The 5 Biggest Hits by Steely Dan

We tend to think of Steely Dan as a sophisticated band that played cerebral music, and that’s certainly true. But that didn’t preclude them from being a force on the pop charts in their heyday. Ten Top-40 singles in about a decade’s work (before their long recording hiatus) is nothing to sneeze at.

Videos by American Songwriter

But what Steely Dan tracks did the best on the charts? Prepare to take a trip back down memory lane with the most popular songs from Donald Fagen, Walter Becker, and their rotating cadre of studio aces.

5. “Reelin’ in the Years” (No. 11 in 1973)

Here’s an early track that showed how Fagen and Becker could get you hooked in multiple ways. Note how the music kind of stays out of the way in the vocal parts so Fagen can tell his acerbic story. The narrator gets in some pretty good one-liners at the expense of his ex (The weekend at the college didn’t turn out like you planned), but we can tell it’s mostly sour grapes because she’s left him behind. Once that’s out of the way, the music takes off, especially when Elliott Randall grabs center stage and delivers a guitar solo for the ages.

4. “Peg” (No. 11 in 1977)

In typical Fagen and Becker fashion, they went through several guitarists before they found the guy for the solo on this chipper number. Jay Graydon received the honor and knocked his part right out of the park. Other key contributors here are Paul Griffin, whose keyboards provide surprising colors throughout, and Michael McDonald, who comes in on the refrains and almost overwhelms Fagen’s lead with his soaring vocals. There are so many interesting little things going on here that repeat listens keep unearthing new wonders.

3. “Hey Nineteen” (No. 10 in 1980)

This is a case of Steely Dan being able to slip a somewhat quirky story into the higher reaches of the charts. A dude whose best days seem to be behind him (or at least he thinks they are) is surprised to find a young girl showing interest. But all she seems to do is remind of how much mileage there is on him, leaving him to try to erase his pain by getting toasted. On paper, that doesn’t sound like your typical hit single, right? But that slinky groove and Fagen’s synthesizer work, which sounds like a hyped-up harmonica, makes it all go down smoothly.

2. “Do It Again” (No. 6 in 1972)

Steely Dan’s breakthrough single doesn’t really sound much like it fits the jazz-rock label that would hang on them in years to come. Instead, it cops a subtly Latin groove that forms the bedrock both for Fagen’s vocal exhortations and all the instrumental embellishments. The latter group includes Denny Dias on electric sitar and Fagen on a chintzy-sounding organ. As for the lyrics, they’re not all that different from the outlaw rock that bands like the Eagles were utilizing. Knowing the sly nature of Fagen and Becker, maybe they were even parodying that style.

1. “Rikki Don’t Lose that Number” (No. 4 in 1974)

The Dan’s biggest hit is also one of their most unironic tracks, which is perhaps why Fagen has never sounded all that fond of it when asked about it in interviews. But if you can forgive this band that’s usually somewhat askew for playing it straight, you’ll be able to enjoy a piercing ballad. The narrator doesn’t want to sound needy, but some of the hurt and disappointment he’s feeling eventually peek through as Rikki slips through his fingers and out of his life. All of that unspoken anguish comes pouring out in the masterful guitar solo by Jeff “Skunk” Baxter.

When you purchase through links on our site, we may earn an affiliate commission.

Photo by Scott Gries/Getty Images

Leave a Reply

Behind the Album: Bob Dylan Finds His Religion on ‘Slow Train Coming’

Ranking the 5 Best Songs on ‘Stranger in Town’ by Bob Seger & the Silver Bullet Band