The Grateful Dead were never at their best in the studio. On stage, no one could touch them. In the studio, it was another thing entirely. We knew it, they knew it, but no one really seemed to mind. The reason is simple – for every album where they sound like they’re taking a long, collective nap, there’s another that’s so transcendently beautiful, you forget all about the flops. Here, we take a look back at their career as we rank all the Grateful Dead albums from worst to best.
13. Go to Heaven
As Lindsay Planer of All Music writes, time has somewhat mellowed the disdain critics and fans leveled at Go to Heaven on its release in May 1980. There’s still enough of it going around for it to be widely regarded as the Dead’s worst studio album, though. Their disdain for the recording process is almost palpable. Save for the half-decent opener Alabama Getaway, it’s a lackluster effort that leaves the listener as bored as the band sound. They wouldn’t make another album for 7 years – with this as their parting shot, very few people minded.
12. Built to Last
Released just two years after In the Dark turned them into unlikely chart stars, the Dead were back to doing what they did best in the studio – sleeping. They were clearly having too much fun on the road to want to make a record, and it shows. By the time it finally draws to a close, there’s a sense of relief… and not just from the band.
11. Shakedown Street
As Ultimate Classic Rock says, the Dead made a string of mostly forgettable albums throughout the ’70s, with Shakedown Street being one of the worst offenders. The band were never at their best in the studio, and they knew it. Unfortunately, that rarely inspired them to up their game – here, they sound like they’re snoozing on the job. There’s a couple of decent cuts, but not enough to save it.
10. The Grateful Dead
By the time the Grateful Dead came round to recording their debut album in 1967, they’d already developed a cult following thanks to their live gigs. Unfortunately, very little of the energy and charisma of their stage presence makes it onto the album. A few of the covers are decent enough (their rendition of Bonnie Dobson’s Morning Dew stands out in particular), and the original The Golden Road (To Unlimited Devotion) is excellent. But a brilliant live act is not the same as a brilliant recording act, and the Dead still had a long way to go before achieving the status of the second.
9. Grateful Dead From the Mars Hotel
Grateful Dead From the Mars Hotel isn’t a travesty, but it’s not a triumph either. Most of the time, it’s just boring. The groovy U.S. Blues is about the only thing that will really prick up your ears – the rest of the album is more of a snoozefest than anything else.
8. In the Dark
In the Dark was the album that awakened the whole world to the joys of the Dead, turning them into an 80s juggernaut and giving them the only Top 10 album of their career. It also spawned Touch of Grey, their only single to break the Top 10 and the first to give them mass appeal. Some die-hard fans from the old days hated it for that exact reason, but it’s still a decent album, with the Dead, for once, sounding happy to be in the studio.
7. Wake of the Flood
Between 1969 and 1972, the Dead released an impressive five albums, three of which were cut from live shows. To help turn the tide on their growing reputation as a great live band but an uncommitted studio act, they released Wake of the Flood. Their first studio album since American Beauty didn’t quite live up to the standards set by its predecessor, but there’s plenty to love here, not least the elegant Weather Report Suite and mellow Stella Blue.
6. Blues for Allah
After years on the road, the Dead hit the studio in 1975 for Blues for Allah. It’s an album that’s hard to define, straddling the divide between the psychedelia of their earliest albums and the jazz of their later period. Described by thedailybeast.com as a “challenging but immensely rewarding experience,” it came as a breath of fresh air, particularly on standout tracks like the laid back Sage & Spirit and the irresistibly catchy Franklin’s Tower.
5. Anthem of the Sun
A year after their slightly muddled debut, the Dead released their second studio album. If its predecessor had failed to capture the joy of the Grateful Dead on stage, Anthem of the Sun does it perfectly. It’s not necessarily the slickest or most polished album in their catalog, but that’s what makes it such irresistible listening. The band sounds like they’re having a blast, ripping through the songs with the same reckless energy that characterized their live sets. It’s confusing, confounding, and quite, quite dazzling.
On their third studio album, the Grateful Dead got experimental. Not all of the experiments work, but when they do (as in the case of St. Stephen and China Cat Sunflower, both of which easily rank among the band’s best-ever songs), they work beautifully. As an aside, the album’s cover is just as phenomenal as its content, with Rolling Stone naming it one of the best album covers of all time in 1991.
3. Terrapin Station
On 1977’s Terrapin Station, the Dead do prog rock. And they do it wonderfully. It doesn’t really sound like the Dead (or at least, the Dead everyone was used to at the time), and the heavy sounding production and departure from their usual sound didn’t go down well with everyone – not least Jerry Garcia, who complained that producer Keith Olsen had “put the Grateful Dead in a dress”. For all that, it’s still a wonderful diversion, with Lady With A Fan and Lady of Carlisle ranking among the highlights.
2. American Beauty
In 1970, the Dead released two albums, both of which rank amongst the very best rock albums ever made. The second of those two is American Beauty, the album that convinced thousands of music lovers to pack up their VW’s and dedicate the next few years of their life to following the Dead on the road. A little bit country, a little bit Americana, and 100 percent listenable, the album flows from one great song to the next. Key highlights include Ripple, Sugar Magnolia, and Truckin’, but really, the entire thing is a highlight, with not a bad song to be found.
1. Workingman’s Dead
The band’s first release of 1970 was Workingman’s Dead, an album that put the suspicion that the Dead were incapable of reaching the same heights in the studio as they could on stage firmly to bed. The whole thing was recorded in just nine days, but if anything, the lack of time helped. There’s no flab, no fat, just song after song of pure, Americana awesomeness. From Casey Jones to Uncle John’s Band, it’s a joy. Listen, and repeat.