The Walter Becker and Donald Fagen compositions that fill Steely Dan’s catalog are all astutely written, pristinely recorded and featured some of the finest jazz/rock musicians of all times. Steely Dan released their first album in 1972 entitled Can’t Buy A Thrill. The album featured two top ten singles. If you’re a rock band that wants to continue releasing albums and keep your recording contract, the success of two top ten singles featured on your first album will pretty much keep your record company happy for the time being at least. The band followed up the Can’t Buy A Thrill album a year later in 1973 with the release of the album Countdown to Ecstasy. Although the album lacked a big time single, Steely Dan made up for its lack of commercial success with their next album, 1974’s Pretzel Logic. The album featured the song “Rikki Don’t Lose That Number” which stands as the band’s highest charting single of their career.
In 1975, Steely Dan released Katy Lied. This was a transitional album for Becker and Fagen. It was an album where the duo really began using brilliant session players that would set up the next series of Steely Dan albums. 1976 saw the release of The Royal Scam. This collection of songs were fueled by some amazing guitar work by Larry Carlton and songwriting that was growing deeper, darker and more refined. Steely Dan was becoming a musician’s band with incredible commercial success.
Some would argue that their next album stands as their greatest musical achievement. In 1977, Steely Dan released the soon to be legendary album Aja. The album won multiple Grammy Awards and sold over one million copies making it the band’s most successful record. Despite the albums immeasurable musical achievements, Steely Dan did not slow down. They followed up Aja with the slickest of all records, Gaucho in 1980.
Twenty years would pass before Steely Dan released a new studio album. In the meantime the duo had worked together on various projects but it wasn’t until the year 2000 that Steely Dan fans were greeted with a new studio album that was titled Two Against Nature. The album was extremely successful especially on the Grammy front. Two Against Nature won four Grammy Awards in 2000.
In 2003, Steely Dan released the final studio album of their career with the record Everything Must Go. Even though they did not put out any more studio albums throughout the decade , Steely Dan toured often, especially on the summer circuit. The band sounded great live as they always had. Most of us never expected to see new Steely Dan albums or tours back in the 1980s when it seemed the band was done. The two albums released in the 2000s and all the subsequent tours were incredibly welcomed by Steely Dan fans.
If you enjoy the Steely Dan “sound” there is a good chance you will pretty much enjoy every track they officially released, (85 in total). For those unfamiliar with the group, these ten songs are a great place to start.
10 – Bad Sneakers
We open up our top 10 Steely Dan songs list with the classic Steely Dan song “Bad Sneakers.” The song was second single released from 1975’s album Katy Lied. This bouncy, listener friendly piece failed to make the top 100 but like most Steely Dan songs became a crowd favorite and a staple on FM radio. The chorus is endlessly catchy and Fagen’s free spirited vocal animates the humorous / fatalistic lyrics. Michael McDonald adds his distinctive vocal sound to the pre-chorus and Walter Becker shines with his economical, quirky guitar solo. A transitional piece between pop/rock and the jazzier territory Becker and Fagen would eventually explore.
9 – Kid Charlemagne
This low charting single (#82 on Billboard) was lifted from 1976’s album The Royal Scam. It became a staple on FM radio and can still be heard on today’s classic rock streaming channels. It’s a solid jazz-rock piece written in a minor key with funky bass and drums that groove non-stop. It features what many consider one of the finest guitar solos of all time played by Larry Carlton, (a song within a song). Once again Michael McDonald’s voice is employed to fill out on the chorus and add the occasional soulful scat. The lyrics are cryptic story telling about a drug dealer as only Becker and Fagen can write.
# 8 – Bodhisattva
With minimal lyrics, Fagen sings about holding hands with a being who has reached nirvana. Instead of a cosmic meditative work, we are treated to a swinging, kick ass blues number with a beautiful sequence of jazz chords in the chorus. The swapping guitar playing of Jeff “Skunk” Baxter and Denny Diaz are the song’s highlight. This is Steely Dan’s version of Bill Haley’s “Rock Around The Clock” with off beat guitar harmony that is reminiscent of Crosby, Stills and Nash’s song “Marrakesh Express.” The song builds to a rocking frenzy that works well in a live situation. Though never a single (“My Old School” took that honor), this work from 1973’s album Count Down To Ecstasy still remains a showstopper live.
# 7 – FM (No Static At All)
Taking off from the funky feel of their previous hit “Josie” this infectious FM staple was never released on a proper Steely Dan album. It peaked at number twenty two on the Billboard chart in 1978. It was written specifically for the forgettable motion picture FM. The songs piano intro with electric guitar droppings is instantly recognizable. Fagen’s distinctively “cool – daddio” vocals and Becker’s funky bass, and guitar soloing are the main musical features supported by members of The Eagles including Glenn Frey, Don Henley, and Timothy B Schmit on backing vocals. Pete Christlieb handles the sax soloing in the outro on the extended version of this single.
