The Grateful Dead are back on the Billboard charts this week, though they’re never actually ever gone for very long. The band’s new release, Dave’s Picks, Volume 47: Kiel Auditorium, St. Louis, MO, 12/9/79, debuts on the Billboard 200, the all-encompassing ranking of the most-consumed albums and EPs in America, at No. 27.
The set’s immediate success only further underlines something very odd happening with the group, something that doesn’t seem to have happened with any other musical act, at least not to the degree that it is taking place when it comes to The Grateful Dead.
The Grateful Dead have now sent 119 different projects on the Billboard 200, which is likely an all-time record for the most charting titles on the competitive tally. As most superstars are lucky to reach 20 or 30 or more placements in a lifetime, the fact that the jam band’s career sum is now into three-digit territory is amazing. But it’s not the only aspect of their success worth mentioning.
Among the band’s 119 Billboard 200 charting albums, only one has broken into the top 10. Back in 1987, their set In the Dark rose to No. 6, and it still stands as their only placement inside the highest tier on the tally. So far, the rock band has yet to score even a single No. 1.
But it must be pointed out that many of their releases perform very well. Their albums don’t often debut and peak close to the bottom of the Billboard 200. While they may not reach the top 10, more than 50 of their albums have broken into the top 40 on the tally. These recordings, largely live, are commercially successful, if only for a small period, but yet they’re not huge enough to become top 10s or even leaders.
It’s somewhat odd that The Grateful Dead are popular enough, even years after their official split (though the name has lived on in some connected, but separate bands ever since) to reach the Billboard 200 and come close to the top 10, but fail to reach the area. The band doesn’t promote their efforts in traditional ways, and thus it’s not shocking that they don’t all climb the ranking. But the fact that they come close—with many arriving inside the top 20—but narrowly miss the mark so consistently is unusual.
Also odd is the fact that The Grateful Dead were also never hugely successful on the Hot 100. Billboard’s ranking of the most-consumed songs in the U.S. is largely catered toward current day stars and radio hits, but even some who are more known for their ability to sell albums reach the list. In addition to their 119 titles that have placed on the Billboard 200, only five songs from the group have found their way to the Hot 100. One might think that singles would help propel those albums to their success peaks, but that very much seems to not be the case.
The Grateful Dead have clearly developed a massive fan base, one which has stuck with them for decades. Their music lives on through dozens of live recordings, and they regularly send these releases to the Billboard 200 with ease, racking up huge sales for a band that hasn’t returned to the studio in a long, long time. The unusual makeup of their discography doesn’t suggest anything fishy is going on, but rather points to a very specific niche they’ve carved out for themselves and a following that comes together to support whatever they have to give whenever it arrives with regularity.