The Grateful Dead

To certain elitists, the name “Grateful Dead” represents an impasse; like the phrase “slap bass,” it is a combination of words whose very invocation can instantly elicit the gas face. It is not my intention to refute the negative connotations associated with the band — airheaded solipsism, boomer excesses, self-indulgent musical masturbation — nor do I intend this piece to double as acid test recruitment propaganda for disillusioned indie rockers (though, it should be said, some of them might benefit from a dosing). Rather, I’d like to introduce Dead-haters and Dead-neutrals alike to a most overlooked facet of the group’s music, one that separates them from every band of blunted jammers from Phish to Wooden Shjips: the songs.

Fanatical Deadheads, most of whom have heard almost every Dead song literally hundreds of times, frequently speak in terms of specific live versions of Grateful Dead songs rather than the songs themselves. When discussions of the Dead’s music are not dominated by references to mind-erasing jams, they’re rife with esoteric jargon and secret code words (“bass bombs,” “Betty boards,” “the Phil zone,” and, hey, what’s with all the “greater than” signs?); it can all be a bit difficult to penetrate. Even among Deadheads, the songs themselves are often taken for granted as mere launching pads for fearless improvisational jams. But forget everything you know about the band’s parking-lot flea-market subculture — the dancing bears, the tie-dye, and that one asshole at your high school with the blond dreadlocks — and you will be rewarded with some of most poetic and powerful tunes in the canon of American song.

Despite all appearances to the contrary, the Dead organization was shrewd about many things; there’s even a book titled Everything I Know About Business I Learned From The Grateful Dead. As with any major corporation (which the Dead became, officially, in 1976), mistakes were made, but on the whole, this was a decidedly savvy group of people. The Dead’s canniest decision of all, however, was not economic, but aesthetic: the decision to outsource lyric writing duties to people outside the band. Robert Hunter and John Barlow shared the Dead’s worldview and musical sensibilities but showed little to no interest in joining them onstage. Conversely, the members of the Grateful Dead loved to jam, but were largely limited as wordsmiths. And so, starting around 1968, the band would stick to the business of music, and let Barlow and Hunter worry about the words. Because of this unusual division of labor, it is crucial to include Hunter and Barlow in any discussion of the Dead’s greatest songs.

Hunter mostly wrote with Garcia; Barlow mostly wrote with Weir. There’s overlap, of course, and almost everyone who’s ever played in the Grateful Dead has at least a few writing credits (though, tellingly, very few appear on this list), but generally speaking the Dead’s oeuvre is defined by Hunter-Garcia compositions, Weir-Barlow compositions, and the various cover songs that actually comprise the majority of Grateful Dead music.

It is the dynamic of two very distinct songwriting teams that gives Grateful Dead songs their unique identity, even within the band’s catalog: Hunter’s lyrics are often preoccupied with phenomena, abstraction, and mythology, making him the perfect foil for the eternally curious and broad-minded Garcia; Barlow’s themes are more linear and elemental, vaguely cynical but not unromantic, characteristics that would seem to match the profile of his songwriting partner. It is telling that Hunter and Weir stopped collaborating around 1971 following a backstage feud over Weir’s ad-libbing on “Sugar Magnolia.”

Hear “Bertha,” “Sugaree,” or “Touch Of Grey” once and they’ll be popping into your head the rest of your life. The chorus of, say, “Ramble On Rose” is to a Deadhead what “The Rocky Road To Dublin” is to a denizen of an Irish pub, or what “99 Bottles Of Beer On The Wall” is to a car-confined child: obnoxious to the unconverted, sure, but sacred to the singer. These songs of outlaws, demons, and gamblers (lots of gambling in Grateful Dead songs!) have a way of getting into your blood; singing along with them just feels good.

Because the individual members of the Grateful Dead hail from vastly different musical backgrounds, there is no one clear, definable influence on the band’s sound, nor its songs; rather, the tunes reflect an omnivorous collective muse. Garcia-sung ballads like “Brokedown Palace,” “Stella Blue,” or “Attics Of My Life” owe debts to a folk tradition that predates Dylan, while albums like the psychedelic country Workingman’s Dead or the disco-leaning Shakedown Street showcase the sound of a band absorbing everything — the thick, polytonal atmosphere of electric Miles; the high lonesome apocrypha of Bill Monroe; the Bakersfield speedballs of Merle Haggard; the urbane boogie of the Band — and dealing it back out as mosaic. It’s not for nothing that many tales of Deadhead conversion (my own included) begin with an initial trickery, with some skeptical naysayer baited by the promise of psych folk, drone, fusion, or alt country only to find themselves balls deep into a sales pitch from the world’s most famous jam band. For fun, play the garage psych snob in your life the blistering “The Golden Road To Unlimited Devotion” and see if you can’t convince them they’re hearing a lost 13th Floor Elevators jam (just add amplified jug!).

