5
Feb
2012
Random Pop Culture Top 10 List
Top 10 Favorite Live Albums
Jordan & Rachel
Random Pop Culture Top 10 List is a (fairly self-explanatory) biweekly list in which the Review to be named gang take stock of the realm of pop culture, and come up with their Top Ten in a specific category.

Top Ten Live Albums

We apologize for the delay on this week's Saturday feature. What you might not already know is that this list hasn't just been delayed on day--it's actually been bumped for about a month now. We though we could get it together and then jumped feet first into a real doozie. We listened to days worth of live albums to compose this list (we're not joking. Our playlists were well over 48 hours long). Live albums are often a conundrum: sure, the quality of the songs isn't going to be as great as the studio cuts, but is there really a better judge of a musician than a live show? Nothing is more spectacular than a great live-experience, sometimes sacred, when you walk away with a ragged throat and maybe a tee shirt. But a great live album gives us the opportunity to feel like we were there for performances by some of our favorites, performances that maybe came decades before we were born or thousands of miles away. And so we present you with the much belabored, hopefully not more trouble than it was worth list of our favorite live albums.


Rachel's Honorable Mentions

Creedence Clearwater Revival , The Concert




Elton John, Live In Australia




Jordan's Honorable Mentions

Etta James Rocks the House




Led Zeppelin, How the West Was Won




10. Jackson Browne, Running on Empty

In recent years, Jackson Browne has turned in two very solid traditional live albums in the form of the two-volume Solo Acoustic, yet his best live album is without doubt 1977's landmark Running on Empty. Almost unique among live albums, it is completely composed of new material, written and recorded during his 1977 tour. Recorded on stage, in hotel rooms, on the tour bus, and backstage before shows, the album focuses, through original Browne compositions and some stellar covers on the process of touring and its psychological effects on musicians living on the road. From the all-time classic "Running on Empty," through the beautifully contemplative and mournful "The Road" and the tongue-in-cheek "Cocaine," right on through to the epic conclusion in which Browne encores with his original composition "The Load Out," which tells about roadies taking apart the stage after a set and segues fluidly into a wonderful reconstruction of Maurice Williams' "Stay" which alters the lyrics into a plea from Browne to his audience for "one more song," one last encore before he rides off to his next stop. It's an album of deep, resonant emotions, examining the touring mindset and Browne's love of entertaining. Running on Empty is a live album about the process of performing live, an album by a great songwriter working in his prime, grinding out a living doing what he loves in spite of all of the difficulties it places before him.




9. Nirvana, MTV Unplugged in New York

In MTV Unplugged in New York, Nirvana does something just short of miraculous: in under an hour's worth of music, Nirvana manages to take the sound of a generation of music and craft it into something completely different, grunge tipped in a way that had never been presented before and has never been replicated to such great effect since. Grunge is loud. Grunge is angry. Grunge is dirty. This performance is raw and vulnerable, Cobain's sincere insecurity evident in every word. Nirvana hesitated to do Unplugged, and when they finally did agree, they took great pains to make sure the performance was their own, all of which resulted in a definitive performance that ultimately serves as a sort of sign-off for the band, considering the front man would be dead five months later. What makes this one of the greatest of live albums is that Nirvana manages to turn their old material into something new, different, and amazing, something that makes us wish we were sitting on the outskirts of those Persian carpets, peering over stargazer lilies in the light thrown by the crystal chandelier above. On top of that, the covers sprinkled through the set, from the David Bowie song "The Man Who Sold the World" to the Vaselines' "Jesus Doesn't Want Me For A Sunbeam" and the Meat Puppets' "Lake of Fire," join the Nirvana hits ("All Apologies" was the only one of Nirvanas #1 singles to be included in the set) and tracks that are now iconic to create a touching homage to the bands' influences, friends, and compatriots. Not the mention, the entire performance was recorded in a single take, and that Cobain was in the throes of withdrawal during the performance, adding another layer to the heartbreaking tenor of the album and Nirvana's trajectory as a band.




