The Paltry Sum’s Favorite Grateful Dead Albums To Accompany The Psychedelic Experience

So you have the tee shirt, you decided that you are gonna let Stealie melt your face, you dig Bertha and her crown of roses and you are willing to take a sip of the sacred nectar in order to step on the stage and dance with the Dead, but you would like a little direction of where to start listening in the midst of the sea of the Dead’s 200 plus albums? This list is for you, my fellow traveler to the coast of perfection. A top ten of the best Grateful Dead albums to take a trip with. You buy the ticket, you take the ride, but making the right choice for music, is the key to tripping well.

The Grateful Dead are THE band of the psychedelic revolution, so it is no coincidence that Captain Trips and his band of merry pranksters make music that sounds and more importantly, feels great and reassuring when in a psychedelically altered headspace.

The quality of the sound, the vibrational perfection, the beautiful imagery all melt together to make the archetypal musical heavy trip potion. The Dead are big medicine for trippers, yet much beloved of many of who do not partake of the psy-sacrament. Warner Brothers were desperate for the band to produce commercially viable material, and it was not until 1970 when the Dead released two huge albums, Workingman’s Dead and American Beauty that they gave Warner Brothers that cosmically tinged country-esque infinitely radio playable and marketable crossover material that bridged the gap between the ‘heads and the average radio listener. What sounds best to non-tripping ears and to the chemically enhanced souls is two different things. To the ‘unexperienced’ some of their material made for the ‘heads and the Haight Ashbury tripping Acid test scene sounds bizarre and inaccessible. To me, at least, although like anyone with a set of ears and a brain to match them, the more commercially viable material sounds good, it is not what you need with a head full of shrooms or acid.

Everyone who listens to the Dead has their favorite dead albums, and what might be the best subjectively for listening pleasure when grounded in the reality of this big blue marble that spins in the eternal dark, might not be the most satisfying in the midst of the brilliant light of psychedelic experience. Have you ever been experienced? Well, I have, like Hendrix once sang, and the Dead have the almost unique ability to untangle the most hung up of trippers. Lyrics like “sharp and narrow like an arrow” cut through the mass of woods and weeds that catch the most ardent of trippers. That “lady finger dipped in moonlight” in the same song, St Stephen triggers beauty not fear.

The Grateful Dead made the most altruistic music that has ever graced the airwaves. It exists primarily to provide a soundtrack to fun, and some of it exists (I might even say mostly) in order to help trippers, both of the day and the lifestyle kind, trip as happily and productively as possible. Saint Jerome has a voice and a jazz jam sensibility that can charm even the most disturbed psychonaut. Wier has that strong prankster energy and his rhythm guitar weaves and waves between the melody, adding to it and embellishing it effortlessly, and Lesh’s unconventional bass adds layers as well as rhythm. Add to that two drummers, a parade of keyboardists, a few years with the delightful female vocalist, Donna Godchaux, and the talented but doomed Pigpen, the original leader of the band and bluesmaster supreme, and the shifting chemistry of the band created pure alchemical gold.

My favorite Dead albums to trip to, in ascending order might not be yours, but that is the (American) Beauty of the Dead. They are a band which speaks to the individual whilst forging a community. The band and those in its orbit were a family. Those that love it made their own family, a strong community built around the music that spoke kindness and beauty to them. Listening to the Dead can be almost a religious experience. This is a spiritual band, that calls out to the soul, which is partly due to the fact that the Dead made music on acid for acidheads. The struggle with the record company was partly based around the fact that Warner Bros wanted commercial music, and the Dead were dedicated to making music for the freaks.

Here are my top five picks for Deadhead heavenly sounds for neon nights:

5) Terrapin Station

This is only at 5th place because of the troublesomely disco boogie version of the Stone’s Dancing in the Streets, which fails to fit into the otherwise superlative line up of this immaculately produced album. The band must have been high or something to think that it fit in with the other tracks in either philosophy or sound. Now we have got that out the way, here is the good stuff. Estimated Prophet, the opening reggae infused, cannabis scented song that delighted so many at their live shows, appears in a blistering studio version, showcasing the band’s enviable energy and chemistry. The lyrics detail a tripper falling into a common trick of the light, feeling like they have the keys the the kingdom as a prophet of the Californian scene. It captures that essence of feeling illuminated but never quite capturing the feeling and turning it into reality, with the wailing sax adding dark notes of paradise lost.

