Choosing the top ten Donald Fagen songs is like choosing the top ten Steely Dan songs. It is virtually impossible to do if you are a true Fagen / Steely Dan fan. All of their songs are of high quality and originality. Fagen’s first solo album The Nightfly alone could make up this top ten. Therefore, creating any kind of list like this is clearly subject to change depending on mood. In this case I tried to grab at least one tune from each Fagen solo release. I’m not sure after listening if the uninitiated would be prone to seek out more Fagen music or Steely Dan material because many of these compositions are highly advanced harmonically and there aren’t any bonafide commercial hits here. That being said, all the tracks below can certainly enrich your musical palette if given the chance. Take a listen.
10. Miss Marlene
This song is from Fagen’s latest album, 2012’s Sunken Condos. The songwriting is “air tight Fagen craftsmanship” that does not pull too far from familiar musical territory. This particular tune has a quirky catchy chorus with some tense harmonic chord changes. It’s peppered with horn parts that remind me of the ones found in 1982’s The Nightfly opener I.G.Y. which coincidentally were quoted at the end on Fagen’s 2006 album Morph The Cat.
The twisted guitar solo that snakes around Miss Marlene is by the ever reliable John Herrington. That in and of itself is worth the price of admission. The lyrics are pretty straight forward and center around a young, sassy bowler by the name of Marlene who has caught Fagen’s muse. As a side note, this is the fourth song in Fagen’s catalog with a woman’s name in the title that starts with the letter “M” i.e. Maxine, Mona, Mary and Marlene – interesting.
09. Florida Room
Though my favorite track on 1993’s (sci-fi) Kamakiriad CD is Snowbound, I did not include it here because it was co-written with Walter Becker and that might constitute something closer to a Steely Dan composition. Nonetheless, there are plenty of great Fagen tunes to choose from on this album. Florida Room comes to mind because of its jazzy harmonic language, incessant groove and catchy chorus (love those female backgrounds singing those 9 chords). But most of all it is Fagen’s brilliant horn arrangement that intrigues. It is perhaps his most accomplished chart? The lyrics (co-written with DF’s wife Libby Titus) are pretty straightforward and tell of a vacationer’s favorite place to retreat to. The breezy music perfectly suits the concept.
08. The Night Belongs To Mona
Fagen sings about a moody character named Mona who never got over a certain tragedy. Though not clearly stated in the lyrics I suspect he’s hinting at 9/11. While the lyrics are somewhat dark, the sweet, melancholy melody and the dense jazzy chords make for a pretty ballad. I especially enjoy the bizarre chorus that includes the phrases “CDs spinning’ / AC hummin’.” Quirky Donald Fagen at his best. From the 2006 CD Morph The Cat.
07. Confide In Me
Fagen sings reassuringly that If you’re heart is broken you can go over to his pad for some sympathy, coffee, and a chance to spill your story. He’ll listen and straighten things out. This relatively obscure Fagen song was given to the jazz vocal group Manhattan Transfer back in the early 90’s. However, a polished demo of it showed up on the B-side of the CD single Tomorrow’s Girls. It’s a driving, upbeat bluesy number heavy on piano, harmonica fills, tasty background vocals and featuring the precision be-bopping guitar playing of Drew Zingg. It’s a rare feel good song for Fagen with no irony in the mix. It cruises.
06. Century’s End
This song can be found on the soundtrack to the 1988 movie Bright Lights Big City starring Michael J Fox. It’s a snarky, bouncy track with lyrics that seem to tie in with the late 80s urban decadence depicted in the movie. The words were co-written with Timothy Meher. The music features Fagen soloing tastefully with his trademark synth-melodica. All the unexpected harmonic key changing twists and turns we all love in Donald’s songs can be heard here stitched with an intricate interlocking horn arrangement. A substantial re-mix of the song can be found on the CD Steely Dan Gold (extended edition).
05. Shanghai Confidential
Another obscure piece found on the flip side of the Century’s End single. It is one of the few instrumentals released by Fagen. Originally titled The Squash Lesson and composed for a dance troupe, this 1988 soundtrack composition with fly pecked syncopations, drenched in a cool atmospheric / jungle production, features Steve Khan on moody electric guitar and Marcus Miller on slap bass holding down the low end.