I must emphasize that because we are discussing great songs in the traditional Western sense (which I will, for the sake of argument, define as songs that are as powerful performed on a lone ukulele as they are by a seven-piece band), much of the Grateful Dead’s greatest music will not be covered here. The studio recording of the band’s masterpiece “Dark Star,” for instance, is slight in comparison to live renditions, which could exceed 45 minutes — over eighteen times the length of the version found on the 1968 single. Similarly, fan favorites like “Scarlet Begonias > Fire On the Mountain” and “Playing In The Band” may have provided springboards for some of the Dead’s most magisterial improvised music, but no one is likely to bust them out around a bonfire. Indeed, a list of greatest Dead “jams” would look very different, and would include all of these.

Because of the band’s mutable relationship to their catalog, this list will necessarily focus less on specific performances and more on the lyrical and musical components of the songs themselves. However, I have included at the end of each entry some specific listening recommendations. Most of the recommended live versions can be streamed for free on the Internet Archive, while I’ve mostly relegated the ’bootlegs’ in question to those easily procured via sanctioned sources like the Dick’s Picks series of soundboard recordings. Lastly, in brazen defiance of prevailing Deadhead wisdom, I have also endorsed several studio recordings. The list begins here.

10. “Touch Of Grey” (from In The Dark, 1987)

There exists a pejorative to describe Grateful Dead fans who gate-crashed their way onboard the bus after the band scored their first (and only) top ten hit in 1987: “Touchheads.” The contemptuous nickname is a reference to “Touch Of Grey,” the sweet and irresistible ode to survival that remains the Grateful Dead song almost everyone knows. Following the kind of FM radio attention that eluded the Dead for over two decades, MTV began showing at regular intervals the revolutionary music video for “Touch Of Grey,” directed by drummer Bill Kreutzmann’s son Justin. The Grateful Dead was suddenly very fashionable, but this unexpected success came at a price, as eager hordes of new fans threatened to disturb the fragile equilibrium of the Deadhead monoverse. Even the largest arenas suddenly found themselves unable to accommodate the front-runners, rubberneckers, and lookie-loos alongside the usual tribe of diehards. What had once been a moderately sized, self-sustaining enterprise was now a circus, and a Grateful Dead concert would never be the same. Though the unlikely success of the song may have proven more curse than boon, it was no fluke: “Touch Of Grey” is, quite simply, one of the Dead’s most infectious and magical pop songs, one that would have found its way to the charts whether it had been released in 1987, 1967, or 2007; it is the rare song that endures despite its ubiquity over supermarket PAs, in dentist’s office waiting rooms, and all points in between. The song’s stubbornly sanguine refrain: “I will get by… I will survive” would take on a new resonance in performances after Garcia’s rehabilitation following a diabetic coma in the summer of 1986.

Versions to hear:

In The Dark (1987)

07/13/84, Greek Theater, Berkeley, CA

12/31/85, Oakland Coliseum, Oakland, CA

9. “Estimated Prophet” (from Terrapin Station, 1977)

This odd Weir-Barlow piece in 7/4 time has long been a showcase for Garcia’s experiments with the Mu-Tron III auto wah effects pedal, a sound as synonymous with the Grateful Dead as Lesh’s bass bombs or Weir’s, um, creative slide guitar playing. As Garcia guides a pitter of short, clipped notes toward egoless, phantom spaces, Lesh’s slurring bass notes accent the tune’s sauntering halftime feel, stonily nodding toward reggae. “Estimated Prophet” concerns the sort of spiritual snake oil salesmen briefly ubiquitous in the late ’70s; self-styled shamans formed in the wreckage of the Love generation’s worst ideas. “The basis of it is this guy I see at nearly every backstage door,” Weir told David Gans in 1977. “There’s always some guy who’s taken a lot of dope and he’s really bug-eyed, and he’s having some kind of vision.” It was likely not lost on Weir that his own band commanded a similar sort of veneration, complete with devotees charting pilgrimages around the band’s movements around the country, and that the line between “fan” and “follower” was often easily blurred. Whether experienced as vision quest or bad trip, the ominous and riveting “Estimated Prophet” is a cautionary tale that portends dramatic consequences. It would also prove grimly prescient: Just over a year after the song’s February 1977 premier in San Bernardino, California, People’s Temple cult leader Jim Jones would successfully orchestrate a mass “revolutionary suicide” in Guyana, exterminating 909 people. File under: Darkside of the Dead.

