13. Grateful Dead - American Beauty (Ron "Pigpen" McKernan)
Experiencing the Dead live would seem to be a much different journey than listening to one of their albums. The Dead made very few great studio albums, simply because their sound rarely managed to translate into structured recordings. In fact, even the most diehard Jerry Garcia fanatic would be hard-pressed to name more than two legitimately great Dead albums. Not so coincidentally, both of those album were released in 1970, and both saw the band abandoning most of their extemporaneous noodling and venturing into more focused roots rock. At first listen, Workingman's Dead sounds like a Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young album. (Or least someone covering some rare CSNY b-sides.) Expanding on those folksier elements, the Dead released American Beauty just a few months later, and it's a more cohesive listen than the previous effort, with the band really sinking into their newfound Americana stylings. From the opening, sure-footed melodies of "Box of Rain" straight through to their most popular radio hit, "Truckin," they sound somehow lusher and looser, finally channeling their rambling tendencies into something of a thesis. The songs retain that endless optimism that the Dead is known for, and on the Pigpen-sung "Operator," that's essential, as it's the last recorded album that features the keyboardist and occasional vocalist in good health. He'd become greatly affected by cirrhosis before passing on due to a gastrointestinal hemorrhage three years later.