Wednesday, July 10, 2019

The Masters: The Grateful Dead - Top Five Studio Albums

RtBE loves listening to new music and prides itself on keeping tabs on up and coming artists but in 2019 we are also going to have a monthly spotlight on legendary artists who we really love. We are calling this series The Masters. It will focus on the best albums, live records, transcendent shows and other odd ways we appreciate the artists and their contribution to music, culture and our formation.
For August The Masters focuses on The Grateful Dead.

While the other months of The Masters series has allowed RtBE to focus on artists we love but haven't had the opportunity to highlight, this month is a bit different. Before the Monday Dylan Cover Series began, we used to focus on Grateful Dead shows every Monday for the first year or so of the site. Here is one example from the past as we have written a good deal about them for the site, but really wanted to include them in this new series. 

It is no coincidence we are focusing on the Dead during July, they are this sites vote as America's best band and they were the ultimate summer attraction with their touring hoards of Dothrak...err Dead Heads. While in the past we have spent time on individual shows (which may come up when we get to the live album post) today we are going to tackle studio albums which according to every fan of the bands (except the sites friend Lindsay) agree is not their strongest work.

The truth is, even from their earliest days the Grateful Dead always over did things in the studio, whether from the producers idea (#5 on our list) or by their own choice (#4 and #3 on our list) the band just couldn't control themselves. Some would argue they couldn't control themselves out of the studio either, but that is a different post. 

That said, the band had a long and winding career with many musical phases and it was fun to go back and listen to their studio albums to put this list together. So let's start "Truckin'":

#5 Terrapin Station - 1977

Anyway you slice it 1977 proved to be a high point for the band as they came back from their two year hiatus. Some of their best/most popular/best bootlegged shows (we will get to these later this month) happened in this year, and they released a major album...that they struggled with  record company, producers and Arista Records to bring fourth Terrapin Station. What was produced in the end gave wins to both sides but was not 100% successful, so it goes....

Kicking off with Bob Weir's best tune "Estimated Prophet" gets the album cooking with a really great studio version of a song that went on to be played thousands of times. Unfortunately the disco of the time seeps into the bands studio version of their cover of "Dancing In The Streets"; there are solid Dead cover versions of this tune out there, this is not one of them. 

Phil Lesh didn't write a ton of songs for the band but the ones he did are always interesting and "Passenger" is no exception, this version cooks pretty hot for the studio and while there are better takes on "Samson and Delia" this take is no tame kitty and while not perfect the first four songs are pretty damn solid. Closing out the original 1st side of the LP is "Sunrise"

RtBE actually enjoys Donn Jean Godchaux contributions to the band (unlike some Dead fans) but "Sunrise" is a complete misstep and really begins the problems with the second half of the record; overproduction. The title track is a phenomenal tune, great imagery, chords, etc but do we really need all 16 minutes of this pomp and circumstance? Short answer, no. While this may be the studio version, it is far from the best version of this classic song as producers went overboard agains the bands wishes. That said, there is enough positive on Terrapin Station to kick off our list of 5 best studio albums.

#4 Aoxomoxoa - 1969

Still letting their freak flags fly but starting to see a more song based path, Aoxomoxoa signaled the beginning of a turning point for the group. Kicking off with a triumphant "St. Stephen" the group manages to stay cosmic throughout but puts in some strong song work and their first brushes with acoustic playing. The group went wild with the then brand new 16 track and re-listening to the record now there are so many sounds and instrumentation going it can be overwhelming or kinda exhilarating. "Dupree's Diamond Blues" is a good example, if it stuck around until a later album it probably would not have had so many crazy sounds pumping through a fairly straight ahead folk tune, but it somehow still sounds cool.

"Rosemary" is a warbling short odd one from the freaks while "Doin' That Rag" has the bizarre tempo changes keeping listeners on edge as does the psychedelic folk of "Mountains of the Moon".  Two of the best are saved for the end as "China Cat Sunflower" has a cool run through in studio with crazy background vocals and the warbling shuffle of "Cosmic Charlie", an underrated Dead tune, wraps things up....A transitional album from the band where they were still flying high but saw the land below. Things were more freaky and a bit better on it's predecessor...

