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.