The 10 (Plus 4) Best Grateful Dead Songs

Dead 50th

The Grateful Dead will be celebrating the band’s 50th anniversary this year, notably with a few “reunion” concerts at Chicago’s Soldier Field, the location of the last ever Dead show, July 9, 1995. Singer and guitarist Jerry Garcia has been gone since that summer, but in addition to the surviving band members – Bob Weir, Phil Lesh, Mickey Hart and Bill Kreutzman – the Dead will consist of Trey Anastasio (guitar), Jeff Chimenti (keyboards), and Bruce Hornsby (piano).

I’ve been a Deadhead since my teen years; I “got on the bus,” as Deadheads say, in 1977, seeing the band for the first time at New York’s Palladium Theater. I used to trade tapes, then CDs, and have most of the band’s official releases of their live concerts.

I thought it would be interesting to create a list of the Dead’s 10 best songs for those unfamiliar with the band. But I couldn’t just choose ten; there are four essential songs that simply cannot be omitted. So I list them separately to leave room for ten other great songs.

I’ve not included Amazon links for the various albums I mention, and not all the songs I mention are best heard on a specific album. If you want to discover most of these songs, the excellent Grateful Dead Movie Soundtrack is perhaps the best way to check out the Dead. It’s got five CDs chock full of great music, from one of their most fecund periods. Sunshine Daydream (Amazon.com, Amazon UK) contains one of the Dead’s best concerts, 8/27/72, Veneta, Oregon, and has a partial film of the day. And One from the Vault (Amazon.com, Amazon UK) has the 8/13/75 show, from the Great American Music Hall, which contains the three-song combo I mention below, but also one of the rare performances of Blues for Allah. After that, you’re on your own.First, the four core songs.

  1. Dark Star: This is the band’s classic vehicle for spacey jamming. Ranging from ten minutes to more than a half-hour, Dark Star is the Grateful Dead’s signature song. It was the core of their repertoire in the early days, when they didn’t have many songs to choose from, and is still the band’s most recognizable song.
  2. Playing in the Band: First appearing on the 1971 live album Grateful Dead (aka Skull and Roses), this song was recorded in the studio on Bob Weir’s 1972 album Ace. (This album was a Grateful Dead album in all but name; while all the songs were written by Weir, the entire Grateful Dead played on it.) It slowly became a jamming song, and extended to 10, 15 minutes or more. Some classic versions last a half hour.
  3. (That’s it for) The Other One: First recorded on the 1968 Anthem of the Sun, The Other One is another big song. It would often run as long as a half hour – the “studio” version is 7:40 – and became another jamming song.
  4. Turn on Your Love Light: This 1961 Bobby Bland song was revised and turned into a rap/blues/R&B song with Pigpen (Ron McKernan) taking control and wowing audiences. Again, this was a long song; often twenty minutes or more, reaching 45 minutes in its longest version, at Woodstock. It was the song where the band jammed hard; unlike Dark Star or Playing in the Band, the jams here weren’t psychedelic; they were pure rhythm and blues.

These first four songs are essential to understanding the Grateful Dead, which was really the first jam band. These long songs defined the band. Now that I’ve got them out of the way, it’s time to move on to the ten best Grateful Dead songs that aren’t vehicles for long jams. Naturally, this list is subjective.

