By: Ryan Mannix
It took Bryce and Aaron Dessner of The National four years to record and compile Day Of The Dead, a massive undertaking and sprawling tribute to the works of The Grateful Dead from friends and associates, most of which wouldn’t be typically associated with the jam scene. Four years later, we’re revisiting the effort to attempt to rank the individual tracks, which were as deliberately varied and unpredictable as the Dead themselves.
Most of this 59 song compilation highlights the beautiful songwriting of Garcia/Hunter and Weir/Barlow, providing a template for inventive and interesting maneuvers at every turn for the cast of indie/alternative stalwarts. And while there are some groups and songs I was hoping would make the cut (where’s Radiohead with “The Other One”? Dr. Dog with “Ramble on Rose”? Arcade Fire with “Feel Like a Stranger”?), this project deserves descriptions like epic, immersive, and monumental which get thrown around far too often.
The Dead are finally cool and we can all go home!
If there was one consistent criticism at the time of release, perhaps the three volume, five hour and twenty-six minute set – running longer considerably than even the most epic of Dead shows – could use a little bit of an edit. With time and consideration, some of these tunes rise to the top and have demanded continued appearances in playlists and others… don’t.
As a lifelong fan of the Dead, as well as indie rock – and with a little editorial push -- I felt up to the challenge of creating a ranked, song-by-song recap of the “Day of the Dead”, a showcase for the lasting influence of one of the greatest trips in music history.
59. “Friend of the Devil” - Mumford & Sons
A list from worst to first has to begin somewhere. I’m not an avid hater of Mumford & Sons. Their first album was pretty good. However, I don’t appreciate using one of the Dead’s folksiest songs as a format for indie-pop posturing. It feels a lot like they’re saying “look at us! we’re not folk anymore! See what we did with this classic Dead song?”.
The treatment just doesn’t suit the song. I’m not saying they had to stay a folk band forever, but maybe pick a different song to mess with? I did actually like the production/soundscape of this recording, but not enough to make up for the rest of it.
58. “Ripple” - The Walkmen
Still 58th on the list, but the quality jumps up real quick. Still, I’m still not quite sure about this one. The Walkmen channel the “sunny-side” of punk on this track, which again makes an unlikely pairing with the song selection. It’s a little too cheery in parts, but a little too snarky in others – neither suits the Zen aura of the Hunter/Garcia collaboration.
57. “Clementine Jam” - Orchestra Baobab
A cool Soca groove stays consistent throughout for some nice interplay with vocals, guitar and sax. A simple instrumental passage of a long lost Dead tune, that is not much beyond a jam, as the title suggests.
56. “What’s Become of the Baby” - Stargaze
Another mothballed, little-loved Aoxomoxoa Dead tune (performed by the Dead only once, then surprisingly reprised for Fare The Well), it’s really just tripped out lyrics over a supernatural backdrop. I’ll say it: Stargaze does a better job of it than any GD attempt, but there’s just not much to work with. Probably the most acid-dripped take off this entire project, though.
55. “Sugaree” - Phosphorescent, Jenny Lewis
Definitely a fan of the instrumentation and sonic quality of this rollicking version, but I can’t get past the sped-up tempo. “Sugaree” works so well as a ballad -- and kind of relies on it to build the longing tone. This one is fun, but lacks the depth of the Dead. I have to chalk this one up to a poor choice of arrangement.
54. “Mountains of the Moon” - Lee Renaldo, Lisa Hannigan
After bitching about altered arrangements in the last five, it pains me to also say that I was hoping for a little more distortion out of Sonic Youth’s Lee Renaldo. However, he decided to keep this baroque folk tune close to the original. Nothing offensive about this track, but nothing really stands out either.
53. “Morning Dew” - The National
The National's mellow post- punk vibe works well with the dark subject matter (how many people think “nuclear holocaust” when they hear the opening riff to this tune). I'm often missing how slow the Grateful Dead used to play these songs. It really let the music build naturally, and allowed more space in between for conversation and interesting moments. This one doesn't quite reach the peaks or valleys that the Dead could wrangle out of this cover.
52. “Rosemary” - Mina Tindle
A very beautiful, English-sounding ballad. Another recording that could be even better than The Dead’s – but that’s faint praise for this lower-tier song.
51. “Franklin's Tower“ - Orchestra Baobab
If “Rosemary” scrapes the bottom of the Dead canon, “Franklin's” is a stone-cold classic. Here’s another funky take on an upbeat number. Without singing in English, Orchestra Baobab carries the feel-good vibe of the tune, while really pushing the universal narrative – a hallmark of the bigger project.
