Our Steely Dan albums ranked list looks back at the catalog of one of the most loved musical acts in popular music history. We are hesitant to call Steely Dan a rock band in the same way we are hesitant to call Frank Zappa a rock artist or Frank Sinatra just a singer. Three are a certain group of musical artists in history that were just too important and to groundbreaking to be simply given any one particular title or placed in any one particular category. Was Steely Dan a band? Of course Steely Dan was a band. However, it was a band formed quite simply by the brilliant musical minds and deep intellect of Walter Becker and Donald Fagen. The group developed a sound that was fueled by brilliant musicianship performing songs at times built on complex chord voicings, witty lyrics and unforgettable melodies.
Steely Dan was and still is very much a musicians band. We write still is because Donald Fagen has been quoted as saying Steely Dan will continue even after the loss of his lifetime musical partner Walter Becker. Perhaps he just meant will continue touring and performing. Will we see another Steely Dan album in the future or will it just be a solo Donald Fagen albums? In many ways Donald Fagen solo albums sounded very close to Steely Dan albums anyways. You really can’t separate that voice, that songwriting skill and his brilliant arrangements. Which gets us back to our topic sentence. Steely Dan was and still is a musician band. What we mean by that is that any amateur and professional musicians has always stood in awe of the musical arrangements and performances found on every Steely Dan record. And of course there are the concerts too, especially with Jon Herington playing that guitar. Lord is he that good.
If there’s one instrument that every musician looks forward to hearing on a Steely Dan album it was the guitar. Our writer Thomas Neokleous composed a brilliant article on the killer guitar solos on every Steely Dan record that we published recently. It’s a must read for Steely Dan fans. The brilliant musician and artist John Tabacco who is was one of the greatest musicians that we have ever known has also written many articles on Steely Dan for the site which we highly recommend you to check out his work.
So is Steely Dan a band? That question keeps coming up because the face of Steely Dan is so much all about both Walter Becker and Donald Fagen. In the beginning, yes they were a band with David Palmer partly on lead vocals, Jeff “Skunk” Baxter on guitar, Denny Dias on guitar and Jim Hodder on drums. However what you will see in our Steely Dan albums list is how the personnel over time changed dramatically in Steely Dan with only Walter Becker and Donald Fagen steering the ship all the way though.
As personnel changed in Steely Dan so did Donald Fagen and Walter Becker’s approach to recording albums. Steely Dan’s Aja and Gaucho are far different albums from the Steely Dan’s Can’t Buy a Thrill. Not just in the personnel, but also in the maturity of the writing and performance. Those two albums Aja and Gaucho along with The Royal Scam were phenomenal records that stand apart from almost anything that was released in the 1970s that was considered pop or rock or jazz or whatever one wants t to consider them. In the end, the best way to describe them were they were just Steely Dan records.
Maybe we should just start a new category in music instead of just zazz, classical, country, pop, rock, hip-hop and rap. We could also have a Steely Dan category. Then we could throw bands like Danny’s Wilson into that category. There are probably not going to be too many others. We have to think about it for a while. It’s going to be a pretty elite category.
Below is a list of all the Steely Dan studio albums ever released. We put them in order of our favorites, it’s as simple as that. These albums have been analyzed millions of times so there is not much more that we’re going to say that’s going to bring anything new to the topic. These guys were so brilliant, what are we going to say that hasn’t already been said on their records? We’re just going to list some of our favorite songs the performances and the brilliant musicians that played on them, some chart information, yada yada yada. But what we do hope is that for people who are not familiar with these albums, they will go out and buy them, or maybe those who haven’t listened to them for so long, will put them on that turntable table one more time. That has an always will be the focus of all our articles.
# 9 – Everything Must Go
We open up our Steely Dan Albums list with Donald Fagen and Walter Becker’s final studio album together as Steely Dan entitled Everything Must Go. The album was released on June 10, 2003. We start out with this album because it’s the Steely Dan album we have spent the least amount of time with being it’s their most recent studio album. The term “recent,” may actually not be the most wise choice of words as this album is already 18 years old, although it feels like it was just released a few years ago. Time is a difficult concept to accept the older we get.
First and foremost Everything Must Go is a great musical album. But it’s hard to compare to any older Steely Dan album we have really grown up with. We have no way listened to it as many times as we listened to all their other classic albums from the 7os. And that brings up the question as to why we have not played this one that much. Is it our age or is it the album. There is just something about this one that has made us often overlook it, but we honestly just can’t pinpoint it. I mean for the love of the Royal Scam, it’s still a Steely Dan album, Let us know what you think.