The clear use of drum machine maintains the hypnotic groove but it’s the repeated ocarina synth line over those beautiful descending chord changes at the end that can really move one to tears. Genius. Subtle, melancholy and oriental in nature (a style slightly explored in the song Aja), Fagen mixes eastern music motifs with west coast smooth jazz.
04. The Goodbye Look
Found on 1982’s release The Nightfly, The Goodbye Look tells a classic story about a loser stuck in Cuba during the cold war and his impending execution. The music is clear-cut, breezy and in direct opposition of the main character’s dire situation. The bubbly synthetic marimba intro and outro dance over a sly samba beat surrounded by beautiful chord changes played on a Fender Rhodes.
Larry Carlton scatters his tasty guitar licks in all the right holes and background parts sung to perfection support Fagen’s perfectly comedic vocals. Everything has its place in the mix. Refined Fagen. The late jazz vocalist and co-writer of the iconic The Christmas Song, Mel Torme, was one of many inspired to cover this tune.
A luscious ballad from 1982’s The Nightfly album. The close voiced jazzy harmonies (a nod to the Four Freshmen?) highlight the expansive melody. The bridge of the song is gorgeous. So much so it is repeated twice (the second time subject to a brilliant solo by the late tenor sax master Michael Brecker). The melancholy piano intro played by Greg Phillinganes is by now legend. The romantic lyrics tell of two innocent high school kids in love with big dreams of moving into Manhattan. Over all musically, I speculate a slight influence from the Jimmy Van Heusen standard “Darn The Dream” but Fagen runs it through his own unique filter of cool and we end up with another jazz masterpiece.
02. IGY (What A Beautiful World)
Depending on how you look at it this could be Fagen’s most ironic song. It opens up with a futuristic sounding ostinato. The kind you could hear in a promo for Disneyland’s Tomorrowland. Then it quickly jumps into an infectious pseudo reggae groove supported by bouncy horn parts. The trademark high pitched solo synth reminiscent of the one heard on Steely Dan’s hit Hey Nineteen plays through out.
The recording and mix are pristine. The music sounds hopeful and lyrically on first listen the message seems to be a positive one. But on closer inspection we see that Fagen is singing from a past perspective where the future looks bright. In the present it is obviously not. Many of the great technology strides that Fagen as youngster in the 50’s hoped would clearly happen by the end of the Twentieth century never did. “We’ll be eternally free and eternally young”, sings Fagen. If only. From the CD The Nightfly.
01. True Companion
This is one of Fagen’s slickest and most atmospheric songs. It was composed for the 1981 animated sci-fi feature Heavy Metal. It features Steve Kahn on electric guitar and Steely Dan regular Don Grolnick on Fender Rhodes. The orchestration is also augmented with a subtle kalimba part and tasty drum and cymbal playing by Crusher Bennett. It’s unorthodox form, later revisited in Fagen’s 1985 instrumental for sax player David Sanborn (The Finer Things) is such that the first three quarters of the song is a mini instrumental concerto for rock guitar.
At 3:25 there is a slight ritardando, then a lone flammed tom hit that reintroduces the song. The Fender Rhodes and electric guitar rock back and forth for four measures until we are suddenly greeted by a wall of Donald Fagen’s voice. He sings a beautiful melody drenched in dense harmonies. The effect is quite chilling. And thus, this harmonic and melodic masterpiece signals the beginning of Donald Fagen’s solo career.
Two runner ups that just missed the list of which I did write about (had to make a choice): the lyrically and musically twisted: The Great Pagoda Of Funn from the album Morph The Cat, and the lonely, self actualized ballad, On The Dunes from the album Kamakiriad.
Find all these Donald Fagen songs on these great Donald Fagen albums.
The Nightfly (1982)
Morph the Cat (2006)
Sunken Condos (2012)
An amazing compilation that contains all the solo albums and b sides and soundtrack songs plus demos.
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Compilation by musical artist John Tabacco
(Editor’s note: Check out John Tabbaco’s music, the dude is brilliant!)