Steely Dan were one of the major album artists of the 1970s, releasing a string of quality records that blurred the lines between rock and jazz. They started the decade as a self-contained rock band, and ended as the duo of Donald Fagen and Walter Becker, supported by a revolving cast of session musicians. Their dark humour skewered 1970s American culture, but their elegant arrangements ensured that Steely Dan enjoyed commercial success.
Becker and Fagen went their separate ways after 1980’s Gaucho, but reunited in the 1990s, releasing two further albums in the 21st century, including Two Against Nature, which famously beat Eminem and Radiohead for 2001’s Album of the Year Grammy. But all of my favourite five Steely Dan albums come from the band’s initial tenure. More than most lists on this site, a Steely Dan Favourite Five feels arbitrary – all seven albums the band released between 1972 and 1980 are very good, and preference probably depends on style as much as on perceived quality.
Five Favourite Steely Dan Albums
#5 – Can’t Buy A Thrill
Steely Dan’s debut is their most normal album – Fagen shares lead vocals with David Palmer and drummer Jim Hodder, who bring a more mainstream flavour to the album, while they’re mostly delivering precise, mainstream pop-rock at this point. But they’re already delivering a confident set of songs, spear-headed by radio hits like ‘Reeling In The Years’ and ‘Do It Again’.
#4 – Countdown to Ecstasy
It’s only one spot higher on this list, but Steely Dan’s sophomore album is a big step forward from their debut, towards the more familiar Steely Dan hallmarks – a darker sound, Fagen taking all the lead vocals, and more cynical lyrics. It didn’t produce any hit singles, but it’s a more consistent set. ‘Show Biz Kids’ was later sampled by Super Furry Animals for ‘The Man Don’t Give A Fuck’, while the most tender song on the album, ‘Pearl of the Quarter’, turns out to be a love song to a prostitute.
#3 – Pretzel Logic
Steely Dan started bringing in more session musicians for their third album, including drummer Jim Gordon. There’s more jazz influence than ever before, like ‘Parker’s Band’ and the cover of Duke Ellington’s ‘East St. Louis Toodle-Oo’. The hit was ‘Rikki, Don’t Lose That Number’, but there are other great songs like the jazzy groove of ‘Night By Night’, the pretty ‘Any Major Dude Will Tell You’, and the bluesy title track. Pretzel Logic is stylistically my favourite Steely Dan album, although it’s marred by throwaways like ‘With A Gun’ and ‘Through With Buzz’.
#2 – The Royal Scam
The dark lyrics and jazzy sound make The Royal Scam perhaps Steely Dan’s most representative work, and ace musicians like guitarist Larry Carlton and drummer Bernard Purdie shine. Carlton’s solo on ‘Kid Charlemagne’ stands out in a catalogue with many great guitar solos. ‘Everything You Did’ is perhaps the darkest lyric in Steely Dan’s catalogue, portraying the revenage of a cuckolded husband.
#1 – Aja
Aja is a culmination of the peak that Steely Dan were working towards, its smooth, warm sound a favourite of audiophiles. Compared to Steely Dan’s usual cynicism, the songs are remarkably warm – songs like ‘Peg’ and ‘Josie’ are upbeat and joyful, while ‘Deacon Blues’ is a fan favourite.
Donald Fagen’s first solo album, The Nightfly, is essentially a continuation of the excellence of Steely Dan’s first decade, although it has a warmer feel. One of my favourite discoveries from working through the Steely Dan discography is the title track from 1980’s ‘Gaucho’.
Do you have a favourite Steely Dan album? Did I unfairly neglect Katy Lied? Are you a fan of Two Against Nature?