Once upon a time, Steely Dan were hipsters. As frontman Donald Fagen explained in his 2013 book, Eminent Hipsters, he and Steely Dan co-founder Walter Becker grew up as aficionados of pre-rock ’n roll cool, studying jazz and Beat Generation writers. During the band’s original 1970s run, they were fixtures in the Village Voice critics’ polls even as their music gradually became smoother, slicker, and more popular. “We were kind of on the cusp of the counterculture and whatever happened afterwards,” Fagen told SPIN in a recent interview about the band’s new live album, Northeast Corridor.
Over the past half-century, Steely Dan have been heroes and villains in equal measure — subversive iconoclasts to some, banal elevator music hacks to others. Even as they’ve played the role of establishment heels who robbed Eminem of a Grammy, Steely Dan have continued to influence multiple generations of indie and alternative rock bands like Wilco or The Minutemen, who occasionally attempt their own rendition of Fagen and Becker’s harmonically complex songs. In the spirit of our previous list of punk tributes to Bob Dylan, here are the top 10 indie and alternative Steely Dan covers.
10. Wilco – “Any Major Dude Will Tell You”
A few months after Steely Dan released their Grammy-winning 2000 comeback album, Two Against Nature, the band received an unexpected tribute from lowbrow comedy filmmakers Peter and Bobby Farrelly. For Jim Carrey’s big summer comedy Me, Myself & Irene, the Farrellys commissioned 8 modern rock acts to fill half of the soundtrack album with Steely Dan covers. Some of the covers aren’t the most flattering time capsule of the turn of the millennium, like Smash Mouth turning “Do It Again” into, well, a Smash Mouth song. But Jay Bennett-era Wilco, fresh off of making Summerteeth, ease beautifully into a standout from 1974’s Pretzel Logic.
9. Feed Me Jack – “Reelin’ in the Years”
On their 2015 Covers EP, the Santa Cruz math rock sextet Feed Me Jack put their own spin on songs by the Beatles, Weezer, and Steely Dan. Instead of leaning into the propulsive swing that made the original “Reelin’ in the Years” a hit, Feed Me Jack makes the song a little slower and gentler before bursting into a playful start-stop bridge.
8. Nash Kato – “Dirty Work”
Urge Overkill frontman Nathan “Nash Kato” Kaatrud is no stranger to recreating AM Gold, since a Neil Diamond cover became his band’s biggest hit. But on the 2007 compilation Maestros of Cool – A Tribute to Steely Dan, Nash Kato went the extra mile to nail every little instrumental nuance of “Dirty Work” from the 1972 debut, Can’t Buy a Thrill.
7. Vulfpeck – “Kid Charlemagne”
Michigan indie-funk quartet Vulfpeck pattern themselves after the kinds of pro R&B session musicians that Steely Dan frequently hired to play on their albums. So when Vulfpeck covered the band, they aptly chose arguably the funkiest cut from the funkiest Steely Dan album, the Royal Scam single “Kid Charlemagne,” with two guitarists harmonizing on a recreation of Larry Carlton’s iconic solo. In 2016, the drummer from the original “Kid Charlemagne” and many other Steely Dan classics, Bernard Purdie, joined Vulfpeck onstage at the Brooklyn Bowl to play the song.
6. Joe Jackson – “King of the World”
Perhaps it’s no surprise that someone like British singer/songwriter Joe Jackson — whose work includes both anthemic pop hits and jazzy experimentation — is a big enough fan to have covered multiple Steely Dan songs, including an excellent 2019 studio recording of “Night By Night.” But even better is his take on “King of the World” on 2000’s Summer In The City: Live in New York, which captures the apocalyptic foreboding of Countdown to Ecstasy’s epic closing track while putting a slight twist on the percussion arrangement.
5. Mountain Goats – “FM”
Few musicians can expound on the genius of Steely Dan with more insight than Mountain Goats singer/songwriter John Darnielle, who wrote a column in tribute to Walter Becker for Entertainment Weekly after Becker’s death in 2017. But Darnielle’s lo-fi early work — often recorded straight to the cassette deck of a boombox — is almost a perfect opposite of Steely Dan’s expensive studio perfectionism. The cover of Steely Dan’s hit title song for 1978 film FM on the Mountain Goats’ 1995 album, Sweden, plays with this tension beautifully, adding lots of tape hiss to the song’s “no static at all” refrain.
4. Bill Callahan and Bonnie “Prince” Billie feat. Bill MacKay – “Deacon Blues”
In 2020, Smog’s Bill Callahan and Will Oldham (a.k.a. Bonnie “Prince” Billie) got together for a series of covers with different collaborators — mostly songs from the 1970s by the likes of Robert Wyatt, Little Feat, and Jerry Jeff Walker. One of those covers was of “Deacon Blues,” the melancholy hit from Steely Dan’s 1977 magnum opus, Aja. Nobody works the saxophone on Callahan’s gently sung rendition of “Deacon Blues,” but the song glides on a lush bed of acoustic and electric guitars, including a beautiful closing solo by Chicago-based guitarist Bill MacKay.
3. Ben Folds Five – “Barrytown”
A year after Ben Folds Five included some smooth Steely Dan-esque jams like “Jane” on their 1999 album, The Unauthorized Biography of Reinhold Messner, they covered Pretzel Logic deep cut “Barrytown” for the Me, Myself & Irene soundtrack. It turned out to be the last recording from the band’s original run, however. Ben Folds Five announced their breakup just a couple of months after performing “Barrytown” on The Late Show with David Letterman, one of their last performances before reuniting 8 years later.
2. The Minutemen – “Doctor Wu”
The Minutemen’s Double Nickels on the Dime is one of the greatest punk albums of the ‘80s, in part because the San Pedro trio were less bashful than their contemporaries about embracing their classic rock influences. The sprawling 1984 double LP was the only punk album featuring covers of Steely Dan alongside Van Halen and Creedence Clearwater Revival. Like the other covers, The Minutemen’s version of “Doctor Wu” shrinks the song into less than half of its original length, with D. Boon and Mike Watt sharing lead vocals. But even in the song’s compressed 100-second form, D. Boon still managed to cram in a killer guitar solo.
1. Tori Amos – “Do It Again”
Tori Amos covered a number of cantankerous boomers like Tom Waits and Neil Young on her 2001 album, Strange Little Girls, but she’d already covered Steely Dan years earlier. Amos’s 1998 cover of “Do It Again,” released on the B-side of her biggest Hot 100 hit, “Spark,” is as startling a reinvention of the song as her “Smells Like Teen Spirit” cover was. Slowing the song down to an ominously thumping trip-hop groove, Amos’s “Do It Again” highlights the greed, lust, and violence in the lyrics that sounded so disarmingly breezy in Steely Dan’s 1972 breakthrough single.
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