Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Graphic: Nicole Antonuccio

In May 1968, Johnny Cash released Live At Folsom Prison, a recording of a raucous, emotionally charged performance before a group of grateful inmates that went on to top the country charts, completely reinvigorating Cash’s career. Folsom wasn’t the first successful live album, obviously, but it quickly became a paragon of its potential. In its wake, it seemed, every major artist felt compelled to release one, creating a ’70s heyday for the live album in which several classics rivaled or even surpassed studio efforts: The Who’s Live At Leeds. Cheap Trick At Budokan. Jimi Hendrix’s Band Of Gypsys. Frampton Comes Alive! And so on.

Despite some sporadic hits from the likes of U2, Bruce Springsteen, Nirvana, and Garth Brooks, the live album gradually fell out of favor as the ’80s and ’90s wore on, viewed increasingly as the self-indulgence of rock dinosaurs. (“Does everyone remember the Foghat rule? Your fourth album should be double live,” Bob Odenkirk joked in Yo La Tengo’s video for “Sugarcube,” fairly summing up the indie attitude.) But while there haven’t been as many universally regarded live albums in the 2000s—in an age that has also largely devalued the “album” itself—it’s still given us plenty of worthwhile examples. Here are some of them.

1. Daft Punk, Alive 2007 (2007)

Arriving 10 years after Daft Punk’s first live album, Alive 2007 finds the French duo moving on from a midsize British club to a huge Parisian arena. You’re not going to get the full, sensory-destroying experience of this legendary tour on record—this is, after all, the show where Daft Punk’s shiny robots blasted beats from inside a huge neon pyramid—but Alive still captures just how good the concert-averse duo is at manipulating a crowd. The set is expertly paced for maximum shameless thrills, stringing the ravenous audience along with pulsating lulls that build into dense, rapturous drops. Along the way, they pepper in wacky moments of levity and reconstruct many of the unforgettable sounds from across their first three albums into a wild, fun-as-hell mashup. [Matt Gerardi]

2. Kate Bush, Before The Dawn (2016)

Although Kate Bush’s music is, in many ways, made for the stage, she famously stopped performing live after 1979’s epic, innovative Tour Of Life and spent the ensuing decades making music strictly in the studio. Thirty-five years passed before her son, Bertie, convinced her to mount the live residency Before The Dawn, at the very theater where her final concert tour ended, London’s Hammersmith Apollo. The show merged storylines from two albums made 20 years apart: the near-death experience of “The Ninth Wave,” from Bush’s 1986 landmark album Hounds Of Love, and the life-affirming day passed in “(An Endless) Sky Of Honey,” from 2005’s Aerial. The audio recording of Before The Dawn not only offers fresh versions of some of Bush’s best songs—most of them never performed live before—but it also reframes and expands them with new narrative elements and connections to Bush’s oeuvre. It cuts an illuminating new path through her catalog. [Kelsey J. Waite]

3. Shudder To Think, Live From Home (2009)

A candidate for the most unexpected, most fiercely anti-commercial major-label signing during the alt-rock frenzy of the ’90s, Shudder To Think practiced a challenging mix of operatic art-pop and dissonant noise before disbanding in 1998. It briefly reunited in 2007 and produced this live record, an album that proved, actually, there was an arena-worthy sound hiding in there all along, amid the weirdness. Spanning both the group’s run of Dischord albums and its major-label debut, Live From Home captures Shudder To Think as a big, bold rock band in a way that never fully translated in the studio, neither in its early, indie recordings nor the ambitious production of Pony Express Record. It’s a powerful and ferocious victory lap. [Alex McLevy]

