The best albums are live albums, especially during the pandemic
Confession: The "best albums of 2020" list I ran a few weeks ago was largely a sham.
Truth is, if I were to name the albums I listened to the most over the past year, a majority of them would have "live" in the title, or something similar.
I've loved live albums going back to the very first record I owned: Kiss' "Alive II." Santa brought it to me by request when I was 5 — way too young to know how creepy "Christine Sixteen" really is or what "studio augmentation" meant (Kiss' live albums purportedly aren't all that live).
I pored over the concert photos in the double-fold LP jacket. I air-guitared to Ace Frehley's solo in "Shock Me." I mimicked Paul Stanley's carnival-barker stage banter. I became a lifelong fan of the live rock 'n' roll show even before I saw one.
Fast-forward to 2020-2021. For a guy used to attending concerts three, four, sometimes seven nights a week, the pandemic has been quite an uneasy adjustment.
I'm getting a lot more sleep. I'm up on all the hot-topic TV shows. I'm not waking up with my ears ringing or my email and Twitter bins bulging with complaints over my review from the night before.
I hate all of this, though, and I'm back to relying on live albums to feed me the thrill of a concert, almost like I'm 5 again.
Not only was the first record I owned a concert LP, but so are many of the most recent albums I purchased on vinyl.
I went a bit wild around Record Store Day last November and scooped up a bundle of limited-edition live releases: Willie Nelson's "Red Headed Stranger Live at Austin City Limits 1976" (as warm as concert recordings get); Cheap Trick's "Out to Get You! Live 1977" (Exhibit A of a hardworking band ready to break big); Lou Reed's "Live at Alice Tully Hall 1973" (interesting if imperfect document of his post-Velvet Underground evolution) and Brittany Howard's "Live at Sound Emporium" (hold on anytime the Alabama Shakes singer steps up to a mic).
Meanwhile, I've obviously been spending more time at home and been able to give my older concert LPs some love. I've also had a lot more time to think about why I love them so much.
Some of my all-time favorite live records are by legendary singers I obviously never got to see perform: Otis Redding, Bob Marley, Jimi Hendrix and Janis Joplin come to mind first, singular artists who by all accounts were transcendent in concert. Their studio albums are also terrific, of course, but there's something more personal about their concert LPs; it's more like being visited by their ghosts.
Some legendary bands that lost key members along the way fit this mold, too.
I've seen the modern lineup of the Who in concert a half-dozen times, and greatly enjoyed half of those times. None of the Who shows I've seen in person, however, match the thrill of putting on the band's "Live at Leeds" album and hearing — feeling! — the late Keith Moon's thundering drums.
The Allman Brothers Band is another one. They still put on pretty terrific live shows through the 21st century. About the only time I consider myself a major fan, though, is anytime I put on their "At Fillmore East" album, recorded in 1971 just a half-year before guitarist Duane Allman's death in a motorcycle accident.
I was lucky enough to catch the definitive band of my generation, Nirvana, in concert five months before tragedy struck. I wouldn't say Kurt Cobain was one of those must-see-to-believe live performers, but I still prefer Nirvana's live albums over the studio albums — partly because the studio stuff is still so heavily played on the radio, and partly because the live stuff is a reminder of just how punk-rock and wonderfully imperfect the band was.
Dead people don't have to be involved for me to favor an artist's live albums.
Despite all the advances in recording technology, plenty of modern artists still have never matched the power of their live show in the studio. R&B space cowgirl Erykah Badu and electro-funk rockers LCD Soundsystem are two of my favorite examples of that. I always reach for their live records first.
Similarly, two of indie-rock nerds' most celebrated rock albums of the 21st century are Radiohead's "Kid A" and Wilco's "Yankee Hotel Foxtrot" — both of which always sound stolid and duller to me when compared with hearing those same songs captured on the "I Might Be Wrong" and "Kicking Television" concert LPs.
I love live records that take me places, too. Clifton Chenier's several excellent live records remind me of the Louisiana dance halls I've been lucky enough to land in. All the various live collections from Jazz Fest, Bonnaroo and Coachella bring back the feeling of sweat dripping down my neck and hairs standing on end while attending those giant festivals.
Most die-hard music fans also get to relish certain live albums that take them back to actually being in the room when they were recorded. In my case, those include Soul Asylum's "Live From Liberty Lunch" and the Texas Tornados' "Live From Austin, Texas." Listen close, and I swear you can hear me "wooo!"
The greatest quality of all the greatest live albums, especially during the pandemic, is their escape value — something livestreaming concerts haven't been able to match.
Virtual gigs have been a great remedy and interesting diversion, but they've hardly filled the void. There's something thrice-removed-feeling about hearing music through a camera, then a Wi-Fi server, then my computer or TV.
Aside from the absolute best-of-the-best concert movies, I've never found those entirely fulfilling, either. I see concert films as the equivalent to the Hollywood adaptation of a good book; I'd rather read that book and imagine the backdrop and action in my own mind than see it through a camera operator's eyes.
Until we get concerts back in full, I'll be doing a lot of noisy daydreaming.
Here's a top 10 list of my own favorite live albums:
1. Otis Redding: "Live in Europe"
2. Bob Dylan: "Live 1966: The 'Royal Albert Hall' Concert"
3. Bob Marley: "Babylon by Bus"
4. Iron Maiden: "Live After Death"
5. Erykah Badu: "Live"
6. Jimi Hendrix: "Live at Monterey"
7. Sleater-Kinney: "Live in Paris"
8. Willie Nelson: "Live at the Texas Opry House"
9. Albert King: "Live Wire/Blues Power"
10. The Replacements: "For Sale: Live at Maxwell's"