A Highly Personal Retrospective Appreciation and Ranking of Steely Dan's '70s Albums

Recently a bunch of us were emailing back and forth about something and a tangent appeared in which we were ranking our favorite Steely Dan albums in order -- sticking to their '70s albums, their prime period.

Naturally I ended up writing a defense of my ranking. Doing so meant that I had to say unkind things about aspects of some tracks, which might seem like I'm denigrating them when, in fact, they all bring me pleasure. This is an exercise in relativity akin to the distasteful Howard Stern activity of pointing out the tiny flaws in some beautiful woman to explain why he, troglodyte that he is, finds her less than perfect. It is akin to pointing out Natalie Portman's mole. But if one is intent on ranking things, it must be done. And ultimately it all boils down to my highly personal tastes, but I will do it anyway because, what the hell, at least you will know I have my reasons, however warped they may seem to you.

1. Countdown to Ecstasy (1973)

The degree to which I love this album seems to surprise some folks. This may be because they have not witnessed me, across more decades than I care to admit, turning up the volume at the end of "My Old School" to hear as many notes as possible as the last of Jeff Baxter's several scintillating guitar solos on the tune is faded out. The guitar playing on this album is dazzling. In contrast to the noodling directionlessness of some solos on the debut, everything here is pointed and perfectly proportioned.

This is also where Fagen came into his own as a vocalist. Compare, for instance, the perfection of his layered vocals on "Razor Boy" to his halting efforts on the debut. The arranging overall far surpasses that of the debut. Not one stylistic detour sounds misguided, least of all the tightly coiled interlude in "The Boston Rag." Even when they aim for cheesiness, as on "Your Gold Teeth," it has enough of an edgy undercurrent that it doesn't wear thin on repeated listens. They rock harder but also display more jazz chops. And they are super tight. This was a band that had played together on stages, not something thrown together for the first time in a studio. The songwriting is flawless. That somebody could think that "Bodhisattva" is the only good song here amazes me. A critique of the modern world runs through the album, though disguised as a series of character studies, alternately of the rich and clueless or the poor but hustling, all chasing illusions or empty promises or sordid goals. It is the Dan's masterpiece, without a single uninspired track.

2. Katy Lied (1975)

Even more than my favorite album above, this sounds like the quintessential Steely Dan album, still rock but highly polished (man, do I love the harmony vocals on the chorus of "Rose Darling," with Michael McDonald's distinctive timbre used to maximum effect). The jazziness was blooming, but not yet too smooth; the guitar on "Daddy Don't Live in That New York City No More" is a fine example of the midpoint between their rock and jazz impulses. "Gold Teeth II" pointed to their future, but the complex intro spices it up.

I think by this point they'd given up on hit singles and just pursued their warped vision wherever it led them. The fact that "Black Friday" managed to sneak into the charts? Just gravy. Certainly it doesn't sound like a hit with its ruminations on the collapse of the economy and, perhaps, civilization itself. Its words are positively cheery compared to "Any World (That I'm Welcome To)," though, which takes pessimism to its logical conclusion, though its glum resignation somehow manages to muster a peppy musical façade.

3. Pretzel Logic (1974)

This is so much more than just "Rikki Don't Lose That Number." Once again, the lyrics limn disappointments and failures, but now seem to have more compassion for the losers depicted than on the first two albums. And, also again, the arrangements and production are absolutely inspired and never put a foot wrong, not least because the guitar solos are sharp, biting, and concisely honed.

Other outstanding touches: the lushly tart vocal harmonies on the chorus of "Night by Night," the gently rolling rhythm section on "Any Major Dude Will Tell You," the twisting melisma Fagen unleashes on the line "where did you get those shoes" in "Pretzel Logic." BTW, there is a misleading statement in the Dan Wikipedia article: the claim that "St. Louis Toodle-Oo" is "a note-for-note rendition" doesn't take into account that they pick and choose elements from multiple Ellington recordings of this ditty to construct their nostalgic yet witty update. I admit that "With a Gun" and "Through with Buzz" are not highlights of lyric-writing, but the musicianship more than compensates, and the story on "Charlie Freak" more than makes up for it.

4. Aja (1977)

Somehow the pursuit of their ever-smoother vision synchronized with the zeitgeist and spawned a bunch of hits. A lot of it is great, especially "Home at Last." When this album came out, I loved it beyond compare, but its charms have dimmed a tad over the years. Maybe I just played it too many times, but "Deacon Blues," "Peg," and "Josie" just don't do it for me like they used to. It's all a little too smooth. I liked them better when there was a little grit in their sound. And let's not even get into the exoticisms of the title track, which now seem a bit forced and awkward (though, yes, Wayne Shorter's solo is a coup). Nonetheless, still a very great album, probably their best horn charts ever.

