5 Live Albums Actually Worth Listening To


Live albums are typically the low points of any given band’s discography.  Generally thrown together by a record company as a cheap money maker, or used to fulfill a contractual product release obligation, these records usually get a couple of half-hearted listens and then disappear into the far reaches of the unlucky owner’s music collection to rarely see the light of day.  Almost always painfully boring (see Jay Farrar‘s Stone, Steel, and Bright Lights), and cheaply designed (again, Stone, Steel, and Bright Lights), wise music fans are generally best to steer clear of these albums.  There are, however, a few rare, shining moments in the history of recorded music where the live album has been a purposeful and effective vessel for showcasing the work of fine musicians.  Here are five of my favorite examples:

5. Magnolia Electric Company: Trials and Errors (2005)

In 2003, singer-songwriter Jason Molina dropped his long-time recording moniker Songs:Ohia, electing to relaunch his musical franchise as the Crazy Horse influenced Magnolia Electric Company.  In a ballsy move by Molina, the band’s first official release (not to be confused with the 2003 Songs:Ohia finale entitled Magnolia Electric Company) was recorded live in Belgium while Molina and his band still toured under the “Ohia” handle (Confused yet?).  Complicated naming transitions aside, Trials and Errors is not only a well-recorded, very listenable documentation of rock-solid rock concert, but an exciting and radical creative departure from traditionally sour-mooded recordings of Jason Molina.  From the first fuzzy notes of the album’s intro “The Dark Don’t Hide It,” through to the driving conclusion “The Big Beast,” the pairing of Molina’s gloomy imagery with his newfound Americana-via-Neil-Young arrangements is a fine nod to the sweet sounds of the past and a showcase for forward-thinking originality.

4. Boogie Down Productions: Live Hardcore Worldwide (1991)

Always ready to call out wack MCs while boasting of his own skills, Boogie Down Productions frontman KRS-One used 1991’s Live Hardcore Worldwide as an opportunity to put his mic where his mouth was.  Compiled from live recordings in New York City, Paris, and London, Live Hardcore Worldwide was KRS’ vehicle to defy live hip-hop’s often well-deserved reputation for being little more than an underwhelming forum for musically ungifted hacks, dependent on invisible studio engineers to sculpt their sounds from behind the scenes.  After sharply criticizing live rap performances on prior studio recordings (“They want dancers, they want lighting / They want effects to make them look exciting / But its frightening, cause without that /The whole crew, is whick whick whack”), BDP set out to show the world what a hip-hop show could and should be.  Spanning almost 64 minutes in 24 tracks, Live Hardcore Worldwide includes on-stage renditions of BDP staples like “Criminal Minded,” “My Philosophy,” and “South Bronx,” while also showcasing KRS’ freestyle showmanship and a handful of previously unrecorded material.  Almost 20 years later this recording is virtually unrivaled in its genre.

3. Townes Van Zandt: Live at The Old Quarter, Houston, Texas (1977)

Perhaps even more enigmatic in his abbreviated life than in death, Townes Van Zandt was a standalone as a flesh-and-blood embodiment of his own tortured artistry.  This 1977 Tomato release pulled from Van Zandt’s 1973 performances at Houston’s tiny Old Quarter put Townes’ captivating persona on display in a way that his often too “clean” studio albums fail to capture.  Since his unexpected (but hardly unforeseeable) death on the first day of 1997, dozens of live Van Zandt recordings and bootlegs have surfaced but Live at The Old Quarter is definitely the gold standard.  Painful, funny, sad, moving, enlightening… this is Townes’ Van Zandt in his purest form.

2. MC5: Kick Out The Jams (1969)

I don’t care what anyone tells you, Motor City is the birthplace of punk rock and the MC5‘s 1969 masterpiece (along with The Stooges 1969 self-titled debut) are the infant movement’s first cries of life.  6 years before the Ramones formed in Queens, the MC5 harnessed the unresolved angst of the 1967 Detroit Riot to create a never-before-heard sound that would become the blueprint for the punk noise of the 1970s.  Having already built a reputation with their dizzying performances (in support of basically no recorded material), the MC5 and Elektra records chose to bypass a studio session and use this live recording as the band’s record store debut.  Rowdy, bluesy, political, aggressive, forceful… Kick Out the Jams did more for music in 40 minutes than the Sex Pistols did in three years.

That being said, “Kick out the Jams, Motherfucker!

1. Johnny Cash: At Folsom Prison (1968)

Do I even need to say anything about this record?  An absolute masterpiece.  The crown jewel of Johnny Cash’s brilliant career.  Perfect.