Ten of our favourite, great-sounding live albums

Live albums

From John Coltrane to Led Zeppelin, we have picked ten of our favourite live recordings that will sound great on your Hi-Fi.

The live album is often a tricky proposition. They are attempts to capture the spontaneous, exciting thrill of being at a concert – where things like the occasional bum note or off-key backing vocals tend to get smoothed over and accepted as ‘part of the experience’. However, documenting that experience eliminates its tangible benefits and instead you are back at home, listening on your Hi-Fi, where you are more used to recordings that have been sweated over for months in a studio and are note perfect. A live album done well is a thrilling listening experience – a true representation of music alive and out there in the wild.

Unfortunately the sound quality of live albums can also be very hit and miss; some are Hi-Fi gems, others are nightmares of loudness where, in the spirit of Motorhead, everything is recorded louder than everything else. But when the live album is perfectly captured the experience can be breathtaking. The sense of atmosphere, the venue, and joy behind the performance can be palpable with a well put together live album – especially on a good sound system.

So here are ten of our favourite live albums; recordings that we feel offer some of the excitement of being at the original concert, combined with production values and recording skills that make for great listening at home… Even if you weren’t lucky enough to be there.

The Blues Brothers
A Briefcase Full of Blues

What started out as a skit on Saturday Night Live and ended with a wonderfully funny movie was also an incredible live band – with some of the finest blues musicians ever gathered in one place. This energetic live recording catches The Blues Brothers at their height and is a pulsating journey through a collection of blues classics. Look beyond the comedy and feel the magic!

The Who
Live at Leeds

This is an outstanding sonic documentation of a band regularly cited as the best live group. Recorded at Leeds University in 1970, it’s amazing just how much of the energy and sheer power of the performance comes across when listening to the release. It’s hard to pick out any one star turn – they are all stellar – however, just listen to Keith Moon!

Johnny Cash
At Folsom Prison

There is a reason that this is the best-selling live album of all time; it is quite possibly the finest. If you are looking for a combination of a masterful artists, a passionate crowd and a unique setting then look no further. It’s also a recording full of atmosphere, which allows you to sit back and enjoy the experience – without having to have done the hard time to be there in the first place.

MTV Unplugged in New York

It’s interesting that a band famed for their powerful – but erratic – feedback and noise-laden live performances should have produced such a powerful acoustic experience. But when compared to Nirvana’s other live offerings – such as the Reading Festival recording from 1992 – this is both better recorded and more poignant. The stripped back nature of the songs allows Kurt Cobain’s tortured vocals to strike right through your heart.

Bob Dylan
The Bootleg Series: Vol. 5 – Bob Dylan Live 1975, The Rolling Thunder Revue

Yes, there are more famous Bob Dylan live recordings – the fabled ‘Royal Albert Hall’ bootleg would be an obvious choice and is an album we absolutely love. However it’s the Rolling Thunder Revue that gets our pulse racing. This packed double album captures Dylan and his incredible band in their pomp. Fantastic songs and great performances – this historical document is just as vibrant today as it was over 40 years ago.

Frank Sinatra
Sinatra At The Sands

From the opening drum roll and introduction to Frank’s closing monologue, this album doesn’t stop entertaining. It is the perfect document of Sinatra at his peak in his spiritual home in Las Vegas. Accompanied by the amazing Count Basie and his orchestra, the recording brings the room to life and drops you right into the Martini-drinking Sands Hotel of the late 60s.

Led Zeppelin
How the West Was Won

Taken from two shows during Led Zeppelin’s renowned 1972 US tour, this triple album captures a band at their very height and without a dull moment. Plus, if you are lucky enough to own it, the surround sound DVD-Audio version of this album is, if anything, even better. Yes we know it’s an old, now defunct format, but this was one of the best albums available on it.

Aretha Franklin
Aretha Live at Filmore West

This is an outstanding live performance and recording from one of the best voices ever to grace the stage. Aretha and her band bring 1973 San Francisco to life with this incredible collection of her classic tunes – and even some curve balls such as a Simon & Garfunkel cover version and a show stopping version of Eleanor Rigby. As Aretha says to the crowd: “Does anyone feel like hearing the Blues?” Yes please!

Neil Young
Sugar Mountain: Live At Canterbury House 1968

This wonderful live recording from 1968 was thankfully released at a point when Neil Young was solidly behind DVD-Audio. The resulting album is a first-rate concert experience. Perhaps limited by recording equipment used at the time, there is still something remarkably honest and refreshing that comes across in this recording. Plus, Neil almost seems happy at times… Which is nice.

John Coltrane
Coltrane “Live” at the Village Vanguard

Four nights in New York, many, many pieces performed and recorded; but the selected three encapsulate John Coltrane at a time when he divided the jazz world. This album – and subsequent releases that include recordings from the concerts – makes for highly addictive listening. The beauty of the often improvised compositions and the tight, yet elastically fluent performances allow you to drift away into your own world.

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  • Ethan Davis says:

    The Tom Petty Live Anthology on 7 LPs 180gram audiophile should definitely be on this top 10 list. Nearly all of his best hits recorded from his concerts sound close to studio quality with extra emotion from both the band and the crowd. I especially like Learning to Fly.

  • Albert Jochems says:

    Thanks for this inspiring overview. I’ve discovered some new treasures from this list!

    One live album that I highly recommend is ‘Too late to stop now” of Van Morrison. A 1973 recording with many great performances of songs that in some cases on his studio albums sound uninspiring. The recordding varies a bit per venue (3 in total) but the version of “Cyprus Avenue” is a great example of live atmosphere with great dynamics, crazy band play and Van’s voice in the best possible shape. Amazing how this recording is capable of conveying a rock sound into the living room with such a huge amount of ambient/atmosphere without sounding mushy. Even more amazing to consider that this recording is 44 years old!

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