(Pictured: Donald Fagen, whose enormous eyeglasses date this photo to the late 80s.)
When Donald Fagen released The Nightfly in the fall of 1982, it seemed to fit on the continuum with Steely Dan’s Aja and Gaucho, with the same producer and a lot of the same musicians. But the album actually revealed itself to be something far different. It’s warmer—the songs welcome you into their world rather than holding you at a distance from it. It’s more personal: in the liner notes, Fagen wrote, “The songs on this album represent certain fantasies that might have been entertained by a young man growing up in the remote suburbs of a northeastern city during the late fifties and early sixties, i.e., one of my general height, weight and build.” And The Nightfly has an easy, casual swing missing from Aja and Gaucho.
Listen to the whole thing here while I rank the songs.
8. “Green Flower Street.” This is a perfectly fine song in this spot because something has to rank at the bottom.
7. “Ruby Baby.” As one of the Dukes of September, Fagen has performed lots of covers, many quite surprising. This and Duke Ellington’s “East St. Louis Toodle-oo” on Pretzel Logic are the only covers he or Steely Dan ever put on an official release. (Late edit: if you want to count the bonus tracks on the reissue of Morph the Cat, there are others. I can go either way.)
6. “The Nightfly.” Fagen has written that as a boy, he was transfixed by New York radio personality Jean Shepherd, and “The Nightfly” indicates how much time young Don spent listening to late-night radio and/or imagining himself on it.
5. “I.G.Y.” This is Fagen’s lone Top 40 hit, which hit #26 on November 27, 1982, and stayed there for three weeks. It lasted 14 weeks on the Hot 100 in all. When I started thinking about ranking these tracks, I was sure “I.G.Y.” would be close to the top, but as I listened to the album I kept hearing songs that are better.
4. “Maxine.” In which a young couple struggles to remain together long enough to reach the bright future they imagine for themselves. Apparently, happily ever after isn’t as easy as it looks.
3. “The Goodbye Look.” This breezy Caribbean idyll hides a darker tale: an American tourist on holiday decides to hire a boat and get off the island rather than attending “a small reception just for me” at which there will clearly be trouble. There’s no credit for a marimba player; that sound comes from a synthesizer in the hands of veteran player Greg Phillinganes.
2. “New Frontier.” The setting: a party in a home-built fallout shelter circa 1961. One of the young partygoers tries to impress a girl with his hip bona-fides (name-dropping Tuesday Weld, the limbo, and Dave Brubeck), but he can’t hide that his sophisticated pretense is intended solely to get over on her: “Let’s pretend that it’s the real thing / And stay together all night long . . . Prepare to meet the challenge of the new frontier.” “New Frontier” is Fagen’s deepest groove ever, thanks to pianist Michael Omartian, bassist Marcus Miller, lead guitarist Larry Carlton, , and drummer Ed Greene.
1. “Walk Between Raindrops.” A song uncharacteristic of the Donald Fagen we thought we knew in ’82. Its bright-n-bubbly organ puts a listener in mind of Walter Wanderley, or Jimmy McGriff with his lightest touch. The song is pure Tin Pan Alley, quite a switch coming from the writer of so many songs about shady characters with dark motives. And when the band members chime in together with “ohhhh, Miami!,” Fagen puts his pop-music heart right out on his sleeve.
Not ranked on this list are three songs that appeared on the super-deluxe 2007 reissue of The Nightfly: Fagen’s two movie soundtrack contributions, “True Companion” and “Century’s End” (recorded for Heavy Metal and Bright Lights Big City respectively) and a live version of “Green Flower Street” from Live at the Beacon, the 1991 album by Fagen’s all-star New York Rock and Soul Revue. “True Companion” (1981) doesn’t do much for five minutes, although fans of the Steely Dan vibe might find those five very pleasant minutes nevertheless. “Century’s End” (1988) has more going on, although it’s a better sonic fit with Fagen’s 1993 album Kamakiriad.
Fagen has released two other solo albums besides The Nightfly and Kamakiriad: Morph the Cat (2006) and Sunken Condos (2012). All are worth your time . . . but The Nightfly is the best of the bunch.