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Skeletons In The Closet | 10 Of The Very Best Grateful Dead Songs

best grateful dead songs

There aren’t many American bands that can match the powerful following that the Grateful Dead have experienced in their incredibly successful career. The band may have been figureheads for the 1960s counterculture movement in the US, but their big hits still resonate today.

Formed in 1965 in Palo Alto, California, the Grateful Dead pushed the boundaries with their music, taking the rock genre to the next level. Most famous for their electric rock style, the band also infused their music with elements of rock, jazz, country, and folk.

While Awakening the body and emboldening the soul, the band’s following, also known as the ‘Deadheads’ were dedicated to following the band all over the world. Despite not releasing a new single since 1995, the band’s music is still incredibly popular.

So much so, we thought it was time to revisit their discography to show you the best Grateful Dead songs to listen to. If you want to get a feel for the band that defined an era, keep reading!

best grateful dead songs

1. “Scarlet Begonias” (1974)

The first Grateful Dead song on this list is “Scarlet Begonias”. This is a mid-tempo, vibey track with a loose feel and a laid-back groove. A fine example of how the Grateful Dead mix-matched different genres, this single would later be used to perform longer live jams.

During live shows, it was also occasionally morphed into “Fire on the Mountain”. The song tells an intriguing story of a man’s chance encounter with a woman. The band cleverly uses a game of cards as a metaphor for their flirtations.

Surprisingly meaningful, the track contains thoughtful lyrics, intriguing twists, and of course, typical Grateful Dead style. You’ll find this single on the bands From the Mars Hotel album.

2. “Mississippi Half-Step Uptown Toodeloo” (1973)

Your first impression of “Mississippi Half-Step Uptown Toodeloo” will be that the song is a rather easygoing demonstration of the band’s impressive musical versatility. Able to effortlessly change things up, this single quickly switches from jug band-style verses to a simmering pre-chorus.

Co-written by Robert Hunter and Jerry Garcia, “Mississippi Half-Step Uptown Toodeloo” has an interesting sense of mortality and purpose. Despite being rarely played, this solo track still became one of the band’s most loved songs.

Most fans love this bobbing ballad for its epic instrumentals and powerful lyrics. Totally timeless, you’ll enjoy the track’s neat combination of styles and how Vassar Clements delivers a wonderfully wry, yet buoyant performance on the fiddle.

3. “Sugar Magnolia” (1970)

If you’re keen to listen to one of the band’s most iconic songs, you have to give “Sugar Magnolia” a listen. Part of the Grateful Dead’s American Beauty album, this is easily one of the band’s best-known songs.

As a result, it probably won’t come as a surprise that American Beauty is one of the band’s best albums too. 

Interestingly, hardcore Grateful Dead fans have actually discovered that “Sugar Magnolia” is the Grateful Dead’s second most-played song in concert, having been played 596 times since its release in 1970.

The band’s third Billboard Top 100, this groovy song is partly responsible for the Dead’s success in the hippie community. It has a sunny, happy-go-lucky, good-time feel, and lyrics that resonate with the community.

RELATED: The Best Radiohead Songs For Lovers Of Rock Music

4. “Fire On The Mountain” (1978)

Another hugely popular song and a staple of any Grateful Dead concert is “Fire on the Mountain”. Released in 1978, this song mixes pop, folk, and rock music to create an entertaining hit.

Featuring magical guitar effects and heavy disco vibes, this song will get you up and moving. No matter how many times you play the song, it won’t be enough. Whilst the Grateful Dead portrayed a hippie image during this part of their career, the lyrics to this song are much darker.

Thought-provoking lyrics like “almost ablaze and you don’t feel the heat” aren’t typically words you would associate with the band’s good-time feel.

5. “US Blues” (1974)

Next up, we have “US Blues”. Another single that makes up the From the Mars Hotel album, “US Blues” is one of the Grateful Dead’s more folk-based songs. Released as a single and on the album, the song first debuted in 1974 on George Washington’s birthday at San Francisco’s Winterland.

Jerry Garcia wrote the music for this single and Robert Hunter wrote the lyrics. Whilst the music is great, it’s the lyrics that make this song perfect. The lyrics brilliantly tell the story of an interesting character called Uncle Sam.

