Grateful Dead Studio Albums Ranked Worst to Best
The Grateful Dead are one of the hardest bands to start listening to, but once you get into it, they’re one of the hardest bands to stop listening to. Though naysayers turn their noses up at the Dead’s twenty-minute jams and four-hour-long shows, the Dead are a band who start to sound even better once you’ve been listening for a few hours. I can’t think of any other band — not The Beatles or The Velvet Underground or Radiohead — where that’s the case.
There’s no easy entry point to getting the full picture of what the Grateful Dead were all about. For many Deadheads, even once they were introduced to the band, they had to let their music sink in over time. There are so many different sides to the Grateful Dead. They went through so many different eras and lineup changes and stylistic changes — some better than others. Like The Beatles, there’s bound to be at least one Grateful Dead song for you no matter what kind of music you like. The philosophies they held as a band were nearly as impactful as the music itself. It’s ironic that the punks hated them, as the Grateful Dead remained an anarchic, anti-establishment band for longer than most bands exist. (By extension, the indie rockers hated them too, but that’s been changing… perhaps the tribute album with over 50 major indie acts helped.) Even if their late ’80s hit “Touch of Grey” — their only Top 40 hit — was a surface-level, simplistic take on the band’s hippie idealism, it stayed truer to the Dead’s roots than most ’60s bands did at that time (I’m looking at you, “We Built This City”). Drugs and rock n’ roll were tied together before the Dead were a band, but — to paraphrase a part of the new Long Strange Trip documentary — nobody could recreate the psychedelic experience with music the way the Grateful Dead could. And it’s not like no one else tried. The Grateful Dead directly inspired the entire scene of jam bands, whose mission is to let songs grow into living, breathing things with minds of their own, just like the Dead did at their shows.
The Grateful Dead’s status as jam band pioneers is part of why they are so misunderstood. They’re often written off as a band with nothing to offer beyond meandering jams, a band that you have to see live or be high (or preferably both) to care about. But the Grateful Dead are so much more than that. For one, they are a great studio band. My complaint about a lot of jam bands — even the ones with breathtaking live shows — is that the songs often aren’t there. When the Dead land back on a verse or chorus after 20 minutes of jamming, you feel so alive because they’re landing on music you know by heart. If their actual songwriting — and by extension, their in-studio work — wasn’t so life-affirming already, this wouldn’t happen.
So, while digging through the band’s live recordings (or actually seeing them back in the day if you were lucky enough, or at least seeing one of their many current offshoots today) is crucial to understanding and experiencing the Grateful Dead, their studio albums deserve to be taken as seriously. To honor and celebrate the band’s fruitful discography — and maybe help provide some newcomers with a few good entry points into the band’s larger-than-life legacy — we’ve ranked the band’s studio albums from worst to best, and included commentary on each one. This means we left off truly essential albums like Live/Dead, Europe ’72 and Skull & Roses, but we did include the solo debuts by Jerry Garcia and Bob Weir, which fit neatly into the Dead’s story and the Dead’s sound. (There are tons of other Dead-related albums besides those two, and we mean no disrespect to those albums, but we had to draw the line somewhere, and including these two just felt right.) It’s pretty well-known amongst non-Deadheads that the folk rockin’ Workingman’s Dead and American Beauty are fine albums, but the Dead’s studio output offered up many other great moments, from the experimental psychedelia of their late ’60s era to the proggy suites in the ’70s to Disco Dead in the later ’70s, and beyond.
This list is just one person’s opinion, and surely there are countless ways to rank the Dead’s discography, so let us know how you agree or disagree in the comments, and read on for the list…
15. Built to Last (1989)
The Grateful Dead performed live up until July 1995, one month before Jerry Garcia’s death, but they never recorded another studio album after 1989’s Built to Last. That’s probably for the best; they were clearly out of stream as a studio band by the end of the ’80s anyway. Even on the band’s weakest albums, Jerry managed to contribute one or two pleasant songs that reminded you a little of the good old days, and on Built to Last those songs were the title track and “Standing on the Moon,” but mostly, this album is entirely skippable. Keyboardist/vocalist Brent Mydland, who joined the band in 1979 and whose shinier pop rock style never really fit with the Grateful Dead, co-wrote and sang almost half the songs on this album. Bob Weir contributes just two and they both rank among his most forgettable work.
14. Go to Heaven (1980)
The end of the ’70s was a major turning point for the Grateful Dead. Keyboardist/vocalist Keith Godchaux and his wife/Dead vocalist Donna Jean Godchaux had both left the band in 1979 (and Keith died the following year), and their replacement was Brent Mydland. The end of the Keith & Donna era (1977’s Terrapin Station and 1978’s Shakedown Street) varied between moments of utter greatness and moments that showed the Dead were running out of ideas, and the latter severely outweighed the former during the Brent Mydland era. Brent brought a more straightforward, more commercial style to the band, and his increasing presence as a lead singer did not help the Dead’s songwriting into the ’80s. He takes two songs on Go to Heaven, “Far From Me” and “Easy to Love You,” both of which have the Grateful Dead sounding like any middle-of-the-road commercial rock band (though the latter is just a bit more exciting thanks to its slightly more unpredictable rhythm section). Bob Weir’s songs at least induce some nostalgia since his voice was still in great shape, but Bobby’s songwriting style was a lot closer to Brent’s than Jerry’s at this point, making his songs a far cry from the band’s inventive ’60s and ’70s material. Later on in this article, I’ll get into the band’s disappointing decision to re-record covers from way back in their repertoire for their late ’70s albums, but in the context of the bland Go to Heaven, one of the more enjoyable moments is actually its closing cover of the traditional “Don’t Ease Me In.” It’s still better heard live (like on the 1970 Festival Express tour), but it’s at least one of the few moments on Go to Heaven where it actually feels like you’re listening to the Grateful Dead. The album’s one truly great moment, though, is Jerry’s “Althea.” There are many great live recordings of “Althea,” and this is a song you can probably argue is usually better heard live than on Go to Heaven, but “Althea” is such a force that it overcomes the album’s slick production. “Althea” is slow and airy but hypnotic, and it sounds like the type of song you could imagine Jerry writing as far back as the late ’60s. It’s a truly special moment in the band’s catalog, and even if the rest of Go to Heaven fails to hold your attention, this song is still worth it.
