With most bands, the way you navigate their catalog is pretty similar—there are the big hits, the beloved album tracks, the heartfelt ballads, and, of course, some fan-favorite deep cuts. While not every Fleetwood Mac fan is going to know “Oh Daddy,” they all certainly know “Dreams” and “Landslide”—that kind of thing. But when it comes to the Grateful Dead, it’s a totally different story.
There’s a nifty fun fact that there are so many different combinations for the 52 cards in a deck that, after shuffling, chances are that you’ve got a unique order that’s never existed in history before (seriously, it’s such a large number of possible orders that it’s hard to wrap your head around)—well, picking a list of 10 favorite Grateful Dead songs is sorta like that. You could spend your entire life asking Deadheads to give you their list, and chances are you’ll never hear the same exact one twice.
Why is that? Well, the Dead have a special history, and their trajectory as a band has never been quite “normal.” Not ones for recording exceptional albums (a fact that most Deadheads will admit to), their magic had less to do with the recordings themselves and more to do with the songcraft and the inimitable presence and energy they assumed as on stage. Even John Mayer (the guitarist playing the role of “Jerry Garcia” in Dead & Company, the latest version of the group) noted that the Grateful Dead experience has less to do with songs than it does with the brilliant moments that happen within them, as a result of the virtuosic interplay between the members of the band.
That said, at a certain point, one has to acknowledge that the Dead was much more than merely a technical-minded jam band—while their songs may not have taken center stage, they were certainly the behind-the-scenes MVP, the secret recipe to why the band’s been so beloved for so long. Primarily born out of two songwriting duos—Robert Hunter and Jerry Garcia; Bob Weir and John Perry Barlow—the colorful, contemplative lyrics, the intelligent harmony, and the groovy rhythms endowed them with a catalog that was ripe for becoming the soundtrack of a lifetime… and for millions of folks, it did just that.
So, American Songwriter has compiled a list of the 10 best Grateful Dead songs, honoring a bit of the rich tradition that they hail from. We tried our best to balance all the different factors that go into making a list like this, but don’t feel like it’s too definitive—like a deck of cards, it’s probably entirely unique. Check out the list below:
1. “Dark Star”
2. “St. Stephen”
3. “Uncle John’s Band”
4. “Box of Rain”
6. “Sugar Magnolia”
7. “Eyes of the World”
8. “Scarlet Begonias”
9. “Terrapin Station”
10. “Shakedown Street”
Photo: Clayton Call