Versions to hear:

Dick’s Picks Volume 3 – 5/22/77, The Sportatorium, Pembroke Pines, FL

Dick’s Picks Volume 15 – 9/3/77, Raceway Park, Englishtown, NJ

7/8/78, Red Rocks Ampitheatre, Morrison, CO

8. “Cassidy” (from Bob Weir – Ace, 1972)

Doubling as both an elegy to beatnik cowboy Neil Cassady and a salutation to Cassidy Law, the baby born to Dead sales manager Eileen Law and Dead roadie Rex Jackson, this Weir–Barlow composition is one of the Dead’s breeziest and merriest-sounding tunes. Though it was Hunter, not Barlow, whose writing style favored existential dualities, “Cassidy” casts an astute, uncharacteristically metaphysical eye on the circuitous nature of life and death. In an illuminating 1980 essay titled “Cassidy’s Tale,” Barlow, describing the elder Cassady as “The Avatar Of American Hipness,” claims that the connection between the poet’s demise and the birth of Law was “too difficult to ignore.” The version of “Cassidy” heard on Weir’s excellent solo album Ace (a Grateful Dead album in all but name) is strident and taut, bolstered by the harmony vocals of Donna Jean Godchaux; onstage, it would transform as many great Dead songs do. Though the Grateful Dead never officially recorded the song, “Cassidy” would become something of a fixture in Dead setlists for years to come, and holds the distinction, along with “Bird Song,” “Sugaree” and a few others, of being a rare “first set” song to frequently accommodate extended jamming.

Versions to hear:

Bob Weir – Ace (1972)

7/18/76, Orpheum Theatre, San Francisco, CA

5/7/77, Boston Garden, Boston, Massachusetts

Dick’s Picks Volume 13 – 5/6/81, Nassau Coliseum, Uniondale, NY

7. “Eyes Of The World” (from Wake Of The Flood, 1973)

“Eyes Of The World” is a song of riddles. The lyrics assert that we each superficially perceive the world somewhat objectively, but that our hearts are distinguished by their own individualistic homelands, seasons, and thoughts; eyes and heart exist as a perfect binary, with no one component less crucial or less reliable than its counterpart. The chorus of “Eyes Of The World” may seem, at first, grafted from another song, but this intrusion serves to enforce the dualism espoused in the lyrics. And though the message of civil harmony and shared accountability may seem deceptively simple, “Eyes Of The World” is dotted with what could be read as meta-commentary, like the lyric “Sometimes the songs that we sing are just songs of our own”; few lines better summarize the Grateful Dead métier of spontaneous creation and unwavering trust in the third eye. The sophisticated modalism of “Eyes Of The World” also distinguishes it as very much the product of a post-Europe 72 — that is to say post-Pigpen — Grateful Dead; it’s difficult to reconcile this jazzy, complex tune with the lascivious, bluesy rave-ups of the band’s early days. “Eyes Of The World” would usher in several years of “jazzy Dead,” which would soon give way to a full-blown “disco Dead” by 1978; the intersection of these two eras, taking place roughly between 1974 and 1977, would provide the breeding ground for the most exhilarating and intrepid music of the band’s career.

Versions to hear:

Live At The Cow Palace (2007)

6/18/74, Freedom Hall, Louisville, KY

Dick’s Picks Volume 3 – 5/22/77, The Sportatorium, Pembroke Pines, FL

6. “Ripple” (from American Beauty, 1970)

For those not already acquainted with the song, “Ripple” may require some suspension of irony. Light, jubilant, and superficially bearing some of the pseudo-mysticism that tends to date folk songs of this period, “Ripple” is definitely not for the cynical. Nevertheless, the song is a masterpiece. Its sage-like lyrics, upon closer inspection, suggest the perceptive eye of a poet, not a polymath (“Let it be known/ there is a fountain/ that was not made by the hands of man”), while David Grisman’s mandolin precisely corroborates the mysterious lyrics of the song’s chorus, its cascading strings forming a synergy with the song’s haiku refrain: “Ripple in still water/ when there is no pebble tossed/ no wind to blow.” It’s the sound of secular humanists wondering “what if?” Despite being relegated to the B-side of drug bust-themed single “Truckin,’” “Ripple” received considerable airplay, and though the Dead rarely performed it live (a mere 39 appearances between 1970 and 1988), it remains one the band’s most deservedly popular and well-loved songs.

Versions to hear:

American Beauty (1970)

Reckoning (1981)

10/31/80, Radio City Music Hall, New York, NY

5. “Althea” (from Go To Heaven, 1980)

This slack, laidback ode to a mythological Earth Mother is perhaps the funkiest song to ever reference Shakespeare. The frontline of Lesh, Garcia and Weir hack at a slinky, New Orleans boogie that recalls Tony Joe White or Little Feat, mutating into a single greasy organism; Lesh in particular pushes the subtly intricate pattern towards an exhilarating extrasolar groove, while new keyboardist Brent Mydland provides dabs of Fender Rhodes twinkle. Few bands have ever sounded so rubbery or so elegantly stoned (though parts of Palace Music’s 1995 album Viva Last Blues seem to channel some of the spirit). The song’s lyrics concern a world-weary narrator engaging in a dialogue with a goddess whose explicit wisdom he ultimately fails to heed. It is a song cautioning against distinctly moral problems: serial recidivism, shortsightedness, and spiritual emptiness, and taking Garcia’s well-publicized drug addiction into account, it is tempting to view “Althea” as Hunter’s coded attempt at an intervention for his friend. The Dead would try to recapture some of the song’s breezy chug seven years later on In The Dark soundalike “West LA Fadeway,” but the studio version of “Althea,” found on the underrated Go To Heaven album, captures the band at its swampiest.

