The Music Never Stops: My Top 50 Grateful Dead Songs
It's gonna be a long, long, crazy, crazy list...
In honor of the Grateful Dead's 50th anniversary, these are the top 50 Grateful Dead songs I like to trip to:
This is the most well-known track off of the album “Aoxomoxoa” and a song that defines the sound of the psychedelic summer of 1969.
Robert Hunter wrote the lyrics. It makes reference to the last days and trial of the 1st century AD saint, Stephen, the first martyr of the New Testament of the Bible, who was stoned to death. Hunter has said, however, that it’s not about someone but something, leaving the rest up to our imaginations.
Released in the summer of 1969, this is one of the most experimental tracks the band recorded. Jerry Garcia's vocals have been touched up in the mix to give it a real trippy sound.
Feel Like A Stranger
The first Bob Weir/John Perry Barlow track to make my top 50 is a song that has a super groove to it thanks to a super bad bass line from the great Phil Lesh. Add Jerry Garcia's unmistakable late 70's tone and this is pure Dead magic.
If I Had The World To Give
Here's one of those Grateful Dead songs that I wasn't feeling at all when I first heard it. It was only recently when I went back to listen to the 1978 album "Shakedown Street" that it struck a real chord with me.
This is actually a solo Jerry song from his '72 album "Garcia" but it was perfected by the Dead live, particularly during the late 70s.
Uncle John's Band
This is has the best harmonies of any Dead track recorded. A beautiful folk-rock classic from 1970's "Workingman's Dead" that stands as one of the defining Grateful Dead songs.
Built To Last
One of the highlights of the band's last studio album, 1989s "Built To Last". To me, Jerry's voice got better with age and this is one of those examples.
Friend Of The Devil
This is the one of the first songs that I instantly liked by the Dead. It's one of those songs that even those who aren't Grateful Dead fans seem to favor. This is right in Jerry Garcia's wheelhouse musically and it's one of many high points lyrically from Robert Hunter.
Black Muddy River
The band's 1987 album "In The Dark" is much more than just the single 'Touch of Grey'. In fact, there are some brilliant songs like this one.
"We can share the woman we can share the wine!" Bob Weir and Jerry Garcia share vocals on this song which first appeared on the "Europe '72" album. This track has a certain glow to it. One of my favorite Dead songs to chill too with the incense lit.
New Speedway Boogie
"Please don't dominate the rap, Jack / If you've got nothing new to say"
I can picture thousands of Dead Heads clapping in unison to this one every time I hear it.
Another gem from lyricist Robert Hunter who, as story has it, was inspired to write the song when he was watching "The Hound of the Baskervilles" on TV with Jerry Garcia. As Jerry liked to say, ain't that a hoot!
Here Comes Sunshine
From the 1973 album "Wake Of The Flood" comes this trippy track which flows ever so nicely, like cool lake waters on a hot summer day. Who wants to go for a swim?
Taking their cue from an old children's nursery rhyme, Bob Weir and lyricist John Perry Barlow lead the way as the Dead Heads get to dance and shake their bones!
Jerry lays down some of his classic bouncy guitar work throughout this track from 1980s "Go To Heaven" album.
The 1973 album "Wake Of The Flood" includes some of the Grateful Dead's most uniquely intriguing songs like this one, which was a song rarely left off of the band's set lists.
Playing In The Band
This has one of my favorite openings to any Dead song. It's like a ray of sunshine bursting through the clouds.
Turn On Your Lovelight
Turn on your lovelight....And leave it on! Ah yes, the late great Ron "Pigpen" McKernan on vocals as the Dead cover a song originally recorded by Bobby Bland in 1961. This was an early staple of Dead shows and included on their live masterpiece "Live/Dead" from 1969.
West L.A. Fadeway
The Grateful Dead groove in full effect on this track from 1987's "In The Dark". This was performed live dating back to 1982 before the band decided to record it in the studio.
The Music Never Stopped
Bob Weir leads the way on vocals for this Dead song about a sleepy town awakened by a band who arrives to raise everyone to their feet in celebration of music and life.
