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Grateful Dead Albums: The Best of the Rest

From Seventies and Eighties studio gems to top-shelf live recordings from throughout their career to Jerry Garcia’s finest solo record.

Photo illustration based on a photograph by GAB Archive/Redferns/Getty Images

The Grateful Dead are America’s greatest cosmic rock and roll band, but for listeners their voluminous recorded history can be a bit daunting — especially when you start wandering the forked paths of their seemingly bottomless live catalog. Earlier this year, Rolling Stone included the Dead’s pair of 1970 country-rock classics, Workingman’s Dead and American Beauty, on our list of the 500 Greatest Albums of All Time. After you’ve scarfed down those landmark records (of if you already have), here are 10 more must-hear albums from throughout the band’s career.

Related: Grateful Dead Ultimate Album Guide

From Rolling Stone US

‘Grateful Dead’ (1971)

Often overshadowed by the empyrean heights of Europe ’72, this live double-LP is still one of the most concisely enjoyable documents of the Dead in the early Seventies. With a generous helping of covers that highlight the band’s country and early-rock roots (“Mama Tried,” “Me & Bobby McGee,” “Johnny B. Goode”), it adds context to the breakthroughs made the previous year on Workingman’s Dead and American Beauty — and with a handful of energetic originals in that tradition (particularly Garcia/Hunter’s “Bertha” and Weir/Hunter’s “Playing in the Band”), it shows how inspired the Dead’s songwriters were in this era. The band’s proposal to call the album Skull Fuck has become a legend among fans, propelled by the colorful recounting of Warner Bros. exec Joe Smith: “I said, ‘You worked so hard, and if you call it that, we’ll only sell it in headshops, and we won’t get paid for it,’” he told RS’ David Browne in 2015’s So Many Roads. In the end, most fans called it Skull & Roses after the iconic cover art, and it earned the Dead their first gold certification for sales above half a million records. SVL

‘Europe ’72’

The band’s third live album documented their tour of Western Europe, ambitiously released as a triple LP in hopes that Warner would recoup the money spent overseas (more than 40 people came along for the ride). From Bob Weir’s rollicking “One More Saturday Night” to Jerry Garcia’s elegiac 10-minute “Morning Dew,” Europe ’72 maintained the argument that the band was best heard live. It also marked the last record with Ron “Pigpen” McKernan — who died months after its release — and the arrival of husband and wife Keith and Donna Jean Godchaux. “We were playing so much that we had hot hands,” Weir told Rolling Stone in 2011. “Our heads were loose, our hearts were open and the music was flowing.”AM

‘Jerry Garcia’ (1972)

With only Bill Kreutzmann accompanying him, Garcia conjures both the singing-gambler and mad-musical-scientist sides of the Dead on what is arguably the best outside-mothership project. In addition to introducing songs that would become stage favorites—he and Hunter’s doomy “Loser,” rollicking “Deal” and tweeting “Bird Song,” their homage to Janis Joplin — Garcia is also a showcase for Garcia’s guitar and pedal steel playing, since he handled all the parts himself. The sound-effects collages play into the Dead’s oddball tendencies — and you may even recognize one of those tracks (“Eep Hour”) from its use in a long-ago Cher perfume ad. DB 

‘From the Mars Hotel’ (1974)

The Dead’s first attempt to make a radio-friendly rock record—and help prop up their own newly launched and self-distributed label—makes its intentions known right away: The playful, Nixon-era boogie of “U.S. Blues” actually was a single (if not a top 40 hit). That same sense of  accessible Dead boogie enriches “Scarlet Begonias,” which would also be a repertoire regular for decades, and Lesh’s jaunty honky-tonker “Pride of Cucamonga.” But it’s not all sunshine daydreams, as the chilling ballad “China Doll,” the maybe-autobiographical “Ship of Fools” and Lesh’s lush but tangled “Unbroken Chain” attest. DB

‘Reckoning’ (1981)

The Dead had pulled out their folk guitars and congas before but never for a complete album, and this collection of live unplugged sets in New York and San Francisco proves it was long overdue. With Garcia’s rippling acoustic and Brent Mydland’s glistening piano leading the way, they roll out folk and George Jones covers in a crisp, unhurried way. The format allows Garcia to revel in the dark, unhurried ballads he loved, like he and Hunter’s “China Doll” and  Hunter’s “It Must Have Been the Roses.” If the Dead had ever gathered around a campfire, this is how they would have sounded. DB

‘Dick’s Picks Volume 12’ (1998)

It’s almost hard to go wrong with 1972-4 live Dead. The tsunami of marvelous new material, the brotherly onstage bond of Garcia and Weir, and the lithe playing of Keith Godchaux and Bill Kreutzmann (handling the drums himself at that point) resulted in an extraordinary run. Among the many standouts from his period is this combination of shows from Boston and Providence, Rhode Island, at the dawn of summer 1974. Early classics like “China Cat Sunflower” cozy up alongside more recent songs like “Eyes of the World,” which especially soars here. A monstrous post-“Weather Report Suite”  jam, which highlights Garcia’s guitar squall and Kreutzmann’s jazz chops, is worth admission alone: The very thought that an arena band would tear down its music onstage, then slowly rebuild it over the course of nearly a half hour, is still a wonder for the ears to behold. DB

‘May 1977: Get Shown the Light’ (2017)

 After producer Keith Olsen prodded them into rehearsing and polishing during the making of Terrapin Station, the Dead emerged a firmer, more focused unit. Their run of shows right after, in the spring of 1977, proved what old-fashioned buckling down could do. OIsen helped tighten up Kreutzmann and Hart’s combined drumming, and the newfound brawniness of the rhythm section seemed to fuel the rest of the band. The highlight of this multi-disc box is the band’s famed night at Cornell University’s Barton Hall. Whether they’re swaggering through “Deal,” enriching Garcia’s sweet ballad “They Love Each Other” or digging into one of the all-time classic versions of “Fire on the Mountain,” the Dead mean business in a very different, competing-with-the-big-boys way.  DB

‘In the Dark’ (1987)

Late-arrival Deadheads know it for “Touch of Grey,” the most uplifting song ever written about a drug hangover. But the Dead’s miraculous comeback during the peak-MTV era has plenty more to recommend it, from Garcia-Hunter’s majestic “Black Muddy River” to frisky Weir moments like “Hell in a Bucket” and the prescient world-collapse rocker “Throwing Stones.” For the first time in many years, they sounded energized about making a record, which shows in their sharp, snap-to-it instrumental interaction: After previous failed attempts, their onstage team spirit came through in a studio, and their weathered aura now had a sense of grace. DB

‘Wake of the Flood’ (1973)

Their first studio album after a series of live LPs, as well as the first after the death of Ron “Pigpen” McKernan, 1973’s Wake of the Flood found the band with a surfeit of great material, like the light-touch anthem “Here Comes Sunshine,” the languid country-rock entreaty “Row Jimmy,” and “Eyes of the World,” a dappled five-minute gem that would be stretched to 20 in coming years of elastic live jams. Moments like “Weather Report Suite,” also saw them exploring jazz-rock fusion, a clear break from the hippie-blues of the Pigpen era. Wake of the Flood might seem somewhat minor coming after landmarks like Workingman’s Dead and American Beauty but it’s a lovely transitional LP, the sound of the band easing into the Seventies. JD