50. “Me & My Uncle” - The Lone Bellow
This is a pretty standard version that hits the Bakersfield sound in a modern way. I’m especially a fan of the reverb-ed out vocal harmonies.
49. “Jack-A-Roe” - This Is The Kit
Consistency of these recordings is accelerating as we enter this portion of the list. This ultra-folky version really nails the old maritime feeling of the song. It’s nice to hear a female lead the vocals on this one (about a woman dressing as a man to fight the war).
48. “Goin’ Down The Road Feeling Bad” - Lucinda Williams
Williams nails a truly successful, nice-and-slowed-down version of classic Americana tune. The vocals are strong and the song hits hard. It even includes a little residue left over from the “Space” that precedes it on the record, for a bit of the “cosmic”.
47. “Here Comes Sunshine” - Real Estate
The song and artist combination hits paydirt here. There couldn’t be a better selection for the endlessly bright, mellow, and clean jams of Real Estate. Nothing too fancy, but extremely warm and welcoming.
46. “Rubin and Cherise” - Bonnie “Prince” Billy
This lands not terribly far from the Garcia version, with a little more delay on the guitars and Will Oldman’s slightly folkier vocals. Another testament to the universality of these songs.
45. “Ship of Fools” - The Tallest Man On Earth
Far from my favorite Dead song, but that makes me really appreciate this version. It’s tight and concise and highlights Garcia as singer-songwriter, while remaining sonically interesting. Huge fan of the tremolo guitar solo as well. I might like this better than any Dead version I’ve ever heard.
44. “Loser” - Ed Droste, Binki Shapiro
Grizzly Bear’s Ed Droste and Binki’s weaving duet add another lost lover dimension to this one. Atmospheric keys and distorted guitars/synths are a running theme throughout these interpretations and this one soars on the back of that sound.
43. “Althea” - Winston Marshall, Kodiak Blue, Shura
This laid-back, almost-R&B version, could easily be mistaken for a b-side on a James Blake record. There’s a decided indietronica vibe going on, and the addition of a female vocalist adds a bonus layer. Props to Winston Marshall (Mumford’s Banjoist) for doing something completely different in a much better way than Mumford & Sons' 59th ranked effort.
42. “Dire Wolf” - The Lone Bellow
Another second appearance from The Lone Bellow still can’t crack the top-40 – it’s pretty stylistically/sonically similar to “Me and My Uncle”. There really isn’t much pedal steel on this album so it was nice to hear one of Garcia’s “other” instruments get channeled. Solid performance from everyone on this.
41. “New Speedway Boogie” - Courtney Barnett
I’m a huge Courtney Barnett fan, and she nails this political rock anthem with a trademark punk attitude. This lyrically relevant song fits right into the underground ethos of left-leaning punks everywhere.
40. “Brown Eyed Women” - Hiss Golden Messenger
I really like how laid back MC Taylor’s take on this is. An understated vocal performance lets the lyrical story take center stage. Great organ and piano play make this GD-meets-The Band. Nailed the down-home Americana vibe.
39. “To Lay Me Down” - Perfume Genius, Sharon Van Etten
This longing ballad is met with an equally dense ambient backdrop. Strong vocal performances push the somber tone into emotional places.
38. “Bird Song“ - Bonnie “Prince” Billy
Does anyone play these songs as slow as the Dead? Will Oldman’s third contribution is another quicker paced version that has an Afro-Cuban flavor. This could be the start of another tier as we get our first test of the improvisational side of the Dead as the tune drifts off into jazzy space territory?
37. “Transitive Refraction Axis for John Oswald” - Tim Hecker
From improv to the studio manipulation of electronic sound artist Tim Hecker, here’s more boundary-pushing. This collage of otherworldly tones weaves together with The Grateful Dead playing some of their most out-there music. It's really cool to get a little taste of the Dead in such an extremely abstract way. This is as close to the fully-fledged realization of the “Seastones” experiments from the mid-70's shows as you might find on a recording.
36. “Box of Rain” - Kurt Vile
This sounds a lot like the Dead’s version, but I’m totally cool with it. Kurt Vile’s childlike vocals on a song about losing a parent fit really well.
