The Best Song From Every Steely Dan Album
Steely Dan started out from a pretty intellectual place. After all, they memorably named themselves after an obscure sexual aid from William S. Burroughs' 1959 novel Naked Lunch. By the time they released the jazz-inflected Aja, however, the famous writer had become disenchanted. "These people are too fancy," Burroughs famously groused. "They're too sophisticated."
Donald Fagen and Walter Becker did, indeed, become ever more sophisticated. The former classmates at Bard, a small college in upstate New York, were always interested in toiling more literate soil. (Their first band was winkingly called the Bad Rock Group, and featured future comedian Chevy Chase on drums.) Over time, they sought to create music that was just as cerebral as the lyrics – and increasingly meticulous, too. That ultimately meant shedding the very idea of a band, as Fagen and Becker traded steady collaborators for a parade of talented role players who were mixed and matched to fit the moment.
Credit their friend Gary Katz for casting Steely Dan's first lineups, for helping the group establish their offbeat sound – and for getting them out to California in the first place. Los Angeles only beckoned when Katz took a job with ABC with a stipulation that Becker and Fagen were hired as contract songwriters.
Their debut surprised everyone, including Steely Dan, by producing a pair of hit songs. "We had zero expectations. In fact, we were amazed that ABC bought the album at all," Becker told Rolling Stone in 1977, snickering. "It was like a dream come true."
Steely Dan gained more and more confidence – at first Fagen didn't want to sing, and they tried out another frontman in David Palmer – even as their songs gained more narrative complexity and musical depth. By the time their third album arrived, Steely Dan was evolving into something else entirely: A studio creation. They became legendary for endless searches for just the right sound, or just the right take.
Four albums later, this impulse toward perfectionism had reached a frustrating zenith and they decided to take some time off. Like, 13 years off. Then the strangest thing happened when Becker and Fagen finally got back together, after producing one another's early '90s solo projects: They became road warriors.
Steely Dan toured off and on for seven years before releasing the first of two late-era albums. In fact, Steely Dan remained on the concert trail even after Becker's unexpected death. Fagen continued studio work, but Everything Must Go – issued more than a decade prior to Becker's passing – appears to be Steely Dan's swan-song studio recording.
Which individual moments from this fascinating journey rose to the top? Here's our list of the best song from every Steely Dan album ...