"We saw fans with messages replying to our own . . . we saw emotions and we saw hope for the future . . . couples necking . . . grown men crying . . . children far too young to know . . . and we played for all of them."- Paul McCartney, in his notes for "Tripping the Live Fantastic"

ive albums tend to be the neglected stepchildren of the recording industry. Sure, at times they capture the fuss and fervor of a splashy superstar tour, but often they're simply quick and easy substitutes for the real thing - released because a band's taking too long on the next studio LP . . . or owes a record company one more disc before grazing for greener ($$$) pastures.

Then again, stepchildren can and do shine. Remember Peter Frampton's out-of-nowhere Cinderfella success in the mid-'70s with "Frampton Comes Alive!"? And Bruce Springsteen's live multialbum package a few years ago debuted at No. 1.

Technologies and techniques have improved dramatically over the years, so today's live albums generally sound super compared to their ancestors. That could be one reason why there are a good half-dozen among the current best sellers, representing rock, rap, pop and even classical music.

At their best, live albums paint more accurate musical portraits of dynamic performers than studio recordings generally can, or at least give us another perspective of a particular talent. Those that do not succeed fail to capture an artist's spirit or special sound.

Here are some thoughts on the mementos and retrospec-tives among the latest of the live:

- HITMEISTER PHIL COLLINS should have titled his latest release "Not-so-serious Hits . . . Live." But who's going to argue with a pop craftsman who has anchored even this tepid effort firmly in the Top 20?

Collin's "Serious Hits . . . Live" (Atlantic) is a basic, unimaginative collection of the all-too-familiar radio tunes that have been aired so of-ten you don't really care if you hear them again.

Given the live format, he could have given them a new musical twist, but instead he chose to play them straight and predictable. Yawn.

These 15 songs were taken from last year's "But Seriously" tour, and include "Don't Lose My Number," "In the Air Tonight," "Sussudio," "Easy Lover," "One More Night" and on and on.

Collins, originally a drummer for the quintessential art-rock band Genesis, may yet rank as one of the best pop songwriters and musicians from the 1980s. But "Serious Hits" doesn't begin to explore Collins' creativity, which is just beginning to reach full bloom.

- PAUL McCARTNEY'S 10-month 1989-90 world tour was a shot in the arm the graying Beatle needed - proof positive that any obituaries for his pop career are premature. And to further gainsay his naysayers, we now have "Tripping the Live Fantastic" (Capitol). More than a memento of the tour, the live album underscores what a productive span McCartney's had - and what a top-notch showman he continues to be.

"Right now," he tells the roaring crowd at one point, "right now we're going to go back . . . through the mists of time . . . to a time they called the '60s," and the roar's redoubled as he launches into a faithful rendering of "The Long and Winding Road" (released in 1970 . . . ).

"Tripping the Live Fantastic" really does peel back the mists, revealing more than a quarter-century of hits, from pre-Beatle oldies like Fats Domino's "Ain't That a Shame" and Carl Perkins' rockabilly "Matchbox," through 17 bona fide Fab Four classics and a raft of hits from McCartney's solo and Wings years. Among these were the best songs from the hit-and-miss "Flowers in the Dirt" album, like "My Brave Face," "Figure of Eight" and the folklike "Put It There."

McCartney's band, featuring Robbie McIn-tosh, Hamish Stewart, Chris Whitten, Paul Wick-ens, oh, and Linda McCartney, is superb; they manage to recreate yet update the textured melodies of the Beatles and the harmonies of Wings in ways John, George, Ringo, Denny, Jimmie, et al. could only dream of, thanks to today's synthesizers and sound systems.

The Hamburg and Hollywood Bowl albums are mere curiosities; "Wings Over America," once a top of the line recording, now sounds dense and leaden. "Tripping the Live Fantastic" is THE live album of Paul McCartney's career.

