Everybody Has A Ghost

Live Albums Ranked from Worst To Best

by Benjamin Ray

Although they actually formed and recorded their first album prior to Nirvana's breakthrough, Live is often lumped in with the group of commercially successful post-grunge bands who made it big on Nevermind's breakthrough. 1994's Throwing Copper yielded four hit singles and went platinum many times over, but each successive release was less popular, and by 2008 the band quit after a tour. They reformed in 2013 with a new singer and new material. The appeal (and, to some, unappeal) of the Pennsylvania quartet was its earnest, moody, big-sounding arena rock, and the emotional, dramatic, occasionally over-the-top vocals of Ed Kowalczyk. The band's best work remains among the best alt-rock of the decade, and all of their albums have at least a handful of good songs. This list ranks those eight studio albums, leaving off only the hits collection Awake and the 2008 live recording Live At The Paradiso Amsterdam.

live_birds 8. Birds Of Pray (2003)

Nobody was terribly excited when this one came out; the world had moved on in 2003 back to garage rock, so an arena rock effort with Big Statements about faith, family and God seemed woefully out of time, something only U2 could get away with whenever they tried. This could have been forgiven if the songs had the spirit of Live's best work, but both the experimental spirit of V and the drama of the band's '90s work has been replaced with a journeyman, veteran feel that fits like a glove but hardly feels necessary. It's serious but not deep, plainly stating its themes and getting out quickly, and while that lack of complication is a welcome change, the album just doesn't measure up to the band's others.

7. The Distance To Here (1999)live_distance_150

Realizing a course correction was needed after Secret Samadhi, the band kept the overblown arrangements intact but simply shortened the songs. The problem is, most of said songs don't have the hooks or drama of better works, and the disc ends up being deadly serious and quite dull. "The Dolphin's Cry" briefly forestalled the band's demise with a hit single, although it’s not a great one to listen to as an adult. There are a few highlights sprinkled that fans ought to seek out, chief among them the superb "Meltdown," but these are the exception to the rule.

live_songsfrom_150 6. Songs From Black Mountain (2006)

Ed Kowalczyk's swan song with the band (by his own choice), Songs is easily their quietest, most mature album to date, one that more or less shuns the sonic qualities Live was known for while retaining the lyrical and earnest, passionate spirit of their best work. They have essentially morphed into Pearl Jam at this point, although they took longer to do it and are nowhere near as good, but a quiet fire still burns with mellow heat. As ever, Ed's themes revolve around his family, his faith and love, which is getting a little tired at this point, but those who are at that point in their lives where Ed was here will understand where his heart is. There isn't a lot to return to here above other Live albums, with the exception of the excellent "Show," but the album is a reminder of the beating heart that always drove this band.

5. Mental Jewelry (1991)live_mental

An underground cult favorite in 1991, the seeds of what would make Live great are sown here. The first takeaway from this is in how underrated Patrick Dahlheimer was as a bass player; listening to his slap bass and funk phrasings, one wonders why that element of the band was tamped down (simple answer: Loud guitars and angst sold much better in 1994). It's a delight to listen to his contributions to Chad Taylor's guitar work on "Pain Lies On The Riverside" and "Operation Spirit," even if the production is lacking (a curious choice from Jerry Harrison). That production makes this one less successful than the band's other '90s albums, but it's still pretty good for fans of early-decade alternative rock, with highlights including those two songs, "The Beauty Of Gray" and "Take My Anthem." It's definitely a debut, but it's a pretty good one.

live_v 4. V (2001)

An improvement over The Distance To Here, the band's fifth outing shows them loosening up a bit lyrically and musically, easing up on the guitar throttle and adding elements of electronics and hip-hop. Because these guys were so earnest, some of the changes are blatant misfires; the piledriving guitar attack of "Deep Enough" is fantastic, but Kowalczyk's raps are strings of non-sequiturs that are pretty lame but must have sounded good in his head, for example. But much of the record is quite good, mainstream rock with more positive messages than whatever Limp Bizkit and Linkin Park were selling at the time, set to solid songs like "People Like You," "Simple Creed," the solid "Transmit Your Love" and "Overcome." It's a transition album, to be sure, but a good one. 

3. The Turn (2014)live_turn_150

I always felt that Kowalcyzk was the band's weakest point from The Distance To Here on, with his insistence on repeating the same lyrical themes over and over and his embarrassing turns of phrase, set to what appeared to be a growing ego with each passing year. Witness the cover art of Live At The Paradiso Amsterdam, in which he stands alone center stage, head shaved, shirt off, spotlight on, soaking in the adulation for all it's worth. Shortly after that tour, the band called it quits. The rest of the group sued Ed to keep the Live name (he wanted out anyway, so it wasn't a big deal), and finally in 2014 they got together with Chris Shinn to record this excellent disc. The most notable aspect is in how alive these guys are again; not since 1997 have they been so immersed in the music, and Shinn's vocals enhance the songs rather than overpower them. The loud guitars – some might say aggressive – return to the band's sound on "Siren's Call," "Don't Run To Wait" (an explosive, heavy anthem), "Natural Born Killers" and the driving "The Only Way Around Is Through." Songs like "Need Tonight" and "The Strength To Hold On" are well-written and performed with the requisite Live passion, and the closing acoustic ballad "Till You Came Around" is a fine way to end the show. As with those mid-period Live discs, there are a lot of layers and weight here that aren't necessarily deserved, but this can be overlooked because it's just a good, loud rock album.

live_samadhi_150 2. Secret Samadhi (1997)

A common theme for rock bands who have a hit album is to recreate that formula but make the music louder, longer, and looser. This often results in a bloated double album (think Be Here Now, The Beatles, Physical Graffiti), and Live's third album was no exception. Like those other albums, there is excess, but a band like Live benefits from this approach because of their natural tendency toward bombast and sound, much like their arena rock heroes. It also helps that the guys were still on a songwriting tear left over from Throwing Copper, and even if the run times are padded with feedback and solos and long introductions, the seething drama and hard rock of "Lakini's Juice," "Graze" and the propulsive "Heropsychodreamer" are career highlights. "Ghost" might be the best album track of the band's career, going from a whisper to a roar in the best alt-rock tradition; Kowalczyk's vocals know when to hold back and when to soar against a creepy, dramatic backdrop full of tension and release. Fans also appreciated the quieter honesty of "Turn My Head," the song that would guide the band's approach in the 2000s. The album loses its way toward the end, and "Rattlesnake" is one of the worst album openers of the decade – dead on arrival, trying way too hard, with awful, banal lyrics – but the best of this disc is the best of Live hands down.

1. Throwing Copper (1994)live_throwing

The album everyone remembers this band for and one of the most beloved albums by my generation from the commercial alt-rock era, Throwing Copper justifies its accolades and status. It's firmly entrenched in the grunge/alternative era, one of the finest examples of that embattled, ill-defined style outside of Seattle. The quartet of singles ("Selling The Drama," "I Alone," "All Over You" and the quieter drunk-driving warning "Lightning Crashes") are pretty much bulletproof, but the album tracks are just as good, especially "Top," "White, Discussion," "Iris" and, to a lesser extent, "Shit Towne." But the real triumph is the opener "The Dam At Otter Creek," which builds slowly in its story of a childhood prank taken too far until Kowalczyk's vocals release with clenched fury and primal howl...all within the first two minutes, before the drums come in and the opening section repeats itself. One of the best albums in a year chock full of fantastic music, Throwing Copper is a moody triumph.

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