Got live if you want it!

I’m going to come right out and say it.  By and large, live albums just aren’t very good.

In my conversations with friends and family during the COVID upheaval, when I ask what everyone misses the most, one of the things mentioned most often is the opportunity to attend a concert and hear live music.

Listening to great music performed right in front of you at a small club or street fair, or even at an arena or stadium, can be extraordinary.  It’s potentially thrilling to hear and see them offer their live versions, perhaps with subtle or major changes in tempo, arrangement or length, therefore making it a unique experience that you share with the others in attendance.

That’s what we miss:  Seeing and hearing live music simultaneously.

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Live albums, on the other hand, attempt to recreate the concert experience without the crucial visual component.  They’re immediately handicapped by that shortcoming, which is the main reason why they are so often disappointing.

Ever since the introduction of concert DVDs, it seems to me the live album should be a dead concept.  What’s the point?  Why merely listen to a band in concert when you can listen AND watch a band in concert?

In the formative years of the ’60s and ’70s, though, virtually every band eventually released a live album, sometimes two or three or more.  It was considered something of a bellwether, an indication that the artist had become a Big Deal and was justified in putting out an in-concert LP.

So what was wrong with that?  Several things.

Too many live albums came with way too much applause and crowd craziness.  It’s so boring, and annoying, when a live track begins and/or ends with 30 seconds, 45 seconds, maybe a whole minute or more of clapping and whistling.  Some even interrupt the flow of the track with crowd noise during the song.

Many live LPs were shoddily produced and hurriedly released to capitalize on a band’s popularity.  Even the packaging was substandard.

Some live albums were fraudulent.  They actually took studio recordings and grafted on some concert applause to make the track appear live to the undiscerning listener.  Others included substantial dubbing of re-recorded guitar or vocals to cover up errors or so-so performances.

Still, they could be fun to listen to, they’re part of rock music history, and lots and lots of people bought them.  So I’ve compiled my list of a dozen live albums from the ’60s, ’70s and ’80s that bring back fond memories for me for their indelible performances and their ability to transport me to their concerts.

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“At Fillmore East,” The Allman Brothers Band, 1971

81TiDFSXXAL-1._SL1400_I would argue that this is rock’s finest live album.  The Allman Brothers’ first two studio albums had great original songs but the limp production gave the tracks a hollow sound.  This was a band that sounded far better in concert than in the studio, so they recorded a few nights at the Fillmore East in March 1971 and released this ferocious double album.  Original tracks like “In Memory of Elizabeth Reed” and “Whipping Post” were transformed into magnificent extended versions with Duane Allman and Dickey Betts both showing off their best licks.  Just as impressive were their renditions of such blues classics as “Stormy Monday,” “You Don’t Love Me” and “Statesboro Blues.”  A very “alive” sound with minimal crowd intrusion.

“Waiting for Columbus,” Little Feat, 1978

R-1329675-1329852272-1.jpegThis talented band never really got past cult status, but that cult was sizable and fiercely loyal.  Most of their six studio LPs sold respectably, and they filled small halls when they toured, but widespread acceptance seemed out of reach.  Their record label sought to change that with this gorgeously produced double live album, promoted the hell out of it and had it serve a dual purpose as a greatest hits collection.  It’s a solid effort that is widely praised as one of rock’s best live LPs, although it was revealed years later that Lowell George wasn’t happy with some of his guitar parts and later overdubbed them in the studio.  Another way that live albums are sometimes not as “live” as they seem.

“Stop Making Sense,” Talking Heads, 1984

41C1CZQFQJLAnother sonically superior concert LP is this soundtrack from the Talking Heads’ “Stop Making Sense” concert film, directed by the great Jonathan Demme.  Critics raved: “A perfectly measured snapshot of a widely loved and respected band playing at the height of their powers,” said Neil Jeffries of Empire.  “No other music movie soundtrack sounds this good.”  Leader/songwriter/singer David Byrne retained control of the recorded musical product, and it shows.   Such a fine selection of songs from their catalog:  “Psycho Killer,” “Girlfriend is Better,” “Take Me to the River,” “Burning Down the House,” “Once in a Lifetime”…  It’s one of very few live albums to be included among Rolling Stone‘s Top 500 Albums of All Time.

