Our Top 10 Grateful Dead albums list looks at a legendary band that has sold over 35 million records worldwide. There’s a reason for that, a reason that every Deadhead knows and every non-Deadhead secretly suspects. Simply put, they were brilliant. They did things no other band had the guts to do, touched on styles other groups didn’t even know existed, and made albums that touched hearts, changed lives, and inspired countless would-be musos to pick up their guitars and start jamming. Here, we pay tribute to the Godfathers of jam as we rank the top 10 Grateful Dead albums of all time.
#10 – Wake of the Flood
Regardless of the recreational proclivities of certain members of the Grateful Dead in the 1970s, it didn’t impact their productivity. Between 1969 and 1972, they produced a stonking five albums. The problem (if you can call it that), is that three of those five albums were live recordings, which didn’t exactly help the Grateful Dead’s reputation as a great live act but a mediocre studio band. To redress the balance, they hit the studio in 1973 to record Wake of the Flood, their first studio effort since American Beauty. The overall result isn’t quite as mind-blowing as its predecessor, but the sumptuously elegant “Weather Report Suite,” jam-tastic “Eyes of the World,” and laid back “Stella Blue” elevate it to greatness.
#9 – Blues for Allah
In 1975, the Grateful Dead decided to take a rare break from the road and hit the studio. The result was Blues For Allah, a frankly weird album that pushed the band into new territory. What that territory was, no one could say for sure. It wasn’t psychedelic, but it wasn’t traditional either. There were jazz elements, but it wasn’t a full-blown jazz LP. Ultimately, it doesn’t matter about the label. It was a breath of fresh, unpredictable air that breathed new life into the band’s repertoire. Standout tracks include the insanely catchy “Franklin’s Tower,” the funky “The Music Never Stopped” (which features some fine vocals from the band’s newest member, Donna Jean Godchaux), and the laid back, bucolic pleasures of the instrumental “Sage & Spirt.”
#8 – Anthem of the Sun
Truth be told, the Grateful Dead’s self-titled debut LP wasn’t the greatest album in the world. The guys were still learning how to be a band and hadn’t yet figured out how to capture the energy and exuberance of their live performance on tape. A year down the line, it was a different story. Anthem of the Sun isn’t perfect by a long shot, but that’s part of its joy. It’s a wild, reckless ride that captures the trippiness and creativity of the band’s live shows in a way that very few of their later studio albums ever managed. Disorientating at times, dazzling at others, it’s a confusing, confounding piece of experimentation that never fails to raise a smile.
#7 – Grateful Dead (Skull & Roses)
The Grateful Dead’s second live album Grateful Dead (Skull & Roses) didn’t quite live up to their first live LP (what could?), but it certainly had its attractions. The rollicking “Bertha” and soulful “Wharf Rat” wouldn’t have worked in the studio, but live, they bought the house down. Covers like “Not Fade Away” and ”Goin’ Down the Road Feelin’ Bad” cemented the band’s reputation as jam masters. Until Skeletons from the Closet came along and stole its thunder, it was the band’s best selling album – listening to it all these years later, it’s easy to see why.
#6 – Aoxomoxoa
1969’s Aoxomoxoa is widely considered to be the Grateful Dead’s experimental apex. If you’re new to the band, it can take a bit of getting used to. For a start, there’s that meaningless palindrome of a title. Then there’s the artwork, which takes a certain kind of mind to appreciate (even if Rolling Stone did select it as the eighth-best album cover of all time in 1991). And finally, there’s “Rosemary,” a song that even the most ardent of Deadheads find hard to like. But for all of that, it’s an exceptional album. Released at the peak of the band’s psychedelic era, it combines improvisation with free jazz and rough-edged blues-rock to glorious effect. It’s bonkers, but brilliant, with songs like “St. Stephen” and “China Cat Sunflower” standing side by side with some of the band’s best-ever compositions.
#5 – Terrapin Station
Any question of whether the Grateful Dead could do prog rock was successfully answered with 1977’s Terrapin Station. A sprawling, ambitious LP built around the 16 minute long, sidelong title suite, it sounded like nothing else the band had ever done. At the time of its release, that came with a problem – after all, fans like consistency. If they were going to shell out for an album by the Grateful Dead, they wanted it to sound like the Grateful Dead. This didn’t. But hindsight is a wonderful thing. Over 40 years after it first hit the shelves, we now get to listen to the likes of “Lady With A Fan” and “Lady of Carlisle” and appreciate them for the very splendid things they actually are. The band didn’t continue with their prog experimentation after this, but you can’t help but wonder what would have happened if they had.
#4 – Europe ’72
By 1972, the Grateful Dead had buffed, polished, and shined their stage act to perfection. Having conquered America, they decided to hit Europe. The result was their second live album in two years, a masterful creation that captures the band as they slowly shifted from the hard-edged psych blues of their earlier days to the gentler, jazz-inflected music that would come to define them. Unlike Grateful Dead (Skull and Roses), Europe ’72 finds the band favoring new tracks over covers, with “Jack Straw” and “He’s Gone” standing out as highlights. Appropriately enough, it became the very first triple album to ever go gold.
#3 – American Beauty
The band’s second album of 1970 was American Beauty, a country-tinged, wonderfully accessible album that even non-Deadheads will find irresistible. Seasoned with enough “heavy” numbers to give the album emotional gravitas (“Ripple” and “Box of Rain” being two of the finest), and liberally peppered with freewheeling boogies like “Sugar Magnolia” and “Truckin’,” it’s one of the fullest, most satisfying sets the band ever recorded. This is the album that turned the Grateful Dead from a cult favorite into a stadium-filling juggernaut. If you’ve never really understood what makes Deadheads so evangelical about the band, listen to this and prepare to be converted.
#2 – Workingman’s Dead
If anyone tells you the Grateful Dead were nothing more than a jam band, tell them to listen to Workingman’s Dead. The band’s first album from 1970 is quite possibly the greatest piece of Americana ever committed to tape. With pitch-perfect harmonies reminiscent of Crosby, Stills, and Nash, a country twang, and a counterculture vibe, it wraps up everything there is to love about the Grateful Dead in just 35 minutes. Robert Hunter had never written better, Jerry Garcia had never sounded sweeter, and the band had never sounded more in tune with one another. From the cautionary tale of “Casey Jones” to the Altamont -referencing “New Speedway Boogie,” the whole thing is a triumph.
#1 – Live/Dead
Live/Dead isn’t just the best Grateful Dead album ever, it’s a strong candidate for the title of the best live rock album, period. Released in 1969 as the band’s first live album, it perfectly captures the essence of the band’s live act. Improvisation heavy and deeply trippy, it features the kind of setlist designed to make any Deadhead go weak at the knees. There’s the rollicking “The Eleven,” the bluesy “Dark Don’t Have No Mercy,” the R&B inflected “Pigpen,” and, of course, the mind-melting “Dark Star,” a 23-minute acid-fuelled experience that could well be the most hallucinatory thing ever captured on record. No other live album, either from the Grateful Dead or anyone else, has ever captured the energy and excitement of a live show quite so well. If you haven’t already heard it, now’s the time to let the love in.
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Top 10 Grateful Dead Albums article published on Classic RockHistory.com© 2021
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