The Grateful Dead are regarded as one of the greatest live bands in the history of rock music. Their commitment to experimental improvisation every single night made them one of the top-grossing live acts in the country by the end of their 30 year reign. Making each concert different from the one that preceded it was a revolutionary concept that gave birth to a legion of followers who tracked the band all over the country, seeing every show on months-long tours.
The unfortunate downside of such a legendary live legacy is that the band’s studio albums often get left in the dark. This phenomenon, however, does a disservice to the symbiotic relationship between the time the Dead spent in the studio and under the lights onstage. The band set what has become a standard for many bands in the jam scene of road-testing songs on tour for months or even years before finally pressing them onto vinyl. The songs would have their kinks worked out live, in front of an audience, night after night, until they were in their final form and ready for the record.
Sometimes, the opposite was true. “Loose Lucy” (From The Mars Hotel) hit the stage in its original studio form only to drop off the face of the Earth for 16 years before returning in a slower, more chilled-out form for a band that was a little more weary from the road. Then, they have a song like “Unbroken Chain”, which appeared on wax in 1974 but wasn’t played live until 1995, when its appearance became a momentous occasion for fans in the audience.
The Grateful Dead were pioneers both on the stage and off. Plenty has been written about the live experience of a Grateful Dead show, and much more will be written in the future, but for now it’s time to examine the 13 Grateful Dead studio albums, ranked from worst to best. It’s important to note that with a seminal band boasting a 30-year tenure, the ideas of “worst” and “best” are even more subjective than usual. The band evolved a lot over the years, from a psych-surf/blues band to the stadium giants of the late 1980s and early 1990s. Some records showcase a great blues band, some highlight the best psychedelic group around. This list quantifies the “goodness” or “badness” of a given record in terms of its impact on the musical development of the band.
13. Go To Heaven (1980)
Coming in at Dead last is 1980’s Go To Heaven. With a cover that smells of more baby laxative than a maternity ward, this album epitomized a pronounced mainstream tilt from the countercultural icons that many could not bear. But plenty of great albums have terrible covers, including many by the Dead.
The true casualty of this album, besides the erosion of the band members’ septums, is the track listing. With such live staples as “Alabama Getaway”, “Althea”, “Lost Sailor”, “Saint of Circumstance”, “Feel Like A Stranger”, and “Don’t Ease Me In”, one would think that the work had already been done for this album. Unfortunately, the Dead came into the studio in what would turn out to be the beginning of a mid-career slump. As the odometer rolled over to 1980, the Grateful Dead were beginning to become slaves to their vices, and that came across on the record. The low-energy playing following the opening “Alabama Getaway” sounds more like a 5 a.m. set at The Winterland than a polished record.
Then, there’s poor Brent Mydland. Poor, poor Brent Mydland. This was the first album for Brent, who would turn out to be the Dead’s longest-serving keyboardist and, due to a lackluster effort from the entire group, it didn’t make much of a splash. Go To Heaven probably bears some semblance of responsibility for some of the old guard’s resistance to Mydland, but much of that aversion can be attributed to fans who had already seen enough personnel changes to rival Spinal Tap—though there were still more on the horizon…
12. Shakedown Street (1978)
While it does contain some heavy-hitting classics like the title track, “Fire On The Mountain”, “I Need A Miracle”, and the easily-overlooked “If I Had The World To Give”, most of the Dead’s 1978 album Shakedown Street is a snooze (there’s a reason the band never played “France” live). Then there’re other dusters like “Serengetti” and, lest we forget Donna Jean Godchaux‘s “From the Heart of Me”. I don’t think we’ll be seeing Joe Russo’s Almost Dead dusting that one off anytime soon.
There are, however, some road-tested live classics on here Shakedown Street, too, like “Good Lovin'” and “Stagger Lee”. Unfortunately, those are far overshadowed by the “All New Minglewood Blues” that puts an unnecessary faux-blues, honkey-tonk vibe on the 1960s-vintage tune and knocks it down to Dead & Company-level speeds.
11. Built To Last (1989)
Coming in at third-to-last is Built To Last from 1989, which would prove to be the band’s final studio record. It’s a shame that Built to Last has to go up against such stiff competition, because it really is a pretty good record. Unfortunately, it’s inherently compared to a bunch of really good records in the Dead’s catalog. In a bit of poetic foreshadowing, the album cover shows trying to keep a crumbling house of cards upright, just as the group itself was beginning to crumble as the 1990s rolled around. Or, if you’re of the more positive persuasion, they are building up a legacy that will last for generations after they’re gone.
Once again, the victim here is poor Brent Mydland. Of course, when he is finally given his time to shine and gets four songs—more than any other Dead keyboardist on any other album—it’s when the captain is asleep at the helm and the ship is heading for an iceberg.
