Thursday, January 30, 2014

What's New?: 1.30.2014

On today's episode: NEW WAVE EXTRAVAGANZA!
Squeeze — self-titled (1978)

The Squeeze's first album is a lot more stock new wave than anything that followed. The rumour is that most of the material was written on the spot, under pressure. So, there you have it. There are some excellent pop songs throughout though: most obviously the hit 'Take Me I'm Yours', but there's also the super catchy 'Strong in Reason.'  I'm also partial to the funky psychedelic instrumental 'Wild Sewage Tickles Brazil.'  Otherwise, there's just not enough of the sort of well thought-out songcraft that Squeeze would become known for.  It's definitely their most "punk" sounding album, but that has more to do with how amateur it sounds, not because that's what they were going for.

The Jazz Butcher — The Gift of Music (mid-1980's)

It's taken me years to track down these Jazz Butcher albums. They are of interest to me because David J plays on them. And, you know, I should have just had some Jazz Butcher albums in my collection before now anyway because it's very British, very jangly music. Right up my alley. This album is a collection of singles and b-sides and it's very whimsical and nice. The first song is 'Southern Mark Smith', so that's an idea of what you're in for here.  There's a cover of the Modern Lovers' 'Roadrunner' which is pure fun, but there's also more introspective moments like 'Rain' that are just excellent.  Overall, kind of goofy music, but plenty of jangly guitars and earnest harmonies for me to dig it.

The Jazz Butcher — Sex and Travel (1985)

Bit more even overall, and that makes sense because this was its own release, not a collection. It kicks off with the sophisticated jangle of 'Big Saturday' and that one just wins over and over again.  The ballad 'Only A Rumour' is a rare moment of venerability and it's also a highlight.  The soundtrack-y 'Walk With the Devil' is an unexpected moment of epic scope that works incredibly well.  Overall, yeah: good stuff.  I will definitely be on the lookout for more Jazz Butcher stuff, regardless if David J is involved or not.

Dexys Midnight Runners — Searching for the Young Soul Rebels (1980)

Dexys' first album is a full on, horn-sectioned new wave soul album.  Because Dexys first came out of the Northern Soul movement, this makes perfect sense.  At times, the horns blasting away does feel a bit gimmicky, but the tunes are darn catchy and are played at punk speeds, so the whole whooses by in no time.  'Geno' was the big hit and is a worthy song to be remembered for.  Kevin Rowland had others up his sleeve, though.  Not a super amazing album, but darn good fun.

The Waterboys — This is the Sea (1985)

The last Waterboys album I needed to complete my 80's collection.  And it's a good one!  It sounds like A Pagan Place, but with better songs, basically.  Still a very large (arguably overproduced) presentation of the music, but with songs as good as the opener 'Don't Bang the Drum', that doesn't matter.  It's a very big, arena-ready melodramatic sound, totally mid-80's.  There's just some days when I want that borderline cheesy sound and, it seems like, the Waterboys always hit that specific node of sound that I'm looking for most perfectly.  Check out 'The Pan Within' for a preview of where the band would go on Fisherman's Blues.  Overall, not the best Waterboys album, but definitely in the running for #2.

The Mighty Lemon Drops — Happy Head (1986)

The first Lemon Drops' album has eluded me for years, but here we finally have it.  This band definitely does one thing really well, so if you're not a fan, too bad for you.  This thing is kind of top loaded with all the best, and most diverse, tunes up front.  So, by the end of the album, everything starts sounding the same.  But, those highlights are good enough to make up for it.  They have a really rockin' Rickenbacker retro-60's repertoire that's just fun.  Have a listen to 'All the Way' for an idea of what the Beatles would've sounded like as a punk band.  And there's lots of that sort of thing here.  I think the Lemon Drops got lost in the retroactive shuffle because they had a sound that was so reminiscent of other bands, while adding very little of their own.  But they did that sound so well, so I don't mind.  Definitely nice to finally have this album around.

