10 Great Steely Dan Tracks Part 2: The Hits



steelydan-bannerLast week we looked at 10 great Steely Dan deep album tracks. This week, it’s the big enchiladas, their top hits. Of course with a band like this we use the term “hits” loosely, but they do have their better-known songs, and these are the best of them, approximately.

 

10. Cousin Dupree

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The big hit from their 2000 comeback album proved the boys hadn’t lost their gift for sophisticated, hooky pop melodies, nor their jaded eye for the quirks of the human condition. People called it pervy, but it’s just the opposite, heaping scorn on the hopeless predilections of so many awkward men on this planet. “The dreary architecture of your soul” says it all so perfectly in such a Steely Dan way.

 

9. My Old School

If Steely Dan was the American Beatles of the 1970s then this song was their “I Want To Hold Your Hand”. Such youthful exuberance – it’s hard to believe these twisted, cynical hipsters were young once too, telling tales about college, fer chrissakes. The arc of snark does indeed stretch a long way across time.

 

8. Black Friday

A typically bleak subject typically done up for laughs, you can always be sure to hear this one somewhere on the day after Thanksgiving. This was also the first Steely Dan track to feature Walter Becker on lead guitar, a role he would increasingly hold as the years reeled on.

 

7. Rikki Don’t Lose That Number

The biggest hit of Steely Dan’s career, reaching #4 on Billboard, must be included on this list. The song got more interesting after an Entertainment Weekly article in 2006 revealed that it was about writer, poet and artist Rikki Ducornet, who attended the same college and the same parties that Donald Fagen did in the late 1960s. She was married and pregnant the night she said Fagen handed her his phone number. I wonder how many other characters in Steely Dan songs would like to be outed someday. I’m guessing not many.

 

6. Haitian Divorce

You can find all kinds of stylistic influences in Steely Dan music, from the obvious jazz, rock and pop, to tinges of blues, folk and even country. But this is the first and I believe only foray into reggae, or at least something resembling it. You can carbon date this song to 1976 thanks to the voice box guitar pedal on Dean Parks’ great solo. That stupid effect was everywhere in 1976.

 

5. Hey Nineteen

Talk about spare, it sounds like a recording mistake where some musical parts never made it onto the master. But as they say, less is more. Then there’s that pervy accusation again, but come on, Becker and Fagen had just turned 30 when they wrote this song, not 50.

 

4. Show Biz Kids

For all their chord progression mastery and their jazz orchestrations, one of the Dan’s best loved songs is this guitar-drenched one-chord churner. In 1973 there was also that delightful frisson created by such a purposeful and powerful use of the word “fuck”. Rick Derringer really kills it on slide guitar too.

 

3. Kid Charlemagne

Steely Dan never wrote a love song, and it seems like they rarely wrote a song that didn’t have a drug reference. Whatever gets you through the night, I suppose. Anyway here’s another example of them turning a bunch of crazy chords into something strangely accessible. Larry Carlton’s incredible guitar solo changes keys halfway through and still sounds fantastic.

 

2. Peg

I remember one time in the 1980s I heard this song on an easy listening station and they had edited Jay Graydon’s fantastic guitar solo out. I remember thinking how much that said about Steely Dan. I mean, that is Michael McDonald’s voice multi-tracked on the backup vocals, but they couldn’t edit out the subversive lyric or attitude which, in addition to the solo, violated everything those easy listening schmoes ever stood for. When played in its entirety, this is a pop/rock masterpiece.

 

1. Do It Again

It was the bossa nova beat that first got your attention. Pretty unusual for a Rock song in November 1972, that’s for sure. This was no easy listening record, though, this was menacing, a tale of underworld gunplay and a chorus that locked you in for the kill. This was a new definition of cool. And I am always tempted to single it out for one of the greatest guitar solos of all time, except that it’s not a guitar but an electric sitar that Denny Dias shreds so eloquently, cascading tempos and octaves into a brilliantly constructed solo. It may not be Steely Dan’s best song, but it still might be its most important, a calling card that would change Rock forever.

 

Photo credit: By Stephan Neuner [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
 

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One comment to “10 Great Steely Dan Tracks Part 2: The Hits”
  1. There are rap songs that have sampled both “Peg” and “Black Cow” to great effect. Now I can’t remember any of them.

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