10. In The Dark (1987)
The band’s commercial and mainstream pinnacle. A lot of people would put this much further toward the bottom, ignorantly shining upon Go To Heaven for the simple sake that it doesn’t include “Touch Of Grey”. Then, there are the intellectuals who know that In The Dark still contains classic Grateful Dead songwriting, despite the time at which it was released. First off, the elephant in the track list is obviously “Touch of Grey”. The song hit #9 on Billboard‘s Hot 100 Chart and #1 on the Mainstream Rock Tracks chart. And that second accolade says it all: mainstream.
To many, In The Dark and, consequently “Touch of Grey”, was the beginning of the end. It symbolized the time when the spaceship got too big to fly. The band was playing sold-out stadiums where tens of thousands of fans—or, what many considered to be non-fans—were snatching up the tickets that were supposedly destined for the hands of quote-unquote real fans. Then, to make matters worse, once you get home from getting shut out of a show because the local chapter of Beta Kappa Delta decided to truck up to Buffalo, you see the “Touch of Grey” music video playing on MTV. But that has nothing to do with “Black Muddy River”, with “West L.A. Fadeaway”, or with “Throwing Stones”.
9. From the Mars Hotel (1974)
Released just prior to the band’s touring hiatus from 1974–75, From The Mars Hotel shows a band that had finally gotten comfortable being themselves in the studio. Granted, on other albums like Workingman’s Dead, they had been able to perform without the live feedback of an audience, but this shows the Dead really being themselves on record. With plenty of songs that would prove to be live staples such as “U.S. Blues” and “Scarlet Begonias”, Mars Hotel is easily a top 10 contender. Throw in not one but two heavily sought-after Phil Lesh compositions, “Pride of Cucamonga” and “Unbroken Chain”, and it could be in the top five. There’s just one problem: “Money Money”.
What could quite possibly be the Grateful Dead’s worst song, “Money Money” takes the entire Mars Hotel down with it. The song, a cheap Chuck Berry ripoff, idolizes everything the Dead did not: money money! This Bob Weir/John Perry Barlow tune is a rare find indeed on any live recording and did not return with the group when they came back from hiatus in June 1976.
8. Aoxomoxoa (1969)
The last album before the Dead embarked on their two-album Country/Western movement, Aoxomoxoa effectively marked the end of the truly psychedelic era of the Grateful Dead studio albums. Sure, the acid-soaked essence of the band’s early days would never wash away, but it also would never again truly be the focal point of their studio output. They go out with a bang on this one, though, with the everlasting classics “St. Stephen” and “China Cat Sunflower”.
Aoxomaoxoa also features oft-overlooked compositions “Dupree’s Diamond Blues” and “Cosmic Charlie” that tapered off in live popularity following the turn of the decade. Then there are other songs, like the brief ditty “Rosemary” and the Gregorian chant-meets mescaline trip “What’s Become Of The Baby”, that are probably better left to the 1960s.
7. Wake of the Flood (1973)
If there was a middle-of-the-road Grateful Dead album, it would be Wake of the Flood. There’s none of the roaring psych sounds of the first few albums, and they’re still a few years down the road from anything too advanced in the studio. Coming on the heels of three live albums (Grateful Dead aka Skull & Roses, Europe ’72, and History of the Grateful Dead, Vol. 1 (Bear’s Choice)), the Dead were ready to get back to a more conventional sound. The previous studio release, American Beauty, found the band digging into the roots influences of Americana music. Those roots are still heavily present on Wake of the Flood, as they would remain for the rest of band’s career, though it also finds them taking back their own sound and hitting a kind of reset button after the two-record experiment.
With lasting classics such as “Eyes of the World”, “Mississippi Half-Step Uptown Toodeloo”, “Stella Blue”, “Row Jimmy”, and the “Weather Report Suite”, Wake of the Flood would provide career-long setlist staples to the repertoire. It may not be particularly full of the brilliant instrumentation that those songs would inspire in a live setting, but it shows the Grateful Dead pulling out the roadmap and plotting the path forward.
6. The Grateful Dead (1967)
The one that started it all. There is, and rightfully should be, a heavy emphasis placed on a band’s debut record. The Grateful Dead features a large amount of covers that would become paramount to the group’s live concerts for years to come, including “Beat It On Down The Line”, “Cold Rain And Snow”, “Viola Lee Blues”, and, of course “Morning Dew”. But it also features a pair of original compositions by the band, including the album-opening “The Golden Road (To Unlimited Devotion)”, as well as a pre-Robert Hunter composition by Garcia, “Cream Puff War”.