  1. Ripple: One of the most moving acoustic songs the band ever played, Ripple is on the 1970 album American Beauty. Both the words and music of this song tell a beautiful tale. It wasn’t a staple of their live shows, but did figure in the acoustic sets they played their late 1980 runs in San Francisco and New York. A great live version of Ripple is on the album Reckoning, which is taken from these concerts.
  2. Eyes of the World: From the 1973 album Wake of the Flood, this is one of the Dead’s jazzier songs, and usually ran from 10 to 15 minutes live. It was played a lot through the end of 1974 (until “the hiatus”), and a wonderful live version is in The Grateful Dead movie, as well as on the box set of five CDs of recordings from the run in San Francisco, in October, 1974, that was filmed for that movie.
  3. Morning Dew: This Bonnie Dobson song about the last man and woman alive after a nuclear holocaust became one of the Dead’s most powerful live songs. The Dead started playing it in 1967, and recorded it on their first album, The Grateful Dead, as well as featuring it on the live Europe 72. A riveting version of the song closed (before the encore) one of the Dead’s best concerts ever, 5/8/77 at Barton Hall, Cornell University.
  4. China Cat Sunflower > I Know You Rider: Yes, I guess I’m cheating a bit, putting two songs together, but some Grateful Dead pairings are inseparable. This is one of the earliest such pairings, featuring the Dead’s China Cat Sunflower followed by the traditional I Know You Rider. The two songs fit together so perfectly that it’s hard to imagine them separately. The ur-version of this pairing is undoubtedly that on the Europe ’72 album, from 5/3/72 in Paris. I always get a shiver when I listen to this, especially the transitional section between the two songs.
  5. Truckin’: This was the Grateful Dead’s hit, for a while, at least. It got a lot of radio play back in the day – it was on the 1970 American Beauty – and became another vehicle for rocked-out jams. The band played it a lot in 1972, especially during the Europe ’72 tour, and a live version is on the album from that tour. It often segued into The Other One, or He’s Gone, or led into a drum solo before morphing into another song.
  6. Help on the Way > Slipknot > Franklin’s Tower: This threesome appeared on the 1975 album Blues for Allah. Franklin’s Tower was often stretched out to 10 or 15 minutes, and has the rousing chorus “Roll away… the dew,” which always put a smile on Jerry Garcia’s face as he sang. One of the best recordings of these songs opens the 8/13/75 show, which was released as One from the Vault.
  7. Me and My Uncle: While this certainly isn’t the best song the Dead ever sang, this cover of a song by John Phillips of The Mamas and the papas is the song they played the most often, a total of 616 times. It’s one of the Dead’s “cowboy songs,” telling the tale of a man and his uncle who fleece some gamblers, then hightail it down to Mexico. The narrator has learned a lot from his uncle; so much that he steals the gold, and, at the end, “left his dead ass there by the side of the road.”
  8. Scarlet Begonias > Fire on the Mountain: Another classic pairing, starting with the syncopated rhythms of Scarlet, then segueing into the reggae-like beat of Fire. Scarlet Begonias dates back to 1974, and Fire on the Mountain was first recorded on the 1977 album Terrapin Station. The pairing began in 1977, and was the high point of many Dead concerts that year.
  9. He’s Gone: For a while, drummer Mickey Hart’s father Lenny managed the Grateful Dead. But he split to Mexico, in March, 1970, with $155,000, until he was arrested a year later. Mickey Hart left the band in early 1971, and didn’t rejoin the Dead until October, 1974, at what was the Dead’s last show before what became known as “the hiatus.” He’s Gone is about Lenny Hart, and was in heavy rotation in 1972, and was played a lot after that. It contains the great line, “Steal your face right off your head.”
  10. Wharf Rat: First performed in February, 1971, Wharf Rat was recorded on the live album of that year, Grateful Dead (aka Skull and Roses). The wharf rat is a homeless person living near the docks, and he tells his tale of woe. This is a bluesy song without the standard blues structure. It was often played in long jams, as part of a multi-song segue.

Okay, fellow Deadheads, up to you to disagree, or to say, in the comments, which songs you think belong on this list.

14 thoughts on “The 10 (Plus 4) Best Grateful Dead Songs

  1. This is a fine list, but I think that maybe a list for those ‘unfamiliar with the band’ might replace some of those choices with some tunes that are a bit more accessible. At this point, I don’t think many people fit into that category of unfamiliar, but for those who do, I think an uncle john’s might a better on ramp (and just as essential) than the other one.

  2. All good choices. One nitpic: the show on *One From the Vault* was 8/13/1975, not 1985. I only call out the typo as that sequence of tracks from that particular recording is near the top of my own list of best songs by anyone ever.

  3. Kirk,
    Great list! Ripple is my unofficial anthem, I was introduced to China/Rider in ’74 and was mesmerized by the seemless transition of the two songs. The Scarlet/Fire recordings from ’77 are all unique and equally magical! My favorite Scarlet/Fire is from ’78 “The Closing of Winterland” Jerry breaks from the transition and just toys with the beginning of “Fire On The Mountain” good stuff!

    BTW My son is a ticket holder for the shows in Chicago!