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13. In the Dark (1987)
The Grateful Dead are a career band, one that you could never fully understand from one song or even from one album, so it’s understandable that Deadheads turned their noses up at people who jumped on the Dead’s bandwagon after “Touch of Grey” came out (“Touchheads,” they called them). Deadheads could probably fill a 90-minute cassette with Grateful Dead songs that deserved to be hits, but “Touch of Grey” was the first and only time the Dead actually scored a Top 40 hit (it actually cracked the Top 10), so, naturally, it gained them a sizable amount of new fans and pissed off a bunch of old ones. It’s sort of a condensed, easily accessible version of what the Dead had done more effectively many times in the past, and it is weird and disappointing to think it took mainstream America so long to catch on to a Grateful Dead single. (As I’ll get into many times during this list, the Dead had a brilliant sense of pop songwriting, one that often rivaled their more chart-friendly contemporaries.) So I get all the cynicism surrounding “Touch of Grey,” but, now that it’s been over thirty years and hopefully we’ve all grown out of calling each other poseurs, it feels safe to admit that “Touch of Grey” is a pretty fucking great song. It’s irresistibly catchy and danceable, and, in the context of music today, it actually sounds less corny and less dated than even some of the Dead’s ’70s material. Modern-day indie rock leaders The War On Drugs have a handful of songs that sound modeled after “Touch of Grey,” and I doubt they’d deny this — they covered “Touch of Grey” for the 2016 indie rock Dead tribute album. It shouldn’t be their biggest studio song, but it really is one of their best.
“Touch of Grey” is the first song on In the Dark, and it goes drastically downhill from there. Save for “Black Muddy River” (another of Jerry’s pleasant late-career ballads), the album is entirely in dated, overproduced, commercial rock territory. When ranking this list, it was kind of a tossup between In the Dark and Go to Heaven, as both have just one great song each, and while “Althea” sounds more like classic Dead, “Touch of Grey” gives In the Dark just a slight edge over its predecessor.
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12. The Grateful Dead (1967)
The Grateful Dead went on to become one of the greatest rock bands in history, but their studio albums didn’t come out of the gate swinging. They were already starting to put on mesmerizing, psychedelic live shows, but their self-titled debut album was pretty straightforward in comparison, and mostly included covers. The originals, “The Golden Road (To Unlimited Devotion)” and “Cream Puff War,” are mostly of the garage-psych variety, and — though the Dead vastly improved by the time of their next album — it’s cool to hear them writing this kind of music, which they didn’t do much of afterwards. A lot of the covers on this album are better heard in live recordings, though some of them stand out here too. The melancholic “Morning Dew” has hints of the slowed-down, spacious version the Dead would introduce into their live sets in the early ’70s, and the ten-minute “Viola Lee Blues” proves the Dead already knew how to spiral into an exploratory jam in 1967. The Grateful Dead was a humble beginning, but it’s still an enjoyable record, and it’s an interesting look into the early days of the band’s career. If nothing else, it’s worth hearing just to see how huge of a jump they made for the following year’s Anthem of the Sun.
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11. Ace (Bob Weir album) (1972)
The Grateful Dead hit a commercial peak with 1970’s Workingman’s Dead and American Beauty, yet those would prove to be the band’s last albums on major label Warner Bros. They didn’t release another studio album until leaving Warner in 1973 and starting their own label, and instead they filled the gap with three live albums and solo debuts by co-frontmen Jerry Garcia and Bob Weir. (The same year as Jerry and Bobby’s albums, Warner also released Rolling Thunder, the solo debut by drummer Mickey Hart, who was currently on hiatus from the band. The album features most members of the Grateful Dead, plus members of Jefferson Airplane, Quicksilver Messenger Service, Tower of Power, Stephen Stills, and more, and it includes versions of two major Dead tunes which also exist in better-known form on Bob Weir’s Ace.) Jerry and Bobby’s albums include several songs the Dead had already been performing, and which would remain Dead staples through the end of the band’s career, and Bobby’s album really was a Grateful Dead album in everything but name (it was entirely recorded by the then-current lineup of the Grateful Dead, except Pigpen whose health was in bad shape), so it felt important to include these two albums on a list of the band’s studio work. (Again, there are many other Dead-related studio albums that exist, and no disrespect is meant to those albums.)
