Forerunners of post-modernism? Naw, that term’s been worn out and made more meaningless than an ex-sorority skank. 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 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 Steely Dan for this endeavor reaffirmed why both of us have enjoyed their music for so long.
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: 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, those awesome drums, and the descent back into Steely elan.
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 musical backdrops which may or may not reflect the lyrics. It’s an often-cynical and definitely off-kilter worldview set to the 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 hits of acid for your ear canals.
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 gassed up – let’s roll.
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?
TG: She might be an ex-lover on the path to stardom; she might be the starlet who jumped off the HOLLYWOOD sign; she might be shooting something X-rated and needs encouragement from the director. Whatever the meaning, the song is great.
Listening to multiple Michael McDonalds belting out “Peeeeeg!” and “For-eign mooo-vie” at different pitches is incredible. The guitars and keys are infectious. Then Jay Graydon lays down that snarling solo. Incredible.
CM: Every moment of this track qualifies as a hook, all hypnotically carried by Chuck Rainey’s bass and Rick Marotta’s drums. Yes, sheer perfection.
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, 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. Intricacies belie the slow strut. Like a Sunday in TJ...
CM: Record a deep-pocket 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 and rib-sticker. 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 into a later assault on your senses, especially during the solo. Fantastic feel to this song, and the guitar and keyboard workout toward the end sometimes tempts me into thinking it’s better than “Charlemagne”.
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 wherever 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.
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 themes which follow, and the later the piano sets up the aforementioned solo, which leads to a climax resolved through the chorus fadeout. Apply headphones and enjoy!
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.
TG: Break out the hats and hooters, Josie’s home! The semi-spooky 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, nice licks, and harmonic alleys worthy of 52nd Street catapult our gal into the top ten.
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. 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 aggressive.
TG: I always seem to associate this song with D.B. Cooper (and the money he took), mostly because Fagen sings “Well, I shot my old man back in Oregon” and Cooper hijacked a plane over Oregon. Muscular guitar 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.
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 dictionary) for the word “languid” and a supplemental entry for “bittersweet.” You know what else? Sometimes even losers deserve a name that will be remembered. Like Joe Namath, who besides delivering on the promise of a Super Bowl win was not a very good quarterback. And what is Joe’s alma mater? Alabama.
TG: The pulse and piano put me in the mind of one of 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 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 is in his wheelhouse; no Dan chord sequence ever bucked him.
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: A helluva good time, and how many other bands can pull off a winking self-reference with such style?
TG: This one relies on the rhythm and lyric describing the adventures of 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.” So much for the “sunny island” back home.
CM: Lots of suspense from a sinister vamp and the vocals that cue the only chord changes. The result yin-yangs darkness and light, reality and hope.
CM: A dysfunctional relationship is terminated over a seductive beat, tasty backing vocals, and a 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 watches his former mate sipping a ridiculous beverage and slipping away forever.
TG: A tale of the perpetual con, grifter, and/or flim-flam man highlighted by 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. 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.
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 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.”
TG: Blues form heard a thousand times before but given new life by chops and confidence on 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 both performers and audience. “Yes, cookin’ tonight, I think we’re gonna cook.”
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 viable but hardly cheap.
TG: This may be the SD track everyone has heard, but that doesn’t make it any less effective – especially during the guitar solo.
TG: I got the news that you’re a slut, and I’m going to take full advantage.
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.
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: That chorus reverberates high in the Custerdome. One of my all-time SD favorites.
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 the right amount of world-weary disdain to elicit an response in my soul. Even David Palmer’s somewhat fruity vocal suits the song.
CM: A fine selection from the variety show Steely Dan proffered on their debut.
TG: 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 title describing 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 a double-drummer rock beat, and the end result can rally anyone to hear the real thing.
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, 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.
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”. It’s also a wonderfully catchy song about addiction (to drugs and others) and loss (of one’s sense of self).
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: Enough going on to twist your mind and keep your toes tapping.
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. I love the Morse Code-like guitar at the end.
CM: I’ve gotten my “Reelin’” fill many times over, but it was a radio staple 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). It stayed on my shit list until I rediscovered it when unearthing Can’t Buy A Thrill many years later. Nowadays, I enjoy the guitar attack and Donald’s many bon mots.
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 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.
CM: An early sketch revived with 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.
TG: 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 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.
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 sounds very different than the majority of their titles. The guitar line is a favorite, and overall it takes the listener on a journey. The synth effects remind me more of Fantasy Island than Fantasy Records, yet “King” has a unique feel.
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, 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 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 elsewhere on Katy.
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 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.
TG: The lyric details some sort of voyeuristic experience through a throng of lovely lasses. Even when they were young, these guys were dirty old men.
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 cadences that keep it real within the Steelysphere.
TG: Sometimes you just want to groove, but don’t do it without your fez on!
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. I’m not even counting the version where AM stations cut the “F” out of FM and spliced in an “A” sound from Aja to create “AM” to play on their stations.
CM: Give me some funked-up muzak, I’ll treat you nice, too. If you don’t dig this delicious party platter, you weren’t invited anyhow.
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 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.
TG: This isn’t one of their very 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 grin...like a fool.
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: “Everything Must Go” sets up as Steely Dan’s farewell ode to themselves. 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, “Everything” is the last song of the album and the title piece. They’re practically hitting us over the head with the fact that it’s the Last Steely Dan Song. This remains a fitting farewell from Becker and Fagen, and a good song with which to end this list.
Chris’ 5 Faves:
CM: Strong candidate “Profession” takes the glamorous role of personal fave instead. The song is ultra-fine, the solos masterful.
CM: “Perfection and grace” sums it up. Wonderful bridge.
CM: Funky, fuzzy, and funny. Attention all units: fatback chord gone missing. Likely found refuge in a nearby song. Stay alert.
CM: The younger, introspective sister of Negative Girl? Frail in parts, beguiling elsewhere, she infatuates yet spells potential heartbreak, as can happen. A buried treasure.
CM: I'm 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 albums, and I don’t know how it might have worked in the studio, but I 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: Guitar work fosters a bright tone, however, the lyrics declaim, “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 Richard Nixon and the womanizing John Kennedy?
TG: Country-flavored fun. With a gun.
TG: Could this be a Dannish take on O. Henry’s “The Gift of the Magi” or a depressing Christmas song? Maybe both at the same time. The rather transparent (for SD) lyric tells 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.
No one else seems to care much about this track, but I do. I love the piano figure that never lets up and how the song progresses.
TG: “The dreary architecture of your soul” sums up Cousin Dupree, a mostly worthless 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 pretty cousin with whom he used to play? Now he’s interested in a different game as she drives him crazy by “waxing her skis” and making out with her dates. Even though his cousin rebuffs Dupree’s advances, he remains unflappable: “what is it exactly turns you off?”
TG: Steam evaporating off hot asphalt after summer rain, and strength of purpose.