Steely Dan: favorite songs from each album

Steely Dan favorite songs


Donald Fagen, left, and Walter Becker of Steely Dan.

As I’ve done before for Bob Dylan, Elvis Costello, Lou Reed, Stevie Wonder, Bonnie Raitt and Joni Mitchell, I am currently sharing a song a day, on Facebook, from each Steely Dan album, including solo efforts by Donald Fagen and Walter Becker, in chronological order. I will be compiling the videos here, adding each one after it is posted online.

I will include tracks from some (but possibly not all) of the band’s compilations and live albums.

I’m not making the argument that each selection is the “best” song from that album; it’s just my favorite, or something that I felt like sharing that day. I also won’t allow myself to choose a song twice, so if I have already chosen a song, it will be out of contention if it reappears in the same or different form on another album.

So here are the videos. Enjoy!

I’ll begin with a bit of a curveball: A non-album track, “Dallas,” Steely Dan’s first single, from 1972. It was not included on the band’s 1972 debut album, Can’t Buy a Thrill, and though it was released on a 1978 Japanese SD compilation, I don’t believe it ever has come out on an American SD compilation. It’s sung by drummer Jim Hodder, features pedal steel by Jeff “Skunk” Baxter, and is in a rootsy, country-pop style that offered little hint of what was to come later from this band. (The song was also covered by Poco in 1975, incidentally.)

Today we come to the band’s 1972 debut album, Can’t Buy a Thrill, which got them off to a fast start with two big hit singles, “Do It Again” and “Reelin’ in the Years.” I’ll go with the latter, which is still remarkably fresh-sounding 50 years later and still, I think, inspires people to ask themselves, “Who is that guitarist taking that incredible solo?” (Answer: Elliott Randall.)

After the band had two hits with Can’t Buy a Thrill, nothing on the 1973 followup Countdown to Ecstasy achieved similar success, though it had plenty of worthy tracks, including “Bodhisattva,” “Show Biz Kids” and the bouncy “My Old School,” which makes references to Fagen and Becker’s alma mater (Bard College in Annandale-on-Hudson, N.Y.) and a 1969 incident there in which a large group of students, including them, were arrested for smoking marijuana (the charges were later dropped). Weird trivia fact: the song’s “Daddy G” is Watergate conspirator G. Gordon Libby, who, working as a prosecutor in Dutchess County, N.Y., at the time, supervised the raid.

Pretzel Logic, released in 1974, was the first Steely Dan album I ever owned; I was 13, and previously had bought the “Do It Again” and “Reelin’ in the Years” singles, but was ready to take the plunge on an album now. “Rikki Don’t Lose That Number” was the hit, but the whole album was solid, and in the interest in sharing something a little less well known, I’ll go with the gritty but catchy “Monkey in Your Soul.”

Katy Lied (1975) had just one minor hit (“Black Friday”) but is my favorite Steely Dan album, with masterpieces like ‘Bad Sneakers,” “Rose Darling,” “Any World (That I’m Welcome To)” and “Doctor Wu.” This last song, featuring Phil Woods on alto saxophone, is about addiction and betrayal, and just endlessly fascinating to me: emotionally direct but lyrically mysterious, melodically engaging but harmonically complex. Everything great about Steely Dan in a nutshell.

I know I’m in the minority on this, but The Royal Scam (1976) is my least favorite of Steely Dan’s ’70s albums. I don’t hate it, but it just never did as much for me as the other albums did. That said, there is no denying the thorny funk arrangement and brilliant guitar work (by Larry Carlton) on “Kid Charlemagne,” which makes references to the notorious San Francisco LSD king Owsley Stanley.

As I wrote two days ago, Katy Lied is my favorite Steely Dan album. But Aja (1977) is a close second, as well as the band’s commercial high point, going double platinum, with more than two million copies sold, and yielding three Top 40 singles — “Josie,” “Peg” and “Deacon Blues” — as well as the mind-blowingly adventurous eight-minute title track. The Aja song I love the most is the beguiling “Deacon Blues,” which is about the dreams of an aspiring saxophonist, though it’s also about his sense of resignation that a somewhat sordid life lies ahead for him. “This brother is free/I’ll be what I want to be,” sings Donald Fagen after a tenor sax solo (by Pete Christlieb) that really captures that feeling of freedom, tempered by a touch of bluesy grit.

