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says Norman Warwick

This, said Paste on line magazine on publication, is a list that, for years, they had avoided making.

Matt Michell, one of the finest among many excellent writers at the Paste on-line site finally accepted the challenge of listing ´the best 20 tracks by the Grateful Dead (left) but prefaced his list by asking  

Is it actually legitimately and logically possible to rank the best Grateful Dead songs? Most signs point to no. I mean, there is likely no greater fanbase in all of rock ‘n’ roll history than Deadheads, and you can bet the whole farm on each one of them having a different idea of what the band’s greatest song is. I mean, my favorite Dead song isn’t even #1 on this list. And, with an artist that has cultivated such a prolific and important live presence, that only stirs the pot further on the discourse of it all.

But, he knew it was time to let go of the fear and just pick some really great tunes.

I can put any of these 20 songs on at any given time, he said, and feel larger-than-life while also blissing out. The Grateful Dead are the greatest American rock band of all time for a reason; for nearly 30 years, Jerry Garcia, Bob Weir, Phil Lesh, Bill Kreutzmann, Mickey Hart, Keith and Donna Godchaux, Pigpen McKernan, Tom Constanten and countless more faces, names and voices have helped make the name one of the most recognizable and iconic in all of music history.

For this list, Mitchell tried to stay away from live records as much as possible, though it was impossible to avoid them completely—as some of the most important songs the band ever made never appeared in a studio capacity. So, without further ado, here are the 20 greatest Grateful Dead songs, ranked by Matt Mitchell.

“Mississippi Half-Step Uptown Toodeloo” (Wake of the Flood, 1973)

The opening track from Wake of the Flood, “Mississippi Half-Step Uptown Toodeloo” is a hell of a hoppin’ romp. The thing that continues to jump out at me now, after dozens (if not hundreds) of listens, is Vassar Clements’ violin. Wake of the Flood was a transitional record for the Dead, who had just lost Pigpen yet added Keith’s wife Donna Jean to the lineup. The result finds the band stepping away from their blues and folk origins for jazzy, bebop-influenced work—and you can hear the latter on “Mississippi Half-Step Uptown Toodeloo” especially, as the arrangement takes a turn towards an old rag-time jaunt packed with nautical absurdity. “They say that when your ship comes in, the first man takes the sails,” Jerry sings. “Second takes the afterdeck, the third the planks and rails. What’s the point in callin’ shots? This cue ain’t straight in line. Cueball’s made of styrofoam, no one’s got the time.” Around the 4:50 mark, the band breaks down into a great vocal harmony, the first where Donna’s irreplaceable voice shines through.

“Bertha” (Grateful Dead, 1971)

This was a track for which Matt Mitchell had to accommodate, but there is no studio version of the song. It is the song I most associate with Grateful Dead, perhaps because this was  the first album of their´s that I bought.

Though it never appeared on a studio album, “Bertha” was one of the few new tracks on the band’s self-titled live album from 1971. I know that I said I was going to be straying away from live tracks but, like, this list could not exist without “Bertha” on it. It’s quintessential Grateful Dead; a biting and surreal lover’s lament written by Jerry and recorded at Fillmore East. “Dressed myself in green, I went down under the sea,” Jerry sings. “What is going down? Try to read between the lines, had a feeling I was falling, falling. I turned around to see, heard a voice calling but it was running after me.” It’s easy to see how a track like this could outshine a live LP packed to the brim with cover songs, but the quality of “Bertha” transcends all of it. The solo from Jerry, Merl Saunders’ organ-playing, the undercurrent of bass guitar from Phil—it’s all perfect

“Friend of the Devil” (American Beauty, 1970)

One of my favorite Jerry songs, “Friend of the Devil” has always been the prog-bluegrass track of my dreams. It’s as psychedelic as it is folksy, stamped into another orbit by the uptempo acoustic picking and chugging percussion from Mickey and Bill. David Grisman’s mandolin is the shining star here, as it complements the song’s outlaw story beautifully. “I ran down to the levee, but the devil caught me there,” Jerry sings. “He took my $20 bill and he vanished in the air.” New Riders of the Purple Sage bandleader John Dawson co-wrote the track, lending his idea for the story’s hook—and it remains, likely, one of the greatest decisions on all of American Beauty. Hunter’s original chorus went “Set out running, but I take my time. It looks like water, but it tastes like wine.” Dawson suggested that the second line go “A friend of the devil is a friend of mine” instead, and the rest was history.