“Running on Empty,” Jackson Browne, 1977

R-1542309-1537728584-2463.jpegUnique among live albums is this entertaining release by one of L.A.’s best singer/songwriter of the Seventies.  He conceived a collection of new songs about being on the road, and recorded all of them live.  Half were recorded on stage in various U.S. venues, while others were recorded as little more than demos in various locations:  on a tour bus (“Nothing But Time”), in a hotel room (“Cocaine” and “Shaky Town”) and  a backstage rehearsal room (“Rosie”).  One of the best tracks is “The Road,” whose first half was taped in a hotel room and grafted to a second half from a stage show.  It was a novel idea that worked remarkably well; the album peaked at #3, spawned two hit singles and stayed on the charts for more than a year.

“Europe ’72,” The Grateful Dead, 1972

Unknown-625Early on, The Dead quickly realized they sounded much more like themselves in concert than in the studio, so they released an unprecedented seven double live LPs in their long career.  One of those was actually a triple album, “Europe ’72,” a fantastic sampling of music they performed during their tour of England and continental Europe in the spring of 1972.  European audiences tend to be more restrained and polite in their crowd response, which makes for a better listening experience here.  Check out their 13-minute “Truckin'” and the medley of “China Cat Sunflower/I Know You Rider” to see what I mean.  I personally think the band never sounded better, on stage or in the studio, than they do on this LP.

“The Concert in Central Park,” Simon and Garfunkel, 1982

810HYDgn1NL._SL1500_As a huge fan of this iconic duo during their 1965-1970 heyday, I was thrilled when they announced they would reunite for a free benefit concert in Central Park in September 1981.  It ended up attracting half a million fans and became a defining moment in the rock and roll pantheon when a film of it was shown on HBO the following year.  The concurrently released double album (#3 on the charts) featured smartly produced performances of the duo’s unparalleled vocal blend, with five songs from Simon’s solo works and one new Garfunkel tune (“A Heart in New York”), but the rest was a fabulous look back at the songs that tantalized a generation, from “The Boxer,” and “Homeward Bound” to “America” and “Mrs. Robinson.”

“Wheels of Fire (Disc 2),” Cream, 1968

4714641While Cream came up with some pretty great studio tracks on the four LPs they made in their two years together, it is the recordings of their live performances that really define what Cream was all about.  Eric Clapton, Jack Bruce and Ginger Baker were each virtuosos on their respective instruments, and when they embarked on extended jams of some of their songs, look out.  If Cream had put all their best live tracks on one album, it would’ve been a slam dunk, but instead they’re spread out among several LPs.  Still, I’m going to include the live Disc 2 of “Wheels of Fire” on my list because of the phenomenal production which captured the improvisational brilliance of “Spoonful” and “Crossroads.”

“Woodstock,” multiple artists, 1970

Woodstock_Original_Soundtrack_1970This one’s a big, glorious mess of a live album — six vinyl sides of performances, both sharp and ragged, by an all-star cast of bands from the summer of ’69 — Joe Cocker, The Who, Ten Years After, Sly and The Family Stone, Santana, Country Joe and The Fish, Crosby, Stills and Nash, and Jimi Hendrix.  There’s plenty of crowd noise, dialog, stage announcements, occasional feedback, flat notes and whatnot, but that’s part of what made the triple live LP and the film into award-winning documentaries of a watershed event in rock history, warts and all.  The sound quality of the album is, frankly, hit or miss; some bands sound muffled or distant, while Santana, a new band to many in attendance, comes across better than most.

“Miles of Aisles,” Joni Mitchell, 1974

R-5951388-1407193994-3473.jpegThis wonderful record captured one of rock’s most wondrous artists at her commercial peak just as she was ending one period and embarking on another.  Joni had been a folk singer whose own songwriting matured by leaps and bounds throughout her first five albums, and with “Court and Spark,” she began to use a full band (the jazz-infused L.A. Express) in the studio and on tour.  These live performances offered a cross section of old Joni, basically just her voice with guitar or piano, and new Joni, with the band, showing hints of the full-blown jazz material she’d be doing within a couple of years.  Almost all tracks were recorded at Universal Amphitheatre, and the sound is pretty damn good.

