“Don't Take Me Alive”—third song, side one of The Royal Scam (1976)

I honestly never paid much attention to the lyrics of this song, as, on the surface anyway, they sound pretty much like a standard noirish story song of some outlaw holding out against the authorities. But I'm not so sure, seeing how this album, as a whole, is maybe Steely Dan's most, if not political, then seriously sociological—much of it pretty specific, directly or indirectly, to the Sixties and Seventies counter-culture. It's a little colder, to me, than their other albums, though that doesn't mean I like it less—and there's maybe less humor, though with them, you almost always have to work for the humor, anyway, and the harder you work, usually, the more rewarding the payoff. When I listen to the lyrics more carefully, it seems that the song could be about a militant, anti-war or anti-government activist rather than a criminal. I always think of the expression, “You'll never take me alive!” as one of a gangster holding out against the G-Men, but here it's: “Don't take me alive”—is that a mistake? (there are no mistakes)—or to fit the music?—or maybe it's a bit of “Hell no, we won't go.” The most memorable line in the song is: “Got a case of dynamite / I could hold out here all night.” It is both the most specific and unambiguous lyric here, as well as the one most open to metaphorical interpretation, in that it could be a literal stand-off, a sexual innuendo, a partying reference, or a hyperbolic declaration in an argument about where to get dinner. As an exercise, I'm going to use that phrase, in some situation or other, once a day for the next month. If nothing else, I'll at least amuse myself.

Musically, the most interesting thing is that the guitar solo is at the beginning of the song. I can think of a few other songs that do that, but I can't think of them right now, offhand. It's played by Larry (Mr. 335) Carlton, who is all over this record. I like him, but there is no question that being nicknamed for a type of guitar is considerably less satisfying than for an animal known for its dangerously pungent defense mechanism. That said, if you listen to this opening solo through headphones, or otherwise particularly loud, I guarantee you'll be able to literally smell the tubes overheating in the back of that guitar amp. Throughout the song, then, you can just sense him dying to cut loose again, but it's not written in the script. The tension is almost pathological. The other thing I noticed via a close listening is the backup singers—though smooth and subtle here, they do have a moment, and it struck me as so beautiful that I almost started to cry. And I would have, too, if I wasn't, you know, out of tears.

—Randy Russell 6.16.19

Current Ranking: No. 27

“Black Cow”—first song, side one of Aja (1977)

By chance, I watched most of Paul Thomas Anderson's 1996 film Hard Eight on TV yesterday (even though it was edited for R-rated content—okay to show a man brutally shot to death, but certain words not okay—what a world!)—I hadn't seen it in quite a while, and it never occurred to me before—that movie could be a Steely Dan song! He's a filmmaker for whom music is integral—more than most (and I'm sure he grew up either loving or hating Steely Dan)—and it's funny, that movie seems like it could have been inspired by this song—maybe it is. But more on the lyrics in the second paragraph. The first notes on this record were like a slap in the face to me when I was back in high school, and it took me several decades to get over that. I was already a downward spiraling SD fan, not really appreciating The Royal Scam, as I would later—and then this betrayal! If you ever want to illustrate the concept of “tight” to someone, play them this song. And those backup singers, going, “So outrageous!” And then that Tom Scott saxophone solo was the nail in the coffin, sounding like a smarmy, ass-kissing, Hollywood awards show. The weird thing is, now, listening closely, the music sounds anything but cold—there is an incredibly textured, lush and rich warmness to it that sounds as human as anything I have on vinyl. Maybe it's decades of robot music since, or maybe it just took me a long time to catch up to this album, but it now feels like I'm wearing a bathrobe and slippers, smoking whatever your version of a pipe is. Sure there is slick veneer, which is what you hear first, but it shouldn't be hard to slide under that, into a sweaty, sweet-smelling room with humans. I suppose one could isolate any number of elements on this track that have been, in far different contexts, used for evil—but taken together—which is how you must take it—it inspires complex but positive emotions. I guess when I was 17 I wasn't mature enough yet to realize (well, it seems that most people never get to realize this) that something can be slick, cold, ironic, nasty, goofy, warm, human, confusing, nonsensical, crystal-clear, and hilarious ALL AT THE SAME TIME.

