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20 of the best live albums to test your speakers

What Hi-Fi? 30/07/2020 Becky Roberts
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Now more than ever is a time to celebrate live music. As music venues remain closed, with the majority of gigs postponed until well into 2021, we are left to get our fix through the occasional livestream, drunken karaoke or – preferably for us – live recordings through our beloved hi-fi systems. 

Thankfully, some of music's most sensational performances have been committed to tape – some reengineered and reissued since, some left untouched – so lucky attendees can relive the experience while the rest of us are given the opportunity to behold a piece of history.

If your itch for live music needs to be scratched, and you aren't prepared to turn down an excuse to give your system a run out, you can track down the live albums below on your choice of streaming service – or, better yet, purchase them on CD or vinyl – crank up that volume dial and let the atmosphere wash over you.

Roseland NYC Live by Portishead (1998)

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Many landmark performances took place at the now-closed New York institution in its 95-year history – from ballroom dances to Beyonce – and Portishead's 1997 show was among the most memorable: a defining moment in the history of trip hop. The band's only live release, which reached CD and DVD in '98, is a haunting encounter as Beth Gibbons's vocal hangs above a 35-piece orchestral accompaniment. The imperious Sour Times and atmospheric Roads are particularly beguiling.

Thelonious Monk Quartet with John Coltrane at Carnegie Hall (2005)

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In 2005, Larry Appelbaum – a now-retired jazz specialist in the Music Division at the Library of Congress – made quite the discovery while rummaging through old Voice of America tapes. He found reels labelled Carnegie Hall Jazz 1957, the never-broadcast recording of Thelonious Monk and John Coltrane's two-set benefit concert on 29th November that year, played in aid of the Morningside Community Center in Harlem.

For jazz fans, this discovery was all of their Christmases rolled into one. The Monk-Coltrane quartet, which had been playing together for months, is well practised – that much is obvious – and this presentation perfectly frames 50 minutes of impeccably focused performances from the two jazz greats.

Jonny Cash at Folsom Prison (1968)

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The first of Cash's prison sets that would serve as a renaissance for his career after a lacklustre, drug-addled period, and cement his now-indelible outlaw image, has rightfully gone into the books as his most definitive album. As soon as his introduction is met with 2000-odd inmates' rapturous applause, his wry jokes and wild charisma are on full display as, in top-top form, he tells tales of murder and incarceration to galvanic crowd response.

Unplugged in New York by Nirvana (1994)

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This intimate recording of Nirvana's performance for the MTV Unplugged series, released seven months after the passing of Kurt Cobain, is widely considered one of the best live records of all time.

It probably wouldn't have been had they simply followed the accepted format of stripping down hits to bare-bone acoustics, but in playing toned-down renditions of mostly lesser-known material and unexpected covers, they produced an intimate, candid performance that put Cobain's raw talent fully on show.

Sunshine Daydream Veneta by Grateful Dead (2013)

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Fresh from their 1972 European tour – and the triple live album that became one of the band's most commercially successful releases – Grateful Dead erected a stage beneath the Old Renaissance Faire Grounds in Veneta, Oregon to throw a benefit concert for the struggling Springfield Creamery.

The successful fundraiser – tickets for which were printed on the company's yogurt labels – saw a 20,000-strong crowd gather on a sweltering summer's day to witness perhaps the greatest Grateful Dead live performances of all time. It is as alive, vibrant and fluid (just listen to Dark Star...) as their reputation as one of history's best jam bands dictates.

Following lengthy copyright issues, the original 16-track analog master recordings of the complete concert were mixed down to stereo and released 41 years later, to be granted mythical status among Deadheads.

Minimum-Maximum by Kraftwerk (2005)

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It's safe to say Kraftwerk were a little late to the live album party. Minimum-Maximum wasn't released until 2005, more than three decades after the electronic band first performed live. The Grammy-nominated album was worth the wait, though, with a predictably sublime, classics-rich setlist recorded during several dates on their 2004 world tour.

The album had already been mixed by the time the band reached Chile, much to the disappointment of Ralf Hütter who said "the Chileans were the only audience in the world who clap in time, in perfect synchronisation", but the record is nonetheless a must listen for any Kraftwerk fan.

Before the Dawn by Kate Bush (2016)

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With 155 minutes of music across three CDs, or four records, you're getting your money's worth here, folks. Quantity complements quality, as anyone who attended the 22-date Hammersmith Apollo, London residency in 2014 will tell you.

Presented as raw as a steak tartare, Before the Dawn manages to convey the nights' atmosphere almost as well as the music. Everything from the emphatic rendition of Lily and the surging strings opening Cloudbusting, to the elegiac inflections of her near-perfect vocal in Dream of Sheep and Among Angels, begs to be played through a proper hi-fi system.

Aretha Live at Fillmore West by Aretha Franklin (1971)

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Aretha Franklin's third live album is a gleaming advert for her raw vocal talent and prowess as a live performer. Full of life and a sense of occasion, as a live affair should be, it's a wonderful soul display, backed by the tremendous King Curtis' band. The zesty, almost unrecognizable covers of Simon & Garfunkel, The Beatles and Stephen Stills songs are the cherries atop the cake, along with a nine-minute reprise of Spirit in the Dark featuring Ray Charles.

Special Moves by Mogwai (2010)

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Fans of the Scottish post-rock quintet would probably agree that the 14 years wait for a live release was worth it the day Special Moves hit the shelves. Studiously comprised of one or two tracks from each Mogwai album released at the time, and patchworked from three recorded shows in Brooklyn, it is the format that perhaps best serves the band's brooding, stratospheric ambience.

Committing to the purchase? The extended CD package gets you six additional tracks as well as the tour's insightful live performance documentary, Burning, on DVD.