8. The Ramones, It's Alive

Recorded at a New Year's Eve show in London in 1977, in the Golden Age of punk rock, It's Alive is nothing short of an hour long argument for the vitality of punk rock as an art form. The set consists of 28 songs that showcase the best of the Ramones first three albums, played at non-stop break-neck speed. Joey Ramone growls ferocious one-liners between some of the songs, but with those few, brief exceptions, all that occurs between the curt introduction of, "We're The Ramones. This one's called "˜Rockaway Beach'" and the conclusion is pure punk bliss, a wall of sound and emotion that includes such all-time classics as "Blitzkrieg Bop," "Gimme Gimme Shock Treatment, "Here Today, Gone Tomorrow," and "Judy is a Punk" and an awesome cover of "California Sun." The set is pitch-perfect and played the way the band was intended to be heard: live and at the top of their game. The show that night ended with the first ten rows of seats being thrown at the stage in an act of punk-rock catharsis that sets this album apart as one of the definitive statements of the Punk Rock age from one of America's best punk bands.



7. Bruce Springsteen, Live 1975-1985

We swear, this album didn't just make the list because one of the authors is a born Jersey-girl. This album made the list because it's just downright amazing. Recorded over the span of ten years of live performances of Springsteen at his peak, in all actuality this could be reduced a heartbreakingly fantastic version of "Thunder Road" and the most riveting performance of "Rosalita (Come Out Tonight)" that ever was. We're still tearing up at the Clarence Clemon's introduction that refers to him as the world champ. The album proves that, for as great as Springsteen is on vinyl, cassette, CD, Mp3, or what have you, he is truly a performer made for the stage, the E Street Band at his back and a screaming crowd in front of him. Most of the albums notable tracks are from two stand-out performances a the Roxy in LA, with some great performances in Springsteen's home state as well, the whole album becoming a coast-to-coast tour-de-force that still stands as the quintessential Springsteen, even with the incredible growth he's managed to undergo as his career stretches into its fifth decade.




6. Frank Sinatra, Sinatra at the Sands

What is there to say about Sinatra at the Sands? Sinatra was a performer, through and through, and this performance is him at his best: on a stage in Las Vegas, with the amazing Count Basie orchestra backing him up, musical arrangement by Quincy Jones, the martinis clearly flowing (in "One for My Baby" Sinatra even discusses the joy of the drunk song, and how they're often sung by guys with problems, including when a man's "broad flew the coop"). Perhaps the best moment of the whole album isn't even a song, but "The Tea Break (Monologue)" that comes halfway through, with Frank rattling on about Dean Martin and Sammy Davis Jr. and his life as a performer, in ways that are entertaining and offensive and ridiculous. We love the atmosphere of the whole set, the tittering laughter and smatters of applause and glasses clinking that makes us feel like we're there, watching Frank ham it up in between velvet-voiced croonings. The set is stacked with some of the greatest Sinatra tracks, from "Come Fly With Me" to "Fly Me to the Moon" and "My Kind of Town," and if you can keep yourself from swaying along, you probably don't have a soul.




5. Bob Dylan, Live 1966 "The Royal Albert Hall Concert

Bob Dylan's 1966 world tour is one of the most famous in the history of rock and roll, and a listen through The Royal Albert Hall Concert (which is actually the Manchester Free Trade Hall Concert, if you want to get all technical about it) leaves no doubt as to why. Bob Dylan is one of the greatest singer-songwriters of all time, and this album showcases him at his peak. In addition to being a phenomenal hour and a half long set, it also includes one of the most famous moments in rock and roll history, the "Judas" incident. As the concert prepares to end, a heckler in the audience yells out "Judas! I'm never listening to you again, ever!" Dylan, cool as can be, responds at a near growl, "I don't believe you...You're a liar." Then he turns to his band, says "Play fucking loud" and launches into what can only be described as the definitive version of "Like a Rolling Stone." It's a moment of sublime catharsis, a rock and roll touchstone caught on record to be parsed over again and again. In short, it is a prime example of why live albums matter in the first place.




4. The Band, The Last Waltz

When The Band decided to stop touring in 1976, they decided to go out with a bang, putting on the greatest concert imaginable before riding off into the sunset. So, on Thanksgiving Day, the group put on their final show, providing Thanksgiving Dinner for all 5,000 attendees, leaving room for ballroom dancing, and packing their set full of guest performers, any of whom alone would qualify as a "get." Over the course of their career, The Band had backed or worked with some of the greatest performers of the 20th Century, so it's no surprise the group has such a star-studded farewell, full of top-notch performers who usually take pause to praise The Band before launching into phenomenal performances of the hits the group helped them to craft. Present on the album are performances by Ronnie Hawkins, Neil Young, Joni Mitchell, Neil Diamond, Dr. John, Muddy Waters, Eric Clapton, Van Morrison, Ringo Starr and Bob Dylan, among others. There's a romance and a nostalgia to the entire proceedings, and the album comes off as a combination between a memorial service for a band that was and a celebration of the life of one of the great (if unheralded) rock bands of all time. Included are hits that contribute to the nostalgic tinge, including "The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down," "Forever Young," and "The Weight." The Last Waltz serves as a beautiful reminder that nothing lasts forever, but that there is something to be said for going out on top.




