When a casual music listener thinks of the Grateful Dead, they likely think of three things: the marathon live shows; the long and winding improvisations (sigh—yes, “jamming”) that defined those performances; and the cult-like fanbase of stoners, spinners, and tapers who traveled all over the country to take part in those communal concerts.
What they do not think of, however, are the Grateful Dead’s studio albums.
After all, at one time or another, the band has gone on-record saying nearly each studio effort was a disappointment or failed to capture the intensity of their live performances.
Yet while the Dead have become associated with the amorphous, occasional eyeroll-inducing genre of “jam bands”—often synonymous with hacky-sack-toeing frat-house hippies and self-indulgent improvisational Americana-adjacent acts—they were actually just the quintessential American rock ‘n’ roll band.
There are many obstacles (mostly imaginary) to the average person listening to the Dead, but once you get it, you truly get it: The Dead were among the greatest rock, folk, and country-rock songwriters of the 20th century. Their studio albums, stripped of the improvisations and sonic explorations featured in their live performances, showcase the incredible songwriting of the Jerry Garcia/Robert Hunter and Bob Weir/John Perry Barlow partnerships.
Part of what makes a classically great songwriter immediately identifiable is the ease with which their songs can be covered or reworked into a different tempo, swing, or genre altogether. Bob Dylan first comes to mind here, but the 2016 tribute album Day of the Dead—featuring indie luminaries like The National, The War on Drugs, and The Flaming Lips—demonstrated just how remarkable the Dead’s songs were.
We are not here to debate the Dead’s greatest album, live or otherwise (that would be Live/Dead); or the best live version of any song like, say, “Dark Star” (that would be 2/18/1971 at the Capitol Theater); or their greatest set ever (undecided, but I might venture to say 8/27/1972 at the County Fairgrounds in Veneta, Oregon).
As such, this list solely focuses on the albums featuring original studio recordings—i.e., albums like Europe ’72 are not included, despite the heavy use of studio overdubs and mixing. (Yes, it’s true that there are probably no studio-album songs that weren’t done better live, but just play along with the concept here.)
Caveat emptor: Taste is subjective, and so this ranking might look differently if done expressly based on my personal tastes; instead, as with my other music lists, I’ve tried to rank based on a combination of my own views plus each album’s historical significance, critical consensus, etc. Nevertheless, please feel free to yell at me on social media and/or compare this list to the rather engrossing one recently done by BrooklynVegan.
13. Shakedown Street (1978)
Widely regarded as the Dead’s most reviled studio album, Shakedown Street has the infamous label of being “Disco Dead.” The late ’70s saw a mad rush for great American rock artists to stay relevant amid the commercial dominance of disco and airy soft rock. As the title track’s porn-groove cheesiness made quite apparent, instead of embracing their perpetual outsider status, the Dead opted for light and bouncy. The result: Fans and critics alike dismissed the album as supremely out of touch.
Drummer Mickey Hart later admitted in reissue liner notes that the album was an open effort by both band and label for the Dead to sell out. “We failed miserably,” he joked.
But as with all the Dead’s more mediocre studio efforts, the great songs on this record became live staples, all without the slithery and misguided self-indulgence of their studio versions.
Essential tracks: “Fire on the Mountain,” “I Need a Miracle,” and, sure, the title track.
12. Go to Heaven (1980)
Suffice it to say, this album is only marginally better than its inexcusable album cover. Rolling Stone rightly described this studio effort as at times “vacuous,” “terminally long-winded,” and “uninspired fluff.” For a band that made its bones in collectively unearthing the beauty of protracted vamping, descriptors like “long-winded” and “meandering” sure twist the knife in this album’s heart.
Standout tracks like “Althea” and the rearranged traditional “Don’t Ease Me In” became essential ’80s-period live tunes, but the production and delivery here make them rather forgettable. It’s a shame the Dead didn’t include the same sessions’ takes on gorgeous traditionals “Peggy-O” and “Jack-a-Roe,” because Go to Heaven might’ve had an entirely different and better feel.
Essential tracks: “Althea,” “Don’t Ease Me In,” and “Alabama Getaway.”
11. Built to Last (1989)
In hindsight, the Dead’s final studio album’s title has an ironic twist: The band was no longer built to last. Keyboardist Brent Mydland, who contributed four skippable songs here, would be dead less than a year after the album’s release, while drug addiction and myriad health issues continued to plague Garcia and his ability to perform as in days gone by.