I recently worked in Manhattan, near the Port Authority, and one of my regular lunch spots was the Westway Diner on 9th Avenue, especially on the days I needed comfort food—chicken rice soup, stiff mashed potatoes and butter, and rice pudding. A block north is Rudy's, an old dive bar with a pig version of the Bob's Big Boy out front. It was a place I walked by countless times and never went in, dope that I am. Had I been trying to write about this song then, I surely would have, then of course been disappointed by the tourists, and knowing that to really appreciate a dive bar you need to drink, just like you need to eat diner food at a diner. Of course, in the Mid-Seventies, when this song was written, it's likely our protagonists would have lived in the neighborhood (Hell's Kitchen) because it was affordable (it's not now). I stopped into a similar dive bar in the Mid-Eighties (when I still drank), a few blocks away, about where the New York Times now sits—and I've still never shaken the image of the cockroaches climbing all over the liquor bottles.

This song is relatively straightforward, except for the “Black Cow” reference, and maybe the tone, because it's quite a sad story, yet it's one of the happiest sounding Steely Dan songs I can think of. The first person singer is addressing his lover, I'm assuming a woman who's a bit of a mess, a party person, making the scene downtown, not in any way faithful or dependable. A few lines really paint a picture (they don't even need to go for the obvious, like smeared mascara). But then the crucial part of the song couldn't be any more clear: “You will stagger homeward to your precious one—I'm the one—who must make everything right. Talk it out 'til daylight.” Wow. Is he a sap, or a saint? What I think is that he really loves her—maybe it's not the most healthy relationship—but she is his muse in the purest sense, in that she has inspired some of the most poetic lines in any Steely Day song—those great opening lines, and then: “On the counter, by your keys, was a book of numbers and your remedies—one of these, surely will screen out the sorrow—but where are you tomorrow?” Have they ever written a better few lines than that?

So what is a Black Cow, and what does it mean in this song? That's the part where we can all speculate, and maybe all be wrong, and that's half the fun of these songs. What I think is—it's referring to the cocktail version of a Black Cow (it's a dive bar, after all) that contains maybe Kahlua, half-and-half, and Coke—it's a classic, daytime, hangover, comfort drink. Sickly sweet, something in there to settle your stomach, caffeine, and low on, but still containing alcohol. It's a sad drink for a sad person. But still, somehow, this isn't a depressing or hopeless song—and the only reason for that is because he's in love, despite it all. What he could be saying to her is: “Look, I know you're going to run around on me, you're going to be out of control, and then you're going to come crawling back home, a mess. And every time, I'm going to say it's over, and every time I'm going to stay up all night and talk you down. And we're going to repeat this behavior into the foreseeable future. Because I love you.” Of course, people don't talk like that in real life, nor in movies (hopefully), and it sure wouldn't make a good song lyric. So what he says instead, which is what people say in real life, and does make a good song lyric is: “Drink your big Black Cow and get outta here.”

—Randy Russell 4.21.19

Current Ranking: No. 17

“Hey Nineteen”—second song, side one of Gaucho (1980)

This is the first song I remember hearing from Gaucho, maybe it was a radio hit—the year after this record came out I was working full-time at Trophy World and the Top 40 radio was on all day and nearly drove me nuts. It's a catchy song, too, but my first impression was not good. On the surface you have an “old guy” (Donald Fagen would have been about 32 when this record came out) singing, “Hey Nineteen...” to who? Can't he even remember her name? A thirteen year age difference is no big deal, but when it's a 32 year old rock star and 19 year old woman he refers to as “Hey Nineteen,” that's just gross. But as I said before, I'm going to work hard at coming around to this, a record I've never been able to connect with. So I'm listening again, closely, with headphones and an open mind. Wow, it sounds pretty great with headphones, especially the fairly subtle backup singers, like when the guy goes: “Nice.” It strikes me that that's supposed to be funny, and it is. This is a fairly minimal arrangement, and the lyric sheet credits Fagen with synthesizer, but it sounds a lot like melodica to me. I kind of hate a lot of instruments (unfairly, but I do) like harmonica, but I hate nothing as much as I hate melodica. I don't know why, but no instrument sounds as sleazy and slimy and cheap as melodica. And I think, on this song, as much of a cliché as it might be, that's the point.

