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Steely Dan: Five Best Albums

Steely Dan were 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 my favourite five Steely Dan albums are all drawn from the band’s initial tenure.

Five Best 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 using more session musicians for their third album, notably drummer Jim Gordon. There’s more of a jazz influence than ever before, with the most obvious examples ‘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.

#2 – The Royal Scam


The dark lyrics and jazzy sound make The Royal Scam 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 oeuvre, portraying the revenge 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.

Further Listening

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?

Read More:
– Steely Dan album reviews
– Five of the best lists

22 thoughts on “Steely Dan: Five Best Albums Leave a comment

  1. Yes, you did unfairly neglect “Katy Lied” but that’s part of the fun of hearing other people’s take on things. A good list except I would take of “Scam” insert “Katy” and shuffle the deck a little. Do totally agree with you on “Kid Charlemagne” though, terrific Carlton solo and great song but overall not my fave in their catalog.

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  2. I totally dig Steely Dan, though except for my undisputed no. 1 “Aja”, I would be hard-pressed to rank my other top 5 albums.

    I also really like their debut, mainly because of “Do It Again”, “Dirty Work” and “Reelin’ In The Years”, so this one would be higher up on my list; in fact, I may place it at no. 2.

    Strangely, “Two Against Nature” and “Aja” are the only Steely Dan albums I have on CD, yet I currently cannot recall one track from the first one – so much for leaving a lasting impression! Or is it brain cell loss due to listening to too much music too loud?😀

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      • I definitely like Fagen’s voice as well.

        In fact, I’m weighing to go to Steely Dan, who will be in my neck of the woods together with the Doobie Brothers in July. It just pains me that Walter Becker is no longer part of the mix. But, unfortunately, I’ve never seen them, so either accepting that or never going to a Steely Dan show at all!

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        • I guess they’ll pretty much sound like Steely Dan without Becker, so I can understand touring even if it’s a little weird. I’d be weirded out if Fagen makes an album as Steely Dan though.

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  3. I could mostly live with your rankings but yeah, if there’s five, ‘Katy Lied’ is in there in place of ‘Royal Scam. Coincidentally I am going to see a Dan tribute band in a few months. They are playing two nights. Night one they’re playing ‘Aja’ and ‘Royal Scam,’ night two they’re playing ‘Aja’ and ‘Katy Lied.’ I chose night two.

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  4. I’ve yet to get around to Steely Dan. I have Aja sitting waiting to be listened to, but that’s it – again, this is a helpful guide (I’ve also added Katy Lied to the list).

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Hard to argue with it being one of the finest, most consistent catalogues in rock. (So why just 5? the annoying part of me asks).
    I notice that your selection is in chronological order – no accident that. How many other bands got better and better with each release? (or took longer and longer between them?!!).
    Anyway, I’d rank the seven original albums in almost chronological order with Gaucho and Aja swapping, and Royal and Katy swapping.
    If forced (with a gun) to include the reformation albums, I’d probably put Two Against Nature between Countdown and Thrill, Everything Must Go at 9. I really like Alive in America too, but I guess that’s a different category.

    I have been fortunate enough to see the Dan three times. The last was with Steve Winwood as the opening act (imagine that!). For the Dan encore, they wheeled Steve’s Hammond B3 out again and he sang ‘Pretzel Logic’. It was sublime.

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    • Favourite Five is a catchy and alliterative title. But could have done a favourite 8 and included The Nightfly too. They pretty much did an album a year until Gaucho, right? And that one had a lot of issues, as you probably know.

      Steely Dan with Steve Winwood sounds awesome.

      Liked by 1 person

    • They’re pretty amazingly consistent. In quantitative terms I gave all their first seven albums at least a 7.5/10, and most were at least an 8.5. It’s kind of hard to check, but I don’t think I’ve scored many bands that high consistently.

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  6. Yes, a tough one as regards leaving some out, but I agree Katy Lied has to be sacrificed. I would find room for Gaucho, possibly at the expense of The Royal Scam, although that would leave me short of my favourite SD solo, which comes in Don’t Take Me Alive, not in the middle, not at the end, but at the start. That caught me out a few times in my stoner heyday as I settled down to wait for it, forgetting it had already happened.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Yup, there’s definitely an argument for that, so you don’t need to listen to David Palmer (although coincidentally I’m listening to David Palmer written songs right now, on Carole King’s Wrap Around Joy).


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