The Jam — In the City (1977)

The Jam's first album is usually considered a punk landmark.  And it certainly is one of the defining albums of the initial British punk era, but it's a little uneven.  Paul Weller hadn't quite mastered a pop hook yet, so only a few really good ones pop up.  Chief among those being the enduring classic title track.  Paul Weller's stinging and ringing Rickenbacker guitar defines the sound of this album, for better or worse (it gets a little samey, after all).  As a debut album by a punk band, it showed absolutely no promise, but most punk bands weren't really meant to last past an album or two anyway, so that makes perfect sense.

The Jam — Setting Sons (1979)

Still blasting out those power trio performances, but the song craft here is amazing.  Just have a listen to 'Private Hell.'  Whoo, that's a great song.  There's a bit more of a produced, jangly sound to some of the songs, so something like 'Wasteland' comes off as a nice reserved change of pace.  And then, of course, there's 'Smithers-Jones' which is so dissimilar than any previous Jam song, it gets by on sheer uniqueness.  This is the CD reissue from the early 2000's that nearly doubles the running time of the album with bonus tracks (and it does include the more conventional arrangement of the single version of 'Smithers-Jones').  All the bonus material sits right in with the proper album and it's a darn fine affair, I'd say.  Not the best Jam album, but certainly one of their better ones.

The Jam — All Mod Cons (1978)

This is probably my favorite Jam album. It still has the punk snarl, but it's like, really sophisticated about it. Not pompous, just maybe a little cocky. Just have a listen to 'To Be Someone' for a perfect example of what I mean.  Of course, there's the enduring ballad 'English Rose' which was the first indication that the Jam meant serious business as far as not being considered just a punk band.  The whole album is just ace and that it ends with the ambitious mini-epic 'Down in the Tube Station at Midnight' is really appropriate because this album really does seem like the Jam fulfilling their potential for the first time.

Throwing Muses — The Curse (1992)

Recorded across two nights in London in support of Red Heaven, this paints the picture of the band as a very loud, nearly shoegazey unit.  The version of 'Fish' is scorching and flailing — I've not heard a better rendition, I'd reckon.  Kristin picks up her acoustic late in the disc, but it's mostly a relentlessly rockin' affair, focusing on Red Heaven, Hunkpapa and Real Ramona material.  Wonderful find after many years of knowing about this one without ever actually having heard it.

Throwing Muses — Firepile EPs (1992)

Released as a two part single in the UK, collectively, you get six b-sides, including the oft-played live Jimi Hendrix cover 'Manic Depression' and the great original tune 'Snailhead.'  Elsewhere, you get a jangly Velvet Underground cover and, all told, this was another super find, as these things have been out of print for a good decade and a half.  Fun stuff to add to the collection.

XTC — Black Sea (1980)

XTC was so damn consistent in the early 80's. Let's just pick a random song from this album and see how awesome it is: 'Paper and Iron.'  There.  Just, there.  See what I mean?  Of course, this one begins with the all-time XTC classic 'Respectable Street', so you know you're in for a wonderful ride.  Everything has that big drum sound and that angular riffing, which you could argue was formulaic, but when the formula was this productive, how could you possibly be mad?  This CD reissue tacks on some extra tracks that only add to the album's appeal.

XTC — English Settlement (1982)

Ask many an XTC fan their all time favorite album and I'd bet at least two-thirds would say English Settlement.  There's a sense of airy space in the production here and it allows you, as the listener, to really focus on the layers and song craft involved in everything here.  When the album begins with the atmospheric 'Runaways' you know there's been a change in thought, of sorts.  Then, of course, there's that one tune you may have heard.  Layered jangly heaven, I'd say.  The whole album is strong and it feels like step up in every aspect.  Like I said, if they were one thing in the early 80's it was damn consistent.

R.E.M. — Daysleeper EP (1998)

Up b-sides?  Yes, please!  The instrumental 'Emphysema' is a strange, vibes and accordion thing that is pure fun.  The winner is the "Oxford American Version" of 'Why Not Smile' which is basically an acoustic version.  Nothing revelatory, but I'm a big fan of this era of the band, so I'm fascinated by it nonetheless.

Edwyn Collins — Hellbent on Compromise (1990)

The sort of stock, overproduced jangle that Roddy Frame was also doing at the time. It is a bit more acoustic-based overall than what Roddy was up to and always with Edwyn's healthy dose of wit and sarcasm. Perhaps more earnest than usual, but the production is a little too slick for its own good. The eerie opener 'Means to an End' is a highlight and it's a shame that the rest of the album's material wasn't given as thoughtful treatment.