The song starts out, “Way back when, in Sixty-seven, I was the dandy of Gamma Chi,”—so, autobiographical or not, that's referring to the singer of the song in 1967 (when Fagen would have been 19 years old). Not to examine every line for logistics and logic, but I think the nineteen year-old he's referring to is his nineteen year-old self, who his 32 year-old self has little in common with. We've all had that feeling, no matter our age, thinking back on younger versions of ourselves, both wistfully and with relief. The thing about a song, though, is no one says a song can't be about more than one thing at a time (and they often are). So this bit of reflection is hidden in a rather humorous (in that it's in the voice of a cliché-happy older guy—“The Cuervo Gold, the fine Colombian”) sleaze. So there's a side to this song that's heartfelt and sad, and a side that's sleazy and dumb. Maybe I'm totally wrong about this, but I'm sure not going to go rooting around the internet for either confirmation or contradiction—if you look long enough, you'll find people saying it's about a Civil War battle, or space aliens, or their incestuous relationship with the artists in question (no one's saying that—those are just my extreme examples). The internet's not the last word on anything, it's just the signpost up ahead.

—Randy Russell 3.10.19

Current Ranking: No. 61

“Bad Sneakers”—second song, side one of Katy Lied (1975)

This is a friendly sounding pop song, another one that could be a TV show theme, or an ad for the good life, as long as you don't pay too much attention to the lyrics. It's also another song that's a study in contrasts—between the music and the words, and also within the succinctly painted portrait that's got some very vivid references but is still pleasantly abstract. The geographical references are of both Los Angeles and New York. Whether the song is autobiographical or not shouldn't be important, but it's not outlandish to think it's referring to a person, or persons, very much like the songwriters, Steely Dan; the first line (“Five names that I can hardly stand to hear”) being very specific (while telling you nothing). Let's just say it's about a New York band who are out in Los Angeles, for their livelihood, recording. Looking to the future, there is either death or blandness (same thing)—that ditch they're digging, that fearsome excavation, in The Valley. I don't know if anyone ever referred to cocaine as freezing rain, but they used to call it snow. In 1975 it was the drug of choice, safer than milk. I personally was really into Piña Coladas around that time, even though they're way too sweet. This was before the Rupert Holmes song, “Escape” (around the end of that decade) drove a stake through that particular cocktail. If this song got dragged down through the subsequent decades, I feel like you can listen to it again with the right mindset. I never called athletic shoes “sneakers” but much of the population has no problem with the word. The word “bad,” in the early Seventies, meant good, hip, cool. That meaning hasn't really survived, for some reason. Whether “Bad Sneakers” refers positively to shoes a genuine hipster would wear, or pathetically to a loser desperately trying to emulate the good life—well, it could have meant both, and over time meant neither. Songs can age like fine wine or sad human beings, and it's either the best or the worst—and in this case I'm not going to say what I think, because I think maybe it doesn't matter.

—Randy Russell 2.3.19

Current Ranking: No. 28

“Deacon Blues”—last song, side one of Aja (1977)

It's odd how a song I used to hate has become one of my favorite Steely Dan songs, one where, if it comes on, I'll stop what I'm doing and listen to it, and I've even gone as far as to, just after listening to it, move the needle back to the beginning. There's something about the way it all works together, the intro, the changes, the smooth horns, the lyrics, and even the (I believe, intentionally lame) sax solo. I'm guessing when they recorded this song they knew—not only that they hit a home run, but smashed the window of some yuppie's Range Rover over on Kenmore and set off a block of car alarms. My initial revulsion, for one, is that the song is so smooth, so pleasing, that I didn't trust it. I've since come around to music like that (smooth and pleasing). The other thing that bugged me was the lyrics—I had no idea what they meant, but they made me cringe. Again, I've made a turn-around there almost as extreme as Linda Blair's head in The Exorcist (1973). Now I'm going to try to figure out why—but without reading anyones's likely faulty lyrical analysis, or interviews with Becker and Fagen. If you're a journalist lucky enough to interview a recording artist, and you ask them: “What does that song mean, what is that song about?”—expect to get fed a baloney sandwich—and before you serve it back to your readers as a Reuben, think about what you're doing. You're not a journalist, you're a cog, and you're playing right along with their scheming, lying, myth-making games.

