20. Any Adult Guy Will Tell You (1974)
Charming is rarely an adjective applied to Steely Dan’s trademark trademark of sardonic pessimism, but it fits the relatively simplistic, Any Major Dude Will Tell You, on which a depressed friend is seemingly unironically encouraged to see the bright side: c is a really sweet song.
19. Black Friday (1975)
Perhaps the Steely Dan that seems most apt in 2022: a financial collapse so severe that businessmen are committing suicide leads to a desire to escape into the wilderness to “just do what pleases me.” In a classic Dan twist, there’s an implication that the protagonist is no ordinary rat race escapee, but a disaster capitalist.
18. Showbiz Kids (1973)
Rick Derringer’s pungent slide guitar, tangy lyrical assault on titular, drugged-out titular characters who “give a fuck about everyone”: there’s a (relative) looseness and roughness in Show Biz Kids that would later be axed The Albums of Steely Dan. You can understand why, but it’s still intriguing to hear.
17. Doctor Wu (1975)
The lyrics are a perfect example of Steely Dan’s song-based short story approach – a drug addict discovers that the girlfriend who helped him has also succumbed to a habit – but Doctor Wu’s real star is the saxophone. by Phil Woods: soft at first, it bursts into frantic free-blowing when the story reaches its denouement.
16. Gaucho (1980)
Steely Dan’s last album in 20 years was plagued with disaster – addiction, car accidents, studio mishaps, the overdose death of their personal manager, who was also Walter Becker’s girlfriend. There was also a lawsuit: Keith Jarrett successfully sued the title track, which doesn’t make his saga of social embarrassment any less splendid.
15. Pretzel Logic (1974)
Sure enough, Steely Dan’s take on blues-rock – it mixes in a time-honored style, the opening verses of each verse repeat, but there are a few very Non-bluesy chords and harmonies – Pretzel Logic’s title track may be about time travel and features a classic Dan line: “You gotta be kidding son / Where did you get those shoes?”
14. Cousin Dupree (2000)
Steely Dan’s comeback album pick Two Against Nature, Cousin Dupree is himself a distant relative of Gaucho’s Hey Nineteen: The listener is asked to sneer at a dead sleazeball trying to hit on a much younger woman . Becker and Donald Fagen later claimed that the You Me and Dupree movie premise was stolen from the song.
13. Aja (1977)
There’s something of a cottage industry online trying to figure out what Aja’s oblique lyrics are about: heroin addiction? An obsessive love story? A passion for bebop? Perhaps it’s best to bask in the music, which spans a wonderful eight minutes, assisted by jazz legends Steve Gadd and Wayne Shorter.
12. Your Golden Teeth II (1975)
Your Gold Teeth from Countdown to Ecstasy is great, but its nominal successor is even better: a truly swinging jazz-rock hybrid, with extraordinarily nimble percussion from Jeff Porcaro, deftly navigating time signature changes, liquid guitar with courtesy of Denny Dias and a choir stacked with wonderful harmonies.
11. Rikki Don’t Lose This Number (1974)
The biggest hit of Steely Dan’s career – and, presumably, the only US Top 5 single to feature someone playing the percussion instrument the flapamba – Rikki Don’t Lose That Number steals a riff from Horace Silver and turns it into fabulously idiosyncratic pop gold: the perfect example of Pretzel Logic’s deliberately concise approach.
10.Babylon Sisters (1980)
Much of Gaucho’s seventh album is stripped of Steely Dan standards, but the Babylon Sisters have returned to their traditional style of intricate chord sequences with dramatic yet painfully world-weary results, backed by legendary drummer Bernard “Pretty “Purdie, the signature “Purdie shuffle” rhythm.
9. Reelin’ in the Years (1972)
A famous hit single dismissed by Fagen and Becker in later years as “dumb but effective” and “not fun”. You have to be different: it’s great and has proven hugely influential: you can hear it in the DNA of Thin Lizzy’s The Boys Are Back in Town and Nick Lowe’s So It Goes.
8. My Old School (1973)
The memory of a drug bust at Bard, the private liberal arts college where Fagen and Becker met, was transformed into Countdown to Ecstasy’s standout track, its bitter tone mirrored by the tenacity of its inspired groove. R&B. Contrary to his admission of never returning, Fagen returned to earn an honorary doctorate.
7. Black Cow (1977)
Aja’s ambient opener: a super supple funk groove – later sampled by MF Doom and Beyoncé – over which unfolds a frontline dispatch from the friendzone: he’s had enough of providing a shoulder to cry on when the wandering lady ends up staggering home “like a gangster on the loose”.
6. Bad Sneakers (1975)
The decadence of mid-’70s Los Angeles seen through the eyes of a displaced New Yorker who is certain the West Coast is sending him around a corner. There’s a distinct autobiographical flair to Fagen’s lyrics, the melody is catchy, and the oddly frenetic piano composition during the guitar solo disrupts the smoothness.
5. Don’t Take Me Alive (1975)
“A man of my mind can do anything”: even by Steely Dan standards, the lyrics of Don’t Take Me Alive – in which a criminal locked up with “a crate of dynamite” experiences a kind of dark spiritual revelation – are striking; the music – notably Larry Carlton’s beautifully flowing guitar – sublime.
4. Start Over (1972)
The rhythm of the opening track of their first album corresponded to the 70s vogue for Latin rock, but there the similarity with Santana ends. With its acerbic, passionless lyrics about human frailties and murderous solos – electric sitar and cheap organ, no less – it’s a calling card that sets the tone, as well as a classic song.
3. Deacon’s Blues (1977)
For all of Fagen’s claims that Deacon Blues is about “losers”, there is a warmth to its lyrics, which detail thwarted dreams of a midlife crisis but are essentially about the music’s liberating effect: the arrangement of the brass is blissful, the sax solo roars and the intro is a masterpiece in its own right.
2. Child Charlemagne (1976)
A loose but gripping tale of the saga of Owsley Stanley – acid dealer in Ken Kesey’s Merry Pranksters – by turns impressed by its subject matter and scornful to the end, Kid Charlemagne also features the greatest guitar solo in the catalog of Steely Dan: 30 seconds of thrilling twists, its joy at odds with the overall tone of the song.
1. Peg (1977)
The subject of Peg has caused endless speculation – Fagen denied a theory that it was doomed 1920s actor Peg Entwistle – but what is beyond doubt is the sheer quality of the song itself: laden with infectious hooks – several of which propelled De La Soul’s 1989 hit Eye Know – its disco-inflected breeze is deceptive, hiding countless layers of musical complexity (Fagen’s online explanation of how his chords is a 12-minute riot of plagal cadences and tritone substitutes) and perfectionism: the guitar solo legendaryly took seven attempts by the best session players. Peg manages to be both the Steely Dan song people who profess to hate Steely Dan, and the apotheosis of Steely Dan.