The Top 40 Steely Dan Songs

Forerunners of post-modernism? Naw, that term’s been worn out and made more meaningless than an ex-sorority skank. Attempts to define post-modernism start out defensive and trend downhill from that point. Dan started on a high NY bluff and never declined in quality – only in popular relevance to a world moving on to the freshest flavors of the month. Post-modern sounds like an apology for what came after. Dan offer no apologies, and, well, they needn’t.

Donald Fagen and Walter Becker fashioned pop-rock in their own image with musical sophistication, wit, irony, and other sensibilities that are still relevant in the larger picture. There’s also the neat paradox of them being jazz fans who adapted some of that harmonic language but not its improvisational immediacy – apart from certain solos by Shorter, Woods, Carlton, et al. Anyway, reassessing the Dan catalog for this endeavor reaffirmed why both of us have enjoyed their music for so long.

1. Aja
Aja (1977)

CM: There was little question of “Aja” claiming first place. Not many artists could conceive of a piece like this, a dynamic uber-ballad where friendly vocals link bold chord shifts, angular motifs are given prog-like reprises, and a top soloist elevates an already expansive bridge. Uniting all of that is a mood as rich as Steely Dan ever conjured. Impeccably performed and recorded, too. A true meisterwerk.

TG: “Up on the hill / People never stare / They just don’t care.” The people do eventually stare, and hills come into play in quite a few other SD lyrics, but more on that later. For now, I’d just like to state that I wish they’d had Mr. Shorter come back at the end and blow that shit out of the water (again). That wish aside, this might be the perfect SD track. You have the lyric to which can be attributed multiple meanings, time shifts, apropos instrumental elements, the grand build to Wayne’s exquisite sax solo, oh my Gadd – those awesome drums, and the descent back into that particular Steely elan.

2. Kid Charlemagne
The Royal Scam (1976)

TG: So, what is the Steel-elan (besides a bad pun)? It’s Becker and Fagen’s notebook full of misfits, miscreants, malingerers, malcontents and ne’er-do-wells who spring to life against evocative musical backdrops which may or may not reflect the narrative tone of the lyrics. It’s an often-cynical and definitely off-kilter worldview set to the smoothest and best jazz-rock you’d ever want to hear. Oh, and “Kid Charlemagne” is about a drug cooker trying to get the hell out of Dodge while the band cooks up their own funky recipe and drops licks like hits of acid for your ear canals.

Aside: We’re only two songs into the list and have our second mention of a hill, “On the hill their stuff was laced with kerosene / But yours was kitchen clean.” Hills pop up in several SD songs, and there are several mentions of singing and songs as well. Do these references mean anything? Well, “hill” is probably just an easy rhyme - Songwriting 101, if you will. As for “singing”, the ringing of that bell tolls a bit longer for me, as we shall see.

CM: As definitive as anything else in the songbook and one of the first tracks I’d recommend for a newcomer; even when you’ve heard it a hundred times, it loses nothing. Musicality galore, intoxicating lyric, and Larry Carlton has the car all gassed up – let’s roll.

3. Do It Again
Can’t Buy a Thrill (1972)

CM: Telling tales of repetitive self-destruction over a trance-like atmosphere, electric sitar in tow, this was an unlikely popular success that still exudes coolness today. As the first cut on their first record, it also happened to establish the hip attitude and prowess that would inform future Dan songs.

TG: This laid-back lounge vibe with a desolate Western feel relates the stories of those who can’t help but make bad decisions. The “wheel spinnin’ round and round” could refer to the Buddhist Wheel of Life where aversion (“In the mornin’ you go gunnin’”), attachment (“You’ll be on your knees tomorrow”) and ignorance (“Then you find you’re back in Vegas”) represent the three poisons from which all existence evolves. Or it could just be the first thing. Either way, killer track. And where else do you get to hear Denny Dias going crazy on electric sitar?

Third reference to hills/singing in three songs. I swear they’re not in every song. I really like the way Donald makes this one rhyme with hangin’: “The mourners are all sangin’”.

4. Peg
Aja (1977)

TG: An upbeat, uptempo song about a girl. She might be an ex-lover on the path to stardom; she might be the starlet who jumped off the HOLLYWOOD sign; she might just be shooting something X-rated and needs a little encouragement from the director. Whatever the meaning, the song is great.

Just listening to multiple Michael McDonalds belting out “Peeeeeg!” and “For-eign mooo-vie” at different pitches is incredible. The counterpoint of the rhythm against the guitars and keys is infectious. Then Jay Graydon lays down that snarling guitar solo. And everything fits perfectly! Incredible.

