Steely Dan is one of those bands that evokes an instant response from people — usually a big, goofy grin or wretching noises of some sort. There really seems to be no middle ground for people once they’ve been exposed to the unique and acerbic brand of jazz-rock practiced by Donald Fagen and Walter Becker.
Like a lot of others, I figured that the Dan was all about “Reelin’ in the Years” and “Black Cow,” and not much else. Boy how wrong was I! Here’s ten shining examples of what this great band has to offer beyond the classic rock radio staples, if only you’ll come along for the ride.
1 — “Fire in the Hole” (from Can’t Buy a Thrill, 1972)
No need to go any further than the band’s debut LP to find evidence of their greatness. And if you’re ever going to appreciate Fagen’s earnest but somewhat warbling vocal delivery, might as well start now. The way the tension built up over the verses resolves in such subtle beauty in the chorus as a joy to behold. A lot of Dan fans swear by Can’t Buy a Thrill as their best album, and this is one of the reasons why.
2 — “Kid Charlemagne” (from The Royal Scam, 1976)
If it’s good enough for Kanye West to base an entire song around, it’s good enough for the rest of us. Rhythmically this finds the Dan operating on a whole ‘nother plane (thanks to Bernard Purdie and Chuck Rainey), but what really takes this track over the top is the Larry Carlton guitar solo. It’s one of the crown jewels of ’70s music.
3 — “Here at the Western World” (from Greatest Hits, 1978)
This didn’t make the cut for The Royal Scam, a testament to that album’s potency. I can see why, though — it’s a relatively subdued track and doesn’t quite fit with what was their darkest album ever. Or maybe not, as it is about a brothel.
4 — “Parker’s Band” (from Pretzel Logic, 1974)
Fagen and Becker have made no secret that their shared love of jazz was one of the reasons they were so effective as a songwriting team. Elsewhere on Pretzel Logic they offered one of their only cover songs (of Duke Ellington’s “East St. Louis Toodle-Oo”), and here they blow the doors off the place with a smoking tribute to Charlie Parker. If this song doesn’t make you want to explore the Bird’s music, nothing will.
5 — “Aja” (from Aja, 1977)
Already a great song and the centerpiece of the Aja album (pronounced like Asia, by the way), the transcendence of this number is summed up in three words — Steve. Gadd. Drums. I’ll wait for you to pick your jaw up off the floor before we continue.
6 — “Your Gold Teeth II” (from Katy Lied, 1975)
Another day at the office, another ridiculous guitar solo. This one is courtesy of longtime Dan cohort (and band co-founder, no less) Denny Dias. Of course, let’s not gloss over those epic opening piano chords, which settle effortlessly into that unmistakable Steely Dan groove.
7 — “Third World Man” (from Gaucho, 1980)
History tells us that Gaucho was the last Steely Dan record for more than a decade, due in large part to the increasingly frazzled relationship between Messrs. Fagen & Becker. I have to think that fatigue was setting in for the pair, and this track (the last one on the album) captures that feeling perfectly. And yet it’s a captivating listen, time and time again. Oh yeah, and here’s another spectacular Larry Carlton guitar break.
8 — “Razor Boy” (from Countdown to Ecstasy, 1973)
The beauty of the Dan is their ability marry seemingly upbeat and bouncy arrangements to some of the darkest damn lyrics you’ll ever read. This may be my favorite from their second album, recorded when Steely Dan was still a working band. Love, love, love that pedal steel work from future Doobie Brother Jeff “Skunk” Baxter.
9 — “Green Earrings” (from The Royal Scam)
I probably could’ve spent 9 of these 10 slots talking about The Royal Scam. This is yet another Dan groove sampled years later, this time by Ice Cube and Organized Konfusion.
10 –“King of the World” (from Countdown to Ecstasy)
Same goes for Countdown to Ecstasy, which for my money is the group’s most eclectic and interesting release. No other group could tackle a bleak subject like the Apocalypse and make it seem even bleaker. Listen to the way those guitars weave effortlessly in and out of that tight rhythm. So tasty.
- Roger Nichols obituary (guardian.co.uk)
- Kid Charlemagne (1976). Walter Becker and Donald Fagan /jazz covers rock #1/ (rgable.typepad.com)
- Steely Dan – 1996-07-21 – Manassas, VA (FLAC) (theultimatebootlegexperience2.blogspot.com)
- #145 – Aja (Steely Dan) (earphoneadventures.wordpress.com)
- Steely Dan’s “Aja” makes the National Recording Registry twice in the same list, sort of (somecamerunning.typepad.com)
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