The Top 25 Indispensable Live Albums Of Classic Rock

I had such a great reaction to the list of the favorite “THIRD ALBUMS” in Classic Rock, that I’m doing it again! Do you like countdowns? There’s always that air of mystery and impending excitement as we get closer to #1, but also outrage if your favorite is too far down on the list or not there at all. I was listening to one of my favorite live albums over the weekend and thought that I’d pass a dreary and wet day in New England by putting together a Top 25 Indispensable Live Albums of Classic Rock list. See how your favorite fares. And if you disagree, let’s hear about it!!

#25 THE POLICE - LIVE A double-album with one show recorded in Atlanta in ’83 and one fantastic live show in 1979 from Boston’s own Orpheum Theater. The earlier concert was broadcast by WBCN-FM and because of some managerial glitch, the trio didn’t even know they were going out live over the air until they walked onstage!

#24 RUSH – ALL THE WORLD’S A STAGE Released in the heart of the ‘Seventies Double-Live-Album’ craze, Rush’s 1976 offering had to be a two-record set – no way that one album could have handled a 15-minute “2112” and similarly-lengthy “Working Man/Finding My Way,” then have any room left for some other early-catalog treats. A fiery in-concert bookend of Rush’s earliest phase.

#23 PINK FLOYD – PULSE Floyd fanatics will chasten me for not putting in 1969’s UMMAGUMMA instead, which featured a ripping “Astronomy Domine,” but that was a half-studio, half-live effort, so I’ll go with this 1995, no-Roger, release on what would become Floyd’s final tour. There’s a shorter, but similarly-ripping “Domine” included along with an inspired concert reassembly of the entire DARK SIDE OF THE MOON album.

#22 THE DOORS – ABSOLUTELY LIVE This double album came out originally in 1970 and for someone who’d only heard the hit singles on Top 40 radio, it was almost too much to take. Without MTV and widespread music news sources at the time, it was easy to have heard nothing of Jim Morrison’s often-drunken onstage stalk, goading audiences into submission…or riot. From the dead rats in “Break on Through 2” to the only complete “Celebration of the Lizard” in the band’s catalog, this album was part amazing music and part reptilian horror story.

#21 METALLICA - LIVE SHIT: BINGE AND PURGE There was a mega-ridiculous box set with all kinds of extras for the fanatical, but the basic 3-CD set was still eminently satisfying with concerts recorded in 1989, ’92, and ’93. The 18-minute “Seek and Destroy” is insane!

#20 NEIL YOUNG – LIVE RUST The RUST NEVER SLEEPS album and tour with Crazy Horse in 1978 was a significant revival in Neil Young’s career. The laid-back hippie-rocker was equally adept at a Marshall Amp-driven stage dive into punk, and this double album from the following year delivers both. From acoustic readings of “Sugar Mountain” and “My My, Hey Hey (Out of the Blue)” to the monstrous metal of “Powderfinger” and “Like a Hurricane,” Neil superbly displays his artistic schizophrenia.

#19 GRATEFUL DEAD – EUROPE ’72 After two excellent double-live albums in 1969 and 1971, you’d think a band would have, at least temporarily, overstayed their welcome with the record-buying public. But the Dead were no ordinary band in this genre and comparable onstage jamming could only be found in jazz circles. This document of the spring 1972 tour of the Old World was out in time for Christmas that year and became a major stoner’s delight under many a tree.

#18 LED ZEPPELIN – CELEBRATION DAY As one of the most-anticipated reunions in rock history, this Led Zeppelin gathering in 2007 at the O2 Arena in London was destined to fail – how could it live up to the hype and the expectation? Yet, despite the massive odds against it, the band met the weight of history and emerged triumphant, expertly wielding the Hammer of the Gods and crushing it in a worthy swansong!

#17 TALKING HEADS – STOP MAKING SENSE By 1984 it seemed like Talking Heads could try anything offbeat or unexpected and make it work; they were that visionary and good enough at their craft to pull it off. This live album is the soundtrack to an award-winning film that had wild visuals, but never lost touch with the brilliance of the band’s song catalog. High point - David Byrne modeling the ultimate business suit.

