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50 Greatest Live Albums of All Time

Rolling Stone ranks the 50 best live albums ever, from Jimi Hendrix at Monterey to Johnny Cash at Folsom Prison

Jimi Hendrix

Jimi Hendrix at Monterey Pop Festival.

Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

It’s impossible to capture the frenzy of a live show on record, but it’s not for lack of trying. Here are 50 of the best attempts from Jimi’s historic Monterey Pop guitar incineration to less than 200 people crammed into Abbey Road for Fela Kuti and Ginger Baker; from Johnny Cash at Folsom Prison to Cheap Trick at Budokan. We tried to avoid albums that are mostly overdubs (see Neil Young’s Rust Never Sleeps) or completely fake (the nonetheless essential Cheap Thrills from Big Brother and the Holding Company) and focused on groundbreaking moments, career-making albums and epic jams. 

Bob Dylan, 'The Bootleg Series, Vol. 4: Bob Dylan Live 1966: The "Royal Albert Hall Concert"'
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Bob Dylan, ‘The Bootleg Series, Vol. 4: Bob Dylan Live 1966: The “Royal Albert Hall Concert”‘ (1998)

In the three decades before its official release in 1998, this was the most famous live bootleg around, breeding both mythology (a heckler calls Dylan "Judas"; Dylan yells back, "I don't believe you! You're a liar!") and myths (it was recorded in Manchester, not at London's Royal Albert Hall). The legend goes that Dylan's shift from acoustic folk revivalism to electric rock & roll had left his old fans feeling betrayed, and he and his new band (assembled mostly from members of Ronnie Hawkins' group) had to win over a hostile audience by force. In fact, he opened the show, like every show on that tour, with an acoustic set. However, on the electric half of the concert he becomes maniacal and riveting, spitting out every word like a curse. "It could be arsenic music, or perhaps Phaedra music," he told Playboy that year. "Folk music is a bunch of fat people." Douglas Wolk

MC5, 'Kick Out the Jams'
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MC5, ‘Kick Out the Jams’ (1969)

Forget flower-power, the crash-bang throttle of the first 10 minutes of the MC5's debut made garage-rockers of the era sound weak and tentative by comparison. "I wanna hear some revolution out there," unapologetically militant singer Rob Tyner, quoting Eldridge Cleaver, screams. And while not everyone was ready for revolution — writing for Rolling Stone in 1969, Lester Bangs said the Motor City 5 used noise and aggression to "conceal a paucity of ideas." — history shows the album pushing underground rock towards an aggression precipice. It's quaint to think of now, but the opening command — "Kick out the jams, motherfuckers!" — so riled the band's label, Elektra, that the company prepared both edited and unedited versions. Peter Doggett reports in his book There's a Riot Going On: Revolutionaries, Rock Stars and the Rise and Fall of '60s Counter-Culture that an unedited batch went to the retail chain Hudson's. When they sent back the stock and refused to stock either version, the band had an even more choice message to them in a series of national ads: "Fuck Hudson's!" Arielle Castillo

Grateful Dead, ‘Live/Dead’ (1969)
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Grateful Dead, ‘Live/Dead’ (1969)

Live/Dead may not have been the first instance of a band refinancing their studio bills with a relatively inexpensive live release, but it may have been the most successful. The Grateful Dead — $180,000 in debt to Warner Bros. — jacked into the first 16-track mobile facility in early 1969. "We were after a serious, long composition, musically and then a recording of it," said Jerry Garcia. The double-vinyl Live/Dead opens with a side-long "Dark Star," explores the cosmos further in "St. Stephen" and "The Eleven," continues with Ron "Pigpen" McKernan's lascivious side-long take on Bobby "Blue" Bland's "Turn on Your Love Light," and brings it all back home with a Rev. Gary Davis blues followed by "Feedback" and an a cappella "And We Bid You Goodnight." On the greatest advertisement for a band's in-concert capabilities recorded to date, the Dead proved themselves both serious avant-gardists and impeccable roots revisionists — and spent the rest of their career reaffirming it onstage. Richard Gehr

Kiss, Alive! (1975)
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Kiss, ‘Alive!’ (1975)

"You wanted the best, and you got it — the hottest band in the land!" From that swaggering intro all the way through guitarist Paul Stanley's banter about audience members' preferred beverages, Alive! neatly summarized Kiss's gritty early-Seventies catalog and extremely outsized charm — in turn, the 1975 double LP wound up being the band's first Top 10 album. Muscular takes on white-knuckle glam classics like "Strutter" and "Cold Gin" reveal just how much sweat seeped into the band members' makeup on any given night. Chatter over just how much of the album was sweetened in the studio persists to this day, but that hasn't dimmed its legacy. Not only has Alive! spawned multiple sequels, the 2015 lineup of Kiss will recreate it in full on this fall's sailing of the Kiss Kruise. Maura Johnston

