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STEELY DAN

Jazz Rock/Fusion • United States


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Steely Dan biography
Founded in Annandale-on-Hudson, New York, USA in 1972 - Disbanded in 1981 - Reunited in 1993 up until Becker's death in 2017 - Inducted into Rock And Roll Hall of Fame in 2001 (Performer)

In the year of our Lord, 1967, at the esteemed institution of higher learning known as Bard College located in Annandale-On Hudson New York, two jazz loving musicians met and decided to form a musical partnership that would cast a long shadow over American music over the 1970's and whose reputation and stature has only grown over time with new generations discovering their music and appreciating their unique and uncompromising way of making music. Never associated with progressive rock... yet.. as progressive as any group asssociated with progressive rock. Music made with crytic, highly intellectual lyrics grounded not in mythology or sword and sorcery but in the experience of living in 1970's America. Full of dark humour, social commentary delivered with a biting sarcasm by one of rock's greatest unappreciated lyricists. The music itself was a highly demanding unique treatment of the jazz-rock fusion that was so fresh and creative in the 1970's. The music though was not a mere vehicle for musical indulgence, expression, or wankery but was presented in a mainstream context with the music, and the lyrics being strengths that set the group apart from contemporaries in the jazz-rock scene. Tales abound of multiple retakes, from the greatest instrumentalists in American music, repeating complex parts over and over till they met the demands of the groups leaders. Donald Fagen and Walter Becker.

Fagen and Becker at Bard and discovered a shared passion for the music of Brubeck, Coltrane, Ellington, and Charlie Parker. During college.. like all of us music loving college have done..they formed several bands that explored their love of jazz. After Graduating in 1969 they left for New York City to try their hands at becoming songwriters and selling the songs they had written together. While that did not pan out for them, they did make an acquaintance in Kenny Vance of 'Jay and the Americans', that would set them on the road to success. They got their first taste of life on the road as back-up musicians and even doing the soundtrack for the low-budget Richard Pryor film 'You Gotta Walk It Like You Talk It'. However their most important contact was soon to come. Gary Katz of ABC Records.

Katz took Fagen and Becker under his wing and in 1971 brought them with hi...
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STEELY DAN discography


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STEELY DAN top albums (CD, LP, MC, SACD, DVD-A, Digital Media Download)

3.57 | 231 ratings
Can't Buy a Thrill
1972
4.05 | 238 ratings
Countdown to Ecstasy
1973
3.72 | 205 ratings
Pretzel Logic
1974
3.72 | 179 ratings
Katy Lied
1975
3.76 | 205 ratings
The Royal Scam
1976
4.18 | 363 ratings
Aja
1977
3.72 | 189 ratings
Gaucho
1980
3.37 | 109 ratings
Two Against Nature
2000
3.01 | 80 ratings
Everything Must Go
2003

STEELY DAN Live Albums (CD, LP, MC, SACD, DVD-A, Digital Media Download)

3.75 | 33 ratings
Alive in America
1993
0.00 | 0 ratings
Maria McPartland & Steely Dan: Piano Jazz (Radio Broadcast)
2005
3.50 | 6 ratings
In Concert
2008
3.00 | 1 ratings
Going Mobile
2013
3.75 | 4 ratings
Northeast Corridor
2021

STEELY DAN Videos (DVD, Blu-ray, VHS etc)

3.26 | 8 ratings
Classic Albums: Aja
2000
3.60 | 17 ratings
Two Against Nature
2000
2.14 | 2 ratings
In Concert
2008
0.00 | 0 ratings
Dilectus
2012

STEELY DAN Boxset & Compilations (CD, LP, MC, SACD, DVD-A, Digital Media Download)

2.67 | 3 ratings
Fagen & Becker: You Gotta Walk It Like You Talk It (OST)
1971
5.00 | 1 ratings
Steely Dan
1978
3.60 | 13 ratings
Greatest Hits
1979
4.00 | 1 ratings
The Very Best Of
1979
4.00 | 1 ratings
Steely Dan
1981
4.00 | 1 ratings
Walter Becker / Donald Fagen - The Early Years
1983
3.71 | 18 ratings
A Decade of Steely Dan
1985
4.00 | 1 ratings
The Very Best of Steely Dan: Do It Again
1987
4.00 | 1 ratings
The Very Best of Steely Dan: Reelin' In the Years
1987
3.17 | 10 ratings
Gold ( Expanded Edition)
1991
4.00 | 5 ratings
Then And Now - The Best of Steely Dan
1993
3.40 | 22 ratings
Citizen Steely Dan
1993
4.00 | 6 ratings
Showbiz Kids: The Steely Dan Story 1972-1980
2000
4.33 | 3 ratings
The Definitive Collection
2006
0.00 | 0 ratings
The Best Of
2007
4.50 | 2 ratings
The Very Best Of
2009

STEELY DAN Official Singles, EPs, Fan Club & Promo (CD, EP/LP, MC, Digital Media Download)

3.00 | 3 ratings
Dallas
1972
4.00 | 3 ratings
Reeling In The Years
1972
3.33 | 3 ratings
Dirty Work
1973
3.33 | 3 ratings
Show Biz Kids
1973
4.00 | 3 ratings
Pretzel Logic
1974
4.00 | 3 ratings
Bad Sneakers
1975
3.75 | 4 ratings
Haitian Divorce
1976
4.00 | 3 ratings
Kid Charlemagne
1976
4.00 | 3 ratings
Black Friday
1976
4.00 | 3 ratings
Josie
1977
2.50 | 2 ratings
Four Tracks From Steely Dan
1977
4.00 | 4 ratings
FM
1978
4.00 | 3 ratings
Do It Again
1978
3.50 | 2 ratings
Do It Again (Hazlo Otra Vez)
1978
4.00 | 3 ratings
Peg
1978
3.83 | 5 ratings
Rikki Don't Loose That Number
1979
3.67 | 3 ratings
Hey Nineteen
1980
4.00 | 3 ratings
Time Out Of Mind
1980
3.50 | 2 ratings
Reelin' In The Years
1982
2.00 | 1 ratings
Remastered: A Sample of Steely Dan
1993
2.00 | 1 ratings
Sampler
2000
3.67 | 3 ratings
Cousin Dupree
2000