Jerry was really the band’s core (and best) songwriter, but Bobby had already written at least a couple classics by 1972 (“The Other One,” “Sugar Magnolia”), so he was more than ready to pen an entire album (with help from Dead lyricists John Barlow and Robert Hunter). Seven of Ace‘s eight songs became (or already were) Dead staples, and some are among the band’s biggest crowdpleasers — not bad for The Other One’s first solo move. What Bobby lacked on Ace, though, was the knack for psychedelia that the Dead are so famous for. Workingman’s Dead and American Beauty saw them easing up on the sonic acid trips, but no Dead album at the time had been as sober as Ace. The only moments that really take you there are the instrumental passages in “Playing in the Band,” which is also why that song is usually superior in concert, when the band can really lean into those instrumental passages and take them in all kinds of exciting directions. “Playing in the Band” is the album’s most iconic song, but its most interesting song is album closer “Cassidy.” Keyboardist Keith Godchaux and backup singer Donna Jean Godchaux made their in-studio debut with Grateful Dead proper on 1973’s Wake of the Flood, but they had been playing live with them at the time of Ace and both recorded on this album, and Donna harmonizing with Bobby on “Cassidy” makes for the album’s most gorgeous moments. “Cassidy” is also a slightly more haunting song than the rest of Ace, and the less jubilant tone makes it feel a little more timeless. As far as the album’s more traditional sounding songs go, the blues-rockin’ “Greatest Story Ever Told” and “One More Saturday Night” are standouts that really show Bobby was turning into a pretty commanding songwriter. But his most impressive songwriting was still yet to come.
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10. Shakedown Street (1978)
Shakedown Street came one year after Terrapin Station, and it continued the shift towards Disco Dead that began on that album, particularly on the iconic title track. With a funky groove, a fat, rubbery guitar riff, the singalong hooks, and especially the shoutalong “whoo!”, “Shakedown Street” became a favorite among Deadheads, despite (often misguided) resistance against disco by rock fans at the time. It’s more effective in a live setting, especially because of the satisfaction the crowd gets when the Dead land back on the verse after extended jamming, but it’s in fine form on this album too. It’s got the shiny production that this kind of song needs but it’s not overproduced, and Jerry’s voice and the background harmonies are as smooth as can be (in a good way). The same way the Stones kept their rock swagger intact when they went disco on “Miss You,” Jerry manages to still sound like the mythical musical creature he was during the psychedelic era.
Another thing Shakedown Street has in common with Terrapin Station is that it suffers from giving then-contemporary-sounding (and now very dated) reworks to covers that had been in the band’s repertoire since the ’60s. On Shakedown Street, they open with a radio-ready, Bob Weir-sung version of The Young Rascals’ “Good Lovin'” (which Pigpen sang at shows back in the day), and a hard rock rework of Noah Lewis’ old blues tune “Minglewood Blues” (here retitled “All New Minglewood Blues”), which the Dead had already covered on their 1967 debut album. Were they too busy touring to care as much about completing an album, or just out of ideas? No complaints that the Dead kept those songs in their live repertoire, but in the context of Shakedown Street, they just bring the album down. (If they were going to repurpose material from the old days, couldn’t they have at least recorded one of the beloved originals from Europe ’72 and Skull & Roses that never made it onto a studio album?)
For all its shortcomings, Shakedown Street had a few other magical moments besides its title track. The most magical is “Fire on the Mountain,” which would become a major highlight of the Dead’s concerts when paired with “Scarlet Begonias” from 1974’s From the Mars Hotel (more on this below in the From the Mars Hotel section), but it’s a highlight of Shakedown Street too. Like “Scarlet Begonias” and “Franklin’s Tower” before it, it’s got a reggae-ish groove and one of the catchiest Jerry-sung choruses the Dead ever wrote (though this one was actually written by drummer Mickey Hart, not Jerry, with lyrics by Jerry’s usual collaborator Robert Hunter). Shakedown Street also birthed Bob Weir and John Barlow’s “I Need A Miracle.” It’s not one of the best sounding studio songs, but — like the album title — “I Need A Miracle” became a key part of Grateful Dead culture. The album was also home to two perfectly fine, pretty-sounding Garcia/Hunter compositions, “Stagger Lee” (based on the traditional folk song, not a cover of it) and “If I Had the World to Give.”
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9. From the Mars Hotel (1974)
The Dead were touring a lot in 1974, and it was their most tiring period as a touring band since that was the year they were using their massive Wall of Sound speaker system which required a lot of time to set up and break down. Possibly due to fatigue or time constraints, From the Mars Hotel is a modest, straightforward album as far as the Dead’s mid-’70s studio albums go. It’s got some filler — songs like “U.S. Blues,” “Loose Lucy,” and “Money Money” either sound dated upon arrival, silly, or both — but it still made for some fine Dead studio moments. It’s got a few songs that proved the Dead still had some of that early ’70s folk rock left in them: Jerry’s sleepy “China Doll” and “Ship of Fools” are as lovely as some of his American Beauty/Workingman’s Dead moments, and they let Phil sing twice this time around. Neither is as majestic as “Box of Rain,” but, co-writing with poet Robert M. Petersen, Phil contributed two of From the Mars Hotel‘s finest moments, “Unbroken Chain” and “Pride of Cucamonga.” The almost-seven-minute “Unbroken Chain” combines the delicate folk stylings of American Beauty with the harder rocking and jammier elements of the band’s live show (and adds a little synthesizer in too), and it’s one of the album’s highest peaks. “Pride of Cucamonga” is more humble, but gives the album a nice dose of rollicking twang.
