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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. 

Phish, 'New Year's Eve 1995 - Live at Madison Square Garden'
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Phish, ‘New Year’s Eve 1995 – Live at Madison Square Garden’ (2005)

Perhaps more than any other show, Phish's New Year's Eve 1995 (to 1996) extravaganza at Madison Square Garden set the commercial and artistic bar for the jam legions that followed. Bordering on musical theater starring four longhaired nerds, their three sets packed in one stunt after another. But as always, the band's most impressive tricks were in their improvisation, including a delicate second set-ending delay loop motif that later turned up on Trey Anastasio's homemade side project One Man's Trash as "That Dream Machine." "It felt like an era was coming to an end," Anastasio told Parke Puterbaugh of the band's massive extended fall 1995 trek, featuring some of the Vermont quartet's all-time noisiest excursions. New Year's '95 would prove to be a renewable resource, yielding an instant classic tape, months of fan debate ("Did Trey tease 'Fire on the Mountain' in 'Drowned'?"), a three-CD set and, most recently, a six-LP Record Store Day edition. Jesse Jarnow

Peter Frampton, 'Frampton Comes Alive!'
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Peter Frampton, ‘Frampton Comes Alive!’ (1976)

In the summer of '76, nothing was in the air like Frampton Comes Alive!, the ultimate example of the double-live album with gatefold cover — it was supposed to be just a single album until A&M Records took the unusual step of insisting on a second disc. Frampton, a journeyman Humble Pie guitarist gone solo, happily obliged. "Baby, I Love Your Way," "Show Me the Way" and most of all "Do You Feel Like We Do" came to life in the live setting (all 14 minutes of it). Even the crowd noise sounds sensational. Frampton Comes Alive! quickly became the biggest-selling album of all time until the Saturday Night Fever soundtrack topped it. "A year before Frampton Comes Alive! we had released the studio version of "Show Me The Way" as a single…and it totally tanked," Frampton told MusicRadar. "It was pretty strange to put out the live version and watch it go through the roof. It was still the same song. What had changed? AOR was the big radio format at the time. And they were playing Frampton Comes Alive! like crazy. If you put on an AOR station — any station — you’d hear pretty much all the songs from that record." David Menconi

B.B. King, 'Live in Cook County Jail' (1970)
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B.B. King, ‘Live in Cook County Jail’ (1970)

B.B. King's openers had a rough time. As an announcer welcomes the likes of Sheriff Joseph Woods to the stage before the blues legend takes the stage for a 1970 show at Chicago's Cook County Jail, the prisoners greet the officer with aggressive boos and jeers. It was a tough crowd, but King entranced them with ease and humility. He was gracious, flirtatious and even self-deprecating as he effortless ripped through songs like "Worry, Worry" and "Sweet Sixteen." "It was the best show we ever had," said the Department of Corrections Superintendent Winston Moore who had invited King to perform for the prisoners. By the time he finished on a sweet note with the ballad "Please Accept My Love," King had the crowd on their feet, hollering ecstatically. Brittany Spanos

Joni Mitchell, 'Miles of Aisles'
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Joni Mitchell, ‘Miles of Aisles’ (1974)

Joni Mitchell's first live album arrived at the peak of her fame. Recorded a couple months after her breakthrough Court and Spark debuted, the Canadian singer-songwriter documented the California stops on the tour supporting the new LP. Performing an expansive collection of tracks from her 1968 debut Song to a Seagull onward, Miles of Aisles carefully avoided the hits. "No one ever said to Van Gogh, 'Paint a "Starry Night" again, man,'" said Mitchell before playing "Circle Game." In 1991, she revealed to Rolling Stone why she made the comparison: "I never wanted to turn into a human jukebox. I haven't used up all my ideas yet. But I'm working in a pop field, and whether they're going to allow an older woman to do that is an open question. It requires a loyal, interested audience who believes in my talent." Brittany Spanos

The Velvet Underground, '1969: Velvet Underground Live With Lou Reed'
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The Velvet Underground, ‘1969: Velvet Underground Live With Lou Reed’ (1974)

For decades, 1969: Velvet Underground Live With Lou Reed offered the only halfway decent live document of the band that launched a million other bands. Released only months after Lou Reed's 1974 hit live LP Rock N Roll Animal, and just on the cusp of punk, 1969 offered a stripped-down Reed for hungry ears in downtown New York and beyond. Performing future standards to tiny crowds in Dallas and San Francisco, 1969 features almost entirely new material for the band, songs the Velvets never properly recorded ("Over You," "Lisa Says," "Ocean"), song-drafts they'd record in different forms ("New Age," "Sweet Jane"), and at least one song that Patti Smith would — by the year after its release —be opening sets with at CBGB ("We're Gonna Have A Real Good Time Together"). Jesse Jarnow

Neil Young, 'Time Fades Away'
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Neil Young, ‘Time Fades Away’ (1973)