“Four-Way Street,” Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young, 1971

81n4hBljrvL._SL1500_These hippie gods were so talented, and yet so maddeningly egotistical, that they were doomed to break up less than a year after they got together.  There simply wasn’t enough space on an album for all the great songs these four musicians were cranking out in this incredibly fertile period, but they put one tour together, and recorded most dates.   A year after the breakup, they selected 16 performances and assembled “Four-Way Street,” where the crowd noise is a bit loud for my taste, and the vocals aren’t as pristine as we had come to expect from their studio tracks.  But the album made it to #1 and makes my list because there are wonderful acoustic tunes new to the audience at the time (Crosby’s “The Lee Shore,” “Nash’s “Right Between the Eyes” and Young’s “Don’t Let It Bring You Down”).

“Frampton Comes Alive,” Peter Frampton, 1976

Unknown-626If there’s a live album you can blame for the glut of double live LPs that cluttered the record stores in the late ’70s, it would be this one.  Frampton had intended “Frampton Comes Alive!” to be a single LP, but A&M Records actually encouraged him to make it a double, and it ended up soaring to #1 in the US, where it sat for 10 weeks in 1976 and became the biggest-selling live album ever.  There’s way too much intrusive crowd noise here (it’s particularly annoying during the talk-box guitar solo on “Do You Feel Like We Do”), but the production is crisp and pure throughout, and Frampton and his band are in fine form on “Something’s Happening,” “Lines on My Face” and the hit single “Baby I Love Your Way.”

“Big World,” Joe Jackson, 1986

Big_World_coverThis final selection offers another unique take on how a live album could be recorded.  In this case, Jackson wrote 15 great new songs, thoroughly rehearsed them with his touring band, and then booked a concert hall — Roundabout Theatre in New York City — for three nights.  But here’s the kicker:  He requested that the audience refrain from any response until each song’s recording had been completed.  The intent was to capture the intensity and spontaneity of a live performance, but without the distraction of noise from the crowd.  “There was plenty of applause,” said Jackson, “but they were asked to hold it until they were sure a song was finished.  They understood this, and it all went surprisingly smoothly.”

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Honorable mention:

Live at Leeds,” The Who, 1970;  “Live at the Harlem Square Club,” Sam Cooke, 1963;  “Live 1975-1985,” Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band, 1985;  “Delicate Sound of Thunder,” Pink Floyd, 1988;  “In Concert,” Peter, Paul and Mary, 1964;  “Mad Dogs and Englishmen,” Joe Cocker and friends, 1970;  “Live at the Apollo,” James Brown and His Famous Flames, 1962;  “Band of Gypsys,” Jimi Hendrix, 1970;  “11-17-70,” Elton John, 1971;  “Before the Flood,” Bob Dylan and The Band, 1974;  “Live at the Hollywood Bowl,” The Beatles, originally released in 1977, but the 2016 remixed version is the one to get;  “How the West Was Won,” Led Zeppelin, not released until 2003, but captures the band in 1972.

Maybe I’m wrong, but who’s to say what’s right?

It will come as no surprise to many of my readers that I love lists. I love reading them, and I love making them. Not so much the “To-do” lists and the grocery lists, but the “Best Movies” lists, and the “Best Quarterbacks” lists and the “Best Novels” lists. They’re fun to debate about.

The archives of “Hack’s Back Pages” are riddled with lists of all kinds. Nearly every blog post comes with a playlist of songs that refer to the theme being explored: best songs about driving, best female vocalists, best songs about fathers, best rock biographies, best songs by Little Richard, best drummers, the worst cringeworthy songs, and on and on.

Music magazines, and even some mainstream newspapers, like to publish their staff writers’ opinions about the best songs and albums of a given year or decade. Rolling Stone, long regarded as the granddaddy of rock music publications, took on the fairly overwhelming (some might say foolhardy) challenge of selecting the Best 500 Albums of All Time. They first did this in 2003, and now they’ve come up with a new list in 2020.

How to go about such a monumental task? In 2003, the magazine approached nearly 300 luminaries of the music business: recording artists, songwriters, label executives, session musicians, music critics, producers, managers and historians. They were each asked to name their top 50 albums, and were told to be true to their own tastes, choosing the best albums they’d ever heard as well as the ones that meant the most to them personally or professionally.

They did the same thing again this year, asking a different, more current group of music biz VIPs to complete the same exercise. Older artists and execs were still consulted, but the net was cast wider to include important new players who weren’t around or involved when the first list was compiled.

I find it thoroughly fascinating to review these two lists side by side to see how much preferences have changed in the 17 years between their publication.

