Are you under 40 but want to get a head start on getting into Steely Dan? Well here’s a little list of the 10 best (in my opinion) non-single release album cuts, to give you a helping hand.
Black Cow – Aja
We’ll open this list with ‘Black Cow’, the track that opens the sixth studio album Aja. Named after a popular drink made up of root beer and ice cream, this song fills you up with the same warm but bittersweet feeling of nostalgia that revisiting such a drink might deliver. Cool, calm and collected, ‘Black Cow’ is a mid-tempo funk number, that’ll have you moving, singing, and taking a dive through your memories, reflecting upon a time when you might have found yourself just as exasperated as the song’s narrator finds himself.
Glamour Profession – Gaucho
My personal favourite Steely Dan song, if not my favourite song of all time. This track takes some of the slickest chord changes I’ve ever heard, a fluid bassline that just won’t let up, and some jazzy piano licks that sound as if they’re being played through a dry martini, and ties it all together with a straight eight disco beat. This disco groove keeps everything tight and steady, whilst all the other instruments float effortlessly above, drifting from chord to chord, creating a tense atmosphere, punctuated with an underlying sense of dread and despair, as the song’s narrator continually tries to convince himself that he’s made it, and he’s just as much of a star as the various celebrities whose favour he tries to court.
Pixeleen – Everything Must Go
Only Donald Fagen could sing lyrics like “it’s like her stupid father” or “better keep it real, or whatever” as a man in his early 50s, and have it sound at all convincing. The subject matter of this song is pretty opaque, but to me the song is seemingly about both a young girls daydream of being a crime fighting action hero, and the manner in which movie studios can take such youthful idealism and repurpose it for profit. This track’s arrangement is pretty straightforward, with a nice laid back groove courtesy of Keither Carlock and Walter Becker and some pretty straightforward rhythm guitar from Hugh McCracken. However, the real standout on this track is Carolyn Leonhart. Her backing vocals take centre stage during this song’s bridge section, personifying the previously mentioned youthful idealism that has now been cynically corrupted, so as to be able to market it to the masses.
Everyone’s Gone to the Movies – Katy Lied
Never has a song that sounds so clean left you feeling so dirty. ‘Everyone’s Gone to the Movies’ is a bright, upbeat, and slick tune that hides it’s intentions with a both a light melody, and a light touch. All the while, the song’s lyrics deal with some of the more unsavoury elements of society that can often go unnoticed, having obscured themselves with a veneer of good, clean fun. Much like the song does itself.
The Fez – The Royal Scam
Co-written by Paul Griffin, this groovy jam is a bit of an anomaly on this list, in that it’s just that, a groovy jam. Most of Steely Dan’s discography is a highly choreographed affair, that doesn’t deviate from the script too much, but this song’s an exception, in that it grew out of a jam session, hence the co-writing credit that Paul Griffin, a session pianist, receives for this track. This song doesn’t really go anywhere, but it certainly moves, and wherever it’s movin’ you’ll want to follow. Moreover, the song’s sparse lyrics concern safe sex, a highly unusual topic for a song released in 1976.
Negative Girl – Two Against Nature
Tense, delicate, and held together by a thread; this song’s arrangement is like the relationship the song’s narrator finds himself in. The harmony in this song hangs on a knife edge, one misplaced note, and the whole thing comes tumbling down.Likewise, the narrator of this tune finds himself in such a place, involved with a ‘negative girl’, that could leave him in mental anguish, with just one misplaced word. Whether it be platonically or romantically, we’ve all found ourselves involved with someone that we know isn’t good for us, but we just can’t bring ourselves to say no to, and this song perfectly captures that feeling of impending doom that can come with such relationships.
Parker’s Band – Pretzel Logic
In this tribute to Charlie ‘Bird’ Parker, Steely Dan wax lyrical about Parker’s fabled Savoy Recordings, dreaming of what it might have been like to sit in at a Savoy Session.Although not strictly a bebop number, this tune is certainly inspired by such songs, and features an array of soaring solos, that glide majestically over a tight rhythm section. A rhythm section so tight, that it goes completely unnoticed that there’s actually two drummers keeping things moving on this track.
I Got the News – Aja
A common compositional trick employed by Steely Dan, is to have the bass player play straight ahead blues, while the other instruments build upon this foundation, adding layer after layer to the harmony, and of all their songs this one does that the best. Chuck Rainey plays a simple three note riff to the backing of Ed Greene’s proto-hip-hop drumming, whilst a flurry of piano, horns and guitar, keep things interesting up top, leaving space for Donald Fagen to croon some of the most abstractly dirty lyrics I’ve ever heard. “Spanish kissin’, see it glisten”: songwriting like this could give even Prince a run for his money.
Babylon Sisters – Gaucho
The opening track to the seventh album Gaucho, this slow groove is best taken slowly, perhaps whilst relaxing in the good chair. Like many of the song’s on Gaucho, this song’s subject matter concerns the struggle of one man to rectify his desires in the face of his advancing age, and the ensuing midlife crisis that this produces. Bernard Purdie keeps things moving on this track with his famous ‘Purdie Shuffle’, whilst a delicate mix of Fender Rhodes, distant rhythm guitars, and a foreboding horn section construct densely colourful layers of harmony. Fagen’s voice is paired with an ethereal choir of backing vocalists that will leave you feeling hot and cold all at the same time.
West of Hollywood – Two Against Nature
Standing in at 8 minutes and 21 seconds, this track has it all: slick chord changes, extended saxophone solos, and cinematic lyrics concerning the US TV Industry. Much like the television industry, this song takes a fairly sombre subject matter and whitewashes it with slick production and a happy-go-lucky beat – the kind of beat one might imagine someone like Status Quo inappropriately bopping to whilst wearing some jeans that are almost certainly too tight.
[For more on writing on Two Against Nature from our in house Steely Dan expert Joel, click below or search on our website.]