I was admittedly unfairly initially put off by this song due to its title, or specifically the “Deacon” part, mostly based on my fear of Catholicism, rooted in ignorance. I thought that a Deacon was like a Bishop, ranking above a Priest, but what I didn't realize is that a Deacon is much more akin to a shit-worker, like myself—which makes it more appropriate for this song. Of course, my confusion was compounded by the collegiate reference—“They call Alabama the Crimson Tide/call me Deacon Blues.” Referring to the University of Alabama sports teams, but more specifically to their legendary football program. I always loved Crimson Tide as a name, because it sounds pretty much like some kind of a plague. I can't stand their football program now, in the era of crybaby coach Nick Saban, but at the time this record came out I believe I was a fan, somewhat—I really used to like their classic, simple uniforms and the cut-off jerseys the fast guys would wear. Okay, then, but how about the Wake Forest Demon Deacons? That name always baffled me—how was it even allowed? Wouldn't that be like calling your team the Satan Saints or something? Anyway, besides the sports references (which I like), the next thing that bugged me was the beginning of the chorus: “Learn to work the saxophone”—work?—no one says that—“work” the saxophone—no! And then, “drink Scotch whiskey all night long”—nobody calls it “Scotch whiskey”—it's either Scotch, or whiskey, but not Scotch whiskey. And “die behind the wheel”—you wish! I guess it took too long for it to occur to me that this character is something of a Walter Mitty—maybe he'll learn to play sax, but never jazz, and he probably can't hold his liquor, and maybe he drove drunk in the Seventies, but not recklessly—he doesn't have a death wish—he's a suburban schmoe with an urban fantasy.

So, why then is this song so compelling? For one, I don't think you can figure it out exactly—there is an inherent ambiguity that I find very attractive. It starts with a great line: “This is the day of the expanding man/That shape is my shade there where I used to stand.” I always thought it was “That shape is my shame”—but looking on the internet for lyrics, I see “shade”—which I like better, actually, but shade kind of works, too—in that I'm not exactly sure what it means either way, but I like it. I also have no idea whatsoever what “expanding man” means—but I like it so much I'm afraid that any kind of explanation would only diminish it. It might just be, of course, about that transformation from one kind of person to another kind of person. Whether that transformation is real or imagined is the big question, and the answer to that might be both and neither. It's interesting that the last verse starts out: “This is the night of the expanding man”—kind of implying, along with the lyrics—ending with “I'll be what I want to be”—that he's pulled it off. In that there almost has to be an autobiographical element—written by a couple of guys who grew up wanting to be jazz musicians—I guess you have to take into account that there's two guys—who, about what songs mean, may not always be in agreement. And then there are versions of those guys in 1971, and 1977, and 2000—it's very possible that what your lyrics mean change over time as you change over time.

But the sonic thing, here, committed to vinyl, is what I'm considering on this last day of 2018, and as I listen closely, trying to figure out why it's so beautiful of an artifact to me—I don't want to break it down musically—I'd rather just enjoy it whole—but I have to say, those background singers really make the song. It also just occurred to me that this could be the opening title music over my favorite (hypothetical) TV show of all time—it's kind of got that way of introducing us to a whole world, very vividly, specifically—though it could be Connecticut or Long Beach or Ohio—through the Hollywood filter. Of course, it would be too sad to abbreviate the song to 45 seconds—but then, I think, no need to make the TV show—which would just end up being a heartbreaking parade of committee enforced compromises—it already is a TV show, an entire episode, and an entire run—and each time you listen to the song, the extent to which it's a new adventure or a rerun, that depends on you.

