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April 06, 2011


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I would have gone with Pretzel Logic.

Glenn Kenny

Well, I would have gone with pretty much the entirety of their recorded output. So there's that. And in either case you wouldn't have had that intertextuality!

It's interesting; two VERY different records, both great as far as I'm concerned, with only a relatively brief three years between them. "Pretzel Logic" is just, cut for cut, one of the greatest SONG albums ever; each and every one just a flawlessly crafted (cliché alert) gem of irony, wit and grace...and "Aja" more a collection of compositions that want to fool you into believing that they're songs. The title track is just an unbelievable construction.


Well, yeah, I suppose it's enough just to be delighted that Steely Dan is in the Library of Congress.

The breadth of the net cast by the LoC precludes them (or has, so far) from prioritizing multiple entries from the same artist (whereas John Huston has, like, 6 films in the National Film Registry), so it feels as though the choice of a single representative album is rather arbitrary anyway.

Fabian W.

James Brown's "Live at the Apollo" was selected the same year as "Fear of a Black Planet"*, which of course sampled a whole lot of J.B., but more late 60s/early 70s stuff like "Funky Drummer". Still, that might count?

* Again, the same question: Why that album and not "It Takes A Nation Of Millions To Hold Us Back"?


Just delightful news. The Dan and Tammy Wynette, preserved together for all eternity. You done good today, Library of Congress.

I was listening to The Royal Scam at work today, completely coincidentally, which is MY pick for the top Dan album. Not that I can really quibble with any of their '70s records (I have to confess I've never made it through Gaucho and the two most recent albums.) I was lucky enough to catch them performing that album in full in Chicago last fall, probably one of the few twenty-somethings in the audience. At one point, Donald Fagen mysteriously left the stage, only to saunter back a few minutes later, melodica in hand. My words cannot convey how beautiful it actually was. That saunter.

James Keepnews

"Peg" sure sounds like a song to me. And a great composition. "Deacon Blues", also, no matter how much Wayne Shorter owns it, as thought it was one of his, sure, compositions -- all those reprises, e.g.. The title track is all about smack. That aside, I (respectfully) reject your either/or, sir -- more self-conscious/composerly than, oh, Hasil Adkins, but they're songwriters nonetheless. I also want to get drunk and mad (pretty sure in that order) sometime at Fagen's Barthes-loving ass for all the straight-up bullshit he talked about Coltrane, when he ought not to have done.

And, to continue the meme, it would'a been Lick My Decals Off, Baby, if'n it were up to me, not that there's some travesty of justice in the choice of Trout Mask. Hardly.

The ones on this year's list that jump out at me are "Dark was the Night, Cold was the Ground," Blind Willie Johnson's indelible wordless harmonizing with some of the most haunting slide guitar you'll hear outside of another out-jumper this year, John Fahey. "Dark," as all cinephiles know well, is used to unlikely, poignant, cross-cultural effect in Pasolini's GOSPEL.

Glenn Kenny

James, I was kinda freelance woolgathering/theorizing there, running a conceit up a flagpole and seeing if anyone would salute or call bullshit. I'd still say there would have to be significant, ahem, structural differences between an album that has 11 cuts at 35 minutes as opposed to seven cuts at 40. But points well taken, although that's the marvelous Pete Christlieb on "Deacon Blues," and Shorter on the title track.

Amen to your citations of other great stuff on the list, the Fahey and the Johnson. Good God, indelible stuff.

Fernando, I could only (and barely at that) afford one of their New York full album shows on that tour, and I went for "Scam" too, because it's a helluva funky thing that I figured would play especially well live even without Bernard Purdie in the band. I was largely right, I thought, although it wasn't the brightest idea to let Walter take the lead vocal on "Haitian Divorce." But the real highlight of the show, as it turned out, was "Aja;" even without the Shorter solo, it's just a remarkable and seductive thing and the band really tore it up. Cannot wait to see them again this year.


Pretzel Logic is an impressively diverse effort, but if we're going song-for-song I think Katy Lied has more standouts. With A Gun and Charley Freak aren't what I would call superb, and to be honest I've never liked Barrytown very much. Or Parker's Band for that matter, regardless of who it's paying tribute to.

But the LoC was correct in choosing Aja, which is still their greatest musical achievement, and some kind of fusion miracle in terms of how popular it was and still continues to be.

