Best Of The B List: The Year of the Dead

[Originally Published: December 14, 2006]

The Grateful Dead established the genre of rock improvisation and have always been innovators, establishing trends both good and bad. Over the band’s 30-year history they went through many changes in their sound and personnel. Fans have very different opinions on which years they love and which years they hate, and now I present my list of the five best years in Grateful Dead history.

Read on for my comprehensive look at the Dead’s five best years, including links to what I think are the five best of each year and some analysis on why I think the things I think. Make sure to jump into the deep end at the end and tell me why I’m dead-on-balls accurate or so horribly wrong I should cut myself at night…

5. 1979: Nineteen seventy-nine was a year of major change for the Grateful Dead. Keith and Donna Godchaux left the band and Brent Mydland entered. Keith was no doubt an amazing player, but he seemed to be allergic to any keyboard that wasn’t a piano. Brent revitalized the band with his dynamic organ and synthesiser tones. May 1979 itself is severely underrated, but the band really hit its stride towards the end of the year.

New Songs: Althea, Saint of Circumstance, Alabama Getaway, and Lost Sailor

Most Played: Minglewood (42), Good Lovin’ (37), and Deal (32)

Shows of the Year: 1/10/79, 2/17/79, 5/7/79, 10/27/79, and 10/28/79


4. 1970: In 1970 the Dead blended the primal rock explorations of the late ’60s with the incredible songwriting found on Workingman’s Dead and American Beauty. The band was hitting on all cylinders with many New Rider of the Purple Sage double bills that featured a whopping four sets of Jerry. Side projects would steal band members’ time moving forward, but in 1970 the Dead played an impressive 146 show, the most they ever played in one year.

New Songs: Friend of the Devil, Candyman, Attics of My Life, Sugar Magnolia, To Lay Me Down, Brokedown Palace, Ripple, Truckin, and Operator

Most Played: Good Lovin’ (67), Casey Jones (65), and I Know You Rider (65)

Shows of the Year: 1/3/70, 2/11/70, 5/2/70, 9/19/70, and 10/31/70

3. 1973: The Dead once again found a different genre-defying sound in 1973, which they displayed on songs like the new Eyes of the World and Here Comes Sunshine. Each show was a marathon, packed full of jams and marvelous songs. The improv was amazing, and the band was taking chances and stretching out songs to a level not previously seen before.

New Songs: China Doll, Eyes of the World, Here Comes Sunshine, Loose Lucy, They Love Each Other, Row Jimmy, Wave That Flag, Let It Grow, WRS Prelude, You Ain’t Woman Enough, and Peggy-O

Most Played: El Paso (65), Row Jimmy (61), Big River (59), and Mexicali Blues (56)

Shows of the Year: 2/9/73, 5/26/73, 11/14/73, 12/2/73, and 12/19/73

2. 1977: Precision and polish are the best words I could come up with to describe the Grateful Dead in 1977. It took the band a couple of tours to warm up after the hiatus of 1975, but by May of 1977 they turned a corner. Every band member was at his or her best, and improved monitors helped Donna sing in key more frequently. Jerry et al played 60 shows in ’77, and each of them has moments of pure ecstasy.

New Songs: Estimated Prophet, Terrapin Station, Fire on the Mountain, Sunrise, and Passenger

Most Played: Estimated Prophet (51), Samson and Delilah (41), Minglewood (35)

Shows of the Year: 2/26/77, 5/7/77, 5/8/77, 5/22/77, and 12/29/77

1. 1974: The Grateful Dead announced they would be retiring following a run of shows at the Winterland in October of 1974. All of the sudden the band played with a passion never seen before or since. The year started with two three-set shows, coming out of the gate strong and never losing energy. Billy and Phil were at their absolute best, changing directions and tempo on a dime, seeming to act as four arms of the same person.

Every night each musician in the band left nothing in the tank. The setlists were diverse, the jams were succinct, and every song was played with excitement. No expense was spared to give the fans the best sound possible, as the band toured with the revolutionary Wall of Sound. From the day I heard the tapes of Freedom Hall there was never a doubt in my mind that 1974 was the pinnacle of the Grateful Dead.