4. Sleater-Kinney, Live In Paris (2017)

It’s hard to believe that Live In Paris is the sole live album from Sleater-Kinney, a band renowned for performances that are at turns confrontational and euphoric, and unflagging in their intensity. It’s even more surprising that—despite its reverently ’90s ’zine artwork—it came out in 2017, recorded toward the very beginning of the group’s reunion tour behind 2015’s No Cities To Love. But as that record proved, Sleater-Kinney only grew stronger apart, and Live In Paris captures the riot grrrl veterans working with the advantage of decades of experience, but without the punch-the-clock perfunctoriness of most bands their age. Here Corin Tucker’s and Carrie Brownstein’s voices settle more comfortably than ever into the well-worn grooves of their harmonies and interlocking dialogues, and the joy at rediscovering that combined power is palpable throughout. If there’s any knock against Live In Paris, it’s that the album is heavily weighted toward more recent material, with only a handful of ’90s favorites. But even this only offers further argument for Sleater-Kinney’s enduringly vital existence in the here and now. [Sean O’Neal]

5. Björk, Live Box (2003)

No modern pop artist remains more dedicated to the live album than Björk. Since the late ’90s, the Icelandic singer has collected soundboard recordings from every tour, later sorting and reworking them into live versions of their associated albums. Because she often uses the stage and the subsequent mixing process as an opportunity to recompose songs, Björk’s live recordings are always especially raw and engaging, capturing the exchange of something completely new and momentary between artist and audience. There are equally stellar, more recent examples, but the Live Box set covers the widest swath of her catalog, with Debut, Post, Homogenic, and the particularly luminous Vespertine all represented here. Onstage, Björk—accompanied by her music box melodies, a full Inuit choir, and the ingenious electronic duo Matmos—arguably outdoes her studio efforts. [Kelsey J. Waite]

6. Various artists, Leonard Cohen: I’m Your Man

Lian Lunson’s 2005 film Leonard Cohen: I’m Your Man is ostensibly a documentary, looking back at the life and career of the singer largely through interviews with Cohen and the many artists he’s influenced. But for all the words spilled by the ever-eloquent Cohen and his devotees, it honors him best through song, capturing a tribute show staged that year at the Sydney Opera House with a coterie of famous admirers. Artists like Nick Cave, Rufus and Martha Wainwright, Beth Orton, Teddy Thompson, and Jarvis Cocker all take turns putting their unique spins on Cohen standards like “Hallelujah” and “Tower Of Song,” with standouts including Anohni’s (then Antony) chilling take on “If It Be Your Will,” Orton’s impassioned “Sisters Of Mercy,” and Rufus Wainwright’s slinky, jazzy run through “Everybody Knows.” Together they provide a testament to the depth and breadth of Cohen’s work, captured in one singularly moving night. [Sean O’Neal]

7. Radiohead, I Might Be Wrong: Live Recordings (2001)

The closest thing we have to a proper Radiohead live album, I Might Be Wrong documents how the band transforms its intricate songs for the stage—an especially tricky feat when talking about the moody, unconventional tracks of the Kid A and Amnesiac era. Some are redone here completely: The unearthly, backward-playing “Like Spinning Plates” becomes a glowing piano ballad, while the free-jazz horns of “The National Anthem” are replaced with Thom Yorke’s frantic beatboxing. Others, like “Morning Bell” and “Idioteque,” are tweaked just enough to turn them from chilly and ominous to furious and alarming. The whole thing concludes with what was, for ages, the only official release of “True Love Waits,” a mythical fan-favorite live staple that’s forever preserved here in its original, acoustic-guitar-driven form. [Matt Gerardi]

8. Neko Case, The Tigers Have Spoken (2004)

In the 14 years since The Tigers Have Spoken, Neko Case has long since transcended her alt-country beginnings to become something more complex and harder to define. The Tigers Have Spoken captures her on the precipice of a shift that would begin on 2006’s Fox Confessor Brings The Flood. Here, Case stays close to her twangy roots, leaning heavily on covers (from Loretta Lynn, Buffy Ste. Marie, traditionals, and others) and performing only four originals. One of those, “Favorite,” remains one of her best songs ever, and it was unavailable elsewhere until 2015, when a studio version finally appeared on the box set Truckdriver Gladiator Mule. Although The Tigers Have Spoken may disappoint fans looking for a more representative set, the album nicely captures Case’s voice and artistic restlessness. [Kyle Ryan]