This character is a quirky reference to the United States Government, which will run our lives and steal our wives.

Overall, this is a fantastic listen.

6. “Ripple” (1970)

If you love the hippie vibes the Grateful Dead has to offer, we highly recommend giving “Ripple” a listen. “Ripple” is arguably the most hippie song the Grateful Dead ever wrote. Often referred to as the ultimate peace and love anthem, this song is lyrically and musically awesome.

The band claim to have conceived this song during a long drinking binge. Interestingly, this drinking binge reportedly saw the creation of “To Lay Me Down” and “Brokedown Palace” too. 

The song draws inspiration from the 23rd Psalm, whilst the music sits firmly in the country genre. If you love a hippie feel and trippy wordplay, you’ll love “Ripple”.

RELATED: The Absolute Best Jimi Hendrix Songs

7. “Friend Of The Devil” (1970)

“Friend of the Devil” is the perfect example of how the band mixed up their style. Showing that the Grateful Dead weren’t afraid to move away from their roots, this song moves away from hippie country music, taking a darker turn.

A wonderfully simple, yet impactful acoustic track, “Friend of the Devil” cleverly tells the story of a criminal on the run from the law. The lyrics tell the listener how the man decided to make a deal with the devil, who in the end, unsurprisingly, turns on the man, going back on what they agreed.

A far cry from the Grateful Dead’s love and peace image, this song is a must-listen if you want to see how well the band can change things up. 

8. “Bird Song” (1981)

The next song on this list is “Bird Song”. One of the band’s later releases, this song was first released on Jerry Garcia’s debut solo album 1971’s Garcia. Despite being released on Garcia’s solo album, the single quickly became one of the band’s most-played songs.

A de facto Grateful Dead number, “Bird Song” was a centerpiece for the band’s 1981 live tour and their live album Reckoning. Aside from being a beautiful listen, this song also has great meaning.

Although the song’s true meaning wasn’t revealed until 1990, it was confirmed that “Bird Song” was an elegy to Janis Chaplin, who tragically died in 1970. Chaplin had a close relationship with the band so the band wanted to honor the singer in their music.

9. “Wharf Rat” (1971)

The penultimate Grateful Dead song we have for you is “Wharf Rat”. Taken from the Dead’s 1971 self-titled LP, “Wharf Rat” demonstrates the incredible relationship between Jerry Garcia and Robert Hunter. 

Taken from the band’s second album Skull and Roses, this song tells the story of a down-and-out man that finds himself just a few steps away from desperation. Garcia’s music gave Hunter the opportunity to get down and dirty with the dark side and realism of everyday life in America. 

Thanks to the song’s success, this song kickstarted the band’s era in which Garcia and Hunter would collaborate on a number of amazing storytelling songs. 

RELATED: Take It To The Limit – The 10 Best Eagles Songs

10. “Truckin’” (1970)

The final song on our list embodies everything the Grateful Dead is about. Before the release of “Touch of Grey”, “Truckin’” was the band’s highest-charting single. As soon as you hear this song, you’ll understand why.

Loaded with an epic rolling rhythm and guitar licks, this song is designed to please any ‘Deadhead’. It is also one of Grateful Dead’s songs that was written by all four of the band’s songwriters.

Not many songs were written this way, with the robust production being clear throughout. The shuffle of different styles is unique and the sonic landscape makes it feel blurry at times, but that hasn’t stopped the single from becoming an integral part of pop culture. 

In fact, in 1997, this song was actually declared a national treasure. Check out our piece on the iconic track here.

Final Thoughts

To this day, Grateful Dead is still one of the most iconic American rock bands to grace the genre. Bringing the American music scene epic ballads, feel-good tracks, and wonderfully told stories, there really is no band like the Deads.

Despite not releasing any new music since 1995, the band still travels the world touring, giving the new generation a taste of what they have to offer. In this post, we’ve shown you 10 Grateful Dead songs you need to listen to. 

Of course, with a catalog spanning back to the 1960s, there are more big hits out there, but we’re confident we’ve shown you the ones you need to listen to now. With that being said, start adding these Grateful Dead songs to your playlist.