New Songs: It Must Have Been The Roses, U.S. Blues, Ship of Fools, Cassidy, Scarlet Begonias, Money Money, and Slipknot

Most Played: U.S. Blues (35), Big River (34), El Paso (32), and Jack Straw (31)

Shows of the Year: 2/23/74, 5/19/74, 6/18/74, 9/11/74, and 10/20/74

So what do you think? Make sure to sound off in the comments below…

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28 Responses

  1. Wowza. What a fabulous summary.

    Scotty B, you were made for this stuff and this stuff was made for you.

    Question: what prompted the change in retirement plans in ’74 and how did they announce the reversal?


  2. I think touring with the Wall of Sound was expensive and made touring a losing proposition. The band wanted to devote time to recording Blues For Allah and never really took anytime off from being a band. Not sure if that answers your question, but I took a shot.

  3. I would have include 1987 as a year the band just were on fire. Brent settled in and was the energy of the band that year. 9-18-87 speaks volumes for the energy they had. Check the entire second set out.

  4. c’mon… 73 was the best year. amazing songs debuted. some speed jazz jamming. THE BEST china riders EVER. THREE SET SHOWS in may. c’mon… and the best poster ever is from nassau 73

  5. 1972 is my favorite year, and it didn’t even make your list. It was a transition year between the rootsy americana shows of 1970/1971 and the psychedelia of 1973/74. As a result 1972 was a melding of both. The Europe ’72 and Fall ’72 tours were especially sublime.

  6. Good/Enjoyable reading, however, not very “dead-like” in taking a chance when picking best years. sure, the 70s are without a doubt the best of the Dead, but what about 1989, 1991, 1985, 1969, 1968 and other Non-1970s dead??

    Just say that all of the 70s were the peak and then it’s up to each person which year(s) are the best. I’d like to see your take on the other decades.


  7. 1972 was indeed a year of big change. It is truly incredible how many transitions the band went through in their first fifteen years.

  8. I might say 69′, stictly for it’s primal quality, but 70 is a solid choice. Other than that, maybe swapping 73 and 77, but hey, not bad.

  9. I’m with you on numbers 1-4. I tend to think of 1973/1974 as one year (hey, who said a year could only have 12 months?) since the sound was so similar across the 2 years. The PITBs and EOTWs from those years are outstanding. I would replace 1979 with 1972 in the top 5 years.

  10. I’m with you on numbers 1-4. I tend to think of 1973/1974 as one year (hey, who said a year could only have 12 months?) since the sound was so similar across the 2 years. The PITBs and EOTWs from those years are outstanding. I would replace 1979 with 1972 in the top 5 years.

  11. yes, 74, 73, and 77 are the most consistent shows in the dead’s career, which is why they are in my top 5. I am not so sure I would agree on 79 or 70…maybe for a top 10 list. yes, 70 was an explosive/innovative year of progression, and was home to many superior shows but there is no way the shows were as consistently brilliant when compared to years like 68, 72, and 89, to name of few. 79 was great as well, but it took brent a few months to adjust to the band before he consistently played well at most shows. The energy changed in every era and each era appeals to a different listener. Its all just a matter of personal taste. The key term when picking top years is consistency, for example 2/22/74 – 5/25/74 or 10/73 through 12/73 or 4/72 through 5/72 does not have a show that I would consider less than 3.75-4 stars outta 5 stars…and the five star shows in these time periods are mind boggling! Every song played to perfection! Find an era in 70 or 79 that you can say that about, and then your argument is justified.