For the record, my personal favorite is Countdown to Ecstasy.

And while I can't say that Two Against Nature and Everything Must Go aren't on the level of that insanely good run they had in the 70's, they're both more consistent than Gaucho (albeit without the peaks of Babylon Sisters, Hey Nineteen, and Third World Man) and more interesting than Can't Buy A Thrill.

I'd also single out Fagen's most recent solo effort Morph the Cat as possibly being even better than those latter-day Dans.

James Keepnews

Glenn, per the stag film Pete, Deacon, Wayne, Aja and Me: touché. Additionally: oops.

Kent Jones

James, do you really think that "Aja" (the song) is "all about smack?" You could say the same of "Doctor Wu," I guess, but why? Then you're denying those beautifully oblique and ominously suggestive songs a lot of their power. I'm more comfortable saying that they both embody the longing for sweet oblivion, like "Deacon Blues."

If somebody said, "We're shipping you off for a year and you can only take ten albums with you," one of them would be by Steely Dan, but which one? CAN'T BUY A THRILL is "less interesting" than the last two? Not by me (until "Rikki Don't Lose That Number," "Do It Again" was the most sinuously unsettling AM radio hit of the 70s, stuff like "DOA" by Bloodrock aside). Maybe it would have to be COUNTDOWN TO ECSTASY, but then what about PRETZEL LOGIC? I'll have to agree with Glenn on that count, and strenuously disagree with the negative assessment above of "Charley Freak." And what about KATY LIED, which is like the Watergate hearings, AN AMERICAN FAMILY, CONTINENTAL DRIFT, the energy crisis and the Boston busing nightmare rolled into one (and Phil Woods' solo is as great as Shorter's). I've never been a ROYAL SCAM fan (too arch for me), but the first four songs on AJA (that's the first side and "Peg") leave me open-mouthed. GAUCHO is kind of a disappointing groove album, like the stuff Bryan Ferry started doing in the 80s, although I guess "Glamour Profession" is pretty good. I don't really know EVERYTHING MUST GO, but I was kind of astonished by TWO AGAINST NATURE. "Almost Gothic" is one of their best and most intricate songs, and that sax solo at the end of "West of Hollywood" is stunning - it's a brilliant editing job, the way it keeps building, working toward a peak, then you realize the peak is a plateau and you're building again, peaking again, and endlessly looping back.

And I love "FM." And I don't mean the movie.


Kent I certainly won't argue with you about Do It Again, but isn't the album a case of diminishing returns after that? I have a lot of fun listening to Kings, Reelin', even something like Fire in the Hole (Victor Feldman + ba-ba-ba-ba-ba), but I find the writing and music a little more complex and varied on the two 2000's albums, which I guess is what I meant by "interesting".

If you appreciate Two Against Nature (and the two songs you mentioned, along with Jack of Speed, are definitely the highlights) I think you might enjoy Everything Must Go, but it's definitely "groovier", slicker. Christgau didn't care for it, from what I remember.

We will have to disagree greatly on Glamour Profession, which I think may be the worst SD song I've ever heard, and oh god is it dated. Maybe I'm just not enough of a basketball fan.


Not necessarily their best, but KATY LIED is the one I've been turning to the most lately. But I definitely think EVERYTHING MUST GO is more or less entirely a return to form, with the title track in particular capturing the mixture of melancholy and ennui that characterizes so many of my favorite Dan songs.

Kent Jones

Yes, I see what you mean - a little less musical complexity in CAN'T BUUY A THRILL. But just a little. What about "Turn That Heartbeat Over Again?" "...and they closed the package store..."

I don't know why I didn't listen to EVERYTHING MUST GO. I have to remedy that.

I must be thinking of a song other than "Glamour Profession." What could it be? I keenly remember the disappointment of GAUCHO, and I don't own it.

James Keepnews

Kent -- I was literally talking smack about "Aja" and meant little more than that by my flippancy. I had been having a conversation with another musician about that song while assembling a narcosis hit parade, so I always associate it with the land of nod. "Aja (Asia)/When all my dime-dancing is through/I run to you" sounds like the diaristic reportage of a functioning smackhead, but perhaps I project.

