The Grateful Dead was not a studio band. Water is wet. The sky is blue.
Throughout their three-decade career, the Dead built their reputation on lengthy instrumental jams, engrossing concert experiences, and the establishment of an alternative hippie lifestyle where one could live outside the standard rules of society. If you wanted to hop on the bus, turn on, tune in, and drop out, then travelling with the Dead offered you that opportunity. They knew they were never going to be mainstream, and they found out early on that their recorded output was always going to lack a distinct part of the band’s magic.
But that doesn’t mean that they ever stopped trying. From 1967 to 1989, the Dead released thirteen studio albums that attempted to translate their improvisational nature into a more commercial format. Even as their ’60s heydey faded into a more robust existence centred around tours and live albums, the itch to get that one hit album or hit single never fully went away. The Dead have quite a few gold and platinum albums to their name, and 20 years into their career, they had both their biggest hit and biggest-selling album. Contrary to what most Deadheads and even most of the band members might say, the Dead were actually successful as studio musicians.
To look at the band’s studio output is to view a side of the band is fascinating. How do sprawling and lengthy jams get condensed down to three minutes? How does the band’s trippy and psychedelic stage show translate to singles? How does the nebulous and often-changing song structure of most of their beloved songs get tamed enough to be put to record? The Dead certainly tried, and what they left is a thorny, imperfect array of glossy and cleaned up music from a band not ideally suited to be glossy and cleaned up.
Grateful Dead albums ranked from worst to best:
13. Built to Last (1989)
After the surprise success of In the Dark, the Dead were able to taste mainstream success for the first time. The world’s biggest cult band suddenly had a significant public audience who had heard ‘Touch of Grey’ and were no longer scared of the dirty hippie image or rowdy drug-fueled ethos of the band’s past. The band decided to respond with glossy ’80s production and tepid, mostly flaccid performances on their next album, Built to Last.
There are loads of problems with Built to Last: cheesy keyboards, heavily reverberated vocals, and songs that even the Dead faithful tend not to hold dear. The studio gloss was never heavier than on this album, and never before had the Dead sounded more uncomfortable in the studio setting. There are hidden gems, however, like ‘Standing on the Moon’, ‘Foolish Heart’, ‘Blow Away’, which represented the last stand of keyboardist Brent Mydland a year before his passing of a drug overdose. But overall, Built to Last is a turgid and sour final LP from the Dead.
12. Go to Heaven (1980)
If you need a prime example of just how dichotomous the Dead’s live performances were from their studio performances, Go to Heaven is the album to look at. Despite featuring some absolutely classic tunes like ‘Althea’, ‘Feel Like a Stranger’, ‘Alabama Getaway’, ‘Lost Sailor’, and ‘Saint of Circumstance’, the band are put in a vacuum that sucks up all the energy and emotion that the band were able to translate perfectly on stage.
The presence of Jerry Garcia is greatly diminished, with Bob Weir and Brent Mydland stepping in to pick up the slack where they can. The songs themselves have proven to be staples of their history, but here they’re stripped of any power or impact by the album’s dated production style. 1980 was a rejuvenating time for the Dead, but you wouldn’t be able to tell from Go to Heaven.
11. Shakedown Street (1978)
Trend chasing was the biggest impediment for the Dead in the studio. At a time when soft rock and disco were huge movements in pop music, the band decided that they could bring an edge and musical refinement to these genres by taking them on head first. That, to put it mildly, was a bad decision.
Shakedown Street is the lightest and least threatening album that the Dead ever made. Produced by Little Feat leader Lowell George while he was in the throes of the health problems that would kill him only a year later, it’s almost possible to hear the cocaine flowing if your headphones are clear enough. Filled with a fair few classics but also unnecessary retreads of the band’s past like ‘Good Lovin’ and ‘All New Minglewood Blues’, Shakedown Street is best appreciated as a curiosity in the band’s catalogue, representative of a time where they were reaching for the wrong audience.
