It’s been almost 40 years since Rolling Stone dubbed Steely Dan “the perfect musical antiheroes of the Seventies” in assessing the band’s sixth album Aja. But while the Walter Becker and Donald Fagen-led band named after a dildo in William S. Burroughs’s Naked Lunch may seem more establishment than anti-establishment these days, it’s amazing how fresh the music remains, even after decades of repeated plays on classic-rock and adult-contemporary radio stations. Even now, their albums still have plenty of riches left to uncover in their inventive mix of jazz and rock, complex chord progressions, intricate arrangements, and endlessly enigmatic, bitingly cynical lyrics.
Fagen and Becker’s group is mostly a touring band these days, and their latest tour, which they dub “The Dan Who Knew Too Much” on their website, has now brought them to New York’s Beacon Theatre for a series of concerts, some of them devoted to live performances of particular albums. With this in mind, it’s as good a time as any to revisit and reassess their nine-album discography. Steely Dan has explored so many different musical styles and moods over the course of their more-than-four-decade-long. Whether you gravitate more toward Pretzel Logic or Aja or even Two Against Nature may all depend on how you’re feeling at a given moment. Still, here is Paste’s ranking of all nine Steely Dan LPs.
This is Steely Dan’s last album to date, released in 2003. It feels like a final statement and a world-weary one at that. Its opening cut, “The Last Mall,” sets the tone: the music set in an ironically innocuous C major even as Fagen sings of an apocalyptic “cancellation sale” at seemingly the only mall left in the world. Much of the album progresses in a similar deceptively laid-back fashion until the concluding minute of the final title track ruefully fades out with—what else?—a wailing saxophone solo. In Everything Must Go, it’s as if Steely Dan, discovering they have nothing much left to say, decided to make that sense of resignation the subject of the album. The result lacks the lyrical and musical complexity of their best work, but there’s something strangely affecting about it nevertheless. Plus, it’s the only album that features Walter Becker singing lead (on “Slang of Ages”).
Speaking of world-weary, a similar air of ennui blows throughout this, their last album of Steely Dan’s ’70s heyday. “She thinks I’m crazy / but I’m just growing old,” Fagen sings in the album’s biggest hit, “Hey Nineteen.” That sense of being out of time extends to the record as a whole, with Fagen and Becker doubling down on the coolly relaxed vibe of their preceding Aja, while dispensing with anything resembling seductive emotional warmth. Instead, a kind of slick disillusionment peeks through Gaucho, most evident in the album’s longest track, “Glamour Profession,” which chronicles a day in the life of a drug dealer in Los Angeles with electronic keyboard lines that chill to the touch and brass lines that blare with ironic joie de vivre. Naturally, the near-funereal “Third World Man” sees Steely Dan riding off to the distance in a fatigued daze. It may be a difficult album to warm to, but it’s nothing if not committed to its dispirited languor.
For millennials, this much-belated Becker/Fagen reunion album may well be known more as the album that beat out, among other nominees, Radiohead’s more progressive-sounding Kid A for the Album of the Year Grammy in 2000. As much of a confirmation as that may be as to the Recording Academy’s backward-leaning taste, that shouldn’t detract from the genuine pleasures of Two Against Nature, which allies the easy-listening jazz of Aja with some of the hard-rocking spirit of their earlier albums. Their dark-humored perversity remains intact here, too; among the album’s nine songs are various tales of, well, aging men basically trying to get some. But unlike in Gaucho’s “Hey Nineteen,” at least they approach this potentially unsavory subject matter with more youthful vitality this time.
If 1974’s Pretzel Logic laid the groundwork for a jazzier sound than Can’t Buy a Thrill and Countdown to Ecstasy did, its follow-up, Katy Lied, ran with it while still keeping to its predecessor’s concision. To some degree, that makes this very fine album feel a bit like more of the same after Pretzel Logic. That, however, is not to deny the gleaming brilliance of the many of the songs here, especially the mid-album one-two punch of the strangely dreamy “Doctor Wu” (which the 1980s punk band Minutemen covered in their masterpiece Double Nickels on the Dime) and the calypso-infused “Everyone’s Gone to the Movies” (a song about a child molester, in case you weren’t paying attention to the lyrics). This is also the first album to feature Michael MacDonald—who Steely Dan’s former co-lead guitarist Jeff Baxter would later tap to front the Doobie Brothers—as a backing singer.