# 8 – Two Against Nature
Now this is an album we listened to a million times simply because we could not believe that Steely Dan was releasing a new studio album after we all thought that Steely Dan was broken up good. And we had a pretty good reason to believe that because Steely Dan had not released a news studio album since their last record entitled Gaucho was released twenty years earlier in 1980. The release of Two Against Nature was shocking to all of us. Bells rung around the world and the streets in every city, town and village were filled in celebration that Steely Dan had returned. Well at least that’s how it felt. And leave it to Steely Dan to release their first single in twenty years to be about incest in the song “Cousin Dupree.” But you know what? No one cared about the subject matter as the album went on to win four Grammy Awards including one for the song “Cousin Dupree.”
Steely Dan’s album Two Against Nature was a perfect Steely Dan album. It contained everything we loved about the band as they had become Gods to us while we continued to listens to their records for the 20 year period since the Gaucho album was released. As we aged, our ears became more trained to hear the nuances that we missed when we in our teens and hearing those Steely Dan albums as they were released in the 7os. We were really spoiled by how many great albums came out in the 70s. We thought that would continue forever. We were so wrong.
Two Against Nature featured an onslaught of some of the greatest musicians in the world. Steely Dan had toured in the 90s and used the great Jon Herington on guitar who finally got to appear on a Steely Dan album. Other great guitarists who appeared on the album included Paul Jackson Jr. Hugh McCracken, Dean Parks and of course Walter Becker himself.
# 7 – Countdown To Ecstasy
Out of all the Steely Dan albums released in the 1970s, this was the one that got the least amount of spins on our turntable. And that’s our fault because it’s really a great Steely Dan album. The Countdown to Ecstasy album was released during the summer of 1973. At the time, the band still consisted of Donald Fagen, Walter Becker, Denny Dias, Jeff “Skunk” Baxter and Jim Hodder. The big change in the band occurred with the departure of vocalist David Palmer, leaving Donald Fagen to sing lead vocals on every track. Steely Dan brought in some jazz legends to play on some of the album’s songs including the great Ray Brown on bass, Victor Feldman on vibes, Ernie Watts on sax and Rock God guitarist Rick Derringer. Standout tracks on the album included “My Old School,” “Show Biz Kids” and the brilliant album opener “Bodhisattva.”
# 6 – Can’t Buy A Thrill
As a thirteen years old, this was a cover that really interested me. I kind of knew what was going on I think, but I do remember staring at it hundreds of times while I listened to this brilliant album. Steely Dan’s Can’t Buy A Thrill was the band’s debut album. The record was released during the fall of 1972. The album would become a commercial success peaking at number 17 on the Billboard Top 200 albums charts. It would go on to sell over a million copies. All of that was fueled initially by the success of two major hit singles on the album, Hits songs entitled “Reelin’ In the Years,” and “Do It Again,” that would eventually find their way into constant rotation on fm album oriented rock radio. Both songs were top 10 hits on the Billboard Hot 100. The great Elliot Randell played the spectacular guitar solo on the tune “Reelin’ In the Years, setting off a series of great guitar solos by so many guitarists over the years that would become a trademark of Steely Dan albums.
Can’t Buy A Thrill was filled with great songs. The great David Palmer vocals on the brilliant song “Dirty Work,” and our favorite and very underrated “Brooklyn (Owes the Charmer Under Me)” would stand as outliers in the Steely Dan catalog as songs in a style that the band would never revisit again. We still love listening to Jim Hodder lead vocals on “Midnite Cruiser.” And of course all the Donald Fagen lead vocals were simply stunning. And let’s not forget the great guitar work of Denny Dias and Jeff “Skunk” Baxter. Yes, this was very much a Steely Dan Band album.
# 5 – Gaucho
Gaucho was the most eagerly anticipated Steely Dan album released during their initial run. Aja was such a groundbreaking and spectacular album. From 1972 to 1977, Steely Dan had released an album a year. It took the band three years to release the follow up to Aja. The Gaucho album was released on November 21, 1980. It would break into the Billboard’s Top 200 albums charts top 10 peaking at number nine. It would become their sixth album to go platinum selling one million copies.
The Gaucho album was very similar to the Aja album in style of songs, production and of course musicianship. However Aja was just so good that it didn’t matter what Steely Dan did as it would always be compared unfavorably or at least unfairly to Aja. It’s like trying to live up to that older brother or sister who wins all the awards, gets straight A pluses and wins the championship game while being awarded the MVP. Of course there are some fans that actually like the Gaucho album better than Aja. Their argument is fueled by the assortment of great tracks on the album and how brilliantly produced and engineered this great record was. It actually won a Grammy Award for its production values.
