When contemplating the vastness of the Grateful Dead catalog, one might think of this line from Dante’s Inferno: “Abandon all hope, ye who enter.”
No one would blame you for thinking this. Well, maybe the upper echelon of modern Deadheads would (i.e. the ones who snatch up every single official or bootleg release regardless of price). They’re probably too mellow to hassle you very much, though.✌️
Anyway, here’s the point: The Dead have put out a notoriously huge amount of recordings over the past 50 years, in addition to all the taped shows (they allowed Deadheads to tape their live concerts and distribute amongst themselves) that are floating around. This includes studio albums, live albums, double albums, triple albums, outtakes, compilations and on and on. If you’re a newcomer to this jungle of releases, it can be hard to tell the well-known stuff from the, shall we say, less popular yet amazingly rich and unique records.
With this in mind, we’ve come up with a list of five absolute must-have Grateful Dead albums. Whether you’re a Deadhead in the making or just looking for some choice additions to your vinyl collection, these are where you should start.
Anthem of the Sun (1968)
The Grateful Dead’s self-titled 1967 debut features quite a few live show warhorses. However, this 1968 follow-up tops that record for a couple of reasons.
For one thing, Anthem of the Sun is the first Dead album to feature the work of lyricist Robert Hunter and drummer Mickey Hart. Both men would prove vital to the band’s music in the decades that followed.
For another, it captures Haight-Ashbury’s finest as they’re getting the hang of the studio. Their grooves are looser and more confident here than on the debut, giving Jerry Garcia’s guitar the space and fuel it needs to truly soar.
Recorded on 16-track tape—cutting-edge technology at the time—Aoxomoxoa reportedly left the Grateful Dead in debt to Warner Bros. Records to the tune of $180,000. It was worth it, though: Thanks to the evolving collaboration between Jerry Garcia and Robert Hunter (they’re credited on every song for the first time here), this album features some of their boldest and most inventive work.
Original 1969 copies of Aoxomoxoa are something of a collector’s item. The album was edited and remixed in 1971; it was available only in that version until Rhino Records released the Warner Bros. Studio Albums box set in 2010.
For some fans, this live double album is the one. The top of the mountain. The Big Kahuna. The Dead’s finest hour on record.
Who are these fans, you ask? Well, people like renowned rock critic Robert Christgau. He gave this early Dead powerhouse an A+ (a rating he saves for the likes of the Rolling Stones’ Exile on Main St. and Television’s Marquee Moon) and declared that side two “contains the finest rock improvisation ever recorded.”
Workingman’s Dead (1970)
Released as the hippie dream was crumbling, this album shows the Dead leaving behind their long, psychedelic jams in favor of folk/country-tinged material that harkens back to their jug band days. Highlights include the classic rock radio staples “Uncle John’s Band” and “Casey Jones.”
Workingman's Dead shows how versatile the artists creating the music are -- to be able to create such pure, acoustic gems after their foray into psychedelia is nothing short of amazing.
American Beauty (1971)
This continuation of the Dead’s Americana excursions has a lot of amazing stuff. It’d be worth getting just for “Truckin’,” which features the now-iconic line, “What a long, strange trip it’s been.”
That being said, American Beauty is almost a companion to Workingman's Dead and delivers even more powerful, spine-tingling ballads and spiritual-sounding songs like 'Attics of My Life' and 'Brokedown Palace'.
If you start down the rabbit hole with these albums, you're bound to enter the Dead matrix of unending exploration into a new genre of vinyl-collecting that spans a vast array of time, space, and music.
If you're already a fan then a must-have Grateful Dead Skull & Roses patch is available at Vinyl Lovers Unite. And now that it's so easy to buy vinyl records online, check out our selection of everything you'd find at your favorite record store!
Share this post