Whatever warmth there was in the jazz-rock fusion of Pretzel Logic and Katy Lied was basically obliterated by 1976’s The Royal Scam, in which bitterness and sarcasm run rampant through blasting horn lines and driving rhythms. From the struggles of a drug dealer in “Kid Charlemagne” to the sneaky plea for abstinence in “The Fez” to Dean Parks’ brutal voice-box-amplified guitar solo of “Haitian Divorce,” it all culminates in the epic title track, with its repetitive, near-Sisyphean structure and cynical chronicle of folks “[wandering] in from the city of St. John” into a glittery wasteland. Perhaps, in hindsight, the sophistication of Aja and subsequent Steely Dan albums was simply natural after this atom bomb of cynicism, with Fagen’s snarl sounding more potent than ever.
In some ways, Steely Dan’s debut LP is an anomaly in its discography, featuring an expanded line-up that included the more conventionally pretty-sounding David Palmer singing lead vocals on two of the songs (“Dirty Work” and “Brooklyn (Owes the Charmer Under Me)”) and drummer Jim Hodder singing on another (“Midnite Cruiser”). But even if the more overtly soft-rock style of Can’t Buy a Thrill is different from what the band’s more concentrated line-up in subsequent albums would explore, it’s remarkable to hear how much of the band’s sound was already fully formed here. Right off the bat, “Do It Again” features a Latin beat that marked as it strikingly different from just about anything else at the time, and assorted jazz flourishes pop up here and there in later cuts. Becker and Fagen would refine their style further in their subsequent albums, but Can’t Buy a Thrill is still a striking beginning for the band.
This, still the band’s most commercially successful record, represented Steely Dan’s first full-on venture into the kind of sophisticated jazz-rock that would characterize their music from then on. In many ways, it remains Steely Dan’s finest in that realm. Like its sophomore album, Countdown to Ecstasy, Aja is rife with songs that have lengthy instrumental solos, akin to a jazz jam session. But while the Steely Dan of Countdown was mostly still rooted in a rock idiom, there’s no rock at all to be found in Aja, just some of the lushest textures and most relaxed music of their career. The album has some of the most openly empathetic lyrics, most notably in “Deacon Blues,” which is still one of the most touching songs about the yearning that arises out of a midlife crisis.
After the extended jams of Countdown to Ecstasy, Steely Dan’s follow-up, Pretzel Logic, saw the band reverting back to the mainstream concision of Can’t Buy a Thrill. The longest songs on this album (“Rikki Don’t Lose That Number” and the title track) are roughly four-and-a-half minutes. But there’s nothing conventional at all about these tunes, which pushed the jazz flourishes in their first two albums further both musically and even lyrically. After all, how many rock albums would feature, of all things, a note-for-note cover of Duke Ellington’s “East St. Louis Toodle-oo?” Or a joyous tune about basking in the music of “Mister Parker’s band,” with “Mister Parker” no doubt referring to the legendary jazz saxophonist Charlie Parker? Ranging from bluesy vamps (the title track) to lyrical ballads (“Any Major Dude Will Tell You”) to hard rockers (“Night by Night”), Pretzel Logic supersedes Steely Dan’s most commercial album with this fascinatingly unpredictable 33 minutes of music.
Countdown to Ecstasy is, in its deliberate sprawl, arguably the exhilarating Steely Dan experience. Becker and Fagen may have hemmed in their jazzy tendencies for the sake of wider accessibility in Can’t Buy a Thrill, but they let it all go for their sophomore effort. No major hits on the level of “Do It Again” and “Reelin’ in the Years” emerged from Countdown to Ecstasy, but there’s a stylistic variety to this set of eight songs—from the “Rock Around the Clock”-like beat of the opening cut “Bodhisattva” and the ragtime of “The Boston Rag” to the balladry of “Pearl of the Quarter” and the apocalypse of “King of the World”—that remains unparalleled among the band’s studio albums. At the very least, this album has the ever-irresistible “My Old School,” in which its raucous horn arrangements and up-tempo beat mask a deep cynicism toward college life. In other words, it’s quintessential Steely Dan.