Discog Fever - Rating and Reviewing Every Steely Dan and Donald Fagen Album

by Jeff Fiedler

Discog Fever is a regular feature on thegreatalbums.com, rating and reviewing a band's entire catalogue of studio albums.

Can’t Buy a Thrill (1972, ABC)

A

Steely Dan’s first album is also a real anomaly in their catalog. It’s one of their few albums where you can actually call the outfit a true band, whereas nearly all their later albums were essentially the work of Donald Fagen and Walter Becker surrounded by a rotating all-star cast of session musicians. The band actually consists of several lead vocalists on this first outing, short-lived member David Palmer crooning “Brooklyn” and “Dirty Work” and sharing lead vocals on three other cuts, while drummer Jim Hodder sings “Midnite Cruiser.” While the album boasts some extremely catchy and first-rate album cuts in “Midnite Cruiser,” “Kings,” “Only a Fool Would Say That,” the electric-piano-driven “Change of the Guard,” and the brass-laden “Dirty Work,” the true highlights of this album are its two iconic singles, the six-minute Latin-tinged-funk workout “Do It Again” and the swinging “Reelin’ in the Years,” which features some truly blistering memorable guitar work from Elliot Randall. Even if Palmer doesn’t sound particularly confident as a vocalist here and the outfit has yet to fully develop the lyrical style for which it would become famous, the songs are great and the band already has a very distinctive identity. Most critics tend to grade this album a little more harshly, if only because it’s so different from their later albums and not nearly as unique or idiosyncratic, but judged purely on a song-by-song basis, there are arguably more immediately catchy songs to be found on this album than on Pretzel Logic or Katy Lied, and the lyrics are a lot more penetrable, too.

Countdown to Ecstasy (1973, ABC)

A +  

Palmer has left the band at this point (though he’d fare well in later years, penning the lyrics for Carole King’s Top Ten hits “Jazzman” and “Nightingale”), and Fagen has become confident enough in his singing to assume the role of the band’s sole lead vocalist on this sophomore outing. The songs aren’t quite as immediately catchy as those on the debut – and this would be one of the few albums by the duo during the Seventies to not yield a Top 40 hit, so you may not be familiar with any of these songs – but they’re still very, very good, and sink in quickly enough. The songwriting team of Fagen and Becker has also grown by leaps and bounds as lyricists since the last album and are developing a style all of their own. Highlights include the hard-hitting boogie-rock of the strange “Bodhisattva,” the vibraphone-laden “Razor Boy,” the snide strut of the L.A.-themed “Show Biz Kids,” the bitter “My Old School,” and the mini-epic “King of the World.”

Pretzel Logic (1973, ABC)

A

The band ceased touring after the promotional tour for the previous album, and this would be the last album where anyone other than Becker and Fagen would be credited in the liner notes as being official members of the band. The band’s lyrics have never been more impenetrable up to this point than they are here – frankly, it’s a little hard to tell what some of these songs are even about – but the band sounds tighter than ever, and they’re also feeling a bit more free to work their love of jazz into the music (even going so far as to close the album’s first side with a Duke Ellington cover). The album gets a tad too filler-heavy in its back half, some of the songs sounding only half-developed (particularly the odd “Through with Buzz”), but the first half is truly solid, sporting a killer opening punch in the Horace Silver-influenced soft bop of “Rikki Don’t Lose That Number” (which is almost certainly the only Top Ten hit in history to feature a flapamba in its intro), the gritty “Night By Night,” the catchy “Any Major Dude (Will Tell You),” and the sunny “Barrytown.” The album’s foot-stomping, heavily blues-oriented title track is also a real knockout, too, Becker showing off some impressive lead guitar work on the cut.