5. The Royal Scam (1976)

A sour, curdled album, from its cover to its music to the worldview of its bitter lyrics. It starts out well with "Kid Charlemagne" and "The Caves of Altamira," but declines precipitously with the banal "Don't Take Me Alive," the shallow "Sign in Stranger," and worst of all the despicable "Haitian Divorce" (the only Dan song I actively hate, from the fake reggae—odd choice for a song with Haiti in the title, no?—to the annoying talkbox guitar to the awful lyrics/story). On these songs (which as a group rank well below the #6 album), it's as though the lyrics are a self-parody, without the personalizing touches of their earlier work, and the music has also lost its personality with the massive infusion of studio hacks. When you've had a guitarist as good as Skunk Baxter, Larry Carlton is tasty but forgettable in comparison -- and Carlton solos on more songs than all the other guitarists put together. Much of the album is just a little too slick. That said, I have always loved the mysterious title track. And for all my criticism, I don't not listen to it—just less than the above albums.

6. Can't Buy a Thrill (1972)

The songwriting here is often brilliant, there's no denying that. I am especially impressed, in that regard, by "Kings," "Brooklyn (Owes the Charmer Under Me)," and of course "Do It Again" and "Reelin' in the Years." (I'm considerably less impressed by "Turn That Heartbeat Over Again." I guess it got to close the album because it's somewhat valedictory and relatively positive.) But there are some production/arrangement elements that, to my ears at least, have not aged well. That damn sitar-guitar solo on "Do It Again," not only for its irritating sound but also because, frankly, it noodles. The synth solo that follows has aged better, but the ending is a copout. Jerome Richardson's sax solo on "Dirty Work" is some perverse takeoff on Boots Randolph's "yackety sax," and in this one case, the perversion is misguided. I'm not fond of the cheesy faux-Latin arrangement of "Only a Fool Would Say That." This is not to say there are no felicities. I love the piano intro of "Fire in the Hole" and the later solo. The pedal steel on "Brooklyn (Owes the Charmer Under Me)" is a brilliant touch.

But then there is the singing. Donald Fagen had not yet achieved the gritty grace of his later efforts, and the strain shows at times. On "Do It Again," for example, and the double-tracking only emphasizes this with its slight incongruities (in the most specific sense of the word: the tracks do not quite match. Now, I know that if they matched perfectly, the fullness that is the goal of double-tracking would be thwarted, but Fagen misses by more than the norm). This problem with Fagen's double-tracking rears its ugly head again on "Change of the Guard," making him sound weirdly electronic. And they knew he wasn't a great singer, so they had David Palmer sing some songs, and while he is technically better, he's frequently too bland for Fagen's lyrics. Compare, for instance, Fagen's phrasing and intonation on "Fire in the Hole," the perfect combination of sneer and regret. And as for drummer Jim Hodder's unctuous style on "Midnight Cruiser" (in particular, this hurts the first verse), well, they never let him sing lead again.

Verdict: A very good album that would have been great if recorded after they'd had more experience and learned from their mistakes—which they did quite quickly, as my great admiration for the following effort, my #1 choice, clearly shows. - Steve Holtje

steve-holtje

Mr. Holtje is a Brooklyn-based composer, poet, and editor who recently composed and recorded the soundtrack for director Enrico Cullen's film A Man Full of Days.

Yeah Kurt I'd tend to agree

Yeah, Kurt, I'd tend to agree with putting Can't Buy A Thrill near the top, that along with Katy Lied and Aja would be my picks as there best most consistent releases. Honestly if you played me them blind I'd tend to think that Countdown was the debut album not Can't Buy A Thrill. Its heavier than the debut and seems to have less of the jazz pop song focus, more rock and "serious" Jazz rock jamming. The highs are superb but overall it feels like a less consistent and somewhat less sure album, I get the sense the rest of the band were looking to pull in a different direction to Becker/Fagen. Pretzel to me seems like the much more natural follow up to the debut album, back to the strong song/arrangement focus with extra slickness. I would say though that again it's not as consistent, the first four tracks and the title track are as good a half album as they ever released yet the rest whilst pleasant enough has always felt rather undercooked by there own standards. I suspect perhaps not a coincidence that when they came off the road and focused on song writting fulltime again the consistency returned with Katy Lied.

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