Nevertheless, Built to Last, which was the band’s second attempt at recording a studio album on a theater stage with no audience, sounds cohesive and tight in parts, perhaps aided by the springy but now dated production.
Lead track “Foolish Heart,” with its rococo keys and “clock”-like (Jerry’s words) mechanics, was the Dead’s lackluster attempt at cracking the Billboard Top 100 a second time, but alas, it failed. The title track, meanwhile—with its statement of purpose and all—would’ve been a better offering for rock radio, but sadly got overlooked by whoever made such decisions. “Victim or the Crime” is arguably the most angsty song the Dead ever recorded, with Weir practically hissing the opening line “Patience runs out on the junkie.” The lyric caused consternation within the band because of Jerry’s, um, issues, but of course, the conflict was resolved when Jerry himself told Weir it was totally fine.
The true standout here is the ballad “Standing on the Moon,” which features Jerry and Robert Hunter taking stock of their lifelong success and concluding they’d rather be in a lover’s embrace. Garcia stated this song was among his favorite collaborations with Hunter, and after he died six years later, its elegiac hymn took on an even more melancholic feel.
Essential tracks: “Standing on the Moon,” “Built to Last,” and “Victim or the Crime.”
10. In the Dark (1987)
Much like “Standing on the Moon,” the dirge-like ballad “Black Muddy River,” which closes the Dead’s first and only top 10 album, now feels like a bittersweet farewell letter from Jerry, nearly eight years before he died. (In fact, the song was performed as the first encore at the Dead’s last-ever show in 1995.) The gorgeous hymn made for similar messaging in 2017, when Gregg Allman covered it on his final record, recorded while he was well aware he was near-death.
Aside from some mediocre songwriting elsewhere on In the Dark, the biggest long-term knock against this late-period album is that its unexpected radio smash-hit phenomenon “Touch of Grey” created the reviled walking-stereotype, neo-hippie, gate-crashing poseurs known as “Touch Heads.”
But make no mistake, “Touch of Grey” is a fucking fantastic song. The soaring, anthemic chorus—“I will get by / I will survive”—is a timeless rallying cry amid seemingly unending dystopia. In hindsight, the jangly rhythm and peppy tempo make for an obvious commercial and critical success.
The Dead could write pop music, too, you know.
Essential tracks: “Touch of Grey,” “Black Muddy River,” and “Hell in a Bucket.”
9. Terrapin Station (1977)
If this album didn’t include the supremely cheesy disco-rock cover of “Dancin’ in the Streets,” it would probably shoot up a few rankings. “Estimated Prophet,” a tripped-out song about a messianic zealot, is one of Bob Weir’s finest vocal turns. Each and every member of the Dead shines on that song—from Jerry’s magical wah-wah to the chunky bass to those big fat tom hits—as the song bobs and weaves from its chilly verses to its blissed-out chorus (which cleverly juxtaposes Barlow’s apocalyptically biblical lyrics). Speaking of the holy book, the Dead also shine on their near-polyrhythmic take on blues traditional “Samson and Delilah,” once again turning doom-laden imagery into an outright boogie.
But nothing here compares to the titular song suite, “Terrapin Station Part 1” (there never was a Part 2), a majestic achievement of both progressive folk balladry and orchestral ambitiousness. Despite its sheer awesomeness, the band has long rejected its studio iteration: The bombastic choral and string arrangements, bassist Phil Lesh wrote in his autobiography, were a “classic example of gilding the lily.” Jerry Garcia lamented that producer Keith Olsen “put the Grateful Dead in a dress.”
But ignore those guys (kidding!). 40 years later, the suite holds up as a sublime (and, sure, overblown) documentation of forward-thinking psychedelia.
Essential tracks: “Terrapin Station Part 1,” “Estimated Prophet,” and “Samson and Delilah.”
8. Blues for Allah (1975)
Everything about Blues for Allah represented a break from the Grateful Dead-as-usual.
This is the closest the Dead came to dabbling in the mid-’70s progressive-rock of Yes or the jazz-fusion of Mahavishnu Orchestra. Non-Western time signatures, untraditional chord progressions, and Middle Eastern themes confronted the listener, as the band seemingly eschewed the standard blues or folk melodies that piloted their previous output.
Recording during their hiatus from exhaustive and expensive touring, the band was set on developing brand-new songs in the studio, and the normally expansive lyricist Robert Hunter settled on writing lyrics on the fly, built around Garcia’s guitar play.