The Wake — A Light Far Out (2012) 

How I missed this one, I don't know.  But, man, is it good.  Just have a listen to the opening tune 'Stockport' and realize that this is a new record by these guys.  They do just about everything here: the jangly stuff, the dancey stuff, the dreamy stuff and it's the exact sort of reunion album that you love to see.  It sits well with the band's catalogue and only enhances it in the long run.  The only thing I'd complain about is the inclusion of the old Occasional Keepers tune 'If the Ravens Leave', but it's not even like that's a bad song; just well familiar.  The epic title track is probably the highlight here, but honestly, this thing is so good, there's really not a bad or even sub-par song in the bunch.

The Lotus Eaters — No Sense of Sin (1984)

Fantastic Bowie-inspired synth pop.  "New Romantic" the kids used to call it.  I knew of this band because Mike Dempsey, who played bass on the first Cure album, is present here (though not the main creative force).  This has one of the all-time great (now unfortunately lost) classic new wave singles on it with 'The First Picture of You.'  Pete Coyle's longing tenor croon paints a gorgeous picture of celebrating the moment while you're in it.  There's a handful of these slightly melancholy, transcendent 80's pop songs and I officially nominate 'First Picture of You' into the cannon.  Just perfect.  The rest of the album follows suit with long keyboard harmonies and subtle guitar arpeggios and hooks — just gigantic pop hooks.  Cherry Red has done this album justice with a wealth of bonus tracks that gathers up the band's entire 80's discography on one disc.  Fantastic music.


Tuesday, January 21, 2014

What's New?: 1.21.2014

On today's episode: PROG?
Daniel Lanois — Belladonna (2005)

I remember this came out when I was working at Tower, so I got to hear it a time or two in the store and always dug it. It's not quite ambient, but completely instrumental save for a few wordless vocals. It has a great kind of southwestern spaghetti vibe to it on songs like 'Agave' and 'Carla.' Elsewhere, it takes on a kind of airy, ever descending ambient like on the first and last tracks 'Two Worlds' and 'Todos Santos.' In the middle, you get kind of ambient pop dub things like 'Frozen' that just defy categorization. Through it all is Daniel's slide guitar and pedal steel, like a tour guide through all these worlds of sound. Definitely a nice revisit.

Midsummer — Catch and Blur (1999)

Midsummer, I'd reckon, is probably in the top ten or so best American bands of the last fifteen years. Too bad nobody cared. I first heard of them on the split album they did with Coastal.  And, at first, I had no idea what to make of their dreamy prog sound.  But the more I listened to it, the more I got it (like many things discussed here).  Seemingly wordless vocals and layers of dreamy, meticulous arpeggios often give way to exuberant, cymbal heavy explosions of pure sound.  A lot of their songs are six minute, multi-movement epics —especially on this, their first release. Have a listen to 'Where the Waves' for an example of just how good they were.  For a first release, absolutely stunning.

Midsummer — Moon Shadow (2001)

At this point, I should point out that everything Midsummer did was really artsy and "pure" sounding, so even though I've basically described them as a shoegaze band, they were most certainly not.  This EP, for instance, is just one long song, broken up into four movements.  There's tons of loud parts, odd time signature switching and even accompaniment from a string section.  It's a very complete piece of work and ventures close to prog ideals in more cases than a few.  Ambitious as hell and pretty to boot, I'd say it would be hard to improve on such quality, but we're talking Midsummer here, so spoiler: I'd be wrong.

Midsummer — Inside the Trees (2007)

When the band finally released a full length, it was just an over the top release of pure creativity, filtered through a net of dreamy melodies and seemingly endless good ideas.  Songs drop through holes, change direction entirely and break themselves down only to be built magically and triumphantly back up.  The big revelation here is that now the band was now able to do all that in under four minutes.  There's still those longform epics and they're still just as potent, but hearing it all blasted so perfectly in such a short burst is truly impressive.  It's only now that I had to seek out these albums from drummer Steve Elkins that I realized how neglected this band was (even by me; better late than never).  Inside the Trees should have been a landmark album in American rock music, but alas, it was not meant to be.  However, this album is on Spotify along with the rest of their catalogue, thankfully.  Just unbelievably good.

