They’re the greatest jam band in history (sorry, Phish!) and one of the most enduring rock acts of all time—yet they’ve never won a Grammy and had only one top 10 hit during their original 30-year run. Now, two decades after Jerry Garcia’s death, the band is saying goodbye to the Grateful Dead with five beyond-sold-out shows.
Along with the thousands of bootlegs of their 2,318 shows that circulate the web, the Grateful Dead have officially released 13 studio albums and 140 live albums (so far). Each Deadhead has a unique list of the essential recordings, but these are the ones you need to own. Grab a pint of Cherry Garcia and your preferred herbal refreshment and dive in.
After four years of studio albums that failed to transmit the experience of their live shows, the Dead went all in with a double live album, set to tape at San Francisco’s Fillmore, their home turf and acid-tripping bastion. Live/Dead, with far-out “Dark Star” and rave-up “Turn On Your Love Light,” set the bar for live improvisation in rock & roll.
Dick’s Picks Vol. 8 (1970)
Recorded at Harpur College in upstate New York, the crown jewel of their 36-volume Dick’s Picks series—curated by longtime archivist Dick Latvala—has frenetic jams and a gorgeous acoustic set. From serene folk (“I Know You Rider”) to face-melting freakouts (“Good Lovin'”), it’s a definitive statement of the Dead’s versatility.
Workingman’s Dead (1970)
Proof they’re more than a jam band: This album features counterculture anthem “Casey Jones.” Largely a Garcia-penned record, Workingman’s also gets downright folky on cuts like “Dire Wolf” and “Cumberland Blues.”
American Beauty (1970)
Their best studio LP is pure AM Gold, with country-tinged tunes even non-Deadheads can love. Cuts like “Sugar Magnolia” and “Truckin'” are windows-down freewheelin’ gems, but “Ripple” and “Brokedown Palace” bring melancholy nostalgia that gives American Beauty emotional heft.
Sunshine Daydream (1972)
The Dead endured hours of sweltering Oregon heat in this legendary benefit performance to save Ken Kesey’s family creamery. Spark a doobie and cue up “Bird Song”—or other cosmic trips like “Playing In the Band” and “Dark Star”—in this recently issued show, long loved by bootleggers.
Live at Barton Hall (1977)
There’s a reason this is in the Library of Congress: Drifting from disco-inflected R&B (“Dancin’ In the Streets”) to proggy titans (“Scarlet Begonias > Fire On the Mountain”), it’s simply their greatest concert ever. The Dead have never published it, but like many other unreleased shows, it’s available for free streaming.
This mellow set compiles cuts from a 1980 tour, where the band returned to their acoustic roots. The Dead reprise many of the folk classics from Dick’s Picks Vol. 8, but with an additional decade of life experience.
Wake Up to Find Out (1990)
The Dead are on fire at this spacey, late-career gig—a period that was hit or miss after Garcia suffered a coma in 1986—with iconic jazz saxophonist Branford Marsalis.