In 1978, Steely Dan did a very un-Steely-Dan-like thing, agreeing to write the theme song for a Hollywood comedy, “FM.” The result — “FM (No Static at All),” released only on the movie’s soundtrack album — was recorded very quickly, by Steely Dan standards. But with its rich, complex sound, it would have fit right in on the band’s still-popular Aja album, though its “FM, no static at all” refrain — meant to evoke a typical radio station slogan — and its added strings (rare for Steely Dan) might have made it stick out a little. Saxophonist Pete Christlieb, who had been featured on “Deacon Blues,” solos, and three members of The Eagles (Don Henley, Glenn Frey and Timothy B. Schmit) sing backing vocals. “FM” the movie was a bomb, but “FM (No Static at All)” became a Top 40 hit.

Gaucho (1980) felt like a bit of a letdown when it was released, maybe because the brilliant and immensely popular Aja had set the bar so high. Certainly the production and musicianship were still immaculate, but the songwriting seemed a bit lackluster, as if Steely Dan was running out of things to say. (Not surprisingly, the group’s long hiatus began after the album’s release.) “Time Out of Mind,” a seductive song about the allure of drugs, was just a minor hit, but I remember it being played on FM radio a lot, and it’s one of those Steely Dan songs I never get tired of. Among the song’s large supporting cast were guitarist Mark Knopfler, drummer Rick Marotta, trumpeter Randy Brecker, saxophonists Michael Brecker and David Sanborn, and singers Michael McDonald, Patti Austin and Valerie Simpson.

The band’s 1980 single “Hey Nineteen” came with a great B-side: A sizzling 1974 live version of the Countdown to Ecstasy track “Bodhisattva” with a strange-and-rambling intro by apparently drunk touring crew member Jerome Aniton. Joining Fagen and Becker in the touring band that is featured on this track are guitarists Denny Dias and Jeff “Skunk” Baxter,” drummers Jim Hodder and Jeff Porcaro, singer-keyboardist Michael McDonald and singer-percussionist Royce Jones. This version of the song was later included on the 1993 boxed set, Citizen Steely Dan.

Donald Fagen released his first solo album, The Nightfly, in 1982, and it lived up to Steely Dan’s artistic standards while also, appropriately enough, showcasing a more personal approach to songwriting. Fagen grew up in Passaic, Fair Lawn and the Kendall Park section of South Brunswick and, on the album, he revisited his youth — specifically his years in Kendall Park, where he spent most of his adolescence. As he wrote in the album’s liner notes, the songs “represent certain fantasies that might have been entertained by a young man growing up in the remote suburbs of a northeastern city during the late fifties and early sixties, i.e., one of my general height, weight and build.” Here is “New Frontier,” very clearly about growing up in the ‘burbs in the ’50s and early ’60s, complete with references to bomb shelters, Tuesday Weld and Dave Brubeck. (Note: There is another new frontier to think about here. MTV launched in 1981, and so “New Frontier,” unlike the Steely Dan singles that preceded it, had a music video.)

Donald Fagen has not often performed in a purely instrumental setting (i.e., with no vocals), but he did so on the Hal Willner-produced 1984 compilation album That’s the Way I Feel Now: A Tribute to Thelonious Monk, playing synthesizer in a duet format with guitarist Steve Khan on a gentle and elegant cover of Monk’s “Reflections.”

Donald Fagen’s second solo album, Kamakiriad (1993) — featuring Walter Becker as producer, bassist and guitarist — was, frankly, a major letdown after the engrossing The Nightfly. It’s a futuristic concept album through the story itself is incomprehensible; the music reproduced Steely Dan’s gorgeous sonics without much of that band’s lyrical bite of melodic ingenuity. All that said, the allure of languorous “Snowbound” — the only track on the album co-written with Becker — is still pretty undeniable.

The 1993 four-CD boxed set Citizen Steely Dan was admirably complete, with every track from all seven Steely Dan albums plus a handful of odds and ends, including a surprisingly funky demo for the Katy Lied track “Everyone’s Gone to the Movies,” featuring Flo & Eddie on backing vocals.

Walter Becker released his debut solo album, 11 Tracks of Whack (which actually has 12 tracks), in 1994, with Donald Fagen co-producing. And it sounds less like Steely Dan than Fagen’s albums do. The sound is brittle in comparison to Steely Dan’s lushness, and the lyrics more plainspoken and direct (and less poetically elusive) than the band’s. The musicianship and songwriting are still top-notch, though, and supporting musicians are given plenty of room to stretch out, as on “Lucky Henry,” which features some stellar work by guitarists Adam Rogers and Dean Parks, who both solo.

