Today’s album is a multi-generational classic. As much as my friends and I all love Steely Dan, my son and his friends were also scheduled to see them in concert this weekend. Unfortunately, the concert was postponed to 2022, but the brilliance of the album “Aja” shines on. In what has to be their best overall album, “Aja” is rated at #63 on Rolling Stone’s Top 500 Greatest Albums of All Time.
There are seven songs on this album. Five of them are legendary Steely Dan tracks that would be included in any reasonable greatest hits collection. Of the remaining two, one just might be my favorite song on the album, and one, although as musically refined as the others, doesn’t have quite the same hook as the other six. Although Steely Dan is primarily vocalist and keyboardist Donald Fagen and guitarist Walter Becker, and they write all of the songs in tandem, this album is a literal army of top-notch studio musicians, and in fact, Becker doesn’t even play on about half of the songs, which was an interesting discovery. True to the Steely Dan sound, the recording quality and production of this record is remarkable, even as an album that is almost 45 years old now.
From the first funky note of “Black Cow”, this album just crushes in a groove unlike almost any other. A hybrid of rock, funk, jazz and who knows what else, it is almost like Steely Dan is their own genre. Next comes the title track. I don’t always love sleeping with music on, but dating back to college, there is nothing I recall being more soothing than this song as I drifted off to blissful sleep. Most every Steely Dan song has some unusual and highly memorable lyrics, and “Deacon Blues” is no exception… “They call Alabama the Crimson Tide… They call me Deacon Blues.”
The hit parade continues on side two with “Peg”, and like many songs on this album, the horns are such a great compliment to the overall sound. A bit lesser known, I really love the next song, “Home At Last”. In addition to a great chorus and melody, the drumming on this song is spectacular. It has a beautiful and distinctive shuffle, and I wasn’t surprised at all to read that Bernard Purdie, creator of the “Purdie Shuffle” and a drummer I have cited elsewhere in this blog, listed in the credits. If you want another example of this technique, dig into John Bonham on Led Zeppelin’s “Fool In The Rain”.
I don’t love “I Got The News”, the main chord sequences and melody are just a little too quirky for me. The only highlight for me on this song is the clear and apparently omnipresent Michael McDonald coming back to sing backup vocals on this track. The album ends with another classic, “Josie”. The guitar work by Becker and others (he does the solo) is phenomenal. Not quite as recognizable here as Michael McDonald, we also have Timothy Schmit on backing vocals, who would ultimately find his way into the Eagles, based on his vocal skills.
If you didn’t know better, you might think you were just listening to the greatest hits collection when you put on “Aja”. This is truly one of my all-time favorites, and a must-listen if you haven’t given this one a spin in a while.