Pause for a moment and think about the list of artists who have been together long enough to release over ten studio albums: The Beatles, Beach Boys, Bob Dylan, Rolling Stones, Simon & Garfunkel—that’s about it. Of course, there are plenty of other artists who have been around for a decade or more–MC Hammer even managed to release ten albums in just under ten years—but very few of them are considered classic acts. Fewer still have been as mythologized as Steely Dan. And until Walter Becker’s death (in 2017), the pair was considered a Holy Grail of sorts, and their ten studio albums, along with solo projects and B-sides, were ransacked for clues and Easter eggs.
And yet, despite this intense scrutiny and their well-known perfectionism, Steely Dan’s albums remained as closed a book as any in rock history. Asked to boil down all Steely Dan’s work into ten songs, and no two true fans would succeed in matching their lists. Steely Dan songs are like Russian nesting dolls. Each one contains another self-contained Steely Dan song. They did, however, offer lists of ten tunes that might be appropriate for a Steely Dan mixtape. We captured these lists and, after a few late-night debates and much Googling of lyrics, we’re proud to present to you our top 10 selections of the best Steely Dan songs of all time.
10. “Deacon Blues” (from Aja, 1977)
This 7-minute epic song is considered by many to be one of the band’s best songs. And it’s hard to disagree. The lyrics tell the story of a college student who wants to be “a realtor selling all the stately homes of England” and then move into politics. But what intrigues us is where it all leads: “I’ll sell off every diamond ring, keep my immaculate lawn….” That hints at a rather dark ending, and when we finally hit the final verse, it’s clear why: “I’m hiding in Honduras,” goes one line; “Hiding in Honduras,” repeats the speaker a few lines later. Despite being a cautionary tale about a man who realizes too late that his dream of fame is just another version of feeling old and numb, the song has an undeniably cool vibe. The singer wants to “live with the ducks, keep my clean soul,” which is nonsensical but somehow sounds right coming out of Walter Becker’s mouth.
9. “The Boston Rag” (from Countdown to Ecstasy, 1973)
This song is all about the music, which sets it apart from every other Steely Dan tune. It’s also far removed from anything on Countdown; its bouncy tempo is more in line with tracks like “FM (No Static at All)” and “Planet of Sound” from Aja. The song’s protagonist appears to be a cocaine dealer, but that doesn’t stop him from having an ear for music. “The Boston Rag” is named after the ragtime classic by Scott Joplin. Though the songwriting credits are given to Becker and Fagen, my best-uneducated guess is that one came up with the lyrics while the other provided the music—many believe “The Boston Rag” was actually penned by bassist Doug Goetzman.
8. “Reeling in the Years” (from Can’t Buy a Thrill, 1972)
“Reeling in the Years” is a masterful pop song, and it boils down to everything great about Steely Dan. The lyrics contain dark undertones, the music is immaculate, and it manages to rock out while sounding effortlessly cool. The song begins with a saxophone solo from the late Michael Omartian, which helps add to its laid-back vibe. Although Fagen and Becker were known for their perfectionism, this track contains an early example of the band letting loose with a live take—the result being a slightly sloppy but highly listenable backing beat.
7. “My Old School” (from Countdown to Ecstasy, 1973)
This song tells the story of the 1969 drug bust of the band’s lead singer, Walter Becker. It was released on their second album, “Countdown to Ecstasy.” And it gives the listener an inside look into what was going on at that time. Some speculate that Becker’s experience in jail inspired him to write “My Old School,” which comes across as a revenge fantasy. It’s also about following your dreams no matter how hard they are to achieve. Becker later admitted that the song is only “50 percent true” and that he mostly made up the story because he thought it was more interesting that way.
6. “Do It Again” (from Can’t Buy a Thrill, 1972)
Considered Steely Dan’s breakout hit from their debut album, this song is about various kinds of unwanted repetition. Fagen and Becker might be singing about one of several things: “do it again” could refer to drugs, cheating on a lover, or selling out to become rich — just another classic case of Steely Dan’s songs not making sense, but setting a whole mood. The fact that it opens with a great guitar riff doesn’t hurt its staying power, either.
5. “Rikki Don’t Lose That Number” (from Nightfly, 1982)
“Rikki Don’t Lose That Number” is the only Steely Dan song to have reached number #1 on the pop charts. Not only was it the most successful track off their biggest album, but it also demonstrated that the band’s music had a receptive audience. The song is about a guy who gets separated from his wife. So, he spends the rest of the night looking for her — hence “Rikki Don’t Lose That Number.”
4. “Hey Nineteen” (from Gaucho, 1980)
This song does what Steely Dan always did best: telling deliberately mysterious stories about romantic relationships — but not really. It’s actually about the music industry and its obsession with youth. The verses are like a conversation between an older man trying to pick up a younger girl, and the choruses provide a harsh reminder that even though things were changing in music, he was getting older.
3. “Dirty Work” (from Can’t Buy a Thrill, 1972)
There is no question why this song made it to number three on our list of the ten best Steely Dan songs of all time. “Dirty Work” is about how their label ripped them off over their first album, and it’s mostly just an excuse for Becker and Fagen to tell some funny stories.
2. “Pretzel Logic” (from Pretzel Logic, 1974)
Featuring one of Steely Dan’s most instantly recognizable guitar parts, “Pretzel Logic” is one of two epics on their third album. It tells the stories of several people in Los Angeles who never make it out successfully. The characters are all struggling with addiction or relationships, and they do things that result in them getting hurt.
1. “The Royal Scam” (from The Royal Scam, 1976)
Written as a scathing protest song against the music industry and those who set out to take advantage of young musicians, this is one of Steely Dan’s most unique tracks. The song tells a story about a band trying to make it in LA without selling out. Sadly, they are out of options when it comes to the music business. Fagen sings the entire song and sets the mood for an album that will end with this band getting royally screwed.