“Sugar Magnolia” (American Beauty, 1970)

A Bob Weir all-timer, “Sugar Magnolia” follows “Friend of the Devil” on the tracklist and shines just a smidge brighter. There’s a reason why it’s one of the Grateful Dead’s most recognizable and beloved songs; it’s one of the best country-rock tunes of its era. The guitars on this one, wow. The outlaw themes of “Friend of the Devil” bleed into “Sugar Magnolia” sonically, and it’s one of the most effortless transitions you can find on an American rock record. It’s a sweet track rife with the wisdom of someone who’s travelled the world. “We can have high times if you’ll abide,” Bob sings. “We can discover the wonders of nature, rolling in the rushes down by the riverside.” “Sugar Magnolia” is sun-soaked and precious; a one-of-a-kind entry in a discography brimming with singularity at every turn.

“Box of Rain” (American Beauty, 1970)

Written and sung by Phil Lesh (in his lead vocalist debut), “Box of Rain” was my favorite song in the world for a long, long time. This was before I’d really allowed myself to enter the Grateful Dead’s catalog in totality, but I still hold such a strong reverence for this tune. And how could someone not? It’s a perfect psych-folk song that features New Riders of the Purple Sage members Dave Torbert on bass and David Nelson on lead guitar, while Jerry plays the piano and sings harmonies with Phil and Bob. Phil wrote the track initially with Robert Hunter as a means of trying to have something to sing to his dying father, which makes lines like “Look into any eyes you find by you, you can see clear through to another day. Maybe it’s been seen before through other eyes, on other days while going home” arrive full of grief. But, backed by an Americana arrangement structure, “Box of Rain” is full of heart and compassion and daydreaming.

“Fire on the Mountain” (Shakedown Street, 1978)

Shakedown Street is a bittersweet album in the Grateful Dead canon, as it was the last to feature Keith and Donna and also marked the last truly front-to-back fantastic record for the band. Pull any song from the project and put it here, the sentiment will remain the same. I went with “Fire on the Mountain” because it’s just timeless and bulletproof. Written by Mickey but sung by Jerry and produced by Little Feat’s Lowell George, “Fire on the Mountain” is a Caribbean-inspired rock stunner thrown onto an album that is, in many ways, one of the Dead’s most sonically versatile and ambitious. “Almost ablaze, still you don’t feel the heat,” Jerry sings. “It takes all you got just to stay on the beat. You say it’s a livin’, we all gotta eat.” You could put “Shakedown Street” or “Good Lovin’” here and the greatness wouldn’t wither one iota. That’s the evidence that solidifies just how on top of their game the Dead were when Shakedown Street came out. Pretty remarkable stuff.

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

I am a sucker for any song that references other musicians, alive, dead or simply fictitious. I mentioned this song myself, in my series for a muscic magazine, taken from my book called Their Names Fell Out In Coversation. This song sits at the top of my own list of such songs, alongside Joni Mitchell´s For Free.

This was one of the first Grateful Dead songs I ever heard, and I still hold a great sentimentality for it. If this list was based solely on my personal preference, it’d likely rank near the top. On Workingman’s Dead, Jerry handled much of the lead vocal duties but, on “Uncle John’s Band,” he, Bob and Phil share the harmonies—and they come together to deliver a really exquisite and beautiful medley of voices. While the track doesn’t boast the stirring lyrics you might find elsewhere in the Dead’s catalog, they still register over 50 years on. “Goddamn, well, I declare,” the guitarists sing out, “have you seen the like? Their walls are built of cannonballs. Their motto is ‘don’t tread on me.’” It’s a moment that signaled the band’s studio turn towards the folk-oriented compositions that would define Workingman’s Dead and American Beauty, and it’s an unmissable and crucial part of the Grateful Dead’s legacy.

