10 Best Steely Dan Songs

It took me a while to warm up to the sophisticated LA grooves of Steely Dan. Growing up, classic hits radio played precisely five Steely Dan songs; ‘Do It Again’, ‘Reelin’ In The Years’, ‘Rikki, Don’t Lose That Number’, ‘Hey Nineteen’, and ‘Babylon Sisters’. They’re all solid, but none of them captures the verve and jazzy sophistication of prime-era Dan. At their best, Donald Fagen and Walter Becker imbued their sophisticated and jazz-inflected songcraft with outstanding musicianship from the cream of L.A.’s studio musicians.

Steely Dan released seven albums in their initial tenure between 1972 and 1980, and two reunion albums in the early 21st century. I could easily make a superlative top ten out of the leftovers – let’s say ‘Do It Again’, ‘Bodhisattva’, ‘Pretzel Logic’, ‘The Caves of Altamira’, ‘Don’t Take Me Alive’, ‘Aja’, ‘Peg’, ‘FM’, ‘Babylon Sisters’, and ‘Jack of Speed’.

10 Best Steely Dan Songs

#10 Josie

from Aja, 1977
This slinky and concise pop-rocker comes from a time where Steely Dan’s material was becoming more esoteric. It’s great, even though the line “She prays like a Roman/With her eyes on fire” is an unusual central hook for a pop song. Future Eagle bassist Timothy B. Schmitt sweetens up the song with his warm harmonies, while Chuck Rainey’s bass is warm and fluid.

#9 Gaucho

from Gaucho, 1980
Jazz pianist Keith Jarrett is credited as a co-writer on the title track from the band’s 1980 album. Fagen later admitted that he lifted ideas from Jarrett’s 1974 piece ”Long As You Know You’re Living Yours’. ‘Gaucho’ is cryptic, seemingly addressing a destructive drug habit that caused the creative partnership between Becker and Fagen to go on hiatus after this record.

#8 Show Biz Kids

from Countdown to Ecstasy, 1973
Steely Dan’s early albums are very good, but I prefer them when they became jazzier and more idiosyncratic. Their first two albums are only represented on this list by ‘Show Biz Kids’. Fagen pounds out a jazzy vamp on the piano while the backing singers repeat “You go to Lost Wages, Lost Wages.” Rick Derringer plays slide guitar, while Welsh band Super Furry Animals sampled the song’s most memorable line for their single ‘The Man Don’t Give a F***’.

#7 Doctor Wu

from Katy Lied, 1975
Steely Dan’s fourth album Katy Lied marks their first with Becker and Fagen as the only official members, augmented by session musicians. Donald Fagen described ‘Doctor Wu’ as “kind of a love-dope triangle… in ‘Dr. Wu’ that someone else is a dope habit personified as Doctor Wu.” ‘Doctor Wu’ was later covered by The Minutemen, on their 1984 magnum opus Double Nickels on the Dime.

#6 The Fez

from The Royal Scam, 1976
A fez is a type of Middle Eastern hat, but here it’s seemingly used as a metaphor for safe sex. “Don’t make me do it without the fez on”. ‘The Fez’ was sampled by girl group All Saints for their debut single and #4 UK hit ‘I Know Where It’s At’. Walter Becker handles the guitar solo.

#5 Deacon Blues

from Aja, 1977
‘Deacon Blues’ was inspired by Fagen’s epiphany that “if a college football team like the University of Alabama could have a grandiose name like the ‘Crimson Tide’ the nerds and losers should be entitled to a grandiose name as well.” It’s a midlife crisis song – despite their success as masters of cynical pop/rock, Becker and Fagen had unfulfilled dreams as jazz musos.

#4 Black Friday

from Katy Lied, 1975
We’re now used to the term Black Friday denoting days of shopping madness. The term actually originated on 24 September 1869 when gold prices plummeted; the US government intervened to drop the price after speculators cornered the market. Walter Becker played the song’s solo on Denny Dias’ guitar.

#3 Any Major Dude Will Tell You

from Pretzel Logic, 1974
An uncharacteristically warm song from the Dan, ‘Any Major Dude Will Tell You’ offers words of comfort. The word “dude” was the group’s effort to assimilate in California. The lyrics reference the mythical creature the squonk, mystifying the band’s other members. The acoustic guitars and warm electric pianos anchor the track – David Paich and Fagen are both credited on keys, while Jim Gordon is on drums.

