In the constant ebbs and flows that have followed the appreciation of so-called ‘Yacht Rock’ over the past four decades, Aja by Steely Dan has somehow managed to avoid any and all snarky comments or critical derision. The absolute zenith of the genre, the album representing all of its most notable qualities has risen above the likes of Cristopher Cross and Dan collaborator Michael McDonald to become a completely unironic masterpiece of not just rock, but music as a whole.
How did two nerds singing about hapless losers in dense sprawling compositions manage to connect with so many people? How can snobs who hate jazz, soft rock, and white R&B put aside their specific tastes and come together to agree that Aja rocks? How can a record so emblematic of ‘Yacht Rock’ be so completely immune to the mockery that can follow other artists of the genre?
Well, it’s probably because Steely Dan were always working at the top of their game. Aja was the band’s sixth studio album, but “the band” needs to be put in quotation marks because it was truly only Walter Becker and Donald Fagan calling the shots at that point. Having discarded most of their original lineup (guitarist Denny Dias is the only one who stuck around, contributing a guitar solo to the album’s title track), Becker and Fagan honed in on only the most potent elements of their sound: session musicians, jazz chords, and stories about fading hipsters too fucked up to get out of their own way.
After half a decade of refinement, Aja was the culmination of everything the band had been tweaking for years. At just seven songs, the album had no fat and no idle downtime, making every horn blast, drum groove, and plucked note count. Becker and Fagan were so exacting that entire bands of America’s top session musicians would be rotated out for entire other band of America’s top sessions musicians. ‘Peg’ alone went through eight discarded guitar solos before the duo were satisfied.
But the attention to detail proved to be worthwhile. Aja brought Steely Dan into the realm of superstardom, with chart success, Grammys, and massive windfalls of money following. This was a band that wasn’t even touring, and yet they were one of the world’s biggest groups.
Here, we’re diving deep into the seven songs that make up Aja and ranking them based on their greatness.
Aja ranked in order of greatness:
7. ‘I Got the News’
Steely Dan had no time for filler, and the nearly-flawless nature of Aja is best underscored by the fact that the wonderfully light and jaunty ‘I Got the News’ is the least special song on the album. But, alas, something had to sit at the bottom of the list, and so here we are, grooving with ‘I Got the News’. Almost as if to broadcast its place here, ‘I Got the News’ is conspicuously the only song not talked about on the Classic Albums episode on Aja, playing over the end credits instead.
The truth is that everything on ‘I Got the News’ was done just a little bit better on the album’s other songs. Michael McDonald’s backing vocals are more potent on ‘Peg’, Chuck Rainey’s bass is funkier and more in the pocket on ‘Black Cow’, and the weirdly horny lyrics are better served on a song like ‘Josie’. Still, ‘I Got the News’ features awesome piano work from longtime Dan contributor Victor Feldman, who doubles up on vibraphone for a real sonic tour de force.
6. ‘Home at Last’
‘Yacht Rock’ is a retrospective genre tag: nobody in the late ’70s was going around calling Steely Dan, The Doobie Brothers, or Rupert Holmes ‘Yacht Rock’. But if there was one song that undoubtedly solidified the Dan’s now-permanent association with the descriptor, it would be ‘Home at Last’.
Complete with nautical imagery and an easy shuffle from Bernard Purdie, ‘Home at Last’ is perhaps the simplest that Steely Dan got on Aja: conventional verse-chorus structures, a notable lack of truly-insane jazz chords (although there is, of course, the Dan’s signature “mu major” chord), and even a fairly straightforward narrative without a loser as the main protagonist. It represents a refreshing deviation among the album’s other songs and is best enjoyed with the smooth retsina constantly flowing.
The lesser of the two women-focused pop songs on the album, ‘Josie’ still packs a massive punch, from its chromatic guitar intro to its mind-melting inverted chords. ‘Josie’ is probably the closest Steely Dan ever got to disco, and it could have easily been read as a piss-take if not for the sheer amount of skill that the vamped chords are strummed out with.
Even though they were rarely looking to take over the pop charts, Steely Dan were still able to crank out classic pop songs whenever it suited them. But just like their great hummable tunes like ‘Rikki Don’t Lose That Number’ and ‘FM’, ‘Josie’ brings in just the right amount of musical literacy and off-kilter rhythm to keep the band’s jazz roots firmly in place.
4. ‘Black Cow’
A killer album opener, ‘Black Cow’ immediately sets the stage for what kind of experience Aja is: a supremely funky, surprisingly complex pop-jazz album filled with stories of down-and-out characters and delusional hipsters. In an appropriately wonky twist, the main focus of the song doesn’t drown out her sorrow with booze or blow, but rather a root beer float of all things.
With soulful backing vocals singing one of the most sneakily venomous songs in the Dan catalogue, ‘Black Cow’ sadly isn’t one of the biggest hits on Aja. But it does remain the album’s most potent hidden gem, despite sitting right at the top of the tracklisting. There’s no better entry point into the seedy and salacious world of Aja, and Steely Dan as a whole, than ‘Black Cow’.
What’s the secret weapon of Steely Dan? Is it Chuck Rainey’s unmatched bass skills? The carousel of guitarists and drummers that kept giving fresh takes on the band’s material? The injection of pop melodies that keep their songs from devolving into jazz-obsessed mush? All noble candidates, but no, the undisputed minor-but-essential element to the Steely Dan sound is the one and only Michael McDonald.
Multi-tracking himself into a chorus of absurdly close harmonies, McDonald gives ‘Peg’ its strange allure. With its cutting lyrics that contrast with the bouncy arrangement, ‘Peg’ is what Becker and Fagan delighted in doing: tricking their listeners into entering a world of sordid characters by baiting them with hooky music and melodies. They did it time and time again, but few songs were as breezy and immediately enjoyable as ‘Peg’.
2. ‘Deacon Blues’
Steely Dan were at their best when they let themselves stretch out and combine their most complex arrangements with their most ear-catching melodies. Featuring one of the Dan’s most existential and doom-laden narratives, Becker even went so far as to call the central conceit of ‘Deacon Blues’ a “broken dream of a broken man living a broken life”.
So it’s appropriate that such a dour theme is populated with some of the most uplifting harmonies, indelible sax work, and fantastically jazz-friendly arrangements that ever populated a Steely Dan song. Strangely enough, ‘Deacon Blues’ represents Steely Dan stepping away from the mainstream, with Fagan observing that, “One thing we did right on ‘Deacon Blues’ and all of our records: we never tried to accommodate the mass market. We worked for ourselves and still do.” Evidently, people still happened to like what they were doing, and it’s not hard to hear why on the dulcet tones of ‘Deacon Blues’.
Aja‘s title song is everything that made Steely Dan great, stuffed into a not-so compact eight-minute track. Featuring top-shelf performances from Denny Dias on guitar, Wayne Shorter on saxophone, and especially Steve Gadd on drums, ‘Aja’ is quintessential Steely Dan all in one track.
With lyrics that follow a figure well past his prime dreaming of an escape in the form of the titular woman, Donald Fagan unleashes one of his smoothest and most impassioned vocal performances ever put to record. Walter Becker adds guitar accompaniment, making it one of the more rare songs from this era to feature both members on the final take.
But most importantly, for just a few minutes, Steely Dan stumble onto a strange sort of bliss, completely free of the irony or cynicism that usually gets trapped within Becker and Fagan’s signature sardonic style. Instead, they lay out with pure joy, lost in the magic that comes with having some of the greatest musicians of all time at their disposal. Aja is a superb listening experience, but it’s on the title track that the album truly makes its case as one of the best of all time.