Songs like “Hey Nineteen, Time Out Of Mind, Babylon Sisters and Glamour Profession,” really stood up to the Aja songs. The musicianship on the album was once again top notch with jazz legends such as the Brecker Brothers, Tom Scott, Joe Sample, Ronnie Cuber as well as many more all performing on the album. Once again the great Larry Carlton plays guitar on the record as well as the distinguished guitarists Hiram Bullock Steve Khan and Hugh McCracken. Rock stars in their own right Rick Derringer and Mark Knopfler of Dire Straits also played on the record. Throw in a little Jeff Porcaro and Steve Gadd on drums,Chuck Rainey and Anthony Jackson on bass along with some spectacular back up vocals by Michael McDonald and Patti Austin and you have the dream team x10 for musicians.
# 4 – Katy Lied
Katy Lied is a personal favorite among many musicians that I have worked with over the years. There is just something really special about the Katy Lied album. Perhaps it the first time we heard the song “Doctor Wu,” and heard those Michael McDonald backing vocals. Wow! The Katy Lied album was released in November of 1975. Katy Lied is a transitional album for Steely Dan between the group based pre 1975 albums like their first four and the more jazz influenced studio musicians extravagance of their late 1970s albums. There were some really standout tracks that were on this album including “Bad Sneakers, Black Friday Daddy Don’t Live in that New York City No More” (which featured Larry Carlton for the first time on a Steely Dan album) and of course our favorite Steely Dan song “Doctor Wu.”
# 3 – The Royal Scam
The Royal Scam was a turning point in Steely Dan’s career. The band’s sound changed dramatically on The Royal Scam album. This one instantly blew away music critics and fans who had really never heard anything like it before. Of course there were already bands like Chicago and Blood Sweat & Tears that had mixed jazz and rock in a much successful manner. Yet, there was a slickness and depth to this album that hit you hard, knocked you down and then pulled you into a dark alleyway demanding you to listen as closely as you could so you wouldn’t miss a thing.
Steely Dan’s The Royal Scam album was released in the spring of 1976. Three singles were released from the album including the great songs “Kid Charlemagne,” “The Fez” and “Haitian Divorce.” One of the great 1970s albums.
# 2 – Aja
Most Steely Dan fans and critics would chooses Aja as the band’s masterpiece. We would not argue with them. Aja is Steely Dan’s work of art, it’s rock and roll’s Mona Lisa. It is one of the most extraordinary albums ever released. The Aja album was released on September 23, 1977. Aja has become Steely Dan’s biggest selling album of all time. The album has sold two million copies in the United States as well as two million copies in Canada. The album charted higher than any other Steely Dan album peaking at number three on the Billboard Top 200 albums charts of 1977.
Every song on the Aja album is an example of musical perfection. The song’s structures, chord changes and voicings along with the perfect note for note solos are fueled from stories of legend in which Walter Becker and Donald Fagen did take after take after take often causing the engineers to just want to go get sick because they could not take Fagen and Becker’s quest for musical perfection. The engineers Roger Nichols, Elliot Scheiner, Al Schmitt, Bill Schnee were rewarded for their service as the Aja album won a Grammy Award for for Best Engineered Recording – Non-Classical.
The Aja album contained seven very special songs. “Black Cow,” “Aja,” and “Deacon Blues,” filled out side one. Easily one of the top ten sides in musical history. Side two was composed of the songs “Peg,” “Home At Last.” “I Got The News,” and Josie. It came off like a greatest hits album. Peg, Deacon Blues, and Josie were released as singles. However, the centerpiece of the album was the title track “Aja.” An almost 8 minute musical wonder filled with an in incredible guitar solo by Larry Carlton, a mouth dropping performance by Steve Gadd on drums and career defining playing and singing by Walter Becker and Donald Fagen. The song also featured Crusaders pianist and accomplished jazz artist Joe Sample on electric piano. Wayne Shorter who is one of the greatest jazz saxophone players to have ever lived and released so many great jazz albums on Blue Note Records also played on the track. Pianist Michael Omartian a star in his own right also performed on Aja. Backing vocals were contributed by The Eagles Timothy B. Schmit.
# 1 – Pretzel Logic
In the number one spot on our Steely Dan albums list we have chosen their great album Pretzel Logic. While being nothing like the last three albums we reviewed as far as star studded solos by famous musicians, shining production and praise beyond recognition, the choice of Pretzel Logic as our number one comes down to one thing….the songs themselves. Starting with their most successful song of their career in the song “Rikki Don’t Lose That Number,” through every song on the album including “Any Major Dude Will Tell You” and the title track, this was their finest collection of songs in their most simplistic form. And that my friends is why we love Pretzel Logic the best.
Steely Dan Albums Ranked article published on Classic RockHistory.com© 2021
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