35. “St. Stephen (Live)“ - Wilco, Bob Weir
So… it’s a little out of tune, there are some missed cues and a few timing issues. Now, this sounds like the Dead! It’s really a treat to hear Wilco, especially guitarist Nels Cline, rock this one out. Their brand of hard rocking-psychedelic Americana is a sort of modern-day flipside to Dead World. I only wish they got to really jam it out!
34. “Standing on the Moon” – Phosphorescent
The drums sound straight out of the ’80s, but… it works. While Dead versions could often be a bit dragging, the picked-up pace works here. It might not be as powerful as the slower version the Dead would do, but it makes up for it in the sonic atmosphere. The spacey texture that ties a lot of these indie bands together works even better as a canvas for the songs than the Dead were capable of at times.
33. “Touch of Grey” - The War On Drugs
The indie-rock-meets-heartland-80s vibe works perfectly for this tune, sounding both retro and modern. Adam Granduciel lays down a Bob Dylan-esque delivery which I dug (I always thought Garcia-Hunter songs could come straight from a Dylan songbook). I couldn’t think of a more suitable kick-off to this massive project than with a side-one track-one refrain of “We will get by, we will survive".
32. “If I Had the World to Give” - Bonnie “ Prince” Billy
This sweet ballad works really well stripped down to just vocals and piano. It adds to the heart wrenching quality that makes those sad Garcia songs so powerful.
31. “Attics of My Life” - Angel Olsen
This haunting take on the spiritual number almost sounds like it was pulled out of a time capsule. Olsen’s voice is ghostly and it really captures the melancholy of this tune.
30. “China Cat Sunflower” > “I Know You Rider” - Stephen Malkmus & The Jicks
Getting into mind-blowing territory here. Starting with some interesting start-stop jam interplay, Malkmus’ take is loose, free flowing, relaxed, and has a bit of his trademark sarcastic bite. Lyrically this absurdist poetry is right at home on any Pavement or Jicks album. The winding guitar lines, wrong notes and all, recall the rawness of early Dead. There are some cool moments in the middle passage, a little heavy weirdness, and some locked-in building from the rhythm section. It’s a little bit noodly, but this wouldn’t be a Dead tribute if there wasn’t. I like the alternate take on the “Rider” form, too. Was this their first take? Probably. Does it matter? Nope.
29. “Eyes of the World” - Tal National
This dancehall version is a really cool change of pace from all the opaque indie rock covers that surround it on the album. It's light, fun, groovy, and not trying hard to be anything, while managing to be cool and strange anyway. Reminds you that the Dead could be just that.
28. “Playing in the Band” - Tunde Adebimpe, Lee Renaldo
This is a nice upbeat version from TV on the Radio's Tunde Adebimpe. The song portion is not overly interesting, but it's definitely a fun listen.
That said, I'm a BIG FAN of the indie rock jamming that comes after. There is a dense atmosphere of feeding back guitars, without much to latch onto, but the drums and bass keep a solid groove going. Phil Lesh would never keep one note going for two bars, let alone a few minutes, but it lets the free-flowing sounds move around the bassline and never drift into noodly territory.
27. “Wharf Rat” - Ira Kaplan
Beautiful ambience builds from silence to start this epic song of a lost cause without anywhere to really call home. It’s quiet and hopeless vocally, but the music texturally hints that there may be more to the story. The song stays pretty languid throughout and moved to a short but sweet atmospheric ending that fades back to nothing. Brilliant.
26. “Drums” > “Space” - Man Forever, So Percussion, Oneida
Now I wish every “Drums” had a mallet segment. The bouncy xylophone-ish sounds get swallowed by frenetic free jazz, which in turn gets taken over by an alien craft for “Space”. Fuzzy feedback follows for a much more malevolent “space” than typical. This segment of modern Dead-related shows usually take a turn into jam-tronica, but this version reminded me of the original intent behind these excursions: complete and utter mind melting.
25. “Dark Star”- The Flaming Lips
Purveyors of weirdness, perhaps The Flaming Lips were destined to do “Dark Star”. They, of course, do it in their signature way -- abrupt feel changes, hip hop inspired production and extremely dense noisescapes. 80’s synth sweeps swirl past creepily distorted guitars. Like a good Dead jam, you can find something new upon multiple listenings.
24. “I Know You Rider” - The National & Bob Weir
Oh man, this song can really move you – emotionally AND physically. On the final track of the project, it’s cool to hear the National let loose, and Bob Weir tighten up a bit. It’s a little more together and has more of an attitude than any version I’ve heard from any band since pre-80’s Dead.