The most essential moment of From the Mars Hotel, though, is “Scarlet Begonias.” “Scarlet Begonias” would become one of the band’s most legendary live songs, once — starting on March 18, 1977 at the Winterland Arena — they began pairing it with “Fire on the Mountain” (released in studio form on 1978’s Shakedown Street) and created “Scarlet > Fire.” The best version of this song may very well be the “Scarlet > Fire” from the band’s fabled 5/8/77 show at Cornell University, but the studio version of “Scarlet Begonias” still remains a beast of its own. As much as the song takes on a new life in concert, there’s something about hearing it with the crisp yet not too polished production of From the Mars Hotel (and at an economical four-ish minutes) that really makes the song shine. It’s an irresistible dose of funky rock that really livens up From the Mars Hotel, and that sets the tone for future funky rock Grateful Dead songs to come, like, well, “Fire on the Mountain.” It gifts the album with its strongest hooks, and one of the band’s most memorably psychedelic (or psychedelically memorable?) images (“the sky was yellow and the sun was blue”). It’s the only song like it on From the Mars Hotel, and it’s strong enough to bump the whole album up a slot or two on lists like these.
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8. Terrapin Station (1977)
As a live band, The Grateful Dead were refreshed in 1977, and many Deadheads consider it one of their best years (peaking with that 5/8/77 Cornell show). They were back on the road after taking a bit of a hiatus in 1976 (which saw the release of the Steal Your Face live album and Jerry’s solo album Reflections, which featured the Dead on four of its eight songs), they were no longer weighed down by their Wall of Sound speaker system, and they were just really gelling on stage that year. 1977 also saw the release of the Dead’s first studio album in two years, Terrapin Station. It’s a great album, but it’s not quite as flawless as the band’s live shows were that year.
Terrapin Station has an unnecessary disco-fied version of the Motown classic “Dancin’ in the Streets,” which had been in the Dead’s live setlists since the ’60s, and other skippable songs like Bob Weir’s arrangement of the traditional “Samson & Delilah” and the cheesy hard rock of “Passenger.” (It’s been said that the more commercial side of this album was the influence of producer Keith Olsen, who had helmed Fleetwood Mac’s first album with Stevie Nicks and Lindsey Buckingham prior to working with the Dead.) Side A is saved by the overcast funk groove of “Estimated Prophet,” one of Bob Weir’s finest contributions to the band’s disco-inspired output, but the real reason that Terrapin Station ranks as high in the band’s discography as it does is the titular suite, which takes up the entirety of Side B.
There are a lot of Dead songs that didn’t reach their full potential until they were heard in concert, but the “Terrapin Station” suite was the opposite. Parts of “Terrapin” have been performed live, but the Dead never played the entire thing from start to finish, and they certainly didn’t play it with the orchestra or the choir that’s on the album version. Apparently, members of the band disagreed with the extravagant arrangements that Keith Olsen commissioned for the song, but if that’s true, I’m going to have to respectfully disagree with them. “Terrapin” is the single most awe-inspiring song in the Grateful Dead’s catalog, and that is thanks in no small part to all of its grand embellishments. It sounds like someone mashed Sgt. Pepper’s and Aqualung together into one 16-minute song, but it also sounds like no one other than the Dead. The weirdo acid-trip passages are there, the Rhythm Devils are going wild, and Jerry leads the way with the same presence he had since the late ’60s. Songwriting wise, Jerry hit a major peak on this one. Even if you stripped all the fancy stuff away and listened to him play the song on an acoustic guitar, it would rank among the band’s finest moments. It’s lengthy, orchestral prog rock, but it avoids being too bombastic or too complex for complexity’s sake, because Jerry’s songwriting still manages to sound humble and mellow — it’s much closer to his late ’60s / early ’70s songwriting peak than to the late ’70s radio rock and disco leanings of Terrapin Station‘s first half. And the song is long but all the parts are tightly packaged together; it never drags or overstays its welcome. It’s the moment where the band’s pop songwriting, ambitious arrangements, and impeccable musicianship came together better than ever before or since, and not a second of the song is wasted. If you’re still wary of the Grateful Dead’s studio work but you haven’t heard this song, do yourself a favor and change that. “Terrapin Station” is a triumph far beyond the context of “jam bands.” Taken even in the context of The Beatles, Bowie, or Pink Floyd, it’s a triumph in pop songcraft and studio wizardry.
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7. Wake of the Flood (1973)
Keyboardist/vocalist Pigpen’s ailing health started to affect his ability to tour in 1971, at which point Keith Godchaux, alongside his wife and vocalist Donna Jean Godchaux, had been brought into the Grateful Dead. Keith first played as a temporary replacement for Pigpen, and then both musicians toured with the Dead simultaneously, but eventually Pigpen’s health problems forced him to retire for good in 1972. In early 1973, he sadly passed, making Wake of the Flood the first Grateful Dead album with the Godchauxs and the first without Pigpen. It was also the band’s first album since their 1967 debut without second drummer Mickey Hart, who was on hiatus from the Dead at the time. The Godchauxs brought new sounds and new influences to the Dead, and that’s immediately evident on Wake of the Flood. Keith’s keyboard playing was more inspired by jazz than Pigpen’s bluesy sound, and Donna gave the Dead powerhouse backing vocals for the first time in their career. Keith also offered up the first (and ultimately only) Grateful Dead song he wrote himself and sung lead on, “Let Me Sing Your Blues Away.”