—Randy Russell 12.30.18

Current Ranking: No. 2

“The Boston Rag”—third song, side one of Countdown to Ecstasy (1973)

It took me a long time to come around to this song, but now it's one of my favorites, just because it's got an austere beauty, both musically and lyrically. But for years I was just put off by the name, not knowing what a “Boston Rag” is—I kind of assumed some kind of jazz slang, though that would imply “ragtime”—which isn't evoked by this song, as far as I can tell. I always love the geographical references in Steely Dan songs, but Boston is one that throws me. I've come to love the city, just because I connect it to many fine people I know personally, but when I was younger I just hated the sports teams and stereotypical crime references in movies, and I'm not even that hot on the food connections. And if “rag” isn't referring to music, it's an unfortunate slang for a publication, or tampon, or just something you use to clean up shit. So it took me awhile, and for like the first 2000 listenings of this song I'd get up and go, “What's this song? Oh, wow.” I mean before the chorus, at which point there's no doubt. It starts with an intro that doesn't much resemble the rest of the song—and I love starting a song that way. Then there's this really strong electric guitar hook that you could sell hamburgers with, it's so catchy. And then it quiets down to a very steady, calm, invisible drum beat and acoustic guitar and bass, adding piano—which besides being, to me, purely compelling, really accentuates the lyrics. After the two verses and choruses, almost all the sound drops out—there's just a repetitive piano thing with some ghostly steel guitar. But that leads into the guitar solo, which sounds like it could come out of any rock band in the late Seventies—though remember, this was just 1973.

“Lonnie was the kingpin, back in 1965.” I love when they have character names in songs, because it puts you right into the noir fiction frame of mind. They probably don't know anyone named Lonnie. Or maybe they do—it's a biker name—but probably not. I've only met one Lonnie in my life, this old guy who ran a resort getaway lake in backwoods Michigan. At first you think, okay, Lonnie's someone to be reckoned with—but actually, not really. Maybe in 1965. But the lyrics are kind of in reverse order—so it's not until the second verse that you find out that “Lonnie swept the playroom, and he swallowed up all he found—it was 48 hours 'til Lonnie came around.” Now you know what “came alive” in the first verse means. “The playroom” not being somewhere toddlers are crawling around, I presume, but rather a party spot with enough loose drugs to create a mini-crisis. “I was out of my mind and you were on the phone.” Even more than Lonnie, I love “Lady Bayside.” She's involved somehow, though we get no more details, really. But just that name! I'm picturing her on a regular weekend night out at the Lobster Box on City Island. Anyway, the chorus then repeats: “Bring back the Boston Rag, tell all your buddies that it ain't no drag”—so many times that you think it must mean something—but I think the joke in this song is that it doesn't mean anything. Which is especially funny because the lyrics could be pointing to it: Lonnie sounds like a Boston guy; any news was good news; even a reference to cleaning (“swept”). Maybe there were funnier lyric writers out there—but no one this dry, and subtly funny.

—Randy Russell 12.23.18

Current Ranking: No. 10

“Sign In Stranger”—fourth song, side one of The Royal Scam (1976)

There is someone out there who, this is their favorite Steely Dan song, and I'd love to talk to them sometime because it would be an odd one—not because it's not really good, but because it's another one you kind of forget, sandwiched in there as it is, and then sounding, first, like an ad for some otherworldly product, and then evolving to an anthemic theme song—or even a final theatrical number. The piano, guitar, and drums, in particular, are allowed to play right through the roof. There are some musicians on this session who went home happy that day—then might have woken in the middle of the night in a cold sweat—maybe it was all a dream. Who gets to do stuff like that? And get, I presume, paid for it? The day the record came out must have been a good one for those guys. I wish each song said who played what—but sometimes, even if it's right there on the album cover, you can't necessarily believe it. Though more so than some random page on the internet. Becker and Fagen could not have known that in the 2000-teens, zombies would be as prevalent in our entertainment culture as large collars and polkadots once were, but they seem to constantly refer to them either literally, descriptively, or as a cocktail. The lyrics are full of references I could try to track down, but I'm not that far gone, yet, and I'm fine with not knowing what the hell most of them refer to—not unlike my attitude when the record came out. Even without knowing the references, you get that feeling of shady characters, once again—this time maybe in a setting that's noirish, futuristic, foreign, and possibly dangerous, and probably French. “Sign In Stranger” would make a great title for a TV show (not so much a movie or a novel) with Eddie Constantine and low-budget effects. I'd watch that show.