Folk music was at the heart of Jerry Garcia's music and 'Peggy-O' is a prime example. This is a Scottish folk song that made many set-lists over the years. It's as if it was written for Jerry.
Here's a song that gets lots of love around this time of year. Wave that flag wide and high. Turn up the volume too, it's the Grateful Dead's "U.S. Blues"!
If I'm going through a rough spot in my life this song really rises to the occasion. We all go through the low times. It's just a matter of time before the high times come back around.
A Dead song with a darker side. According to Bob Weir, he and lyricist John Perry Barlow wrote this song from the perspective of a crazy, religious fanatic who always seemed to show up at every Grateful Dead concert.
As Weir explains: '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. He's got a rave he's got to deliver.'
Dancing In The Street (Live '77)
This is the only Grateful Dead song where I can say that the studio version does absolutely nothing for me yet the live version absolutely blows my mind it's so good. The main reason: The late grate Keith Godchaux. His keyboard jam starts just past the 4:00 mark. That's followed by an amazingly tight finish from the rest of the band.
"Take up your china doll, it's only fractured - and just a little nervous from the fall"...Love that lyric. This is a precious little tune from the band's 1974 album "From The Mars Hotel".
Saint Of Circumstance
The Grateful Dead songs written by Bob Weir always have such a unique sound and structure. The phrasing throughout each one plays like a fantastic journey with peeks and valleys along the way. 'Saint Of Circumstance' starts with a beautiful opening, like the Heavens opening up. From there the journey begins!
A bouncy tune about a girl who likes to have "a real good time". Jerry Garcia just can't seem to get enough of her "good time" either.
Hell In A Bucket
Imagine the horror longtime fans of the Grateful Dead upon finding out the band filmed a music video with actors, stage props and all. And check out Bob Weir rockin' the Miami Vice look in this one. Commercial intentions aside, this is one "Hell" of a Dead song.
Golden Road (To Unlimited Devotion)
Here's an interesting early era Grateful Dead song that has the psychedelic 60s influence all over it. The tone on Jerry's guitar is very Kinks-like too. Love this song.
Standing On The Moon
Robert Hunter wrote the lyrics to this track from 1989's "Built To Last" album. I always thought it had to do with Jerry Garcia going into a five-day coma in 1986 but not sure. After Jerry's passing in '95 this song strikes an even deeper chord with me. R.I.P. Jerry.
That's It For The Other One (Live '71)
Also known as "The Other One" this is one of those Grateful Dead songs tailor made for playing live. On this live version from 1971's "Skull & Roses" album drummer Bill Kreutzman delivers with some killer drum work.
Mr. Charlie ('72)
Original keyboardist and vocalist Ron "Pigpen" McKernan's time in the band and on this Earth was short but he made his mark with songs like 'Mr. Charlie'.
Help On The Way/Slipknot!
Here's another Grateful Dead song where Robert Hunter's lyrics simply soar. "Paradise waits on the crest of a wave, her angels in flame, She has no pain, Like a child, she is pure, She is not to blame."
The Grateful Dead's musical influences spread far and wide with one of them being jazz. 'Crazy Fingers' was the nickname of jazz pianist Claude Hopkins.
Some bluesy guitar work from Jerry Garcia on a track that is supposedly based on Charles "Cosmic Charlie" Bosch, one of the characters on the scene in the Haight, who was 'so cosmic'.
My college radio station had the "Shakedown Street" album in their studio so I pulled it out one day and dropped the needle on this track. I thought it was quirky, not very Grateful Dead like but I loved it! It's disco Dead I know but damn it's got a great groove.
This has that "Touch of Grey" magic to it and I just loved Jerry's voice as he got older. It had a gentle raspy sound to it. This also has some great keyboard interplay with Jerry's guitar from the late grate Brent Mydland.
China Cat Sunflower/I Know You Rider (Live '72)
After being introduced to the Grateful Dead through their greatest hits it was time for me to step it up. I bought "Europe '72" next. I think that's when I officially became a Dead Head.
