When I discovered Two Against Nature I loved it to a fault. I felt so satisfied by it that I didn’t think Steely Dan could offer me any more. But when I took the time to get to know the Aja album a little bit later it became clear to me this was going to be a band that mattered and carried influence over me. So I decided to absorb Steely Dan the right way. This included painstakingly playing through their entire discography multiple times and reading a lengthy bio on them (“Reelin in the Years” by Brian Sweet”). I don’t really think there’s anyone who can claim to be an authority on Steely Dan in any way but this is my best read on their 9 studio albums, ranked from weakest to best.
#9. Countdown to Ecstasy – Even the mighty Steely Dan wasn’t immune from “difficult second album” curse. The reason that it’s their worst isn’t due to a lack of good ideas but rather to the fact that it was rush recorded. The nucleus of songs like “Bodhisttva,” “Your Gold Teeth” and “Show Biz Kids” are fine, but instead of being intricately developed they are either the table setting for uninspired jams or are just beaten to death in repetition. Compare those songs to “My Old School,” the best track on Countdown to Ecstasy by a mile, where the solo section motif is arguably the catchiest part. It’s worth noting too that this is the only Steely Dan album tailored to a specific band which likely was another shackle on the songwriting.
#8. Everything Must Go – Rarely are album titles as appropriate. There are clues throughout Everything Must Go that Becker and Fagen were reaching the end of the line and emptying the cupboard. For one, there are overt themes of apocalypse and endings (“The Last Mall,” “Things I Miss The Most,” the title track), the fact that Walter Becker actually sang lead vocals for the first and only time (“Slang of Ages”), and an ever so slight softening of the Dan’s cynical edges. Two Against Nature sounded like a re-energized continuation but Everything Must Go wears the warts of their 20 year absence and subsequent aging. The hooks aren’t as memorable and the lyrics far too obvious. With that said, I still like every single song on this album. It just needs to be appreciated at face value rather than under the greater prism of their career.
#7. The Royal Scam – In terms of this band’s evolution, what stands out most to me about The Royal Scam is you can distinctly recognize a sense of space for the first time. Listen to how tracks like “Everything You Did” and the title track develop, how there’s more of an arc in form and dynamics. It’s a more literary approach to songwriting which ended up being a key technique perfected on later Steely Dan albums. Of note are the incredible solos on this album like the piano on “Sign in Stranger” and a guitar-shred-for-the-ages on “Kid Charlemagne.” There’s some interesting genre bending on The Royal Scam as well with half-hearted attempts at reggae (“Haitian Divorce”) and disco (“The Fez”) done with tongue planted firmly in cheek.
#6. Gaucho – The album where Becker and Fagen’s laborious studio methods caught up to them. It took a long time to record, used an absurd amount of musicians (including Michael MacDonald and Mark Knopfler), and went way over budget. There was also a bitter dispute with record labels over distribution and Walter Becker had to deal with some serious personal strife. It’s hard to imagine all of this didn’t carry over to Gaucho’s noticeably dialed back musical scope. Compared to Aja’s long suites its minimalist moods probably over corrected too much making it uncharacteristically bland in spots. That leaves the listener to focus on Steely Dan’s famously enigmatic lyrics – which on Gaucho have been widely hypothesized to be a collection of tales about hipsters. “Time Out of Mind” from this album is my all time favorite Steely Dan song.
#5. Katy Lied – On almost every album, among their numerous complex ideas, Steely Dan will include something in the form of a palette cleanser. It’s usually in the form of a blues progression, a simple instrumentation, or an irresistible hook. But Katy Lied has none of these, causing the listener to go back and forth between enjoying what they’re hearing and feeling slightly uncomfortable by it. For example: I’m reluctant to admit what a great song “Everyone’s Gone To the Movies” is because it’s blatantly about a child molester. There are creepy songs about drugs, love triangles, and fascism too. “Black Friday” and “Daddy Don’t Live In That New York City No More” are live staples that are on this album as well. Katy Lied is absolutely brilliant but it’s probably their heaviest record to go through and process.
#4. Two Against Nature – Many of my contemporaries feel the need to trash Two Against Nature because it controversially won Album of the Year over Kid A and The Marshall Mathers LP. Grammy politics aside, it’s objectively impressive that after a 20 year hiatus Steely Dan could come back with an album that sounds like they picked up where they left off. What differentiates Two Against Nature musically is the fact that most of the songs don’t rely nearly as much on harmonic movement. Listen to songs like “Gaslighting Abbie,” “Two Against Nature,” or “Cousin Dupree” and how the melody carries the progression rather than vice versa. There’s also a more symbiotic relationship between the horns and the rhythm section here that makes Steely Dan sound more like a tight jazz combo than on any of their other albums.
#3. Pretzel Logic – The beginning of Steely Dan as they’d prefer you remember them: as an all star studio invention with the creatively uninhibited Becker and Fagen at the controls. They were able to indulge all of their influences (including a rare cover, of Duke Ellington’s “East St. Louis Toodlee-oo”) and cast the best possible players for each song. As a collective the material on Pretzel Logic can be pointed to as the first example of the Dan’s trademarked incisive sarcasm. Look no further than the title track where the narrator “has never met Napoleon, but plans to find the time.” Among the stand out songs are “Rikki Don’t Lose That Number,” and fan favorites “Barrytown,” “Parker’s Band,” and “Charlie Freak.”
#2. Can’t Buy a Thrill– The only Steely Dan album that’s easily accessible from beginning to end. There are the incredibly catchy hooks (“Dirty Work” and “Change of the Guard”), unusual chord changes that aren’t nearly as jarring (the b verse of “Reeling in the Years”), and solo sections which mostly stay between the lines (“Do It Again.”) It’s fascinating that there are progressions on Can’t Buy a Thrill (“Turn That Heartbeat Over Again” for example) that are still quite unique despite not using any jazz vocabulary. In other words, Steely Dan worked within conventional pop parameters and still managed to craft an album that only they could write. It’s no accident that it happened on their debut – when Becker and Fagen still remotely cared about commercial success and impact.
#1. Aja– There are individual lyrics, solos, progressions, and arrangements that are comparable, but ultimately the best combination and execution of all these elements came on Aja. Not a single note sounds out of place. So much so that even virtuosic moments manage to stay in the background. For example, Bernard Purdie’s drumming on “Home At Last” (aka “The Purdie Shuffle”) is one of the most imitated grooves of ALL TIME but it doesn’t particularly jump out of the track because of how well it fits. Every song on the album is an a powerhouse. I love the shifting key centers on “Black Cow,” the slick jazz changes on “Deacon Blues,” the funkiness of “Peg.” The fact that Aja still maintains a veil of elusiveness, despite how much it’s been celebrated and analyzed to death, is perhaps the strongest testament to Becker and Fagen’s genius.