Versions to hear:

Go To Heaven (1980)

Without A Net (1990)

Dick’s Picks Volume 6 – 10/14/83, Hartford Civic Center, Hartford, NY

4. “Friend Of The Devil” (from American Beauty, 1980)

Until around 1976, when it would be suddenly recast as a slow, narcotic ballad, “Friend Of The Devil” was a caffeinated Appalachian-sounding piece that retained, more than any other song from the classic American Beauty album, some of the country rock dalliances of Workingman’s Dead, released earlier that same year. Though written with assistance from John Dawson of New Riders Of The Purple Sage, the lyrics are vintage Hunter: a fugitive being pursued by “twenty hounds” for an unnamed crime eludes the law by employing the services of the Devil, whom he bribes. In between, there is cave-squatting, polygamy, and denials of paternity: all the ingredients for a classic Badlands ballad. “Friend Of The Devil” is, along with “Dire Wolf,” the Grateful Dead song that would have fit most comfortably on Harry Smith’s seminal Anthology Of American Folk Music. Hunter might agree: he told Relix that “Friend Of The Devil” was “the closest we’ve come to what may be a classic song.”

Versions to hear:

American Beauty (1970)

Dick’s Picks Volume 5 – 12/26/79 Okaland Auditorium Arena, Oakland, CA

Dick’s Picks Volume 8 – 5/2/70, Harpur College, Binghamton, NY

3. “Loser” (from Jerry Garcia – Garcia, 1972)

One of several Hunter-Garcia tunes written from the perspective of a no-count gambler, “Loser” is a note-perfect evocation of a deadbeat’s delusions of grandeur. The song’s protagonist repeatedly swears he’s “got no chance of losing this time”; one last score is all he needs, and then it’ll be the straight and narrow from here on out. It’s a tale as old as Mickey Spillane, Alfred Hitchcock, or Michael Corleone, but “Loser” is so vivid, so gorgeously rendered, you almost forget you know how this story ends. Depending on your tastes, Garcia ballads either drag or smolder, and “Loser” is as good a test as any to determine your side of that particular line. The song’s tempo is almost achingly slow, with rich, long stretches of deep-focus calm followed by tremorous bursts of manic energy. “Loser” is also the rare Grateful Dead song that seemed to improve with age, though not always for good reasons: like many of Garcia’s largo masterpieces, the song seemed to swim in direct proportion to Garcia’s worsening drug problem. Whether this is because Garcia began identifying with the song’s doomed narrator or was just nodding out in rhythm is, of course, purely speculative. Either way, this one’s a heartbreaker and a half.

Versions to hear:

Europe 72, Volume 2 (2011)

9/3/77, Raceway Park, Englishtown, NJ

5/2/80, Hampton Coliseum, Hampton, VA

2. “Uncle John’s Band” (from Workingman’s Dead, 1970)

1970′s Workingman’s Dead, perhaps even more than its immediate successor American Beauty, represents the absolute peak of Grateful Dead songwriting. Successive albums would each contain at least a handful of great songs, but Workingman’s Dead is literally full of them. Inspired by the formalist harmonies of Crosby Stills and Nash, the album’s rich vocalizing and lucid, capacious atmosphere represented a dramatic about-face from the sound of the band’s previous albums, which reveled in claustrophobia and chaos. “Uncle John’s Band” opens the album with a lilting, descending acoustic guitar riff and a close three-part harmony. Garcia credits Greek-Macedonian music for inspiring some of the more exultant-sounding licks, while Hunter’s annotation-worthy lyrics are embroidered with obscure references to old mountain tunes, Irving Berlin, and the Gadsden Flag of the American Revolution, among other things. Some have heard in “Uncle John’s Band” a sort of Grateful Dead theme song — with Garcia in the title role, of course — but both Hunter and Garcia have vehemently rejected this theory. Though lyrics like “He’s come to take his children home” do suggest a scattered hippie diaspora being led to glory by their virtuosic savior Captain Trips, these lines could just as easily apply to John The Baptist (and probably do). Complicating the matter further, Hunter has always claimed that the Uncle John of the song’s title was inspired by an obscure con man who traveled all over Kansas City with what he insisted was a musical — but microscopic — flea circus. Far out.