The result is a challenging but immensely rewarding experience, best highlighted by the opening triptych.
Essential tracks: “Help on the Way,” “Slipknot!,” and “Franklin’s Tower.”
7. The Grateful Dead (1967)
Before the Dead were psychedelic space cadets or hippie cowboys, they were a blues-rock band. Their self-titled debut is a near-flawless collection of late-’60s garage rock. The band later lamented how their studio inexperience resulted in a failure to capture the songs’ live energy, but taken as is, the album is the epitome of boogying, fuzz-slinging, drug-fueled San Francisco partying in 1967.
Founding member and original frontman Ron “Pigpen” McKernan, who died in 1973, is enshrined here as his whirling Vox organ and harmonica breathe a primal fire into nearly every track. The obvious standout on The Grateful Dead is “Morning Dew,” which is heard here in its primitive stage, shortly before it was crafted into one of the band’s signature live songs with earth-shattering climaxes. (Is it just me or could the song’s intro have easily soundtracked a Scorsese segue?)
The only track not limited for time by scrupulous record executives was “Viola Lee Blues,” a 10-minute enthralling odyssey that transforms a three-chord bluesy jugband melody into a multidimensional vamp that easily fit as a soundtrack to many Bay Area boomers’ acid-test experiences.
Essential tracks: “Morning Dew,” “Viola Lee Blues,” and “Cream Puff War.”
6. Aoxomoxoa (1969)
On their third studio album, pronounced “ox-oh-mox-oh-ah,” the Dead reached the pinnacle of their psychedelic-tinged experimentation—as the trippy acid-induced cover underscores—with freak-folk acoustic Appalachian folk songs and jagged acid rock tunes that scream peak Haight-Ashbury.
While most of the songs never fully entered the Dead’s live rotation (aside from the legendary “St. Stephen” and “China Cat Sunflower”), the album is considered a milestone in psychedelic rock—one that influenced countless garage bands across the country into melding murder ballads, folk music, and acid rock into a blissful lifestyle.
The deeply ambitious project and its circus-like studio environment (they recorded the album twice) put the Dead deep into debt with Warner Bros., resulting in tensions ultimately (and perhaps temporarily) solved by the successful release of Live/Dead (the band’s greatest triumph) later that year. Growing pains aside, as drummer Bill Kreutzmann wrote in his autobiography, “It was worth it in the end... It eventually went gold. It only took about twenty-nine years.”
Essential tracks: “St. Stephen,” “China Cat Sunflower,” and “Cosmic Charlie.”
5. From the Mars Hotel (1974)
Just months before entering their then-indefinite touring hiatus in 1974, the Dead entered the studio and laid down what I would describe as extraterrestrial folk music. Nearly all of the songs showcase the band’s penchant for folk-rock or R&B, but with a big heap of interstellar synths.
Mars Hotel notably served as a vehicle for some of Phil Lesh’s better songs: “Unbroken Chain,” in all its avant-garde synth-folk glory (yes, the airplane-like descending noise is jarring), has to be heard to be believed; and on “Pride of Cucamonga,” Lesh tried his hand at country-rock songwriting and wildly succeeded.
Meanwhile, on “Ship of Fools,” the band continued the legacy of American Beauty and Workingman’s Dead, offering up arguably one of the greatest folk ballads in their entire catalog. The Hunter/Garcia pairing never again produced as perfectly crafted a poetic allegory as that song.
Essential tracks: “Ship of Fools,” “Scarlet Begonias,” “U.S. Blues.”
4. Anthem of the Sun (1968)
While the Grateful Dead’s second album is drugs, pure and simple, you don’t need to trip on LSD to fully experience it.
Where their debut was limited by label demands and studio naiveté, Anthem was where the Dead decided to let their psychedelic freak-flag fly. The band recorded studio tracks and then mixed it together with live samples—“for the hallucinations,” as Jerry explained. Kreutzmann later wrote that this album’s underlying concept was to “demonstrate how these songs were mirrors of infinity, even when they adhered to their established arrangements.” And that they did.
In 10 minutes or less, stunners like “That’s It for the Other One” and “Caution (Do Not Stop on Tracks)” seemingly open up portals to faraway universes—abridged versions of the otherworldly experiences such songs became during live Dead sets.
