tomorrow with such conviction that it seems like she’s practically willing it into existence.
Bill Withers, Live at Carnegie Hall (1973)
Why’s It Historic? Want one album that encapsulates the simple but profound power of Withers, who died earlier this year? Live at Carnegie Hall finds the R&B singer-songwriter backed by a band, a string section and horns. But it’s his rich voice and those melodic tunes that are the centerpiece, demonstrating how this much-beloved figure could fill a big room yet still make it feel intimate. “Hardly anybody thought I should be playing the place or recording it. Because it was only my third album,” Withers said in 2015. “There was some question as to whether I could draw enough people to play Carnegie Hall. Up until then I’d been playing the Bitter End and the Troubadour, unless I was opening for somebody like Blood, Sweat & Tears or Jethro Tull, who played larger places. Basically I was, like, an opening act or a club guy.” Not after this incredible live record.
What’s Its Best Moment? The indelible hits “Use Me,” “Ain’t No Sunshine” and “Lean on Me” are all here, but Live at Carnegie Hall’s highlight is a stunning “Hope She’ll Be Happier,” which feels like Withers just dumping his heart onto the stage, saying goodbye to a lover he thought would never leave. The pain is deeply felt, and the song builds in intensity until it’s almost unbearable.
Joni Mitchell, Miles of Aisles (1974)
Why’s It Historic? Mitchell was at the height of her popularity during this 1974 tour, which both promoted her recent bestseller Court and Spark and capped off a five-year run of excellent albums. That doesn’t make Miles of Aisles a best-of — the record eschews some hits in favor of superb deep album cuts — but it demonstrates the breadth of her talent as she translates confessional tunes to a live setting without losing any of the vulnerability or beauty.
What’s Its Best Moment? Admittedly, some of these live tracks, where she’s accompanied by the jazz-pop combo the L.A. Express, can be overly tasteful, but when it’s just her and an acoustic guitar for “A Case of You,” you realize she doesn’t really need anything else. It’s always been among Mitchell’s most bittersweet love songs, and despite all the years of her playing the song, she makes it feel like a fresh revelation.
Neil Young & Crazy Horse, Live Rust (1979)
Why’s It Historic? Young is so prolific — both in terms of his studio albums and his live collections — that it’s sheer madness to narrow the singer-songwriter down to one concert disc. But, twist my arm, I’d go with Live Rust, which summarizes his first decade or so in all its ragged glory. You’ve got the introspective acoustic ballads but also the bruising rock ‘n’ roll workouts, as well as a healthy dose of selections from his (at that time) most recent album Rust Never Sleeps, which was recorded during this tour. If you want to know why people absolutely love this adventurous, guitar-slinging weirdo, Live Rust is as good a place as any to start.
What’s Its Best Moment? “Hey Hey, My My (Into the Black)” is where Young and his band Crazy Horse set the roof on fire while proclaiming that “rock ‘n’ roll can never die.” The guitars are so wondrously loud that arguing with his thesis is pointless.
Talking Heads, The Name of This Band Is Talking Heads (1982)
Why’s It Historic? Stop Making Sense remains the greatest concert film, but in terms of Talking Heads live albums, it’s not even the group’s best. That honor goes to this collection, released a few years earlier, which compiles performances over several years. The Name of This Band Is Talking Heads is a handy guide to the New York quartet’s evolution, moving from CBGB punks to funky experimentalists. It lacks the cohesion of Stop Making Sense’s one-night-only vibe, but it compensates with more songs and a startling intimacy as you hear a band slowly discover how great they’re destined to be.
What’s Its Best Moment? Check out a “Psycho Killer” from 1977 that feels like it’s ready to slit the throat of anybody that looks at it funny.
