While the Grateful Dead were renowned for their inspired live performances and jams, they also released a lot of incredible studio albums throughout the years.
Most Deadheads come to prefer the Dead’s live albums, but many new listeners just starting out on their Dead journey may not be “ready” for these yet (let’s admit it – some of them can be a bit space-y or noodle-y). Live Dead can certainly be an acquired taste, like many of the other finer things in life.
But fear not, there’s plenty of amazing music to be found in the Dead’s studio catalog too. That’s why I decided to put together this guide to the 10 best Grateful Dead studio albums. I’ll be highlighting some of my favorite songs from each album along the way.
Let’s start our journey into Grateful Dead history and explore The 10 Best Grateful Dead Studio Albums:
Blues for Allah (1975)
Blues for Allah is an important studio album for its recording of the classic Help > Slipknot > Franklin’s triage. These songs are respectively: Help on the Way, Slipknot, and Franklin’s Tower.
In live performances, the Dead would seamlessly transition between all three songs with red-hot jams interspersed throughout. Of the three, Franklin’s is my favorite song from the Blue for Allah album.
Workingman’s Dead (1970)
Workingman’s Dead has several Dead classics, most notably Casey Jones. This is one that deserves a full listen in its entirety, as many of the Dead’s most beloved songs at live performances appear on this album.
Some of the best tracks include:
- Uncle John’s Band
- High Time
- Dire Wolf
- Cumberland Blues
Workingman’s Dead is also a special Dead album for its large number of acoustic tracks compared to the band’s other studio albums.
American Beauty (1970)
The American Beauty album is arguably the most “consistently strong” studio album from the Dead, by which I mean every song is essentially a winner. Garcia-Hunter classics like Brokedown Palace and Ripple abound.
Then there’s Box of Rain, another Grateful Dead classic and the band’s first studio song to feature vocals from Phil Lesh (the bassist). At live performances, crowds would shout “let Phil sing!” to hear the song played.
Wake of the Flood (1973)
Mississippi Half-Step and Eyes of the World are the standout songs from 1973’s Wake of the Flood.
It was the band’s sixth studio album and their first to be released on the band’s own Grateful Dead Records label. It was also the first studio album recorded without founding member Ron “Pigpen” McKernan, who had recently died.
Aoxomoxoa’s best track is unequivocally St. Stephen.
This is actually one of the first rock albums to be recorded using 16-track technology. Fans and critics alike consider this era to be the band’s experimental apex.
The title of the album is a meaningless palindrome.
In the Dark (1987)
For many, In the Dark’s hit song Touch of Grey was a first introduction to the sound of the Dead. Even to avowed “live show only” Dead heads, you have to admit that the song is extremely catchy and well-put-together.
It is upbeat and poppy but still has Robert Hunter’s deep lyrics adding depth and intrigue, and one of Jerry’s better studio guitar solos from the later years. Another great songs on the album is Throwing Stones.
Built to Last (1989)
Many don’t care for the Dead’s later studio albums, but I have to disagree. There are quite a few gems if you listen through. Two of the very best appear on the Built to Last album – one being the title track Built to Last and the other being Standing on the Moon.
The album was originally released on October 31, 1989
Terrapin Station (1977)
In my opinion, Terrapin Station is one of the best pieces of songwriting of both Jerry Garcia and Robert Hunter.
A bold statement, I know. But if you haven’t heard Terrapin Station before, give it a listen and you just might agree with me. That song alone is worth the price of admission to the full album.
There are some other worthwhile tracks on the album too, like Estimated Prophet.
From the Mars Hotel (1974)
Of course, Scarlet Begonia is the big hit from the Mars Hotel album, a classic tune which has gone on to be covered by several artists, including Sublime.
There are several other great tunes on the album that don’t get the listening they deserve though. Unbroken Chain, for example, is one of my favorites.
Go to Heaven (1980)
Go to Heaven marks the band’s first album with keyboardist Brent Mydland. My favorite track of Brent’s on here is Far From Me. There are plenty of Weir and Garcia winners too though, like Althea and Alabama getaway.