While their late-’60s rock ‘n’ roll peers avoided “the uncertainty of improvisation,” as Kreutzmann described it, the Dead “decided Anthem of the Sun was going to be our statement on the matter.”
Essential tracks: “Alligator,” “That’s It for the Other One,” and “Caution (Do Not Stop on Tracks).”
3. Wake of the Flood (1973)
“Musically, this is a deceptively demanding combination of American Beauty and Aoxomoxoa,” rock critic Robert Christgau wrote of the Dead’s sixth studio album. He was spot-on.
As with nearly all of their studio efforts, none of the magic captured here in 1973 came close to the intensity of the songs’ live iterations, but Wake of the Flood sure made a valiant effort. Cuts like Jerry’s breathtaking, twinkling ballad “Stella Blue” and the slide-guitar-and-bass-thump of “Row Jimmy” show off the band’s astounding songsmanship, while “Eyes of the World” boasts of the technical mastery of the Dead as a cohesive unit in a jazz-like ensemble.
Wake of the Flood also saw the introduction of the band’s operatic suites with Weir’s jazzy “Weather Report Suite” and the Garcia/Hunter triumph of “Mississippi Half-Step,” a funk-folk boogie that could’ve easily slid into The Band or Bob Dylan’s mid-’70s repertoire without anyone blinking an eye.
Essential tracks: “Mississippi Half-Step Uptown Toodleloo,” “Row Jimmy,” and “Stella Blue.”
2. Workingman’s Dead (1970)
Under the heavy influence of Bakersfield icons Merle Haggard and Buck Owens, this was the band trading in their nitrous-filled space suits for some cowboy boots and the great wide country-rock open—the invention of what I like to call “chillbilly” music.
The emphasis here was on Americana songwriting, rather than on experimentation or blues vamping, and thus came an album of indelible studio tracks that do actually hold up to and sometimes outshine their live counterparts.
The album’s bookends, “Uncle John’s Band” and “Casey Jones,” are among the era’s most influential and widely recognized songs, largely thanks to their easy accessibility on classic-rock radio, while urgent ballads like “High Time” and “Dire Wolf” show off Garcia/Hunter as a formidable country folk-writing duo on par with Dylan, Gram Parsons, Robbie Robertson, and the whole cabal.
The key to Workingman’s Dead not being yet another sepia-toned, late-’60s nod at Big Pink is that the Dead managed to keep their unique weirdness intact. After all, this wasn’t just some group of laid-back country boys playing some rock ‘n’ roll; it was a ragtag group of bearded San Francisco wild-children and space cadets temporarily resettling their minds in the Wild West.
This is stoned and clever folk-rock that is more a forebear of Wilco or Ryan Adams than of the freak-folk stuff like Devendra Banhart or Grizzly Bear.
Essential tracks: “Casey Jones,” “High Time,” “Dire Wolf,” or just every track—whatever.
1. American Beauty (1970)
Recorded and released mere months after the above album, American Beauty is the album even the most casual listener associates with the Grateful Dead.
The tight Americana songwriting of Workingman’s Dead was further polished with the addition of sublimely confident three-part harmonies that ultimately became responsible for decades of enduring folk-rock artists up to and including modern acts like Fleet Foxes.
Hippie-folk tunes like “Sugar Magnolia” and “Ripple” sound like what most millennials imagine their parents’ hazy, lazy summer memories look like, while “Truckin’” is the quintessential American open-highway song.
The finely tuned harmonies of “Attics of My Life” make for one of the greatest pensive moments in the Dead’s catalog, while “Brokedown Palace” serves as one of the most heartbreakingly anthemic funeral songs ever written (to my loved ones: please play it at my burial alongside Dylan’s “Every Grain of Sand”).
Speaking of Dylan, in 1969 the reclusive bard traveled to Music City to record Nashville Skyline with help from country sessions players and Johnny Cash. With that album, Dylan proved that rock’s biggest legends could do wonders with just some good ol’ pedal steel and twang. A year later, the Dead managed to outdo Dylan on that front—all from the hustling, bustling comforts of downtown San Francisco.
Beyond topping Dylan at his own game, American Beauty is a milestone of multiple genres: It’s a folk-rock icon; an alt-country founding father; a funereal blues odyssey; a blueprint for hippie cowboydom.
It’s cosmic American music perfected.
Essential tracks: “Brokedown Palace,” “Attics of My Life,” “Sugar Magnolia,” and every other song.