100 Best Albums In a Rolling Stone interview from around the time Aja came out, the writer Cameron Crowe—who went on to write and direct Jerry Maguire and Almost Famous, amongst a handful of other movies—marvelled at how aloof the members of Steely Dan could be when it came to their own success. They were no longer touring, and they weren’t doing a lot of press. And their approach to recording had evolved from a fixed group of people playing a set of songs from start to finish to a piecemeal process in which co-founders Donald Fagen and Walter Becker tried out multiple players for the same part, until they found a satisfactory combination—all before breaking it down and starting all over again on the next song. (Decades later, guitarist Dean Parks diplomatically reflected that “we would work then past the perfection point until it became natural.”) Asked if he felt like he was even in a band, Becker replied, “No. But we can get a real good one together in a hurry.” As sophisticated as the process was, Steely Dan never sounded more direct as it does on Aja. There’s the R&B of “Josie”. The bounce of “Black Cow” (and its destiny-fulfilling sample, 20 years later, on Lord Tariq and Peter Gunz’s “Déjà Vu (Uptown Baby)”). And the fact that “Peg” felt like actual dance music, rather than a dissertation on it. In the coastal fog of 1970s California pop, Fagen and Becker had always appeared like bookish New York hipsters raised on R&B and jazz. But Aja was the first time that identity had come through so clearly in the music. And while there are plenty of close seconds, no character better captured Steely Dan’s tragic romanticism like the suburban guy on “Deacon Blues”, who fantasises about becoming a saxophone player—only to get drunk and die in a car wreck. Yeah, he’s a loser. But least he believed in something.

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