9. The White Stripes, Under Great White Northern Lights (2007)

In the summer of 2007, The White Stripes embarked on a tour of every province in Canada. It was a cockamamie, typically Jack White-ian scheme born out of pure nostalgia—he’d just learned his Scottish ancestors had once lived in Nova Scotia—and involving a lot of complicated, bespoke methods to get his music out there (including gigs on boats and buses, and in bowling alleys). It was also the last time drummer Meg White would be dragged along: The Stripes would take an extended hiatus almost immediately after it was over, before officially breaking up in 2011. Emmett Malloy’s film of that tour and its accompanying live album, both titled Under Great White Northern Lights, thus became vital, unexpected documents of their last hurrah. There’s none of the mournful subtext that colors the movie here, no recording of Jack playing the version of “White Moon” that leaves Meg in tears. In fact, other than some bagpipes blaring during the band’s entrance, there’s nothing specifically tying it to this tour at all. Rather, it’s just a blistering run through songs like “Blue Orchid,” “Ball And Biscuit,” and “I’m Slowly Turning Into You” that captures the band’s gunpowder blues at its most potent, even as those powers were so close to waning completely. [Sean O’Neal]

10. Keith Fullerton Whitman, Lisbon (2005)

Keith Fullerton Whitman’s 2002 album Playthroughs features five majestic, delicate sine-wave compositions—ambient music at its purest and most gossamer. A few years later, during a time spent largely wandering the streets of Portugal’s leisurely capital city, Whitman recorded something of a follow-up: a single, 41-minute performance that seems to simultaneously advance and confront Playthroughs’ almost devotional air. Over the longer runtime, the sine waves don’t just sit there, perfect and unyielding; they mutate into breathtaking countermelodies, growing into something monolithic before collapsing entirely. The record’s also full of imperfections—audio from the room itself, the sound of equipment being banged around—that make the otherworldly beauty of the music itself all the more thrilling. The whole record is proof that, in the right hands, even ambient music is better live. [Clayton Purdom]

11. Pearl Jam, Live At The Gorge 05/06 (2007)

Since 2000, Pearl Jam has made the case for live albums being a vital part of an artist’s oeuvre by recording every concert itself, then releasing them in affordable, high-quality fashion. That’s hundreds and hundreds of bootlegs to choose from—and that’s in addition to 15 official live albums—with the only downside being that it’s nearly impossible to know where to start. Fortunately, the band’s fabled consistency as a live-act guarantees that just about any show will be worthwhile, but a particularly transcendent example would be the seven-disc set, Live At The Gorge 05/06. The first three discs capture Pearl Jam’s September 1, 2005 performance at the Gorge Amphitheatre in Washington, which kicks off with a subdued nine-song “sunset” set led by an acoustic rendition of The Ramones’ “I Believe In Miracles.” It’s then followed by a marathon run through original favorites and covers that’s as good as any they’ve ever done. [Alex McLevy]

12. LCD Soundsystem, The Long Goodbye (2014)

Sure, it turned out to not actually be goodbye, but LCD Soundsystem’s massive Madison Square Garden farewell gig did produce this equally massive testament to the band’s otherwise undocumented live-show prowess. The energy felt in the arena—more a celebration of the group’s life than grieving its demise—is all over the record, roaring to life as opener “Dance Yrself Clean” reaches its first big drop, while the crowd erupts in cheers as James Murphy sings, “To tell the truth, this could be the last time,” during an especially chilling rendition of “All My Friends.” At more than three hours long, it’s not exactly a concise or even easy listen, but the ridiculous, completist scope of the set—diving into obscure B-sides and carving out a segment for the entirety of Murphy’s oft-forgotten, Nike-commissioned composition 45:33—is fully in line with everything LCD is and was, and is again. [Matt Gerardi]

