Any World That I'm Welcome To
Steely Dan Albums Ranked Worst To Best
by Benjamin Ray
9. Everything Must Go (2003)
Steely Dan's time was brief and couldn't have gone on any longer than it did. So while the reunion disc Two Against Nature was decent, it seemed like it should have been the last word on a duo that didn't really get a proper sendoff. Ah, but no, they opted to make one more album together, and it's got the right sound but very little of the charm, snark, and bursts of melody that made those classic seven albums so good. It’s fine for completists but only sporadically necessary for all others.
8. Two Against Nature (2000)
A grown-up Steely Dan reunites and wins a Grammy (of course) for this disc, over far better entries for that year (of course). The accolades aren't warranted, but this isn't a bad disc by any means. It's just that maturity is kind of a handicap for these two (like ethics for lawyers, as Dave Barry would say); those old songs about drugs and college and doing drugs at college and gold teeth were part of the Dan's charm. "Cousin Dupree," in addition to a stellar bassline and Fagen's hushed, playful vocals, brings a spirit and bounce not often associated with this band (and an inappropriate lyric to boot), but the band's professionalism and standard studio polish renders this somewhat antiseptic. But in a good way.
7. Katy Lied (1975)
The weakest of the classic discs. Part of the blame is because of flaws in the master tapes and subsequent re-recordings, which took some of the life out of this music, but mostly because the songs just don't follow the band's more successful paths. They hadn't gone jazzy yet, they didn't rock out, there weren't pop hooks...this was laid back "yacht rock" that defined the term as well as any Leo Sayer or Dan Fogelberg or Michael McDonald album you'd care to name. "Black Friday" is the most enduring song, and fans love "Doctor Wu" (which is – prepare to be shocked – about drugs), but the rest just kind of drifts by; there's even a sequel, "Your Gold Teeth II," to a song that wasn't that good in the first place. Only "Chain Lightning," along with "Black Friday," comes close to the higher echelon of Dan songs, thanks to some nifty vocal harmonies and Skunk Baxter guitar playing.
6. Can't Buy A Thrill (1972)
This one contains three of the band's best songs and seven that sound almost nothing like the band Steely Dan would quickly become (I use "band" in the sense of "musicians making music in a studio with between three and 40 hired hands). "Do It Again" is the band's finest song, a slinky, effortlessly cool stunner with mood, attitude, and a fine guitar solo that ties the piece together, although the real driving force is the jazzy Latin percussion. Following this would have been difficult and the songwriting isn't quite there yet throughout, although they display a tightness and individuality unlike most other songs of the time. Singer David Palmer appears on a few tracks here and doesn't do the songs any favors save for "Dirty Work," and of course all classic rock fans know "Reelin' In the Years," the band's first effort in both edgy rock and cutting yet entertaining lyrics.
5. Pretzel Logic (1974)
At 11 songs and just over half an hour, this one could be considered the band's most "pop" album, although pop music in 1974 didn't sound anything like "Rikki Don't Lose That Number," let alone the album tracks here. The pieces are mostly acoustic and shy away from both rock and the longer jams of Countdown To Ecstasy; they are also more complex and seamless than that disc, if less fun. The best stretch on the disc is the exciting "Parker's Band," the slower blues-jazz of the title song, and the furious acoustic-guitar strum of the story song "With A Gun." Even "Charlie Freak," which starts as a goofy throwaway, gains a momentum that subverts expectations before ending too soon (or right on time).
4. Countdown To Ecstasy (1973)
Moving quickly after the debut, the Dan retooled their songwriting approach, adding a harder edge and a New York-centered cynicism to their lyrics. The end result is an album that sounds kind of like the debut in spots, but pushes forward to something better, something with a jazz inflection without veering into that territory (yet) and a rock feel. They also stretched out the songs - six of the eight tracks run longer than five minutes - with instrumental vamps and solos that fall into both rock and bop jazz; dig that solo on "Your Gold Teeth," man. And as for those songs, this is the best of the band's early work, with "The Boston Rag," "Your Gold Teeth," and the breathless rocker "Bodhisattva" providing fine examples of the new style. "Show Biz Kids" rocks with flair and smarmy attitude – the band already romanticizing itself, two albums in – with a skronky guitar snarling throughout and finally forcing its way to the front for a dirty-ass solo spot. Of course, "My Old School" is perhaps the quintessential Dan song to truly understanding this band and also a bit of biographical narrative, if a pot bust at Bard College sounds like something you can relate to. And Chevy Chase used to drum with these guys before they all made it big, so there's that.