10. Aoxomoxoa (1969)
On the other end of the spectrum, what happens when the Dead indulge too much in their own experimental tendencies? You get Aoxomoxoa, the wildest and least focused album that the band ever made.
A quick look at the tracklisting reveals two of the band’s greatest songs, ‘St. Stephen’ and ‘China Cat Sunflower’. The only problem is that these versions are so different from their final incarnations that they don’t translate nearly as well. During this time, the band were still mainlining LSD and nitrous oxide while making records, and the overzealous nature of every aspect of the album, from composition to arranging to production, makes it the band’s headiest album in their catalogue, for better or worse.
9. The Grateful Dead (1967)
The band’s first album is the Dead at their most unrefined and garage rocky. That’s fantastic on tracks like ‘Cream Puff War’ and ‘The Golden Road’, but it doesn’t really sound like The Grateful Dead that we all know and love. It sounds like The Kingsmen or Question Mark and the Mysterians doing a Grateful Dead cover album.
‘Cold Rain and Snow’ is far too fast and souped-up compared to the slower and more muscular live version, ‘Morning Dew’ isn’t nearly languid or emotional enough compared to, say, the Europe ’72 version, and ‘New Minglewood Blues’ loses all of its hard-edged drive. Still, it’s fun to listen to the band so beholden to the sounds of 1967. It might not be a great album, but it’s the band’s best time capsule.
8. Terrapin Station (1977)
The Dead’s ’70s albums represent a band willing to play ball with the popular sounds and trends of the time. Their own gambit to be their own record company had gone down in flames, and the band’s new label Arista insisted they adapt themselves to more mainstream production. That’s how Fleetwood Mac producer Keith Olsen wound up producing Terrapin Station.
Olsen brought in symphonic arrangements, sprawling soundscapes, and an insistence on refined vocal performances to the band’s studio atmosphere. These additional touches rankled the band, but they’ve aged better than many would think. The studio version of ‘Terrapin Station’ sounds ginormous, while Weir’s ‘Samson & Delilah’ and Donna Jean Godchaux’s ‘Sunrise’ actually benefit from the studio gloss that Olsen insisted on. It’s probably a contentious pick, but Terrapin Station is perhaps the one time where outside interference actually benefited their music.
7. From the Mars Hotel (1974)
Once again stifled by the studio atmosphere, From the Mars Hotel represents the band gritting their teeth and just getting through another album. The Dead were deeply in debt due to their funding of Grateful Dead Records, the exhaustion of which resulted in the band taking an indefinite tour hiatus just a few months after the album’s release.
All of these negative emotions don’t really permeate From the Mars Hotel, though ‘U.S. Blues’ and ‘Scarlet Begonias’ are joyous romps, while ‘China Doll’ and ‘Loose Lucy’ are ideal platforms for Garcia’s vocal and guitar interplay. From the Mars Hotel is the most workmanlike Dead album (ironically, I suppose), but it doesn’t show any of the wear and tear that was afflicting the band in 1974.
6. Blues for Allah (1975)
Rather than once again trudge into a studio, the Dead decided to create a less formal atmosphere for the recording of Blues for Allah. Weir’s home studio was now the recording spot, and the genial atmosphere allowed the band to try long-form compositions in ways that hadn’t been attempted before.
The crown jewel of this concept was ‘Help on the Way’, ‘Slipknot!’, and ‘Franklin’s Tower’. A winding and incredibly rhythmically and harmonically complex medley, the three songs were Garcia’s height as a master of the fretboard. The Latin and folk-tinged are mostly lesser-known hidden gems, making Blues for Allah primed for rediscovery and highly underrated.
5. Wake of the Flood (1975)
The Dead were getting highly ambitious by 1975. Despite the loss of keyboardist and vocalist Ron ‘Pigpen’ McKernan, the Dead had found their voice and signature sonic sound and were looking to capitalise through their own record label. The venture would eventually break the band, but their confidence in themselves can be heard all over Wake of the Flood.
