I’m sure a prerequisite for writing this column is my evident love for music, but I think I have forgotten to mention just how much I love live music. There is almost nothing I miss as much as going to live concerts and, as the pandemic has progressed, I constantly find myself listening to live versions of my favorite songs on YouTube and Spotify. The ultimate test of a musical artist, for me, is how they sound without the autotune and the sophisticated editing.
That’s why today I’ll be sharing some of my favorite live albums from some of my favorite artists to give us all a taste of that concert setting we’ve been missing.
Rounding out the top of this list is one of my favorite albums from one of my favorite bands: the Nirvana “MTV Unplugged in New York” (1994) album. Nirvana needs no introduction: One of America’s favorite grunge/punk rock bands, their memory has endured long after Kurt Cobain’s death in 1994. But the Unplugged album is a true example of the band’s raw talent. The wailing, broken quality of Cobain’s voice is featured live in “Something In The Way” (1991) and “About A Girl” (1989), while Nirvana’s cover of the David Bowie hit “The Man Who Sold The World” (1970) became one of their most popular songs. There’s just something about the quality of the warbling guitar and bass notes in the Unplugged version of “Come As You Are” (1991) that feels strangely sentimental to me in a way that the studio versions of most songs simply don’t. Keeping with punk rock, “The Queen is Dead (Deluxe Edition)” (1986) by The Smiths also features some great live tracks like “Never Had No One Never” and “Cemetry Gates.”
One of my other favorite artists, Lorde, released a short album titled “Live in Concert” (2013) with four of her early hits. Again, there is an intimacy to hearing the crowd in the background as she croons “Buzzcut Season,” one of my personal favorites, and “Swingin Party.” The 2012 “MTV Presents Unplugged: Florence + The Machine” album is another masterful example of live music at its finest, though Florence Welch’s powerful and wraith-like timbre contrasts with the darker undertones of Lorde’s voice in live performances. The songs “Never Let Me Go” (2011), “No Light, No Light” (2011) and “Only If For A Night” (2011) make use of Welch’s lilting voice, background choirs, string quartets and harps in a wonderful symphony that fills the MTV Unplugged stage fully.
Additionally, alternative artist BANKS released her “Live and Stripped” album in 2020 with four songs, the best of which is probably “If We Were Made of Water,” which seems to have been made for the chic minimalism of a stripped album. Lianne La Havas, who appeared in last week’s column, also has a great live version of Aretha Franklin’s “Say a Little Prayer” (2016) as well as a live 2015 “Spotify Sessions" album with tender portrayals of her songs “Green and Gold” and “Midnight.”
Live music is magical, and I hope this list can sustain you — as it has for me — until it is safe to go to concerts again.
So, until next week, happy listening!