This album is raw in a lot of ways, unpolished and rushed by a band eager to get a record out there. Members of the group have remarked that the album was made in an amphetamine frenzy, and that shines through on vinyl. Yet it also shows what the band was like with Ron “Pigpen” McKernan at the wheel, even though he only takes lead vocals on “Good Morning, Little Schoolgirl”. This was a blues band that was soaking up some psychedelic surfer influence, and everything from beyond this point shows the degree of growth the band underwent. This is merely the starting point to an incredible journey.
5. Workingman’s Dead (1970)
The band’s fourth studio album kicked off what would prove to be a two-record deep dive into the themes of Americana music. This is where the Dead developed a new facet to their music, beyond the blues band that they started out as and beyond the psychedelic, new wave acid jazz cats they had become. This album is full of instant classics from front to back, starting off with “Uncle John’s Band”, “High Time”, “Dire Wolf”, and “New Speedway Boogie”. The B-side even has some underrated winners like “Black Peter” and “Cumberland Blues”.
The sound of this album is what’s strange. Pretty much all of these songs would find their way into the Dead’s repertoire for many years to come, but many would not sound anywhere close to the way they were recorded for the record. Granted, that was the Dead’s whole thing—making live music that goes beyond the studio recordings—but Workingman’s took it to a whole new degree by employing different instruments that the band wouldn’t even use on stage; case in point, the pedal steel on “Dire Wolf”. This simultaneously showed the stylistic range of which the band was capable and presented fans with a reality that they would never see live, save for some acoustic sets in 1969–1970 and again in 1980.
4. Anthem of the Sun (1968)
While Anthem of the Sun might not be loaded with as many classics as Wake of the Flood, From the Mars Hotel, or American Beauty, it best encapsulates what the Dead were truly about. First off, there’s (technically) only five songs on the entire record, with “That’s It For the Other One” containing three separate parts. There’s also the revolutionary method of mixing live recordings with studio recordings. To those who say that this hardly qualifies as a studio album given how much live recordings are mixed into the album, I say, “Get out of here with your facts.”
3. American Beauty (1970)
The stereotypical Dead album that gave countless Heads their introductions. Part two of the band’s Americana/folk series following Workingman’s, this album is digestible for even the most timid listener. The songs are short, simple, and catchy. While it may not contain the quintessential idea of what attracts many to a lifelong affiliation with the Grateful Dead—instrumental passages in music that can open up to improvisation—the roots are there, both literally and figuratively.
As the Grateful Dead were maturing out of the 1960s psychedelic scene, the group expanded by contracting. They moved beyond the 30-minute mammoth jams and examined songwriting structure as well as the folk music notions of what it means to be an “American band.” This record sees the band looking inward at themselves and deciding who they want to be. Some audiences, who were used to the Acid Test days, fell off during this period. Their loss.
2. Terrapin Station (1977)
As far as the actual Grateful Dead studio output goes, this one gets pretty damn close to perfect. Even setting aside the opus that is the “Terrapin” suite, Terrapin Station features classics like the album opener “Estimated Prophet”, which gets the absolute best of the studio treatment that any Dead song could hope to achieve. It’s not hurried like the early records and it’s not ground to a halt like the album that would follow it, Go To Heaven. The band never once breaks stride.
While many fans at the time dismissed the orchestral arrangement of the “Terrapin” suite as being outside the Dead’s normal purview, it is also a prime example of the band taking full advantage of what the studio setting has to offer. This wasn’t Bob Weir trying to capture the sound of thick air on Aoxomoxoa and wasting thousands of Warner Brothers‘ (and the Dead’s) dollars in the process. The string sections of Terrapin Station, though dutifully orchestrated and tirelessly rehearsed, embodied the adventurousness of “improvisation” in its truest form.
1. Blues For Allah (1975)
There can only be one, and that one is the 1975 Grateful Dead album, Blues For Allah. Released during the group’s touring hiatus, this seven-track album finds a focused band delivering on every facet of what makes them so appealing. The album kicks off with some of their best scripted instrumental work in the “Help On The Way” into “Slipknot” pairing, followed by lyricism that is both catchy and profound in “Franklin’s Tower”. Then, things get just the right amount of weird with another instrumental voyage on “King Solomon’s Marbles”. This passage lasts just long enough and flips over to another catchy romp, “The Music Never Stopped”, before things get too weird.
Throw in some “Crazy Fingers”, and it’s just about time to get out there into the zone again with another instrumental in “Sage & Spirit”. Finally, the whole album comes together with the “Blues For Allah” movement. Within Blues For Allah‘s 44:13 runtime, listeners are transported from the world of the tangible in “Help On The Way” clear through to the deeper recesses of what it truly means to experiment as musicians in the “Blues For Allah” movement, similar to the conventional first set approach and improv-heavy second set structure of the Dead’s live show. Plus, it spawned one of the best official live releases in One From The Vault.
For those that will undoubtedly argue this number one choice, as Tony Soprano once said, “you got no f*cking idea what it’s like to be number one.”