STEELY DAN Reviews


Showing last 10 reviews only
 Aja by STEELY DAN album cover Studio Album, 1977
4.18 | 363 ratings

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Aja
Steely Dan Jazz Rock/Fusion

Review by ken_scrbrgh

5 stars My oldest son, now 36, grew up in a household in which the music of the Beatles, Yes, Genesis, Emerson, Lake, and Palmer and King Crimson "loomed large in the background." As time has passed, he's made me aware of Dream Theater, the Liquid Tension Experiment, Porcupine Tree, Symphony X, and the Claypool/Lennon Delirium. However, it was only recently that I pointedly brought up the subject of Steely Dan. At first, he was surprised when I asserted that Becker, Fagen, and the list of studio musicians who helped "flesh out" the composers' work "belong" with the list of groups that I've mentioned above. The good news is my son, if he'd like, can consider Steely Dan.

This brings us to Aja. Of their nine studio albums, Aja can best be described as the apotheosis of Becker and Fagen's compositional and musical prowess. There are great moments here: In "I Got the News," Michael McDonald's "Broadway Duchess/Darlin,' if you only knew/ half as much as everybody thinks you do"; the almost lugubrious, depressive music and lyrics of "Deacon Blues"'; and the libidinous description of "Josie"?"She prays like a Roman with her eyes on fire."

The title track is the synthesis of Becker and Fagen's power as composers and lyricists. Here we have the following ensemble: Donald Fagen / lead & backing vocals, synthesizer, and whistle; Walter Becker, Larry Carlton, and Denny Dias, guitars; Chuck Rainey / bass; Victor Feldman, percussion/Joe Sample, electric piano/ Michael Omartian, electric piano/Wayne Shorter, saxophone/ Steve Gadd, drums/ and Timothy B. Schmit, backing vocals. The song features almost avant-garde soloing by Wayne Shorter and Steve Gadd. Becker, Carlton, and Dias deliver something of a committee of guitar solos. And, when Donald Fagen blows the whistle, it's almost as if he's alerting us to the ongoing, masterful circumstances.

So, let's ascend "the Hill." What happens as Becker/Fagen climb to the top?

People never stare/They just don't care

They've got time to burn/There's no return

They think I'm okay/Or so they say

The first reaction at the "top of the Hill" is indifference. After the first ascent of the Hill, an image of insight is revealed:

Chinese music under banyan trees Here at the dude ranch above the sea

And then the chorus:

Aja When all my dime dancin' is through I run to you

On the second upwards journey, the reaction is endless indolence; insight takes this form:

Double helix in the sky tonight Throw out the hardware Let's do it right

Chorus again.

Third hill top experience: this time the reaction is disingenuous approval, followed by insight--

Chinese music always sets me free Angular banjoes Sound good to me

Repeat chorus.

Sardonicism would be the overall effect of Aja's lyrics. But, there are the three images of insight: Chinese music under banyan trees; Double helix in the sky tonight; Chinese music always sets me free/Angular banjoes/Sound good to me . . . . Banyan trees evoke images of major fig trees in Pakistan and India (I think of Hermann Hesse here). Becker and Fagen know their Watson and Crick. And, what's the difference "tubular bells" or "angular banjoes?" Perhaps "Chinese music" is a way of describing anything transcendent.

I'd like to suggest "Aja" is not so much a person but a discipline. And one way to express this discipline is the great instrumental at the heart of "Aja." Like most of Becker and Fagen's lyrics, they are partially tongue-in-cheek. However, one cannot deny the music of Becker and Fagen contains only intentional exaggerations or irony.

 Everything Must Go by STEELY DAN album cover Studio Album, 2003
3.01 | 80 ratings

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Everything Must Go
Steely Dan Jazz Rock/Fusion

Review by Necrotica
Collaborator Prog Metal Team

3 stars At the core of Everything Must Go lies a single question: did we really need another Steely Dan album at this point? After all, the band had already won a Grammy with their comeback record Two Against Nature. They'd already cemented themselves as rock (and arguably jazz) legends decades ago with their amazing 1972-1980 run of classic albums. Hell, by the time Everything Must Go came out, they had already been inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame two years prior. So on the surface, it might strike one as the most unnecessary album in the Dan's catalogue. And? well, you'd pretty much be correct for thinking so. But to be fair, the vibe of the record does exhibit some self- awareness in that regard; in other words, this is Walter Becker and Donald Fagen's most relaxing and casual album.

Judging by the music on offer, I get the sense that Everything Must Go had the most loose and - dare I say - carefree sessions in Becker and Fagen's discography. However, that's not to say that they've strayed at all from their signature jazz rock style. Plenty of Two Against Nature's fusion-oriented material makes a similar mark here, whether it's the smooth-as-hell bass lines of highlight "Godwhacker" or the lush vocal harmonies that color the slick funk of "Green Book". Of course, we still get a nice helping of horns in the mix as well, as heard on the fun backing brass and woodwinds of "Lunch with Gina" or long-winded and complex saxophone parts that dominate the fantastic title track. So this definitely feels like the Steely Dan we know and love. Still, there's definitely a sense of "been there, done that". As I've mentioned in the Two Against Nature, I do believe that record was the culmination of the duo's transformation into a jazz fusion outfit; for the most part, Everything Must Go just feels like an inferior version of that album.

