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Steely Dan: 10 Essential Songs

In honor of the late Walter Becker, we look back at some of the sly jazz-rockers’ best

“It wouldn’t bother me at all,” Steely Dan‘s Walter Becker told Rolling Stone‘s Cameron Crowe in 1977, “not to play on my own album.” He was stating a fact – Steely Dan famously staffed their sessions with the finest studio musicians they could find – but he was also summing up the weird oblique approach to rock-stardom shared by him and his longtime songwriting partner Donald Fagen. From their earliest days as jazz-loving Bard College hipsters to their heyday as wry sophisto-pop aesthetes, the pair were always the strangest kind of hitmakers, cramming their tunes full of as many brainy chords, obscure references and off-color characterizations as possible. Yet, against all odds, they still carved out their own proud niche in the classic-rock canon. Following the sad news of Becker’s passing at age 67, we round up some of the pair’s most memorable oddball anthems.

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“Hey Nineteen” (1980)

Gaucho is essentially a concept record about staying too long at the fair, and this track is its skeevy centerpiece. Steely Dan protagonists don’t come much more hilariously pathetic than the aging dude from this leisurely funk tune, who’s putting the moves on a 19-year-old. He brags about his frat exploits and tries to set the mood with some Aretha, only to find that his companion “don’t remember the Queen of Soul.” The song builds to perhaps the ultimate yacht-rock refrain, which many singing it back to the band live don’t seem to realize is pure satire: “The Cuervo Gold/The fine Colombian/Make tonight a wonderful thing.”

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“Cousin Dupree” (2000)

Becker and Fagen may have been all grown up when they returned with their multi-Grammy-winning 2000 comeback album, Two Against Nature, but they still couldn’t keep their minds out of the gutter. Case in point: this tale of a deadbeat dude’s futile attempts to seduce his younger cousin. As always, their portrayal of misguided middle-age lust was creepily spot-on: “Honey how you’ve grown/Like a rose/Well, we used to play/When we were three/How about a kiss for your cousin Dupree?” The song would later lead to a bizarre flap with Owen Wilson, when the pair claimed – facetiously or not, it was hard to say – that the premise for his 2006 movie You, Me and Dupree was lifted from the tune.

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