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 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

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 enduring moments – a terrific Becker bassline on ‘Godwhacker’ and the 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; 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.


#7 Gaucho

1980
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

1975
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.


steely-dan-cant-buy-a-thrill

#5 Can’t Buy A Thrill

1972
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.


steely-dan-countdown-to-ecstasy

#4 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.


steely-dan-pretzel-logic

#3 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. It is a little less consistent at the end – in particular, ‘With A Gun’ drags the ranking down a little.


steely-dan-the-royal-scam

#2 The Royal Scam

1976
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-steely-dan

#1 Aja

1977
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?

What Is Your Favourite Steely Dan Album?
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51 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?😀

      • 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.

      • Call me an old Dan head but their first three albums are the best – headed by “Countdown…
        AJA is the pinnacle of giving in to commercialism – it is definitely superb musicianship but a complete departure from the real magic of SD – the hot 3 minute gems that just blaze with fire – Bodishavta.
        Sadly, Fagen is touring as Steely Dan, but the worst part is the promo photo – him and Walter. I would bet the majority of people attending are mostly familiar with AJA and many are not even aware of Becker’s passing.

        • As someone who was born after Aja was released (but before Gaucho!), I find it’s the early stuff that gets played on classic hits radio. I’ve never heard anything from Royal Scam, Countdown, or Aja on the radio. My generation are more likely to know the early stuff like Reeling in the Years or Do It Again.

          I kind of figured Steely Dan would have wound down by now – don’t know if there’s some contractual obligation involved.

          • If you like what you have heard of SD you should give a full listen to “Can’t Buy A Thrill,” “Countdown To Ecstasy,” and “Pretzel Logic.” There is no contractual obligation for SD – this is just a money grab by Fagen.

          • I generally listened to albums 8-10 times before I write about them – just because you disagree, doesn’t mean I haven’t taken time to form an opinion.

          • I have no idea what you are talking about. I was not disagreeing with you in any way. I just got the impression from your comments that you had not listened to the mentioned albums. You may need to chill a little. For some reason I had a feeling when I wrote my initial comment that there was some reason I should not get involved with this. You have pretty much confirmed that even though it was likely unintentional.

    • 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.

  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.

    • 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).

  7. 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.

  8. 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!

  9. 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

  10. Yeah, I have Katy, Royal Scam, and Pretzel tied at #2 (sue me). In addition to the tracks you mentioned, I love the harmonies of Rose Darling an Daddy is in my top 10 Dan songs.

    Daddy don’t drive in that Eldorado No more
    He don’t travel on down to the neighborhood Liquor store
    Lucy still loves her coke and rum
    But she sits alone
    Cause her daddy can’t come

    For the record, I would put Nightfly in as the clear #2.

      • Correct. I should have said, Aja at #1.
        I put the Nightfly up so high because, in addition to the two hits and that I find no throw away tunes on the album, I love the cover tune.

        I’ve got plenty of java and Chesterfield Kings
        But I feel like crying
        I wish I had a heart like ice

  11. I agree with your ranking until the top 4: I disagree with your assessment there. Can’t Buy a Thrill is either no. 1 or 2, the other one being Aja. I would even go so far as to say: this is not too subjective a statement.

    These two are so great because they represent the opposite ends of what Steely Dan could produce — one a “natural” band that starts with an already finished product (CBAT is an amazing album, there’s not one weak song, and the sheer diversity of range on it is astounding), the other an audiophile experience and expression of utmost perfectionism, to the point of near sterility. One is rather “conventional”, the other borderline progressive Jazz. Everything else they produced moves somewhere inbetween these two. According to my logic, you either HATE one of these two (in which case low rank) or you rank them 1 and 2, but mid-rank doesnt make sense to me. Furthermore, these are the only two albums without a weak song (the exception being, perhaps, I Got the News), and they are the two most unmistakeable ones.

    The next two are Royal Scam and Pretzel Logic. They already have weak songs I almost never listen to, but also brilliant ones like Kid Charlemagne, Altamira etc.