CM: Every moment of this track qualifies as a hook, from the descending intro (related to that of “Deacon Blues”) through the vamp, verse, chorus, and solo, all hypnotically carried by Chuck Rainey’s bass and Rick Marotta’s drums. Yes, sheer perfection.

5. Babylon Sisters
Gaucho (1980)

CM: To praise ‘attention to detail’ almost sells Steely Dan short; it’s more like an obsession, especially by the time of Gaucho. Writing, arrangement, demos, rehearsals, rearrangement, and laborious recording...every step presents another opportunity to shape the final effect. “Babylon” is a stellar instance in that much work obviously went into it but it also feels completely natural from the first chord to the 108th.

TG: Shake it, sisters. This sophisticated groove features many highlights and intricacies which belie its slow strut. Like a Sunday in TJ…

6. Green Earrings
The Royal Scam (1976)

CM: Record a deep-pocket backing track live in a room, no click, loops, or punch-ins needed. Add a vocal that serves as much rhythmic purpose as melodic, plus a couple of solo overdubs, and voila – another Scam foot-tapper, rib-sticker, and spirit-raiser. Modern protocol tends to forbid popular artists recording with such realism, but back when it was valued, Dan and company were more than able to invest every layer with personality. “Earrings” exemplifies that notion and steals even rarer jewels on the side.

TG: Love that plinky guitar picking just after the song starts that morphs (the cat) into a later assault on your senses, especially during the solo. Fantastic feel to this song (that can pretty much be said for the entire album – even “Everything You Did”, whose lyrics more reflect the tone of Royal Scam), and the guitar and keyboard workout toward the end sometimes tempts me into thinking it’s better than “Charlemagne”.

7. Hey Nineteen
Gaucho (1980)

TG: Ah, to re-live those dormant dormitory days debating the relative merits of Kools vs Newports, cheap beer vs cheap pizza, Cuervo Gold vs Goldschläger, and whether or not “fine Columbian” was referring to cocaine or coffee. This is the perfect song for both 19 and 39 year old males. At 19, you imagine you’ll be a sophisticate like Mr. Fagen in the future; at 39 you wonder, “Where the hell am I?” and what happened to that 19-year-old idiot?

CM: The friendliest Dan song top to bottom, easy to savor whenever encountered: the radio, someone else’s jukebox pick, or maybe you’re spinning it yourself. An electronic drummer named Wendel (created by engineer Roger Nichols) helped place the backbeat exactly where desired, but humanoid idiosyncrasies (especially Hugh McCracken’s guitar and Fagen’s synth solo, not to mention the vocals) warm it up. As does the lyric, where an older guy realizes he ain’t got much in common with his teenage lady friend.

8. The Boston Rag
Countdown to Ecstasy (1973)

TG: “Lonnie was the kingpin / Back in 1965 / I was singing this song / When Lonnie came alive.” This one is intense and relaxed at the right times. Listen to the first part of the guitar solo; everything is so quiet that you can hear the guitarist applying vibrato and the strings scraping the frets. The rough guitar underneath the early verses contrasts the acoustic guitar themes which follow, and the later strident march theme of the piano sets up the aforementioned solo, which leads to a climax which continues building tension with righteous bass underpinning until the entire climax is resolved through the chorus fading out. Apply headphones (not earbuds) and enjoy immensely!

CM: The way the verse is presented, one might think a heavy tale was about to be told; the ensuing words could sample a fuller plot or maybe they’re just random nostalgia that includes a college roomie ingesting too many substances. Such is the advantage of leaving room for interpretation, which Dan took to various extremes over the years (“West of Hollywood” comes to mind). Fully decoding their lyrics can be fun, but it’s just as much fun to let new connotations appear with each listen.

9. Josie
Aja (1977)

TG: Break out the hats and hooters, Josie’s home! “Josie” is deceptive in that it sounds simple, but there’s some crack chording going on. Plus, the semi-spooky minor feel of the intro and break lend the song an other-worldly quality that almost suggests Josie came back from the dead. You zombie, be born again my friend!

CM: Sexy pace, dreamy voicings, nice licks, and harmonic alleys worthy of 52nd Street catapult our gal into the top ten.