B.B. King, 'Live at the Regal'
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B.B. King, ‘Live at the Regal’ (1965)

When he stepped onstage at the storied Regal Theater on Chicago's Southside in November 1964, B.B. King had 30 R&B hits but had barely creased the pop charts. Recorded that night, King's first live album would become an entry point for many white listeners, and blues aficionados still speak of it with awe — Eric Clapton was rumored to spin Live at the Regal to prep for his shows. Newcomers encountered an urbane but never slick professional, backed by a killer horn section, who belted each number with class and grit, all the better to showcase the jazzy yet terse yet economical solos he coaxed from his beloved black Gibson, "Lucille." His set here begins, as it did those days, with "Everyday I Have the Blues" — not a lament, but the boast of a touring workhorse who performed more than 300 shows each year. Keith Harris

The Who, 'Live at Leeds'
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The Who, ‘Live at Leeds’ (1970)

The Who spent most of 1969 and 1970 on the road, playing their rock opera, Tommy, as the centerpiece of epic concerts. They'd become a fearsomely powerful live band, as fluid as they were brutal: four wizards at separate corners of the stage, raising a golden demon together. The original version of Live at Leeds, recorded at a college gig on Valentine's Day, 1970, was three cover songs and three transfigured Who standards, packaged to look like a warts-and-all bootleg LP (which explained the crackles from a faulty cable). As singer Roger Daltrey later put it, it's "the end of a two-and-three-quarter-hour show…it's just the jamming bit at the end." Tommy itself was omitted, although some of its riffs show up in the course of a 15-minute jam that evolves out of the proto-punk headbanger "My Generation." Later editions have gradually added the other 27 songs played that night. Douglas Wolk

Johnny Cash, 'At Folsom Prison'
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Johnny Cash, ‘At Folsom Prison’ (1968)

Cash's 1968 live album came at the right time for the country legend who had found himself spiraling out with alcohol and drug addictions — not to mention suffering a lull in success, having not scored a Top 40 hit in four years. Though he had been performing in prisons for nearly a decade at the time he arrived at Folsom, Cash's first live recording at the site that inspired the iconic 1955 hit "Folsom Prison Blues" turned out to be exactly what his career needed. "That's where I met Glenn Sherley," said the signer in a 1973 interview with Rolling Stone, referencing the Folsom prisoner whose song, "Greystone Chapel," Cash debuted during the set. "That's where things really started for me again." Brittany Spanos

The Allman Brothers Band, 'At Fillmore East'
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The Allman Brothers Band, ‘At Fillmore East’ (1971)

Complete with Pabst-clutching roadies on the sleeve, the Allman Brothers' At Fillmore East might be a double-LP from blues-rock central casting were it not for the soaring jams on sides B, C and D. Recorded at Bill Graham's East Village venue in March 1971 and released four months later, it is the last Allman Brothers album under the stewardship of Brother Duane, whose conversational, Coltrane-influenced guitar provides transformative grace on a 23-minute "Whipping Post" and points the way beyond longhaired blues noodles. "It's like what B.B. King did on Live at the Regal, which is just like one big long song, a giant medley," Gregg Allman told band biographer Alan Paul. "He never stopped. He just slammed it." On the flipside is a portrait of an absent road manager Twiggs Lyndon Jr., then incarcerated for stabbing a Buffalo club-owner over unpaid proceeds. Jesse Jarnow

James Brown
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James Brown, ‘Live at the Apollo’ (1963)

King Records founder Syd Nathan declined to jump on James Brown's idea of a live album — they hadn't been established as a profitable venture and he wasn't particularly interested in anything but singles at the time. "Didn't nobody believe us — none of the company executives believed us," recalled hypeman Bobby Byrd. "But see, we were out there. We saw the response as we run our show down." In turn, Brown self-financed the show and was even prepared to self-release it. Though Wednesday was usually Amateur Night inside Harlem's historic Apollo Theater, the Hardest Working Man in Show Business was in his prime. Despite the 27-minute run time, he was a tease: At first, he tries alternating between the locomotive rhythms of his revue, the Famous Flames, and acting cool in formal ballads like "Try Me." The longer he tries to restrain himself, though, the more his voice quivers before he eventually caves, shouting and screaming as he begs and pleads. Christina Lee

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