Versions to hear:

Workingman’s Dead (1970)

Dick’s Picks Volume 24 – 3/23/74, The Cow Palace, Daly City, CA

The Grateful Dead Movie Soundtrack (2005)

1. “St. Stephen” (from Aoxomoxoa, 1969)

A rare songwriting collaboration that added bassist Phil Lesh to the Hunter-Garcia songwriting team, “St. Stephen” is the Grateful Dead song most likely to convert even the most patchouli-averse rock fan. A lurching, psychedelic juggernaut, “St. Stephen” is loosely based around the story of the 1st century AD prophet of the same name, whose twin claims to fame are for appearing as the first martyr of the New Testament and for being stoned to death, and the song’s primal stomp is appropriately apocalyptic. I have thus far resisted trotting out the Deadhead axiom that the band’s studio recordings do not compare to their live analogues, but in the case of “St. Stephen,” there is no question about it: the wild, heavy version on 1969′s officially released Live Dead is the definitive and greatest extant version of the song — few bootlegs compare. Though the song regularly disappeared from the Grateful Dead setlist, sometimes for years at a time, the finest live renditions of “St. Stephen” reestablish the dynamic contract between audience and performer. Listen to the reaction from the rapturous Madison Square Garden crowd as the band begins to play the song’s unmistakable opening lick for the first time in almost five years; then listen to the band’s immediate musical response. Get goosebumps? Betcha did. Grateful Dead concerts were never exhibitions of prowess or commercials for the band’s latest product, but an open line communication between the band and its fans. It is for this reason, above all others, that the Grateful Dead remains so beloved nearly two decades after its final show. Just listen.

Versions to hear:

Live Dead (1969)

Dick’s Picks Volume 26 – 4/27/69, Labor Temple, Minneapolis, MN

10/11/83, Madison Square Garden, New York, NY

5/8/77 Barton Hall, Cornell University, Ithaca, NY

Comments (109)
  1. Hidden due to low comment rating. Click here to see

    • That’s because you’re a blochead… and not a deadhead.

    • The Grateful Dead? Top ten lists?

      • Trying to come up with a “Top 10″ list of Grateful Dead songs is like trying to tie your shoes with one hand. It’s incredibly frustrating and, in the end, impossible (yes, I know, it’s not literally impossible, as the list above demonstrates, but you know what I mean.) For one thing, with the exception or maybe two or three songs, the studio versions are, for me, so inconsequential compared to the live renditions, ranking them wouldn’t even occur to me. It would be like asking me to rank bacon. Just makes no sense. So then you’re left with the live versions. But there are simply way too many of those to even begin to come up with a top 10 list. It’s simply too subjective (you can make the argument that almost any top 10 list is subjective – and you’d be right – but it’s especially true here.) Even trying to come up with the best version of a single song is impossible — the hundreds of live versions of Eyes of the World, for instance, are all different enough, I don’t think that 10 deadheads chosen at random could come up with a consensus on the “best” one. Which, in the end, is what makes listening to the music of the Grateful Dead such a rich experience.

        • While I can’t argue that making a top 10 list of Dead songs would be nearly impossible, I can say that I am in the middle of going through all of the Dead shows that I have, listening to them on the dates they were played, or as close as I can, since some days have too many, while there are days with no shows, or just one. It’s been a fun project, and approaching mid-September, I’ve been able to keep up for the year, so far. My point being, along the way, I have added certain songs along the way to my iPod’s on-the-go playlists, where I will have to filter those later for a few different playlists. The first one, and most relevant is the playlist of my favorite versions of their songs, not just anytime a favorite is played (Personally, I’ve come to realize that Loser and Me & My Uncle are my favorite songs to sing to, so up the list they naturally climb.). Another playlist is to mark those where they swear (in case I’m in charge of music, and discretion is advised, if not required), and also unique versions of songs, which mirrors my “alternate versions” playlist, where it’s changed up somehow. Among those that have impressed me most, I absolutely love the May 1977 box set. Ultimately, someosongs will be on the favorite versions playlist multiple times because they blow me away. Likewise, some songs just will never make it on there, especially if Phil Lesh is singing lead. (Sorry, love the guy. Love the bass. Not a big fan of his vocals. Same goes for Welnick.)

          Also, I have to disagree with most people’s sentiment about their studio albums. While I love their live music as much as anybody, I also love the studio stuff. I don’t care what anybody says.

  2. Pretty interesting catalogue to tackle, I’d have to dedicate a lot of time to Dead listening to feel qualified to make the list.

  3. Should be the best 100 songs by The Grateful Dead. No band has ever had more consistently GREAT songs than The Grateful Dead.

    Love to add:
    “Morning Dew”
    “Brokedown Palace”
    “Shakedown Street”
    “Jack Straw”
    “Tennessee Jed”

  4. As a casual appreciator of the Dead, I’ve always been partial to “Ripple.” It would be hard for me not to just load this up with stuff from Workingman’s Dead and American Beauty, so nicely done on the variety front.

