The live album is an essential part of any music collection.Â The true test of an artist is how they sound live, and a live album can expose studio-enhanced mediocrity or reveal true greatness.
The rules: For this list, the album must have been released in the past 20 years.Â While Frampton Comes Alive is great and all, I’m sure you’re as tired of reading about it as I am.Â Also, the performance must have taken place in the past 20 years.Â While Bob Dylan’s “Royal Albert Hall Concert” is a classic performance and was released in 1998, the show took place in 1966 and is therefore not eligible.
As with any list of this nature, if your favorite is not included or you’re insulted by the inclusion of one you loathe, make your suggestions/unleash your wrath in the comments section.
Here are the 15 best live albums of the last 20 years (Spoiler Alert: The live album from the band Live did not make the cut, robbing us of any “Live live” references):
15.Â Jeff Buckley – Live at Sin-Ã© (2003)
The late Jeff Buckley sat down in a New York coffee shop with only an electric guitar and his multi-octave voice and delivered a beautiful intimate performance.Â Whenever I try to explain Buckley’s voice to the uninitiated, I tell them to imagine if Adam Lambert could hit those high notes without making your ears bleed – that’s Jeff Buckley.Â He was a talent taken too soon and this album is evidence of a legend that could have been.
Stand out track: “Grace”
14.Â Dave Matthews Band – Listener Supported (1999)
Dave Matthews Band releases a live album every year, it seems.Â In spite of a decade of live album overkill, this early release featuring mostly songs from their best album, Before These Crowded Streets, and shows how good the band sounds live, especially in their cover of Johnny Cash’s “Long Black Veil.”Â However, I cannot recommend the DVD of this or any of their performances because they are dreadfully boring to watch live.Â But their sound, specifically on their extended impromptu jams, makes up for their lack of showmanship.
Stand out track: “#41”
13.Â Wilco – Kicking Television: Live in Chicago (2005)
Though this album was recorded prior to the release of my favorite Wilco album, Sky Blue Sky, this two-disc set highlights the best from their early years.Â Lead singer Jeff Tweedy’s voice conveys the hurt and pain he’s woven throughout these 23 songs, even in largely instrumental tracks like “At Least That’s What You Said.”
Stand out track: “At Least That’s What You Said”
12. Jay-Z – MTV Unplugged
I’m not a big rap fan, but even I can’t deny Jay-Z’s talent on this album that features him mostly backed by just drums and bass (provided by The Roots).Â Stripped of post-production, he displays his talents as a lyricist and performer, especially when moving effortlessly between songs in a quick-firing medley of his hits.
Stand out track: “Big Pimpin'”
11.Â Damien Rice – Live from the Union Chapel (2003)
Irish singer-songwriter Damien Rice first gained worldwide attention after his song, “The Blower’s Daughter,” was featured in the movie Closer, but audiences who know him only from that movie are missing out.Â This short live performance features 8 tracks, mostly from his triple platinum debut album, O.Â His low-key folksy music is perfectly mixed with his powerful voice and accompanying vocals from Lisa Hannigan.
Stand out track: “Delicate”
10. The Eagles – Hell Freezes Over (1994)
The reunion that was never supposed to be also happens to be an amazing show.Â After a 14-year break, The Eagles sound surprisingly fresh in this largely acoustic performance of their well-known hits.Â A low-key version of “Hotel California” is sure to please both die-hard fans who have the original on vinyl and those, like myself, who were introduced to The Eagles through this album.
Stand out track: “New York Minute”
9.Â Muse – H.A.A.R.P.: Live From Wembley Stadium (2005)
Once considered a Radiohead clone, Muse has evolved and become one of the most exciting live acts in rock.Â This live album features the songs that made them indie rock gods, before the mainstream acceptance of The Resistance made them the favorite band of teenagers and my mother.Â Even if they’ve gone Kings of Leon and lost their indie cred, they sound amazing and deserve the accolades.
Stand out track: “Micro Cuts”
8.Â Eric Clapton – MTV Unplugged (1992)
Here’s your challenge.Â Take a song with one of the most recognized and beloved guitar riffs ever, remove said riff, and somehow have the song still be amazing.Â Daunting as the task may sound, Eric Clapton’s Unplugged version of “Layla” does just that.Â He also debuts “Tears in Heaven,” a song about seeing his dead son in heaven that melts even the hardest of hearts.
Stand out track: “Tears in Heaven”
7.Â Dave Matthews & Tim Reynolds – Live at Radio City Music Hall (2007)
Dave Matthews and Tim Reynolds took a chance trying to follow up their classic acoustic album “Live at Luther College,” but by complimenting well-known Dave Matthews Band songs with his solo material and a few new gems like “Eh Hee” and “Cornbread,” their second compilation easily outpaces the first.Â The duo released a third album, “Live in Las Vegas,” that proved too much of a good thing can become stale, but this New York show is them at their best.