Neil Young should have been on top of the world in 1973. The incredible success of Harvest finally took him out of CSNY's shadow, "Heart of Gold" was a Number One hit in 1972, and a 62-date arena tour sold out all over America. But the death of Crazy Horse guitarist Danny Whitten, a painful back disorder and the endless infighting of his backing band turned the tour into an endless slog. He had a ton of hits by this point, but he opted to devote a big chunk of the set to gloomy, brand new tunes like "L.A.," "Don't Be Denied" and "Yonder Stands The Sinner." The new songs were captured on the live LP Time Fades Away. It was greeted by a collective shrug when it came out in 1973 and its been out of print for decades, but Neil diehards recognize it as an absolute classic and original vinyl copies are highly prized. Unsurprisingly, Young has a wildly different take. "My least favorite record is Time Fades Away," he said in 1987. "I felt like a product, and I had this band of all-star musicians that couldn't even look at each other. It was a total joke." Andy Greene

Frank Sinatra, 'Sinatra at the Sands'
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Frank Sinatra, ‘Sinatra at the Sands’ (1963)

Before he became Mr. New York, Frank Sinatra's signature town was Las Vegas, and Sinatra at the Sands captures him at his ring-a-ding-ding peak — complete with an adoring casino crowd and an epic "Tea Break" monologue where the chairman cracks harsh on his Rat Pack subordinates. Sands might be the ultimate period piece for those who prefer Johnny Mercer's songbook to Jagger-Richards', with Quincy Jones conducting Count Basie's Orchestra and the 50-year-old crooner still at the height of his warm-yet-threatening vocal powers. The music is sensational, including definitive versions of signatures like "Fly Me to the Moon" and "I've Got You Under My Skin." And for an added bonus, there's the introduction — "The Sands is proud to present a wonderful new show…" — by William Conrad, the well-traveled character who also narrated Rocky and Bullwinkle. David Menconi

Aretha Franklin
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Aretha Franklin, ‘Live at Fillmore West’ (1971)

"Does anybody feel like hearing the blues?" Aretha Franklin asks, introducing "Dr. Feelgood." She actually had to ask: At the time, San Francisco venue Fillmore West was more famous for bringing rock acts like Jefferson Airplane. Earlier in her set, she even covered Simon and Garfunkel to some chatter. But by then, the crowd answered with a resounding yes — and Franklin's reply is well worth hearing. In "Dr. Feelgood," she throws her head back in an ecstasy that sounds both sexual and religious. And for a reprise of "Spirit in the Dark," Ray Charles appears, even though he wasn't set to perform. He was only there to watch. "If you listen to the record, you can tell I don't know it," he told Rolling Stone in 1973. Christina Lee

Bob Marley and the Wailers, 'Live!'
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Bob Marley and the Wailers, ‘Live!’ (1975)

Bob Marley and the Wailers' 1975 Natty Dread tour began in America, where some 15,000 fans watched the reggae band perform in Central Park. By the time they crossed the Atlantic, the verdict was in: After two sold-out shows at London's Lyceum, a Melody Maker cover story pronounced Bob "possibly the greatest superstar to visit these shores since the days when Dylan conquered the concert halls of Britain." Neither of these gigs were intended to be recorded, but when Island Records founder Chris Blackwell witnessed the madness of the first, he made sure that the Rolling Stones' mobile studio was parked outside the venue for the second. The result was a song collection of pointed lyrics, political chants and funk grooves enlivened by new guitarist Al Anderson. The seven-minute "No Woman, No Cry" reached the U.K. Top 10 and remains the definitive version of the classic song, eventually appearing as track two of the 15-times-platinum Legend set. Even the mic feedback that echoes over the first verse has become imbued with emotion. Nick Murray

Fela Ransome-Kuti and the Africa '70 with Ginger Baker, 'Live!'
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Fela Ransome-Kuti and the Africa ’70 with Ginger Baker, ‘Live!’ (1971)

Though already celebrated as one of rock's greatest drummers from a three-year run in Cream and Blind Faith, Ginger Baker's curiosity brought him from England to war-embattled Nigeria to learn more about rhythm. "I don't dance," he said about hearing his old friend Fela Kuti's new band Africa 70, "but I just had to dance to Fela's stuff." This intimate collaboration was actually recorded in Abbey Road studio instead of a traditional rock venue, but was electric nonetheless. Said Baker in his autobigraphy, "an audience of 150 crammed into a large studio…with colored spotlights dancing about the walls to give it the feel of a proper live gig." Baker and Afrobeat bricklayer Tony Allen handle the grooves, and one of the world's funkiest bands gets a little free-rock pummel. Christopher R. Weingarten

Deep Purple, 'Made in Japan'
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Deep Purple, ‘Made in Japan’ (1972)

In just seven cuts, Deep Purple deliver four sides of excitement and indulgence. From Ian Paice's dizzying drum solo during "The Mule" to Jon Lord's winking organ vamp at the start of "Lazy," from the trick ending of the 20-minute "Space Truckin'" to Ian Gillan and Ritchie Blackmore's voice-and-guitar duel during "Strange Kind of Women," the metal progenitors plunder (and arguably establish) a near-complete arsenal of onstage tricks and tropes. Cheaply made, wildly popular and frequently reissued, Made in Japan was captured during three nights in Osaka and Tokyo. The set feels ever casual, as if the band is performing less for the crowd or the tape machine and more for the sheer enjoyment of stretching these tunes out like playdates. "We were all so unconcerned about the whole thing that nobody was actually aware of being recorded," Lord later confirmed in Dave Thompson's Smoke on the Water. "There was no diminution of the interplay, spontaneity and feeling that we usually got onstage." Grayson Haver Currin

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 d