“Dirty Work” — second song, side one of Can't Buy a Thrill (1972)

When I first made a ranking of my favorite 40 Steely Dan songs, this one was number one. It no longer is—these things change over time—but it's still up there, which is kind of odd considering a lot of Dan-heads and Steely-bots barely consider this a SD song at all. A lot of the appeal for me is due to, after having gone for several years without actively listening to the records, then hearing “Dirty Work” in someone's mix and “rediscovering” it. That kind of context can be a powerful thing. Also, it may be one of the least Steely Dan sounding SD songs, and it's just like me to gravitate to the oddity—that's just the kind of person I am. Also, it's undeniably a super catchy, memorable pop song. I'll leave you to your own devices (I'd suggest “the internet”) to look up other artists covering this song—they're all pretty good, and especially The Pointer Sisters' version. Sometimes I wonder what Steely Dan would have been like if they'd gone all the way with the studio musicians thing and even hired various singers for all the songs instead of Donald Fagen singing them. Was that something they considered? This album gives you an idea, since David Palmer and Jim Hodder sing lead on three of my favorite songs, but ultimately I love Donald Fagen's voice; I think it makes the band what it is as much as anything, and this song would probably be even better had he sang it. Anyway, I love the organ sound, first of all, and then the smooth horns that aren't overbearing. It's another classic “back-door man” lyric—not exactly my favorite category of story—the whole celebration of this kind of thing kind of creeps me out, if not outright nauseates me. This take on it, though, is pretty sordid, infused with shame, and ends with the classic line: “I foresee terrible trouble and I stay here just the same”—which, in or out of context, describes one of the most universal human failings—and presents you this song, if you want it, as a kind of ultimate loser anthem.

—Randy Russell 9.20.18

Current ranking: No. 5

“Do It Again” — first song, side one of Can't Buy a Thrill (1972)

This is the very first song from the very first Steely Dan album, so the pressure was on (how do you pick the song order?)—but for all they knew, of the future, they were Dan Fogelberg and Tim Weisberg who had a flash of insanity/inspiration and were no doubt able to name their band after a dildo in a William Burroughs novel only because the executives at ABC Records had absolutely no idea it was a dildo in Naked Lunch—and it sounded better than “The Becker-Fagen Fusion.” I was 12 at the time and didn't care. I don't think I bought this record until later, until well after I had fished their next LP from the cut-out bins, probably having heard someone rave about it in Creem magazine. This song was one of their most played singles, and I'd probably like it more if I hadn't heard it over the years more than any Steely Dan song. There's a fascinating artifact on YouTube: a live version of the band playing the song on Burt Sugarman's The Midnight Special (don't fall for the video someone made with that footage and the album sound slapped on) where Jeff “Skunk” Baxter is playing congas and vocalist David Palmer sings lead (it's Donald Fagen on the record)—it's worth watching for the 1973 fashions alone, but also great to see the band playing live, especially to watch Denny Dias on guitar. The album recording features an electric sitar solo by Dias, and a “plastic organ” (Yamaha YC-30) solo by Donald Fagen. It's one of their mini-noir, livin' on the edge stories, told in second person, about a guy who runs into trouble in a foreign land with an unfaithful muse. I'd also like the song a lot more if the lyrically terrible chorus was close to as good as some of the inspired rhymes in the verses: “gunnin'” and “done in”—“high climber” and “two-timer”—and my favorite: “beg us” and “Vegas.”

—Randy Russell 9.13.18

Current ranking: No. 40

“Night by Night” — second song, side one of Pretzel Logic (1974)

I may have purchased this record in 1974, when I was 14, the year I first smoked pot, and was maybe most impressed with the giant, stretched photo of the band on the inside of the gatefold cover—turned vertically, standing in front of what looks like a giant version of the Maltese Falcon—particularly Jeff “Skunk” Baxter, in the foreground, who just looks a lot cooler than the rest of the guys and may as well be wearing a red neon sign that says “weed.” The outside cover folds out to a NYC winter panorama, featuring a gnarly street cart pretzel salesman (this guy had to be a real guy, and I wonder how this affected his life). It's their best album cover. I have to add, one of those pretzels made me sick once. I've always overlooked this song, as it sits between two of my very favorite songs, so it's nice to isolate it and really listen for once. The lyrics are a little general, kind of corny hardboiled, and include the overused idiom, “Until my ship comes in,” which, still, I like a lot, and I actually incorporate into my everyday conversation. The album has no liner notes and very few specific credits, so I have no idea who's playing on what, but there is a list of “thanks” that include a lot of Los Angeles session musicians—I guess this is when SD was transitioning from being a band to more of a recording project. Not that I really care so much about who played what on what, but a lot of people are obsessed with that kind of thing. Before and after the last chorus, someone sounds like they're inventing the 1970s “blistering guitar solo” right there—all in a day's work. I sometimes wonder if musicians feel like they don't get the credit they deserve, though. As the song says: “Everywhere around me I see jealously and mayhem / because no men have all their peace of mind to carry them.” But if you're in that world, I guess you need a thick skin, and just have to take it day by day—etc.

—Randy Russell 8.13.18

Current ranking: No. 34

“Turn That Heartbeat Over Again” — last song, side two of Can't Buy a Thrill (1972)

This is one of many, many songs about minor underworld losers who make the wrong choices and would probably make no mark on the world—save an unflattering police lineup or crime-scene photo—but whose actual good fortune is to be immortalized in a song with an intriguing title that I'm going to do my best, from this day on, to use in casual conversation as a slippery, metaphorical, slang expression. I never gave this song much attention, honestly, until I realized one day that the beginning of the chorus—“Oh Michael, Oh Jesus”—was coursing through my head, not so much as a curse or a prayer, but... I don't know what, actually. Listening more closely, then, I rediscovered how much I like the seemingly simple guitar during that part (though nothing is really simple with Steely Dan). Going deeper, then, lyrically, I have especially come to love the lines: “Now the food here ain't so good no more / And they closed the package store” as a kind of brilliant, concise short story setup that is all you need to describe this shadowy place—and its tipping point that puts a set of doomed characters on their tragic path.

—Randy Russell 8.9.18

Current ranking: No. 37

“Peg” — first song, side two of Aja (1977)

Aja is an album that for many is the pinnacle of Steely Dan's career, but which I considered for many years to be their first record that sucked. For a lot of bands I used to notice a decline, and there was often the record I considered the last good one, and then the record I considered the first bad one. At the time I felt alienated by the glossy, minimalist album cover, and the glossy, slick production, and what I felt was the coldness of the whole venture. Then I rejected Steely Dan entirely, ridiculed them and their fans for many years, and eventually returned to them with an ironic appreciation (much the same as Led Zeppelin) which then evolved into a guilty pleasure, and finally blossomed into full-on love. I have come around to Aja, and while it's not my favorite SD record, I now consider it to be the last album before they sucked. I figure, if I keep trying, I might one day come around to Gaucho, but it hasn't happened yet. Anyway, “Peg” is one of their cinema and glamour imagery songs, very upbeat, sounding like a walk in the park by someone with the world by the balls, but if you listen closely, by the end everything is a little off—the background singers are voicing something you can't understand, almost a little demonic. The last two lines are: “You see it all in 3-D / It's your favorite foreign movie”—which, while still being cinema references, could be taken as 3-D meaning harsh reality, and foreign movie implying something dark, possibly tragic. I've heard speculated that the song refers to Peg Entwistle, an actress who, in 1932, killed herself by jumping off the Hollywoodland sign, and if I squint, I can totally see that in this song.

—Randy Russell 7.31.18

Current ranking: No. 38