But that's not to say it's bad, as even bottom-shelf Steely Dan still retains the sophistication and charm of their other work. The dreamy "Pixeleen" is a perfect example here; a lot of its chords and overall atmosphere are taken from the classic tune "Deacon Blues" from Aja, but Becker and Fagen tweak things up just enough to make it a solid track on its own. The female backing vocals are a wonderful touch, and really color in the harmonies beautifully. There's also the interesting stylistic choice of having Becker himself sing on "Slang of Ages", which I believe is a first for him on any studio album from the band. However, this one didn't pan out quite as well; his vocals are fine enough, but they just don't have the same sleazy charm or personality as Fagen's. Once again though, the female vocalists do a good job of carrying him through the tune.

Everything Must Go could best be described as "damn solid, but inessential". It's still worth a listen if you just can't get enough of Steely Dan's music after you've heard the classics, but it doesn't really reinvent the wheel at all. But in a way, I think that's kind of the point. It's a casual jazz rock record that's really smooth and well-produced; there aren't a lot of standout bangers - "Godwhacker", "Green Book", and the title track are probably the closest we get to one - but there are no discernable duds either. Let's be real here: if this is the worst Steely Dan can do, that says a hell of a lot about their standard of quality. And at the end of the day, I think we should be grateful that they didn't end their recording career crashing and burning like so many other bands do.

~R.I.P. Walter Becker 1950-2017~

 Two Against Nature by STEELY DAN album cover Studio Album, 2000
3.37 | 109 ratings

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Two Against Nature
Steely Dan Jazz Rock/Fusion

Review by Necrotica
Collaborator Prog Metal Team

4 stars For a moment, cast your minds back to February 2001. The Grammy Awards were in full swing, and the roster of artists competing for Album of the Year were quite the diverse bunch. Radiohead, Beck, and Eminem? what do all of them have in common though? The fact that they all got their start in the 90s and were considered newer artists at the time. I get the sense that most people were placing their bets on either Radiohead or Eminem winning, but as we've seen in previous Grammy ceremonies - Jethro Tull winning for Best Heavy Metal Album in 1989, anyone? - things don't always go as planned. So right on cue, as if rubbing it in the faces of all the Gen X'ers in the audience, Steely Dan's Two Against Nature was announced as the Album of the Year and the duo were given their award by none other than Stevie Wonder.

In any case, it's crazy how much a singular event can shape the public's perception of an artist. After all, this is the same blessed industry in which Ashlee Simpson's career got torn to ribbons just a few years later because of her Saturday Night Live, all for the crime of lip-syncing to the wrong song. The perception of Steely Dan has long been that of a "[&*!#]ty dad rock band" by a lot of people, despite the level of sophistication in the duo's songwriting or the sheer cynical cleverness found in their lyrics. Is it possible that this is just lingering contempt from the people who remember that Grammy ceremony? Maybe. But the point is clear: at least give the damn music a chance first and see if your preconceived notions can be changed. Who knows? Maybe you'll find some unexpected gems.

Speaking of "unexpected", though, Two Against Nature initially made for a pretty surprising listen. As much as I praise albums like Aja and The Royal Scam, none of the records from the duo's initial run manage to reach the - for lack of a better word - JAZZINESS of this one. The chill atmosphere and lush arrangements of Gaucho have now been expanded even further, and a lot of the instrumental passages really do approach the realms of traditional jazz fusion. The 70s Dan albums always flirted with jazz classics, but their pop leanings always brought them back under the umbrella of "jazz rock" instead of all-out jazz fusion. In other words, if you're looking for the most challenging and complex record Donald Fagen and Walter Becker ever released, this is the one. Just listen to the way the title track keeps shifting in and out of different time signatures with its latin beat, or how "Almost Gothic" can't seem to pick a consistent key or chord progression to stay in.

But here's the thing: the record goes about its business in such a subtle way that you're not going to absorb it all in one listen. The music still goes under the same chill guise you'd get from a slick smooth jazz album, but it's the little quirks that really set it apart. One of the best examples of this comes in the form of "Negative Girl"; the tune is so relaxing as it glides across your eardrums, but listen closer and you'll find wonderfully complex bass lines from Tom Barney and equally off-kilter drum patterns. On the other side of the energy spectrum, you have the upbeat closing mini-epic "West of Hollywood" which starts out pretty conventionally before revealing its true colors halfway through; a roaring saxophone solo takes over, with Chris Potter tearing it up over ever-changing keyboard melodies. Consequently, stuff like this also makes Two Against Nature the least accessible Dan record, but it's incredibly rewarding if you give it a chance. Plus, there are still some songs that are much more approachable, notably the relatively straightforward singles "Cousin Dupree" and "Janie Runaway".

Of course, as with most albums by the duo, the polished music is often presented in contrast with the lyrics. "Cousin Dupree" was the most extensively discussed song to come from the album, as it deals with a slacker who's just a little too interested in his cousin, and the lyrics even got a nod from Owen Wilson for being reminiscent of the movie You, Me and Dupree (though the song came out first). But let's be real here; wild topics like infidelity and incest aren't really out of place in a Steely Dan album. So if anything, I have to commend them for sticking to their guns after being away for so long. Other songs explore similarly dirty topics, such as the sexual escapades found in "Janie Runaway" or the meth-fueled character portrait of "Jack of Speed". Just as with Gaucho, the music is so beautiful and slick that you almost get distracted by just how dark these songs can get. The juxtaposition is simply fantastic.

While I probably would have rooted for Kid A at the 2001 Grammy Awards, Two Against Nature wouldn't have been far behind it. People may still complain and consider the win an "upset", but this really is a fantastic album that progressed Steely Dan in a meaningful way stylistically. If anything, it actually represents the end of their slow transformation into the jazz fusion group that they were always hinting at becoming? it just so happens that people had to wait another 20 years to finally hear it. Give it a listen if you've been predisposed to avoid it; you might be surprised.