  4. A nice list but I’ll respectfully disagree on a few things. First off, I’d probably put St. Stephen/The Eleven right below Dark Star in your Top 4 list (and knock out Playin’). Also, surprised that you didn’t include any Phil songs (Box of Rain/Unbroken Chain) which are easily up there with the best the Dead have done. Also, I’d probably swap out Stella Blue for He’s Gone – at least you didn’t say Black Peter :). And what about Terrapin Station and Shakedown Street. I think we’re all a bit sick of Me and My Uncle. What about Sugar Mag? You could even throw in a few newer ones like Black Muddy Water. Anyways, I’m hoping they add a few Bay Area shows the week before so say the rumors.

  5. A great list — especially for the distinction between various Rosetta Stone extended-improvisation songs, and just plain great Americana/psychedelia classic songs.Together that’s a pretty sweet gateway-drug round-up for an aspiring Dead Head, and a crystal-clear reflection of how their greatness operates.

  6. Nice picks; the core/jams and songs breakdown is helpful. Of course, impossible to do in 10 or 14 choices! I’m one who favors Brokedown Palace over Ripple for “that” slot on the list; and El Paso over Uncle if you really want to honor the cowboy slot. St. Stephen/The Eleven is such a unique vibe, the ultimate rock’n’roll-with-a-twist (love the jump of those extra two beats…) expression of the band, though not sure what I’d drop from your list to make room! (Maybe The Other One?). He’s Gone is your only choice that I probably don’t consider essential; gimme a Let it Grow in there instead! And finally, I can never try to tell anyone about Wharf Rat without mentioning the powerful empathy at its core, beautifully and simply stated in the first and last stanzas (got some time; been true to me); the Rat’s story echoing in the narrator’s own reflections and dreams as he wanders the docks.

    My other core theme in these days of reflecting on the band’s role and style is the introspection-fuel of their approach to jamming, or collaborative dancing around the songs’ structures–its as if each player is traveling one of several neural pathways, and together it creates the whole experience; at shows, these threads reflected and spotlighted our own multifacted experience/thoughts/feelings, often leading to some fresh integration and insight. I’m still surprised none of the younger jam bands have fleshed this one out more; today’s jams are fun, or complex, or get you off, or (RRE) spacious in a way, but none of them take me into my own heart/spirit musings in such fruitful ways. (This aspect of the music is briefly articulated in the notes to the Sunshine Daydream release)

  7. Ummm, Fire on the Mountain was released on Shakedown Street not Terrapin Station. And what about Shakedown? There is no better feeling then hearing that thunderous sound to kick off an evening with the Dead. Gives me goosebumps as I write this…

  8. My mum introduced me to the dead about a year ago. I didn’t really get the “category” until she played the ’81 version of “Deal” that was performed in Essen Germany (You can find it on youtube.) Another one that really cemented my love for the Dead was Sugaree, so it really differs between listeners.

    These songs are all great, and I’d personally add songs that weren’t always on the top 10 lists, but this is a good list.

  9. I don’t know what rock I’ve been living under, but I just found out yesterday that archive.org has an overwhelming collection of Grateful Dead concert recordings at https://archive.org/details/GratefulDead.

    There a couple versions of the 8/13/75 show at https://archive.org/details/GratefulDead?and%5B%5D=date:1975-08-13%2A

    There are seven versions of 8/27/72 at https://archive.org/details/GratefulDead?and%5B%5D=date:1972-08-27%2A. I’d guess a good barometer of sound quality would be the number of favorites each version has.

    I was able to find the Stanford ’73 concert which I heard about at my brother Asa’s wedding. At the reception dinner, his wife Robyn told the story about how she and her friends loved that tape. During the concert Wavy Gravy talks about raising money to replace a hospital that was destroyed by US forces in the Vietnam war. At one point he says “Tell ’em about it, Asa.” There’s a short silence and then he continues talking. “Tell ’em about it, Asa” became a catchphrase for Robyn and her friends.

    One day Robyn meets my brother Asa. She tells him the story about the catchphrase and he says, “Yeah, that was me.” He and our mother lived at the Hog Farm and Wavy brought Asa to the concert with him. (I was given up for adoption in 1963 and didn’t know them at that point in my life.) Asa was only five years old so he didn’t have much to say when Wavy put the mic in his face.

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