- LIVE ROCK'S trend of the moment has been to let bands perform "unplugged," as MTV would have it - to bring out the acoustic 6- and 12-strings, cut back on the stacks of amps and leave the electric guitars at home. Tesla's new set, "Five Man Acoustical Jam" (Geffen), though no unblemished masterpiece, helps show why this is more than just a gimmick.

This good-time, 68-minute, 15-song album was recorded before an enthusiastic audience at Philadelphia's Trocadero during one of five acoustic concerts presented by Tesla last summer during another tour with Motley Crue. By cutting back on the wattage and big-venue theatrics, the San Francisco Bay area band freshened its live sound and gave fans an intimate show that, as the tapes testify, they're not likely to forget.

The bond between Tesla and its fans is especially evident on versions of the band's own "The Way It Is," "Gettin' Better" and "Love Song" (which goes partly electric halfway through). The faithful screamed upon recognizing favorite songs and joyously sang along.

But the pared-down setting also gave the guys a chance to stretch, by showcasing their musicianship and in covering songs made famous by others, including the Beatles' "We Can Work It Out," the Stones' "Mother's Little Helper," the Grateful Dead's "Truckin' " and Five Man Electrical Band's 1971 anti-establishment anthem "Signs."

Partly because of vocalist Jeff Keith's sassy-yet-yearning rasp, Tesla has a predilection to songs that ramble a bit then build to a climax. The covers show how their own numbers could use some tightening up but also how competent Tesla is as a performing band.

- AS A SOLO PERFORMER, member of The Nazz and Utopia and in-demand producer, Todd Rundgren has never been afraid to test boundaries. This time out he's going at it in two ways. First, "2nd Wind" (Warner Bros.), his latest, is a "live" studio album, which in this case is not a contradiction in terms. Second, it's plump with noble messages for his devoted fans and for the masses (which are only rarely the same thing).

"2nd Wind" was recorded before ticket-buying audiences in San Francisco's Palace of the Arts, but hoots and applause are heard only at the end of one song, "The Smell of Money," when the enthusiasts understandably couldn't restrain themselves. Rundgren and his top-notch band were ensconced onstage in plexiglas enclosures, creating a makeshift studio. The goal: to help the musicians get the feel of playing before an audience, in tight takes, while creating a studio-quality recording.

The message songs include "Change Myself," which argues well that we have to change ourselves before we can change the world; "Gaya's Eyes," a plea on behalf of neglected and abused Mother Earth; and the title number, which urges the '60s generation to shake off zombiehood. But the centerpiece of the collection is a song trilogy from "Up Against It," apparently a musical in progress, exploring dark sides of wealth, self-sufficiency and love.

Unfortunately, while "2nd Wind" has admirable aspirations, overall it just doesn't click. The album is melodically varied and adventurous, but the tone's alternately preachy and off-Broadway arch. And despite the audience's presence, the sass and spontaneity that set apart many live recordings aren't to be found on this one.

- THE GRATEFUL DEAD is famed far and wide for its concerts, for the laid-back, rolling, ingenuous style of the band's music when performed live, and for the subculture nourished by the events. A great director - someone like Martin Scorsese, who preserved the atmosphere of The Band and friends in "The Last Waltz" - really ought to definitively capture the sights and sounds of the Dead in concert.

For live sets like "Without A Net" (Arista) don't do the job. Jerry Garcia, Bob Weir and company, as the title implies, soar occasionally on this marathon album and never plunge fatally to earth, but the performances on the whole seem too uneventful to satisfy anyone but a diehard Dead Head.

Often the Grateful Dead's free-form preferences lead to unfocused jams like "Cassidy" and "Victim or the Crime," but there are high points, such as Weir's gritty reading of Robert Johnson's "Walkin' Blues" and the Garcia-led effort on "China Cat Sunflower/I Know You Rider." The band also does an excellent (and apt, when you think about it) cover of the Steve Win-wood-Traffic gem "Dear Mr. Fantasy." Yet in a 21/4-hour collection, you'd think "Truckin' " and "Shades of Grey," the surprise hit of a few years back, or some other mainstream favorites would be included, but they're not.