“Playing in the Band” (Grateful Dead, 1971)

My favorite Bob song, “Playing in the Band” is one of those tracks that just never gets old, no matter how many times I listen to it over and over. It first appeared on Grateful Dead in 1971, but I’m going with the rendition from the Veneta, Oregon concert in August 1972. This version occurred months after a polished studio recording of “Playing in the Band” surfaces on Bob’s debut solo album, Ace, and I just love it so much (and it features an incredible vocal harmony performance from Donna). The first three minutes are pure psych-blues rock, while the next 16 are just a transcendent array of jamming goodness. It’s the best of both worlds for a Dead song, really. And what makes “Playing in the Band” so crucial to the band’s catalog is that, alongside “Dark Star,” it’s a song that sparked unmistakable communal improvisation from the entire collective, not just specific members. The 1974 performance of “Playing in the Band” at the Hec Edmundson Pavilion in Seattle is even the longest uninterrupted performance in the Grateful Dead’s canon—running more than 46 minutes in length. Pick any rendition of this track you please, it’s all historic.

3. “Casey Jones” (Workingman’s Dead, 1970)

My personal favorite story in the Grateful Dead catalog, “Casey Jones” is a song about a railroad engineer about to wreck his train while going too fast. Robert Hunter, take a bow. This one floors us all. “Trouble with you is the trouble with me,” Jerry sings out. “Got two good eyes, but we still don’t see. Come ‘round the bend, you know it’s the end. The fireman screams and the engine just gleams.” And while the song’s legacy is highlighted by that potently quotable, all-time lyric “Driving that train, high on cocaine,” it’s easy to overlook how beautiful and complex the arrangement is. It’s bluesy, folksy and downright groovy. The guitar work? My goodness, I could have the instrumental track alone playing on loop in my head for the rest of time. It’s what made Workingman’s Dead such an important pivot for the Dead, and it’s a perfect encapsulation of why 1970 was such an apex for them.

2. “Ripple” (American Beauty, 1970)

The thing about “Ripple” is that I do think that, ultimately, it’s the most beautiful song ever performed. Featuring Jerry on lead vocals, the track cascades through an acoustic soundscape backed by sublime drumming from Bill. The vocal harmonies shared by Jerry, Phil, Pigpen and Bob, too, fill out the entire space of the song, placing such unequivocal emphasis on the prettiness of the story itself. “If I knew the way, I would take you home” remains one of the greatest end lines in all of modern music, and Jerry sings it with such an inescapable, awing tenderness that it is, without a doubt, the greatest offering from American Beauty.

“Terrapin Station Medley” (Terrapin Station, 1977)

Maybe this was released in my ´broke´ period, just after Dee and I had married. I think also we were working on Venn Diagram of music we both liked enough to at least tolerate it if we were not the one on the night to choose our listening. Dee doesn´t even now include Grateful Dead but then neither is her favourite Ed Ames on that shaded part of the two circles either. So, for various reasons I have until now completely overlooked this album and therefore this song. I might just play it to my wife tonight in one last attempt to fit a Grateful Dead song on to our mutual playlist. I´ve already placed it high on to my  personal playlist, just on Mr. Mitchell´s recommendation.

Whether you call it “Terrapin Station Medley” or “Terrapin Part 1,” it’s the greatest Grateful Dead track ever. Like the Beatles’ “Abbey Road Medley,” there is just something unbeatable in the formula. Mash a bunch of tracks together in a symphony of perfect songwriting and world-building and you’ll have an irreplaceable mark of modern music on your hands. The medley is comprised of “Lady with a Fan,” “Terrapin Station,” “Terrapin,” “Terrapin Transit,” “At a Siding,” “Terrapin Flyer” and “Refrain,” all of which were written by either Jerry, Mickey or Bill (with Robert Hunter, of course). Three of the seven parts are instrumental, and “Refrain” is sung by the English Choral, but what a moving 16 minutes of music it all is. “While the firelight’s aglow, strange shadows from the flames will grow ‘til things we’ve never seen will seem familiar” remains such a quintessential line, and—as it turns out—the Grateful Dead doing their best Beatles impression makes for some of the best prog-rock of all time. Not too shabby for a bunch of psych-rockers who godfathered the jam band era and have reached astral planes the rest of us could only dream of ever meeting.

There was a time in Northern UK dialect when a word used to mean excellent or accurate was much in vogue. That word was dead, and I can remember describing a statue as ´dead´ life-like but the younger generations have replaced dead with wicked or sick.

Still, I´m happy to say I am dead grateful for the Grateful Dead list produced by Paste. In fact I think our readers, too, will be dead grateful to be guided to the site of Paste On Line.

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