David Sylvian + Robert Fripp — Damage (1993)

Recorded live on the tour for the First Day, these performances have a sense of space and crunchiness that the studio album either cluttered up or muted — not that it's a bad record; these performances are just that good.  Indeed, the way 'Brightness Falls' morphs into the Rain Tree Crow tune 'Every Colour You Are' is just chill-inducing and probably the highlight here.  But, truly, there is no way anyone that even remotely liked the studio album won't absolutely love these live recordings.  And you'll find a lot more to assess and you'll see new things in these arrangements of the tunes, as well.  Definitely worth it, if for nothing else than the Gone to Earth songs.

David Sylvian — Alchemy: An Index of Possibilities (mid 1980's)

This compilation has the essential Jon Hassell collaboration Words With the Shaman EP right up front, but I already had that on the Brilliant Trees CD reissue so it was not new to me.  Still very awesome, though.  The rest of the CD is filled out by ambient works featuring a cast of Sylvian's usual collaborators and it's uniformly excellent.  The solo Sylvian pieces 'Preparations for a Journey' and 'The Stigma of Childhood' are the highlights of the new-to-me material, but really, the whole thing is just brilliant.  Stands up very well as its own album of Sylvian's ambient side.

David Sylvian — Approaching Silence (early 1990's)

More ambient Sylvian stuff.  There's a sense of moody calm to Sylvian's ambient music that's unlike anything else I've encountered, so when 'The Beekeeper's Apprentice' begins with three minutes of wind chimes and pedal steel, you know it's gonna be good.  There's just three tracks here, two of those over thirty minutes in length and the short 'Epiphany' to separate them.  The title track is a nearly fourty minute trip that seems to take you on a journey into another solar system.  Easily the highlight of this disc, and possibly of Sylvian's ambient work.

Jon Hassell + Bluescreen — Dressing for Pleasure (1994)

Basically Hassell doing hip hop beats, if you can believe that. I guess, at the time, the kids would have called it acid jazz. But that sounds so un-hip at this point. I'm not sure what to call it. Just like everything Hassell has done. This is a helluva lot more catchy than most Hassell, I will concede that much. Have a listen to the leadoff track 'G Spot' for an idea of what's up here.  It's very beat heavy and, honestly, seems like Hassell's idea of a pop record.  Only the closing tune 'Blue Night' turns in a longer running length and sounds remotely like any previous Jon Hassell tunes.  This is an interesting album in Hassell's catalogue and I find it kind of funny that his poppiest record is probably my least favorite.

Jon Hassell — Maarifa Street (2005)

This album is now almost a decade old and it's still Hassell's second most recent release. It's cobbled together from live recordings and studio attempts to recreate those live performances. It's a much more uptempo, bass-heavy affair than I'm used to for newer Hassell albums. Have a listen to 'Divine S.O.S.' and dig it.  There's a lot of polyrhythms going on here and, because of the prominence of the bass, it's probably one of Hassell's funkiest albums when it's all said and done.  He has a hard time running out of ideas with his solos here and this, more than any of his other records of the past twenty years, sounds the most like he was the true successor to Miles Davis' 70's space funk.  Outstanding.


Monday, January 20, 2014

What's New?: 1.20.2014

On today's episode: GERMANS!
Tangerine Dream — Alpha Centauri (1970)

Seriously wacky early stuff from the Edgar Froese-led version of the Dream.  This was actually the band's first album to be released, though not their first recording.  It's very early synths and drum machines (and some sort of seemingly stringed instrument?  Christ, is that a guitar?).  It's just three songs, one short and two long.  The first track ('Sunrise in the Third System') is easily the most accessible thing here, but things go very dark psychedelic, very quickly after that.  Very atonal.  In fact, somebody probably heard this at some point and thought it was just total nonsense music.  At times, I'm reminded of Sun Ra's more far-reaching stuff, just without horns obviously.  Good stuff, though not for everyone. This is the later 80's reissue on Relativity.