It stands to reason that there are nearly 100 albums listed in the Top 500 in 2020 that hadn’t yet been released in 2003.

It also makes sense that a newer generation of electors would embrace newer genres far more widely than the earlier group did. Hip-hop, born in the early 1980s, isn’t exactly new, but as a genre it is much more widely represented, and ranked higher, on the 2020 list than the 2003 list.

What I find especially intriguing is how some albums that have long been named near the top of many “best of” lists fell out of favor, sometimes dramatically so, among the new list’s voters. In 2003, no less than FOUR albums by The Beatles were in the Top 10 (“Sgt. Pepper” at #1, “Revolver at #3, #Rubber Soul” at #5 and “The White Album” at #10). This year, none of these were in the Top 10 (“Sgt. Pepper” fell to #24 and “Rubber Soul” tumbled to #35), but “Abbey Road” leapfrogged all four to come in at #5.

Other longtime classics met brutal fates on the new list. The Eagles’ “Hotel California” dropped from #37 to #118. U2’s “The Joshua Tree” plummeted from #26 to #135. Dylan’s “Bringing It All Back Home” was demoted from #31 to #181. Elvis’s self-titled major-label debut fell off a cliff from #55 to #332. The Stones’ “Beggar’s Banquet” dropped from #57 to #185. John Lennon’s “Imagine” went from #76 to #223. Led Zeppelin’s debut LP dove from #29 to #101.

Kendrick Lamar’s “To Pimp a Butterfly,” #19

While it wasn’t necessarily a direct cause-and-effect change, these time-tested masterpieces had to make room for newer works, at least in the eyes of the new group of electors. Albums by Kanye West (“My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy”), Kendrick Lamar (“To Pimp a Butterfly”) and Public Enemy (“It Takes a Nation to Hold Us Back”) all made the Top 20. Amy Winehouse’s 2006 LP “Back to Black” came in at #33, and Beyoncé’s 2016 release “Lemonade” earned a #32 listing.

D’Angelo’s “Voodoo” barely made the list in 2003 at #488, but it reached the #28 spot this year. Same with Wu-Tang Clan’s “Enter the Wu-Tang,” which rose from #386 to #27, and Lauryn Hill’s “The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill,” which soared from #386 to #10. Also note the significant movement of Dr. Dre’s “The Chronic” (#137 to #37), The Notorious B.I.G.’s “Ready to Die” (#133 to #22), Jay-Z’s “The Blueprint” (#464 to #50) and Nas’s “Illmatic” (#400 to #44).

Some vintage LPs that didn’t rank very highly in 2003 were judged more favorably in 2020, illustrating how important their influence remains among newer generations. Some notable examples: Joni Mitchell’s confessional “Blue,” rated #30 in 2003, ranked #3 this year; Stevie Wonder’s opus “Songs in the Key of Life,” rated #56 in 2003, vaulted all the way to #4 on the new list; and “Purple Rain,” Prince and The Revolution’s tour de force, jumped from #72 to #8.

Just as curious were albums like these: Funkadelic’s “Maggot Brain” (1972), which rated only #486 in the first list but improved to #136 this year; Cyndi Lauper’s “She’s So Unusual” (1983) was a #494 dud in 2003 but ended up at #184 in 2020; “Talking Heads’ “Remain in Light” rose from #126 to #39; David Bowie’s “Station to Station,” an unimpressive #323 in 2003, bypassed “Low” and “Hunky Dory” to reach #52 in 2020; and The Police’s “Synchronicity,” inexplicably relegated to a #455 slot in 2003, would up at #159 on the new list.

There was plenty of reassessing of relative values of a given band’s album catalog. An innovative but polarizing group like Radiohead is a case in point. In 2003, their second LP “The Bends” came in at #110, with “OK Computer” managing a respectable #162. In 2020, the group’s “Kid A” made the Top 20, “OK Computer” found itself at #42 while “The Bends” dropped to #276.

Curiously, some albums barely budged in the listings. The Beach Boys’ 1966 LP “Pet Sounds,” #2 in 2003, retained that position in 2020. Bruce Springsteen’s “Born to Run” moved down a couple slots, from #18 to #21. Carole King’s “Tapestry” improved a bit, from #36 to #25. Other minimal changes: Bob Marley’s “Legend” (#46 to #48); Guns ‘n Roses’ “Appetite for Destruction” (#61 to #62); Led Zeppelin’s untitled fourth album (#66 to #58), and Neil Young’s “Harvest” (#78 to #72).

