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Best Grateful Dead Albums: 10 Essentials, Ranked And Reviewed
Pictorial Press Ltd / Alamy Stock Photo
List & Guides

Best Grateful Dead Albums: 10 Essentials, Ranked And Reviewed

Full of sublime solos, epic jams and gorgeous ballads, the best Grateful Dead albums redrew the boundaries of American music.

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As the leader of Grateful Dead, Jerry Garcia became one of the most significant figures in modern music – a conduit through which bluegrass, folk, country, R&B, blues and jazz flowed to create a new kind of American music. In concert, the Dead could sound like a no-nonsense barroom boogie band one minute and mind-expanding sonic explorers the next, and Garcia was at the heart of their questing spirit. In celebration of their legacy as America’s definitive rock band, here’s our pick of the best Grateful Dead albums.

Listen to the best of Grateful Dead here, and check out the best Grateful Dead albums, below

10: ‘Aoxomoxoa’ (1969)

The recording of Grateful Dead’s third album nearly sunk them. Aoxomoxoa took eight months of studio time and cost a then bank-breaking $200,000 to complete, not least because the band chose to re-record the entire thing once they took delivery of a new Ampex 16-track recorder. The album is often the sound of the Dead grappling with that technology, usually while under the influence of mind-altering substances. As a result, the mix was so jumbled that, two years after its release, Jerry Garcia and Phil Lesh were moved to remix the album. Still, moments of greatness shine through – particularly on future staples of the Dead’s live set, St Stephen and China Cat Sunflower – and the feeling of psychedelic chaos that overwhelms the record speaks evocatively of the time. Oh, and it’s pronounced “Ox-oh-mox-oh-ah”.

Must hear: St Stephen

9: ‘Terrapin Station’ (1977)

The Dead’s return to the studio after a two-year hiatus also marked their first album for their new label, Arista. The band paid lip service to the idea of commercial success by working with producer Keith Olsen, then hot from the success of Fleetwood Mac’s self-titled 1975 album, that group’s first with the Buckingham-Nicks line-up. Any ideas that the Dead were about to dial down the weirdness for chart glory were swiftly rebutted by the fact that said album was not only called Terrapin Station and featured a painting of the shelled reptiles in question cavorting on a railway platform, but that it also boasted a 16-minute track, Terrapin Part 1, that took up the entire second side of the record. Olsen’s influence is noticeable on the more FM-friendly first half, but its that lengthy suite which provides the highlight. An enigmatic and audacious trip through prog, jazz and classical music, it sounded unlike anything else they ever did, and alone earns Terrapin Station its place among the best Grateful Dead albums.

Must hear: Terrapin Part 1

8: ‘Blues For Allah’ (1975)

Blues For Allah saw the Dead shake up the formula: rather than road-testing songs and honing them through improvisation, they decided to cook up new material in the studio. With no producer to keep watch on the band’s excesses, they could truly indulge themselves – Garcia later claimed that one session went on for an unbroken 50 hours. And yet, Blues For Allah stands as one of the best Grateful Dead albums of the 70s. The songwriting process resulted in a focus on dextrous time signatures and more complex melodies than usual, as the band dipped their toes into the jazz-fusion sound that was gaining traction at the time. Franklin’s Tower is the highlight, a lightly funky song delivered beautifully by Garcia that would quickly become one of the best Grateful Dead songs.

Must hear: Franklin’s Tower

7: ‘Grateful Dead’ (1971)

Known as “Skull And Roses”, thanks to its artwork (courtesy of psychedelic poster-art great Alton Kelly), the Dead’s 1971 live double album acted as a neat summary of their musical interests. Across its four sides were chunky boogie-rock (Bertha, Playing In The Band); covers of the Americana that influenced them (Kris Kristofferson’s Me And Bobby McGee, Merle Haggard’s Me And My Uncle); a tender and spaced-out epic (Garcia’s magnificent Wharf Rat); and wild, anti-establishment mischief (an enjoyably out-there version of The Other One that takes up the entirety of Side Two).

Must hear: Wharf Rat

6: ‘Wake Of The Flood’ (1973)

After the commercial breakthrough of the early 70s came upheaval, as percussionist Mickey Hart left the group after his father, a onetime Dead manager, defrauded the band of $150,000. More trauma came when keyboardist Ron “Pigpen” McKernan died – entering the notorious “27 Club” – before sessions for what would become Wake Of The Flood began. In the aftermath, the Dead regrouped and expanded, adding pianist Keith Godchaux and his wife, Donna, on vocals. Improbably, the band’s first studio set in three years was a subtle triumph among the best Grateful Dead albums. Mississippi Half-Step Uptown Toodeloo was an enjoyable Dixieland groove, Eyes Of The World introduced blue-eyed soul into the mix and Stella Blue was a thing of sun-dappled beauty.