#16 J. GEILS BAND – BLOW YOUR FACE OUT The mighty party band from Boston released three live documents in its romp from the beginning of the 70’s to its top-of-the-charts finale in the early 80’s.This is the second one, showing off what the band and ants-in-his-pants singer Peter Wolf were capable on a big arena stage with cherry bombs blowing off in the rafters and a blue nicotine haze hanging all the way down to the floor. They recorded this in Boston and Detroit, two party-hearty audiences that set that standard for the rest of the country to catch up to!

#15 JOE COCKER - MAD DOGS AND ENGLISHMEN In the wake off his U.S. breakthrough at the Woodstock Festival, Joe Cocker set the bar higher. He got Leon Russell to hire the best band in America for a 50-date tour that would end up nearly killing the singer because he forgot to go to sleep during it! But, the Mad Dogs and Englishmen tour was a tremendous live revue covering the cream of R & B favorites as well as Cocker’s hits - this album proves it. After the tour, Eric Clapton would rip off the rhythm section for Derek & the Dominos.

#14 U2 - UNDER A BLOOD RED SKY On it’s third album WAR, U2 found its footing with stronger material and a lead singer who’d grown far more confident of his craft. The subsequent world tour molded the Irish quartet into one of the tightest live units on the road. This compilation of music from three concerts, including one from Boston, shows U2 with a ferocious command of the stage and a message to share.

#13 PAUL MCCARTNEY & WINGS - WINGS OVER AMERICA This live document of McCartney’s 1976 tour marked the first U.S. return of the ex-Beatle since his former group played their last live gig in front of a paying audience in San Francisco ten years earlier. To the delight of the crowds, he was not above playing classics from the Beatles songbook along with his many solo hits. The breakup of John, Paul, George, and Ringo was still very recent, and McCartney’s appearance on these shores was a huge event; you can hear it in the hysteria of the audiences. More than an album; this triple-record set was a cultural snapshot.

#12 KISS - ALIVE! The high placement of this, the band’s first live release in 1975, will be considered by some to be blasphemous. After all, the group is unabashedly commercial, more like a Kiss pinball machine than the real thing. But, the spectacle can camouflage the band’s knack at writing some great songs, including “Rock and Roll All Night,” which had failed to light up the charts in its studio form. Adding the flames, lasers, spewing blood, wall of Marshall amps, and screaming Detroit crowd turned this song into Kiss’s breakthrough.

#11 DEEP PURPLE - MADE IN JAPAN Live in concert in 1972, Deep Purple loved to jam behind guitarist Richie Blackmore and keyboardist Jon Lord with his piano, organ, and new toy – a Moog. You can tell just by looking at this album – a double-record set with only 7 songs on it - the shortest runs nearly seven-minutes, the longest (“Space Truckin’) is nearly twenty. They originally made this exclusively for the Japanese market, but it sold so many import copies in America that Deep Purple had to release it here. Good decision – it went Platinum.

#10 CHEAP TRICK - LIVE AT BUDOKAN While we’re on the subject of Japan, like Deep Purple’s MADE IN JAPAN, this Cheap Trick release was made for the Japanese market, but sold so many imports that the record label decided to get an American version out. It became the Illinois band’s commercial breakthrough. Interestingly – Budokan is a wrestling, turned concert, hall in Tokyo, but the show that ended up on the album was actually recorded in Osaka.

#9 WOODSTOCK This triple-record companion to the movie of 1970 went to #1 and stayed there for a month. Already respected for playing the world’s most famous hippie-fest the year before, the cinematic exposure took Santana, Ten Years After, & Joe Cocker to the big time. It was the best of the three-day festival – from Havens to Hendrix, without all the Upstate mud.

