by Mark Stewart

Your favorite performers. Their best-ever live recordings.

Nothing beats seeing your favorite band perform live. That’s why live albums are almost always disappointing. There are, however, some spectacular exceptions. Over the years, a handful of special albums have captured the aura and energy of groundbreaking bands and musicians at their very best. These are some of our favorites…



James Brown  Live at the Apollo 

Brown was so sure this would be a hit that he financed the recording himself. It is now in the Library of Congress National Recording Registry.



Jerry Lee Lewis  Live at the Star Club, Hamburg 

The one and only album that captures Jerry Lee’s explosive stage presence.






Johnny Cash  

At Folsom Prison 

This breakthrough live album, which revived Cash’s flagging career, combines two shows recorded at Folsom State Prison in California.




Grateful Dead Live/Dead 

No record really captures The Dead at their best, but this one—the first live album to use 16-track recording—comes the closest. 




Rolling Stones  Get Yer Ya-Ya’s Out 

Recorded almost entirely during two shows at the “new” Madison Square Garden and hailed as the best-ever live rock album at the time, it still more than holds its own.  



The Who  

Live at Leeds 

The only live album made by the band when its “big four” of Roger Daltrey, Pete Townshend,  Keith Moon and John Entwhistle were together. 



Aretha Franklin  Live at Fillmore West

Not surprisingly, the album shot to #1 on the R&B charts. Is that Billy Preston on the organ? Yes, it is!




The Allman Brothers Band  

At Fillmore East 

The band’s breakthrough double-LP, which includes seven songs on four sides, was recorded at  Bill Graham’s club in New York over the course of three nights.  





A classic example of a live album that took a popular band to a whole new level.





Bob Marley 

and the Wailers 


Marley had a two-night gig in London and the crowd was so electric the first night that he decided to record the second.


The 1970s:  

Heyday of the Live Album  

Why so many ‘70s discs on the list? When Johnny Cash released his Folsom Prison album, it was an eye-opener for the record industry, which had mostly released unimaginative, low-quality live albums for its top stars as quick-hit moneymakers. Cash proved to his fellow musicians and their labels that a live album could be its own sensational work of art and soon everyone was investing in concert recordings. The technology of the 1970s was crude by modern standards, but there was enough engineering talent to clean up the background noise without losing the crackling energy of performers playing to their Joel Baldwin/Look Magazine adoring fans. By the early 1980s, however, live albums had fallen out of favor. MTV triggered a brief revival with its Unplugged series, but we may never see (or hear) albums like the ones we plucked out of the record store racks all those years ago.



Earth, Wind & Fire  Gratitude 

A few non-live numbers are included, but here is EWF at the absolute  height of its power.





Peter Frampton Frampton Comes Alive! 

The album dropped in January, beginning a long and remarkable climb to #1 four months later on the strengths of the singles “Show Me the Way,” “Do You Feel Like We Do” and “Baby, I Love Your Way.” 



Bob Seger & the Silver Bullet Band Live Bullet 

A Detroit rock hero live in the Motor City, it features the indelible “Turn the Page.” Seger’s next album was Night Moves. 




Paul McCartney & Wings   

Wings Over America 

Criticized for months of clean-up work in the studio, but what a surprise when the long-awaited double-LP came out as a triple album! 



Jazz aficionados are fond of arguing that the first truly great live albums were jazz recordings. And you know what? They’re right. Here are five of  the best…



Duke Ellington  At Newport 

Arguably the finest live performance ever captured of The Duke. 




1961 • Bill Evans  

Sunday at the Village Vanguard 

A great jazz trio firing on all cylinders.


1962 • John Coltrane  

Live! At The Village Vanguard 

Complex, textured and sometimes hard to follow, this was undoubtedly Coltrane’s most challenging album. 


1995 • Miles Davis  

The Complete Live at the Plugged Nickel, 1965 

Herbie Hancock and Newark’s Wayne Shorter were part of the Davis quintet recorded at this Chicago nightclub. 


1997 • Dizzy Gillespie  

& Charlie Parker  

Diz ‘n Bird at Carnegie Hall 

A crisp recording of their famed 1947 concert in New York.