Consider me all +1 about Can't Buy a Thrill, though -- it has an innocence and buoyancy ("Dirty Work"!) they never really got back, but definitely replaced with a more refined artistry. One of the best recent discussions of the Dan has to be the one between Vernon Reid and Greg Tate as transcribed for the Mr. Ironman Tate-edited compilation Everything but the Burden. Their insights into the rarely-explored racial dynamics of SD's songs, in conjunction with their especially well-informed takes on their musicianship, were something of a revelation for me. I think on pure punk-rock GP (endless studio time, they don't sound like Black Flag, &c.), I'm supposed to hate Steely Dan -- but then, I listen to them and am impressed once more.


I haven't really had the chance to say this anywhere, but for a while I've basically thought that The Coen Bros are the continuation of Steely Dan by other means.

Sal C

If forced to choose one SD album, it would have to be PRETZEL LOGIC. As Glenn points out this is the 'song' album and I prize concise, fully realized songs over just about anything else (arrangements, production, 'chops', what-have-you). I recently introduced "Barrytown" at practice as a possible cover and our bass player said it sounded like nothing more or less than the most clever and cynical Billy Joel song he'd ever heard. I think he was annoyed that I didn't consider this quite the scathing put-down he intended.

Glenn Kenny

To paraphrase Lex:




So much Steely Dan love and no mention of Fagen's first solo venture, The Nightfly? I've been a passionate Dan fan for more than 30 years, and these days I find myself listening to that album probably more than any of the others. It conjures time and place in a way that just takes me back there (though I never was there). I think the band's one great shortcoming is that they're almost always very chilly - which is fine, but after a while I want a little true emotion, too. The Nightfly delivers that in spades. "New Frontier"? Gorgeous, moving. Also one of the best music videos ever, in case anybody remembers.

Evelyn Roak

SImilar list crossover: Fitting that John Fahey and Blind Willie Johnson find themselves on the same list (and I could have a similarly lengthy discussion about just which Fahey album should be included, can we not take them all, please?, but that isn't here nor there at the moment) as the story goes it was hearing Blind Willie Johnson's "Praise God I'm Satisfied" that Fahey himself described as the experience akin to a religious conversion in his immersion in early blues.

@James K: If Steely Dan are good enough for The Minutemen worry not about punk demands and cred (to say nothing of the shocking conservatism of punk standards, again not the time).

These days: Katy Lied gets the nod.

Noam Sane

"Two Against Nature" is salvaged, for me, by "Negative Girl"...interestingly, the only song that Becker doesn't appear on.
I was more enamored of "Everything Must Go" - better tunes, warmer production. Both are slightly marred by Becker's endless guitar noodling. They've apparently given up on hiring guitar hotshots, and Walter gets all the solos now. He's fine and it's their band, but Larry Carlton he's not.

As a guitarist myself, I've also never gotten over the fact that they sacked Drew Zingg after that first tour. Tremendous player (and he's cooking up a solo album, finally - he's at http://www.dzdap.com/).

I would defend Gaucho as quite strong, just different. @Kent, you're probably thinking of the title cut, an odd and indecipherable meditation on a same-sex relationship (I think). I find it to be quite lovely, musically. As does Keith Jarret, from whom they swiped it.

But Aja, yes, something magical happened there and they never got to that place again. The fact that they got there at all is reason to celebrate it - thanks Glenn. And that De La Soul album - I've never grown tired of it. Love the Bonzo sample on the lead-off cut. The Sound Opinions podcast recently did a show on sampling, and there was much lamenting of the fact that you will never hear that kind of sample-heavy album again due to usage restrictions and the need now to clear every sample used, no matter how brief.

James Keepnews

Ev, no question punk can be a religious cult and not mean thinking for yourself. But inasmuch as the Minutemen sometimes opened their shows by playing Ascension, someone should'a set D. Boon straight on Donny F.'s own conservatism where Coltrane was concerned.

If I hadda choose one Fahey, it'd hafta be Return of the Repressed, one of the greatest single artist compilations I've ever heard, esp. mindful of how many releases, obscure and otherwise, the man had to draw upon at the time of the comp. "The Approaching of the Disco Void" from the '79 Live in Tanzania is on eternal replay in the jukebox of my soul. As is "The Portland Cement Factory at Monolith, California". And "Jaya Shiva Shankara", which you can actually find on some of those mp3 jukeboxes in bars these days. And "Dance of the Inhabitants of the Palace of King Phillip XIV of Spain". Lastly, five words: liner notes by Dr. Demento.