—Randy Russell 12.2.18

Current Ranking: No. 26

“Your Gold Teeth II”—second song, side two of Katy Lied (1975)

This is the only Steely Dan song that comes to mind that is presented as a sequel, or has the Roman Numeral “II” in the title—it's another one of their dry, SD jokes, of course. I don't think the song has anything to do with the first “Your Gold Teeth” besides a line of lyrics—but in this case the chorus says: “Throw out your gold teeth/And see how they roll/The answer they reveal/Life is unreal.” If any other band put the line “Life is unreal” at the end of the chorus, I'd insist that it's just lazy, bad lyric writing—because that line means absolutely nothing—it's like saying “the internet is big.” But when it's Steely Dan, you have to look a little further, because they are anything but lazy, in any facet of a song. I'm guessing it's another one of their jokes—which is, in this case, that the words in the song mean nothing. In the second verse, they can't help falling back on their gambling imagery, but it's not specific—and it's not even metaphorical—it ends with the phrase: “the rules are your own, win or lose.” Which means... nothing. Which takes you back to the first verse, some very profound and poetic sounding rhymes that seem like they'd hold up—until you examine them more closely—and they just crumble away like sugar. This is not a failing of the song, though, not at all—it's intentional. It's one of the reasons I love this song so much. It starts off with a little intro that gives you a sense that it's going to be 17 minute prog-rock song, but then effortlessly drops into some cool jazz that feels like it could be the soundtrack for an autobiographical film about the guys playing it. The song zips through the parts with lyrics like it can't wait to get to the heart of matter—a guitar solo, followed by the shortest and best drum solo to date, followed by another guitar solo that's similar but absolutely different from the first one. The guitar solo (or solos) is/are something that at one time I would have breezed right by—or maybe I'd have dismissed as noodling—but listening to it closely, now—it's kind of like discovering the priceless, renowned Emerald hidden deep in the album—naturally, in plain sight.

—Randy Russell 11.18.18

Current Ranking: No. 15

“The Royal Scam”—last song, side two of The Royal Scam (1976)

I bought this record, The Royal Scam, Steely Dan's 5th, the year it came out, 1976, and I don't think I was appalled by the gnarly album cover until many years later. I'm not going to describe it, except to say I had the feeling my eye was drawn, for some reason, to the hole on the bottom of the guy's shoe, and that struck me as particularity disturbing. But then, looking at the back cover, it's just a close-up of part of the image on the front—the part with the bottom of the shoes. So it must have been after I saw the back cover that I became more focused on that part of the front cover. Many things in life are like this. Anyway, it's a great record. Every song is good. The song, “The Royal Scam,” is the last one on the record, and also the longest. It makes me think of a movie, for some reason—maybe it's the horns popping in and out—very cinematic. Also, it's kind of repetitive. There are three verses, no chorus—though each verse ends with: “See the glory of the royal scam.” This very well could be a fairly well known reference that I don't know, but I don't know it, if it is. I have no idea what this song is about. Is it terrible if I say I don't care enough to research it? I mean, I feel like what you need to know should be there, but it sounds like some reference from history involving immigrants coming to New York City. The third verse, however, is very specific, and without knowing the origin of the text it's drawing from, it's impossible to know what it's about. At any rate, what I particularly like about it is how the last line of the song (before repeating the royal scam line three or four times) is the same as the first line: “And they wandered in from the city of St. John without a dime”—which both gives the song a circular feeling and also the feeling that we have just come in on on something that's just going and going endlessly—we're just getting a glimpse of it and then leaving, while it keeps going on without us.