 Gaucho by STEELY DAN album cover Studio Album, 1980
3.72 | 189 ratings

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Gaucho
Steely Dan Jazz Rock/Fusion

Review by Necrotica
Collaborator Prog Metal Team

4 stars If I had to point to the single biggest double-edged sword that blessed and cursed Steely Dan in equal measure, it would definitely be perfectionism. After all, there is such a concept as "too perfect" in the ears of many, whether it be from overly glossy production or from musicians who sound just a bit too precise (in other words, stiff or robotic). As someone who mostly grew up as a progressive rock fanatic, I will admit that the concept of perfectionism was initially quite a tantalizing one. It was even to the point that I actively refused to listen to live records for the longest time, so as to avoid hearing the inconsistencies and blemishes in people's performances. But a little spontaneity can be a good thing, even in more complex or sophisticated genres; if an artist's work sounds more rehearsed than usual, listeners might start to pick up on a layer of artifice that ends up turning them off.

But for Steely Dan, perfectionism ended up becoming their defining trait. And let's be real here: there were definitely signs of this that started to appear over time. Hell, the first indicator appeared all the way back on their 1972 debut Can't Buy a Thrill, which the duo considered a "rush job" despite taking six months to write and record. And by the time we got to Aja they were - according to the album's 1999 documentary on Classic Albums - not only playing musical chairs, but "musical bands". Every song would have a completely new lineup of musicians in order to fulfill the hyper-specific vision they had, and the personnel were often among the best of the best in the industry. It really makes me wonder if a group with Steely Dan's artistic philosophy and approach could even exist today; in retrospect, it's astounding that they even had such free reign to do this kind of thing. Of course, however, it definitely couldn't last. And the same stylistic traits that gave them a string of hits in the 70s would eventually destroy them at the dawn of the 80s.

Now, am I dramatizing this more than I should? Probably. But the retrospective opinion on Gaucho is quite different than how people perceived it at the time. Nowadays it's often cited as the last great Steely Dan record (which is highly debatable), but reviews at the time - while decent enough - were a serious step down from the praise that showered Aja just a few years prior. And I'm sure the stories going on behind the scenes weren't helping the duo's case, especially Becker's drug addiction and Fagen's ruthless attitude in the studio. I think most of us have heard the stories of the latter at this point: the title track's drum part being composed of 46 different takes that were spliced together, only 40 seconds of Mark Knopfler's literal hours of guitar solo takes being used for "Time Out of Mind", and the list goes on. So it's really not surprising at all that, while working with Steely Dan was a gig that could land you some serious accolades, the actual recording process must have been completely miserable.

The music itself is actually a bit of a departure from Aja, relying much more on atmosphere and minimalism than any of the duo's previous records. The arrangements are still complex, mind you, and songs such as the title track and "Babylon Sisters" go through some pretty crazy rhythm and chord changes (respectively) that'll make any old- school jazz fusion fan feel right at home. But I'd argue that Gaucho was the moment that Steely Dan's yacht rock transformation was truly complete, as the polish and gloss of Aja was pushed even further. It's hard to describe unless you've actually heard the record, but it's like the aural equivalent of what you might consider dead-eyed or vacant, which is likely the reason that so many people talk about the "uncanny valley" when describing the music. This is perhaps best represented in "Glamour Profession", a slightly uptempo number that has ominous horns perpetually ebbing and flowing in the background as Steve Gadd's repetitive drum beat keeps hammering away for the entire seven minutes of the track.

That's not to say the record sounds completely lifeless. In fact, the aforementioned title track is one of the most beautiful and well-arranged tunes I've ever heard from the duo, despite the incredibly bigoted and harsh lyrics that come with it. But considering this is Steely Dan, I'm pretty sure that contrast is exactly what they were going for. In fact, that brings up an important point about Gaucho: a lot of the band's trademark cynicism was back in full swing again. The thing that many people don't often talk about is that Aja was strangely sincere and earnest for a band who'd built themselves on being transgressive and cynical. But beneath the polished veneer of Gaucho's music, lyrics about drug dealings, hookers, and straight-up assholes emerge from the woodwork. As with many of the duo's previous records, this stuff is always welcome and adds to the twisted charm of their work; this is especially evident in "Time Out of Mind" and "Glamour Profession", which are completely transparent about their drug-based themes but also supported by the slickest-sounding jazz-rock imaginable.

Unfortunately, the one thing that really drags Gaucho down is its lack of variety compared to the last few records, especially Aja. Whereas the latter had a diverse range of styles - the funk and R&B of "Black Cow", the progressive jazz fusion of the title track, the upbeat pop of "Peg", etc. - the former rides on its midtempo grooves and simplistic melodies just a little too often. Once in a while they'll do something interesting over these beats, such as the fantastic horn interplay in the bridge of "My Rival", but it doesn't stop the album as a whole from being just a bit too homogeneous. It really could have benefitted from a few more "Babylon Sisters"-esque shuffles or more of the harmonic complexity of the title track.

Then again, considering how painful it was for the band to record that same title track, I think we should be grateful that we even got such a solid album in the first place. Gaucho is incredibly flawed, but that's ironically the strange allure of the record as well. There's something almost sickeningly voyeuristic about watching this duo fall apart and hearing the results of the fallout, but the trainwreck(ord) is just too compelling to ignore. Additionally, the benefit of hindsight really casts a melancholic shadow over Gaucho that no other Steely Dan record can boast. The emperor had no more clothes, and all that was left in his place was the death rattle of a band who'd taken their perfectionism and polish just a bit too far. Poetic irony indeed.

 Countdown to Ecstasy by STEELY DAN album cover Studio Album, 1973
4.05 | 238 ratings

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Countdown to Ecstasy
Steely Dan Jazz Rock/Fusion

Review by A Crimson Mellotron
Prog Reviewer

5 stars The sophisticated jazz-rock masterpiece 'Countdown to Ecstasy' was released in July of 1973, serving as Steely Dan's second studio album. In reality, any tag to this album would be improper, as it is a cross-genre work, that goes through not only jazz but also rock, pop, prog, blues and the avant-garde. It is hard to define Steely Dan as a band, we must say, as they never really had a lineup, except for the combined talents of Donald Fagen and Walter Becker, and producer Gary Katz, who was also an important part of the Steely Dan idea; This musical project is more of an ideal, an aesthetic, a 'happening', if you will.