10. Razor Boy
Countdown to Ecstasy (1973)

CM: Too high on the list? Pshaw; this tremendous sleeper conceals unusual twists beneath a puzzling lyric and blends such dissimilar voices as jazzy vibraphone and wistful steel guitar. We’re happy to throw a curve or two in our lists as long as they slice the strike zone, and “Razor Boy” surely does. It freezes me every time.

TG: Seems to be about the perils of being a kept woman and possibly romancing said woman: “I guess only women in cages can play down / The things they lose / You think no tomorrow will come when you lay down / You can’t refuse.” No matter the subject, “Razor Boy” is an incredible construction reflecting the desperate condition of the song’s object. Sufficient proof that a song can knock you out without being overtly aggressive.

“I hear you are singing a song of the past / I see no tears.”

11. Don’t Take Me Alive
The Royal Scam (1976)

TG: I always seem to associate this song with D.B. Cooper (and the money he took), and it’s mostly because Fagen sings, “Well, I shot my old man back in Oregon” and Cooper hijacked a plane over Oregon. Anyway, “Alive” is as aggressive as “Razor Boy” is passive. Muscular guitar opens the action and sets the stage for trouble, which the protagonist provides with his “case of Dynamite”. Yet the lyrics mostly hint at aggression (“luckless pedestrians” and “I don’t want to hurt no one”) while applying transference (“with rage in your eyes and your megaphones” and the “lies and the laughter” of “the evil crowd”). Finally, the antagonist sinks into himself, hearing only “the mechanized hum of another world” and ignoring the red lights flashing outside his bunker.

CM: Dan intended Royal Scam to regain some oomph – at the same time continuing to expand their wardrobe, as it were – and they definitely succeeded.

12. Deacon Blues
Aja (1977)

CM: Escapes categorization, doesn’t it? I’m not one to label everything, but when an ostensible rock band delivers a lengthy ballad with jazz changes, aloof temperament, and adult contemporary sound without being sappy, it begs the “what's going on here” question. And what’s going on is Dan magnificently mixing idioms in service of their own ideal.

TG: Another classic that’s used as the entry (in my imaginary aural dictionary) for the word “languid” and a supplemental entry for “bittersweet”. You know what else? Fuck those winners; sometimes even losers deserve a name that will be remembered. Like Joe Namath, who besides guaranteeing and delivering on the promise of a Super Bowl win, was not a very good quarterback. And what is Joe’s alma mater? Alabama.

13. Your Gold Teeth II
Katy Lied (1975)

TG: The elegant waltz pulse and piano put me in the mind of one of Mr. Vince Guaraldi’s Charlie Brown songs, “Skating”. You can sing, “Throw out your gold teeth / And see how they roll” starting about 11 seconds in; it kind of fits. However, this stands on its own for its odd beauty.

CM: Perhaps a subliminal Guaraldi connection initially drew me into “Your Gold Teeth II”, but the lovely tune continues well beyond that, and interestingly enough, it starts with a fusion-ish prelude that was knocked around live at the time. Solowise, Denny Dias in his wheelhouse; no Dan chord sequence ever bucked him.

14. Show Biz Kids
Countdown to Ecstasy (1973)

CM: This may have been even better if the looped beat, backing vocals, and slide guitar commentary didn’t constantly vie for attention – i.e. if the arrangement had more give and take – but everything befits the imagery of superficiality and nonstop sensation.

TG: Incessant background vocals act as another instrument in this funky-ass swirl of snaky slide guitar and mimicking marimba. It’s a helluva good time. And how many other bands can pull off a winking self-reference with such style? Well, Metallica tried to do so early in their career, but they were typically blunt about it in “Whiplash” with James announcing “We are Metallica!” Please forward similar examples to the webmaster at ask dot com. Thank you.

15. The Royal Scam
The Royal Scam (1976)

TG: Here’s another slow burn in the vein of “Boston Rag”, but this one relies more on the rhythm section to set the pace with brief instrumental flourishes (especially accentuated by muted horns) providing ear candy and a cinematic lyric describing the adventures of two immigrants being swallowed and consumed by the Big City. “Every patron saint hung on the wall and shared the room with 20 sinners” and later, “they are paid in gold just to babble in the back room all night and waste the time”. The duo have traded their grand dreams for petty desires and a pall hangs about them like smoke from the ash of the cigarettes that surely hang from their lips. So much for the “sunny island” back home.

CM: Lots of suspense from a sinister vamp that underpins everything except the vocals, which cue the only chord changes. The result yin-yangs darkness and light, grim reality and innocent hope.

