In honor of Jerry Garcia’s birthday, The Daily Beast grades perhaps the most underrated aspect of the Grateful Dead’s legacy: their studio albums.
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.
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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.
(Excerpt) Read More at: TheDailyBeast.com