#8 JIMI HENDRIX - BAND OF GYPSIES Jimi’s declaration of independence from the Experience, which he broke up six months earlier, the Band of Gypsies were funkier, with the guitarist’s playing a lot less frenetic and far more considered. Recorded during a four-show stand over the New Year’s holiday 1969/1970, the album features all new material except the blistering “Changes, a song drummer Buddy Miles pulled from his solo catalog. The 12-minute “Machine Head” captures Hendrix in a bold new place with a band that would, unfortunately, fail to last as long as the guitarist himself. By the time this came out in the spring of 1970, Jimi's clock was ticking down to its final moments.

#7 PETER FRAMPTON - FRAMPTON COMES ALIVE It was once joked that if you moved to the suburbs, you were issued a copy of this album. Guitarist and singer Peter Frampton had been around for a while, releasing four solo albums before he summed it all up with this double-album in January 1976.The release took off like an out-of-control rocket with Frampton’s arm stuck in the hatch, lifting him up the charts and to the top for ten weeks straight. The record was the biggest-selling album in America for that year and propelled the musician into the largest enormo-domes of the land and on the front cover of every magazine. The album turned the star into a caricature of success that Frampton, the musician, couldn’t hope to maintain, but the music on it holds up to the hype.

#6 BOB SEGER - LIVE BULLET In 1975 Bob Seger could put 50,000 in the Pontiac Silverdome but fail to draw 2000 in Boston. This double album put an end to that once it invaded every FM radio station across America the following year. The concert version of “Turn the Page” was never a single, but it became one of Seger’s most enduring anthems. Detroit-made, this is blue-collar rock at its best.

#5 NIRVANA - UNPLUGGED IN NEW YORK CITY Breaking through the haze of a generation in shock, this was the first Nirvana release in the wake of Kurt Cobain’s suicide. Recorded in November 1993 for MTV’s Unplugged series, Cobain used the occasion to choose an eclectic collection of originals and inspired covers including three by the Meat Puppets. Not surprisingly, it debuted at #1 in America, but the music stands up to the grief that might have been driving those sales at the time.

#4 QUEEN – LIVE AT WEMBLEY ’86 In the mid-80’s there really wasn’t another band out there that could touch Queen in concert. Maybe the Stones, but they avoided the road for most of the decade and U2 hadn’t yet reached their performing peak. Many of the legendary 70’s groups had broken up or were inactive at the time. In front of a stadium-sized crowd, Freddie Mercury actually thrived, overwhelming each massive expanse with his personality and vocal power. Returning to the site of Live-Aid a year earlier, Queen blew London away, setting a standard for concerts that few bands ever reach.

#3 ALLMAN BROTHERS BAND - AT FILLMORE EAST Third was the charm for this Macon, GA band with six members, an unusual number at the time outside of a jazz outfit. But, in a way, this band did play a blues-based jazz, stretching out in long jams that were a marvel of complexity and soulfulness. After two studio sets, this live double secured a place in music history for a band whose future might have been star-crossed, but lasted far into the following millennium.

#2 ROLLING STONES - GET YER YA-YA’s OUT The Stones have released many live albums, but this one stand far above any of them. Recorded on the band’s ill-fated 1969 American tour that ended with chaos and death at Altamont Speedway outside San Francisco, the members of the group were anything but confused onstage, performing together with almost superhuman telepathy. With the dead weight of Brian Jones gone, the band surged forward. Outstanding versions of “Midnight Rambler” and “Sympathy for the Devil” were never to be surpassed in the future. They called themselves “The Greatest Rock and Roll Band in the World,” and they might have produced the greatest live album in history, if it wasn’t for…

#1 THE WHO - LIVE AT LEEDS Timeless. Explosive. Thinking man’s heavy metal. All those things apply to the Who’s Valentine’s night 1970 recording at the University of Leeds in England. It is undoubtedly the band’s heaviest album and is a remarkable picture of what it was like to see this quartet in full flight on its long TOMMY tour. Keith Moon reads Townshend’s power chords like a book and John Entwistle rocks the bass like it’s another lead guitar while Daltrey shrieks and powers his way through some of the most intelligent lyrics in rock (thank you, Pete).If you only had one song you could take to the desert island, the Who’s 15-minute jam on “My Generation” will rock you for as long your batteries hold out!