AllMusic Review: Steely Dan hadn’t been a real working band since Pretzel Logic, but with Aja, Walter Becker and Donald Fagen’s obsession with sonic detail and fascination with composition reached new heights. A coolly textured and immaculately produced collection of sophisticated jazz-rock, Aja has none of the overt cynicism or self-consciously challenging music that distinguished previous Steely Dan records. Instead, it’s a measured and textured album, filled with subtle melodies and accomplished, jazzy solos that blend easily into the lush instrumental backdrops. But Aja isn’t just about texture, since Becker and Fagen’s songs are their most complex and musically rich set of songs — even the simplest song, the sunny pop of “Peg,” has layers of jazzy vocal harmonies. In fact, Steely Dan ignores rock on Aja, preferring to fuse cool jazz, blues, and pop together in a seamless, seductive fashion. It’s complex music delivered with ease, and although the duo’s preoccupation with clean sound and self-consciously sophisticated arrangements would eventually lead to a dead end, Aja is a shining example of jazz-rock at its finest. — Stephen Thomas Erlewine
AllMusic Review: Countdown to Ecstasy wasn’t half the hit that Can’t Buy a Thrill was, and Steely Dan responded by trimming the lengthy instrumental jams that were scattered across Countdown and concentrating on concise songs for Pretzel Logic. While the shorter songs usually indicate a tendency toward pop conventions, that’s not the case with Pretzel Logic. Instead of relying on easy hooks, Walter Becker and Donald Fagen assembled their most complex and cynical set of songs to date. Dense with harmonics, countermelodies, and bop phrasing, Pretzel Logic is vibrant with unpredictable musical juxtapositions and snide, but very funny, wordplay. Listen to how the album’s hit single, “Rikki Don’t Lose That Number,” opens with a syncopated piano line that evolves into a graceful pop melody, or how the title track winds from a blues to a jazzy chorus — Becker and Fagen’s craft has become seamless while remaining idiosyncratic and thrillingly accessible. Since the songs are now paramount, it makes sense that Pretzel Logic is less of a band-oriented album than Countdown to Ecstasy, yet it is the richest album in their catalog, one where the backhanded Dylan tribute “Barrytown” can sit comfortably next to the gorgeous “Any Major Dude Will Tell You.” Steely Dan made more accomplished albums than Pretzel Logic, but they never made a better one. — Stephen Thomas Erlewine
All songs written by Walter Becker and Donald Fagen, except where noted.
AllMusic Review: Can’t Buy a Thrill became an unexpected hit, and as a response, Donald Fagen became the group’s full-time lead vocalist, and he and Walter Becker acted like Steely Dan was a rock & roll band for the group’s second album, Countdown to Ecstasy. The loud guitars and pronounced backbeat of “Bodhisattva,” “Show Biz Kids,” and “My Old School” camouflage the fact that Countdown is a riskier album, musically speaking, than its predecessor. Each of its eight songs have sophisticated, jazz-inflected interludes, and apart from the bluesy vamps “Bodhisattva” and “Show Biz Kids,” which sound like they were written for the stage, the songs are subtly textured. “Razor Boy,” with its murmuring vibes, and the hard bop tribute “Your Gold Teeth” reveal Becker and Fagen’s jazz roots, while the country-flavored “Pearl of the Quarter” and the ominous, skittering “King of the World” are both overlooked gems. Countdown to Ecstasy is the only time Steely Dan played it relatively straight, and its eight songs are rich with either musical or lyrical detail that their album rock or art rock contemporaries couldn’t hope to match. — Stephen Thomas Erlewine
AllMusic Review: Walter Becker and Donald Fagen were remarkable craftsmen from the start, as Steely Dan’s debut, Can’t Buy a Thrill, illustrates. Each song is tightly constructed, with interlocking chords and gracefully interwoven melodies, buoyed by clever, cryptic lyrics. All of these are hallmarks of Steely Dan’s signature sound, but what is most remarkable about the record is the way it differs from their later albums. Of course, one of the most notable differences is the presence of vocalist David Palmer, a professional blue-eyed soul vocalist who oversings the handful of tracks where he takes the lead. Palmer’s very presence signals the one major flaw with the album — in an attempt to appeal to a wide audience, Becker and Fagen tempered their wildest impulses with mainstream pop techniques. Consequently, there are very few of the jazz flourishes that came to distinguish their albums — the breakthrough single, “Do It Again,” does work an impressively tight Latin jazz beat, and “Reelin’ in the Years” has jazzy guitar solos and harmonies — and the production is overly polished, conforming to all the conventions of early-’70s radio. Of course, that gives these decidedly twisted songs a subversive edge, but compositionally, these aren’t as innovative as their later work. Even so, the best moments (“Dirty Work,” “Kings,” “Midnight Cruiser,” “Turn That Heartbeat Over Again”) are wonderful pop songs that subvert traditional conventions and more than foreshadow the paths Steely Dan would later take. — Stephen Thomas Erlewine