Coming after American Beauty/Workingman’s Dead, which is widely regarded as the band’s in-studio peak, Wake of the Flood can seem like a bit of a letdown. Unlike its two predecessors, it didn’t produce any charting singles, and it’s got its shruggier moments. “Let Me Sing Your Blues Away” isn’t much to write home about, and neither is the Jerry-sung opener “Mississippi Half-Step Uptown Toodleoo.” For the Dead’s standards, they’re just a little… regular. But Wake of the Flood‘s highs can be very high, and they make up for the album being less rock-solid than American Beauty. Though it lacked a big single in the real world, the jazz-rockin’ “Eyes of the World” is about as big as it gets in the Deadhead world. It’s a live staple and it’s often stretched to twice its length at shows, but this studio version shines too. The iconic rhythm guitar pattern and the arresting chorus are as dazzling on Wake of the Flood as they are in just about any live recording. Another Wake of the Flood song that deserved a bigger real-world breakthrough is “Row Jimmy.” Singing and songwriting wise, it’s got a similar traditional Americana vibe to American Beauty/Workingman’s Dead, but it’s also got a reggae-ish hop in its otherwise laid-back step, and at over seven minutes in length, it finds a little more room for the jammy tendencies of the band’s live show than American Beauty/Workingman’s Dead does. The atmospheric psych ballad “Stella Blue” is a gorgeous deep cut, and the Beatlesque harmonies of “Here Comes Sunshine” remind you that American Beauty and Workingman’s Dead aren’t the only albums where the Dead’s harmony singing was airtight.
And then there’s “Weather Report Suite.” The almost-thirteen-minute, Bob Weir-penned Wake of the Flood closer came just one year after Bobby’s solo debut Ace, and it’s a far more impressive composition than anything on that album. The Dead did a lot of interesting stuff in the studio, and among the most interesting — up there with the ’60s psych experiments and the 1970 folk songwriting — are the multi-part prog suites they released in the mid to late ’70s. The first of these was “Weather Report Suite.” It starts out as gentle folk rock that isn’t super different from Workingman’s Dead/American Beauty/Ace, with some nice organ, pedal steel, and truly angelic harmonies fleshing things out. Then new things start to come in. First gospel harmonies, and then it changes even more, when it switches from its lazy-Sunday first half to the more sinister-sounding “Let It Grow” portion. Keith Godchaux starts pounding on his piano, and Bob Weir finds his voice as a pop songwriter more than he ever had previously. Then enters the triumphant horns and strings, and it becomes even clearer that the Grateful Dead are in territory they had never been in before 1973. They were known for “long songs” because of the way they stretched out their jams live, but this wasn’t jamming. This was an orchestral rock song cycle than rivaled Tommy and side B of Abbey Road, both in ambition and in how fun it is to listen to. This side of the Dead is an often unsung part of their legacy, and it deserves to be much more widely celebrated.
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6. Anthem of the Sun (1968)
After their humble 1967 debut, the Grateful Dead stepped things up a huge notch for their 1968 sophomore album Anthem of the Sun. Unlike their debut, Anthem of the Sun saw the Dead channelling the psychedelic experience of their live show in the studio, and while this is not a live album, it does actually include some recordings from live shows. They spliced them together with studio recordings, and in fact Jerry himself has even referred to the album as a “collage.” It also sees them toying with the studio as an instrument, something they would perfect on the following year’s Aoxomoxoa. Anthem of the Sun is home to “That’s It For The Other One,” which is better known from its many live recordings (usually written on setlists/tracklists as “The Other One”), but I’d argue the Anthem of the Sun version is actually superior to the way the band usually played it live. Jerry’s tripped-out, vibrato-y “the summer sun looked down on him…” section adds a welcome dose of the psych-pop of the era (and it’s stuff like that which sounds like a clear influence on some of today’s bands like MGMT and Animal Collective), and keyboardist Tom Constanten’s tape experiments at the end of the song add to how mind-bending it all is. From there, Anthem of the Sun takes the Dead through all kinds of addictive, experimental sounds that are unique to this album. The Bob Weir-sung, eight and a half minute “New Potato Caboose” is in-studio psychedelic rock at its finest. At its core, “New Potato Caboose” is already lazy-Sunday psychedelia and it has Bob Weir giving one of his most stoned vocal performances, but then the band add in sound effects and an array of atypical-for-rock instruments that really take you there. They follow it with the much quicker “Born Cross-Eyed,” a two-minute dose of garage psych that might’ve ended up on Nuggets if the Dead had broken up after this album. (Also fun fact: “Born Cross-Eyed” was actually the b-side to the band’s 1968 single “Dark Star,” a song that is not much to write home about as a studio recording, but has made for some of the Grateful Dead’s most iconic moments in concert.) As studio work, the second half of Anthem is a little less astonishing than the first half, but it’s indicative of the great sounds you’d hear at their live shows. The extended jams of “Alligator” and “Caution (Do Not Stop on Tracks)” give you a great taste of the lengthy drum solos and feedback experiments that often got worked into live Dead performances. There are live versions that are just as or more effective, but hey, at least the album version of “Alligator” has kazoo.
