“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