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 humour 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. Becker passed away in 2017 – Fagen has continued to tour as Steely Dan, but it seems safe to assume that their studio catalogue is complete.
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
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 enduring moments – a terrific Becker bassline on ‘Godwhacker’ and the memorable chorus of ‘Things I Miss The Most’.
#8 Two Against Nature
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; more like an apology from the US Recording Academy for failing to properly honour their 1970s prime. Regardless, it’s a 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 Dan canon.
The sessions for Steely Dan’s final album of their initial tenure were beset by drama. Becker’s girlfriend died of a drug overdose in his apartment, while he broke his leg in a traffic accident. 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
Steely Dan essentially ceased to function as a conventional band with their fourth album; instead, 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’s debut is their most normal 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
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 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. It is a little less consistent at the end – in particular, ‘With A Gun’ drags the ranking down a little.
#2 The Royal Scam
The dark lyrics and jazzy sound make The Royal Scam Steely Dan’s most representative work. Ace musicians like guitarist Larry Carlton and drummer Bernard Purdie shine. Carlton’s spotlight 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.
Aja is the peak that Steely Dan were working toward; its smooth, warm sound is beloved by audiophiles. Compared to Steely Dan’s usual cynicism, Aja is remarkably warm. Songs like ‘Peg’ and ‘Josie’ are upbeat and joyful, while the underdog celebration of ‘Deacon Blues’ is a fan favourite. The deep cuts are great too – the sophisticated textures of the jazzy title track 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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Aphoristic Album Reviews is almost entirely written by one person.
Graham Fyfe is probably the only music blogger to appreciate both Neil Diamond and Ariana Grande. Based in Fleet Street (New Zealand), he's been writing this blog since around 2000. Aphoristic Album Reviews features reviews and blog posts across a growing spectrum of popular music.
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