Katy Lied (1974, ABC)

A

Original drummer Hodder (his role on the last album having been reduced to just providing background vocals) has now left as well, his place filled by session musician Jeff Porcaro (Toto’s future beat-keeper), and Jeff “Skunk” Baxter has also jumped ship, but future Doobie Brother Michael McDonald joins the increasingly-loose assemblage, providing his trademark backing vocals. Becker and Fagen are notorious studio perfectionists, so the duo apologizes profusely in the liner notes for the sound quality (apparently, a noise-reduction device they employed malfunctioned), but the album actually sounds perfectly fine, and the apology seems wholly unnecessary. Unlike Can’t Buy a Thrill and Pretzel Logic, there’s no knockout single here and the only Top 40 hit here is the now-largely-forgotten menacing-sounding groove of “Black Friday,” but the surrounding album cuts are pretty stellar, especially “Chain Lightning,” “Doctor Wu” (featuring a sax solo from jazz great Phil Woods, the same man who provided the legendary sax solo on Billy Joel’s “Just the Way You Are”), the fun, marimba-laden “Everyone’s Gone to the Movies,” and the cryptic but incredibly catchy “Bad Sneakers” (“ … and a pina colada, my friend!”). The album also unusually sports a sequel to a Countdown to Ecstasy album cut in “Your Gold Teeth II.” Like Pretzel Logic, it noticeably tapers off a bit in quality in its back half, but it’s still yet another largely solid outing from Becker and Fagen.

The Royal Scam (1976, ABC)

B +  

An album that just places a tad too much emphasis on groove over actual composition (particularly on the underwhelming funk-flavored cuts “The Fez” and “Green Earrings”), this is the band’s most disappointing outing of the Seventies, but it also shouldn’t be overlooked entirely, either. The jittery opener “Kid Charlemagne” is one of the duo’s most underrated songs, as is the gritty, more rock-oriented “Don’t Take Me Alive.” The reggae-tinged “Haitian Divorce” and “Sign in Stranger” are also highlights on this transitional affair that finds the duo trying out more styles than ever. It’s also the last time that Becker and Fagen could truly still be labeled “rock,” since all their later outings would purely be in the jazz-pop vein.

Aja (1977, ABC)

A +

Easily the most jazz-flavored album the duo ever made, it’s also the best album they ever made. This album is very well-known for its glossy and meticulous production and its crystal-clear sound quality, but that would all mean little if the songs were no stronger than those on The Royal Scam. Fortunately, Becker and Fagen are back in top form as songwriters, offering up their finest and most consistent set of songs since possibly Countdown to Ecstasy, and it paid off for them in a big way, three songs here cracking the Top 40: the fun, disco-tinged “Peg,” featuring the ever-distinctive background vocals of Michael McDonald, the easygoing soulful acoustic pop of “Deacon Blues,” and the R&B grooves of “Josie.” The album gets a little solo-heavy elsewhere, particularly on the epic title track, but jazz fans shouldn’t mind in the slightest, because the playing throughout the album is truly top-notch and the cast of players is a fun one. Aja also boasts one of the greatest bass riffs in all of ‘70s pop with the lazy funk of “Black Cow,” later sampled to great effect in multiple late ‘90s hip-hop singles from the likes of Lord Tariq and Peter Gunz (“Déjà Vu (Uptown Baby)”) and Tatyana Ali (“Daydreamin’”) [Becker and Fagen would score another Top 40 hit around the same time with the song “FM (No Static at All),” but it sadly doesn’t appear here and was given away to the soundtrack of the movie FM.] 

Gaucho (1981, MCA)

B  

Stylistically, this isn’t all that terribly different an album from Aja – it’s in the same jazz-pop vein – but it’s hard not to be somewhat disappointed by it. It’s a more consistent album songwriting-wise than The Royal Scam, which came across too underdeveloped in places, but the perfectionism of Becker and Fagen reaches slightly off-putting levels here, the album seeming just a little too over-labored and meticulous throughout, and it consequently never feels quite as organic or as warm and inviting as Aja did, even if its intentions are similar. (But then again, it was the Eighties, and it’s hard to imagine that the slightly-rawer jazz-pop of Aja would have been received as warmly by pop radio in 1981 as it was in 1977.)  Even if the album seems a bit too fussy, the songs themselves are still generally pretty good, particularly the vaguely-reggae-tinged “Babylon Sisters,” the toe-tapping “Time Out of Mind” (featuring Dire Straits’ Mark Knopfler on lead guitar), and, best of all, the soulful “Hey Nineteen,” which is a nice preview of the kind of sophisticated, slightly nostalgia-tinged adult-contemporary pop Fagen would explore on his solo debut The Nightfly the following year.