13. Black Lips, Los Valientes Del Mundo Nuevo (2007)

Considering it comes from a band that, at the peak of its debauchery, was known for onstage antics that included vomiting, urinating, and playing guitar with their dongs, it should be no surprise that the atmosphere on Los Valientes Del Mundo Nuevo is one of the wildest to ever make it onto a live album. Meanwhile, the performance itself is so cohesive—at least, by Black Lips standards—that fans still debate whether this was a true live recording of a set at a raucous Tijuana club (as the liner notes claim) or if it was all concocted in a studio. Faked or not, this is the context in which Black Lips’ earliest, rawest material belongs: sped up to the point of nearly falling apart, shouted at throat-tearing volumes, and cheered on by raving, drunken lunatics. That it was released just a few months before the band would debut its current tamer sound with Good Bad Not Evil also makes Mundo Nuevo the perfect capper to its first incarnation, one final ramshackle hurrah for its nastiest, noisiest days. [Matt Gerardi]

14. Wilco, Kicking Television: Live In Chicago (2005)

Recorded in the wake of the divisive A Ghost Is Born—and more importantly, after the addition of guitarist Nels Cline—Wilco’s Kicking Television gives that album’s noisier diversions a greater context, boosted by Cline’s explosive, expressive soloing as it intertwines with Jeff Tweedy’s own. It’s arguably the better presentation of that material, specifically, but the album, assembled across a four-night stand in Chicago, also gives exciting new heft to the band’s entire catalog of experimental Americana, one that Tweedy introduces with a self-deprecating “Let’s get this party started… with some midtempo rock.” Cuts from Summerteeth, Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, Being There, and, uh, The SpongeBob SquarePants Movie soundtrack take on a heavier, rawer form here that puts the lie to that oft-lobbed “dad rock” insult, with Tweedy and co. clearly feeding off the enthusiasm of its hometown crowd. (Just listen to that swell of “Hey, that’s where we live!” cheers under mid-set stunner “Via Chicago.”) For newcomers—especially those who might be underwhelmed by the occasionally placid studio recordings—Kicking Television may be the best introduction to what all the fuss is about. [Sean O’Neal]

15. Rufus Wainwright, Rufus Does Judy At Carnegie Hall (2007)

Only a legend like Rufus Wainwright would even dare to take on another legend like Judy Garland, especially a milestone recording like her Judy: Live At Carnegie Hall. But like Garland, Wainwright has a vibrato that’s brimming with emotion and achingly vulnerable, which makes him perfectly suited to scale the heights of those seminal show tunes—one gay icon paying tribute to another. Wainwright adheres to Garland’s original as closely as possible (“Judy talked at this point, so I’m talking at this point,” he says between songs), but he also adds new embellishments like bringing out his mother, Kate McGarrigle, for a show-stopping “Over The Rainbow,” while also incorporating funny anecdotes about his own lifelong Garland worship. And when Wainwright hits his own high point on “The Man That Got Away,” just like with Garland, you can practically see the guy walking out the door. It’s all a cheeky gamble that absolutely pays off, honoring a past performer while creating new appreciation for a current one. [Gwen Ihnat]

16. Jay-Z, MTV Unplugged (2001)

In 2001, Jay-Z was the biggest and most beloved rapper in the world, the hegemon of the post-Biggie era. Two months after releasing his masterpiece The Blueprint, he pulled one of his early auteur moves by fronting The Roots for a tight run-through of his recent hits on MTV’s Unplugged. The result is arguably the best live rap album ever recorded. It certainly helps that Jay was touring off a record built around lively, crackling soul samples, and that The Roots have enough deep knowledge to have fun with them—slipping a few bars of Mobb Deep’s “Shook Ones, Pt. II” into “The Takeover,” for example. But it’s all held together by Jay, clearly feeling himself as he riffs between songs and develops a goofy rapport with the crowd. (“Nah, nah, y’all don’t sing yet,” he laughs when they hop in too soon on “Hard Knock Life.”) It’s a refreshingly direct hour with an artist who has grown only more untouchable and aloof in the intervening years. [Clayton Purdom]

