Steely Dan Albums: Ranked from Worst to Best

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. Steely Dan’s dark humor skewered 1970s American culture, but their elegant arrangements ensured that they 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. Two Against Nature infamously beat Eminem and Radiohead for 2001’s Album of the Year Grammy. Steely Dan’s 21st-century records are enjoyable, but their best work came in the 1970s. Donald Fagen’s first solo album, 1982’s The Nightfly, is also excellent and would rank highly on this list if it was eligible.

Steely Dan Albums Ranked from Worst to Best

#9 – Everything Must Go

2003
Everything Must Go was recorded with a surprisingly small core of musicians by Steely Dan standards – Becker and drummer Keith Carlock are the rhythm section on every track. Steely Dan’s final album retreads the group’s well-worn jazz-rock territory, although the Walter Becker lead vocal on ‘Slang of Ages’ is a first for a Steely Dan studio album. Even on Steely Dan’s least impressive album, there are impressive moments – notably a great Becker bass-line on ‘Godwhacker’ and a memorable chorus of ‘Things I Miss The Most’.


#8 – Two Against Nature

2000
Steely Dan’s reunion album infamously beat out Radiohead, Beck, and Eminem for the 2001 Album of the Year Grammy. It’s not album of the year material, but it’s a very competent return to the studio from Becker and Fagen that picks up where Gaucho left off. The sleazy ‘Cousin Dupree’, Fagen’s terrific keyboard riff on ‘Jack of Speed’, and the opening ‘Gaslighting Abbie’ are all excellent additions to the Steely Dan canon.


#7 – Gaucho

1980
The sessions for Steely Dan’s final album of their initial tenure was beset by drama. Becker’s girlfriend died of a drug overdose in his apartment and he broke his leg in a traffic accident, while an engineer accidentally deleted a song named ‘The Second Arrangement’. Gaucho is more lethargic than Steely Dan’s previous records, but the singles were well-received – the Purdie-shuffle of ‘Babylon Sisters’ and the soft-rock of ‘Hey Nineteen’. Becker and Fagen had to pay royalties to jazz pianist Keith Jarrett for the similarities of the title track to Jarrett’s ‘Long As You Know You’re Living Yours’, but it’s one of their best songs.


#6 – Katy Lied

1975
Steely Dan essentially ceased to function as a conventional band with their fourth album as Becker and Fagen surrounded themselves with studio musicians. 20-year-old drummer Jeff Porcaro and background vocalist Michael McDonald are featured on a Steely Dan record for the first time, joining frequently utilised studio musicians like Chuck Rainey and Michael Omartian. ‘Doctor Wu’ and ‘Black Friday’ are up with Steely Dan’s best songs, and McDonald’s distinctive voice lifts Any World (That I’m Welcome To)’, but Katy Lied features Steely Dan’s least consistent set of songs of the 1970s. Fagen and Becker refused to listen to the finished product after issues with the noise reduction technology.


#5 – Can’t Buy A Thrill

steely-dan-cant-buy-a-thrill

1972
Steely Dan’s debut is their most conventional record – Fagen shares lead vocals with David Palmer, while drummer Jim Hodder sings ‘Midnite Cruiser’. The jazz influences aren’t as apparent as they would be later – Can’t Buy A Thrill is well-crafted pop-rock. But Becker and Fagen are already excellent songwriters, exemplified on the radio hits ‘Reeling In The Years’ (with a snappy solo from session player Elliott Randall) and ‘Do It Again’. Palmer’s sweet vocals are effective on ‘Dirty Work’- he’d go on to write ‘Jazzman’ with Carole King.


