My 24 favorite Steely Dan songs

I love lists.

It’s how my mind organizes things. It’s never happened, but I take comfort in knowing I can give a pretty quick and accurate answer if someone asks me my favorite six movies, or Dustin Hoffman’s three greatest roles or my 365 favorite albums.

(For the record:

* 1. All That Jazz; 2. The World According to Garp; 3. Citizen Kane; 4. Monty Python and The Holy Grail; 5. Duck Soup; 6. Help!

* 1. Tootsie; 2. Wag the Dog; 3. Lenny

* See my professional Facebook page Or better still, go to the 365-associated Facebook page I’ve created since writing this.)

Lists are the way I like to organize things in my head. And I enjoy putting them together. If you hang around, you’re going to see more of them. This is the fun part for me.

In honor of just acquiring a seat in row XX for an upcoming concert by them (ticket under $40), here are my favorite Steely Dan songs. (And yeah, it’s really Row XX. That’s not just holding the space for a number. I believe I’m closer to the parking lot than the stage. And I’m fine with that. Just fucking play “Babylon Sisters,” OK?)

24. Peg (“Aja”); 23. Josie (“Aja”); 22. Hey Nineteen (“Gaucho”)

I saw them on their 2014 tour, and they grouped these songs together near the end, along with “Reeling in the Years.” The crowd erupted. I thought, “Awww, how cute. They’re playing some stuff these other people recognize …”

21. Fire In The Hole (“Can’t Buy a Thrill”); 20. The Fez (“The Royal Scam”)

19. Do It Again (“Can’t Buy a Thrill”)

I bought the 45 when I first heard the song. My mother was appalled by the title, and figured it had to be something filthy. I explained (accurately) that it’s really about a gambling addict. She didn’t buy it. I held up the copy of Wings’ “Hi Hi Hi” and said, “Now THIS is a filthy song.” Since it was the cute Beatle, she thought I was making fun of her. I kept both singles.

18. Rikki Don’t Lose That Number (“Pretzel Logic”); 17. Dirty Work (“Can’t Buy a Thrill”); 16. Pretzel Logic (“Pretzel Logic”); 15. Rose Darling (“Katy Lied”)

14. The Caves of Altamira (“The Royal Scam”)

“Before the fall, when they wrote it on the wall …” What a great arrangement.

13. Black Friday (“Katy Lied”)
The only way my favorite Steely Dan album could possibly open. The foreboding gives an outline for what’s to come. I also think it’s fantastic how the song fades in. Lots of albums were fading in around this time. (Yes, Pink Floyd, 10cc, McCartney.)

12. Any World (That I’m Welcome To) (“Katy Lied”)

As I got to know voices better, I found myself listening intently to this song and thinking, “Is that fucking MICHAEL McDONALD singing?” I despised him. But he sounds great here.

11. Midnight Cruiser (“Can’t Buy a Thrill”)

It’s still hard for me to believe this song was on their first album. “For one more time let your madness run with mine.” That line alone was enough to earn them a pass for lifting the album title from a Dylan song.

10. I Got The News (“Aja”)

As a newspaper person, how could I not love this?

9. Kid Charlemagne (“The Royal Scam”)

This is just an odd song that I love. I’m not sure how much it really relates to anything else in their discography. Favorite moment from listening to dozens of tapes of Dan shows recorded since they began touring again: How loudly people sing along with “Yes, there’s gasintheCAHHHHH…”

8. Chain Lightning (“Katy Lied”)

Like “Pretzel Logic,” this is kind of twisted blues. Some people don’t even pick up the Nazi references. When I first realized them, I felt like I’d decoded some fantastic secret. And besides that, even if it was generic blues, it’s REALLY GOOD generic blues.

7. My Old School (“Countdown to Ecstasy”)

“California tumbles into the sea, that’ll be the day I go back to Annandale.” Every one of us has a place like that. And they sound so happy about it. It’s a story in the past, all has been resolved, they’re in a better place, and all is forgiven. But they’re still never going back.

6. Reelin’ In The Years (“Can’t Buy a Thrill”)

One of the five greatest song openings ever? You bet. (OK – other candidates: “Revolution,” “Saturday in the Park,” “Rock ‘n Roll,” “Baba O’Riley.”) It’s one of the few really memorizable guitar solos. Most of the song’s fans will know if a note is out of place in the solos. I vividly remember my 45 record, since it was one of the few hits issued under the alternate ABC Records logo.

5. Bodhisattva (“Countdown to Ecstasy”)

An even crazier guitar workout. This is another one where if the soloist misses one note during a live show, I know it.

4. Show Biz Kids (“Countdown to Ecstasy”)

I’ve gone from the place where the puns were brilliant to where they were funny to where they were amusing to where they were annoying to where I had contempt for anyone who didn’t share my contempt for them. Now I listen to that absolutely filthy guitar that winds all the way through and think, “This song has lyrics?”

3. F.M. (No Static at All) (soundtrack song/single)

They were the kings at this point. They could hand a great song to act as a title tune for a movie that would have been legendary had it had the decency to end seven minutes sooner. The first time I heard this was wholly unconnected to the film. It was, fittingly enough, about 11 at night, on a Minneapolis FM station. I’d have posted, if I could have found, a link to the animation that opens them movie, where the letters start dancing to Steely Dan. How great would “Aja” be if this song had been on it? (It was recorded during the “Aja” sessions.) I suspect it would be 25 or 30 spots higher on The Big List. And they didn’t even put it on a greatest hits package until four years after it came out (their second hits album).

2. Time Out Of Mind (“Gaucho”)

They make a numbing narcotics addiction sound so pleasant, like the very best idea you could have right now is to go find some opiates.

1. Babylon Sisters (“Gaucho”)

“Turn that jungle music down, just until we’re out of town.” Steely Dan may have turned into fragile and note-perfect yacht rock jazzbos. This is the perfect example of that. I find it to be everything I love about Steely Dan. I have never been anything but overwhelmed by this song. And the older I get, the more I understand it. They should never have been this forward thinking about male aging.

And, as a special bonus, here’s the Steely Dan albums on The Big List (there are only nine acts with more):

6. “Katy Lied,” Steely Dan (1975)
97. “Aja,” Steely Dan (1977)
104. “Gaucho,” Steely Dan (1980)
121. “Can’t Buy a Thrill,” Steely Dan (1972)
361. “Countdown to Ecstasy,” Steely Dan (1973)


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