Hear me out… dare I say it has a Springsteen-esque quality? The reverb-soaked guitars carry the tune, with Bobby interjecting his signature riffing. I’m becoming a real fan of Matt Berninger’s almost deadpan delivery. Bobby and the band rock into the “headlight” chorus. The band wants to end, but Bob isn’t having it and pushes them to rock one more time through. A powerful, exciting, risky, fun ending to an album that had a little bit of everything.
23. “Shakedown Street” - Unknown Mortal Orchestra
This outer-space Hip Hop take is a fun ride with glitchy electronics and hyper funky vocals. Interesting tones and a lot to keep your ears busy. I can hear this playing at 3am in the forest of some gigantic music festival emanating from a DJ’s turntable.
22. “Black Peter” - ANOHNI, yMusic
Another really successful unique arrangement with yMusic’s chamber ensemble of trumpet, flute, clarinet, violin, viola, and cello, providing the bed for ANOHNI’s low-crooning voice. The orchestration really shines and colors the chorus. Not much to complain about here, but is it too short?
21. “Truckin’” - Marijuana Deathsquads
This sounds nothing like the Dead, but in its own way very reminiscent of their weirdo experimental 60s era. This might at first be labeled as the bad trip of the project, but it's awesomely chaotic. Wubby bass lines, synth swells, random saxophone, and a classic freakout. A new artist for me so after this one I had to hear what their “normal” music was like and it's definitely very far from normal. Bombastic, creepy, dense, strange. Awesome.
20. “Dark Star” - Cass McCombs, Joe Russo
Starting with a little live take and transitioning in and out of a more polished studio take – can you say Anthem of the Sun? I'm a huge fan of Cass McCombs’ take on indie rock. He does a great job of blending styles in a way that isn't overboard. They take the “Dark Star'' trip in a way that the Dead might have had they started in 2000 rather than 1965. The addition of Furthur/JRAD drummer Joe Russo certainly doesn’t hurt.
19. “Peggy-O” - The National
This one has a great build and fits right in with The National’s spacious dark sound. Beringer doesn’t quite have the same vulnerability in his voice as Garcia, but his stoic delivery works well in a narrator role on a story song like this.
18. “Til the Morning Comes” - Lulus, Xylouris White
An American Beauty “deep track” is re-worked in a much more melancholic way. I would like to have seen what the Dead could do with the song in this format. It has that Sunday morning daze feel to it. It even includes a nice little jam at the end.
17. “Cumberland Blues” - Charles Bradley, Menahan Street Band
This is another standout version of a tune with a completely left-field arrangement. A dirty, swampy, funk groove on one of the Dead’s bluegrass-inspired tunes wasn’t expected, but very welcome. It's a psych-soul powerhouse with killer harmonies. I only wish they arranged the full tune.
16. “Cassidy” - Moses Sumney, Jenny Lewis
This tune really fits in the indie-pop style. This is just really tight all around, something that the Dead notoriously weren’t. Jenny Lewis adds nice harmonies to the pretty, bouncy take on the number.
15. “High Time“ - Daniel Rossen, Christopher Bear
Another great vocal performance with Rossen hitting the insecurity, and lost tone perfectly. The blend of acoustic and phased out guitars really build a cool atmosphere. It’s subtle but equally powerful.
14. “Easy Wind” - Bill Callahan
I’m a fan of Callahan’s work as SMOG, so his lo-fi baritone on a Pigpen classic was right up my alley. The chorus drifts away but somehow pulls itself together. The unnerving soundscape keeps things interesting, including some fuzz-noise and super tremolo guitars. This is maybe even slower than anything The Dead ever played.
13. “Garcia Counterpoint” - Bryce Dessner
Another inspired take on the material features Bryce Dessner working in Garcia styled licks (I can definitely hear Althea in there), in a free-flowing composition. It has a classical feel, but invokes a hippy spinner in the aisles of an 80s dead show.
12. “Estimated Prophet” - The Rileys
Minimalist composer Terry Riley’s unique understanding and use of rhythm is perfectly on display here. “Prophet" is one of The Dead’s odd-time classics, blending an anthemic rock chorus with a dark Eastern verse. Riley’s cascading lines blend with haunting vocals and unusual instrumental choices at every turn. Another far-out take on The Dead’s music that nobody asked for but is seemingly essential.
