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“Dolby’s Top 25 Live Albums of All Time”

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25 The Mighty Mighty Bosstones – Live from the Middle East
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I kept searching for this album, which I used to have on CD in high school before my collection got swiped, and I couldn’t find it. “Live at the Middle East,” I’d put in… nothing (granted at this point I know that The Middle East is actually a Boston music venue). “Live in the Middle East”… still nada. Well, now you see why the title is so tricky and brilliant — anyway, it’s a brilliant collection featuring some fearsome stage banter and a carnivorous smattering of old and new — Let’s Face it gems and early ska-core grunters like “Cowboy Coffee” and “I’ll Drink to That.”
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24 Ziggens – Live: Tickets Still Available!
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As I think most music fans would profess, it’s rare that a live album is just KINDA GOOD. When these suckers work, in other words, it’s almost always a phenomenon of transcending the band’s entire existence to a definitive extent — the concert atmosphere and sheer volume of crowd engagement dictate as such. Undoubtedly, this is the case here (ironic since the band is making fun of themselves the whole time and on the cover for no one being at the show), typified flawlessly by a comparison of the “Strange Way to Live” on the studio album, and before us now.
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23 The Jimi Hendrix Experience – Radio One
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I classified this as a “live” album which is obviously kind of licentious, since it doesn’t take place at a concert but rather at one of these seemingly dogmatic trips to the BBC (no producer is listed on Wikipedia but I imagine John Peel had a hand in the action). Whoever it is, they do some of the best wizardry ever on getting Hendrix’ guitar to really vibrate and resonate, and you’ve gotta like the Beatles cover “Day Tripper” on the occasion of being across the pond.
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22 The White Stripes – Under Great White Northern Lights
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And so, like it or not, baby boomers, The White Stripes shoulder up with the rest of the rock canon. Hey, it wasn’t my idea originally: even as a devout fan of the Detroit duo I thought Rolling Stone’s ranking of Jack White as the 17th best guitarist of all time was a bit generous. Anyway, as I’ve stated at other spots on this blog, much of their original appeal lay in their willingness to strip rock down to its bare bones and write songs which approximated punk rock and Iggy Pop with genuineness and moxie. To sweeten the pot, anyway, White shows some versatility on this collection, rocking the rhythm-mandolin on “Little Ghost.”
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21 Styx – Caught in the Act – Live
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In a collection curiously devoid of “Come Sail away” and “Renegade,” these Chicago rockers do settle admirably into a comfortable but lavish groove here, the synths spraying devilry all over the stately acoustic guitar which helps keep the time. On “Too Much Time on My Hands” the bass-synth steals the show, the type of thing so funky that bands to follow wouldn’t even try to repeat it — or COULDN’T.
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20 Bela Fleck and the Flecktones – Live at the Quick
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Again, in the case of this particular live spot I’d take IT over the field — everything is here, from the band’s signature bluegrass groove, to a cover of “Amazing Grace” performed instrumentally on bass harmonics, to about every brand of wacky a capella you could mentally tabulate, including my favorite the playable little ode “Ovombo Summit.” The entire thing, in the end, plays as a document every bit as appreciative of American music as it is encapsulating of it, concluding with a whole-hearted rendition of “Hoedown,” an iconic, archetypal shin-dig originally arranged by Aaron Copland.
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19 The Who – Live at Leeds
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I was scouring the Internet for a book on The Who in order to hopefully ground myself in authority of writing about Live at Leeds, couldn’t find one anywhere. Now, aside from the fact that this seems incredibly appropriate, in a way, given the constant underdog persona they embraced evidence in part by their name, the image of their picture in this random Las Vegas reunion thing I have to admit called to mind a memory of Kurt Cobain hating on them, saying like “I hope I die before I turn into Pete Townshend,” or something. Well, there you have it. The day your haters go away is the day you really know you’re in trouble. “Fortune Teller,” “Tattoo” and “A Quick One, While He’s away” are highlights.