Alive 2007 by Daft Punk (2007)

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This Grammy Award winner is an exhilarating example of Daft Punk's engineering artistry – a relentlessly buzzing montage of their most popular tracks executed in a 90-minute set at the Palais Omnisports de Paris-Bercy. It is an all-out audio assault that will lay your system's propensity for attack bare. Not one for snoozy Sunday evening listening session, mind you.

S&M by Metallica (1999)

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Metallica will release S&M2 – a live album of the 2019 shows they performed to mark the 20th anniversary of the original S&M tour, reuniting them with the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra – in August. Who knows where that will stand in the band's illustrious discography, although attendees of those September shows may have some idea.

Whatever its fate, it will do noting to dilute the iconic recording of the 1999 S&M concert at the Berkeley Community Theater, where metal and symphony collide to menacingly macabre and melodramatic effect.

Spaces by Nils Frahm (2013)

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Spaces is an entrancing collection of Nils Frahm's soaring soundscapes that, as the German composer himself deftly puts it, expresses his love for experimentation. It was recorded over two years at various locations on multiple mediums, including cassette decks and reel-to-reel recorders.

While there's as much attack as there is ambience throughout this varied work, its beauty is in the subtlety and space of the intimate, interweaving piano and synthesizer compositions. A masterpiece.

The Allman Brothers Band at Fillmore East (1971)

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As triumph for its demonstration of the tight-knit interplay between the band members, as it is the stellar bluesy jazz-infused setlist itself, this yardstick live classic was fittingly performed at the venue so pivotal to their career. The set is seemingly effortless, free and full of naturally virtuosic musicianship – a highly skilled, exploratory and spirited jam that indeed deserves its preservation in the Library of Congress as "culturally, historically, or aesthetically important".

Stop Making Sense by Talking Heads (1984)

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Experienced with or without the exceptional concert film it soundtracks, Stop Making Sense perfectly captures one of the world's biggest and best art rock bands at the peak of their powers. It's a giddy, dynamic and fresh-sounding performance, from the bare-boned, acoustic rendition of Psycho Killer to the all-in funky Burning Down the House – and you don't need the film's visual proof to tell that David Byrne was in top thespian form. Justice was paid to it by its success in the charts, where it sat for 27 months.

Muse Live at Rome Olympic Stadium (2013)

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Sometimes with live music, it all simply comes together; the venue, the setlist and the performance are all on point. Like many albums on this list, the recording of Muse's Stadio Olimpico gig in the summer of 2013 is one of those examples. In front of over 60,000 up-for-it fans, Matt Bellamy and co put on a phenomenal show and technical tour de force that, while most apparent when heard alongside the pyrotechnics and massive video walls on the accompanying DVD/Blu-ray, the CD album does credit to as well. Grand and atmospheric: just what a Muse live  recording promises.

John Coltrane Live at Birdland (1964)

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Well, the first three tracks on this album (Afro-Blue, I Want To Talk About You and The Promise) were recorded live at the famed New York City jazz club, anyway; the final two (Alabama and Your Lady) were recorded at Van Gelder’s Englewood Cliffs studio weeks later.

Still, that cannot take away from the immensity of these timeless recordings. The cohesion between McCoy Tyner, Jimmy Garrison and Elvin Jones on Afro-Blue is faultless, and in our opinion the show stealer, while second half of Coltrane's extended I Want To Talk About You is an interesting tenor-led reimagining of his popular ballad.

Frampton Comes Alive! by Peter Frampton (1976)

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A seminal album of the 1970s, which in America sold around a million copies in its first week and stayed in the top 40 for nearly two years, Peter Frampton's iconic double live album came at an important time in his career. He'd left Humble Pie to go solo five years earlier and had been only modestly critically and commercially received.

That would all change soon after Frampton Comes Alive! appeared in January 1976, derived from his concert tour the previous summer and confirming him a top rock attraction. Charismatic, electrifying and of course notable for his then-innovative use of the talkbox, it's worth owning alone for the 14-minute rendition of Do You Feel Like We Do.

The Who Live at Leeds (1970)

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It won't come as breaking news to many reading this that The Who's Live at Leeds is widely cited as one of the best live rock albums of all time. This on-campus classic – a performance played to 2000 students at the University of Leeds Refectory – could have never materialised, of course, had Pete Townshend not demanded that their sound engineer burn the tapes of the live recordings they had made from their many recent dates on the road.

Thankfully, their persistent wish to break away from their rock opera Tommy tour and show off the intensity of their live performance saw them book this Leeds gig on Valentines Day for the recording. And the rest really is history.

Unplugged by Neil Young (1993)

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It was a case of second time lucky for Neil Young's MTV Unplugged taping, with the first attempt in December 1992 leading to an unhappy Young walking out of the Ed Sullivan Theater mid-performance. Young apparently wasn't all too enamoured with his second attempt at Universal Studios in Los Angeles the following February, either, but he allowed MTV to air it all the same.

Well, we like it, Neil. Both acoustic performances and setlist are peak Neil Young, with Harvest Moon, Long May You Run and the previously unreleased Stringman emotionally raw and melodically consistent.

It's Too Late To Stop Now by Van Morrison (1974)

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This live double album, recorded in Los Angeles, Santa Monica and London during Van Morrison’s 1973 summer tour, is a quintessential snapshot of the singer at his peak, heightened by the backing of Caledonia Soul Orchestra's horn and string arrangements.

It's a setlist comprised of his own hits and renditions of the music that inspired him – Ray Charles's I Believe To My Soul and Sam Cooke's Bring It On Home To Me to name just two – though those seeking Brown Eyed Girl will need the 2008 remaster or latest, multi-volume release from 2016.



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