#2 Night By Night

from Pretzel Logic, 1974
There’s not a lot of lyrical bite to ‘Night by Night’ by Steely Dan’s standards, but it’s typically accomplished musically. A crisp drumming performance by a teenaged Jeff Porcaro anchors the track, which is punctuated by horns, clavinet, and rhythm guitar. Jeff ‘Skunk’ Baxter plays the free-ranging guitar solo.

#1 Kid Charlemagne

from The Royal Scam, 1976
Steely Dan used a vast array of session musicians, but my favourites are featured on ‘Kid Charlemagne’ – Bernard Purdie on drums, Chuck Rainey on bass, and Larry Carlton playing the dazzling guitar solo. Michael McDonald is among the ensemble of backing vocalists, while Paul Griffin plays the electric clavinet. The lyrics are inspired by the exploits of LSD chemist Owsley Stanley – the line “Is there gas in the car?/Yes, there’s gas in the car” foreshadows Stanley’s arrest when his car ran out of petrol. Becker told Rolling Stone in 2009 that it was the band’s most requested song, while Kanye West sampled it for his song ‘Champion’.

Did I miss your favourite Steely Dan song?

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  1. I worship at the altar of Steely Dan so there was no way I was not gonna respond to this one. We have exactly two tunes in common. But with the exception of “Gaucho” on which I’m lukewarm, I love all the tunes you posted. “Night by Night” is a great deep track. My deep track would be “Chain Lightning.” Since guitar is my thang, I’ve made some comments on those solos, only one of which is not the gee-tar:
    -Kid Charlemagne –  A great song. Everything works. Larry Carlton’s two solos are legendary
    -Reelin’ in the Years – I never get tired of this one. Ditto on Elliott Randall’s solos. One of Jimmy Page’s favorites
    -Aja – A beautiful piece of pop-jazz. The sax/drum interplay by Wayne Shorter and Steve Gadd never fails to stir me
    -Bodhisattva – Rocks out like mad. Denny Dias and Jeff Baxter solo.
    -My Old School – A fun song about Bard where Mr. Steely and Mr. Dan met. Great Jeff Baxter solo
    -Pretzel Logic-  Just a cool song. Becker steps out on guitar. A wildly underrated player.
    -Caves of Altamira – This whole song just flows together. John Klemmer, big in the ’70s, plays the sax beautifully. I find it strangely romantic
    -Black Friday –  A great bluesy solo. Becker again. 
    -Bad Sneakers – My favorite Becker solo ever
    -Peg – Famously, every guitar player in town took a crack at the solo. Eventually, a guy named Jay Graydon nailed it. 

    • I did think about doing a list of best Steely Dan songs from the perspective of best guitar solos. There are a few songs like ‘Rikki Don’t Lose That Number’ where the guitar solo is by far my favourite part. A lot of your choices were on my list of runners up at the top of my post, so we have a lot of crossover. Gaucho is a weird one because Keith Jarrett essentially wrote the music – it’s atypical. I actually heard the Jarrett piece before I heard Gaucho. I’ve never heard of Jay Graydon – is that his big claim to fame?

      • For the record, that’s my list of favorites but not necessarily because of the guitar solos. They’re great songs that could have easily had piano or sax solos. BTW, “FM” is another great deep cut.
        Graydon, like so many of the Dan’s musicians is/was a studio guy who has some other credits and even some Grammys. But yeah, that is what he is best-known for. Playing a hot solo on a Dan song confers a certain prestige forever. I don’t know if you’ve ever seen it but there’s a “Making of” Aja thing on YouTube. At one point – and it may be standalone as well – you see Messrs. Becker and Fagen listening to – and sometimes mocking – the “Peg” guitar solos that didn’t make the grade.

        • I can’t remember if I’ve seen the documentary before, but I checked out some of it now. I liked the scene where they had Purdie and Rainey jamming with them twenty years later. I also learned that I’ve been pronouncing Aja wrong all this time.