Tangerine Dream — Tangram (1980)

Fast forward to the early 80's and I believe this was the last time the band would just do two sidelong pieces on an album for some years. They were just starting to transition to their film soundtrack career and that's beginning to show on this album. Even though it's supposed to be one long song, there are very clear individual pieces within the larger piece and I can't help but think it could have been split into their own tracks. And it does get a bit cheesy sometimes with the now totally dated sounding (in a bad way) synths. Still, there's a bit of the old spirit left in them on this album and there's points of sheer interstellar weirdness that I love them for. So yeah, mixed bag, but leaning towards worth it.

Harmonia — Musik von Harmonia (1974)

Basically the start of what would become known as new wave.  Harmonia is the boys Roedelius and Moebius from Cluster and Michael Rother from NEU!  Drum machines and synthesizers bubbling up into a stew of innovation on the very first track ('Watussi') and things just float onwards from there.  And, that's something: this music is very doodle-y and fun.  For all its groundbreaking sounds, it's actually very tuneful and accessible.  Check out 'Dino' and then remind yourself that this was released four years before Jimmy Carter was president.   That's just fun, any way you slice it.

Harmonia — Deluxe (1975)

Michael Rother gets a little more guitar time on this one and it's even more accessible, so I prefer it.  There's some vocal numbers on this one, as well, all of which are fun.  Check out 'Monza' for some serious guitar music and a preview of where Rother was headed on his own albums.  Overall, very enjoyable stuff and probably the better of the band's two albums.  And, besides that, just striking when you consider how ahead of their time they were.

Michael Rother — Flammende Herzen (1976)

Harmonic invention at its finest.  And again, totally groundbreaking music.  I generally don't like the term "post-rock", but this album, and the two that followed it, predict instrumental guitar rock that stresses mood and harmony over technical virtuosity by at least two and a half decades.  The melodies are so intricate, so layered and so well-thought out, it's nearly orchestral in its scope.  Just check out the leadoff title track and get blown away at how unique this music is.  The rest of the album follows suit and, while that first track is probably the highlight, the whole thing maintains that introspective but uplifting vibe to near perfection. 

Michael Rother — Sterntaler (1977)

Basically part two of Flammende Herzen, but maybe a tad more inward-looking.  Again, the first track ('Sonnenrad') comes out shining brightest.  But this does feel a bit more consistent and, for some reason I can't place, I'm reminded of the Cure's Seventeen Seconds album on songs like 'Fontana di Luna' and 'Blauer Regen.'  Maybe a bit down overall, but every song inevitably hits an absolutely uplifting chord or moment that redeems and solves everything all at once.

Michael Rother — Katzenmuzik (1979)

A grand masterpiece.  This actually was meant to be a guitar symphony, of sorts.  It's just one theme repeated across twelve different iterations and interpretations.  Different tempos and keys are attempted, but it just hits this transcendent mood and stays there for about fourty wonderful minutes.  Here's a representative piece.  Hard to reconcile with such high concentration of quality, but it's one of those rare albums that you can enjoy and learn from in equal measures.  This is absolutely essential music and one of the better albums I've encountered in the past year.  Completely wonderful and timeless.


Saturday, January 18, 2014

What's New?: 1.18.2014

Ladies and gentlemen: Mother McCree's Uptown Jug Champions!

Grateful Dead — Aoxomoxoa (1969)

You know, I've had the Dead's first self-titled album for many years after a chance bargain bin find and I don't think anyone with even a cursory interest in the Dead would agree that judging the band by that first album is a good idea. So, I finally picked up American Beauty a while back and that spawned a splurge that is still ongoing, but this is the so-far batch. This album was the band's third proper studio album and, I'd say, the first one that really represents the band's unique hybrid of rock, folk and jazz textures. It's the first album that Jerry Garcia and Robert Hunter were working together and it fires off right away with a band classic in the rollicking 'St. Stephen.' It's mostly Jerry's album and his acid-drenched folk really shines on album highlights 'Rosemary' and 'Mountains of the Moon.' I don't care too much for the "freakout" track 'What's Become of the Baby', but otherwise, I think most fans would agree that this is the album where the band's sound came through on its full potential for the first time. This is the cool recent vinyl reissue on Rhino that restores the album's original analog mix. Super warm, lots of depth. Definitely hip.