    Everything else is good, but not astounding. Gaucho, if it weren’t for the name “Steely Dan”, would be taken as an almost stereotypical, horribly 80s album.

    Trivia: my first album was borrowed from my dad’s friend when I was 16 or 17: Greatest Hits. I listened to it up and down. Later, as a student, I found the CD CBAT at a cheap price somewhere, bought and listened to it every day. I was totally unaware that it was their debut album and was blown away when I learnt that: the album is as good a other bands’ fourth or fifth album, when they find their sound and finally figure out how to play arrangements properly. It was almost as if Fagen and Becker wanted to quickly put a “check” on the whole rock star career thing, before moving to “more serious” business.

    • Thanks for writing in! I find the non-Fagen vocals on the debut a bit distracting – it’s not quite Steely Dan enough for me, even though as you note, the songs are uniformly strong. You don’t like Countdown to Ecstasy?

      • I am commenting on your last comment “you don’t like Countdown to Ecstasy”? I am a Dan fan from the very beginning – in my opinion this is the best – followed by CBAT, which is an amazing album – especially for their debut as you said.

    • I was first actively getting into music when Pretzel Logic came out, and loved it straight off. The only other stuff I’d heard were the singles from YCBAT so I bought the whole album and Countdown to Ecstasy to “get up to speed”.

      Gave Katy Lied a listen on release but it didn’t do much for me, probably because my tastes were changing and I wasn’t a real Dan Head like some of my friends.

      Totally passed on The Royal Scam, and when Aja came out you heard it everywhere and I felt no desire to own it. Then there was all the anticipation for Gaucho, which disappointed immensely, and as I had by then gone towards new wave stuff it seemed the end of the road for my interest in SD.

      Fast forward couple of decades to the era digital portable music players and I undergo the task of updating my music library, and in the process started relistening to a lot of the music of my youth. Katy Lied actually sounded pretty good and I could then hear in in a different light – I particularly taken with how amazing Your Gold Teeth II sounded. This lead to me getting hold of TRS, to not being so stupidly resistant to liking Aja, and then sitting down with the earphones and giving Gaucho a go again.

      So I’ve come from initially liking the Dan in the mid 70s, but not particularly any more so than many other artists of that time, to listening to them more often than anything else in the most recent decades! 90% of what I listened to in the 70s and 80s hasn’t aged well IMO. SD however, never gets old, and I’m so glad to see new generations of fans discovering their unique qualities on many levels.

      My top 10 has changed over the years, but to do a list right now:

      1. Pretzel Logic – being my first discovery adds some extra personal nostalgic value I guess, but to this day, for me the first 4 tracks are peak Dan.

      2. Can’t buy a Thrill – despite what Fagen and Beckett have said, the quality and variety of songs for a debut album of that time was sensational, and still had remnants of 70s rock.

      3. Aja – just to slick to diss, side 1 especially.

      4. Countdown to Ecstasy.

      5. The Royal Scam – took me ages for it to grow on me.

      6. Katy Lied.

      7. Gaucho – I appreciate it more now then when it came out, but Glamour Profession is their creative nadir, in the way how they evolved into a “sound”.

      • Thanks for the detailed comment! Pretzel Logic is my favourite sounding Steely Dan album in some ways – I like the band. There are just a few mediocre tracks, like the one about a gun, that take it down a few notches for me.

        • I get the With a Gun comment. I would call it mediocre, but I still don’t skip it because that lyrical hook is so much fun

          You were the founders of the clinic on the hill
          Until he caught you with your fingers in the till
          He slapped your hand so you settled up your bill…
          With a gun

  12. I saw them only once, in Melbourne, AU in 2003(?) and it was one of the best shows I’ve ever seen. And heard; the sound was phenomenal. You could shut your eyes and “see” exactly where each instrument and singer were. Damned impressive. And funny. Not taking anything but the music too seriously.

    • I’ve searched the web a lot for this and have never seen it mentioned: The Dan ripped themselves off blind by including a virtual remake of Dr Wu in the song Aja. The former is note-for-note in the last section of the latter.

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