Ian W. Hill

Well, while if I had a "desert-island-Dan" album (and I do) it would be COUNTDOWN TO ECSTASY, I completely understand the choice of AJA for the Registry on purely sonic-iconographic-reputational-visual status. It is . . . THE . . . Dan album.

What really surprised me was learning that THREE FEET HIGH AND RISING had (belovedly, yes, and deservedly) made the list, as between AJA, "Stand By Your Man," and TROUT MASK REPLICA, most articles on this year's picks didn't include the full list (thanks for the link, Glenn) and didn't bother to mention the equally wonderful De La Soul or Al Green's LET'S STAY TOGETHER. What's THAT about?

That Fuzzy Bastard

@ Fabian: While "Nation of Millions" is the Important record, in terms of cultural/commercial impact, I do think that "Fear" is a musically richer record---despite the slightly oomph-less EQ'ing, the landscape of samples is much denser and more diverse. "Muse-Sick" is still Public Enemy's musical masterpiece, though---much like De La Soul, they made their best record after the crowds had stopped listening ("Buhloone Mind State" 4-eva!).


@ copperykeen: The Nightfly certainly deserves mention alongside the best of SD, but in addition to his recent release that I mentioned above, I'm also a fan of his lone 90's work Kamakiriad, that concept album about a futuristic car, or something. Some major standouts like Tomorrow's Girls and Snowbound, the latter essentially an SD track considering it was co-written by Becker and produced by him as well. And not coincidentally, it sounds like them the most. And going on what you said about New Frontier, it also has a fantastic video, from a young MIchel Gondry no less! It's also crazy to think that this album was nominated for an Album of the Year Grammy.

Fabian W.

@Fuzzy: I prefer "Fear of a Black Planet" to "Nation of Millions" too. But then again, I've never been really able to connect to PE - perhaps because I take their innovation in production for granted, or perhaps because that whole Griff-thing has always been in the back of my head, or perhaps because once I found The Coup, almost everything else paled in comparison.
I also think "De La Soul is dead" is their best record. "But why would Millie need one?/She said she wanted her pops Dillon to heed one" just has to be one of the greatest moments in all of Hip-Hop.

Joseph Neff

While I really liked FEAR OF A BLACK PLANET, I found it to be a much lesser record than NATION. In fact, I find it lesser than YO! BUM RUSH THE SHOW. On the other hand I agree totally that DE LA SOUL IS DEAD is much better than the excellent THREE FEET HIGH AND RISING. DEAD is one of the most neglected CDs in hip-hop history, this sprawling exhausting skit heavy thing that nobody I knew liked when it came out. I find it comparable to The Goats' similarly neglected TRICKS OF THE SHADE, a record that combined the heavy politics of Public Enemy (much more nuanced, though) with the template of De la's DEAD.

Regarding punk anti-sentiment toward Steely Dan, yeah I remember it being there, but it never felt as strident as the antipathy directed against say The Eagles. Byron Coley was a notorious Steely Dan hater, but he also loved the Minutemen and I doubt his relationship with Thurston Moore was strained when Donald Fagan and Moore both appeared on the William Burroughs tribute DEAD CITY RADIO. Everyone has their blind spots. I love Fahey, but he penned an article lambasting Antonioni's ZABRISKIE POINT. Didn't make me love that movie or Fahey any less.

Regarding Blind Willie Johnson, it's important to note that in addition to the Pasolini, Johnson was the model for Ry Cooder's work on PARIS, TEXAS.

James Keepnews

I also love Fahey's essay on Antonioni, historical accuracy notwithstanding. Per the meme, give me De La Soul is Dead and oodles of O's over the more storied 3 Feet High.

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But isn’t there a way to not love Somewhere without doing an emperor’s new clothes on it? Wait, let’s get Dan’s reaction first. Dan.

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In Ann Petit's illustration, brides and the downtown waterfront have leaned like the Tower of Pisa. Only birds can be seen moving in the frame, left to nest amongst the concrete, steel and glass. Lisa Ortlip presents the St. Johns bridge, long Portland's most beautiful span, overcome by vines. Bridges always carry symbolic meaning besides literally moving traffic; somehow the notion of a connecting span no longer doing its job adds greater poignance. Although if this were the ugly Marquam Bridge or the Columbia Crossing, one might not feel so bad seeing them abandoned.


Roger Nichols, engineer of AJA and many other Steely Dan greats, has died.

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