16. Black Cow
Aja (1977)

CM: A dysfunctional relationship is terminated over a seductive beat, tasty backing vocals, and terrific Tom Scott horn chart. Not an immediately arresting song, it rather seeps into effect, and by the end, everything seems “so outrageous.”

TG: The fantastic opening verse fronts an impeccably constructed tale of a relationship going down in flames where the Captain leaps from the sinking vessel and gleefully watches his former mate sipping a ridiculous beverage and slipping away forever.

17. Throw Back the Little Ones
Katy Lied (1975)

TG: A tale of the perpetual con, grifter, and/or flim-flam man highlighted by outright lyrical racism (which was okay at the time), graceful piano, brash horns, and slinky guitar. I should mention that the lyrics obviously belong to the con man, thus reflecting his dismissive attitude toward his prey and revealing his own xenophobic ignorance.

CM: A stepping stone toward later masterpieces and equally compelling. There’s a heady verse/chorus surrounded by sub-themes and a marvelous instrumental break; the rhythm constantly adjusts as needed; and the final caress is breathtaking. Genius.

18. Everyone’s Gone to the Movies
Katy Lied (1975)

CM: What a ballsy lyric matched to an enticing soundtrack. Step aside “Hey Nineteen” and “Janie Runaway”, this is diabolical.

TG: “Ahem, attention students, I wish to remind you that there is no school Friday because of the holiday weekend. So, please enjoy yourselves and come back to school ready to learn on Monday. Also, even though it is a holiday, Mr. LaPage will be hosting his weekly Friday Film series in his den for older students. As usual, sneakers are optional, but shimmery saxophones, nimble marimbas, and rumbling jungle drums are required. Thank you.”

19. Bodhisattva
Countdown to Ecstasy (1973)

TG: Blues form heard a thousand times before but given new life by Team Dan’s instrumental gurus whose chops and confidence are on fine display.

CM: Also given new life by a jazz turnaround that extends the 12-bar form. “Bodhisattva” is a potential big-band piece played by a smaller one, thumping beat and spotlights for all. Naturally, it became their ‘70s show opener to ignite performers and audience. “Yes, cookin’ tonight, I think we’re gonna cook.”

20. Rikki Don’t Lose That Number
Pretzel Logic (1974)

CM: “Rikki” isn’t as profound as others in this echelon, but its radio-friendly craft deserves respect. The hook starts at the end of the verse (“if you have a change of heart”) and continues into a memorable chorus that leads back to the Silvery vamp that started the song. Commercially seductive but hardly cheap.

TG: Another mysterious intro, this one is brought back to enrich the post-chorus with an air of despondency. This may be the SD track everyone has heard, but that doesn’t make it any less effective – especially during the wonderfully controlled guitar solo.

21. I Got the News
Aja (1977)

TG: I got the news that you’re a slut, and I’m going to take full advantage. With Josie coming home and starting an orgy, Aja possibly being an Oriental prostitute, Peg possibly being a porn actress, Deacon Blues making love to those women, and now this, it’s tempting to think that Becker and Fagen maybe missed one attribute of a rockin’ life on the road – sampling the local Flora and Fauna of each town along the way, twins who may or may not have hitched a ride in the tour truck with Jerome.

CM: Slick tune and sick playing from some of the best in the biz. One of seven reasons Aja is among the few perfect albums I’ve ever encountered.

22. Gaucho
Gaucho (1980)

CM: My beef has always been with how the vocal seems awkwardly planted atop a musical minefield – “The Battle of Epping Forest” Americanized. That being said, both lyric (surely non-PC by today’s hypersensitivity) and chart are prime stuff, and moments of synergy do exist. Whether or not I reconcile all the elements in the future is irrelevant; this one’s a dandy.

TG: Stilted delivery of the snarky lyric somehow ties in with the slow progression building to grand keyboard crescendos and that heavenly chorus reverberating high in the Custerdome. One of my all-time SD favorites, yet it’s only #22; that’s how strong the previous contenders were.

23. Dirty Work
Can’t Buy a Thrill (1972)

TG: I must admit that I didn’t realize this song was by SD for most of my life. However, like Elaine Benes’ boyfriend Brett, it has become my personal “Desperado”. It’s short and a bit repetitive, but the verse lyrics contain just the right amount of world-weary disdain to elicit an empathetic response in my soul. The walking synth line sets the mood for the sing-along chorus. Even David Palmer’s somewhat fruity vocal suits the song well.

CM: A fine selection from the variety show Steely Dan proffered on their debut.