11. “And We Bid You Goodnight” - Sam Amidon
Huge fan of Sam Amidon and his subtle, childlike delivery. It’s not over-produced or over-performed. You really start to get the sentimental feeling of something coming to an end.
10. “King Solomon’s Marbles” - Vijay Ayer
Master pianist Vijay Ayer interprets one of the proggiest Dead numbers in a way that makes it sound like it was originally a solo piano composition. He captures the suspended in air sound that the Dead cultivated, all the while adding his instrumental flair and virtuosity. Top ten material for sure.
9. “Candyman” - Jim James
James and My Morning Jacket’s spacey Americana lives in the Dead’s universe. Jim can really pull at the heartstrings with his cracked vocals, not unlike Jerry. It’s got a lo-fi quality that helps/hurts in spots, but an overall outstanding performance.
8. “Nightfall of Diamonds” - Nightfall of Diamonds
Bold. We've entered the extended noise/free-jazz/musique concrete portion of the set, so skip ahead if "songs" are your thing. For those interested in space exploration, the vast color palette used by indie rockers is a little more refined than the Dead, but perhaps only because they have the hindsight of the Dead’s example. Fuzz guitars, dense reverb, delayed synthesizers, and strange percussion take this wall of sound in interesting directions at every turn, never straying too far from the ambient drone at its core, but swelling dynamically from subtle twinkling sparks of light to explosive growls of dissonance.
7. “Brokedown Palace” - Richard Reed Parry, Caroline Shaw, Little Scream, Garth Hudson
Stunningly beautiful. This is a really sentimental one for me, and they knock it out of the park. They really focused on the pastoral, hymn-like quality of the song, which is what it needed in the cover version. The harmonies are lush and moving. This is what I hoped could have been done for "Ripple".
6. “Cream Puff War” - Fucked Up
This is fucking awesome. Upbeat garage rock grooving, scowling vocals, with a little bit of glitchy eerie-ness happening in the background. An old song from the primal Dead days, it fits so well into this punk context. Killer jam at the end, too.
5. “Black Muddy River” - Bruce Hornsby, Deyarmond Edison
Bruce is well known in the world of the Dead, so it’s nice to hear him work with the ethereal folk stylings of Justin Vernon. They picked a tune that somehow falls right smack between their influences. This may be the coolest collaboration on this record.
4. “Stella Blue” - Local Natives
This is another completely out of nowhere version of one of the Dead's most beloved ballads. The Local Natives really nail it with fantastic arrangements, orchestration, and instrumentation. There are elements of pop, trip-hop and choral music, the harmonies getting a big highlight here. They could probably release this as a single and do really well. (side note: They have a history of doing great covers, as I think their version of "Warning Sign" is better than Talking Heads’ original).
3. “Help on the Way/Slipknot” - Bela Fleck
Is it fair that the top three includes world-class musician Bela Fleck instead of some unknown indie rocker? Who cares? This is a showcase for how the Dead melded disparate influences into something fresh. Featuring the outstanding vocals of Oliver Wood, inflecting a little blues. Some Eastern style drumming playing contrast to Bela Fleck who is a stylistic chameleon. Virtuosic musicianship shines here more than any spot on the record, and it delivers.
2. Terrapin Station Suite- Daniel Rossen, Christopher Bear, The National, Josh Kaufman, Conrad Doucette, So Percussion, Brooklyn Youth Chorus
The Dead’s most epic composition spawned perhaps the most ambitious collaboration on this project. Flawlessly orchestrated, but retaining an alt-rock feel, with fuzzed-out guitars, trippy synths, and great dynamics. The percussion section really gets to take the reigns on the “Terrapin Flyer” section with the youth chorus really pushing things over the top, in the best of ways, on the reprise. Tackling the entire suite is no easy feat, so I give them a lot of credit just for attempting it.
1. "Uncle John’s Band" - Lucius
This is an instance where a complete re-imagining works, and in a BIG WAY. This is outstanding and so completely different I can hardly wrap my head around it. powerful female harmonies and big synths lead the way in a very spacious groove, that moves into almost a club anthem. Even turning dark with noise-y guitars for the ending refrain. “How does the song go?”... I’m not even sure anymore.
The harmonies, arrangement, orchestration, are all re-contextualized in such a way it would be easy to forget that it's related to the Dead at all. I liked this so much that I was forced to dive into Lucius’ catalog, and wasn’t disappointed there either. It’s a close call, but it gets my top spot for being so fearlessly different while being so reverent.