Forty Years Later The Best Live Albums Still Deliver
Everyone one has their own lists. Best Guitar Solos, Best Drum Solos (the correct answer is always “Neil Peart”), and Best Live Albums. To be clear, there are a lot of great live albums out there, and I haven’t listened to most of them. This is about me, Boomer, and MY favorite live albums.
The criteria is rather simple. It should be an artist I like, and it should feel like I am at that concert, not just listening to it. It must be cohesive and contain all of of the elements of a full live concert. Most of all, I should desire to listen to it again and again, in its entirety. In fact I should feel cheated if I don’t listen to the whole thing. Here are my candidates for Best Live Albums.
Bob Seger Live Bullet
I would estimate that I have listed to Live Bullet more than any other live album, and do consider it at the top of my best live albums list. As a quick sidebar, I had the pleasure of seeing Seger in concert three times. The second and third time, the band played the Travelin’ Man / Beautiful Loser combo just like on Live Bullet. I may or may not have cried a little bit.
One of the best parts of the album is Bob’s announcement to the crowd at Cobo Hall that they were recording the live show, using what was apparently state of the art technology at the time, 16-track recording equipment.
“Alright people. We got the 16 track tape machine rollin’ out back. If you’ll sing with me just a little bit I won’t guarantee it but you just might end up on an album.”Bob Seger – Live Bullet
Circling back to the album, it meets all the criteria stated above, including an important one…no bathroom songs. Those of you that have seen bands you kind of like or are mostly familiar with know what bathroom songs are. There are none on this album, and even the songs that weren’t radio hits (don’t get me started), are gems. It has the proper progression, encore, and a stunning and resounding finale. This is easily one of, if not the best live albums of all time.
Kiss Alive II
As a twelve-going-on-thirteen year-old in 1977, I watched Kiss take the world by storm. My introduction to them was primarily through this album, Kiss Alive II. In the year that followed, you could not escape Kiss. Their painted faces were on the cover of every magazine, and Kiss merchandise was everywhere.
Once again, this live album checks off all the boxes. With its iconic intro, “You wanted the best, you got the best, the hottest band in the world….KISS!”, the album comes out of the gate hard and fast. The collection of songs is well produced and edited. One of the important things that Kiss realized is that when people fell in love with a song, they didn’t want to see or hear a bastardized version of it in concert.
Aside from Paul’s usual dallying with the crowd on “I Want You“, the album holds pretty true to form. The added explosions at the end of “Detroit Rock City” replace the epic car crash, but are no less exciting. Here again the album has a nice progression with a rewarding finish. You want to listen to the entire live album and enjoy the whole experience, not cherry pick.
One thing that made this album special, and why it ranks as one of the best live albums, is the legendary gatefold album cover. With four 12.5″ surfaces to adorn with photos and concert footage, plus two album sleeves, it was practically a novella in of itself. You didn’t just play the album, you listened to it and watched the show, courtesy of that massive album cover display. For a 13-year old kid, that was as close to a concert as you were going to get.
Once again, the desire to listen to the entire album set so that you wouldn’t “miss out” on any of the concert is what keeps this near the top of best live albums. I have seen Kiss several times over the years.
Note, there is one caveat to this live album that makes it rather unusual. The “concert” ends with “Shout It Out Loud.” There are an additional five non-live songs tacked on to the end of the live album set. If memory serves me, Bruce Kulick played the lead on those 5 songs, as Ace was in no shape to do so. The songs are fine, and I have listened to them, but I don’t consider them part of the live album.
An Evening With John Denver
While this may seem like a departure from the classic rock norm that a baby boomer is expected to perpetuate, it is actually one of the finest live albums ever created. In and around those late 70’s, John Denver was huge. Known for his music, he also starred in movies and TV specials. He was on every talk show numerous times, and yes…he had his music.
Of his 24 albums released on the RCA label during his lifetime, 14 were eventually certified gold (for sales of 500,000 copies), and eight of those reached the platinum or million-seller mark.Notable Biographies
An Evening With John Denver meets all of the criteria that the best live albums must meet. It is also a decidedly personal and emotional album with a stirring conclusion. John shares stories of his career progression throughout the concert. When it’s over, I always find myself reflecting on what might have been had John not passed away at 53 years old. The sadness I felt that day surprised me, and I feel it a little bit each time I play this album. Don’t miss this top candidate for one of the best live albums of all time. Sadly, I never saw John Denver in concert.
Neil Young Live Rust
Sometimes I just plain forget about this album, though I have listened to it dozens of times. The first time was at a huge yard party at a lake in Wisconsin. I listed to this album on a small raft in the middle of the lake. It was the first time I had heard it in its entirety.
This album is one of the best live albums because of the way you are moved from the slower, thoughtful, acoustic pieces into the point where Neil grabs the electric guitar. Say what you want about Neil, but he is a great song writer. On that note, the two songs that move me the most are Sugar Mountain, and Cortez the Killer.
An album doesn’t make the list of best live albums of you aren’t inclined to listen to the whole album, and Live Rust delivers. There are so many great songs here, and it delivers the whole live experience. Having never seen NY & Crazy Horse in concert, this is as close as I will ever get.
Best Live Albums – Honorable Mention
I’ve listed a few honorable mention candidates here. They are great in their own right, but they don’t make my list of best live albums because I don’t listen to every song, and I don’t find myself drawn to listen to the entire live set and experience the concert all over again.
Cheap Trick Live At Budokahn
Cheap Trick Live at Budokahn was a wildly popular album during that 1978/1979 season. The side-two hat trick of “Ain’t That a Shame”, “I Want You To Want Me”, & “Surrender” is gold, or should I say Platinum…Multi-Platinum that is. I did enjoy a Cheap Trick concert later in life with one of my sons…a Kiss fan. I thought he was going to lose his mind when they started tossing Kiss vinyl into the audience during “Surrender”. While definitely considered one of the best live albums, it only deserves honorable mention on my list.
Frampton Comes Alive
You can’t say “1976” without saying Frampton Comes Alive! Not only did it feature some great hits, but the talk-box sequence in “Do You Feel Like I Do” was, at least to me at that time, ground breaking. I actually had this album on 8-track tape. Like the others in this honorable mention set, it was one of the best live albums, it just wasn’t my favorite. I rarely played it all the way through in its entirety, and I haven’t done so in 40+ years.
I actually heard Kiss Alive II before I even knew Kiss Alive! existed, though I certainly assumed that one did. This one is more unique to me in that I am familiar with all of the songs, and have heard many of them in concert. Still, I have rarely listened to the full album, and typically don’t find myself seeking to do so. I know what this album meant to the band and the progression in their career, but it only gets honorable mention on Boomer’s list of best live albums.
Live albums are risky. Change the songs too much and you make concert-goers mad. Keep it too sublime and you get a meh reaction. The albums on this list have done it right, and I choose to listen to them time and time again.