24. Parker’s Band
Pretzel Logic (1974)

TG: This is one of Becker and Fagen’s early tunes that they went back to due to the challenge of trying to write new material while on the road. It’s an inspired ode to Charlie “Bird” Parker, the bebop saxophonist who lived hard and died young, and the lyrics don’t shy away from his troubles. “Relaxin’ at Camarillo” is a Parker title name-dropped in the lyric which references his time spent in a mental hospital. “Groovin’ High” is another Bird song title which aptly describes how Parker spent a lot of his time. Donald also sings, “We will spend a dizzy weekend / Smacked into a trance,” which references Parker’s one-time partner Dizzy Gillespie and the heroin habit that eventually killed Charlie. Be sure to check out Professor Dan’s other lectures concerning Napoleon, Haitian divorce methods, and the geography of New York.

CM: A Birdsong suits Walt and Don’s passion for jazz, though wisdom apparently suggested that a swinging rhythm would be too obvious. They opted instead to issue bebop quotes atop an invigorating double-drummer rock beat, and the end result can rally anyone to hear the real thing.

25. Gaslighting Abbie
Two Against Nature (2000)

CM: Dan’s first studio album in twenty years recaptured “mystical soul synergy” with ease, and flagship “Abbie” has it all: smart composition, tight feel, complex colors, vintage tones, contemporary vibe, and dark humor. It’s a natural successor to Gaucho, a testament to their timelessness, at least in my estimation. “Abbie” sure holds up her part of the bargain.

TG: Subtly funky and perverse, this track carries the spark of classic SD while still sounding modern. (Well, for the year 2000, anyway; you know what, I’m being a dick; this is a great song no matter what year it is; maybe I’m just bitter that this album beat out Radiohead’s Kid A for a Grammy; I mean, seriously, it’s great that they finally recognized the combined genius of Fagen and Becker, but were they truly saying that Two Against Nature was better than the album that set the tone for the next decade of Rock? Come on. At least it wasn’t as bad as the time Metallica lost in much the same manner to Jethro Tull. Who the hell besides my Canadian college roommate even knew Jethro Tull was still a band in 1989? Fucking Grammy voters, that’s who!) Where’s that confounded bridge?

26. Doctor Wu
Katy Lied (1975)

CM: Behold the lasting intrigue of a still-unsolved lyric (involving deception, drugs, and a particular doctor) told over relaxed music, with an astounding Phil Woods alto solo to boot. The centerpiece of Katy Lied.

TG: In bits and pieces but especially at the end, “Wu” contains building blocks for the elegant spire that later became “Aja” – listen to the sax and drums, in particular. It’s also a wonderfully catchy song about addiction (to drugs and others) and loss (of one’s sense of self). Also…

“All night long / We would sing that stupid song” and “I went searching for the song you used to sing to me.”

27. Your Gold Teeth
Countdown to Ecstasy (1973)

CM: Whether or not Don and Walt liked playing live in the early days, it enabled the cohesion of a piece like this, groove-based and with solos so immediate (particularly Fagen in the double-time outro) as to seem like a true studio performance. Maybe it was.

TG: “Even Cathy Berberian knows there’s one roulade she can’t sing”. Imagine not being able to pull out your phone, connect to the Internet, and Google Cathy Berberian. There would be no Wikipedia entry telling you she was an avant-garde singer. You would have to use your brain and imagine a young Donald or Walter finding a vinyl album buried in the back of a closet (or perhaps proudly displayed for all to admire on top of the record cabinet – hey, it’s your imagination, not mine). Then you find yourself distracted by a voice in the back of your head asking, “What the hell’s a roulade?” So you give up, pull out your phone, and type…

The odd flavor of this track captivates your attention – not as much as part II, but there’s enough going on in nearly seven minutes to twist your mind and keep your toes tapping. “In the year of the locust you’ll sing / A sad thing.” Indeed.

28. Negative Girl
Two Against Nature (2000)

CM: To explain the music’s ingenuity and how it supports yet another femme-fatale tale would take too long, but suffice it to say that Dan reconvened with high standards intact for Two Against Nature. Who else could deliver a treatise like this, or procure the crack musicians to make it sound effortless?

TG: “Her skin, like milk / That’s never seen the sun / Some hearts, to crunch / Is more like her idea of fun.” Like the title character, this track threatens to fade from the frame, yet its charms imprint upon your memory. The reel may run a little long, but this track leaves a positive impression. Okay, that’s enough “pun”ishment for now. I love the Morse Code-like guitar at the end.

