Best Donald Fagen songs: Steely Dan Sunday
Whenever Steely Dan goes into recording hiatus — as they’ve done after 1980 and again since 2003 — its lead singer and co-composer Donald Fagen pays mind to his solo career. And what a solo career it’s been: four albums, a few extra singles and a stint leading the nostalgia act New York Rock and Soul Revue. Hardly a blemish can be found within of this entire body of work.
That makes it tough to come up with his five best songs, because any list will leave out plenty of other prime picks. That’s not going to stop us from trying, though. Unapologetic Fagen freaks Preston Frazier, John Lawler and S. Victor Aaron comb through his discography and advance their own fave fives with no overlap among the three lists (well, almost). Check the finalists below and let us know your own favored Fagens.
Want to read more about these songs? Just click on the nested links in the song titles.
5. Madison Time (from New York Rock and Soul Revue’s Live at The Beacon): Fagen’s covers are almost always excellent (except for “Out of The Ghetto” on Sunken Condos), offering fresh arrangements yet retaining the essence of the original. On “Madison Time,” Fagen keeps the classic melody while providing a jazzy and light fingered solo. Cornelius Bumpus on tenor sax makes you wish the song went on a few more bars.
4. Trans Island Skyway: Donald Fagen’s highest charting album, the Grammy-nominated Kamakiriad, has lots to offer Steely Dan fans and audiophiles alike. “Trans Island Skyway” captures most of the albums charms with an infectious bass line played by producer Walter Becker, Christopher Parker’s rock solid drumming and a re-energized Fagen at his best storytelling, sci-fi mode. The song doesn’t try to sound like anything on Aja and that’s a good, bold start.
3. Green Flower Street: Unapologetically nostalgic, “Green Flower Street” has been a concert favorite. The original is driven by Jeff Porcaro’s sophisticated rock backbeat and Chuck Rainey’s innovative and exciting bass part. Producer Gary Katz works his old Steely Dan casting magic, pitting guitarist Rick Derringer and Dean Parks almost against each other on rhythm guitar and using Larry Carlton as the icing on the cake. Funky, soulful and rocking all at once.
2. Brite Nightgown: You would think a song about death wouldn’t swing this hard, not to mention with no bassist or drummer credited. This take of the coming of the fella with the brite nightgown grooves as hard as almost anything Fagen or even Steely Dan has ever done. Credit Fagen’s soulful Ray Charles-like multitracked vocals, a hopping horn arrangement and Wayne Krantz’ freaky guitar part. Death never sounded so good.
1. Good Stuff: Who said only Walter Becker was a great wordsmith in Steely Dan? (Actually I think I did). “Good Stuff” is rock music at its best. A great story of New York-based Jewish gangsters pulling off a job so right. The listener is drawn in almost overlooking Jon Herington’s funky ghost notes, Michael Leonhart’s chunky horn arrangements and deft drumming. Add the Steely Dan choir and you truly have the good stuff.
5. On the Dunes: Waves of instrumental exuberance awash the ears on this lovely number of a lonely man’s wrecked life, revisiting the scene of the crime. On a perfect day and place by the shore and sand, hearts were broken while a soul and very possibly a body wash out to sea. Chris Parker paints the picture brushed on the drum kit.
4. New Frontier: The bouncy optimism of the early 60s and youth of JFK is juxtaposed with the ultimate artifact of the Cold War: the fallout shelter. Here put to good use as a party cabin. Tuesday Welds unite on one of Fagen’s catchiest and tightest numbers.
3. Memorabilia: A collector combs through the atomic trash of South Pacific and finds musical gold. A breezy look back at dropping the big ones on lovely tropical islands, backdropped with wry, jazzy overtones from the paranoid 50s from Fagen’s surprisingly fresh and suddenly relevant post-apocalypso jaunt, Sunken Condos.
2. The Nightfly: Intellectual solace on Planet Pre-Fab is found late at night in the netherworld of jazz and talk radio. Donald lays down righteous chord progressions before emoting a very human and musically dazzling moment in the bridge.
1. The Night Belongs to Mona: Great art knows its strengths and limitations. Donald Fagen writes arguably his most lyrical and poignant tune about a young woman whose bright life has gone dark in apocalyptic post 9-11 New York. Chorus and bridge soar above the city in this hummable ditty. No solos – just the song, ma’am.
S. VICTOR AARON
5. Tomorrow’s Girls: A scratchy riff tailor-made for a Fender Rhodes, a soaring chorus and a creepy organ that recalls space age sounds from the 60s without getting overly cheesy about it are just some of the things so right about this tune. Walter Becker’s lead guitar is nasty good.
4. Green Flower Street: It’s one thing to put Dean Parks, Rick Derringer and Larry Carlton on the same song, it’s quite another to know how to mesh together these massive guitar talents. And then there’s that Chuck Rainey/Jeff Porcaro rhythm section and the wonderfully layered background vocals.
3. Out Of The Ghetto: One of Fagen’s rare covers, and this one is a brilliant Hasidic remake of an Isaac Hayes disco-funk gem pulled from an otherwise forgettable mid-70s album. Donald brings real attitude the vocal part, too.
2. Great Pagoda of Funn: The high point of a uniformly strong Morph The Cat, this is one of those super-sophisticated Steely Dan melodies that take several listens to get underneath it. But once you do, there’s no breaking the spell. The gorgeous bridge harmonies put it over the top.
1. I.G.Y. (What a Beautiful World): For those of you scanning down these lists to find Fagen’s best-known song, your search is finally over. Perhaps the most perfectly crafted pop tune of the 80s, its pristine production still makes it a favorite for Hi-Fi demonstrations.