Grateful Dead — Grateful Dead (Skull & Bones) (1971)

There's two sides to the Grateful Dead, especially on live albums. There's a kind of blues-rock jam band that's definitely fun and that I associate more with Bob Weir's half of the repertoire. Then, there's the transcendental, jammy, jazzy, floaty, pretty side of the band that I associate more with Jerry Garcia. This is the side of the band that I prefer. This was the band's second proper live album and, a two disc set on vinyl, it focuses almost entirely on the blues-rock side of the band, so I'm left a little lukewarm. It's not until side four when Garcia sings a rather engaging 'Wharf Rat' that I start to get a little excited for this one. It morphs into 'Not Fade Away' which then morphs into 'Goin Down the Road Feeling Bad' and they essentially end it the way they started it. But, for a while there in the middle of side four, they reach that magical point that a lot of fans revere them for. Just wish there was more of it on this one.

Jerry Garcia — Garcia (1971)

This album, released under Garcia's name, is a pretty important piece of the Grateful Dead puzzle, as it contains the debut studio recordings of many songs that would become Dead live favorites for the remainder of their career. 'Bird Song', 'Sugaree', 'Loser' and 'To Lay Me Down' are all here and any album with that lineup has got to be good. While live performances of the tunes, like a lot of Dead stuff, would outdo these initial studio recordings, they certainly have their place as important pieces in the band's history. The album has a sort of soft country-rock sound that's a bit more polished than you may expect if you only know the live renditions, but it's certainly nice to hear fully fleshed out versions of these tunes. Side two has some psychedelic collage sounds surrounding the centerpiece 'To Lay Me Down' and it's hard to think of anyone else that could've pulled off such a strange combination.

Grateful Dead — Europe '72 (1972)

This one is totally worth it for nothing else than its historical importance. Luckily, the last twenty or so minutes of this thing just get about as magnificent as the Dead could get when they were all there on that other plane. From the end of 'Truckin' through a stunningly discordant 'Morning Dew', it makes sitting through three records completely worth it. Literally, saved the best for last. Boy, when they were on, they really played music unlike anything else.

Grateful Dead — Wake of the Flood (1973)

Another studio record and one that's kind of overlooked. It's got a sort of country bar band sound to it, but with the additions of horns and synthesizers, kind of filtered through the LA session scene of the time. Not too bad, actually. Certainly mellower than the band had been in the past in the studio. Bob Weir actually steals the show on this one with the longform 'Weather Report Suite' that closes out the album, but Jerry's ballad 'Stella Blue' is a close second. Overall, kind of a subdued album, but they had really reached a good balance here of trying to get those transcendent moments relayed into the studio without coming off as trying too hard.

Grateful Dead — From the Mars Hotel (1974)

This one came hot on the heels of Wake and, as you can see, I found a British two-fer package that combines the two albums into one gatefold sleeve. And that makes sense because of the similar sound of the two records. Garcia sings the spooky ballad 'China Doll' and that's definitely a highlight, but Bob Weir steals the show again with the ultra pretty, jazz-influenced 'Unbroken Chain.' I do think you could combine the best bits from these two albums and make a super masterpiece, but going on what's here, I'd say Mars Hotel is the better of the two. Cool stuff.

Grateful Dead — Blues for Allah (1975)

This album is super technical. Just, wow. If they maybe got caught up a little too much in the mellowness of the last two albums, Blues for Allah asserts the band's technical prowess within the first few minutes. It's undoubtedly Jerry's album, so there's noodlin' a-plenty. But, good god, he sounds like Robert Fripp at some points. Just see the opening tunes 'Help on the Way' and 'Slipknot!' for some truly inspired guitar playing. The band has more studio sheen and slickness than ever here, but the playing is so good, it doesn't matter. The whole of side two just seems to be the band flaunting, from the funk rock of 'The Music Never Stopped' through the faux reggae of 'Crazy Fingers' and right up to the album ending freakout epic title track. It may seem blasphemous to say such a later album is the band's studio best, but Blues for Allah puts up a damn strong argument. I don't think it would be a stretch to say that they were never this inspired, at least not in the studio, ever again.

