Steely Dan: Pick a Song

Pick one song from each album and list why. I accept that challenge. Let’s roll.


Can’t Buy a Thrill – “Do It Again” gets the nod.  Some have called this a strong Latin beat, the percussion obviously drives this song and provides the framework for the electric piano and expressive guitar solos.  The album has a variety of sounds and styles but two strong tracks are “Reelin’ in the Years” and “Dirty Work.” In the early 1970s, bands were famous for story songs and offbeat characters who might be one step ahead of the law or a vindictive partner.

This video is from the Midnight Special (remember that show?)  Yes, that is Jeff “Skunk” Baxter on the congas, not the guitar.  A bit of trivia, after leaving the Doobie Brothers, Baxter began a second career as a defense industry consultant on technology.  No kidding.  He chaired some special panels, gave talks, wrote papers and appeared on television news programs.

Countdown to Ecstasy – “My Old School” The second album took a leaner sound and slightly less commercial road.  The band was more sure of their sound and tighter arrangements.  Donald Fagan was now the sole lead vocalist.  The songs retained a hard edge with aggressive guitars but didn’t fudge on the openness of arrangements, which might explain the lack of a true strong single on the album.  This core band stayed together for a number of albums.

Pretzel Logic – “Rikki Don’t Lose That Number”  The story goes that Fagan/Becker were sick of playing this song in concert.  This was their biggest hits single to this point. All of the songs on the album are much shorter than those on Countdown to Ecstasy and sure do sound like an attempt at commercialization.  The buying public responded by pushing it up the chart.  While the band continued, the emphasis on finding the right sound and players really began.

Katy Lied – “Doctor Wu”is my choice, but it could easily be “Black Friday.”  This album was essentially Fagan/Becker and studio musicians.  Fagan/Becker wrote the songs, recorded demos and then used hired guns to musically paint their pictures.  The songs stayed short, but they are as musically dense as Countdown to Ecstasy.  The players are a who’s who of the top session workers.  The musicianship is top-notch, and highly polished, a complaint that would dog Fagan/Becker in later years.    Katy Lied was not quite as commercially successful as Pretzel Logic and lacked a big single.

The Royal Scam –  This album has hits, but it also has deeper cuts with a lot to say.  Search for my blog on this album, I’ll try not to slobber all over this short review.  The songs are a little bit longer, Fagan/Becker less concerned about commercialism and more focused on creating unique musical stories.  Interestingly, Larry Carlton, a jazz guy, is the main axe man, who burns up these songs with his solos.  This is really tough. I’ll go with “The Royal Scam” but it could also be “The Caves of Altamira.”  The entire first side of the album is gold.

Aja – Holy shit.  The mother-lode.  Pick one song? Another album that is loaded with classics.  “Black Cow” is my choice but “Home At Last” is a close second.  A five million selling album that climbed to number three on the charts.  Steely Dan was never a huge seller, but very respectable.  Taking half a year to record and the involvement of over 40 musicians, this was not quite the Cleopatra of yacht rock, but close.  If there was a  model for jazz-rock albums, this was it.  Most songs were five minutes or longer and included various instrumental interludes of cool jazz stylings.  Seven different guitar players, six keyboard players, five drummers and a slew of horn players and backup vocalists.

Gaucho – “Babylon Sisters” or “Hey Nineteen.”  I’ll go with “Time Out of Mind.”  More than two years in the making, this might be the real Cleopatra rock album.  The band far exceeded the recording budget, used more musicians and rebuilt their songs multiple times.  Here’s my assessment, they worked and worked to surpass themselves trying for nirvana but were destined to never reach it.  Creatively, it is good, but not as good as Aja.  Didn’t sell as well and placed lower on the chart.  It is still a very good album, but even they sensed that the tank was empty.

Two Against Nature –  Steely Dan went away for twenty years.  Not completely, but they were not recording together and they never liked touring.  Two Against Nature scored with critics.  Grammy Award for Best Album, best Pop Album and two other categories. Very professionally done.  The songs contain lots of jazz chords and shifts in tempo and style. You won’t find any songs played on the radio. “West of Hollywood” sounds the most like old Steely Dan.  If you aren’t prepared to give these songs a few listens, you will get bored with them and skip over them.  These are very complex but are very soulful and have a lot to offer.

Everything Must Go – This is the most boring album I’ve heard in a long time.  Every song sounds the same; mediocre writing at best. It pains me to say it because I love this band. But this is bland. There are no hooks or melodic reason to listen to these songs.  “Pixeleen” is the most interesting, it has a few musical highlights, but Fagan/Becker are completely disconnected to their audience.  None of these songs would have made Aja or The Royal Scam.

2 thoughts on “Steely Dan: Pick a Song

  1. Great stuff.
    Speaking as a Dan buff, I have my own list. I have a sneaking regard for every second song on their albums. It struck me how much I like this list:
    Can’t Buy a Thrill – Dirty Work
    Countdown to Ecstasy – Razor Boy
    Pretzel Logic – Night By Night
    Katy Lied – Bad Sneakers
    Royal Scam – The Caves of Altamira
    Aja – Aja!
    Gaucho – Hey Nineteen
    Two Against Nature – What a Shame About Me
    Everything Must Go – Things I Miss the Most
    Admittedly, the latter two are not as strong as from the ‘classic’ era.


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