by Michael Wense
Few things are more thrilling than being in the middle of an exceptionally rowdy concert. The tidal energy, the ocean of sound, the wave of sweat from people who are far more into the band than you are: these are the things that make concerts such attractive events. But what if you don’t have the income to spend buckets of cash on a concert? For teenagers, college students, or, in my case, people who just can’t manage money all that well, the answer lies in the live album.
Now, compared to standing in a stifling hot theater and shouting until your lungs give out, the experience of live-recorded music in your own home can seem tame to some people. And, true, unless you crank up the stereo and hire some kids in their twenties to come jump up and down in your living room, it’s not quite the same. But hear me out. Below, I’ve got a list (in no particular order) of ten of my favorite contemporary live-recorded albums that’ll get you that awesome concert feel on the cheap.
1. Brandi Carlile – Live at Benaroya Hall
You’ve probably noticed her songs on any number of television drama shows in the past few years, but until you’ve heard her live, you haven’t heard her. Brandi Carlile brings an edgy vocal rumble to her blend of old school country and rock, alternating it with a sweetness in the high-pitched notes. Track to hear: “Before It Breaks”
2. Alanis Morissette – MTV Unplugged
Ask any Alanis fan and they’ll undoubtedly have heard this album. Recorded for the MTV show of the same name, Unplugged showcases Alanis’s vocals against a stripped-down arrangement. While some live albums collect the best performances over a course of evenings, this one limits its selection to a single set; what’s impressive is the consistent flawlessness of Alanis’s voice, whether she’s hitting a soaring vocal in standards like “You Learn” or “Uninvited,” or playing out a soft vulnerability in “That I Would Be Good.” Track to hear: “Princes Familiar”
3. Regina Spektor – Live in London
In the realm of piano-playing alt-pop stars, few can keep up with Regina Spektor’s talents. Here, on a single night in the UK, she demonstrates her unique ability to craft catchy tunes and deliver them in person. Track to hear: “Machine”
4. Rufus Wainwright – Milwaukee at Last!
Canadian singer Rufus Wainwright delivers an impressive collection of piano- and guitar-based songs. One of Wainwright’s strengths has always been his distinctive voice, and here it rises into the ethereal and falls into intimacy, always in top form. Track to hear: “Leaving for Paris No. 2”
5. Sia – Lady Croissant
Recorded at New York’s Bowery Ballroom, rising Australian pop singer Sia delivers a small but worthwhile set collecting one of her biggest hits at the time (“Breathe Me,” featured on the series finale of the HBO show Six Feet Under) and showcasing her unique and moving voice via earlier collaborations with the group Zero 7 as well as her own material. Track to hear: “Destiny”
6. Radiohead – I Might Be Wrong: Live Recordings
Alternative rock music’s favorite band collects eight tunes here, mostly (seven out of eight) from their albums Amnesiac and Kid A. The tracks frequently offer a different take — and sometimes a major departure — from their studio counterparts and make for an excellent showcase of one of the UK’s best bands. Track to hear: “Idioteque”
7. Tori Amos – To Venus & Back (Live disc)
To her fans, she’s a goddess. If you don’t like that description, you may not have seen or heard her live performances, which somehow take you beyond hearing music to a state of experiencing it. Hearing the dazzling piano frenzy of “Precious Things,” it’d be easy to imagine that all that work would be impossible for a single player to do. Until you discover that that’s just her two hands. Track to hear: “Precious Things”
8. Chris Cornell – Songbook
A collection of performances during Cornell’s 2011 US tour, Songbook is the first ever live collection from the established rock frontman. While the songs tend to demonstrate Cornell’s anthemic, gravelly projection, the restraint he chooses in parts of his John Lennon “Imagine” cover alone is worth the price of the album. Track to hear: “Imagine”
9. Joni Mitchell – Miles of Aisles
Saskatchewan native Joni Mitchell’s one and only live album gives a taste of her truly diverse voice. At times angelic, at other times brooding, Mitchell’s voice here is truly mesmerizing, capturing much of the essence of the 1960s and 70s. Track to hear: “Cactus Tree”
10. Martha Wainwright – Sans Fusils, Ni Souliers, à Paris
One of my most surprising finds of the last few years has been this album, by the Canadian singer-songwriter Martha Wainwright (whose brother, Rufus, appeared earlier in this list). Mostly known for her down-tempo pop, here Martha covers works from the legendary French singer Edith Piaf, tackling not only the French language with aplomb, but the nuance and power of Piaf’s performances. Track to hear: “L’Accordéoniste”
Do you have a favorite album that’s not listed? Leave a comment below and tell us about it!