The live album is a tricky proposition. Done badly, it can be disastrous: it’s all too easy to rush out a live collection as a cheap cash-in, ending up with a murky sounding record of a band or artist playing their biggest hits, only faster and less good. So many groups succumb to the urge, churning out live releases that no one but the most fanatical of followers would want to listen to,
Done right, though, the live album can be spectacular. They can capture the majesty of an act at its brilliant best, especially gripping for fans of legacy groups or defunct artists. They can serve as more interesting collections than standard greatest hits packages, throwing in deep cuts for the fans and going beyond the obvious stuff.
At their finest, they can capture a time and place like nothing else in music, turning good songs into great ones and great songs into majestic testaments to the connection between the artists and the fans who give them meaning.
As live music finally becomes viable again, there’s a raft of new performances ready to be captured for posterity. With these legendary releases, though, they’ve got a lot to live up to.
10. Nirvana - MTV Unplugged in New York
Given their brief time as a unit, it’s a surprise that Nirvana have as many live albums - three - as they did studio releases. While all three are worthwhile, though, the darkly beautiful Unplugged record is the pick of the bunch.
Recorded just five months before Kurt Cobain’s death, it’s a brittle and haunting piece of work for large parts, with the band focussing primarily on their quieter, downtempo numbers as well as some choice covers. “About A Girl” (one of the band’s best songs) opens things up, and the career retrospective proceeds with Nevermind’s “On A Plain” and “Something In The Way” and In Utero’s “Dumb”, an album standout with its gorgeously funeral cellos.
The covers are some of the most memorable cuts; Nirvana are joined by the Meat Puppets to howl through a trio of Pups tracks. Best in show is the closer, traditional number "Where Did You Sleep Last Night". It’s quite possibly Cobain’s greatest ever vocal performance, shifting through the gears from bluesy drawl to bestial roar.
Indeed one of the great joys of Unplugged is the spotlight it places on Nirvana’s - and Cobain’s - melodic abilities. They were so much more than noisniks, and the stripped back record is the best evidence for this.