Before long, live music will return. Venues will be booked. Tickets will be sold. Debit cards will be swiped under makeshift walls of displayed merchandise. We will get back to the business of concerts, perhaps even sooner than we thought. COVID vaccines are earnest and willing, like a recently signed artist with distribution.
I’ve never been a big “night life” type of person, but I do miss going out to shows. I miss supporting small venues and local artists. I miss Volume Festival. I even miss stadium shows, God bless their overpriced, uncomfortable seats and flimsy sound systems.
2020-21 has left all of us with a live music void. Live streams put a bandaid on the problem. I enjoyed weekly streams from Ben Gibbard and Ben Folds. I loved the Bad Religion and Jimmy Eat World pre-recorded “live experiences.” But more often than not, during the pandemic, live albums of yesteryears are what carried me through.
Newer artists are not releasing live albums at the same rate as previous eras, and that is a shame. All great bands or artists should have at least one live album in their discography. Why, for the love of all things holy, have the Black Keys not released an official live record? (They do have a live album from 2008 released only on video). Or the Kings of Leon? The Strokes? These bands have released live tracks, yes, but not an official, honest-to-God, start-to-finish concert album.
Kudos to the Arctic Monkeys, one of the few major post-2000 bands to release a live record, 2020’s Live at the Royal Albert Hall. In fact, stop what you’re doing and listen to ”505” right now. I’ll wait.
Note that I am not considering a disparate collection of live songs to be a live album. I want to hear a single concert from start to finish. This is why Ben Folds Live, one of my favorites, is not listed below. That album is more of a tour retrospective. I’m splitting hairs, I know, but any artist can find a collection of great tracks and put them together as a “live album.” I want to close my eyes and experience a show from start to finish. I want to hear the good and the bad, the funky notes, the song transitions, the banter in the background, the crowd impatient and eager. I want to be transported there. I want to live in the spirit of the moment.
One final note: Blink 182’s amazingly funny The Mark, Tom and Travis Show (2000) is excluded, because let’s be honest: it’s a fake live album.
Here are my five favorite live albums.
Social Distortion – Live at the Roxy (1998)
I have only been genuinely drunk a handful of times. That is, drunk enough to warrant a hangover. One time, in my early 20s, I woke up on the floor of a friend’s house to the sound of Live at the Roxy. I was young. It was loud. My head hurt but it was glorious.
I remember closing my eyes, foggy and discombobulated. Suddenly, I wasn’t on my buddy’s floor, hungover and sore from a night of sleeping on hardwood floors without blankets or pillows. I was at the Roxy, singing, moshing, and dancing with the “kittens.” At one point, Mike Ness, singer of Social Distortion, asks the audience: “Remember when punk rock was dangerous?” No, not really, but this feels dangerous.
I’m now in my 30s. I rarely drink, and I sleep in a comfy king size bed. There’s not much about my youth I relate to any more. But I still absolutely adore this record. In many ways, I relate to the album now more than ever before.
In 1998, Social Distortion were “elders” in the punk scene. They emerged in the early 80s and found some mainstream success between 1988 and 1990, but they floundered for most of the ‘90s, known for their “early stuff.” Live at the Roxy was recorded at the end of a decade that had mostly forgotten them. But Social Distortion didn’t need stadiums or commercial hits to sustain a career. They were right where they needed to be: singing with the weirdos, outcasts and freaks of the LA punk scene. They were home.
Postscript: After years of searching, I finally found Live at the Roxy on vinyl last year. Original pressing. It’s the most I’ve ever paid for a vinyl record (very anti-punk, I know), but worth every penny. Remember when punk rock was dangerous? I do. Every time I spin the record.