Little Feat  

Waiting for Columbus 

Live albums are typically gifts to existing fans. This double-disc release created millions of new ones for Little Feat. Ironically, the band broke up a year later. 



The Band  

The Last Waltz 

This “farewell” album was recorded on Thanksgiving 1976 and featured a superstar lineup of guest performers, including Bob Dylan, Van Morrison, Eric Clapton, Neil Young and Joni Mitchell. 



Talking Heads  Stop Making Sense 

The movie is an absolute must-see. The soundtrack album is nearly as good.  





Sam Cooke  

Live at the Harlem Square Club, 1963 

Sam Cooke is captured in front of an African-American audience in Miami in a performance so gritty and powerful that it was feared it might ruin his crossover career at the time, and was shelved until long after his death.



Jimi Hendrix  

Jimi Plays Monterey 

Much like Bruce and The Dead,  no album really captures the ”live vibe” of Jimi Hendrix, but the Monterey concert comes tanta-lizingly close. Jimi blows the roof off of “Wild Thing” and then sets his guitar on fire. 



Bruce Springsteen & the E Street Band  Live 1975–1985 

The first album in a decade to debut at #1, Springsteen’s five-LP/3-CD set was so highly antici- pated that it pre-sold 1.5 million copies. Many record stores sold it right off the delivery truck the morning it arrived. 



Eric Clapton Unplugged 

At 25 million copies and counting, this is the top-selling live album of all time. Clapton’s heartbreaking “Tears In Heaven” still makes his fans cry. 





MTV Unplugged  

In New York  

Nirvana fans were irked initially when they figured out that the band wasn’t playing a greatest hits set—and then watched Kurt Cobain & Dave Grohl knock it out of the park.


Frank and Judy 


A pair of powerhouse talents at their best…



Judy at Carnegie Hall 

The apex of Judy Garland’s 1960s comeback, this double-album was #1 for months and has never once been out of print in six decades.




Sinatra at the Sands 

Frank in his natural habitat, Las Vegas, backed by Count Basie with arrangements by Quincy Jones.






Hell Freezes Over 

The album takes its name from the answer to when  the Eagles would get back together after splitting up  in 1980. It instantly soared to the top of the charts and kicked off one of the most successful concert tours in history.




MTV Unplugged 

Jay-Z at the height of his powers, backed up by The Roots. Hard to argue that this isn’t the best live rap album ever made. 



The Beatles  

Live at the Hollywood Bowl 

The original album, released in 1977, was pretty good. This is  the re-mixed, re-mastered version you can actually hear over the shrieking teeny-boppers, and includes four previously unreleased songs. 



Bruce Springsteen The Roxy West Hollywood, CA 

Recorded in 1975 as Born to Run was taking the nation by storm, this album features Bruce &  Co. at their best in an intimate, non-stadium setting. Released by Springsteen himself.


Photo credits: 

James Brown • King Records 

Jerry Lee Lewis • Phillips Records 

Johnny Cash • Columbia Records 

Grateful Dead • Warner Bros. Records/Seven Arts

Rolling Stones • Decca/London Recordings 

The Who • Decca/MCA Records 

Aretha Franklin • Atlantic Records 

Allman Brothers • Capricorn Records 

Kiss • Casablanca Records 

Bob Marley • Island Records

Earth, Wind & Fire • Columbia Records

Peter Frampton • A&M Records 

Bob Seger • Capitol Records 

Paul McCartney • Capitol Records 

Duke Ellington • Capitol Records 

Little Feat • Warner Bros. Records 

The Band • Warner Bros. Records 

Talking Heads • Sire Records 

Sam Cooke • RCA Records 

Jimi Hendrix • Reprise Records

Bruce Springsteen • Columbia Records 

Eric Clapton • Reprise Records/MTV 

Nirvana • DGC Records 

Judy Garland • Capitol Records 

Frank Sinatra • Reprise Records 

Eagles • Geffen Records/Eagles Recording Co.

Jay-Z • Def Jam Recordings/Roc-A-Fella Records

Beatles • Universal Music Group/Apple Records