Steely Dan
Aja


5.0
classic

Review

by Brendan Schroer STAFF
August 19th, 2021 | 148 replies


Release Date: 1977 | Tracklist

Review Summary: More than any other Steely Dan album, Aja proves just how incredible the fusion of jazz and rock can be when it’s in the right hands.

Chapter VI: The Peak of Perfectionism

Throughout the entire Steely Dan discography review, there’s one term I’ve deliberately avoided until now: “yacht rock”. It’s a subgenre that was retroactively created in the mid-2000s to define a lot of the soft rock bands of the 70s and early 80s, often recognized for its association with smooth jazz and R&B influences. You’ll often find bands such as The Doobie Brothers and Toto tagged with this label these days, and Steely Dan - particularly from Aja onward - is no exception. The reason I haven’t brought it up until now is because it’s often used as a pejorative term; in fact, it goes a long way in describing why Walter Becker and Donald Fagen were so hated by younger listeners from the 2000s onward. While it’s just seen as a footnote in music history today, Steely Dan’s win at the 2001 Grammys for Two Against Nature was a serious point of controversy back when it happened. After all, people were clamoring for a more modern artist like Radiohead or Eminem to win! To many, it was a sign that the boomers had won and gotten their “revenge”.

The reason I bring all of this up is because Aja, for all of its accolades, is often considered a turning point in Steely Dan’s career. It’s seen as the moment the duo finally took the final plunge into their jazz influences to create a full-fledged pop-jazz fusion hybrid, especially when examining songs such as the complex title track and the smooth jazz stylings of “Home at Last”. But if you read the contemporary reviews that were released at the time, you’ll come across descriptors such as “over-polished”, “lacking in edge”, “clinical”, and so forth (I’m looking at you, Robert Christgau). The fact that Aja was the immediate successor to The Royal Scam probably didn’t help either, seeing as the latter was their most guitar-oriented album to date. But I don’t think it should be any surprise at all that this record was the eventual outcome of Becker and Fagen’s relentless tinkering with studio technology and guest musician rotations. If anything, it was inevitable.

Say what you want about the yacht rock descriptor, but Steely Dan really took that subgenre’s elements as far as they could go. So let’s put context aside for a while and zoom in on the music at hand. More than any other record by the group, I would consider Aja their “character study” album. Each tune focuses on a specific character - some in third person, some in first person - and assigns them their own interesting scenario or mood. Some of these are left open-ended, such as the person drinking the titular “black cow” in the song of the same name (which is another term for a root beer float) or the vague Chinese imagery surrounding the woman described in the title track. Others, however, are quite painfully clear; the most notable of these would be “Deacon Blues”, which focuses on a dreamer whose imagination always surpasses the reality he lives in. The character simply lives in a perpetual state of longing, which is conveyed brilliantly by the dreamlike R&B-meets-jazz approach of the music.

Speaking of the music, it’s easily the most impeccably written and performed work of the band’s discography up to that point. The years of Becker and Fagen becoming a studio-only act really found their peak here, as the duo had gotten incredibly proficient at knowing exactly what musicians to use for each track. Many familiar faces return for this project, such as the legendary bassist Chuck Rainey, drummer Bernard Purdie (check out his purdie shuffle on “Home at Last”) as well as the usual roster of amazing guitarists. But there are some really surprising additions to the lineup this time around; the most striking of these would probably be Weather Report saxophonist Wayne Shorter’s performance on the title track, once again signifying the group continuing their transition into the jazz realm. Steve Gadd also makes his first appearance on a Dan album with the same song, closing out the tune with a drum solo that’s now considered legendary. As with previous records, however, the magic is in how every musician is used. Chuck Rainey, for instance, has a much different style of bass playing to that of Walter Becker’s; this leads to an amazing contrast between the approaches of the upbeat and funky “Peg” and the smooth, slow rhythms of “Deacon Blues”.

Aja also happens to have the shortest tracklist of any Dan album up to this point (and only rivaled by its followup Gaucho), which means the duo didn’t have any time to waste on filler tracks that might have been used in previous records to pad out the runtime (“Pearl of the Quarter” and “With a Gun” immediately come to mind). Seven tracks, all killer no filler. Every song is unique enough to stand out, while also being consistent enough stylistically to not stand out like a sore thumb. It’s worth noting that this isn’t the group’s jazziest album - either Gaucho or Two Against Nature would take that honor - but that actually works in its favor. Songs like “Peg” and “Josie” serve as perfect ways to break up the more dense and progressive sections of the record, not to mention being instantly memorable and impossibly catchy. What makes Aja so amazing lies in the fact that it balances so many different moods, themes, and styles as flawlessly as it does. When you step back and examine the album as a whole, it’s pretty astounding how well Becker and Fagen managed to juggle artistic credibility and commercial appeal.