I played 'China Cat/Rider' every Saturday afternoon with the incense lit. It was during those moments when I got it. I knew what Dead fans were talking about all those years.
Box Of Rain
Phil Lesh wrote the music to this song while Robert Hunter contributed the lyrics to a very personal song for Lesh. According to Hunter Lesh wanted a song to sing to his dying father and had composed a piece complete with every vocal nuance but the words.
A beautiful late 60s Haight-Ashbury feel to this folk song from the "American Beauty" album. Robert Hunter wrote the lyrics in London, 1970 in one afternoon, over a half-bottle of retsina wine.
Eyes Of The World
Jerry Garcia's guitar solos float effortlessly over the infectious beat on this track from "Wake Of The Flood". I never grow tired of this one.
It's interesting how some songs can take on entirely different meaning from the time they were originally written. This song from "Europe '72" was originally about the disappearance of drummer Mickey Hart's father, Lenny Hart, who was acting as the band's manager. He apparently took off with a good deal of money.
Over the years it took on more of a sentimental meaning as band members passed away.
Ramble On Rose
Every great piece of art is open to interpretation isn't it?
According to the website "The Annotated Grateful Dead Lyrics" this song could be about American music itself, or about a card game, or about a man saying so long to an immature lover.
At least three Jacks are invoked: Jack the Ripper, Jack (of Jack and Jill), and Wolfman Jack, which could easily be construed as constituting a poker hand. Tin Pan Alley, the Blues, Ragtime, Spirituals, Folk, Nursery rhymes, Country & Western, and Rock and Roll are all brought into the song as well.
The narrator seems to be addressing a lover who is determined to leave him on the subject of growing up, of settling down, of not always trying to find greener grass elsewhere.
So what does this song mean to me? It's probably best to not reveal that don't you think?
If there was ever a "Grateful Dead sound" it's on this song. My spirit is in flight every time I hear it. This also includes one of my all time favorite Jerry Garcia solos. The lyric "If you plant ice you're gonna harvest wind" always gets me.
Touch Of Grey
Yeah it's commercial I know but this is a great song. And as I get older I feel that much more of a connection to the lyrics which were written by Robert Hunter.
Hunter has said he originally wrote them down in a notebook in 1980. He went back to them a few years later while in a 16th Century house in rural England. He had been up all night and saw the sun come up as he wrote what would be the biggest song of the Grateful Dead's career.
And to think Hunter intended it to be for his solo album. Then Jerry Garcia heard it. The rest is history.
This is a song about a vagrant, petty criminal who haunts the docks at night looking for his next drink. I don't think there's anyone who can make me feel empathy for the song's main character other than Jerry Garcia.
As the years went on he must have felt immense pressure from band-mates, family members and friends to get clean. I think he must have felt some kind of connection to the main character in this song. Always looking to get back on his feet again but never quite getting there.
One of the few songs on this list that's not written by any member of the Grateful Dead but it's as if it were written for them. This folk classic was originally written by Canadian folk singer Bonnie Dobson but made famous by the Dead. The first version I heard was from "Europe '72" and it still my go-to version.
Many Grateful Dead fans will consider 'Dark Star' to be the band's defining moment. Yet again Robert Hunter shines on the lyrics with my personal favorite line "Glass hand dissolving to ice petal flowers revolving." Now that's an intense visual.
In concert this is where the band would go where no band has gone before or since. It's as if they all shared the same mind and became one.
Scarlet/Fire (Live '77)
My favorite Dead song isn’t exactly a song. It’s a jam. The ultimate jam by the ultimate jam band. ‘Scarlet/Fire’ set the template for every jam band that would follow in the Grateful Dead’s giant footsteps. ‘Scarlet Begonias’ and ‘Fire On The Mountain’ are outstanding songs on their own but together? Magic.
The band would seamlessly transition from one song to the other with a blend of elegance and finesse every night leaving the audience in awe of it's "Grateness".
‘Scarlet/Fire’ also includes my favorite Dead lyric of all time and it was written by the great Robert Hunter: “Once in a while you get shown the light in the strangest of places if you look at it right.”