Herein I interpret the term ‘live album’ fairly narrowly; I am concerned primarily with professionally-produced and officially-released non-bootleg albums (so I didn’t consider any of the eighteen million Grateful Dead bootlegs that exist).
Ashley's Top Five:
1. Sam Cooke – “One Night Stand! Sam Cooke Live at the Harlem Square Club” – This isn’t just one of my favorite live albums; it’s one of my favorite albums of all time. But since I’m evaluating this on the merits of its live performance, it’s just a stunning example of how the right musician/performer can bring a set of songs to life. When I listen to Sam Cooke croon effortlessly through “Bring It On Home To Me,” or when he improvises the monologue intro to “It’s All Right,” it’s almost as if he hasn’t been dead for nearly forty years, but instead he’s actually singing tonight in a club down the street. The crowd sounds positively electric and he speaks at the audience often as if they’re all close friends of his. He pleads with the audience, whom he already has wrapped around his little finger, “I want you to listen to this song right here; this song’s gonna tell you how I feel.” It simultaneously sounds like an intimate affair and a giant party; indeed, the closing track, “Having a Party,” ends the album with an appropriate flair. I feel like I’m gushing about this but this album is so amazing.
2. John Denver – “An Evening With John Denver” – Recorded over the course of a couple of shows in 1974, this record showcases Denver’s prowess as not just a lyricist and a musician but as a performer who genuinely enjoys playing music and who works hard to please the crowd. Exceedingly humble, at times he almost seems in awe of the crowd’s presence, but he does a good job of balancing the music with plenty of good-hearted banter that proves to be just as fun to listen to. The hits are here: solid versions of “Rocky Mountain High,” and “Take Me Home, Country Roads,” a beautifully delicate version of “Annie’s Song,” and a great rendition of the Lennon/McCartney tune “Mother Nature’s Son,” and Denver alternates between the upbeat romps and the softer, quieter stuff. Of course, as a Baltimore Orioles fan, I unequivocally love the rousing version of “Thank God I’m a Country Boy.”
3. Dead Kennedys – “Mutiny on the Bay” – This consists of fourteen songs from a few different California DK shows in 1982, but I swear it sounds pretty seamless to me. What makes this great in my book aren’t the particulars, but that this is the closest a lot of us are ever going to get to witnessing the sheer force of Jello Biafra on a stage. His rants are classic and the ad-libbing/updating of some of the lyrics works incredibly well, especially on “Kill the Poor.” The band sounds great; “Forward to Death” is just blistering, and as hard as it is to select this instead of The Clash Live at Shea Stadium, this record sounds really raw and unpolished in a great way.
4. The Who – “Live at Leeds (Deluxe Edition)” – This list would be woefully incomplete without “Live at Leeds,” and the deluxe edition is essential. The version of “Substitute” on this record is canonical at this point, and Townsend and Co. have never sounded better than on “Can’t Explain” and the reckless “Summertime Blues.” Another favorite is the version of “A Quick One While He’s Away,” clocking it at nearly nine minutes of sheer awesome.
5. Bruce Springsteen & The E Street Band – “Live 1975-1985” – I couldn’t in good conscience leave this off the list, though I admit that the ten year time span during which the songs were recorded (and the fact that it’s a 5 LP boxed set) make this a huge undertaking. Still, it’s Springsteen and his band at their best on many of the forty tracks. The version of “Rosalita” (my favorite Springsteen song) totally slays, and the 1980 recording of “Badlands” (recorded the night after Reagan won the presidency, apparently) is a must-hear. The sound quality is fantastic, not surprisingly, and it’s wonderful to hear Springsteen and Co. give 100% throughout.
Honorable mentions: The Clash: “Live at Shea Stadium,” Wings: “Wings over America,” Descendents: “Liveage!”