  5. I kinda agree, though it’s impossible to pick just 10.

  6. i’m not going to lie, that list ain’t bad. you put althea and loser in there. i honestly thought this was going to be a top hits kind of list (seeing touch of grey on there at first almost confirmed it). the dead really did write some incredible songs. don’t be afraid, narrow-assholed indie rockers.

  7. Hidden due to low comment rating. Click here to see

  8. This needs to be renamed Grateful Deads Top Ten Bootlegs.

  9. Lindsay Weird would like you to know that Box of Rain is missing from this list.

  10. Great stuff. Thanks for writing an article that addresses what the Dead were doing with precision. You had me at Althea.

  11. It’s really nice to see you put some time into this list. Dire Wolf and Franklin’s Tower are a couple I always include in my tops.

  12. Good distinction between songs and jams too – it’s really hard to catalog the Dead because they are so many things.

  13. Where’s “Feedback” or “Drums”???????????

  14. Excellent writing about a difficult subject, though I don’t think that, in 2014, the defensive stance of the opening graph is necessary. By now indie fans know that Ginn, Renaldo, Banhart and other luminaries are devoted fans of the Dead: justification made.

    The Grateful Dead is the greatest American rock band. They covered more ground, stylistically and geographically, over a longer period, than anyone else. The rest fall will forever fall under their shadow.

    This list is fun and well argued. For the record, I’d have had Jack Straw in there.

    • “The Greatest American rock band” is a subjective thing obviously but there’s just no way you can say The Velvet Underground, Beach Boys, The Band, CCR, The Doors, The Stooges, Van Halen, Talking Heads, Pixies, Nirvana, etc. etc. etc. are “forever” under the shadow of the Grateful Dead. I mean I get that you like them, but c’mon.

      • Sure, it’s all subjective. That goes without saying.

        But yeah, the Grateful Dead is the greatest American rock band.

      • The Band are 4/5 Canadian; if we’re including Canadians, I’d have a very hard time deciding between Crazy Horse and the Dead, anyway. Velvets definitely in the running for all-time greatest American band — no argument — and I would add Sonic Youth, as long as we’re making lists.

        • I’ve had this argument several times, and I think that both R.E.M. and the Ramones need to be mentioned. But the group that I usually argue for (yet almost never convince anybody that I’m right) is the Supremes.

          • A few more contenders: Sly & The Family Stone, Parliament Funkadelic, Metallica. And eventhough you can’t call them purely American, at the very top for me is The Jimi Hendrix Experience.

  15. My “jam band phase” in high school and college taught me HOW to listen to music. Songs like these and the epic improvisations that go along with them can only truly be appreciated by someone who is actively paying a lot of attention to the music. I don’t listen to the dead or phish or anything else like that much anymore (not because I think it’s bad) but this list has prompted me to go back and listen some more. Gonna be a goooooood day!

  16. Stella Blue
    Wharf Rat
    Unbroken Chain
    St Stephens

  17. Although I don’t agree with this statement, it has to be said (although I don’t think it’s too relevant any longer):

    “Grateful Dead – Music sucks, chicks are hot!”

  18. No “Space?”

    This list is invalid….

  19. Hidden due to low comment rating. Click here to see

    • Your comment suffers from being completely irrelevant. Jerry doesn’t have a distinct singing approach? How does hating Phish fit into anything? The Dead have a ton of great songs and this wasn’t supposed to be a list about another band that you’re more interested in reading about–Quicksilver Messenger Service–it’s supposed to be a list of Dead songs. I don’t agree with the list, but I definitely don’t agree with your pointless response to it, even more.

  20. Good choices. Also, Hell in a Bucket and Terrapin Station. So many

  21. “I’d like to introduce Dead-haters and Dead-neutrals alike to a most overlooked facet of the group’s music, one that separates them from every band of blunted jammers from Phish to Wooden Shjips: the songs.”

    Thank you! I have been saying that for years…or, a version of that. Anyway, great piece but:

    Box Of Rain
    Wharf Rat
    Unbroken Chain

    • Ah, a Phil fan! Totally considered “Unbroken Chain” – goosebumps for me every time, and one of my absolute favorites. I even wrote an entry for it! If this was a ‘top 12,’ I assure you, “Unbroken Chain” would have made it. Love “Wharf Rat,” too. Ambivalent about BOR

      • Should’ve went all-in there bud! Ha. As for BOR, I’m typically drawn to the darker, less rollicking stuff (I am a metalhead) but, yeah, Phil.

        So thanks again. This is awesome.

  22. Anyone who would like a nice introduction to the Dead, should get the 2-disc compilation ‘What A Long Strange Trip It’s Been.’ Disc 2 has some blazing live renditions of several of their greatest songs.

