Top 10 Grateful Dead Studio Songs

Love them or hate them it is impossible to deny that the Grateful Dead was one of the most important bands in the history of rock and roll. Even though they never achieved the mainstream popularity that many of their peers enjoyed, their long-term impact on music certainly exceeds most. How many other bands spawned an entire genre of music? And while none of the contemporary jam bands have reached the height of greatness that the Dead achieved (yeah, I’m talking to you Phish!) 20 million wookies just can’t be wrong.

So it’s long overdue for us to try to pick our Top 10 Grateful Dead songs. This is an impossible task. My short-list of essential Dead tunes ran to about 70 songs – not including the many cover tunes that they truly made their own. In order to help whittle down the list here are the ground rules for the game:

1) Pick your 10 favorite Dead tunes – not the most popular or culturally important – just your personal favorites;
2) The song must appear on one of the 13 official Grateful Dead studio albums. I know, that means no Dark Star. Sorry, but it’s the only way to cull the list.
3) The song must be an original – no covers allowed. So, bye bye Minglewood!

I’m going to go first and long-time touchhead and show buddy Kenny B. will provide his list. Here Goes:

Mitch’s Top 10 Grateful Dead original songs that were released on a studio album

First, let me say that this was an impossible task and I hate myself for having to make these decisions. It was like Sophie’s Choice times a million. And I cheated big-time with the “studio only” rule – obviously “Europe ’72” is the greatest album that ever was or ever will be produced by modern man and I could have made a top 10 list off of that collection alone. Okay. Here’s the list in chronological order based on the stupid rules:

1) New Speedway Boogie (Workingman’s Dead): A beautiful example of Garcia/Hunter’s version of cosmic American music, this shuffle blues has it all – a prominent lead, space for soloing and huge sing-a-long potential.

2) Box of Rain (American Beauty): After all of these years I still have no idea what a box of rain is, but I know that it’s Phil’s most beautiful composition – a love song to his deceased father.

3) Stella Blue (Wake of the Flood): Sometimes Jerry exposed his vulnerabilities in songs of naked emotion, where his guitar and voice intertwine and elevate a simple song into something tender, soulful and otherworldly – and Stella Blue is the prime example of that type of song. It gives me chills every single time that I hear it (unless Warren is singing.)

4) Eyes of the World (Wake of the Flood): I’ll admit now that I’m primarily a Keith-era Dead fan. He brought the jazz to the Dead and Eyes is their jazziest composition. Of course, we’re all biased by the transcendent version featuring Branford Marsalis.

5) Weather Report Suite (Wake of the Flood): Bobby fans are people too! I love the cheese, I was always a Bobby fan, and I’ll die a Bobby fan. Working in the huge shadow of Captain Trips, Bobby is the most underrated songwriter of his era and WRS is his masterpiece.

6) Unbroken Chain (From the Mars Hotel): Another Phil song and the Dead’s most musically ambitious composition. The changes in this song are unreal. Phil is a genius.

7) Scarlet Begonias (From the Mars Hotel): Scarlet Begonias is the ultimate mood-lifter. You can’t help but get into a good mood when listening to it. It’s the quintessential Deadhead song – bouncy, trippy and jammy with great lyrics about hippie chicks and gambling. And when it’s paired with Fire on the Mountain it’s to die for!

8) Ship of Fools (From the Mars Hotel): Yet another song from Mars Hotel, yet another great Jerry ballad. Mars Hotel may be their best album (excepting Money Money, of course.)

9) Help on the Way/Slipknot!/Franklin’s Tower (Blues for Allah): Yeah, I’m cheating on this one and combining three tracks into one. Help/Slip/Frank is too perfect, with the iconic opening of Help, the face melting jam of slip and the twirl inducing Franklin’s. It’s so good it hurts.

10) Feel Like a Stranger (Go to Heaven): Nothing says “tour” like Stranger and when Bobby and Brent trade off at the end you just want to burst! This song really captures the strengths of Brent-era Dead for me – his organ, his voice, the disco!

Closing thoughts: the Grateful Dead are even better than I thought and I really, really love the Keith era (10/19/71 – 2/17/79).

Kenny B.’s Top 10 Grateful Dead original songs that were released on a studio album

I compiled this while eating a grilled cheese sandwich (except mine cost $6.50 and it wasn’t gross at all) in my office…ironic? I’d say so.

It’s hard to narrow down my favorite Dead tunes, even harder when the rules of this little game require that they A) be Grateful Dead originals, which eliminates all of the solo stuff and B) have to have been released on a Grateful Dead studio album…which means no Jack Straw, no Playin’ in the Band, Looks Like Rain, So Many Roads, Scarlet Begonias (ed. note: wrong!), or Self Defense (just checking to see if you’re paying attention).