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18 Rush – Exit… Stage Left
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Compared to what I feel is a certain sterility to their studio projects, the tones on this live LP really bust out of the conventional seams, and the result is a beautifully playable time taking you through the epic rock operas (“YYZ”; “Xanadu”) as well as the concise little marks of songwriting (“A Passage to Bangkok”; “Closer to the Heart”; “Tom Sawyer”).
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17 Pearl Jam – Brooklyn, NY 18-October-2013
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Of course, conventional wisdom allots Live on Ten Legs this slot, the band’s typically cheeky followup to 1998’s Live on Two Legs (for the record, the original album title “Ten” is from Mookie Blaylock’s jersey number, not the amount of “legs” in the entire band Pearl Jam, or so legend has it)… and THEN you hear the guitar sound on this puppy and you’re sold right in. Many times in life we have to go to New York for our musical prowess… and then get the he** out of it for our sanity.
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16 Phish – A Live One
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The dual charm of A Live One can be summed up by the dual facts that (a.) undoubtedly, it’s an exercise in the band’s instrumental abilities, featuring as it does the lengthy wordless jams of “Harry Hood” and “You Enjoy Myself,” but likewise, the band pulls of somewhat of an intriguing trick here, at least for music nerds: the last song on their studio album Lawn Boy (“Bouncing around the Room”) steps up as the opener on this collec., and the first song is last (the singable, anthemic “The Squirming Coil”). Also, at two hours and 11 minutes, it’s a solid running time, no more of this all-night love-in crap.
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15 The Velvet Underground – 1969: The Velvet Underground Live
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You ever notice this: whether it’s The Might Might Bosstones, or Wilco, or these guys, much of the time the bands with the best stage banter also put out the best concert-experience product. It’s like did he really SAY that, about Texas, in the introduction of “I’m Waiting for the Man”? And then to even pi** on their parade more, he plays a really crappy version of that song (while of course nothing could beat the John Cale-graced original album session). Things do, though, blossom from there, in the form of “Lisa Says,” “Sweet Jane,” and “New Age” as well as the charmingly annoying “We’re Gonna Have a Real Good Time Together.”
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14 Bob Dylan – The Bootleg Series Vol. 5: Bob Dylan Live 1975, The Rolling Thunder Revue
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It’s hard for me to discuss this album without bringing up this one time I went in to wash dishes at this bar on a rainy night in November, had my CD player and probably 30 CD’s, but just listened to Bob Dylan the whole time — this double-disc live album and I think one other live one from ’63 or so. Certain definitive editions on this particular collection include “Mr. Tambourine Man,” “I Shall Be Released” and “Just Like a Woman,” and also, it beautifully ends with “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door.”
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13 Talking Heads – Stop Making Sense
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Wow, SOMETHING had to come along and make “Psycho Killer” less sterile (I hate that song)… at least we get it over with early here and then the heavy hitters start coming rapid-fire like “Heaven,” “Thank You for Sending Me an Angel” (originally the opener on More Songs about Buildings and Food) and (my favorite) “Slippery People,” which doesn’t deviate too much from the Speaking in Tongues version, nor should it. Also, you’ve gotta love and Chris Frantz’ crazy stage blabber during Tom Tom Club’s “Genius of Love.”
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12 Jimi Hendrix – Band of Gypsys
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For only six songs, god da** does this one pack a punch. And it had plenty to do battle against, too. Just take it from Hendrix himself, as he says between songs: “This one is for all the soldiers fighting in Chicago and Milwaukee… oh yeah, and all the soldiers fighting in Vietnam, too.” What we get, then, is the movable feast that is the 12-minute “Machine Gun,” complete with blasting-type sounds, no less. Another favorite moment for me is the sped-up guitar solo in “We Got to Live Together,” and of course that rip-roaring lead-in riff in “Power to Love.”