29. Reelin’ in the Years
Can’t Buy a Thrill (1972)

CM: From toddler age onward, I’ve gotten my “Reelin’” fill many times over, but it received decades-spanning airplay for good reason. Of academic interest is how, despite having two very competent guitarists in the ‘band’ at the time, Becker and Fagen sought a third party to play lead here. A harbinger of things to come.

TG: I pushed for this song as my fellow session man thinks it too popular, pluralistic, or some other “P” word. Indeed, I myself tired of it long ago when it was the theme for some Saturday-morning oldies radio show (which I’m pretty sure was titled “Reelin’ in the Years.” If so, I hope the boys at least got some money from it). Anyworldi’mwelcometo, it stayed on my shit list until I rediscovered it when unearthing Can’t Buy A Thrill many years later. Nowadays, I enjoy the dual-guitar attack and Donald’s many bon mots (bonnes mottes? gud werdz?).

30. Sign in Stranger
The Royal Scam (1976)

TG: A bouncy tune that kind of leaves me wanting more since the band doesn’t really hit stride until near the end. Still very good because of the frequent keyboard digs.

CM: For me, they hit stride from the get-go, each verse accumulating information and finding cathartic release in the refrain and piano solo. The lyric invites one to a planet for outcasts, misfits, and criminals; I imagine a few characters from other SD songs could seek exile on Mizar 5.

31. The Caves of Altamira
The Royal Scam (1976)

CM: An early sketch revived with substantial horn parts and disco-ish drums in the chorus, neither of which were an option back when Dan initially demoed it. Specific virtues of “Altamira” are tough to summarize, but it’s easy to fall into the track’s embrace, and the fact that it bridges “Charlemagne” and “Alive” on Scam with no drop in quality says a lot.

TG: Best ever song about cave paintings? Why not. I always enjoy hearing it, and Scam wouldn’t be as strong without it.

32. Pretzel Logic
Pretzel Logic (1974)

TG: One of the difficult things in writing about Steely Dan is that they struck a vein of pure gold with their writing, composing, and recording techniques; they mined the hell out of that shaft and turned out as many kinds of gold baubles (though ones of thoroughly excellent quality, to be sure) as one could care to count.

Rather than making stylistic leaps or changes, Steely Dan emerged almost fully formed even on their debut album. They melded blues, jazz, and rock into a composite entirely of their own. Admirable and amazing as that was, it still sometimes leaves one wanting for words to describe their music, and one ends up writing a lot while not saying much of anything – kind of like “Pretzel Logic”.

CM: Another example of Dan’s penchant for grafting jazz harmony onto a blues structure and arranging with rock/pop sensibility. I like how the chorus vocals shine unexpected light upon proceedings.

33. King of the World
Countdown to Ecstasy (1973)

CM: Wah-wah Apocalypse, or How I Learned To Love The Atomic Wasteland. As soon as the bass states the first chords, this song assumes a foreboding (yet hopeful?) tone for a survivor’s perspective on certain doom. Denny Dias’ outro solo captures determination in a bottle – assuming you can tune out the synth line that should have been mixed lower at that point.

TG: To me, this is a bit of an anomaly in the catalog in that it sounds very different than the majority of their titles. The elliptical guitar line is a favorite, but overall it takes the listener on an apocalyptic journey through sound. The synth effects remind me more of Fantasy Island than Fantasy Records, yet “King” has a unique feel even among Steely Dan songs.

34. Bad Sneakers
Katy Lied (1975)

TG: This is similar to “Any Major Dude” in that the chorus line is echoed by the piano, but the swinging break lifts this song above its lesser brother. And Mr. McDonald again rips off his suit and glasses, dashes into a phone booth (a rectangular glass box with a folding door which housed a large, usually black and silver phone into which one inserted coins and used said phone to make a call if all was still in working order), and emerges clad in a black jumpsuit with a stylized “M” and microphone inscribed upon his chest to save the day with background vocals.

CM: It took me a while to fully appreciate this mid-tempo ditty that yearns for old stomping grounds, and though still not a personal fave, I can hear why many fans rate it highly. Meanwhile, you’re quite flush if Michael McDonald is your backing-vox specialist. He brings “Sneakers” alive at choice moments and does the same in “Rose Darling” elsewhere on Katy.

