Everyone who’s been to a few concerts has had this experience: The band starts playing a song you never really liked on the album — either because it was too slow, or not funky enough, or even just too ordinary — but by the end of the live performance, you find yourself liking the song much more. Some songs are just better live, and bands who write and rehearse with their live show in mind sometimes have to settle for them not being as compelling on the LP. On the plus side, as soon as you’ve heard that song live once, the album version seems to become more approachable, as if your brain is applying the cool aspects of the live version to the album version in real time, or at least firing off the memory synapses that this song is cool, in some contexts. So, with that, here’s a list of songs that get better when you hear ‘em live.
“Madness” — Muse
“Madness” was the second single released off of the platinum album The 2nd Law prior to its release, and immediately caught flak from Muse fans and pretty much everyone in general. Firstly, in a pretty large departure from anything Muse had done in the past, it sounded like a weird, half-attempt at the dubstep style that was starting to take off at the time — everyone dubbed it the Muse “dubstep” song. Moreover, the tempo was somewhat lethargic and the build to the climactic chorus seemed underwhelming. Happily for the critics of the song, the rest of the album was typical Muse shredding madness. Once it entered Muse’s live rotation, however, “Madness” became way more palatable. In this performance at the Rome Olympic Stadium, we can see visually how the music is produced — rather intriguingly as it turns out, as Chris Wolstenholme taps and slides out the dubstep-y electronic lyric “madness” on a custom double neck bass with built in touchscreen modulation. Matt Bellamy’s guitar solo sings and crunches more viscerally than the album version, which feels simple without the flourishes. And finally, the song’s climax really soars as it never did in the studio, filling the Rome Olympic Stadium for a much more satisfying ending.
“Everything In Its Right Place” — Radiohead
Okay, to be fair, the album version of “Everything in Its Right Place” was pretty great, and cemented a radically new, electronic direction for Radiohead on its 2000 album Kid A. But the inherent fear that an album laden with soft, questionably driving electronic beats and discordant chords leaves in your stomach is, “well how are they gonna do this live?” Worry not, because this performance of the song at Lollapalooza in 2016 (first half of the video) blows that worry out of the water. You can hear the crowd’s reaction when the song kicks in, and if you know the album version, you immediately realize that the live performance is far more invigorating. The drums drive along unmuted and powerfully, and more than anything Thom York’s voice positively soars in stark contrast with the closed in, enveloped voice he employed on the album version.
“Harder Better Faster Stronger” — Daft Punk
Here’s a case where the live version of the song is not only subtly more enjoyable to listen to, but also significantly different than the album version. “Harder Better Faster Stronger” was always a fun song, with a funky groove but not a lot of driving beat. In fact, the song starts with all bass frequencies filtered out, and they don’t really kick in until around 1:40, leaving you wondering if you could really dance along to it at a concert. Daft Punk, of course, has that figured out. In this performance from its Alive 2007 live album, it merges multiple songs into their rendition of “Harder Better Faster Stronger,” including “Television Rules the Nation,” and “Around the World.” Most importantly, they get the dance beat going right off the bat, giving the massive crowd a chance to get grooving, as can be heard in the admittedly jerky video. They consistently mix the lyrics from the song over those of “Around the World” simultaneously in a way that somehow just takes the cake over the album version. And finally, they spend way more time on those awesome, high octave riffs of the lyrics that make the song so great.
“Cake By The Ocean” — DNCE
DNCE had one of the year’s top pop hits with “Cake By The Ocean,” and it’s an undoubtedly good pop song. The live version here, however, lends the song some extra spark that the album version lacks. For starters, it’s refreshing to see pop songs performed on a sparse instrument set — guitar, bass, drums and some vocals are all that are necessary to bring the song to life in all its bombast. This particular recording isn’t the best rendition Joe Jonas has managed — if you look up other live versions — but hearing the song sans pitch perfection is refreshing in its own way. What this particular live version has that places it on this list is that it’s their concert version, meaning guitarist JinJoo Lee gets the chance to shred a sick guitar solo at the end of the song over a much heavier beat, a nonoption on the album version.
“Ride” — Twenty One Pilots
Twenty One Pilots catapulted to huge success in the past two years, primarily on the strength of its live show, which, with only two people, is suffused with energy. “Ride” is a perfect example of that energy, in which the drops into the chorus are so much fuller and louder at the show, especially when paired with the killer light show. One of the most-loved staples of the band’s shows over the years has been a number in which a portable drumset on a platform is pushed out onto the crowd, which then physically holds up drummer Josh Dun through part of a song. For this tour performance, filmed right here in Oakland at The Fox Theater, that song was “Ride,” and not only is it seriously cool to see someone playing drums on top of a crowd, but once you hear the drum solo he churns out using nothing more than a kick, snare and cymbal, you’ll never hear the post-interlude chorus of the album version without adding the live part in in your head.
Imad Pasha covers film. Contact him at [email protected].