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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. 

Keith Jarrett, 'The Köln Concert'
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Keith Jarrett, ‘The Köln Concert’ (1975)

Circumstances were inauspicious when pianist Keith Jarrett and ECM Records owner-producer Manfred Eicher rolled into Cologne, Germany, in January of 1975. Jarrett hadn't slept the night before and was in pain. Worse, the Bösendorfer piano they'd requested had been replaced by an inferior model which, according to Jarrett, "sounded like a very poor imitation of a harpsichord or a piano with tacks in it." Yet the hour-long solo concert he performed around midnight at the city's opera house, wearing a brace and nearly falling asleep at his instrument, was a deeply entrancing meditation on rhythm, whose double-vinyl recording became both the best-selling solo jazz and solo piano albums in history. Jarrett's extemporized fantasia drifts seamlessly from idea to idea, sometimes settling into a two-chord vamp for minutes at a time. More relaxed than most of his other solo recordings, it boasts a full complement of Jarrett's whooping, sighing and foot-stomping affectations while still offering a ravishing introduction to the art of improvisation. Richard Gehr

Iggy and the Stooges, 'Metallic K.O.'
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Iggy and the Stooges, ‘Metallic K.O.’ (1976)

Side B of the first Stooges live album is, purportedly, one of the gnarliest rock shows ever recorded. For weeks before the February 1974 gig, Stooges frontman Iggy Pop had gleefully engaged in public beef with a motorcycle gang called the Scorpions. They showed up in droves, along with all kinds of objects with which to pelt the band — fruits and vegetables, bottles, yard tools. That hardly bothered Iggy, though — his band was hungry, close to broke, and at the end of their rope. Sloppy on purpose, discordant and gut-churningly raw, the entire set-list is a big screw-you, down to the song selection. The non-album tracks "Rich Bitch" and "Cock in My Pocket" lead into the most gleefully, barely competent cover of "Louie Louie." Here's how little the band fretted about charming at this point. In his book Gimme Danger: The Story of Iggy Pop, Joe Ambrose reports this bit of Pop stage patter from the night: "Hands up, who hates the Stooges? We don't hate you. We don't even care." Arielle Castillo

Frank Zappa and the Mothers, 'Roxy & Elsewhere'
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Frank Zappa and the Mothers, ‘Roxy & Elsewhere’ (1974)

Though many of his phases have great live albums to complement them, Roxy & Elsewhere is the apotheosis of mid-Seventies Zappa, oozing proof of his ability to recruit a first-rate ensemble (keyboardist George Duke, percussionist Ruth Underwood and, um, guitarist Frank Zappa), to follow through with unorthodox methods (he seamlessly collates recordings from Hollywood with ones from "elsewhere," occasionally editing them together into one song) and to pull off the frenzied arrangements of the Apostrophe(') days. The group performs at the quirky outer limits: The instrumental "Echidna's Arf (Of You)" has unpredictable light-speed whirrs of xylophone and synth and the 16-minute jazz-prog-rock sandwich "Be-Bop Tango" includes an explanation of how to dance to Duke's sung polyrhythm ("You're still too adagio," Zappa jokes). Meanwhile, the Nixon sendup "Son of Orange County" ("I just can't believe you are such a fool") contains one of Zappa's most soulful guitar solos. Zappa included this Zen-like note on the first CD release: "Sometimes you can be surprised that 'The universe works whether or not you understand it.'" Kory Grow

The Ramones
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Ramones, ‘It’s Alive’ (1979)

This amphetamine-paced double-LP served as a Ramones career retrospective, smack at their peak, and shows the Queens crew almost stumbling across hardcore around the same time California was inventing it. Over four nights in 1977 at London's Rainbow Theater, the punk pioneers blasted through 28 songs from their first three albums. (Thanks to their tidily short length, they squeezed in nearly all of 'em.) The final LP version came mostly from the last night, charged with an energy so electric that fans are said to have ripped seats from the floor and thrown them at the stage in enthusiasm. It's no surprise, as the entire record pulses with American punk's promise, a spittle-spewing Joey Ramone barely pausing between "Pinhead," "Do You Wanna Dance?" and "Chain Saw." He even barely pauses long enough to get out all the lyrics, the band buzzing away behind him like they're in a machine shop. During post-production, the speed was something with which even the band itself struggled to keep up. In his book, Hey Ho, Let's Go: The Story of the Ramones, Everett True writes that Dee Dee needed extra fuel to record bass overdubs: an extra-heavy helping of black coffee. Arielle Castillo

Bill Withers, 'Live at Carnegie Hall'
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Bill Withers, ‘Live at Carnegie Hall’ (1973)

This rainy Friday night in October 1972 was less than a year and a half after Bill Withers' commercial breakthrough allowed him to quit a day job in an aircraft parts factory, but the rising soul star holds the stage at one of the world's most prestigious venues like a seasoned pro. Withers reminisces about his grandma's church ("At the funeral they used to have tie the caskets down!") and describes the dating scene (he's encountered many "ladies who are not too prone to trust anybody") as coolly as if he's entertaining guests in his own living room. His band, propelled by drummer James Gadson and led by pianist Ray Jackson, roughs up "Use Me" to accentuate its carnality and plays the sweaty closer "Harlem/Cold Baloney" like part of a revival meeting. Keith Harris

Bob Seger & the Silver Bullet Band, 'Live Bullet'
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Bob Seger & the Silver Bullet Band, ‘Live Bullet’ (1976)

Bob Seger had released eight albums and had been on the road for nearly a solid decade when he played Detroit's Cobo Hall on September 4th, 1974 — but he was still largely unknown outside of the Midwest. The main problem was that he simply couldn't capture the magic of his stage show on in a studio, which is likely why Live Bullet made such a huge impact. His cover of Ike & Tina's "Nutbush City Limits" got a ton of national airplay, and suddenly Live Bullet was selling like crazy. It was also fueled by "Turn The Page," a 1973 track about the rigors of touring life that has been a mainstay of classic rock radio for the past 40 years. "We were doing, like, 250 to 300 shows a year before Live Bullet," Seger said in 2013. "We were playing virtually five nights a week, sometimes six, as the Silver Bullet Band and we just had that show down." Andy Greene

Duke Ellington, 'Ellington at Newport'
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Duke Ellington, ‘Ellington at Newport’ (1956)

The gig couldn't have started less promisingly: four probably drunk band members failed to show up, and Ellington played the premiere jazz festival for all of 12 minutes before realizing they couldn't continue. But late at night they returned en masse and burned the hides off the hipsters with a set that gave his career new meaning. Everything comes down to "Diminuendo and Crescendo in Blue," a then-decades-old dance tune that flowered at Newport into a six minute, 27-chorus jam by tenor saxophonist Paul Gonsalves that bumped, grinded and talked in your ear. Duke shouts at Gonsalves, "Higher!" A blond woman in a black dress got up to dance, and then a lot of women did. A month later, Duke was on the cover of Time magazine. Bebop had made big band music seem almost corny, but Newport showed that mastery is mastery. "I was born in 1956, at the Newport Jazz Festival," the Duke later declared. RJ Smith