35. Green Book
Everything Must Go (2003)

CM: Jazz erudition I admit; hyperbole, no – those chords in the verses recall Bud Powell’s “Un Poco Loco” for their unsettled intervals and insistent placement. Who else but Dan could sneak such seductive dissonance into the rock world? “Green Book” achieves classic atmosphere and includes the first instance (unless I’m mistaken) of Donald and Walter trading solos back and forth.

TG: Over a funky flex workout, the lyric details some sort of voyeuristic remote-viewing experience which, of course, SD uses to guide us through a throng of lovely lasses. Even when they were young, these guys were dirty old men.

36. The Fez
The Royal Scam (1976)

CM: Not so much a song as a vocally-decorated instrumental, “The Fez” rubs shoulders with mid-70s dance-floor hits (body-movin’ beat, string synth, etc.) but gives elbow room to knotty cadences that keep it real within the Steelysphere.

TG: Sometimes you just want to groove and have fun, but don’t do it without your fez on!

37. FM (No Static at All)
non-album track appearing on various compilations

TG: Okay, maybe a little static, but not as much as AM. Maybe XM has no static at all. Anyway, there are apparently 10 different versions/edits of this song floating around, so pick your favorite and place it here. It’s fine with us. And I’m not even counting the version where AM stations cut the “F” out of FM and spliced in a harmonically convergent “A” sound from Aja to create “AM” to play on their stations. I’m kind of sad I missed out on the AM radio phenomenon. I think I would have enjoyed it. FM was dominant by the time I raised my rabbit ears to listen to music beyond the album collection of my parents.

CM: Give me some funked-up muzak, I’ll treat you nice, too. And if you don’t dig this delicious party platter, you weren’t invited anyhow.

38. Any Major Dude Will Tell You
Pretzel Logic (1974)

CM: Grab-bag Pretzel Logic partly accesses the past for material but predicts the future in execution. Along the way comes this endearing song that hits home with little fuss.

TG: Nice acoustic intro sets a tone that contrasts a lyric sung to one whose mind is apparently unsteady. Surely “The Dude” would abide this glossy piece of self-help instruction, as long as it’s not delivered by The Eagles.

39. Only a Fool Would Say That
Can’t Buy a Thrill (1972)

TG: Forgive me when I run out of synonyms for “smooth” when discussing Dan. This isn’t one of their best, but it’s memorable and cheerfully dismisses the hippy premise that everything should be “Like, free, man.”

CM: Never fails to make me bob my head and a fool.

40. Everything Must Go
Everything Must Go (2003)

CM: “Cranking up the afterglow” with a group-improv prelude, reflective verses, and a stirring bridge (which is what the opening flourish is based on). The story contains enough self-congratulation to suggest that Dan were aware this might be their sunset ride.

TG: Erupts from the speakers with what sounds like the end of a song. Quite appropriate, as (in my personal opinion) “Everything Must Go” sets up as Steely Dan’s farewell ode to themselves. Evidence? Epistrophy. Donald sings that they wish to “dissolve the corporation in a pool of margaritas” and that things have gone “from late to later” and asks “Does anybody get lucky twice / Wouldn’t it be nice?”.

Also note that from about 0:32 to 0:36, the saxophone mimics the start of that last couplet. I wonder if Walt Weiskopf was asked to do that intentionally. Knowing how Dan worked, I’d say yes. Also, “Everything” is the last song of the album and the title track. They’re practically hitting us over the head with the fact that it’s the Last Steely Dan Song. Still, they find time for humor when the narrator could “use a little face time in the service elevator...we’re going out of business, everything must go” – including the morals. Ha!

If you don’t believe me, there’s also the fact that SD hasn’t released any new material since. I’m not saying they never will, of course; they’ve always done whatever they want, and I’m sure they will continue doing so. But for now, this remains a fitting farewell from Becker and Fagen, and a good song with which to end this list.

Personal Favorites

Seating is limited at the Manatee Bar, but VIPs have guest lists...

Chris’ 5 Faves:

Glamour Profession
Gaucho (1980)

CM: Strong candidate “Profession” takes the glamorous role of personal fave instead. The song is ultra-fine, the solos masterful.

Time Out of Mind
Gaucho (1980)

CM: “Perfection and grace” sums it up. Wonderful bridge at the two minute mark.

Monkey in Your Soul
Katy Lied (1975)

CM: Funky, fuzzy, and funny. Attention all units: fatback chord gone missing. Likely found refuge in a nearby song. Stay alert.

Almost Gothic
Two Against Nature (2000)

CM: The younger, more introspective sister of Negative Girl? Frail in parts, beguiling elsewhere, she infatuates yet spells potential heartbreak, as can happen. A buried treasure.