Stand out track: “Eh Hee”
6.Â U2 – Under a Blood Red Sky (1990)
U2’s only official live album captures the band in their 80’s heyday, when they were an energetic force advocating social change that didn’t seem hypocritical because tickets to their shows were not yet over $100 each.Â Still, any one that has seen U2 live will attest that it is akin to a religious experience and Bono, whether you love or hate him, is a dynamic front man.Â Subsequent live DVDs highlight the band’s true live prowess (even the recent U2 360 performance made songs from the dreadful No Line on the Horizon shine), but this album showcases the era that defined U2.
Stand out track: “New Year’s Day”
5.Â Tom Waits – Glitter and Doom Live (2009)
No recording will ever capture the manic energy of seeing Tom Waits live, but this album comes close.Â His Cookie Monster-esque voice is definitely an acquired taste, but once you’ve acquired it, you’ll be addicted.Â Waits is both the devil and a televangelist and his later music is nearly unclassifiable.Â On “Chocolate Jesus,” the former piano balladeer barks through a megaphone.Â On “Goin’ Out West” he reminds the audience multiple times that he “looks good without a shirt.”Â The album even includes a compilation of Waits’ absurd stories he tells between songs, with highlights including buying a coke bottle with the last dying breath of Henry Ford in it and traveling to the lost luggage center to buy back his own lost luggage, only to have his bags lost on the trip.Â Waits is the most unique act in music today, and has been for the last 30 years.
Stand out track: “Make It Rain”
4. Pink Floyd – Pulse (1995)
It’s no secret that post-Roger Waters Pink Floyd never lived up to the band’s late 70’s glory.Â David Gilmour, great as he is, could not match Waters songwriting creativity and penchant for the dramatic.Â However, this sprawling live set, sans Waters, shows the band was still breathtaking, even without their leader.Â In concert, duds from Waters-less albums A Momentary Lapse of Reason and The Division Bell are brought to life.Â In addition, the band plays Dark Side of the Moon in its entirety and Gilmour’s “Comfortably Numb” guitar solo is arguably the best ever recorded.
Stand out track: “Comfortably Numb”
3. Radiohead – I Might Be Wrong: Live Recordings (2001)
This 8-song EP constitutes the only official live release from the most innovative band of this generation.Â A small sampling from Amnesiac and Kid A, I Might Be Wrong follows the band’s pattern of not following any patterns.Â Songs here are wildly different than album versions, most notably “Like Spinning Plates,” which is an electronic mishmash on Amnesiac and a beautiful piano ballad here.Â Until a full-length live showcase is released, this precious little will have to do.
Stand out track: “The National Anthem”
2. Nirvana – MTV Unplugged in New York (1994)
Ranking Nirvana at or near the top of music “best of” lists is almost clichÃ© by now, but with this album, all praise is deserved.Â “Weird Al” Yankovic’s Nirvana parody mocked the band for being loud and incomprehensible – a criticism hard to rebuff until they strapped on acoustic guitars and reinvented their catalog.Â Yes, their David Bowie cover is “plugged” on an “unplugged” album, but for the most part, grunge’s loudest and most influential act remains decidedly low-key – providing a final glimpse into a tortured, yet immensely talented soul.
Stand out track: “The Man Who Sold the World”
1. My Morning Jacket – Okonokos (2006)
If the true test of a great band is sounding better live than in a studio recording, then My Morning Jacket has to be considered one of, if not the greatest band of the last 20 years.Â The two main studio albums featured in this performance, It Still Moves and Z, are good albums on their own, but the live performances captured here make good songs great.Â Lead singer Jim James (aka Yim Yames) looks like a lumberjack but has an angelic voice that soars with the band’s crescendo-building melodic rock.Â This 2-hour double disc set has no low points and makes instant fans of those who have never heard them before.Â From the 8-minute ballad “I Will Sing You Songs” to the pounding drums and unreal guitar of “Lay Low,”Â Okonokos is the new standard for live albums.
Stand out tracks: “Wordless Chorus,” “One Big Holiday,” “I Will Sing You Songs,” “Lay Low,” “Dondante,” “The Way That He Sings,” “O Is This the One That Is Real”
Honorable Mention: Ben Harper and the Innocent Criminals – Live From Mars, Roy Orbison & Friends – Black and White Night, Matisyahu – Live at Stubbs, Pearl Jam – Live at the Gorge 05/06, Kanye West – VH1 Storytellers, Coldplay – Live 2003, Arcade Fire & David Bowie – Live EP