The Nightfly (1982, Warner Bros.)

A +

One of the earliest all-digitally-recorded albums, Fagen’s first solo album (helmed by longtime Steely Dan producer Gary Katz) still remains to this day one of the best-sounding albums ever made and a great disc for audiophiles to use to test stereo equipment of any kind. Musically, it’s also one of Fagen’s most masterful undertakings, with or without Steely Dan, and it deservedly picked up a Grammy nomination for Album of the Year in 1983 (ultimately losing to Toto IV, though Toto guitarist Steve Lukather humbly admitted afterwards that he thought The Nightfly was going to win and that Fagen’s disc was one of his all-time favorites). Like the last two Steely Dan efforts, this disc leans closer to jazz than rock and it contains an all-star crop of session musicians, including Porcaro, the Brecker Brothers, Larry Carlton, Greg Phillinganes, Rick Derringer, Steve Jordan, and Michael Omartian. The songs also rank among Fagen’s all-time best, highlighted by the R&B/soul-tinged pop of the delightful Top 40 hit “I.G.Y. (What a Beautiful World)” (featuring the great Valerie Simpson on backing vocals), which doesn’t get nearly the radio play these days that it deserves (though you’ve almost certainly heard it as background music at some point at a shopping center). Other standouts include the late-night-jazz-deejay-themed title track, the jittery “New Frontier,” and the retro-tinged pop of “Maxine” and “Walk between Raindrops.” Even the silky-smooth cover of the Dion doo-wop classic “Ruby Baby” fits so perfectly in this setting, you nearly forget that it’s not a Fagen original. Walter Becker may be absent, but this disc is definitely not to be missed by Steely Dan fans; this is a downright classic. It’s just a shame that this one ended up being Fagen’s last album of the ‘80s, because he’s at a creative high point here.

Kamakiriad (1993, Giant)

C +

A full eleven years after his last studio outing of any kind, Fagen finally comes out of hiding to deliver his second solo album. Sadly, Gary Katz is not involved this time, although the producer’s chair is helmed by no other than Walter Becker! (Naturally, Becker handles the bass and lead guitar as well and also co-writes a cut.) A concept album about a traveler exploring the world in his brand-new Kamakiri automobile, it’s never bad per se, but there are two things that unfortunately work against it. For one thing, it doesn’t sound quite as warm or organic as The Nightfly did (or either of the last two Steely Dan albums, for that matter) and consequently feels a bit sterile at times. The songs are also a little unnecessarily long, six of the eight cuts clocking in at over six minutes, two of those clocking in at just over seven or eight, which wouldn’t be so bad if the music were at least more infectious, but there aren’t as many hooks to be found here as there are on The Nightfly. Still, there are some moderately good songs on here, namely “Tomorrow’s Girls,” “Trans-Island Skyway,” and the Becker co-write “Snowbound.”

Two Against Nature (2000, Giant)

B –

Surprising everyone, Becker and Fagen join forces under the Steely Dan name in the studio for the first time in twenty years. While the album (the duo's first without longtime producer Gary Katz, Becker and Fagen taking over production themselves)
didn’t exactly make any waves at radio, the duo pulled off a major upset and took home that year’s Grammy for Album of the Year, notoriously beating out the predicted winner, Eminem. Considering that they never won the trophy for any of their Seventies outings, it was an overdue honor, even if it wasn’t exactly the right album to honor them for – it’s certainly not a bad album, but it’s a real grower, and the songs lack the immediate hooks that their albums of the Seventies and early Eighties had. (The best songs here are arguably “Cousin Dupree,” “What a Shame About Me,” and “Gaslighting Abbie,” but even those take several listens to sink in.) This being Steely Dan, though, the album, not surprisingly, sounds as great as always, not just in terms of the sound engineering, but the production and musicianship as well, so it’s hard not to admire the craft throughout even when the songs themselves don’t really take hold. It’s no Aja, of course, but it’s at least nearly every bit as good as Gaucho (or The Royal Scam, for that matter), it’s quite nice to hear Becker and Fagen making new music together again, and the album is just good enough to not damage the legacy left by the original seven albums. That in and of itself is a real feat when you consider just how many veteran bands have damaged their brand by not knowing when to quit.