  2. I l.o.v.e. Steely Dan, and these are all great picks, Graham! I get your preference for the more jazz-influenced tunes. That being said, I also really dig some of their earlier more rock-oriented songs. One of my all-time favorites is “Reelin’ in the Years”. I’m with Jim here and never get tired of this one.
    Also, in addition to “Deacon Blues” (my favorite Dan tune) and “Josie” (yes, that bass line is friggin’ cool!), I think you could pretty much add all remaining songs from the “Aja” album. There isn’t one weak track on there, IMHO! 🙂

  3. A solid list…one song that is always left out of Steely Dan lists that I see…the one I like so much…Dirty Work…It’s almost like the forgotten song by them…it doesn’t have their jazzy style as much though.
    Kid Charlemagne is the rightful number 1.

      • Thanks Graham I knew it was something different about that track. I wrote about it years ago but forgot… you don’t hear it as much as the songs you mentioned that were the radio hits.

  4. Almost from their debut Steely Dan have been my favourite band whose name doesn’t begin with a “B”, Although I always enjoy Can’t Buy a Thrill, the two in the middle, Katy Lied and The Royal Scam are the two that I play most. I would find it impossible to compile a top ten list; as soon as I thought “that’s it, done” I would think of a couple more that deserve to be included. However, if I must, in order of their release:
    Kings ( lovely guitar solo)
    Only A fool Would Say That
    Razor Boy
    Doctor Wu
    Any World
    The Caves of Altimira
    Don’t Take me Alive
    The Fez
    Haitian Divorce
    The Royal Scam
    Deacon Blues
    SD have been a part of my musical life since I was 23. That would be for about 47 years. They were fantastic from the get-go. They were well-reviewed. They had airplay and singles success. Yet, when I think back, i can remember just one of my music loving friends playing Steely Dan records. I recall a day after I finished law school in 1976 when one of my school-mates berated me (gently) for not introducing the band to him in 1972! Am I correct in concluding that they have always had a strong following, but amongst a limited number of devotees?

    • I think their sleek perfectionism has held up really well – in some ways they presaged the 1980s and even more modern music. Royal Scam is my second favourite Dan record (after Aja) and it’s very well represented on your list. Thanks for writing in!

      • After I posted I had a couple more thoughts. Fagen and Becker always, without fail, surrounded themselves with the very best musicians. They were super slick, and this is meant as a compliment. The guitar solos are never redundant or formulaic. If a person is hearing a SD song for the first time she/he would have no idea where any song was headed. They also made great use of the saxophone. I was thinking that they were unusual in this. Then I thought a little more. Supertramp, Al Stewart, Bowie (I love the LP Young Americans even if Bowie fans don’t), Foreigner (Jr. Walker, Cleo’s Mood, great tune), Pink Floyd, Roxy, Gerry Rafferty. It’s funny how one can be so familiar with artists and songs and then something will cause you to think of them in an entirely new manner

        • Saxophone saw a fair bit of use in the 1970s and 1980s – it’s quite possible that it was besmirched by Kenny G (and Bill Clinton) in the early 1990s, and had to lie low for a while.
          One of the weirdest arrangements in Steely Dan is the backing vocals in Show Biz Kids – they just sing “Going to lost wages…. lost wages” over and over. Tons of great, unexpected solos too – you’re totally correct.

  5. Unusually for someone who’s 31, I am a passionate Steely Dan fan and have been since I was a teenager in high school. This is a terrific list, and I tend to favor Pretzel Logic, Katy Lied, and Aja the most out of all their albums. The title track on Pretzel Logic is my all-time favorite Steely Dan track, with the menacing keyboard intro and guitar riffing, with the triple bizarro jazz-pop classic of “Rikki Don’t Lose That Number,” “Any Major Dude Will Tell You,” and “Barrytown” close behind. On Katy Lied, my favorite tracks are without a doubt “Black Friday,” “Daddy Don’t Live In That New York City Anymore,” and “Doctor Wu,” and on Aja, the entire first side is a classic, with “Peg” and “Josie” serving as terrific classic bookends on the second side. I was collecting vinyl in high school when it was still uncommon to do so, and Steely Dan was high on my list of favorite artists to listen to. Amazing stuff.