Johnny Cash – At Folsom Prison (1969)
Johnny Cash was always going to make this list, but choosing between San Quentin or Folsom Prison is like picking a favorite child. Folsom is iconic, simpler, and might actually sound a little better than San Quentin. Folsom has “Cocaine Blues,” delivered with purpose and intensity that’s hard to find elsewhere in Cash’s catalogue, and “25 Minutes to Go,” which follows “Cocaine Blues” like a sad and sober coda. You have “Busted” and “Give My Love to Rose.” And of course, “Folsom Prison Blues,” one of Cash’s biggest and earliest hits, performed to a crowd of Folsom Prison inmates. He owes everything to them and he knows it. You can hear it in his voice.
San Quentin was recorded a year after the enormous success of Folsom. There’s more of an expectation for greatness in San Quentin because of what had come before it. In Folsom, we witness what the prisoners had witnessed in real time: the surprising satisfaction of unexpected greatness.
Nirvana – MTV Unplugged In New York (1994)
What is there to say about MTV Unplugged In New York that hasn’t already been said? It’s a masterpiece. Like all great live albums, it wouldn’t be nearly half as interesting were it a studio record. Nirvana was a force in the early ‘90s. Their success overthrew and dismantled the lingering smell of affectatious hairspray from ‘80s arena rock bands, replacing it with something grittier, sweatier, and more concise. By the time Unplugged came around, Nirvana was a household name. They were rock gods, some would argue the definition of what they came to overthrow.
But Unplugged reminds us that Kurt Kobain wasn’t a rock star. He wasn’t an idol, not really. Nor was he a company man for a record industry that would soon forget him. He was a songwriter, a scribbler of notes and a wielder of melody. He was an artist.
So Unplugged does what all great live performances do: it holds you. Again and again. It captures me every time I listen to it. Not just because it sounds so unbelievably beautiful, or because the soft renditions of loud bangers turn into mystical melodies, but because the mythos of Kurt Kobain is momentarily removed, and for 53 minutes we see and hear him so clearly for what he really was: a vulnerable genius.
Sam Cooke – One Night Stand – Sam Cooke Live At The Harlem Square Club (1963)
This album was originally shelved for not being mainstream enough, i.e., “too black,” and not released until well after Cooke’s death. Executives at RCA were nervous that their bankable star would remind all those white people buying his records that he was, actually, a black man. Audiences were used to a buttoned-up Cooke performing on television year after year in a controlled and courteous manner, like a tortured Lakeith Stanfield in Get Out.
But Cooke wasn’t just a suave crooner shaped by industry. Harlem Square shows how dynamic, complex and powerful a performer he really was.
Much like Otis Redding’s Live at the Monterey International Pop Festival, Cooke’s Harlem Square is raw, energetic and loud. In fact, one of my favorite things of Harlem Square are the drums. They are so loud in the mix it’s almost all you can hear next to Cooke’s soaring vocals. It sounds like you’re standing right next to the stage.
If there’s one aspect from this record that stands above all the rest, however, it is Cooke’s connection to his audience. Every artist in this article shares this skill, I think. In fact, one could argue that ‘audience connection’ is the most crucial part of any live performance, let alone the recording of one. But here, Cooke is in a league of his own. He is not nearly performing to an audience. He is performing with them. He is them. They are one. And they’re having a party.
John Mayer – Where the Light Is: John Mayer Live In Los Angeles (2008)
This album has everything: Mega-pop hits delivered with acoustic sentimentality, crunchy blues-trio jams played by world-class musicians, and full-band renditions of Mayer’s best album, Continuum. We’ve covered Mayer extensively on this website, so I won’t write much more here. But I do want to say that in our current era of disappearing guitars, fake drums, and overproduced vocals, Mayer is the pop star we need AND the pop star we deserve.
- Sigur Rós – Inni (Live)
- Nada Surf – Live at the Neptune Theater
- David Bowie – At the Tower Philadelphia
- Roger Waters – Roger Waters The Wall
- The Shins – Live at Third Man Records
- Nirvana – Live at the Paramount
- The Format – Live at the Mayan Theater
- Dashboard Confessional – MTV Unplugged