So, getting back to where we started, Aja serves as a perfect example of why Steely Dan shouldn’t just be passed off as nothing but “boomer music”. That pejorative label happens to be the very reason I passed on the band for several years, but this record proves just how incredible the fusion of jazz and rock can be when it’s in the right hands. This is the culmination of all the studio experiments and painstaking perfectionism that Steely Dan worked with, and the high standards they set paid off beautifully. Becker and Fagen accepted nothing less than the best, and with Aja they reaped the incredible rewards that came with such a mindset.



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user ratings (702)
4.4
superb
other reviews of this album
clercqie (5)
Aja is very close to being the perfect pop album, being both enjoyable for people seeking a lighthea...

Ryus (4)
Steely Dan tweak and fine tune their trademark light jazz-rock and (mostly) succeed....



Comments:Add a Comment 
Koris
Staff Reviewer
August 19th 2021


21096 Comments

Album Rating: 5.0

So I decided to go with a slightly different approach for this one, instead of just purely doing an analytical review like my previous ones. There's a lot to unpack with Steely Dan's cultural impact and public perception, especially when it comes to their later albums, so I felt like I couldn't leave that out

Lasssie
August 19th 2021


1618 Comments

Album Rating: 4.5

This album is a blast

Nice review and keep on preachin the Word of Dan, man!

combustion07
August 19th 2021


12822 Comments

Album Rating: 4.0

Band rules

Koris
Staff Reviewer
August 19th 2021


21096 Comments

Album Rating: 5.0

@Lasssie: Thank you! Always happy to spread the word



@Combustion: Indeed they do

twlight
August 19th 2021


8674 Comments

Album Rating: 5.0

Will read later. Steely for life

Lasssie
August 19th 2021


1618 Comments

Album Rating: 4.5

So many memories of jamming this in the car

Not hard to see how many considers this to be their best

sonictheplumber
August 19th 2021


17533 Comments

Album Rating: 5.0

:D

BMDrummer
August 19th 2021


15096 Comments


basically as good as it gets

sonictheplumber
August 19th 2021


17533 Comments

Album Rating: 5.0

sonic perfection

sonictheplumber
August 19th 2021


17533 Comments

Album Rating: 5.0

im glad i started the dan revival here. dude i even got a guy at work into the dan

Koris
Staff Reviewer
August 19th 2021


21096 Comments

Album Rating: 5.0

Sonic perfection [2]

BitterJalapenoJr
Contributing Reviewer
August 19th 2021


1023 Comments

Album Rating: 5.0

Great review as always Brendan. A true classic.

Koris
Staff Reviewer
August 19th 2021


21096 Comments

Album Rating: 5.0

Thank you! Much appreciated

YoYoMancuso
Staff Reviewer
August 19th 2021


18848 Comments

Album Rating: 4.7

probably the best production on any album ever? i can't think of another

Gyromania
August 19th 2021


37002 Comments

Album Rating: 4.0

this album rules indeed, but i think i prefer royal scam on the whole

sonictheplumber
August 19th 2021


17533 Comments

Album Rating: 5.0

lets get this to 1000 pages!

Koris
Staff Reviewer
August 19th 2021


21096 Comments

Album Rating: 5.0

@Gyro: fair enough, Royal Scam’s probably my second favorite these days

DavidYowi
August 20th 2021


3512 Comments

Album Rating: 5.0

Yeah this shit is bulletproof. Excellent review as always, I especially loved the part about how they used each session musician. There's a story behind the t/t to Gaucho where the bass part was originally played by Anthony Jackson, but when it came time to record the song, Walter Becker ended up playing bass on the track. The reason for this last minute change was that Becker and Fagen thought Jackson's bass performance was "too perfect".

Koris
Staff Reviewer
August 20th 2021


21096 Comments

Album Rating: 5.0

Damn, I didn't even know Anthony Jackson was on Gaucho! Love that guy's bass work, especially with Hiromi and Al Di Meola

DavidYowi
August 20th 2021


3512 Comments

Album Rating: 5.0

Yeah he played on Glamour Profession and My Rival. Glamour Profession might be my favorite bass line of all time



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