#4 – Countdown to Ecstasy

steely-dan-countdown-to-ecstasy

1973
It’s only one spot higher on this list, but Steely Dan’s sophomore album is a big step forward from their debut. It features more familiar Steely Dan hallmarks – a darker sound, Fagen taking all the lead vocals, and more cynical lyrics. Countdown to Ecstasy didn’t produce any hits – perhaps because the first single is loaded with f-bombs and ‘My Old School’ recalls Becker and Fagen’s drug bust – but it’s a consistent set. ‘Show Biz Kids’ was later sampled by Super Furry Animals for ‘The Man Don’t Give A F***’, 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-pretzel-logic

1974
Steely Dan started using more session musicians for their third album, notably drummer Jim Gordon. Their jazz influences are more overt than before, with ‘Parker’s Band’ and their cover of Duke Ellington’s ‘East St. Louis Toodle-Oo’. The hit was ‘Rikki, Don’t Lose That Number’, but Pretzel Logic also features the jazzy groove of ‘Night By Night’, the pretty ‘Any Major Dude Will Tell You’, and the bluesy title track.


#2 – The Royal Scam

steely-dan-the-royal-scam

1976
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-steely-dan

1977
Aja is the peak that Steely Dan were working towards, its smooth, warm sound loved by 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. The deep cuts are great too – the sophisticated textures of the jazzy title cut and the kiss-off of ‘Black Cow’ are both great Dan cuts.


Do you have a favourite Steely Dan album? Did I underrate Katy Lied?

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34 Comments

  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.

  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?😀

    • If you look at the rankings on RYM, they actually have Can’t Buy A Thrill second behind Aja. It’s a very assured debut, I just like it better when Fagen sings.

      • 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!

        • 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.

  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.

    • I don’t know why I didn’t connect to Katy Lied as much – ‘Black Friday’ and ‘Doctor Wu’ are both in my top ten Steely Dan songs, and I like ‘Chain Lightning’ a lot too. With such a great catalogue, five albums means something good is going to miss out.

  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).

  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.

    • 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.

  6. It also occurs to me that I have been remiss in reviewing but one Steely Dan album. When I deeply love an artist I think I find it harder to write.

    • 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.

  7. 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.

  8. Take out Can’t Buy A Thrill and put either Katy Lied or Gaucho. 🙂

    • 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).

  9. 5. Gaucho
    4. Two vs Nature
    3. Aja
    2. Royal scam
    1. Countdown to Ecstasy

    First Runner Up : Kamakiriad. A Dan album in all but name

  10. Su much good music (We’ve been down this road before). I need to give their last recording some time but those first albums are so good!

  11. I know their singles more than albums. The two I know are at the opposite ends… Aja and Gaucho. It was amazing to me the time they put into albums…but it paid off.

    • It’s amazing how precise they were given that they were basically cranking out an album a year. I figured you’d be all over the early stuff like Can’t Buy A Thrill.

      • I just haven’t been exposed to it like others. I do think I would like the earlier music. I am crazy about Dirty Work…I’ll get it.

  12. You anticipated my chief reaction! Yes, I think Katy Lied should be much higher. It’s number one on my list, since I don’t feel it has one bad song, musically or lyrically. I think it’s underrated because each Dan album had at least one radio-friendly song, and the “friendliest” songs on KL were “Dr. Wu” and “Black Friday”…superb tunes, but less catchy/commercial than earlier album cuts. Also, Becker’s and Fagen’s dismissal of KL due to the sound quality screw-up probably influenced a lot of listeners, even though its artistry is undeniable. Alternately, I think Aja is overrated. Too L.A. slick, and tails off toward the end of the album. But…most music artists would die to be able to make something like Aja!

  13. The 1001 list agrees with you about the merits of your 1,3,4,5 – I’m now keen to hear The Royal Scam!

  14. I actually like the later albums over the earlier ones…I think 2 Against Nature has to go in the Top 5, also agree with the comment about the Fagen solo records should be included in the list. Mine would be:

    1 – Gaucho
    2 – Royal Scam
    3 – Nightfly
    4 – 2 Against Nature
    5 – Katy Lied
    6 – Aja
    7 – Pretzel Logic
    8 – Kamirkrad
    9 – Everything Must Go
    10 – Countdown to Esctacy

    The debut is too singer-songwriter for my taste

  15. All I have here are two different Hits sets, so I will take this list as reliable when it comes to the studio albums!

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