#3 Anthem of the Sun - 1968 

This may be technically cheating as the band went hog wild and interjected tons of live material with their studio work making more of a musical collage than an album with songs proper, but that fit the times and this band perfectly; it is still a trip to listen to. If you want to get technical and not call this a studio album and we needed to add one more to this list RtBE would slide In The Dark into the fifth spot, but there is no need for that today...back to Anthem.

The seamless first half is really a joy to behold even 50+ years later. The swirling sounds, crazy instrumentation and joyfully tripped out "That's It For The Other One" > "New Potato Caboose" > "Born Crosseyed"  is a fucking hoot. The expansive craziness experimentation and palpable energy are all contagious. The band was experimenting all over, trying to blend studio and live stage magic for something new.

The second half isn't quite as successful, but still pretty damn good at capturing this band at this particular cosmic place and time. "Alligator" runs around and bothering us (in a good way) some more with percussion leading the way before Garcia's uber expressive lead guitar and organ come back in. The great lead vocal from Pigpen and feedback madness of "Caution (Do Not Step On The Tracks)" wraps up the black hole blues of this long strange trip.

#2 Workingman's Dead -1970

While numbers 3-5 on this list are fairly malleable and others could be inserted on your personal list without much complaint from RtBE, the top two on this list are rock solid and shouldn't cause any disagreement perhaps except which one of these you lean more towards. Both were amazingly released in the fertile year of 1970 and are stone cold classics which fans of any type of music can appreciate and we slot Workingman's Dead second.

It is a long way from the psychedelia of their birth to this record. The group stripped down, went all the way back to their folkie roots and embedded that with some of the best writing lyricist Robert Hunter ever produced. Kicking off with the soon to be anthem tune, "Uncle John's Band the band instantly announces it's new intentions, grounding their fan base, asking them to sit down by the riverside rather than shooting them into outer space.

That earthy feel is allover Workingman's down to the sun faded album art. The muddy wheels of :"High Time" The band wanted to put their spin on the Bakersfield sound and that they did, but made it even more relaxing than was expected.

The big proponent of this was Garcia whose steel guitar is at the center of it all. Garcia and company had also been super impressed with Crosby Stills & Nash vocal work and decided to use their voices as instruments, focusing heavily on harmonies and singing texture. "Dire Wolf" is a great example of all of these traits as is closer "Casey Jones" while the slinky groove of "New Speedway Boogie" and the rambling "Cumberland Blues".

While it might not be a fashionable opinion, "Black Peter" is not a favorite, dragging things down and that track along with the fine, but not must hear Pigpen contribution "Easy Wind" keeps WD in our second slot on this list. That said this a great album through and through and needs to be owned...but one tops it in RtBEs opinion.

#1 American Beauty  - 1970

An extension of Workingman's Dead in almost all ways, and one that tops it's predecessor in most  aspects. The steel guitar work of Garcia seems even more in tune with the overall ascetic, the harmonies are even richer, there are ties to the blues, folk and an even better insertion of the bands own style into the acoustic roots styling.

They nailed it this go around, from the still top ten cover art work of all-time to the final notes of the soon to be classic "Truckin'" this one is A+ through and through. Opening with majestic "Box of Rain" written by Hunter for bassist Phil Lesh's recently deceased father, the track still sounds mystical and yet honest almost 50 years removed.

The hits flow fourth as do the gorgeous harmonies and fantastic lyrical work as "Sugar Magnolia" and "Friend of the Devil" are dynamite, just listen to Phil's bass work weave around the steel guitar and work with the textured percussion of Mickey Hart and Bill Kreutzmann. The last contribution from Pigpen in the studio is the groovy "Operator" and "Candyman" connects the blues of Mississippi John Hurt with the freaks from San Fran. 

Side two starts and ends with iconic statement songs as "Ripple" is as pretty as these guys ever got, sweetly singing and playing while "Truckin'" is a tune that will never stop rolling down the road. In between there are a few more joyful numbers such the cinematic "Brokedown Palace" the vocal majesty of "Attics Of My Life" and then the band drops in a rocking number that struts with a deserved confidence "'Til The Morning Comes" showing the band could keep their new found vocal dynamics and rock. They only played it 6 times live, which is a shame but while stylistically it is a bit of an outlier on the album, it is still a winner. Workingman's or Beauty, listeners can't lose when those are the top two of any list.

How'd we do? Agree? Disagree? Feel free to comment and as always thanks for reading.   

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