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5. Blues for Allah (1975)
Usually a constantly-busy live band, the Grateful Dead played just four shows in 1975, and rather than laying road-tested songs to tape as they often did, the Dead went into the studio for Blues for Allah and wrote from scratch. The time off from touring and the new approach to writing and recording may have contributed to the amount of detail and care that went into Blues for Allah. It was the first time the Dead were firing on all cylinders in the studio since their nearly-flawless 1970 albums, and ultimately — though a good amount of in-studio magic was created in subsequent years — the last. The jazz influence that had crept into the Dead’s studio work on Wake of the Flood was very strong at this point, and resulted in full-blown jazz fusion like the instrumental “King Solomon’s Marbles.” The folk rock sound of the band’s early ’70s era was mostly untraceable, but the psychedelic sound of the late ’60s era was stronger on Blues for Allah than it had been on any Dead album since the turn of the decade. “The Music Never Stopped” is probably the closest the album comes to sounding “traditional” in any sense of the word; otherwise, Blues for Allah is totally in its own world. That’s immediately evident on opener “Help on the Way / Slipknot!,” which was like little else the band had done before or since. It sounds like a blender full of the band’s then-increasingly-prevalent jazz tendencies, the exploratory jams of their live show, and the trippy acid rock that they helped pioneer, yet it still manages to be a cohesive pop song. The instrumental passages may go off into outer space, but Jerry’s calmly addictive refrains always keep the song coming back to down to Earth. It’s got the kind of wet, spacious production that bands like Grizzly Bear favor today, with chilled-out keys and vocal harmonies that do a lot to fill the song’s atmosphere.
“Help on the Way / Slipknot!” is already two songs rolled into one, and then — as the band would do live many times — they transition seamlessly into track two, “Franklin’s Tower,” without a moment of pause. Following somewhat in the footsteps of “Eyes of the World” from Wake of the Flood, “Franklin’s Tower” is sort of a reggae/jazz rock blend, with a real groove and one of the most memorable, singalongable choruses of the band’s career. As soon as that groove locks in after the jammy ending of “Slipknot!”, it’s one of Studio Dead’s finest reenactments of when Live Dead morphs one song into another right before your eyes. Though less memorable, “Crazy Fingers” is another dose of reggae-psych along the lines of “Franklin’s Tower,” and an even clearer example of the way Blues for Allah blends genres. Sometimes it sounds like traditional reggae, other times it sounds almost like late ’60s Beatles, and it makes the lines between those two sounds look a lot blurrier than you’d ever expect. After the charming, Bob Weir-penned, acoustic-guitar-and-flute instrumental “Sage & Spirit,” Blues for Allah ends with another of the Dead’s showstopping prog suites, “Blues for Allah / Sand Castles & Glass Camels / Unusual Occurrences In the Desert.” The title-ish track is also the most overtly psychedelic song the Dead had released since Aoxomoxoa. It’s got it all: creepy, Eastern-inspired vocal harmonies (and lyrics), instrumental parts that literally sound like a bad acid trip, background noises that sound like a rainforest, and the trancelike repetition of “under eternity” that gives The Beach Boys’ home-recorded era a run for its money. Turn this one up, close your eyes, and you’ll see how no one could recreate the psychedelic experience like the Grateful Dead could.
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4. Workingman’s Dead (1970)
Workingman’s Dead and American Beauty came out the same year within months of each other, and they’re really two parts of an inseparable whole. It almost feels weird to rank them separately, as they achieved the same things (commercial success, better singing) and you can’t have one without the other. But, if we’re ranking them, American Beauty has the edge. Workingman’s Dead is of course no slouch, though, and some of its songs are as good or better than American Beauty‘s best songs.
Like many other bands did after the ’60s ended, the Grateful Dead ditched the overtly psychedelic studio production as they entered the ’70s (but their live shows were still as conducive to dropping acid as could be), and the first result of this was the folk rock of Workingman’s Dead. More than on any Dead album before it, good songwriting and good singing was the goal on Workingman’s Dead, and the Dead proved that they could achieve that goal for the length of an entire album. As seen in recent Dead film Long Strange Trip, Jerry really pushed the band to nail their vocal harmonies during this era, and his efforts paid off. The Grateful Dead are dizzying instrumentalists, but singing was never their strongest point, so when you first heard those lush harmonies in Workingman’s Dead opener “Uncle John’s Band,” you knew these guys were in previously unchartered territory. That song is such a big singalong at live shows that you hardly need to pay attention to how the band is playing it on stage, but hearing it in the stripped-down form it’s in on Workingman’s Dead, with so much attention to detail in the harmonies, is truly a treat.
Though American Beauty is overall stronger than Workingman’s Dead, my favorite song from the band’s 1970 folk rock era is on this album: “Dire Wolf.” Jerry Garcia and Robert Hunter’s lyrics sound like an old folktale, and Jerry applies one of the sweetest melodies of his career to these words. This era of the Dead is frequently compared to Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young, and I think even the guys in that band — or at least David Crosby — would’ve loved to have written this song. “New Speedway Boogie,” a subdued blues rocker that’s irresistible to sing along to, is both a live and a studio favorite. In the context of Workingman’s Dead, it really shines. Those three songs feel so massive, that you can almost forget about the gorgeously delicate folk of “High Time” sandwiched between them on the album’s A side. If there’s one thing putting Workingman’s Dead just a bit behind American Beauty, it’s that side B drags just a tiny bit… that is until album closer “Casey Jones.” With its “driving that train, high on cocaine” refrain, it’s one of the band’s biggest and most memorable songs amongst non-Deadheads, yet that doesn’t taint the song’s legacy one bit. It’s just a little funkier than the rest of the album, which puts a welcome hop in Workingman’s Dead‘s step, and Jerry’s voice is at its most pristine on this one. It’s an awesome way to wrap up the album, and it perfectly sets the tone for American Beauty.
