As we noted a while back in our roundup of albums you really should hear in November, Sigur Rós have a live album out this week. It’s called Inni, and if it’s anything like the other live recordings of the band we’ve heard (like the transcendent Live at the Icelandic Opera House from 1999), it’ll be worth laying your hands on. And it got us thinking: releasing a live album is something that bands do less and less these days. In some ways, this makes sense — it’s so easy to bootleg and distribute live recordings and videos these days that the market for official live releases just isn’t what it used to be. This means that pretty much every list of definitive live recordings you ever read relies on the same old ’60s and ’70s records. In an attempt to prove the genre’s not entirely dead and buried just yet, we’ve put together a selection of the best live albums of the past 15 years or so. What are your nominations?
Spiritualized — Live at the Royal Albert Hall
Jason Pierce has been a man out of time in the 1990s and 2000s as far as his ongoing support of the concept of the live album goes — he’s been responsible for several fantastic live releases, but although we’re definitely fans of Spacemen 3’s Performance and Spiritualized’s Fucked Up Inside, we can’t go past the Royal Albert Hall album for this feature. The opening trio of “Oh, Happy Day,” a sublime version of “Shine a Light,” and the synth-led wigout of “Electric Mainline” are worth the price of admission alone; the fact that you get another 80 minutes of wonderful music thereafter is pretty much the icing on the cake.
Daft Punk — Alive 2007
Harder, better, faster, stronger… all adjectives that could quite happily be applied to the evolution of Daft Punk’s live show over the years. We recently stumbled across this video of the unmasked, fresh-faced duo raving it up for a crowd in Wisconsin during their first-ever US appearance — it’s hard to believe that barely ten years later, they were putting on perhaps the most extravagant live show that electronic music has ever seen. But even setting aside the Tron helmets, the pyramid, and the the über-theatrical nature of the whole thing, Alive 2007 shows that the one thing that’s never changed is the duo’s ability to please a crowd. Just listen to the masses go batshit when the iconic synthline of “Da Funk” drops at about 1:15.
Radiohead — I Might Be Wrong
It’s easy to forget that, long before their obsession with studio-based weirdness moved into full swing, Radiohead were first and foremost a great live rock ‘n’ roll band — and, fundamentally, so they remain. They’re also one of those bands that often interpret songs quite differently in a live context than in the studio, a trait that’s on full display throughout this fascinating live compilation. I Might Be Wrong is also notable for its gorgeous version of lost classic “True Love Waits,” a song that’s been kicking around since the OK Computer sessions and has never made it onto a studio album.
My Morning Jacket — Okonokos
We’d probably plump for the semi-official download of their epic four-hour Bonnaroo set from 2008 if you want the truly definitive My Morning Jacket live experience, but as far as official releases go, you can’t go far wrong with Okonokos. Indeed, you could argue that it’s substantially better than any of the studio material they’ve released after Z.
Wilco — Kicking Television
While we’re at the kinda alt-country end of the spectrum, we should also mention Wilco, who put out this fairly exhaustive double-disc live album in 2005, just after the release of A Ghost is Born and the arrival of Nels Cline. In other words, it came out at what was arguably the band’s peak, and it got pretty rapturous reviews. Five years on, it’s still the recent-ish live album most likely to nestle alongside Frampton Comes Alive, Band of Gypsys, At Folsom Prison, etc. in the serious adult monthlies’ lists of definitive live records. If we had to pick one, however, it’d be…
Portishead — Roseland NYC Live
If you were lucky enough to see Portishead at ATP in New Jersey this year, you won’t need to be told that for a band that started as essentially a studio project, they’re pretty amazing live these days. And happily, the moment at which they really arrived as a live entity was captured forever for posterity: a one-off show in July 1997 at New York’s Roseland Ballroom, for which the band were accompanied by the New York Philharmonic Orchestra. Curiously, the CD release also included tracks from subsequent shows in 1998, so we recommend getting hold of the DVD version, which contains the Roseland show in its entirety. Oh, to have been there.
The Hold Steady — A Positive Rage
For all that The Hold Steady’s albums are great, they seem to really shine in a live context — which is hardly surprising as the group apparently got together while watching a video of The Band’s Last Waltz. Craig Finn’s latter-day Beat lyricism is just made to be spat out to a baying crowd, and he and the rest of the band seem to thrive on the energy a live setting brings. This CD/DVD set also captured the band just before the departure of eccentric keyboardist/moustachist Franz Nicolay, who’s since taken his talents to Salman Rushdie’s children’s stories.
Future of the Left — Last Night I Saved Her From Vampires
And while we’re on bands who tear shit up live, we give you Future of the Left, who are coruscating enough on record, but who always manage to kick things to a notch up further when they play live. Sadly, they also seem to attract hecklers who want to test their wit against that of Andy Falkous — and who always, always come out second best.
William Basinski — El Camino Real
Whether or not Basinski’s remarkable tape loop work can ever really be considered “live” is a matter for debate, although there’s an argument to be made that something like The Disintegration Loops, which captured the sound of old tapes slowly deteriorating as they played the same loop over and over, is pretty much as live and unrepeatable as you can get. But anyway, El Camino Real found Basinski creating a series of fragile and beautiful sounds live on stage at the Montalvo Arts Center in California, and as ever with his work, it makes for amazing, amazing listening.
Tom Waits — Glitter and Doom Live
With the release of Bad As Me, we’re holding our breath and crossing fingers, toes and everything else remotely crossable that Tom Waits will decide to tour again. In the meantime, we’re consoling ourselves with Glitter and Doom Live, a marvelous document of a tour that we weren’t lucky enough to see. After all, that’s what live albums are for, isn’t it?