- PARROT HEADS (a k a rabid Jimmy Buffett fans), too, finally have something they can really squawk about: A 15-song, 70-minute live recording taken from four different Buffett live performances last summer.

The recording, titled "Feeding Frenzy" (MCA), includes Buffett standards like "Margar-itaville," "A Pirate Looks at 40" and "Cheeseburger in Paradise," as well two new songs, "In the City" and a reggae-version of "Jamaica Farewell," originally a hit for Harry Belafonte.

Buffett unveiled "Feeding Frenzy" at an Oct. 27 beach party in which 40,000 Parrot Heads showed up. "I made the album for the Parrot Heads. So I might as well play it for them first," he said.

There's no question there's nothing quite like a Buffett live performance. And "Feeding Frenzy" is exceptional dining for Buffett fans who have seen it all before. If you haven't, this one isn't likely to cause much of a frenzy.

- SCHIZOPHRENIC might be the best way to describe the music of Joe Ely. One minute he's singing country tunes, the next he's throwing in some romping roadhouse rockers, and then he's coming at you with some old-fashioned blues. Then he tops it off with some of the finest acoustic folk you'll hear anywhere.

No doubt Ely doesn't want to be pigeonholed, but the problem is radio programmers just don't know where to play his stuff. And as brilliant as his music is, most people have probably never heard of Joe Ely.

If you're looking for someone who's not afraid to push musical boundaries, then Ely is as good as they come. And a good primer is Ely's "Live at Liberty Lunch" (MCA), a 13-song live offering.

From the opening "Me and Billy the Kid," an Ely original, to the concluding "If You Were a Bluebird," a stirring acoustic duet with the song's composer, Butch Hancock, "Liberty Lunch" exudes the kind of musical eclecticism sorely missing in most pop music.

- JOE COCKER was born to sing live. He first found American fame at Woodstock and with the live album "Mad Dogs and Englishmen." And thanks to his from-the-heart sandpaper-and-syrup vocals, even his studio recordings retain an on-location flavor. So, after 20-odd years, a new live album bringing us up to date doesn't seem a bad idea.

And it's not. His new "Live" (Capitol) is a rock 'n' soul retrospective. Cocker's patented croak is squarely in the spotlight on a passel of great songs - from "The Letter" and "With a Little Help From My Friends" to "When the Night Comes" and "You Can Leave Your Hat On." He's energetically supported by a trio of warbling ladies in the background and by great guitar by Phil Grande and Keith Mack, and colorful sax and keyboards by longtime associate Chris Stainton and Deric Dyer. Two new studio tracks are tacked on as bonuses.

Most of today's pale rock singers could stand a few lessons from Joe Cocker on how to throw everything into a song. Whew. But come to think of it, they probably lack the pipes.

- ALTHOUGH HE'S HAD notable successes over the past two decades, Don McLean's never fit pattern of the average pop star. For just as "American Pie" is virtually unclassifiable as a song, so is McLean impossible to pigeonhole as an artist.

His double-album "Greatest Hits Live!" (Gold Castle) underscores this. McLean's smooth, maybe too-light tenor isn't a proper star's signature in this day and age. And his songs - folk and folk-rock, pop standards, at least one well-known lullaby, love songs, dark satire and darker social commentary; what is this guy, versatile or something?

"Greatest Hits Live!" - actually recorded 10 years ago in England but only recently released by Gold Castle - isn't your usual live album, either. The audience, for one thing, is politely enthusiastic instead of insistently and boisterously so. Not all of the songs are great ("The Statue" and "Building My Body," for instance just kind of sit there, words and music going nowhere), but the familiar classics invite you to sing along.

Later McLean compositions like the countryish "Left for Dead on the Road to Love" show that while maybe the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band's Jeff Hanna should probably do the singing, McLean always could write like the dickens. And the acoustic and a capella sequence of "Believers," "Sea Man," "It's a Beautiful Life" and "Chain Lightning" demonstrates how brilliant he can be as both writer and performer.