3. David Bowie, Live Santa Monica "˜72

Sometimes all it takes to make a legendary live-album is a great set list played perfectly. In 1972, David Bowie was riding high in his Ziggy Stardust era, coming off the release of his two greatest albums of all time (go ahead, fight us on it) Hunky Dory and The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars. The set he played in Santa Monica on October 20, 1972 is a Bowie-geek's dream, combining the best songs off both albums into an 80 minute set that starts strong and never let's up. "Changes," you ask? Check. "Queen Bitch"? Got it. "Suffragette City"? Present and accounted for. Hell, at the album's mid-point, Bowie runs through three of his greatest songs in a row, delivering the one-two-three punch of "Life on Mars," "Five Years," and "Space Oddity" without breaking a sweat (probably). Bowie pulls out his excellent (and under-recognized) single "John, I'm Only Dancing," drops several of the best cuts off The Man Who Sold The World, covers The Velvet Underground's "I'm Waiting For The Man," and closes, perfectly, with "Rock "˜n' Roll Suicide." It's the sort of live album that makes us jealous and just a little bit angry that we weren't there that night, which is exactly what a live album should do and so few actually accomplish. Live Santa Monica "˜72 is David Bowie at its best, playing his heart out, tearing through a set list filled to the brim with classics, and rocking it every step of the way.




2. Jeff Buckley, Live at Sin-e

Live albums are undoubtedly best suited for opposite ends of the musical spectrum: arena rock bands and individual singer/songwriters. Jeff Buckley's Live at Sin-e is the definitive singer/songwriter live album: a man, a guitar, a stool, a coffee-shop, and an impromptu performance that has come to define a career, a genre, and the very medium of the live album. Live at Sin-E, in its first iteration, was a 1993 EP featuring four songs, and while that outing is more than enough to merit a high spot on this list, the expanded legacy edition, released in 2003 with two discs worth of comprehensive coverage of the two-day show, is stunning. Sin-e was one of Buckley's favorite coffee shops, and all of the intimacy and comfort of the venue pour through in his performance, from his banter with the other shop regulars to his laughter at his own mistakes. He even sings in Urdu. Tucked between Buckley classics like "Lover, You Should Have Come Over" and "Grace" are covers like Leonard Cohen's "Hallelujah," which is iconic in its original form and perhaps moreso in Buckley's version, and songs by Nina Simone, Van Morrison, Led Zeppelin, Bob Dylan, and Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan. Buckley's voice melts over the tracks, accompanied as much by his own impromptu percussion on his guitar front as it is by actual instrumentation in a no-frills, all about the music manner that makes us go back again and again (and again).




1. Johnny Cash, At Folsom Prison

Live albums, or at least the really great ones, tend to be as much about the story as they are about the music, and there is just no better live album story than that attached to Johnny Cash's At Folsom Prison. Cash had a hankering for performing at Folsom from the time he recorded and released "Folsom Prison Blues" in 1955, but was stifled by management until 1967. The performance corresponded with Cash getting himself clean, and is the ultimate embodiment of redemption: a reformed man, recognizing what it means to hit rock bottom, going back there to give something to those that society has tossed aside. That's not to say that the music itself isn't sterling, because it is. From the opening notes of the song that inspired it all, through the duets with Cash's soon-to-be-wife June Carter and down to the end of "Greystone Chapel," At Folsom Prison is a live album at its best, full of the Man in Black's subversions, sharp guitar, and whiskey-and-cigarette vocals. From it's opening declaration, the simple "Hello, I'm Johnny Cash" right through to the end, At Folsom Prison is a classic, the definitive live album, and a record that single-handedly makes a winning argument for an entire genre of music. If you doubt the potential inherent in the live album format, give At Folsom Prison a spin, and then come talk to us. Our guess is you'll change your tune.




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