  12. My Top 5 “Years”:

    5.) 1987 or 1989…
    best of the brent years/post jerry coma/phil-bill “woke up,” etc
    4.) 1968…
    prime pigpen/primal jerry tones/phil figured out how to play bass/billy-mickey worked out the kinks, still raw, etc
    3.) 1977…
    2/26 – 10/2 – 6/9, to name a few /month of may/scarlet met fire/terrapin/worked out the kinks from the hiatus, etc
    2.) 4/1972 – 4/1973…
    europe 72, fall 72, final pigpen, EOTW /HCS /WRS /DS / PITB at their best/new jam introduced into china>rider jam, etc
    1.) 10/1973-10/1974…

    1 year = 12 months

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  14. pretty well dead on, though I would have had ’73 as #1, ’74 as #2. 2.26.73 & 6.10.73 are two shows that I would recommend to understand my ranking difference.

  15. Suprised not to see ’72 on this list as it has a lot of the outside jamming (30 minute Dark Stars and The Other Ones) while still maintaining the tight country rock sound they had in 71. I find both 73 and 74 a bit overrated in general by most. One of my gripes is that I don’t like the way the vocals sound in the wall of sound. So trebely, not warm at all.

    1971 gets my vote for most underrated year. The Feb Portchester shows: awesome. April Fillmore East run: amazing. And the november run especially 11/7/71 is amazing and underappreciated.

  16. I would put 1973 at 1 and 1970 at 2. As great as 1974 was, they don’t seem to be listening to each other near as much.

  17. I don’t disagree. No doubt cooking it down to 5 years is an untenable task. In interest of not limiting myself to the 70s, I would add ’87 to the mix: New music, great summer tour with Dylan (following the 86 implosion), new album, and a more healthy Garcia. Same goes for 89/90…really, fall 89 through summer 90 the band was firing on all 16 cylinders. I’ll also throw ’93 into the mix. Coming off another hiatus due to Garcia’s health, 93 was rip roarin’ for the Dead and the JGB. Jerry lost some serious weight and cleaned up for a bit. I’d have to look up the numbers, but I’m pretty sure ’93 was near the top in terms of number of shows played. My 2 cents for a discussion that doesn’t have an end.

  18. I’m just glad to see ’77 on so many peoples’ lists. So many amazing shows that year. You can pick any other years to complete that list, as long as ’77 is there.

  19. What “rob ronanea” says above. Particularly about that Nassau dance party poster! Very surprised to see ’79 at the top of anyone’s list. Although I was at that Cape Cod show and it was one of the best of any era.

  20. Nice List.
    Here’s mine.

    5. 67-68 (tie)
    4. 73
    3. 72
    2. 74
    1. 77

    I find my jaw on the floor listening to those 60’s extended improvisational jam sessions.

  21. I echo the endorsements for 1987. And Fluffhead’s recommendation of 9/18/87 is an excellent choice! Not just the second set – check out Masterpiece & Bird Song from the first set – OUTSTANDING. A beautiful Morning Dew into a La Bamba-infused Good Lovin’ finishes off a great second set. It just happens to be my first GD show too!

  22. Now, do you go by what are the best years for the Dead or what are the most important. I will argue that 79 is very important but it is not top 5, top 10 yes, top 5 is tough to see. Plus on the listed shows, you have to include the New Years run from ’79. There’s a reason there are two formal releases from that run. As others have said, I’d put 73 first. To me, especially the fall tour, is the Dead at their best. Great setlists and they way they ran songs together with the insane transitions was never topped. After that I’d go 77,72 (can’t see how you can leave off 72. Everyone loves the Europe tour and in my opinion, I think Fall 72 is even better),74, and than you can fight it out between 70 or 89-90. These kind of discussion are just another reason why I love the Dead so much.

  23. Great Stuff Scotty,

    I HAVE to urge you to extend those reoommended 79 shows into the ffirst week of November – everything up to the 10th is smoking, with 11/5/79 (Eyes>Estimated>Franklins>D/S>Sailor>Saint) as an INCREDIBLE segment – maybe best segment of the year… It began circulating as a soundboard a few years back and The CHarlie Miller Remix of that material is a must “Seek/Find/Own” piece of music to go along with the Roadtrips dedicated to the next night (both specturm shows)

    FWIW – YMMV…


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