Nirvana, MTV Unplugged in New York (1994)
Why’s It Historic? With Nevermind and In Utero, Nirvana redefined rock music in the early 1990s, giving the world loud, desperate songs about abuse, depression and drug addiction. But Kurt Cobain redefined his own band with this Unplugged performance, locating the material’s moody, stripped-down side, bringing in cello and his friends from the Meat Puppets for hushed, gorgeous renditions of deep album cuts. For those who loved Nirvana but had grown tired of the overplayed hits, MTV Unplugged reintroduced fans to their beloved band. (By the way, if you’d rather hear the guys rocking out, 2009’s Live at Redding is extraordinary, too.)
What’s Its Best Moment? It loses a smidgeon of its power just because you can’t see Cobain’s wide-eyed pause near the end, but nonetheless “Where Did You Sleep Last Night” remains an absolute chiller — and, for many of us, an astounding last word from an artist who took his own life not that long after recording it.
Bob Dylan, Live 1966 (1998)
Why’s It Historic? Among the most infamous of all rock concerts, Bob Dylan’s 1966 appearance at the Manchester Free Trade Hall took place during his controversial U.K. tour, which found the troubadour transitioning from acoustic folkie to electric troublemaker. Live 1966 captures that wild night, including the random bozo who yelled “Judas!” during the electric set. But you don’t need to care about that history to love the hell out of this double-disc collection, the first devoted to his acoustic performances, the second featuring his full-band performances with his backing group, who would later become the Band. The mid-1960s was Dylan’s creative peak, and this brings it all back home.
What’s Its Best Moment? Let’s pick one from each set. For the acoustic side, go with the crushingly sad “It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue.” When you want to turn up the volume, I recommend “Like a Rolling Stone.” Before the song, Dylan instructs his band, “Play fucking loud.” They obeyed.
Jay-Z, MTV Unplugged (2001)
Why’s It Historic? Hip-hop has always faced criticism that it doesn’t make for a dynamic live experience: It’s just a couple dudes rapping on top of a prerecorded track. This argument is ridiculous, and Jay-Z’s Unplugged album makes the case succinctly. J-Hova was riding high at this moment, enjoying the acclaim of his recent Blueprint disc, and he teamed up with the Roots to turn his biggest hits into R&B workouts. And as if that wasn’t enough musical firepower, special guests like Mary J. Blige also show up to lend a hand. Next time somebody tells you rap isn’t music, play that fool this. (Also worth getting: the soundtrack to Dave Chappelle’s Block Party.)
What’s Its Best Moment? C’mon, you wanna hear the Roots ride that insane beat from “Big Pimpin’.” Jay sounds positively delighted that they pulled it off.
Daft Punk, Alive 2007 (2007)
Why’s It Historic? Sure, yes, this legendary Daft Punk tour was very much about its mind-blowing set design and eye-melting visuals. But Alive 2007 terrifically captures the audio side of the equation, as Guy-Manuel de Homem-Christo and Thomas Bangalter weave in and out of their biggest songs, turning them into stadium stompers. This is the sound of dance music conquering the planet by force — and of humanity giddily surrendering to its new helmeted overlords.
What’s Its Best Moment? It is very hard to boil Alive 2007 down to one song or moment — the delirious rush of the whole thing is what matters. That said, the album’s “Robot Rock”/“Oh Yeah” opener is the perfect gateway drug to the 84-minute experience. Building slowly and then detonating with brutal swagger, it gets you psyched for every fist-pumping, euphoric moment to come.
Beyoncé, Homecoming: The Live Album (2019)
Why’s It Historic? Beyoncé’s 2018 Coachella performance felt like a coronation and a victory lap for one of the planet’s biggest pop stars — as with everything she does, it was both wildly ambitious and a bit exhausting in its sheer spectacle. You can’t see the onstage extravaganza, but you can sure hear it on the live album, which is nearly two hours of Beyoncé proving why she runs the world, assisted by a massive marching band that only adds to the proceedings’ grandiosity. Homecoming is the closest she’s come to a greatest-hits, but a standard compilation wouldn’t suggest the sway she has over her fans, which is another way of saying that the massive ovation after every song on this live album is part of the electric atmosphere.
What’s Its Best Moment? “Formation” is protest music and celebration all at once. You’ve heard this song a billion times. But it’s never sounded better than it does here.