3. Gaucho (1980)
Aja was a watershed album and could frankly have been the last album these guys released, but record label pressure being what it was, a follow-up was pretty much demanded. Creatively exhausted (one album a year for six years) and facing legal troubles, this one got delayed for three years until finally hitting the stores in 1980, when the music world had changed considerably thanks to punk and disco dying off and New Wave and alternative rock beginning to rise. The band's M.O. suddenly didn't seem so appealing. Thing is, Gaucho is a darn good album, taking the smooth jazz dynamics of its predecessor and ironing them out into a more precise, confident hangover of an album. Where Aja was inviting, Gaucho was cold, not the one you listen to with a lover but the one you listen to when driving alone with your thoughts and regrets. "Hey Nineteen" and its May-December romance encapsulate this feeling in lyric and sound, while the studied cool of "Glamour Profession" and "Babylon Sisters" create a world unto themselves, even if takes a few listens to really sink in. "Time Out Of Mind" features Michael McDonald on solid backup vocals and the swagger of musicians who are better than you at life, as does the popping funk of "My Rival," while the closing "Third World Man" is an honest Steely Dan-style ballad, filled with regret and goodbyes in its music far more than the indecipherable lyrics. Only the corny title song and the multiple drug references in the songs drag this down two spots.
2. The Royal Scam (1976)
As dark and cynical as the duo ever got in lyrics and music, The Royal Scam offers no hints to what would follow nor any sign of the dispensable qualities of Katy Lied. There really isn't a bad song here, although listening to it all in one sitting can be tough, which is perhaps why the playful, upbeat "The Fez" arrives in the middle of the album. One of Steely Dan's underrated strengths was in creating characters, and this album is full of them, from the adulterous, unhappy couple of "Haitian Divorce" to the burned-out, paranoid ex-drug dealer of "Kid Charlemagne" to the criminal in a standoff with the police on "Don't Take Me Alive." Fagen inhabits these and other songs with personality but almost no sympathy, and the disc is better for it. "Don't Take Me Alive" is as electric and loud as these guys got, "Kid Charlemagne" is just a great song made better by Larry Carlton's legendary solo, "Green Earrings" lopes along with verve and "Haitian Divorce" takes the listener into the world of the ill-fated couple. A couple of weak songs aside, this is a fine piece of work.
1. Aja (1977)
The band's masterpiece found them wholly embracing their smooth jazz tendencies that had lurked at the outskirts of every album since Countdown To Ecstasy, creating an alluring, sophisticated work that fulfills all their ambitions while toning down the occasional unpleasantness of the lyrics. Rock is mostly ignored; the solos come from saxophones, complementing the grooves and textured songs. Those who lump the Dan and this album in with "yacht rock" or whatever miss the point completely; of course it's not the Ramones or Elvis Costello of 1977, because it's not an album for kids or rebels, and it's not supposed to be "rock" in the way we understand it. And you may be inclined to reject outright any album where the composers assume a fake name and write liner notes referring to themselves as having "solid professionalism" as "artists who have arrived."
But again, do so at your own risk. The jazzy, bossa nova title track is both sensual and compelling, "Black Cow" is all swaggering sunglasses-at-night cool, and "Deacon Blues" is lush, complex and emotionally longing both lyrically and musically; for once, Fagen actually sounds invested, not detached. "Peg" is probably the best jazz-pop song up to that point, showing restraint while still showcasing touches like the joyous chorus and both the guitar and the sax solo (the latter courtesy of legend Wayne Shorter, on loan from Weather Report). "Home At Last" and "I Got The News" are solid album cuts that fit, but it all comes home on "Josie," a deceptively simple piece buoyed by a clarion guitar chord, a boinging bass and some good vocal harmonies that give way to one of the sparse guitar solos on the disc. Taken as a package, Aja reveals its charms over time and works its way into your head, transcending both the band that made it and standing apart from the other popular music from that era.