A couple of things came to mind as I looked through the Dead’s discography. First, they really put out a lot of studio albums. Second, some of them suck (I’m talking to you Anthem of the Sun and Built to Last!). And finally, because almost all of the stuff we listen to is from live shows, there were a couple of albums that I’ve overlooked. Everyone knows American Beauty and Workingman’s are great, but Mars Hotel and Wake of the Flood are loaded with gems!

So here they are, listed from 10-1. Enjoy.

10) “Stella Blue” from Wake of the Flood

It’s funny to start with this one because I just told Mitch yesterday it wasn’t going to make the cut. Then I listened to two different versions on the ride home last night and I realized how wrong I was. This list was a great idea if, for nothing else, it made me look back through the archives to rediscover some lost classics.

9) “Lost Sailor” from Go To Heaven

We’ve said it so many times before, “I like my ‘Sailor’ extra sappy and my ‘Saint’ extra cheesy.” Well, the Sailor part is my favorite. I don’t know what to make of this guy but he’s been drifting around chasing the dream for like 30 years. But when Bobby tilts his head to the side and squints his eyes to scream “you’re a LOOOOOST SAI-LOR” it just makes me happy.

8) “Touch of Grey” from In the Dark

What is there to say? Jerry almost dies and goes into a coma, comes back in December of 1986 and just rips it up in Oakland, opening the show with 30,000 people singing along “WE-WILL-SURVIVE!” Aside from that, it was the Dead’s only top 10 hit and the song that introduced a whole new generation of music fans, including you and me, to life on the bus.

7) “Ship of Fools” from From the Mars Hotel

I’m not even sure what the hell this song is about, but I love the melody and I think you get some of Jerry’s best ballad solos from some of the ’74 and ’77 shows.

6) “Weather Report Suite” from Wake of the Flood

This is on the list because RatDog has taken it to a new level. An obvious masterpiece from a musical standpoint, WRS was always a second tier favorite of mine…and then Kenny Brooks came along (who Bobby once called “better than canned beer”). Adding the sax brought so much more depth to an already deep piece. And to be honest, I’m not even that big a fan of the “Let it Grow” portion of the suite. But the rest of it is so freakin good it more than makes up for it.

5) “If I Had the World to Give” from Shakedown Street

Robert Hunter had such unbelievable talent for writing love songs. This one was only played 3 times in concert (I looked that one up on the Wiki), all in 1978. I bought Shakedown on cassette in 1986 and immediately realized that anyone who sang this to his girl-du-jour would be getting very, very lucky that night. Unfortunately, I was so incompetent back then with the opposite sex (ed note: back then?), the song was no good to me whatsoever. Now that I think about it, maybe I should take it off the top 10.

4) “Brokedown Palace” from American Beauty

“It’s a fargone lullaby sung many years ago, mama mama many worlds I’ve come since I first left home.” I remember this one so vividly from December 6, 1992. It was a gorgeous Arizona afternoon and the boys were awesome! Opening with the first HCS in 18 years, two solid sets, and a sweeter than sweet Brokedown for the encore. Something about that particular one put it on my permanent top 10 forever.

3) “Attics of My Life” from American Beauty

I don’t know what to say. I just really like this one. I think it shows that trying to label Grateful Dead music into some sort of box is impossible (unless it’s a box of rain, duh!). You can’t call them a rock band, or a jazz band, or folk, or bluegrass. They just are what they are and if they want to do an (almost) a capella piece, damn it they’re doing it.

2) “Shakedown Street” from Shakedown Street

You hear those first few bars… WHOMP, WHOMP, WHOMP…whomp-whomp-wha-wha-WHOMP and it’s immediately recognized as the disco-era hit. Shakedown was always a fan favorite (especially when paired with a good Estimated Prophet) but also was so much more because of the parking lot antics of the same name. Every time I heard Shakedown live I thought to all of those outside hawking god-knows-what for gas money to Red Rocks.

1) “Eyes of the World” from Wake of the Flood

The Grateful Dead’s greatest masterpiece. A great rhythm, good tempo, solid lyrics, and depending on the version (this song can ONLY be listened to live) you get the very best that Jerry Garcia could give you! Add to that the two times that Branford Marsalis sat in (1990) and Kenny Brooks now shredding it on a weekly basis with Ratdog, and “Eyes” has become a treat each and every time you hear it.

{Final ed. note: A 20 year friendship and I don’t even really know you. “If I had the world to give”? Seriously? What is wrong with you? But we legitimately agree on 4 out of 10, so that’s reassuring. We’ll have to do this again with the bottom 5. Oh wait – that’s too easy – Money Money, Never Trust a Woman, Samba in the Rain, Blues for Allah & What’s Become of the Baby.}

Okay, if anyone else wants to play along please feel free to link back to this entry or to leave your list/critique in the comments.

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