When Steely Dan reassembled in 1993, it did so as a touring entity. There wasn’t any new music, initially, though the band did release a live album, Alive in America, in 1995, featuring performances from various ’93 and ’94 shows. As thrilling as it was, at that point, to see the band touring for the first time in 20 years or so, Alive in America is not an essential addition to the band’s catalog, with, mostly, only minor changes made to the songs’ original arrangements. One of the nice things about it, though, was the inclusion of a gem from Walter Becker’s largely overlooked 11 Tracks of Whack album, “Book of Liars.”

In 2000 — seven years after starting to tour again, and 20 years since their last studio album, Gaucho — Steely Dan finally came out with a new one, Two Against Nature. It went platinum and won four Grammys, including Album of the Year. Single “Cousin Dupree” was its catchiest song and “West of Hollywood” its most musically expansive epic, but my favorite track is “What a Shame About Me,” which — though it’s about a writer and not a musician — feels, to me, like a bittersweet sequel to “Deacon Blues,” in which we catch up with the narrator, 20 years later and doing the 12-Step Program.

After releasing Two Against Nature in 2000, Steely Dan didn’t wait another 20 years before coming out with a followup. Everything Must Go (2003) wasn’t quite as good, but wasn’t bad either, and gave Walter Becker a rare shot at a (half-spoken) lead vocal in the “Slang of Ages.” The song’s antihero is trying to pick up a woman in a surprisingly cosmic setting: “Damn, she skipped dimensions,” drawls Becker. “Was it something that I said? Or something I was thinking when she opened up my head?”

In 2002, Donald Fagen and Walter Becker appeared on Marian McPartland’s syndicated NPR radio show, “Piano Jazz,” performing and talking about music. And in 2005, the show was released in album form. Fagen, on vocals and keyboards, and Becker, on guitar, were joined by McPartland, on piano, Keith Carlock, on drums, and Jay Leonhart, on bass. They played three Steely Dan songs (“Josie,” “Chain Lightning,” “Black Friday”) as well as jazz and blues standards such as this version of the traditional “Hesitation Blues.”

On “What I Do,” from his 2006 solo album Morph the Cat, Donald Fagen imagines a conversation with Ray Charles in which Charles explains him artistry (“You bring some church but you leave no doubt/As to what kind of love, you love to shout about”) and offers some advice (“Don, don’t despair, take some time/Just find your bad self, you’re gonna do just fine”). The song has a slinky feel and a catchy melody, and is unconventionally straightforward, lyrically, for Fagen. Cool harmonica solo by Howard Levy.

Unlike Walter Becker’s solo debut, 11 Tracks of Whack, his followup, 2008’s Circus Money, was done with no participation whatsoever by Donald Fagen; Larry Klein produces and co-writes most of the songs. The musicianship (by Becker and a large supporting cast) are as immaculate as ever and the songwriting is solid, though Becker’s dry vocals remain an acquired taste at best. Here is “Downtown Canon,” a laidback look at an exciting but doomed relationship that the singer seems to be remembering from his younger, hipster days.

From Donald Fagen’s 2012 solo album, Sunken Condos, I choose “I’m Not the Same Without You,” a fast-and-lively love song with a nasty twist: He’s “not the same without you” because he’s better, not worse.

There haven’t been a lot of “guest appearances” by Donald Fagen or Walter Becker. Sure, they’ve produced some records by artists other than Steely Dan or themselves, or done some playing in the studio, but usually not in a very high profile way. One exception was “Tin Foil Hat,” a nasty anti-Trump song from Todd Rundgren’s 2017 White Knight album, featuring vocals by Fagen. My favorite line: “He puts the Pluto in plutocrat.”

Northeast Corridor: Steely Dan Live! (2021), recorded at various venues in the Northeast, is Steely Dan’s second live album, and its first release since the 2017 death of Walter Becker. It’s devoted, mostly, to songs from the ’70s, but it was a nice touch to include “Things I Miss the Most,” a standout from Everything Must Go. This divorce song sounds a bit more melancholy here, thanks partially to a new extended trombone intro by Jim Pugh.

Released simultaneously with Northeast Corridor: Steely Dan Live!, Donald Fagen’s The Nightfly Live, recorded with the Steely Dan band in 2019, features songs from Fagen’s best solo album. “Walk Between Raindrops” in particular sounds great with the harder-swinging drive the band gives it.


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Jim Testa February 9, 2023 - 11:23 am

Was this post inspired by Steve Albini’s dumb rant?

JAY LUSTIG February 9, 2023 - 11:26 am

Yeah, pretty much. My feelings about SD are basically the polar opposite of his. I started thinking about the different albums and thought, since I’ve done this kind thing for other artists and know SD’s albums well, it would be really easy for me to put together.


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