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3. Garcia (Jerry Garcia album) (1972)
As mentioned above when I was talking about Bob Weir’s Ace, the Grateful Dead filled the gap between their 1970 and 1973 studio albums (and fulfilled their contract with Warner) by releasing three live albums and the solo debuts by co-frontmen Jerry Garcia and Bob Weir. Ace really was a Grateful Dead album in everything but name, but Garcia was more technically “solo.” As he did in the Dead, Jerry wrote his lyrics with collaborator Robert Hunter, and he brought in Dead drummer Bill Kreutzmann, but Jerry played everything else (vocals, guitars, bass, pedal steel, keys, etc) himself. Workingman’s Dead and American Beauty are generally considered the band’s best studio albums and their most “songwriter” albums, but Garcia and Ace were cut from a similar cloth and deserve to be mentioned in that same breath, especially Garcia. Jerry’s singing and songwriting on this album is at least as strong as it is on Workingman’s Dead and American Beauty; American Beauty may have showcased the different members’ various strengths as singers and songwriters, but if you want a whole album like “Ripple” and “Friend of the Devil,” there’s a good argument to be made that Garcia is that album. The production is also a little more interesting on this album. The stripped-down, earthy vibe of Workingman’s Dead and American Beauty is perfect, but the more electricified, more psychedelic Garcia shakes things up a bit compared to those albums (and compared to Ace). It’s almost like the middle ground between American Beauty/Workingman’s Dead and the more song-oriented moments of Aoxomoxoa, and that’s a very exciting thing.
The four songs on side A are all staples at Grateful Dead concerts, and they all sound especially vibrant on Garcia. Folk rockin’ opener “Deal” eases you into the album in a way that’s not miles away from American Beauty. The “don’t you let that deal go down” refrain is one of Jerry’s most immediate hooks, and his overdriven pedal steel makes it clear that we’re in slightly harder-edged territory than American Beauty. Once you’ve figured that out, Jerry hits you with “Bird Song,” a harder and more psychedelic rocker than anything the Dead had done since the ’60s. The main guitar riff is hypnotic, and the atmosphere that surrounds it on this recording makes it even more mesmerizing. Later in the song, when Jerry brings in droning organs and the kind of acid rock soloing he did at the Dead’s live shows, you’re more inspired to turn on, tune in, and drop out than you would be from anything on American Beauty. Then it’s “Sugaree,” which the Dead had already been performing before Garcia came out, and which went on to be one of their most beloved songs. There are some incredible live versions of “Sugaree,” like the nearly-20-minute one from Hartford – 5/28/77, but it’s also magical as a six-minute studio song. With jangly acoustic guitar in the background, and lightly effected electric guitar making things a little psychedelic in the foreground, the Garcia version sounds bright and spacious, and Jerry’s “shake it, shake it, Sugaree” hook is among his finest pop moments. Side A wraps up on a similarly folky note to the one it started on, but instead of upbeat and twangy, it’s the melancholic, gently head-nodding “Loser.” As he sings another of Robert Hunter’s classic-Americana-style tales, Jerry gives a performance that’s among his most heartfelt.
Then side B rolls around and the run of “Late For Supper,” “Spidergawd,” and “Eep Hour” offers up the kind of trippy studio experimentation that Anthem of the Sun and Aoxomoxoa are known for. Jerry pulls you out of the haze with the somber, piano-driven “To Lay Me Down,” another of his strongest ballads, and then after a short interlude, Garcia ends with an all-time Dead classic, “The Wheel.” With its lightly psychedelic intro, searing pedal steel, and Jerry singing his own harmonies on the song’s should’ve-been-a-hit chorus, “The Wheel” is a tremendous way to end an album.
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2. American Beauty (1970)
As written above, American Beauty came just months after Workingman’s Dead and was cut from a very similar cloth, but it’s a noticeable step up. The production is more lush, and there are more stunningly good pop moments. Workingman’s Dead has “Casey Jones” and “Uncle John’s Band,” but American Beauty has “Friend of the Devil” and “Truckin'” and “Sugar Magnolia” and of course “Ripple.” And even the songs that are less accessible/popular are just as iconic. It opens on one of its finest notes, “Box of Rain,” a rare moment where Phil Lesh sings lead, and as is abundantly clear here (and as the “Let Phil sing!” chanters already know), Phil has a gorgeous voice and it really is a shame he didn’t take lead more. He’s probably the band’s second most appealing singer after Jerry, and the timeless “Box of Rain” is some of the best evidence of this. “Box of Rain” gets immediately followed by one of the band’s most memorable songs and one that’s more suited for the studio than the stage, “Friend of the Devil.” The overlapping acoustic guitar riffs in the beginning, the gently rollicking rhythms — it could never quite be recreated live with electric guitars. Not to mention it’s one of the Dead’s most captivating stories lyrically, and Jerry gives a legendary vocal performance of it on American Beauty. Immediately after that is one that can be better live, the Bob Weir-sung “Sugar Magnolia.” The slightly more rockin’ version of this song that the band tended to do live is one of their biggest crowdpleasers, but hearing in it its American Beauty form is a treat too. The rich harmonies on this version really shine. If American Beauty has one weak link, it’s the next song, “Operator.” Pigpen, may he rest in peace, is a legend, and the Dead’s best years were with him, but, especially in the context of this album and in the context of rock music in general in 1970, his bluesy delivery makes the song sound dated in a way that nothing else on American Beauty does.
