During an otherwise inconsequential scene from Breaking Bad, methamphetamine entrepreneur Walter White sits around his family’s dining room table and marvels at his son’s lack of jazz-rock knowledge. “All right, got one — Steely Dan,” he says in the 2009 episode, to the teenager’s bewilderment. “In terms of pure musicianship, I would put them up against any current band you could name.”
Two years earlier, in a hilarious sequence from Judd Apatow’s Knocked Up, Seth Rogen’s bumbling stoner offers the following as an insult: “Steely Dan gargles my balls.”
Who’s right? Few bands in rock history are so divisive: obsessively adored by the die-hards, mercilessly mocked by the detractors. Given that split, you might think it’d be hard to underrate Steely Dan — if you dig their complex chord changes and Zamboni-clean production, you’ll probably sing all of their praises. But beyond every “Do It Again,” there’s a dazzling deep cut that rarely pops up in lists or retrospectives.
We did the dirty work for you below — revisiting the most overlooked tune from each Steely Dan LP.
From: Can’t Buy a Thrill (1972)
In the Can’t Buy a Thrill liner notes, Steely Dan clarified that this mid-tempo, piano-heavy cut has “no political significance” — seemingly debunking any assumed connection between King Richard I of England and then-president Richard Nixon. Then again, sarcasm was a second language for Donald Fagen and Walter Becker, so who knows? “Kings” tends to get brushed aside on the band’s debut, dwarfed by the famous trio of hits: “Do It Again,” “Dirty Work” and “Reelin’ in the Years.” But it deserves the spotlight, particularly for Elliott Randall’s dissonant guitar break, a marvel of chromatic darkness and rapid-fire twang.
“King of the World”
From: Countdown to Ecstasy (1973)
Steely Dan valued elite musicianship from day one, but they never really dipped into the prog well. They came closest on Countdown to Ecstasy‘s jittery closer “King of the World,” with guitarists Denny Dias and Jeff “Skunk” Baxter going wild over Fagen’s steady, three-chord electric piano pattern. The song — played live only 24 times (including a trio of 2019 dates) — wraps with a spacey instrumental section dominated by silky synthesizers that could have been piped in from Selling England by the Pound.
“Night by Night”
From: Pretzel Logic (1974)
Quivering brass ushers in one of Steely Dan’s funkiest cuts, anchored by Jeff Porcaro’s tasteful drum groove and David Paich’s staccato clavinet clang. (Two future Toto members — how about that?) Fagen and Becker were starting to evolve from a band into an ever-shifting collective, recruiting whatever players they needed to shape a particular song. “Night by Night” was a pivotal moment in that sense: “Steely Dan were looking for musicians,” Paich told Goldmine in 2015. “Jeff had played on … ‘Parker’s Band’ prior to that with the drummer, Jim Gordon. Jeff said, ‘I know this bass player and keyboard player, David Hungate and David Paich,’ so he brought us in, and we did the song ‘Night by Night’ on that record. That was kind of our audition, and they liked us enough to call us back on the Katy Lied album.”
“Your Gold Teeth II”
From: Katy Lied (1975)
Steely Dan loved jazzy chord progressions and guitar solos, but they hadn’t fully immersed themselves in fusion by Katy Lied — at least not to the extent of their later masterwork, Aja. They did preview that direction, though, on the swinging “Your Gold Teeth II,” a very loose sequel to the Countdown to Ecstasy track. (Both utilize versions of the lyric “throw out your gold teeth and see how they roll.”) Porcaro’s deft playing keeps the engine running, each ride cymbal and snare ghost note captured, naturally, in the most crispest possible detail.
“Sign in Stranger”
From: The Royal Scam (1976)
At first blush, “Sign In Stranger”‘s lyrics just sound like typical mid-’70s Steely Dan sleaze, exploring the seedy lifestyles of criminals and creeps (including, in this case, a fixer like the scar-faced Pepe, who’ll “make your mugshot disappear” — presumably for a steep price). But Fagen later confirmed there’s a sci-fi slant to the song’s many obscure references. “That’s true [that it’s a “school for gangsters”],” he told the Metal Leg fanzine. “Of course, it does take place on another planet. We sort of borrowed the Sin City/Pleasure Planet idea that’s in a lot of science fiction novels and made a song out of it.” The song’s laid-back strut is so solid, Fagen could have sung pure gibberish — guitarist Elliott Randall and pianist Paul Griffin nail every one of their mini-instrumental showcases, responding to Fagen’s lyrics in a point-counterpoint style.
“I Got the News”
From: Aja (1977)
This one’s almost automatic. The three singles (“Deacon Blues,” “Peg” and “Josie”) are all obvious, career-shaping staples. Opener “Black Cow,” famously sampled by Lord Tariq and Peter Gunz for the 1997 hip-hop hit “Deja Vu,” is the band’s 12th-most-played live song. The title track is one of their most ambitious, boasting powerhouse cameos from Wayne Shorter and Steve Gadd. So that leaves two deep cuts, “Home at Last” and “I Got the News,” and we have to select the latter. It’s been played live less times (144 to “Home at Last”‘s 286), and it’s one of the slickest grooves in the catalog, Michael McDonald at his scene-stealing vocal peak and some snappy Victor Feldman piano and vibraphone.
From: Gaucho (1980)
So much of Gaucho is narcotically laid-back, but “Glamour Profession” actually has some energy — if measured and tidy. Steve Gadd’s disco-like backbeat and Becker’s melodic, hyperactive bass keep the groove churning, and Fagen’s milky electric piano is a soothing companion for Rob Mounsey’s acoustic keys. The lyrics are full of reliably rich detail, as Fagen observes scenes of big-city shadiness on basketball courts and Chinese restaurants alike. Yes, the playing is a bit stiff and on-the-nose, with their primitive drum machine technology adding a computerized chill. But it fits here: Just like the 1s and 0s that keep the beat in lockstep, dirty deeds will go on forever.
“Two Against Nature”
From: Two Against Nature (2000)
“There’s a lot of voodoo imagery in that particular song,” Fagen once noted. “We’re kind of elevating ourselves to a heroic position. Our fans are being troubled with demons of aging, insanity, and we’re offering up ourselves as someone who can deal with it — kind of a Ghostbusters theme, if you will, the idea that art can be curative. Listen to this, maybe it will cheer you up.” Still, the title track of Steely Dan’s Grammy-winning 2000 comeback LP is most memorable for its 6/8 groove, a funky blues workout layered with saxophone, clarinet, timbales, congas, vibraphone and swelling horn sections.
From: Everything Must Go (2003)
Of course Steely Dan would write a song about virtual-reality porn. “We imagine a pornography beyond online pornography — a pornography involving some sort of magical remote viewing,” Becker said in 2003. But the groove glides by so gracefully, evoking the eternal chill of “Black Cow,” that you hardly notice all the kooky lyrics about assembling a dream lover from scrap parts (“The torso rocks and the eyes are keepers / Now where’d we sample those legs?”).