This All Too Mobile Home
live performances (Back Then)

CM: Heading off reservation for a stage-only song that can be found on unofficial recordings of early live shows. From 1974, Los Angeles and Memphis contain decent versions, but twas London’s that sold me on this set-closer extraordinaire. “Mobile Home” doesn’t differ much from the hooky rock found on the first few albums, and I don’t know how it might have worked in the studio, but its semi-grand nature makes me wonder. Runner-ups for this pick are other legendary “lost” songs like “Second Arrangement”, “Kulee Baba”, and “The Bear”. Oh man, “The Bear” is great...

Todd’s 5 Faves:

Can’t Buy a Thrill (1972)

TG: Sprightly guitar work fosters a bright tone, however, the lyrics declaim, “And though we sung his fame / We all went hungry just the same”. Surely the lyric refers to Richard the Lion-Hearted and his brother Good King John and not that asshole Richard Nixon and the womanizing John Kennedy?

With a Gun
Pretzel Logic (1974)

TG: Country-flavored fun. With a gun.

Charlie Freak
Pretzel Logic (1974)

TG: Could this be a Dannish take on O. Henry’s “The Gift of the Magi”? Perhaps it’s a depressing Christmas song? Maybe both at the same time. Why? Well, the rather transparent (for SD) lyric tells the tale of a junkie who sells his prize ring for a taste of smack while the narrator buys said ring “for chicken feed.” As in Magi, each “gift” has no benefit – the junkie dies (“And as he sighed / His body died / In fifteen ways”) and the narrator returns the ring to the junkie’s dead body and ends up with nothing. So, why would “Freak“ be a Christmas song? Well, the lyric also describes Charlie begging “in a plot of frozen space“, sleigh bells are used in the instrumentation, the gift thing, and even a bit of redemption for the narrator.

My keystroke cousin wasn’t as fond of this track as I, so I stashed it in my bag o’ faves. No one else seems to care much about this track, but I do. I love the strident piano figure that never lets up. I enjoy the layering of instruments as the song progresses from sparse beginning to chiming, clamorous end. I even dig the brief synth/guitar (can’t tell which) murmurs that crest briefly before fading to the background. I read that “Charlie Freak” was one of their early compositions, which were supposedly more dense and non-commercial. That’s probably another reason I like it so much.

Cousin Dupree
Two Against Nature (2000)

TG: “The dreary architecture of your soul”. What a great fucking line. It sums up the persona of Cousin Dupree, a mostly worthless and entirely shiftless man who ends up living with his aunt and sleeping on her sofa – all for want of doing something better with his life. And what else does Dupree find there but the younger, perky, pretty cousin with whom he used to play? Now he’s interested in a different kind of game as she drives him crazy by “waxing her skis” and making out with her dates while banging into Dupree’s temporary bed on the sofa.

Even though his irresistible cousin rebuffs his advances and delimits the demerits of Dupree’s very existence, he remains unflappable: “I said, but what is it exactly turns you off?” Oh, Dupree, you clueless, self-absorbed, useless, beautiful douchebag!

Third World Man
Gaucho (1980)

TG: This song starts so slow, it might as well be steam evaporating off hot asphalt after summer rain. But in its dutiful diligence, there’s a strength of purpose. Is that purpose turning the blind eye of indifference in upon ourselves so that we see the scorn heaped upon those “lesser” than us? Or is it a reminder that the First and Third Worlds are only separated by geography and chance? If so, the narrator doesn’t seem to mind that much: “When he’s crying out / I just sing that Ghana Rondo”.

Okay, that’s the end of my personal faves, so that means it’s time for explanatory extrapolation.

“Sing” would easily be a cheap rhyme for anyone else, but Becker and Fagen don’t seem to use it that way. The two started out as songwriters. They wrote for Jay & The Americans, they wrote for the soundtrack to a Putney Swope-type film, they even wrote a song for Barbra freaking Streisand. But mostly they wrote for themselves. All that honing and writing and listening and playing added up over the years until the very act of creating a song meant a lot to them – so much so that they kept mentioning it in their own songs. The act of singing was even important to Donald as a child because his mother was a singer. Singing and songs are ingrained in their membranes and thus pour out from their minds (and I’d dare say hearts) – no wonder they were such perfectionists in the studio. They wanted each song to sing out and be heard. They cared about songcraft as well as the songs they were crafting. For that, gentlemen, we thank you.

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