This track is one of only two Steely Dan songs to ever include a real string section. Legendary composer Johnny Mandel arranged the strings. The song won a Grammy for Best Engineered Recording, Non-Classical. In October 2015, the tower lights on the Empire State building were choreographed to this track to celebrate the 50th anniversary of its master FM antenna.
# 6 – Peg
An instant classic from 1977’s album Aja. The song fuses the urban pop/rock/jazz sound that Steely Dan ultimate became known for. Peg charted at number eleven on the Billboard hot 100. Sprinkled with a shiny sax motif and Michael McDonald’s distinct harmony vocals this upbeat piece with sparse lyrics makes for good listening material.This was one of the “Dan’s” catchiest songs with an awesome guitar solo.
The story behind the solo is that after seven previous attempts by top studio session guitarists, Jay Graydon was the only axe man able to nail what Becker and Fagen had in mind: a tight, memorable but quirky solo that worked in the confines of an odd amount of measures. Perfect. Note that Peg was used as the theme music on the syndicated news magazine, Entertainment Tonight and sampled by De La Soul in their 1989 song “Eye Know.”
# 5 – Rikki Don’t Lose That Number
Once again Becker and Fagen come up with a catchy phrase that has become part of the lexicon in American popular music. This track from 1974’s “Pretzel Logic” peaked at number 4 and has the distinction of being Steely Dan’s highest charting Billboard song. The intro piano figure is instantly recognizable (almost a direct take off of jazz legends Horace Silver’s composition “Song For My Father”) as well as the angular piano riff that leads into each chorus. The song is unique in the way that it switches from a straight rock feel in the verses to an almost Latin feel in the choruses. The melodic, impeccably played guitar solo was performed by Jeff “Skunk” Baxter who later joined The Doobie Brothers. Overall “Rikki” is a straightforward love song (rare for Steely Dan) and the lyrics are up for interpretation making it an extremely accessible tune.
# 4 – Hey Nineteen
Continuing with our top 10 Steely Dan songs we turn to the classic album Gaucho.The songs “Hey Nineteen,” peaked at number ten on the Billboard charts in 1980. It’s smooth, seductive mid tempo groove certainly found its way on to the dance floor and into the minds of many FM radio listeners. The catchy chorus is highlighted by Michael McDonald’s easily identifiable harmonies. Fagen has some fun with the vocals and his wry attitude fits the lyrics that revolve around a middle-aged loser’s disappointment with his way too young lover. Featured is a quirky, high-pitched synth part that peaks its way throughout the tune and solos sparsely in the outro. This synth sound would later appear in Fagen’s 1982 solo composition I.G.Y.
# 3 – Dirty Work
Never released as a single, this catchy tune from the album Can’t Buy A Thrill is sung by David Palmer. His soft, sweet vocal delivery is so far removed from Steely Dan’s signature vocalist Donald Fagen, one might easily mistake this tune for some other group. Nonetheless, the chorus is instantly memorable and the observational lyrics can easily be applied to most human relationships at one point. The song has found it’s way into such movies as American Hustle and used on the TV show The Sopranos. The simple arrangement and easygoing nature of this composition has made it one of the most covered Becker and Fagen songs in their catalog.
# 2 – Do It Again
The first single to be released from their debut album Can’t Buy A Thrill in 1972. It rose to number six on the Billboard charts. The song based around a G minor mode tells the karmic tale of a gambling loser who never learns his lesson. The song’s title phrase is instantly memorable. So much so, it seems like Becker and Fagen reached into our DNA and brought up musical memories we didn’t even know we had. The song features one of the best electric sitar solos in rock music, expertly performed by guitarist Denny Dias. The unedited version of the song includes a somewhat eastern sounding “plastic organ” solo by lead singer Donald Fagen. It’s a unique track that still sounds like nothing else in popular music.
# 1 – Reeling In The Years
A cascading ramble of snarky college lyrics with a melodic title phrase that can be applied to any era, “Reeling In The Years” is one of the most identifiable pop/rock tunes written in the 1970’s and it still sounds fresh in the 21st century. It features tight instrumental sections that dance around like a traditional jig along side the virtuoso guitar work of Elliott Randall. Led Zeppelin’s Jimmy Page sites the guitar soloing on this track as his favorite. This was the second single released from their debut album Can’t Buy A Thrill in 1972. It rose to number 11 on the Billboard charts. An instant rock classic that is now woven into our musical DNA.
Compilation by musical artist John Tabacco
(Editor’s note: Check out John Tabbaco’s music, the dude is brilliant!)