These lists make for some spirited debates between music lovers of all ages. I disagree with many dozens of selections on the 2003 list, and twice that number on the 2020 list, but it doesn’t much matter. My view comes down to this: My opinion is just that, MY OPINION. It’s just one person’s preferences and tastes. These RS lists, with all their dumbfounding choices and rankings, are at least an amalgam of hundreds of informed opinions, which probably gives them more credibility than my solo list, however well informed it might be. As the old saw goes, “There’s no accounting for taste.” Particularly in the arts, and especially in pop/rock music.

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Here are the Top 20 albums, as selected in the 2003 RS list:

  1. The Beatles “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band”

2. The Beach Boys “Pet Sounds”

3. The Beatles “Revolver”

4. Bob Dylan “Highway 61 Revisited”

5. The Beatles “Rubber Soul”

6. Marvin Gaye “What’s Going On”

7. The Rolling Stones “Exile on Main Street”

8. The Clash “London Calling”

9. Bob Dylan “Blonde on Blonde”

10. The Beatles “The White Album”

11. Elvis Presley “The Sun Sessions”

12. Miles Davis “Kind of Blue”

13. The Velvet Underground “Velvet Underground and Nico”

14. The Beatles “Abbey Road”

15. Jimi Hendrix Experience “Are You Experienced?”

16. Bob Dylan “Blood on the Tracks”

17. Nirvana “Nevermind”

18. Bruce Springsteen “Born to Run”

19. Van Morrison “Astral Weeks”

20. Michael Jackson “Thriller”

Two from the 1950s, 11 from the 1960s, four from the 1970s, two from the 1980s and one from the 1990s, none from the 2000s.

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The Top 20 albums, as selected in the 2020 RS list:

  1. Marvin Gaye “What’s Going On”

2. The Beach Boys “Pet Sounds”

3. Joni Mitchell “Blue”

4. Stevie Wonder “Songs in the Key of Life”

5. The Beatles “Abbey Road”

6. Nirvana “Nevermind”

7. Fleetwood Mac “Rumours”

8. Prince “Purple Rain”

9. Bob Dylan “Blood on the Tracks”

10. Lauryn Hill “The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill”

11. The Beatles “Revolver”

12. Michael Jackson “Thriller”

13. Aretha Franklin “I Never Loved a Man the Way I Love You”

14. The Rolling Stones “Exile on Main Street”

15. Public Enemy “It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back”

16. The Clash “London Calling”

17. Kanye West “My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy”

18. Bob Dylan “Highway 61 Revisited”

19. Kendrick Lamar “To Pimp a Butterfly”

20. Radiohead “Kid A”

None from the 1950s, five from the 1960s, six from the 1970s, four from the 1980s, one from the 2000s, two from the 1990s, two from the 2010s.

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Just for fun, and because it’s my blog to do so, here are my Top 20 albums of all time, as of early November 2020. Ask me again a few weeks or months from now, and I may have some different choices!

  1. Jethro Tull “Thick as a Brick”

2. The Beatles “The White Album”

3. Crosby Stills Nash and Young “Deja Vu”

4. Joni Mitchell “For the Roses”

5. Allman Brothers “At Fillmore East”

6. Bruce Springsteen “Born to Run”

7. The Who “Who’s Next”

8. Steely Dan “Can’t Buy a Thrill”

9. Paul Simon “There Goes Rhymin’ Simon”

10. David Bowie “Ziggy Stardust”

11. The Beatles “Abbey Road”

12. James Taylor “Sweet Baby James”

13. Led Zeppelin “Led Zeppelin I”

14. Batdorf and Rodney “Off the Shelf”

15. Dire Straits “Making Movies”

16. The Judybats “Native Son”

17. Stevie Wonder “Innervisions”

18. R.E.M. “Automatic For the People”

19. Bob Marley “Legend”

20. Jimi Hendrix Experience “Are You Experienced?”

None from the 1950s, four from the 1960s, 12 from the 1970s, two from the 1980s, two from the 1990s.

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If nothing else, these lists should give you plenty of music to explore. Who knows? An artist or album you’ve never heard of could end up being in your own Top 20…or at least Top 500!

The playlist below includes one selection from each of the Top 20 albums on the 2020 edition of RS’s Top 500 Albums of All Time.