Must hear: Stella Blue

5: ‘Anthem Of The Sun’ (1968)

In another example of the young band’s aversion to the confines of the studio, Anthem Of The Sun producer Dave Hassinger was so frustrated by the way the recording sessions were progressing that he quit halfway through. The Dead had a novel solution for this problem – they enlisted engineer Dan Healey and avant-garde sound artist Tom Constanten to help turn their unfinished recordings into adventurous sound collages. The result was a record like no other among the best Grateful Dead albums, and one whose listening experience Garcia likened to going on a psychedelic trip. Opener That’s It For The Other One provides the highlight, a multi-part suite stitched together with an ahead-of-its-time melee of electronic bleeps and gurgles.

Must hear: That’s It For The Other One

4: ‘Europe ’72’ (1972)

The summer of 1972 saw the Dead hit Europe for 23 shows in five countries over two months, all recorded on their 16-track mobile studio. The resultant double album plucked songs from eight shows, after which the band smoothed out some of the rougher vocals in the studio and added Hammond organ from Garcia sidekick Merl Saunders. Europe ’72,’s 17 tracks find the band in a genuine purple patch: among them are gems that were never recorded in the studio (Jack Straw, He’s Gone, Ramble On Rose), plus Pigpen’s swansong (the swaggering swamp blues of Mr Charlie), staggering jams (Truckin’, Morning Dew) and a couple of old favourites (Cumberland Blues, Sugar Magnolia). Such was the quality of the band’s performances on the tour that, in 2011, the 73CD box set Europe ’72: The Complete Recordings was released, offering fans the fullest experience of the Dead at their most inspired.

Must hear: Jack Straw

3: ‘Workingman’s Dead’ (1970)

The album that changed everything for the Dead. Following the wild confusion of Aoxomoxoa and the psychedelic majesty of Live/Dead, Garcia and guitarist Bob Weir embraced their country and folk roots and crafted a collection of eight songs remarkable for their straightforward simplicity. Lyricist Robert Hunter was on the same page, writing about characters from a dusty, near-mythic America – railway workers, truck drivers, card sharks, miners. One of the best Grateful Dead albums of the era, Workingman’s Dead chimed with the times, its release coinciding with the releases of The Band’s first two albums, Bob Dylan’s John Wesley Harding and Nashville Skyline, Crosby, Stills & Nash’ self-titled debut and The Byrds’ Sweetheart Of The Rodeo. Uncle John’s Band introduced close harmony singing and featured a melody seemingly written to coax the sun from behind the clouds, while Cumberland Blues is a country-rock marvel. It’s not all down-home acoustic Americana though: New Speedway Boogie shows the band’s increasing way with sleazy rock’n’roll.

Must hear: Uncle John’s Band

2: ‘Live/Dead’ (1969)

The excesses of Aoxomoxoa had a fortuitous side effect on the Dead. To recoup some of the recording expenses, the band decided their next album would be a live set. Happily, not only did this coincide with their reaching new heights of exploratory playing and near-telepathic understanding on stage, but they also now had the technology to record their shows properly. Live/Dead was the result, recorded at gigs at San Francisco venues the Avalon Ballroom and Fillmore West. The devastating opener Dark Star was the purest indication yet that the Dead were doing something entirely new with American music. Over its 23 minutes the group ebb and flow as one, with Garcia’s luminous guitar complemented perfectly by Weir’s and Lesh’s jazz-inspired playing. Every one of the dozens of recorded versions of Dark Star is unique, but the take on Live/Dead has a magic that is still revealing itself to this day.

Must hear: Dark Star

1: ‘American Beauty’ (1970)

Inspired by the success of Workingman’s Dead, the band took that blueprint and bettered it with American Beauty, which, released the same year as its predecessor, tops this list of the best Grateful Dead albums. By now, Garcia and Hunter had become housemates as well as collaborators, and were on a rare roll of writing form: the harmonies were tighter, the lyrics more profound and the melodies sweeter. The band’s move from San Francisco’s Haight-Ashbury district to the rural idyll of Marin County was reflected in the sunlit bliss that infused the album’s every moment. There’s not a weak spot among its ten tracks, but Box Of Rain, Sugar Magnolia, Ripple and Brokedown Palace deserve special mention – they are songs of near-disarming beauty, with a wisdom that only deepens over time.

Must hear: Ripple

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