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11 Nirvana – Live at Reading
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Jesus, I’m not even kidding you: just the other day I was thinking about what my favorite Nirvana songs are (I cut grass for a living so I get a lot of thinking hours logged), I decided they were “Breed” and “Drain You” and those are the EXACT two songs which open the excellent, romping and stomping Live at Reading, in that exact order. This is another case of a concert album doing an exquisite job at leveling off the band’s sound amidst what had prior been stylistically disparate albums (the grunge-y production of Steve Albini vs. the more compressed, radio-friendly Butch Vig), and the alternate lyrics in “All Apologies” further make it quite the collector’s item.
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10 Rage against the Machine – Live at the Grand Olympic Auditorium
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This band only made three albums (and then a covers album of mostly hip-hop songs), so it’s pretty easy to sum up their career — and Live at the Grand Olympic Auditorium doesn’t do a whole lot else than jack up the volume like a fu**in’ Black and Decker chainsaw and let these suckers rip, with a slight spike in Tim Commerford’s bass sound. You won’t turn it off disappointed if you’re a fan.
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9 Pearl Jam – Live on Two Legs
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Now here comes flopping that prize fish I’d mentioned earlier… this album does indeed remind me of a fish, for some reason (maybe because it features a song called “Do the Evolution,” a sped-up and blistering version, at that). Also, there’s something just aquiline about how well this band meshes together, and all these songs bleed amidst one another with unquestionable, timeless alternative rock genuineness, even the guitar-vox ballad “Untitled.” He**, the audience clapping doesn’t even ruin it, and that’s saying something. This “Daughter” installment has some of the absolute best guitar sound of all time.
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8 Wilco – Kicking Television: Live in Chicago
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And now come the arguable masters of stage banter, these good ol’ Midwestern boys who if they weren’t writin’ these fancy rock songs would be heckling for a living at the front row in Busch Stadium. This thing spans two whole discs and there’s not a bad moment on it — I used to make the regular habit of listening to the two in direct concurrence in the same sitting, again with “Muzzle of Bees” and “Hummingbird” switched in order from the studio album, amusingly enough.
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7 Jimi Hendrix – Machine Gun: Live at the Fillmore East
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For most 1960s artists, a “new live album” being put out in the year 2016 would garner eye-rolls which could be heard from the ISS Space Station. To top it off, a lot of these songs are on his other solo live album, Band of Gypsys. I dunno, though, something about this project just seemed right, so I bought it new on CD, and it did anything but disappoint. Track two “Lover Man” is actually unique to this project (as is the oft-elsewhere-butchered “Hear My Train a-Comin’), the former boasting an especial level of rhythmic intricacy, compared with most of his other material, and also refreshingly, this disc just seems like more of a Hendrix show, like The Truman Show except not boring as fu**.
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6 Grateful Dead – Dead Set
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It’s definitely a tall task standing up to that absolutely classic album cover here, a skeleton dude blown up 40-times-life-size, gazing at a San Francisco sunset over the bay: well, nobody else was gonna do this sh**, have rotating lead singers wailing out some of the best riffs and solos in the world, covering old blues (“Little Red Rooster”), incorporating Garcia solo stuff (“Deal”), and not seeing the overall project skip a beat at all. “Franklin’s Tower” is the perfect Grateful Dead song and the one on this live set is the perfect version.
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5 Nirvana – MTV Unplugged in New York
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At this point in the band’s career, they were making a regular practice of formulating parts of their concerts as separately acoustic sets — and you can just hear, for how ill-fated most of these “unplugged” endeavors were in the early ‘90s, all the practice that’s gone into this thing. Best of all, though, there’s still some spontaneity, as the rest of the band doesn’t even foresee Kurt Cobain’s long pause toward the end of “Where Did You Sleep Last Night?” “Pennyroyal Tea,” here, is also thankfully saved from Steve Albini’s grunge ham-handing.