Passenger rocks along with energy and verve, as real a rock track as the Dead have ever put out, coupled with spiritually enlightening lyrics of compassion and kindness, it is a delight. Samson and Delilah is a traditional song based on the biblical exploits of Samson and Delilah, a tale for the ages of male downfall at the hands of a woman thanks to his desire and her beauty. It is a riproaring trip through an ancient tale and sets the album up for the fairytale-like epic final track, Terrapin Station. Sunrise, featuring Donna Godchaux’s vocals is a shimmering soaring gentle elemental jam that soothes and stimulates. The final track runs in at over 16 minutes long, and so does not disturb the flow of a psychedelic wave. There is no transition to deal with, and this is immensely helpful when tripping. Sometimes you want to stay in a groove for a while and the Dead enable this by providing a long track with clear and gentle progression in both time signatures and keys. The song goes through periods of light and dark, happiness and sadness, taking the listener on a ride through the world of Terrapin Station with the Dead as the guide. Listening to this track on psychedelics is an experience of great beauty and joy. The band is a pied piper, leading the dancing children on a journey that is positive, rewarding and also powerful. The highs and lows do not jar or challenge. This is a piece of superlative trippy music storytelling. . . just skip the Stone’s cover!

4) From The Mars Hotel (1974)The real Mars Hotel was a San Franciscan dive, that had been used by Kerouac and Cassidy when they were in their On The Road years. It was demolished in the early 60s to make way for the Yerba Buena development, taking along a bit of San Francisco Beat history along with it. Want to know what it feels like to ‘get on the bus’ with the Merry Pranksters and take that trip? Then you want to take From The Mars Hotel for a spin.

The Neal Cassidy-eque rap and jive of the opening track, US Blues sets the hip scene and it only gets even better from then on in. China Doll sounds like the Beatles with more soul and compassion, adding a little more edge and cool to the mix, weaving its longing and sadness. The heady mix of cosmic space-jam country, folk-rock and psychedelia gives birth to a beautiful and listenable album that engages and does not challenge too intensely. This album is a trip through ’60s San Francisco, and distills that sense of freedom, peace and nostalgia into its tracks. You can taste that clean air, see the happy hippy faces and feel the vibrations of the road beneath your feet. Want to feel happy? Want to hang with that Ship of Fools and see if you can touch that special moment of the ’60s where peace and love and getting ‘back to the garden’ seemed possible? Want to capture some bottle sunshine superman joy? Want to join the Pranksters for a trip down the road a while? Want to connect to the natural successors to the Beat experience and touch the essence of the American hippy road dream? This is the perfect partner for a light and breezy hippy trip! After all, no one wants to kiss outer-space and touch enlightenment every time they venture out of their heads into the unchartered yonder!

3) Anthem of the SunThe Dead’s second album, Anthem of the Sun, is a psychedelic masterpiece, and the original mix that was put out, which did not play to the record’s company’s desire for a more accessible album, is a slice of pure acid-infused trippy joy. There is no rocky element, though Pigpen’s blues sensibilities are still evident. This is quite simply a definitive early psychedelic powerhouse without the irritating child-like sugary fairy-story whimsy of Floyd’s Piper at the Gates of Dawn, missing the threatening darkness of the 13th Floor Elevators work, but with more interest and bite than Sgt Pepper’s. There is plenty of interest here thanks to the splicing technique of the production which used a collage-like editing technique, splicing together live and studio performances, as well as a panoply of interesting sound effects and unconventional instruments like the kazoo and guiro.

This exploration into the psychedelic psyche by way of the avant-garde and the extreme bravery of a band who was embracing and also embraced by the acid scene and the resulting creativity and adventurous spirit, is both stimulating and calming. The band is existing on the psychedelic plane and invites you into their trip. The whole goal of this album is to help the listener trip well and have fun. There is a great sense of openness and air and interest in Anthem of the Sun. Each track bleeds into the next without any harsh or jarring transitions providing a concept-album sense of continuity. A triumph of practical useful psychedelia! Sounds better high on psychedelics than it does straight, and that says it all.

2) Europe 72 & Live Dead (Joint Second place)

The Dead were always a live band, and their studio albums feel more like adverts for their shows at times, than the end goal. Some of the most perfect and spirited performances of their songs were not the studio versions, but those times when the band was feeding off the energy of the crowd and Jerry put out some inspired solo guitar work and the band’s chemistry fired up through every single synapse.

For those long extended trips where all you want is to hear Jerry and the band explore sound and movement and time and beat, these two live albums cannot be beaten. This was where the magic happened and those fragile moments of perfection took place. Drift away on a cloud carpet of inspiration with Jerry’s guitar leading you onwards and forwards. The Lyceum 1972 performance of Morning Dew remains a candidate for the best live performance of any song ever – it is a happening of such feeling, such emotion, such beauty, and his guitar tells the sadness and the hope so eloquently I have been known to put it on loop, and let it ring out like a lighthouse beam hoping that it leads all the dancing children deadheads home. These two albums of beacons of psychedelic hope, infused with the dreams and joy of a million deadheads and the wisdom and beauty of the band who knew the map to tripping like the backs of their talented hands.