  23. Props for including Althea. Good list, I would have switched out Cassidy and Loser for Bird Song and Dire Wolf.

  24. I must admit I never got it. I’ve been a music junkie my entire life. And I’ve known TONS of Deadheads. I’m from Northern California, for God’s sake. And I’ve noticed one thing about almost every single one of them (with a couple notable exceptions)…………The Deadheads I’ve known didn’t own much Dead music and didn’t LISTEN to it that much. It became such an interesting phenomena that I started asking my Deadhead friends how much did they actually listen to the Dead. The usual response was something along the lines of “when we have a big party” or “when I’m getting my smoke on”. But rarely on a day to day basis……….

    I know the hate is about to spill all over me and that’s fine. But I’ve REALLY tried to listen to this band but when stacked up against their contemporaries the tunes just aren’t that great. Am I the only one who thinks this is a “Mom’s Meatloaf” situation? You know….the idea that your mom’s meatloaf will always be your fave thing on earth because it resonates with you because it was such a great memory from a simpler time? Even if mom’s meatloaf wasn’t all that great?

    Again, spew away…….I stick to my guns on the above.

    • When a deadhead says “when we have a big party” or “whenever I’m getting my smoke on” that could easily mean ALL DAY EVERY DAY.

    • No hate here, I love the Dead but there’s tons of other great music out there. I grew up in the Northeast and I had the complete opposite experience than you’re talking about. Most Deadheads I knew were so hardcore they would listen only to the Dead constantly to the annoyance of most non-Deadheads around them. (I was like that for awhile but I got to the point where I eventually got tired of them and had to stop listening for a few years). Maybe it’s an east coast/west coast thing I don’t know…

  25. My first thought when I saw this posted was, “St. Stephen belongs at number 1.” Glad to see you agreed.

    I would have put Dire Wolf on my list, but every song on this list is a great call.

  26. i would like to thank jeff rosso for turning me onto american beauty

  27. Only glaring omission is Black Star. And list needs that one. The Dead catalogue is just so deep though, there are 100 songs that would fit on this list.

  28. Oh yeah…”Ship Of Fools.” That song is great too.

  29. I guess mine, non-jam minded, would look something like:

    - Scarlet Begonias (I think this did a really nice job of distilling the more idealized vision of what Haight-Ashburry or hippies or whatever were supposed to be about)
    - Fire on the Mountain
    - Ripple
    - Cassidy
    - Brown Eyed Women
    - Uncle John’s Band
    - Sugar Magnolia
    - Box of Rain
    - He’s Gone
    - Mississippi Half-Step Tudeloo

    That’s not in any kind of order despite the fact that I only commented on the first one. If it was live Eyes of the World & Help on the Way>Slipknot>Franklin’s Tower would both shoot way up.

  30. Lotta love for the Grateful Dead here. Sweet!

  31. Glad their getting their due on this blog. Dead fans show no hate for others, and I never understood why certain snobby types hated on them. Guess it’s better to be unpopular and not have unwelcomed attention than to be big and have people that will never get your music have to form an opinion on them. Glad that page is turning on their legacy. I should check some of these songs out.

  32. Thought I’m already echoing what others have said (with reference to specific songs) I’m a bit disheartened to see nothing from From the Mars Hotel on this list: “Unbroken Chain”, “China Doll”, “Scarlet Begonias” and “Ship of Fools” all rank with the best Dead songs (not just extended jams–which is why I DO agree with your point in the intro that “Dark Star”, while amazing, probably doesn’t belong on a song list. Oh, and I don’t think there’s enough earlier Dead on here: “Alligator”, “Morning Dew” and “Mountains of the Moon” probably belong on here too. Come to think of it, they really were a great song band. Finally, since you DID include the Live/Dead version of “St. Stephen” it should be pointed out that the “Dark Star/St. Stephen/the Eleven” triumvirate does constitute some kind of apotheosis of improvisational rock music. Or the sixties. Or both.

  33. As someone who’s been immersed in this music since I was a fetus (Jerry fans will recognize my avatar!) I want to thank you for putting together such a great write up and list. Props for digging deep for gems like Estimated and Loser. Unlike other lists, I won’t nitpick because there are just too many near and dear to my heart that I could never put together a top 20 let alone a top ten. I will recommend some songs for the more jam-minded folks out there looking for various live versions: Darkstar, Playin’ In The Band, The Other One ->The Eleven, Weather Report Suite, Scarlet Begonias->Fire On The Mountain, China Cat Sunflower, Terrapin Station, Help On The Way -> Slipknot-> Franklin’s Tower. Some other songs that mean a lot to me: Wharf Rat, Mississippi Half-Step, Dire Wolf, Bertha, Black Peter, and Deal.

  34. helluva write-up. guess i’m gonna have to check out your music now.

