A month or so ago a copy of the seminal mid-'70s double live album Frampton Comes Alive! landed in my workplace mailbox. I get a lot of CDs in the mail, but this was definitely strange–Peter Frampton wasn't playing in my area, the record wasn't being reissued, and for the life of me I couldn't think of another reason why one of the best-selling albums of the Me Decade was shipped to me by priority mail in the middle of 2007. Sure, it's possible that a kindly P.R. person in New York heard that I have an incurable soft spot for classic rock, and that my only copy of Frampton Comes Alive! is on scratched-up vinyl, but that seems about as likely as a song called "Do You Feel Like We Do" being any good. Which is to say not very likely at all, but obviously not impossible.
(If there really is a kindly P.R. person in NYC looking to round out my classic rock collection, I could really use some more Peter Gabriel era Genesis records; specifically, Selling England By The Pound and The Lamb Lies Down On Broadway. You know, just in case.)
Instead of wasting time figuring out how and why Frampton came alive in my mailbox, I'm instead using this mystery as an excuse to ruminate on one of my great passions: Live albums. From Otis Redding's Live In Europe to The Who's Live At Leeds to Aretha Franklin's Live At Fillmore West to The Stones' Get Yer Ya's Ya's Out to J. Geils Band's Full House to Talking Heads' The Name Of This Band Is Talking Heads to Nirvana's MTV Unplugged to The Roots' Come Alive—not too mention a good share of Dylan, Wilco and Grateful Dead bootlegs—I could spend the rest of my life listening to live albums and never miss the relatively antiseptic sounds of studio records.
I realize this isn't a popular opinion. Live albums typically are dismissed for three reasons: (1) They are inessential re-recordings of "essential" studio versions; (2) They are stopgap releases to tide over fans during the long wait between albums; (3) They never adequately convey the feeling of being at an actual show.
I'm not going to argue that these points aren't valid when it comes to bad live albums. But good to great live albums ARE essential, stand-alone documents that capture a time and place better than a studio record does. That's because studio records don't typically happen in the moment, they happen tediously over long periods of time. In contrast, live albums have an on-the-fly, documentary aspect I find fascinating. I wasn't even alive in 1976, much less one of the teenagers who spent good money to see Peter Frampton at the local Enormodome, but listening to Frampton Comes Alive! gives me a taste of what it was like. It's a record very much of its era–nobody outside of Bon Jovi dared to use a talk box after 1976, unless they were cheekily seeking comparisons to Peter Frampton in their record reviews. Which is a nice way of saying that Frampton Comes Alive! sounds incredibly dated, but I don't see that as a negative–Robert Johnson's records don't sound contemporary, either, but like Frampton Comes Alive! they evoke a specific time and place–mid '30s Mississippi crossroads vs. mid-'70s California arenas–brilliantly.
The best thing I can say in favor of live albums is if you only want to buy one album by an artist, a good live album will offer all the hits performed in an energetic, crowd-pleasing fashion. Frampton Comes Alive! is the definitive example of this–does anybody other than Peter Frampton own a Peter Frampton record that isn't Frampton Comes Alive!? That album was so essential that it rendered the rest of his catalog obsolete. The same could be said–to a lesser degree–of two other records that form, with Frampton Comes Alive!, a trilogy of essential mid to late '70s arena rock live albums: Cheap Trick's At Budokan and Kiss' Alive. Both albums made their respective creators rock stars after a series of well-received but poor-selling studio releases, and they remain the albums to buy for casual fans.
Like everything that was big in the '70s, live albums eventually became so ubiquitous that the public had to rebel against those blasted audience sing-alongs, inane stage patter, and endless drum solos. But live albums have made a quiet comeback in the '00s. Two of the better discs released so far this year–The Black Lips' Los Valientes Del Mundo Nuevo and Robbie Fulks' Revenge — are live albums. (And Revenge! is a double live album, no less). Likewise in recent years, there have been several great, Frampton Comes Alive! style "stand-alone" live albums, which I define as a live record I would recommend to somebody if he or she could only own one album by that artist. Without further a-do, here are five definitive stand-alone live albums from the '00s:
(Actually, one bit of a-do–this isn't meant to be a definitive list. If you have suggestions, suggest away.)
Jay-Z, MTV Unplugged
Fame and fortune turned Jay-Z into Sylvester Stallone at the beginning of Rocky III, but for one night at least MTV Unplugged forced him back to the meat locker to jab at sides of frozen beef like a hungry challenger. Running through his biggest hits with The Roots as his backing band, Jay-Z created his first and only album with absolutely no filler. It's not as energetic as LL Cool J's Unplugged performance 15 or so years earlier–Jay would never show off his deodorant-stained armpits–but MTV Unplugged makes the strongest case for Jay-Z's greatness as an MC, Reasonable Doubt or The Blueprint be damned.
Todd Snider, Near Truths And Hotel Rooms
Along with being one of the great live albums of the decade so far, Near Truths And Hotel Rooms also is one of the best road trip discs. And even if you don't dig Snider's brand of John Prine-esque singer-songwriter slyness–though even if you think you don't, this record will win you over—Near Truths And Hotel Rooms has enough hilarious between-song storytelling to qualify as one of the better stand-up comedy records of recent years. That's three records for the price of one, folks.
My Morning Jacket, Okonokos
I like My Morning Jacket, but I love Okonokos because it's a live album that corrects the stuff I find boring about MMJ's studio records: the constant reverb, the sometimes-sleepy performances, the constant reverb, the inconsistent songwriting, and the constant reverb. While it's a double album, Okonokos sounds lean and punchy, and it almost never drags. And, seriously, it's amazing how much better these songs are when you can actually hear them.
Neko Case, The Tigers Have Spoken
Like My Morning Jacket, Neko Case is an artist I like despite not loving her albums. Except, of course, her live album The Tigers Have Spoken. My problem with Case is while I adore her voice, I'm not often crazy about her songwriting. So it helps that The Tigers Have Spoken has lots of covers, most notably Buffy Saint-Marie's "Soulful Shade Of Blue" and Loretta Lynn's "Rated X": these are wonderful songs showcased by a wonderful voice. And the originals recorded just for this album–"If You Knew" and "The Tigers Have Spoken"–are pretty great, too.
The Sadies, In Concert: Volume One
Case's backing band on The Tigers Have Spoken is The Sadies, a rock/surf/psych/country band that is Canada's most versatile rock export since The Band. So it's fitting then that The Sadies made In Concert, a Last Waltz style live record featuring a legion of guest stars, including Case, Jon Spencer, Gary Louris, Jon Langford, and Garth Hudson. Friendly jam sessions almost never sound good if you aren't there, but since nobody here is a star (save for Case, maybe), there's less mugging and more playing. Even spread out over two discs and 41 discs, the expansive In Concert still leaves you desperate for a Volume Two.