1) Aoxomoxoa

This is the album I come back to time and time and time again. For me this is the best, most powerful psychedelic album ever produced, and I can’t begin to explain how deeply I love it. It is the help that is on the way, it is the comfort and the catalyst for good trips with the perfect balance in the tracks between the light and the dark, the serious and the funny. It is both at times a fun house mirrored room topsy turvy trip and a sacred moment of supreme beauty and calmness.

This album is the key to unlocking difficult trips. It seems to breathe on the same wavelength as the psychedelic mind. It encourages movement of mind and body. St Stephen is like the recipe to untangle a mind from a challenging trip. The key, the beat, the yelps, the intense joy, the vibrancy shakes loose a trapped brain. The lyrics have a mystic twist, acting like a catalyst for beautiful visions. “Lady finger dipped in moonlight” cuts through the insectoid presences, the tangled rose gardens, the twisting mandala visions, and breaks through into sheer stunning gorgeousness. It never fails to shake a difficult period in a trip free for me.

The sound has an almost underwater quality to it, an echo that does not jar with the distortions of the tripping mind. Moments of lightness in tracks like the circus-like Dupree’s Diamond Blues and Doin’ That Rag lighten the mood and cause the corners of the mouth to turn upwards. Rosemary takes the sound back to the courtly romantic, almost Arthurian, and the distortion through the lens of psilocybin or LSD, is almost righted to the point of clarity, in a neat little trick. Listen to this straight and you might not see the genius behind it. Listen to it on psychedelics and have your hair blown back by beauty, compassion, altruistic kindness and genius.

Mountains of the Moon take the listener to those space-places that can intimidate and terrify, but when accompanied by Jerry and the boys, become fascinating and gorgeous. You are not alone when you trip with Aoxomoxoa. It has an almost unique ability to positively influence a trip, and calm and cool down any difficulties. It is one of the most beautiful things I have ever heard, and has the air of a spiritual experience. China Cat Sunflower takes the mood back to a party, showing the listener a cool hallucination through the eyes of the Dead. Who wouldn’t want to see a Sunflower China Cat dance? Do you see a china cat with sunflowers painted on its side, or a sunflower with the head of a china cat? The song invites you to dance and wiggle, to laugh and be joyful.

What’s Become of the Baby is a strange track, greatly distorted and with the atmosphere of a gregorian chant. There is a scene in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas where Hunter’s lawyer has done a lot of acid, got into the bath with a knife and wants Hunter to throw a radio into the bath at the peak of White Rabbit when Grace hits that beautiful strong pure note. This desperation to hear something again and again on LSD or psilocybin because it is causing mind-shivers, visions of such power and beauty is a rare thing, and something that for me happens every time I listen to this song. The vibrations of Jerry’s sweet voice chanting, the perfection of the distortion, the echo, the almost holiness of this track is magical, supernatural, powerful.

Cosmic Charlie, the tale of a Haight hippy being seen on the scene closes out the album with a smile. We are all cosmic Charlie’s to a certain extent, and Jerry sings the children home, down from their highs and their lows back into the day to day material world that Charlie inhabits.

Say you’ll come back, when you can
Whenever your airplane happens to land
Maybe I’ll be back here too
It all depends on, what’s with you

Cosmic Charlie

We are invited to come back again after our ‘airplane lands’, and we are sure we will. Calling back the soul into the body, the spirit out of the cosmos and into the world of the streets and the the communal mundane reality sadly has to happen, but not before “baby’ is played on repeat for a few hours. The Dead are a magical happening, spiritual leaders of not just a generation, but a tribe of trippers and freaks, and freedom fighters for peace and love.

If I could only listen to one album again for the rest of my life, this one would be it. I have such a deep connection to it at this point in time, that it is the only thing that actually makes audio sense to me.


The Grateful Dead are primarily a band made for heads of various kinds, a band that existed for fun, for comfort, for solidarity. They were notoriously unbothered with success, commercial viability and money. They saw themselves as the band that was there to lead the heads, the San Francisco scene, the acid tests, the hippies, the successors to the beat Generation into the brave beautiful new psychedelic dawn. Sadly the experiment failed with Altamont, at least on a large scale, but the Dead kept the faith and the party going for years, and it is still alive, even past the sad death of Jerry Garcia in 1995. I am going to see Dead & Company play their final show in San Francisco in July. I wish Jerry was there, but there is something so precious about this ultimately caring band who gave so much of themselves to make other people happy, and that can be heard time and time again in their music which still comforts, challenges and entertains all these years on, and will forever more. The Dead are timeless.

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