'Countdown to Ecstasy' continues, or even prolongs, the musical explorations of 'Thrill', the band's (calling them a band would be easier, of course) debut album, but at the same time it expands the very sophisticated and elegant cross-genre style that they were clearly going after, with the crisp production, the ingenious melodies, the erudite and quite often cryptic lyrical content, the stark subtlety in the music; all features that can be both pondered upon and thoroughly enjoyed, and I believe few have achieved this healthy amalgamation of sophisticated, erudite music, and accessibility. This could allow us, I believe, to place Donald Fagen in the same category as musicians like Frank Zappa, David Bowie, John Lennon, you name them; the game-changers, as some often call them.

Not a single dull or tedious second of this very carefully crafted collection of eight songs, each one being a fascinating entity of its own; Except Fagen and Becker, 'Countdown' also sees the talents of Jeff 'Skunk' Baxter on electric guitars, Denny Dias on guitars, and Jim Hodder on drums and percussion, as well as a cast of other guest musicians appearing on some of the songs. Needless to mention how good the songs are, each one particularly impressive on its own, with some favorites including 'Bodhisattva', 'The Boston Rag', 'Your Gold Teeth', 'Show Biz Kids', 'King of the World', but really, every single song is so outrageously good, that it becomes absurd. It has to be noted that the lyrics on 'Countdown' are even more compelling than the ones on the debut album; It seems like this time Fagen is more ironic, more self-conscious maybe, and more critical in his observations, which include society, personality, and disappearing values.

An excellent trip inside the heads of two geniuses, 'Countdown to Ecstasy' is the first very grandiose achievement of 'Steely Dan'; Definitely an improvement over 'Can't Buy a Thrill' with the more mature, yet more adventurous sound; a crystal-clear sonic explosion from beginning to end, this record will hardly get anyone tired of listening to it, and I believe it has deservedly been praised from fans and critics alike. Essential is the word that fits it best.

 Aja by STEELY DAN album cover Studio Album, 1977
4.18 | 363 ratings

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Aja
Steely Dan Jazz Rock/Fusion

Review by Necrotica
Collaborator Prog Metal Team

5 stars Throughout the entire Steely Dan discography review, there's one term I've deliberately avoided until now: 'yacht rock'. It's a subgenre that was retroactively created in the mid-2000s to define a lot of the soft rock bands of the 70s and early 80s, often recognized for its association with smooth jazz and R&B influences. You'll often find bands such as The Doobie Brothers and Toto tagged with this label these days, and Steely Dan - particularly from Aja onward - is no exception. The reason I haven't brought it up until now is because it's often used as a pejorative term; in fact, it goes a long way in describing why Walter Becker and Donald Fagen were so hated by younger listeners from the 2000s onward. While it's just seen as a footnote in music history today, Steely Dan's win at the 2001 Grammys for Two Against Nature was a serious point of controversy back when it happened. After all, people were clamoring for a more modern artist like Radiohead or Eminem to win! To many, it was a sign that the boomers had won and gotten their 'revenge'.

The reason I bring all of this up is because Aja, for all of its accolades, is often considered a turning point in Steely Dan's career. It's seen as the moment the duo finally took the final plunge into their jazz influences to create a full- fledged pop-jazz fusion hybrid, especially when examining songs such as the complex title track and the smooth jazz stylings of 'Home at Last'. But if you read the contemporary reviews that were released at the time, you'll come across descriptors such as 'over-polished', 'lacking in edge', 'clinical', and so forth (I'm looking at you, Robert Christgau). The fact that Aja was the immediate successor to The Royal Scam probably didn't help either, seeing as the latter was their most guitar-oriented album to date. But I don't think it should be any surprise at all that this record was the eventual outcome of Becker and Fagen's relentless tinkering with studio technology and guest musician rotations. If anything, it was inevitable.

Say what you want about the yacht rock descriptor, but Steely Dan really took that subgenre's elements as far as they could go. So let's put context aside for a while and zoom in on the music at hand. More than any other record by the group, I would consider Aja their 'character study' album. Each tune focuses on a specific character - some in third person, some in first person - and assigns them their own interesting scenario or mood. Some of these are left open-ended, such as the person drinking the titular 'black cow' in the song of the same name (which is another term for a root beer float) or the vague Chinese imagery surrounding the woman described in the title track. Others, however, are quite painfully clear; the most notable of these would be 'Deacon Blues', which focuses on a dreamer whose imagination always surpasses the reality he lives in. The character simply lives in a perpetual state of longing, which is conveyed brilliantly by the dreamlike R&B-meets-jazz approach of the music.

Speaking of the music, it's easily the most impeccably written and performed work of the band's discography up to that point. The years of Becker and Fagen becoming a studio-only act really found their peak here, as the duo had gotten incredibly proficient at knowing exactly what musicians to use for each track. Many familiar faces return for this project, such as the legendary bassist Chuck Rainey, drummer Bernard Purdie (check out his purdie shuffle on 'Home at Last') as well as the usual roster of amazing guitarists. But there are some really surprising additions to the lineup this time around; the most striking of these would probably be Weather Report saxophonist Wayne Shorter's performance on the title track, once again signifying the group continuing their transition into the jazz realm. Steve Gadd also makes his first appearance on a Dan album with the same song, closing out the tune with a drum solo that's now considered legendary. As with previous records, however, the magic is in how every musician is used. Chuck Rainey, for instance, has a much different style of bass playing to that of Walter Becker's; this leads to an amazing contrast between the approaches of the upbeat and funky 'Peg' and the smooth, slow rhythms of 'Deacon Blues'.