Grateful Dead — Anthem of the Sun (1968)

As the band's second proper studio album, this is the Dead at their most San Francisco-y psychedelic. Even the very first song is obviously cobbled together from studio overdubs and live tapes and includes more than a few noisy, feedback-drenched freakouts — pretty avant garde stuff for 1968. An eight minute long suite that eventually just became known as 'The Other One', and subsequently a pillar around which the band would build improvisations live for many years, it's one hell of a way to start an album. The album follows that blueprint, stitching together studio and live tapes and making for some very up and down psychedelic moments — but garage-y psych; you know, the borderline dark kind that's spooky. This expanded edition doubles the original album's running time with proper live performances of 'Alligator' and 'Caution' and a scorching performance of 'Feedback.' It was around this time that the band released a non-album single, a less-than-three minute studio version of 'Dark Star.'  That, of course, would become their signature tune, but judging from the contents of this album and that brief performance, there was no indication of where exactly they would go from this point.

Grateful Dead — Live/Dead (1969)

The band's first proper live album did as much as any of the following albums to do justice to their concert performances. This one begins with arguably the definitive 'Dark Star' — twenty-three minutes of pure bliss.  Garcia plays like he's channeling some divine power.  Total classic.  The rest of the album does just fine of presenting the Dead in concert, with the other highlight being the surprisingly Bitches Brew-esque run-through of 'Feedback.'  There's a reason this has been the go-to live Dead album for many new fans: it's just wonderful work.

Grateful Dead — Workingman's Dead (1970)

The band's famous country-rock left turn. It was actually a return to their folk roots and represents the band finally calming down off their initial acid trips on record. 'Uncle John's Band' is the well-known single on this one, but the record sounds better as a whole and, if nothing else, it must have made the band seem capable of anything at the time. They only got better in the studio from here.

Grateful Dead — American Beauty (1970)

This is their best album — and one of those absolutely essential "classic rock" LPs that everybody needs to hear at least once. It begins with the enduring classic 'Box of Rain' and ends with the hit single 'Truckin.'  In between, you get song after song of seemingly effortless and absolutely perfect folk rock. I just can't say enough good about this one.  It's probably a rare case of the studio versions of Dead songs being the best — it's that good.

Grateful Dead — Ladies and Gentlemen. . . The Grateful Dead Live at Fillmore East April 1971 (1971)

This is a really nice four disc set that documents the band's stand, closing the Fillmore East in the spring of 1971. Is it essential? Nah, not really. But there's great versions of 'Loser' (extra twangy), 'Ripple' (on electric guitars!), 'Uncle John's Band' (ace harmonies!) and of course 'Dark Star' is just luscious and wonderful here. Maybe a bit too much Pigpen and the cliched blues rock stomp for newcomers here, but this set is now over ten years old and you can usually find it for under $30, which is a steal for what is basically a box set.

Grateful Dead — Europe '72 Vol. 2 (1972)

Recently issued highlights disc to accompany the initial classic live album from the 70's. This one is worth it if only for the hourlong jam that kicks off disc two that combines 'Dark Star' and 'The Other One.' That was a truly inspired day. Otherwise, it's really only for hardcore folks. Great sound quality throughout; must have been fun to go through those tapes.

Grateful Dead — Dead Set (1980)

For the band's fifteenth anniversary, they played a series of shows at the Warfield theater in San Francisco where they played two sets nightly: an acoustic and an electric one. Dead Set is a highlights disc of the electric sets and it presents unique versions of 'Friend of the Devil', 'Loser', 'Franklin's Tower' and this two disc deluxe edition ends up with a really interesting take on 'Shakedown Street.' A pretty good live document of the slicker version of the Dead. It certainly has its charms.

Grateful Dead — Reckoning (1980)

The companion album to Dead Set is a highlights disc of the acoustic sets. And. . . it's just damn good. There's arguably definitive versions of 'China Doll', 'To Lay Me Down', 'Bird Song' and 'Ripple.' This deluxe edition contains an entire disc of alternate versions, studio rehearsals and extra tracks, playing up the folky tunes the band would tackle occasionally. As a document of the Dead as a folk rock act, it's pretty much essential.