17. Tom Waits, Glitter And Doom Live (2009)

Glitter And Doom is more than just a cleaned-up recording of a single, solid Tom Waits set. It’s a finely curated selection of favorites from the latter part of his career, carefully picked from shows across his 2008 tour and arranged into what could easily function as a best-of. In a live setting, Waits’ voice is even more rattling than usual, sounding like the thundering voice of God while barking out reworked stompers such as “Get Behind The Mule” and “Goin’ Out West.” And while his touring band is great throughout, it really shines during the set’s slower, more emotional fare, wrapping all those sad Waits narrators in warm, jazzy instrumentation. The album works as both a chance for fans to get a taste of the live Waits experience—especially if you include the bonus disc of tangents and tales he spins from the stage, like the bean-chomping king of a hobo enclave—and an enchanting introduction to his weird world. [Matt Gerardi]

18. R.E.M., Live At The Olympia (2009)

R.E.M. was as good as dead after 2004’s outta-gas Around The Sun, but while testing out new material for what turned out to be two comeback albums, the band played a five-night “rehearsal” in Dublin in 2007. Live At The Olympia whittles those shows down to 39 songs, including almost every track that would end up on 2008’s Accelerate (and a couple of solid ones that didn’t end up anywhere else). Coupled with those very new songs, they rollicked up some very old ones, injecting new life into songs that hadn’t appeared on set lists in many years, tripping through tracks from Reckoning and Fables Of The Reconstruction as if to draw a parallel between the classic band and the current one. From “Living Well Is The Best Revenge” straight through “Gardening At Night” (from the band’s very first EP), it’s a worthwhile history lesson on one of the 20th century’s greatest bands. [Josh Modell]

19. Sonny Knight And The Lakers, Do It Live (2015)

Although he never reached an audience as wide as Sharon Jones and Charles Bradley, Sonny Knight’s story is all-too similar to those soul revivalists. After a short run in the ’60s and ’70s as both a solo artist and member of Minneapolis funk band Haze, Knight departed the business, seemingly for good. But in 2012, the Minneapolis-based label Secret Stash made him a central figure in its Twin Cities Funk & Soul revue, and at the age of 65, Knight’s career was suddenly reborn. Do It Live captures Knight and his talented backing band delivering a typically spirited live act, a joyous, intimate party of an album that recalls similarly seamless soul sets like James Brown’s Live At The Apollo. A fiery Knight expertly commands both his band and audience through tricky transitions, call-and-response frenzies, and heart-wrenching ballads. Sadly, like Jones and Bradley, cancer cut Knight’s comeback story short in 2017, making Do It Live an invaluable snapshot of this under-heard showman at his best. [Matt Gerardi]

20. Cage The Elephant, Unpeeled (2017)

Like all great live records, Cage The Elephant’s Unpeeled—a collection of acoustic interpretations of the band’s songs, many of them backed by strings and a choir—manages to bring fresh perspective to the familiar. That goes not just for Cage originals like “Come A Little Closer” and “Ain’t No Rest For The Wicked” but also for Wreckless Eric’s well-trod “Whole Wide World,” which the band transforms from its tinny Britpop roots into an anthem befitting its Manchester-by-way-of-Kentucky sound. The orchestral moments are both massive and masterful, but the more pared-down moments like “Rubber Ball” and “Cigarette Daydream” may be even more impressive; during the latter, Matt Shultz is practically drowned out by a clearly besotted crowd singing the chorus. It’s the second such live album from Cage The Elephant, and a compelling argument for keeping the form alive. [Gwen Ihnat]

21. My Morning Jacket, Okonokos (2006)

In 2006, My Morning Jacket still had an air of mystery about it, boasting a couple of bruised, quietly beautiful records under its belt in addition to the massive classic-rock effort It Still Moves and the weirdo-pop experiment of Z. The band also had a reputation for almost punishingly loud live shows, with titanic set lists peppered with covers and blisteringly outsized reinterpretations of its own work. Okonokos captures MMJ at the height of this power, turning its more off-kilter works into crowd-pleasers and wrenching extra minutes out of songs like the smoldering “Run Thru” and heart-sick “Steam Engine.” The only thing it’s really missing is a “Tyrone” cover—but you could always actually see the band live for that. [Clayton Purdom]

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