Aja also happens to have the shortest tracklist of any Dan album up to this point (and only rivaled by its followup Gaucho), which means the duo didn't have any time to waste on filler tracks that might have been used in previous records to pad out the runtime ('Pearl of the Quarter' and 'With a Gun' immediately come to mind). Seven tracks, all killer no filler. Every song is unique enough to stand out, while also being consistent enough stylistically to not stand out like a sore thumb. It's worth noting that this isn't the group's jazziest album - either Gaucho and Two Against Nature would take that honor - but that actually works in its favor. Songs like 'Peg' and 'Josie' serve as perfect ways to break up the more dense and progressive sections of the record, not to mention being instantly memorable and impossibly catchy. What makes Aja so amazing lies in the fact that it balances so many different moods, themes, and styles as flawlessly as it does. When you step back and examine the album as a whole, it's pretty astounding how well Becker and Fagen managed to juggle artistic credibility and commercial appeal.

So, getting back to where we started, Aja serves as a perfect example of why Steely Dan shouldn't just be passed off as nothing but 'boomer music'. That pejorative label happens to be the very reason I passed on the band for several years, but this record proves just how incredible the fusion of jazz and rock can be when it's in the right hands. This is the culmination of all the studio experiments and painstaking perfectionism that Steely Dan worked with, and the high standards they set paid off beautifully. Becker and Fagen accepted nothing less than the best, and with Aja they reaped the incredible rewards that came with such a mindset.

 The Royal Scam by STEELY DAN album cover Studio Album, 1976
3.76 | 205 ratings

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The Royal Scam
Steely Dan Jazz Rock/Fusion

Review by Necrotica
Collaborator Prog Metal Team

4 stars "Kid Charlemagne", the opening track off The Royal Scam, accomplishes more in its 4:38 runtime than many progressive rock epics do in 20 minutes. Marrying jazz rock with a slick funk sound, the track manages to be both ornately detailed and catchy as hell at the same time. And despite the fact that Walter Becker and Donald Fagen wrote the tune, it's guitarist Larry Carlton who leads the charge here. His lead parts - capped off with a truly showstopping solo - make for one of the most complex and impressive performances you'll find in a pop rock song. And in just four minutes, we as the audience know what sound Steely Dan were aiming for this time around.

The Royal Scam is affectionately referred to by fans as the duo's "guitar album", and for damn good reason. As with previous Steely Dan releases, this one shows yet another facet of their core jazz-rock sound: guitar-driven funk. Prior records had their funky moments as well, but they were never featured quite as prominently as they were here. More importantly, as is the case with funk rock in general, the chemistry between the guitar and the rhythm section is crucial to the quality of these songs. Luckily, the lineup of guitarists featured on The Royal Scam is absolutely fantastic. There's Larry Carlton as I previously stated, but there's also the return of legendary Steely Dan alumni Denny Dias, Elliott Randall (remember that amazing guitar work on "Reelin' in the Years"?), and Dean Parks. Add Walter Becker himself to the mix and you've got an amazing all-star cast.

But of course, they're all used in the service of these amazing tunes. "Kid Charlemagne" might be an incredible opener, but what it really does is give us a taste of just how eclectic and crazy this record really is. Despite being more funky in nature, this might also be one of the most diverse tracklists the group ever put out; jazz, pop, funk, hard rock, progressive rock, and a hint of blues can all be found on the album. In fact, just after the opener, we get a complete change of pace with the horn-driven number "The Caves of Altamira"; the song marries a story about the genesis of creativity and expression with an arrangement that only gets more complex as it goes on. Lots of jazz, of course, but also a hint of R&B in the verses and some prog in each post-chorus. Meanwhile, "Don't Take Me Alive" might just be one of the most hard-rockin' Steely Dan numbers; Larry Carlton's lead guitar work absolutely tears it up on this fast- paced number, perfectly complimenting the dark lyrics about a criminal who's killed his own father and wants the cops to shoot him. How pleasant!

And the stylistic contrasts continue. But it's not like any of this detracts from the cohesion and focus of the record. If anything, each song is like its own unique extension of the Steely Dan style while still very much being in the Steely Dan style. This is perhaps best represented in some of the album's deeper cuts, most notably "Haitian Divorce" and "The Fez". The former is a song that I never would have expected to enjoy; I'm not much of a reggae fan as it is, so I wasn't really excited about the prospect of a Steely Dan song using rhythms and guitar leads reminiscent of the genre. And yet, it somehow works! I think the band's infusion of jazz into the mix, as well as the haunting and melancholic chorus, are really what pull it through in the end. Those backing vocals in the chorus are just lovely, and they only make the song even darker and more atmospheric than it already was. "The Fez", however, is an interesting experiment for the duo as well. The music covers pretty familiar funk rock rock territory, but the lyrics are quite minimalistic. "No I'm never gonna do it without the fez on; oh no!" is repeated as if it were a mantra, while the strings in the background make you feel as though you're in a 70s cop show. Honestly, it's fun as hell. And it culminates in the beautiful jazzy harmonies that make up the chorus.

If I had to give a label to The Royal Scam, I'd say it's probably Steely Dan's most "fun" album. The energetic funk- inspired sound is just a blast, and the incredible roster of amazing guitarists just makes it even more exciting. Additionally, with the lens of hindsight, you can definitely tell that it was the immediate precursor to Aja. While it's a lot funkier and more fast-paced than its successor, The Royal Scam was even more drenched in jazz influence than its predecessors and paved the way for songs like "Black Cow" and "I Got the News". Simply put, this album absolutely rocks and I can't give it a higher recommendation. But if you put it on, just make sure to turn down The Eagles; the neighbors are listening!

 Pretzel Logic by STEELY DAN album cover Studio Album, 1974
3.72 | 205 ratings

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Pretzel Logic
Steely Dan Jazz Rock/Fusion

Review by Necrotica
Collaborator Prog Metal Team

4 stars Ever since Steely Dan's inception, there's always been one truism regarding their work: that there's always gonna be the presence of jazz, whether it's side dish or the main course. And what makes their discography so fun to revisit is that each record has its own distinct take on the jazz rock sound. Countdown to Ecstasy had a more dense and prog-inspired variation of it, The Royal Scam took it in a harder and funkier direction, and so on. Because of this, every album has its own feel and style; combined with the sardonic lyrics of low-lifes and shady city life, it's almost as if you're listening to Steely Dan's own extended universe. But where does Pretzel Logic fit in? Well, true to the group's unpredictable shape-shifting ways, they cut back on the longer pieces this time around for a more focused jazz-pop sound. And I think many will agree when I say it's their best up to this point in their career.

The majority of Pretzel Logic is populated with sharp little audio vignettes that could last from two to four minutes; this is a perfect length for the songs to get in and get out while still making one hell of an impression on the listener. Of course, this is also the album that got Steely Dan back on the map commercially, mainly due to the strength of lead single "Rikki Don't Lose That Number". The two-punch of the subtle latin drum beat and Jeff Baxter's fantastic guitar work makes for a wonderfully breezy opener to lead things off, and it's a great indicator of what you're in for with the rest of the record. The jazz elements of Pretzel Logic are actually toned down a bit from Countdown to Ecstasy, but that doesn't mean they aren't still present. In fact, one of the best tunes in their career "Parker's Band" finds its way here; the song is a gloriously upbeat rock number filled to the brim with busy drums and wailing saxophones. In fact, while we're on the topic of drumming, this track was the official studio debut of the legendary Jeff Porcaro on a Dan record; he would eventually become the primary drummer for the band's next album Katy Lied. Other highlights in this vein include the fantastic rendition of the classic dixieland number "East St. Louis Toodle-Oo", the bluesy swagger and jazz chorus of the title track, and the upbeat yet lyrically dark journey through "Barrytown".

But let's briefly zoom out and look at the biggest change Pretzel Logic exhibits from its predecessors: the lineup. This was the last time we'd get to hear Steely Dan as a full band, as they'd be reduced to the central two-piece of Walter Becker and Donald Fagen starting with Katy Lied. But you can already tell the change is starting to take place; for instance, Jim Hodder - who had been the full-time drummer up to this point - got replaced by two session drummers and was relegated to being a backup singer. Over 15 session musicians were involved in the making of this record, many of whom would become regular staples in the band's future records. But I think what really makes Pretzel Logic stand out so much is the sheer number of horn players in its roster. They really make a profound impact on this record, adding an incredible amount of character and charm to several tunes; this is especially evident on "Night by Night" and "Parker's Band", which have incredible arrangements to match the detailed production work. "Night by Night" may be one of the best songs on offer here, a stunning combination of biting hard rock and complex jazz chord changes that's as intense as it is fun. The only thing holding back the record from being a perfect experience is that the last few songs are a tad less interesting than the previous stunners. After the highly enjoyable title track, the tunes that follow just feel a bit boring and filler-y, as if Becker and Fagen had finally expended their inspiration right before completing the album.

Luckily, the rest of the record anchors these songs just fine. If Countdown to Ecstasy was Steely Dan's proof of concept, then Pretzel Logic is the full realization of what that album was going for. It's a big leap forward in regards to marrying jazz complexity with pop accessibility; while it's arguably the most easy-going record from the band's early years, it's just so damn catchy that these songs will be in your head all week once you've heard them. Plus, at only 34 minutes, it's a damn breeze to get through. If you're a newcomer to Steely Dan, this is the first album I'd point you to.

 Countdown to Ecstasy by STEELY DAN album cover Studio Album, 1973
4.05 | 238 ratings

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Countdown to Ecstasy
Steely Dan Jazz Rock/Fusion

Review by Necrotica
Collaborator Prog Metal Team

4 stars Countdown to Ecstasy was an incredibly important record for Steely Dan in terms of laying the groundwork for the rest of their discography going forward. Not only were the jazz elements of their sound given much more attention than before, but this was the first instance in which the production quality was at the forefront of Walter Becker and Donald Fagen's concerns. In fact, it's pretty crazy to fathom that the exact same core lineup (minus David Palmer) recorded both this and Can't Buy a Thrill, given how different they are. But yes, Steely Dan were still a full- fledged group at this point; they wouldn't officially become a duo until 1975's Katy Lied. And since David Palmer was officially sacked, this is also the first album in which Fagen handled all lead vocals, which would be the norm for every Steely Dan record from here on out.

So how exactly is Countdown to Ecstasy so different from Can't Buy a Thrill, when both records share the same jazz rock base? It's largely due to how deep the jazz influences are on the former compared to the latter; these songs are much more sophisticated, even verging on progressive rock from time to time. And because of the improved production work, you can really hear the attention to detail that went into the instrumentals. "Bodhisattva", for instance, already comes out of the gate swinging with its upbeat blues-rock motif; but then, Denny Dias and Jeff Baxter manage to top that by adding some fantastic triple-stacked guitar harmonies to seal the deal. And this is all before Fagen even sings a note! Even more impressive is the extremely jazzy "Your Gold Teeth", as the guitar and keyboard solos glide effortlessly over the smooth latin groove. Fagen himself is especially good here, showcasing some of the best keyboard chops he's recorded with Steely Dan while demonstrating just how far he and the band can go with the jazz rock sound.

There's an aesthetic evolution here that needs to be brought up as well: the lyrics. While the Dan's trademark snarky cynicism was already partially established on Can't Buy a Thrill, it becomes the main lyrical dish from Countdown to Ecstasy onward. Songs like "Razor Boy" and "Show Biz Kids" are enjoyable parodies of the materialism and excess Fagen and Becker encountered in Los Angeles, while the closer "King of the World" veers into much darker territory as it discusses life in a post-apocalyptic version of the United States. The duo's knack for parodic and sharp storytelling has grown stronger on this record, and luckily the music matches the words very well. "King of the World" happens to be one of the best songs Steely Dan have ever released, a stunningly intricate piece of progressive jazz rock that melds its electric piano and lead guitar parts together perfectly; the beautiful harmonies in the chorus are just icing on the cake. Then there's also "My Old School", which tells the story of an old drug bust at Fagen and Becker's old college; the bombastic horns and bluesy piano parts are just as integral to telling the tale as the lyrics themselves. In fact, on a stylistic level, it's basically the best song that Billy Joel never wrote.

The biggest flaw of Countdown to Ecstasy is that our main songwriting duo hasn't quite committed to this new sound yet. A few remnants of the Can't Buy a Thrill sound remain, and they're just kinda out of place; this is especially true of "Show Biz Kids" and "Pearl of the Quarter". While I did praise the former for its lyrics, the strikingly simplistic music leaves a lot to be desired; in fact, I'd argue that it's one of the blandest songs in the group's catalogue. The latter, while mildly pretty, just sounds like a second-rate version of "Brooklyn" from the first album. But it's really not surprising that Countdown to Ecstasy is a transitional record, as Can't Buy a Thrill saw the band covering so much ground over the course of one album. Of all the routes they could have taken, I'm glad they settled with strengthening the jazz elements. Many bands were experimenting with jazz rock back then, but no one seemed to bridge the gap between the jazz and the rock quite as compellingly and smoothly as Steely Dan. Countdown to Ecstasy, while not very commercially successful by the band's standards, was probably the most important album in the artistic evolution of Fagen and Becker as one of rock's best songwriting duos.

 Can't Buy a Thrill by STEELY DAN album cover Studio Album, 1972
3.57 | 231 ratings

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Can't Buy a Thrill
Steely Dan Jazz Rock/Fusion

Review by Necrotica
Collaborator Prog Metal Team

4 stars It's a bit strange to imagine a period in Steely Dan's career in which they were actually a full-fledged band, but that era does indeed exist. Prior to Walter Becker and Donald Fagen's transition to full-time studio experimentation, their first three records had a solid lineup of musicians to record and tour with. But even in this early phase, their perfectionist tendencies led to members leaving left and right; some of them, such as singer David Palmer, only had one stint with the duo because of clashing personalities and simply not fitting in stylistically. Hey, even back then Becker and Fagen knew what they wanted out of their musicians! In hindsight, it's no wonder they eventually stuck with only session players. But if you want to hear an aural snapshot of the time Steely Dan were the closest to being an actual band, Can't Buy a Thrill will provide just that.

As debut albums go, this one is surprisingly accomplished. Although it tends to be much poppier and softer than future records, the jazz influences and cynical lyricism still surface pretty prominently. If you're a casual Steely Dan listener, you probably at least know "Do It Again" and "Reelin' in the Years"; they still get tons of airplay to this day, and it's not without reason. The former's latin flavor and sitar-esque guitar work result in instant memorability, while the latter matches rich vocal harmonies with a sunshine pop atmosphere to great effect. Not to mention, you've got Elliott Randall's amazing lead guitar work in that tune, which frequently graces several "best guitar solo" lists even today. But what makes Can't Buy a Thrill so interesting is the experimentation found in several of the deep cuts. This may actually be the most diverse Steely Dan album, despite still maintaining the level of focus that usually goes into their songwriting. Elements of pop, soft rock, folk, and even country creep into their usual jazz rock sound; this level of variety really makes the album's runtime fly by, as it ensures the tracklist doesn't get homogeneous.

Let's get into those deeper cuts, shall we? I'll break it down by genre. To represent the pop and soft rock elements, we've got "Dirty Work", "Only a Fool Would Say That", "Midnite Cruiser", and "Change of the Guard". Can't Buy a Thrill is probably Steely Dan's most easygoing record, and it's mostly due to these cuts; with that said, there's still some really solid songwriting here. "Dirty Work" and "Midnite Cruiser" are two of the only songs that aren't sung by Fagen - they're sung by Palmer and drummer Jim Hodder respectively - and it's interesting to hear how their voices blend with Becker and Fagen's musical/lyrical aesthetic. The former is particularly noteworthy as Palmer's soft, warm voice contrasts wonderfully with the song's harsh lyrics about having an affair; you can tell the band's penchant for being subversive and witty was already being established here. Meanwhile, the folk rock side has the smooth slide guitar of the country-influenced "Brooklyn (Owes the Charmer Under Me)" and the wonderful three-part vocal harmonies of closer "Turn That Heartbeat Over Again". Both go a long way in making the record a more multifaceted experience, though perhaps "Brooklyn" sounds a bit cheesy and dated by today's standards.

Finally, the jazz rock sound would be represented by the likes of "Do It Again", "Kings", "Reelin' in the Years", and "Fire in the Hole". Now that might seem like a small number of jazz-based tunes compared to what's found on later efforts, and that's because it is. And while "Kings" and "Fire in the Hole" are fantastic efforts that demonstrate Fagen's underrated piano skills, one wishes that more of these types of songs were on the record. The album's diversity is to be admired, but the whole thing still feels quite embryonic compared to the sound and aesthetic the main songwriting duo would perfect in the future. Still, Can't Buy a Thrill is a strikingly solid launching pad for what would become one of the most unique and fascinating bands to grace the 70s. Interestingly enough, Becker and Fagen both called the record a rush job despite putting in several months of writing and recording before its release. I suppose it's a testament to how dedicated they were to crafting just the right sound and style, something that would become more evident with every passing album. But if Can't Buy a Thrill is considered a "rush job", then I wish more rush jobs were this good.

Thanks to micky for the artist addition. and to Quinino for the last updates

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