These 15 Isolated Tracks From Famous Songs Will Blow Your Mind

Stevie Wonder's Clavinet: even cooler when it's the only thing you're hearing
Stevie Wonder's Clavinet: even cooler when it's the only thing you're hearing

As any good music geek knows, YouTube is a treasure trove of isolated tracks — a single vocal or instrument lifted from a familiar song, sometimes from the master tapes, sometimes pulled out of the mix by an enterprising amateur sound engineer. It's a fascinating, stark and entirely new context in which to hear a guitar solo, drum pattern or lead vocal that was heretofore as familiar as your couch. Sometimes the revelations are impressive. Sometimes less so.

A YouTube search for “isolated tracks” nets 35,700 results, including Sting’s “Message in a Bottle” bass, Adele's “Rolling in the Deep" vocals, Notorious B.I.G.’s “Machine Gun Funk” rap and a surprising amount of Dream Theater. So curating a list of the best-ever isolated tracks is a vast and somewhat impossible task. And here goes!

The Rolling Stones, “Gimme Shelter” vocals

Mick Jagger’s multiple vocal personas can sell a song even better than his stellar stagecraft, but the best vocal performance ever on a Stones song belongs to someone else. New Orleans-born soul singer Merry Clayton’s reaches hallelujah bliss at the 1:46 mark in the doomy “Gimme Shelter.” Note Jagger’s enthusiastic exclamation immediately afterwards. Mick’s witchy intro (0:12 in) and Brit-blues belting are also impressive. Clayton would later give Skynyrd’s “Sweet Home Alabama” extra oomph, as well.

Stevie Wonder, “Superstition” Clavinet

The Hohner Clavinet D6 keyboard is inherently funky. In the hands of R&B genius Stevie Wonder, it sounds like a robot spider that’s been turned loose after ingesting a gram of coke and two ecstasy tabs. Wonder reportedly overdubbed around six Clavinet tracks on “Superstition.” The 1972 cut remains undeniable to this day, no matter how many Caucasians dance badly to it at wedding receptions.

The Beatles, “Helter Skelter” lead vocal

Paul McCartney’s vocals are so unhinged on “Helter Skelter” that a struggling Los Angeles musician named Charles Manson thought The Beatles were trying to send him secret messages via this song. (And others from the 1967 Fab Four LP best-known as The White Album.) At about 2:32, McCartney appears to have invented hair-metal shrieking. This after inventing punk-rock only about 0:12 in. Dude, take it easy — you’re supposed to be the Cute Beatle!

Duran Duran, “Rio” synth

You can almost hear the black lacquer here. Nick Rhodes’ refracted synthesizer work on the title track from Duran Duran’s monster 1983 album perfectly matches the disc’s stylized cover art, designed by Patrick Nagel. Rhodes reportedly used a Roland Jupiter-4 synth on the song. Just FYI: If you’re looking to start a DD tribute band, Jupiter-4’s usually go for around $3,000 to $4,500 on eBay.

Van Halen, “Somebody Get Me a Doctor” guitar

You can assemble a respectable isolated tracks best-of list from Eddie Van Halen guitar parts alone. The easy choice — which we considered — is Eddie’s wildfire solo from Michael Jackson’s 1982 number-one hit “Beat It,” perhaps The Gloved One’s greatest single of all time. But those 32 seconds are burned into the DNA of virtually everyone who’s ever heard them. Guitar geeks and otherwise will hear “Somebody Get Me a Doctor” with fresher ears. From the first three aircraft-carrier-sized chords, Eddie’s wicked tone and vastly underrated rhythm playing is at the forefront. About 0:33 in, he begins a helicopter-blade rhythm. At 1:15, EVH starts another patterned accented with volume swells, which have the effect of sounding like time is being reversed. And then Eddie literally makes the hair on the back of your neck stand up with the first licks of his solo at 1:26.

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The Jackson 5, “ABC” vocals

Michael Jackson was only around 11 years old when he cut this jaw-dropping performance. Yeah, the pre-puberty thing helped hit those helium-high notes, but what made Jackson such a musical phenom was the natural, worldly feel — at least a decade beyond his years — he brought to his singing at such an early age.

Whitney Houston, “How Will I Know” vocals

This isolated vocal almost sounds better than the entire mixed 1985 track from which it’s taken, which is marred by gaudy '80s production. Houston’s pre-debauchery upper-register sparkles like church stained glass. She reportedly sang her own background vocals on “How Will I Know,” a George Merrill and Shannon Rubicam composition originally intended for Janet Jackson, forming an all-Whitney choir. Her melisma curves without detouring into Diva City. And check out the cloud-piercing climb beginning at 2:49.

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