Consisting mainly of Garcia-sung classics like ‘Eyes of the World’ and ‘Stella Blue’, Wake of the Flood also contains Weir’s most ambitious project to that point, the ‘Weather Report Suite’. Rounded out by tracks like ‘Row Jimmy’ and ‘Here Comes Sunshine’, Wake of the Flood is the exact moment right before the band bit off more than they could chew, instead of revelling in their own heightened powers.
4. In the Dark (1987)
No one expected the Dead to have a hit. No one expected the Dead to have a hit album, or single, or MTV video, or any mainstream success at all. By 1987, the band were mainly seen as a rolling tribute to the ’60s in a watered-down Reagan-era culture. Garcia had come out of a diabetic coma feeling fragile and uncertain of himself, and all of the band members were pushing middle age.
None of that mattered, because the power of ‘Touch of Grey’ couldn’t be denied. Neither could the power of In the Dark, which collected some of the catchiest, most ambitious, and most gorgeous Dead songs that had trickled out since Go to Heaven. ‘Throwing Stones’, ‘Hell in a Bucket’ and ‘West L.A. Fadeaway’ are all touchstones of the later Dead experience, while ‘Black Muddy River’ is a beautifully thoughtful closer to the Grateful Dead’s ’80s commercial peak.
3. Anthem of the Sun (1968)
For all their grousing about working in the studio and its lack of ability to translate the whole Dead experience, the band actually got it right on only their second time around. The secret to Anthem of the Sun‘s success is in its concept: combining live and studio recordings to produce a nebulous, singularly Dead-like sound.
The moment of true cohesion between the band’s experimental and progressive tendencies, Anthem of the Sun was unwieldy and too zonked out for its time, but today sounds like the ideal Dead record. ‘The Other One’, and especially Pigpen’s two contributions ‘Alligator’ and ‘Caution (Do Not Step On Tracks)’ benefit enormously from infusing the openness of the band’s live sound with the more traditional arrangements of a studio setting. Anthem doesn’t always get remembered among the band’s discography, but it’s easily one of the Dead’s best albums for its “best of both worlds” approach.
2. Workingman’s Dead (1970)
After wild experimentation of the band’s first three albums and the debt they accumulated to Warner Bros. Records due to their large studio bills, the Dead decided to change their attitudes for their fourth album. Songs would be written ahead of time, arrangements would be kept simple and largely acoustic, and the band would incorporate harmonies to better sell their work to the mainstream.
The gambit worked, and Workingman’s Dead represented a band that was, for once, fully in step with the sound and style of the day. ‘Uncle John’s Band’ and ‘Casey Jones’ could actually be played on the radio, while ‘Dire Wolf’, ‘New Speedway Boogie’, and ‘Cumberland Blues’ worked equally well live as they did on record. Workingman’s Dead was the band simplifying their process, and the result was a classic record. They decided to retain the format for their next release, which wound up being even better.
1. American Beauty (1970)
Bands don’t release two albums a year. Bands shouldn’t release two albums a year, especially if they’re the band’s two best albums. But, as was always the case, the Dead didn’t play by anyone’s rules. Their burst of creativity from the Workingman’s Dead was so intense that they returned to the studio just two months after its release. The Grateful Dead, the band who couldn’t stand the studio and hated it with every fibre of their collective being, were eager to return to the stifling confines because they knew they had American Beauty.
The folk, country, and soft rock influences are still present, as are the luscious harmonies, but the songs are just a little bit stronger on American Beauty. It would be a greatest hits list for any other band: ‘Truckin’, ‘Friend of the Devil’, ‘Sugar Magnolia’, ‘Ripple’, ‘Brokedown Palace’. Pigpen gets his goofy opus with ‘Operator’, Phil Lesh gets his signature song in ‘Box of Rain’, and the entire band is as cohesive and mellifluous as they would ever be.
The notion that The Grateful Dead were not “a studio band” can most easily be disproven by the singular power of American Beauty.