    • Thanks for writing in! Pretzel Logic, Royal Scam, and Aja are my three favourites. It’s cool you have those records on vinyl – the only Steely Dan album I have a physical copy of is a 1993 compilation named Remastered – I never saw physical copies around really.

  6. Cool. You’ve set yourself a near impossible task there! But good list. Definitely with you on ‘Dr Wu’, ‘Deacon Blues’ and ‘Any Major Dude’. I’d put in strong claims for ‘Glamour Profession’, ‘FM’, ‘Here At The Western World’, ‘Aja’, ‘Don’t Take Me Alive’, ‘Bad Sneakers’ and ‘Babylon Sisters’.
    Very surprising but kind of interesting to see the inclusion of ‘Black Friday’, ‘Josie’ and ‘Gaucho’ (btw, I’m not sure I agree with you on your interpretation of that as a drugs song – I think it’s fairly ‘on the nose’ in terms of being about a homosexual three-way love affair).

    • Deacon Blues seems like it would probably win a fan poll for best song – almost everyone’s mentioned that one.
      I get that the homosexual interpretation is probably the more common, but it’s always felt like drugs to me.

  7. This is almost as hard as choosing your top 10 Beatles songs, so I’m not going to comment on your choices, just suggest a few of my own favorites. OF the very early stuff, I love the evocative story of The Boston Rag, nd i spent many hours stoned and daydreaming to Turn That Heartbeat. Like Jim S, I would find a place for Chain Lightning, one of the coolest songs ever recorded. Later on, Home At Last can bring a tear to my eye and Black Cow is another great little scene: a jealous confrontation in a bar, and even later, What A Shame About Me puts you face to face with a slightly crazy ex-student colleague who wants to take you to her hotel room to do who-knows-what or old times’ sake. As you can see, I’m a lyrics guy,a nd here I would like anyone’s opinion: although Fagen does the singing, SD lyrics are much more interesting/challenging/exciting than his solo stuff. So does that mean the more volatile character of Walter Becker was responsible?

  8. For some reason I already made a list of Steely Dan songs elsewhere on your blog , so I just had to copy and paste. I make so many damn lists that I lose track of them sometimes.
    Deacon Blues
    Do It Again
    Dirty Work
    Time Out of Mind
    Rikki Don’t Lose That Number
    Reeling in the Years
    Black Friday

  9. What an effort, Graham! I do hope you enjoyed the process and discovered some further Dan gems (enough for the Top 40 songs!).
    As I’d struggle to list “Ten Steely Dan songs I Really Don’t Like”, further comments would be a bit irrelevant!

    • Have you heard the reunion albums? I had a listen to Two Against Nature to make sure I wasn’t missing anything for the list. Jack of Speed and Cousin Dupress jumped out at first listen, but Fagen’s vocals were tough going.

      • I think those two are amongst the strongest songs on Two Against Nature. I also like Gaslighting Abby. The ‘final’ album, ‘Everything Must Go’, is similarly solid if not exceptional. The title track and ‘Things I miss the most’ are both very good.
        I also have a soft spot for the live album that catalysed the re-union. Perhaps that’s because I was in the audience in Frankfurt and have an original copy of the set list, begged from the Aussie who was manning the sound board!

  10. You certainly do love courting controversy! 🙂
    I love all these songs except perhaps “Josie,” which I thought was a bad way to close out a great album. There are so many A songs by this band, but my favorite might be “Your Gold Teeth II,” from Katy Lied, which has a beautiful jazzy melody and one of the loveliest guitar solos, by Denny Dias, ever recorded.

  11. This is a band I keep having recommended to me, and I keep saying yeah yeah I’ll get there, but I only own a Hits set thus far. Only three of the songs you list are on it (at a glance). I know I played this disc but I can’t remember it well – is that a bad sign? Hm. I feel somehow, though, that starting in on that band would be a slippery slope and I’d disappear for a while…

  12. Don’t take me alive; Show Biz Kids; Home at Last;Josie(“bad way to end a great album…right .. ha!…bass line alone mofo!!);Sign in Stranger; Aja; Midnight Cruiser;Pretzel Logic(check out Hiram Bullocjs version..);Hey Nineteen; Time out of Mind

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