  35. dead albums best to worst: i vote yes.

  36. “brown eyed women”, “franklin’s tower”, “stella blue”, “weather report suite”. “uncle john’s band”, “ripple”, “eyes of the world”, “it must have been the roses”, “st. stephen”, “bertha”

    that’s my shot at it anyway.

  37. 1. So Many Roads
    2.Terrain Station
    3.Stella Blue
    4.High Time
    5.Crazy Fingers
    6.Chinacat Sunflower > I know you Rider (as one song)
    7.Scarlet Begonias > Fire on the Mountain (as one song)
    8.Bird Song
    9.If I had the WorLd to GiVe
    10.Black Muddy River……..
    …its hard to only pick ten.

  38. My favorites are Terrapin, Cumberland, St. Stephen, Bird Song, Brown Eyed Women, Scarlet Begonias, Uncle John’s Band and some others I’m probably forgetting.

    Cumberland has some of my favorite vocals parts ever.

    And I know it’s not really a great song but Phil’s Pride of Cucamonga is amazing

  39. Nice list. I’ve kinda left the Dead with the remnants of my jamband past, although I’ll still breakout Europe ’72 once or twice a year. But I can still appreciate. And I can still recall how pissed off I would get in college when my less informed friends would compare Panic to the Dead (I was an angry, opinionated stoner).

    I think my top 10 list would just include songs with Pigpen on lead vocals. I might have to put three or four versions of “Good Morning, Little Schoolgirl” on there to make it work, but it would be worth it. Oh, and “Jack Straw” too. Shout out to the UK for having a Foreign Secretary with the same name as a perhaps mythical leader of a medieval peasant revolt and my old piece of glass.

  40. How you decided on this list I’ll never know. This band is like Jazz for me, it doesn’t often come to you: you must go to IT. Different songs for different times of life, different sounds across the decades, the constant variations of ways the songs are played…this is one hell of a constantly changing kaleidoscope to iron down for one thought. Its like picking the top ten breaths of air ever inhaled across total biological existance. How to even start on the perameters? The innovations they helped usher in with stage amplification and instrument technology alone are unprecedented. Just don’t listen to this list at a computer. Take a drive, or a walk. And maybe not even to this list. Have your “dead” friend make you THEIR mix. Then come back to this one. Either way, congrats on the listing and good people read this article before limiting the descirptions to words like “jam band.”

  41. Decent list, though I’d have liked to have seen some love for Mars Hotel–China Doll, Ship of Fools, and most notably, Unbroken Chain are way way way up there for me.

    Also, data point: American Beauty was from 1970, not 1980 as you’ve got written up there next to FOTD. Sorry to nitpick, I’m sure it was just a typo.

    Also, Black Peter should have a place on this list.

    Toth, your next assignment: Best to Worst for Smog/Callahan. Do it.

  42. And then all the hardcore Deadheads showed up and yelled at me for liking Dark Star (particularly the Live/Dead version) the most.

    • Hardcore Deadhead here: no one minds that you like Dark Star the most. Check out the 2/13/70 and 9/21/72 versions if you haven’t already. Live/Dead is 100% classic material and contains what is probably my favorite version of The Eleven. It’s all graaaavy baaaaaaby.

      • Ah see you’re cool. I had the weirdest experience buying acid from some intense Deadheads a few years ago (most stereotypical college experience EVER). I was knee deep in my Greatful Dead phase at the time and we got to talking about our favorite songs. I mentioned Dark Star being my favorite song and Live/Dead being my favorite album and I got the weirdest looks. I felt like I was surrounded by Zep fans and had just said my favorite song was Stairway.

  43. Well Just a real quick answer Errr Impossible to pick just 10 Songs. live or or not Crazy Fingers, Warf Rat, Scarlet Begonias, China Doll, U.S.Blues…Or,He’s Gone, Helps on the way /Slipknot /Fraklin’s Tower, It must have been the Rose’s…. Ahhhhh there is to many i thought of 5 more just typing this…. This would be a huge research project… There is a plethora of material for me to pic just 10 would be Difficult … i.e. impossible

  44. I’d add:
    Franklin’s Towwer
    Sugar Magnolia
    He’s Gone
    Jack Straw
    Tennessee Jed

    & I’d leave off:
    Touch of Grey
    St Stephen

    Oops – More than 10 – LOL

  45. Forgot Bertha

  46. “Once a deadhead, always a deadhead:):)”!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

  47. Uncle John’s Band starts with an ascending, not descending, chord progression: G, Bmin, C, D.

    Cassidy isn’t even the best song on Ace, that belongs to Greatest Story Ever Told.

    Also, substitute Wheel for Loser on Garcia.

  48. “Brokedown Palace” should be on this list. But everything’s subjective, so who gives a shit.

  49. trollin trollin trollin trollin trollin

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