Everything Must Go (2003, Giant)

C  

Easily the duo’s least essential studio album, this album is more relaxed and less fussy than Two Against Nature was, which is an intriguing and pleasant departure (it’s been a while since the band sounded quite as live in the studio as they do here), but there are two things that work against it. First, the band tries some experiments that don’t quite work. Becker unexpectedly takes lead vocal on “Slang of Ages,” for instance; while he’s perfectly capable, the fact that the duo is trying this for the first time so late into their career makes the track stick out in a bad way and break the flow of the album. Even female backing vocalist Carolyn Leonheart gets to take the lead on several lines in “Pixeleen,” which sounds equally as odd and out of character for the duo. Secondly, the batch of songs is spottier and less catchy than those on Two Against Nature, though “Things I Miss the Most” and the excellent “Blues Beach” help make up for it. The album’s certainly not bad – it just doesn’t measure up to the previous eight.

Morph the Cat (2006, Reprise)

B –

It takes several listens to warm up to and it can be really impenetrable at times, even by Fagen’s own standards, but Fagen’s third solo outing (the last in a conceptual trilogy that began with The Nightfly) is a nice bounce-back after the misfires of Kamakiriad.  There’s a warmth here that was missing from that disc, and, even if the slightly cringe-worthy Ray Charles-influenced “What I Do” and the funk of “Brite Nitegown” don’t quite work, the songs are generally a bit more memorable, highlighted by the marimba-laden title cut, the R&B-tinged “H Gang,” the slow funk of “The Night Belongs to Mona,” and the humorous airport-themed love song “Security Joan.”

Sunken Condos (2012, Reprise)

B

Fagen’s best – and most accessible – solo disc since The Nightfly, Sunken Condos is not nearly as good as that album, but it’s a warm and immaculately-crafted disc that at least ranks right up there with Two Against Nature. While the catchiest song here may be a cover (Isaac Hayes’ “Out of the Ghetto”), Fagen’s songwriting has sharpened a bit since the last album, not in the least due to the fact that he’s noticeably a little less obtuse than normal here with his lyrics. Highlights include “Miss Marlene” (the most reminiscent of his earlier solo work), “Weather in My Head,” “Good Stuff” and “I’m Not the Same Without You,” which boasts a stellar harmonica solo from jazz musician William Galison.


Compilations:

There are nearly as many Steely Dan compilations as there are studio albums, hilariously enough. The most generous and thorough single-disc package is Geffen’s 2006 The Definitive Collection, which includes all the duo’s Top 40 hits except for “Josie” and is rounded out by a well-chosen sampler of lesser hits and album cuts (“Bad Sneakers,” “Bodhisattva,” “Dirty Work,” “Kid Charlemagne”) and a pair of better cuts from the two reunion discs.  As far as double-disc compilations go, you can’t beat the 2000 package Show Biz Kids: The Steely Dan Story, 1972-1980, which has all the hits and an even better and deeper selection of album cuts (including such underrated songs as “Night By Night,” “Change of the Guard,” “Don’t Take Me Alive,” “Doctor Wu,” and the rarity “Here at the Western World.”)

Live Albums:

The duo famously stopped touring entirely early on in their career and more or less remained studio hermits between Pretzel Logic and Gaucho, which means that the duo’s only live album, 1995’s Alive in America, was recorded and released long after their heyday. It’s also got a really weak track selection for a live disc of its brevity. The most fun way to hear the duo live on record is to check out the live version of “Bodhisattva” that was recorded in 1974 and finally released as the B-side of “Hey Nineteen” in 1981. The sound quality isn’t great, but the performance is absolutely electrifying, and the long, rambling, over-the-top intro from the emcee is just as priceless.