—Randy Russell 11.11.18

Current Ranking: No. 33

“Throw Back the Little Ones”—last song, side two of Katy Lied (1975)

This song has suffered a little bit as far as my affections go simply because it follows a really strong track (“Any World”)—a very daunting task—also, it doesn't sound anything like the kind of song you'd end an album with (as “Any World” does). I was also always a little put off by this song for no other reason than the first line: “Lost in the Barrio, I walk like an Injun”—which, I know, was not as politically incorrect in 1975—and also, I know it's the voice of a character—but still, the last person I recall using that term was John Wayne, who used it a lot—and while John Wayne was a moving part of a lot of really great movies, as an actor, he's just about the opposite of what I like in an actor. The character here finds himself in a Spanish speaking neighborhood in NYC, at odds with someone named “Carlo”—but—and even more so in the next two verses—it's layer upon layer of metaphor—the underworld character using the metaphor of the Old West, and then the hipster writing the song using the metaphor of the underworld character—with a little angler mixed in.

It's a much better song than I previously ever gave it credit for. “So I pawn my crown for a ride uptown, and buy it back tomorrow” is a great line. And, of course, it's hard to argue with the advice: “Throw back the little ones and pan fry the big ones”—I find myself repeating that a lot more than I would have thought possible. There are these smooth horns, I guess horns, very subtle, and a kind of catchy to the point of being annoying what sounds like a synthesizer part at the beginning of each verse, and then a kind of flawlessly smooth guitar solo, followed by some other odd bits, tempo changes, and jazz nerd complexity. Then at the very end it gets really quiet and there's just piano—it's own thing, for less than half a minute—and it sounds like anything but the end of a record—more like the beginning of something, like if it was a TV show theme song (though no TV show has a song that pretty). That just might be another Steely Dan joke—end the record with something that sounds like a beginning. That's the kind of thing that makes me like them so much.

—Randy Russell 11.4.18

Current Ranking: No. 32

“Your Gold Teeth”—last song, side one of Countdown to Ecstasy (1973)

Anyone who knows me knows that I consider 1973, with few exceptions, to be the pinnacle of movie/literary/music/popular culture, and this record—Countdown to Ecstasy (while I'm unable to name my favorite Steely Dan album)—is no exception. This may have been the first Steely Dan record I bought, as it was always available in cut-out bins for like a dollar (cut-out bins, in old record stores, contained poor-selling records that were heavily discounted and usually had a hole punched in the cover, or a corner cut off). It's generally considered not one of SD's best, but it is close to my favorite, on the strength of the six killer songs that are, strangely enough, all but the first and last songs on the record (which I don't like quite as much, but are still good). This song, “Your Gold Teeth,” is over seven minutes long, and not even close to too long, never boring, and ends Side One quite epically. It's another one of their sick, sleazy feeling, underworld, lowlife, gambler/lover short stories with enough odd references to make you think they know something you don't. It's not really a chorus verse structure—each of the first two verses end with the lines: “You throw out your gold teeth / Do you see how they roll?”—musically kind of feeling like you're... just... hitting... a... wall. I don't know how to describe it in musical terms, but it makes me think of a tail-end of a jingle for a parallel universe sit-com called The Hapless Hopeless Hucksters. Then... the song goes into what's more like a bridge than a chorus that sounds almost like a sunny commercial break, but ends with a really simple and great line with an internal rhyme: “Dumb luck my friend, won't suck me in, this time.” Then... when you expect it to go back to a verse, there's an extended electric piano solo, followed by an extended guitar solo, and then it repeats the bridge! Only then does it go back to the verse, at first sounding like it's just going to repeat the first verse, because it repeats the first line of the first verse: “Got a feeling I've been here before”—but then it goes on with a totally new verse, as inexplicable as the rest of them. I have no idea what it's about, ultimately, but there is a very strong reference, in the bridge section, to Cathy Berberian—a singer and fascinating figure from the past—but I'll leave you to look her up to your heart's content.

—Randy Russell 10.11.18

Current ranking: No. 39

“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