The album picks right back up after that, with Jerry’s gently folky “Candyman,” and then side B is nearly perfect. The second half of the album begins with “Ripple,” the Dead’s finest campfire singalong and a rare favorite among Deadheads and non-Deadheads alike. Even more so than “Friend of the Devil” or “Casey Jones,” “Ripple” feels like a folk music standard today, the way so many of (Grateful Dead collaborator) Bob Dylan’s songs do. The “La da da da” part is as second nature to multiple generations of rock music fans as the “Na na na na na” part of The Beatles’ “Hey Jude.” You don’t have to care about drum solos, acid tests, or tape trading to be won over by the charms of “Ripple” — it’s a universal classic. On American Beauty, it’s followed by a more low-key classic, “Brokedown Palace.” Not as iconic as “Ripple” among non-Deadheads but maybe even more iconic among Deadheads, “Brokedown Palace” is the comedown you need after the psychedelic experience of a Dead show, and as a result, the Dead was known to close with it. It emerges as some of the band’s best pop songwriting when an entire stadium sings along to it, but it’s presented subtly on American Beauty. The gentle album version sees the band practicing much restraint, which makes it even more impressive that an anthemic pop song managed to poke its head out anyway. It may be known to end live shows, but it doesn’t end American Beauty, and on the album, you’re quickly awakened by the upbeat “Till the Morning Comes,” an addictive dose of folk-pop that rivals “Box of Rain” and “Friend of the Devil” in effectiveness, even if not in popularity. Then it’s another comedown with the airy “Attics of My Life,” where the group’s harmonies are angelic, and finally “Truckin’,” a song so deceptively simple that it can almost seem underwhelming at first, until you realize it’s drilled its way into your brain. Not to mention it produced the since-immortalized line, “What a long strange trip it’s been.” It’s unbelievably prescient that the Dead managed to put that line in a song five years into their career.
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1. Aoxomoxoa (1969)
Like I wrote a few times above, American Beauty and Workingman’s Dead are generally the most widely accepted Grateful Dead albums among non-Deadheads, but the band’s real crowning achievement is Aoxomoxoa. Coming off the more freeform Anthem of the Sun, Aoxomoxoa was really the first time the Dead showed off the pop songwriting chops that would define their most popular work. Album highlights “St. Stephen” and “China Cat Sunflower” still rival any of the Dead’s most accessible moments today, and they remain huge favorites at various Dead offshoots’ live shows (the latter of which you’ll often hear paired with the Dead’s version of the blues traditional “I Know You Rider,” one of their finest regular covers). There’s always something about the first time a band makes a breakthrough in their sound though — it’s why Revolver still regularly tops Beatles albums lists today — and maybe that’s why these songs just feel ever so slightly more vital than the many great Grateful Dead pop songs to come. Or maybe it’s because they’ve got the psychedelic production that the band mastered for this album and never really returned to again. “Psychedelic” and “Grateful Dead” are inseparable terms, but the truth is the band’s studio work didn’t tend to have that acid-induced sound after the ’60s ended. Aoxomoxoa is the album where the Dead went as nuts with studio experimentation and trippy sound manipulation as their contemporaries who are more regularly praised for studio work. You can hear it in the aquatic guitar tones of the “St. Stephen” intro, or the proto-dream pop of that song’s “Ladyfinger” section, or Jerry’s vocal effects on “China Cat,” or that song’s woozy keyboards. But those moments are far from the trippy heights that Aoxomoxoa reaches. The two-minute “Rosemary” sees Jerry’s voice manipulated to the point where it sounds like he’s singing underwater, and he’s backed by nothing other than a gentle acoustic guitar. It’s the kind of psychedelic folk nugget that anyone from John Lennon to outsiders like Dave Bixby and Mark Fry probably would’ve loved to have written, and it still rivals most of the all-time great psych-folk today. On a similarly delicate but slightly more sober note, “Mountains of the Moon” is another of Jerry’s finest psych-folk moments. The acoustic guitar and keyboard arpeggios shimmer like diamonds, and Jerry gives one of the most captivating vocal performances of his career. The Dead’s 1970 albums may be best known as their folk albums, but the folk of “Mountains of the Moon” tops almost every song on the band’s two subsequent LPs. And then there’s “What’s Become of the Baby,” the moment where the band’s studio experimentation and levels of trippiness are off the charts. It’s just Jerry running his voice through all kinds of effects, and I get why some fans may tire of it (though I love it), but it’s one of the earliest examples of this type of avant-pop, and weirdos for decades to come would take inspiration from this kind of thing. Elsewhere on Aoxomoxoa, they’ve got stuff like the folk-rockin’ “Dupree’s Diamond Blues” and the psych-blues-rock of “Doin’ That Rag,” which are both lesser known “pop” gems than “St. Stephen” and “China Cat” but nearly as effective. Aoxomoxoa also has a leg up on the other Dead albums ’cause Jerry handled almost all of the lead vocals on this one. He’s not just the band’s most worshipped and most mythical member, he’s also by far their best singer, and his lead helps this album go down just a bit more smoothly than any other Dead album. There’s no one song or one album or even one live show that you can show someone to have them fully experience the Grateful Dead, but with their songwriting chops fully honed, their production at its most inventive, and Jerry’s gorgeous vocals leading the way, Aoxomoxoa comes pretty damn close.
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For a quicker primer, listen to this playlist of 25 essential Grateful Dead studio songs: