Ranking Steely Dan albums

Walter Becker’s dead. No more Steely Dan albums. Good. Let me rank my favorites, aware that I’m short one album and that Donald Fagen’s The Nightfly might’ve joined this list.

1. Gaucho (1980)

The fish stinks. The bedroom carpet hasn’t seen sunlight in weeks. White powder smears on a glass table. In a corner writhes Johnny the Third World Man, ready to set fire to his neighbors’ houses on a smoky Sunday or die trying; it can’t be worse than hiding in his bunker of sand. Discovering the possibilities of multi-track overdubs, Becker-Fagen hide beneath layer upon layer of stunningly precise interwoven guitars, era keyboards, and a pulse so steady that it’s being trapped in a metronome. Like Bryan Ferry five years later, Fagen proffers intimations of weird sins in a weary sneer, committed by rich cosmopolites at Mr Chow and, hungover like hell, at a family birthday party the same weekend; some of those sins include leering at a nineteen-year-old blessed enough not to have Aretha’s La Diva. My friend Mike Powell wrote the following about Gaucho in 2006:

And that’s what I hear when I listen to the record: a series of assholes puckered so tight that they ultimately burst, leaving the shit of human emotional existence to just pour out. An irony so thorough that it loses all distance on its subject. You’re surrounded by waste and all of the sudden, feeling nothing has just turned into feeling unbelievably terrible. Somehow, the disgusting weight of all of Gaucho’s losers—Fagen and Becker, included—ruptures the album’s sterility. It’s exhausting and it’s remarkable.

Mike Powell and I courted over Gaucho. The title track’s chord changes and  the enthusiasm with which the backup vocals blow Fagen away from them, like a salt breeze does the stink of sewage  I call my friend Humberto “The Gaucho” — sartorially he leaned towards the absurd in his late twenties, and we goodnaturedly snickered. For a record infamous for its etiolation, for incarnating decadence, Gaucho has inspired much good in my life.

For more Gaucho fun, Scott Woods moderated a podcast devoted to it in 2015.

2. Countdown to Ecstasy (1973)

In which Jeff “Skunk” Baxter and Dennis Dias master the Dan’s twin guitar attack, transforming them into a rock band before their retreat to a duo directing expert musicians. It doesn’t matter what “The Boston Rag” and “Your Gold Teeth” are “about” — they swing, crunch, boast a phrase or intonation worth chewing on for days. Becker-Fagen wrote “Showbiz Kids” for Fagen’s voice; to imagine Palmer singing it is like imagining Donald Trump recording a Dubliners audio book.

3. Can’t Buy a Thrill (1972)

Thanks to David Palmer’s Johnny Hartman pretensions, the Dan’s debut rarely gets mentioned in the same breath as Pretzel Logic or Aja. A pity: Palmer’s sweet pipes presage Angelo Badalamenti and David Lynch’s Julie Cruise collaborations by fifteen years. And the songs! Becker-Fagen at their Brill Building best: “Dirty Work,” covered later by the Pointer Sisters; “Only A Fool Would Say That”; “Change of the Guard”; and the harmonies in “Midnite Cruiser.” As for “Do It Again,” well, could ya believe I confused it for Santana?

4. Pretzel Logic (1974)

My first Dan purchased, based on the number of critics who praised the band’s third album as their best. Yet those familiar with “Reelin’ in the Years” and “Do It Again” might still miss the glint of those electric guitars: beyond “Rikki Don’t Lose That Number” and perhaps “With a Gun,” Becker-Fagen’s songcraft here demands patience. But the patience results in awe that a creation as variegated and tricky as “Any Major Dude Will Tell You” exists.

5. Katy Lied (1975)

The tempos soften, the marimbas get tinkled, Fagen’s delivery becomes more sinister. “Black Friday” apotheosizes a market crash to a rock-funk groove, but the rest stink of mild decay, at mid-tempo. When detractors get excited thinking about how Steely Dan suck, the sound of Katy Lied is what they have in mind.

6. Aja (1977)

The peak of their fame, among the first albums certified platinum, Aja doesn’t broaden their sound so much as burnish their studio jams with pros. “Peg” is their purest pop hit: their “Friday, I’m in Love.” Wayne Shorter worked with them before Joni Mitchell. “Josie” is the not-so-secret highlight.

7. Everything Must Go (2003)

Becker and Fagen must have sensed the end was nigh, or at least spent so many years courting a fatalism they earned as the decade waned` that the end looks mighty fine indeed. At any rate Becker’s final collaboration with Fagen is tighter and creepier — the operative adjectives for Steely Dan — than the lauded Two Against Nature, the songs (anti-Dubya “Bushwhacker,” “Pixaleen,” “Green Book) excellent. Walt Weiskopf’s sax is the star, spraying notes over the title track and its perfect envoi: “I move to dissolve the corporation/In a pool of margaritas.”

8. The Royal Scam (1976)

This album, which enjoys a vocal cult, has its horror show attractions: Kanye-approved “Kid Charlemagne,” the snarling drug deal gone bad depicted in “Don’t Take Me Alive,” but the light funk experiment of “The Fez” and Dean Parks’ talk box solo in “Haitian Divorce” are annoyances. And I’ve played the title track and “Everything You Did” six thousand times since 2006 and can’t hum them.

Finally, my list of favorite tracks.

5 thoughts on “Ranking Steely Dan albums

      1. Jukebox

        Everyone Goes to the Movies is the perfect encapsulation of a Dan song; Disturbing and catchy as hell.

        My favorite duo (it was a duo!) til the Pet Shop Boys. I like my duos sticky and clever.

  1. Jukebox

    Do It Again,” well, could ya believe I confused it for Santana?

    Sure. But Donnie Hathaway’s The Ghetto, too. And I was in Broocklyn when first heard B- (Owes the Charmer Under me) Think I was in Heaven.


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