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4 Frank Zappa and the Mothers of Invention – Roxy & Elsewhere
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I would try to explain Roxy & Elsewhere, except that it begins with a Zappa stage speech about the wonders of engaging in unconventional, “device”-aided sex with a penguin, so the whole operation isn’t exactly shaping up as something explainaBLE, now is it. Hmm. “Village of the Sun,” “Cheepnis” and “Son of Orange County” are classics, as well as all those other weird-a** songs.
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3 Phish – St. Louis ’93
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The only boxed set on the list, St. Louis ’93 one-ups Phish’s other bloated bender Hampton Comes Alive for its construction of an absolutely flawless disc one (which to be honest is the only disc I’d ever listen to anyway, I get a little burned out on Phish). All over this project, these guys’ technical chops are on ferocious display, none besting the guitar shredding of Trey Anastasio, who makes constructing these cumbersome patterns sound as easy as doing an Etch-a-Sketch, all over the show-stopping “The Divided Sky.” It’s shocking achievement in human musicianship, followed astonishingly by an intricate a capella full-band singalong, “I Didn’t Know” (with the repeated mantra “I didn’t know that I was that far gone”).
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2 Led Zeppelin – How the West Was Won
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This is another live album by a really old band that was released relatively recently. In fact, The Onion not only probably reviewed it, but even had one of their fake columnists, the blunted Jim Anchower, do a piece just raving about it the whole time (I think he said “There was so much Zep that I had to take another bong rip,” or something along those lines). I used to be addicted to it and have since put it down for a while, favoring just listening to II on Spotify, or maybe Physical Graffiti on a drive through the country, but I remembered the whole time that they’d opened with “Immigrant Song,” the Zep morsel employed in the immortal movie School of Rock. I couldn’t imagine a better, more energetic sound-hammer to set the tone for this overall visceral masterpiece, even if I tried.
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1 The Jimi Hendrix Experience – Live at Winterland
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You simply can’t beat this: the ultimate stage virtuoso in rock captured in a CONCERT setting, one single concert, full of covers (“Tax Free”; “Wild Thing”; “Killing Floor”), classic originals (a bolstered and blistering version of “Fire”; “Manic Depression”; “Hey Joe”), and even (I find this amusing in a time capsule/found art sense), the audible over hearing of Procol Harum’s “A Whiter Shade of Pale” on the PA preceding the introduction of the band. All the while, at this disc’s innards, amidst all the implicit and explicit reference to other significant cultural landmarks around them, you have the off-the-cuff noodling of Hendrix stamping a classic coat of rock and roll all over these tracks, from the incessant riff in “Killing Floor” to the all-instrumental “cover” of Cream’s “Sunshine of Your Love” (introduced by a little speech of lament over Cream’s supposed breakup, which ended up actually happening), a version I actually even prefer to the latter’s. “Hey Joe” comes correct with a long and awesome feedback/noodling intro, but really, the best part about this overall album is just how comfortable the band seems being recorded in concert setting — the tempo gets raised for fun run-through of “Fire,” the singer belts out some unbridled riffage of awesomeness all over the place, but all the while, the band stays perfectly tight, poised to lay down a masterpiece album which could stack up against absolutely anything throughout the history of rock and roll.
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Addenda: little rant about live albums in general.
Look, pretty much anybody will tell you live albums don’t mean EVERYTHING. Just because a band can’t make a good one (see Modest Mouse, PJ Harvey, TOOL), doesn’t mean you should discard them as incomplete.
Still, they’re fu**ing FUN, and like I said before, it all hinges on audience interaction. I just saw this awesome sort of deluxe interview with Perry Farrell in Rolling Stone about his favorite Lollapalooza moments since 1992. One of them was Eddie Vedder literally jumping off this second-story stack of amps, right into the crowd (I’m guessing he was tripping at the time). But I don’t think that this type of thing is non-correlative with the innate busting out of a classic concert. Being a musician is sophisticated. Being a rocker is just stupid.

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