The Five Best Live Albums

Live concert recordings are an ideal gift idea for concert lovers, the only drawback is that they may wish they were there! Likewise, music aficionados who want to extend the range of their musical knowledge and experience will benefit from the novel, multifaceted experience that a live album offers; it is simply not the same as a studio album. Live albums do not always play by the rules. Likewise, for music fans who are new to a band or genre and want to discover the range of their music, a live album can stand in for a music history lesson, since they are literally a moment in time of a band or music genre's evolution. 

These five albums give the listener a chance to appreciate the talents of amazing musical artists, some of whom are more engaging live than they seem in the studio. They also give the listener a chance to immerse themselves in the atmosphere of the music: the long, boozy nights, the smoky evenings, the electric, engaging performances, and the personalities. Simply put, each of these albums tells the story of music in a way that a studio album cannot. 

Johhny Cash, Live at Folsom Prison

This iconic live album was recorded in 1968, at the point at which Johnny Cash was turning his career around for the first time. Cash's career featured a number of these "turnarounds", and Live at Folsom Prison was recorded at a time when Cash had just started to bring his drug problem under control for the first time. The tenacity, drive and verve which always characterized his live performances is truly on display here – it seems as if he really wanted to prove something. The exuberance of Cash's performance – combined with fact that this album seems to oscillate between being a comeback and a last-ditch attempt, all these things are contained within this one record to the same extent that they are contained within Cash's career as a whole – make this a must-have album for music lovers. The tongue-in-cheek humor lurking just beneath "Cocaine Blues" is notable, along with "Folsom Prison Blues", one of Cash's best-known songs, and among his most mournful and heartfelt.

Nirvana, MTV Unplugged in New York

This well-known live grunge album was originally recorded for the popular MTV series MTV Unplugged. Contrary to typical practice, Nirvana played a set made up of mostly covers, instead of sticking to Nirvana's own hits. Many of the songs featured were relatively obscure, especially to the show's young listeners. The listener can imagine that Cobain was trying to pass on the sense of discovery and genre-fusion that had characterized his own early listening experiences. It is certainly rare to find successful musicians paying homage to the same degree that Nirvana did here, and at the absolute height of their success. MTV Unplugged in New York was the first Nirvana album released after the death of Kurt Cobain, and it helped to cement the band's reputation in grunge music history. "Jesus Doesn't Want Me for a Sunbeam" is a surprise after two excellent Nirvana songs, rounding off the start of the record perfectly. "The Man who Sold the World" is now-iconic, and rightly so. 

The Allman Brothers, Live at Fillmore East

This album pops up again and again in critics' lists of the greatest live albums ever recorded. Shortly after the completion of their second album, the Allman Brothers Band were touring and living hard. Stories from the band around this point feature heavy drug use, and the edginess of a life lived near the edge: near-exhaustion, near-poverty, near-death. Live at Fillmore East was recorded in the midst of this atmosphere of desperation, at a point when the band was on the very cusp of achieving wider success. It features extensive jam versions of some of the band's best songs. It is bluesy, loud, and filled with virtuoso turns on the guitar. Listening to this album is truly a celebration of live music: it reminds the listener of how a live performance can capture something that a studio recording cannot, something untamable. "Statesboro Blues" is an excellent opener, and the almost 20-minute jam version of "In Memory of Elizabeth Reed" is expansive, ambitious, brilliant. It makes the listener wish they were there. Simply a must-have record for music lovers.

Sunn 0))), Dømkirke

Definitely the most obscure album on the list, this album was recorded by the American drone metal band Sun O))) at the Bergen Cathedral, in Norway. It is notable for the way that it thoughtfully creates a soundscape using the space that the music was recorded in. The first track of the record sends a single organ chord out into a vast, seemingly-echoing space, before the growling vocals creep their way in. This meticulously recorded, extremely avant-garde album may just change the way the listener thinks about metal music. This is not "death metal," and the band is certainly not "satanists", as their hard metal forebears were often stereotyped as being. Rather, this is a band interested in playing with light and sound and emotion, suffusing their music with a rich sense of skepticism infused with hope. This is not music that is anything for the sake of anything. The first track, "Why Dost Thou Hide Thyself in Clouds, is spine-tingling. A brilliant, if not slightly strange, gift for adventurous music lovers.

John Coltrane, the Olatunji Concert

This is the last stereo recording released by John Coltrane, recorded only two months before his death, and a month before the onset of the sudden illness that would take his life. Although the extensive solos on this recorded are poorly recorded, they paint an extensive and multi-faceted picture of a musician who lived in an era of widespread turmoil, and who was perfectly willing to shy away from others' preconceived notions of what music should be. The music is at times bluesy, then atonal, then filled with bleating shrieking instrumental flights of fancy. This is a difficult album, but one that it pays to listen to more than once.