Aja (//, pronounced "Asia") is the sixth studio album by the American jazz rock band Steely Dan, released by ABC Records on September 23, 1977. On the album, band leaders Donald Fagen and Walter Becker pushed Steely Dan further into experimenting with different combinations of session players, enlisting the services of nearly 40 musicians, while pursuing longer, more sophisticated compositions and arrangements.
|Studio album by|
|Released||September 23, 1977|
|Recorded||Late 1976–July 1977|
|Steely Dan chronology|
|Singles from Aja|
The album peaked at number three on the Billboard Top LPs & Tape chart, and number five on the UK Albums Chart, ultimately becoming Steely Dan's most commercially successful release. It spawned the hit singles "Peg", "Deacon Blues", and "Josie".
At the 20th Annual Grammy Awards, Aja won Best Engineered Recording – Non-Classical, and was nominated for Album of the Year and Best Pop Performance by a Duo or Group with Vocals. It has appeared on many retrospective "greatest albums" lists, with critics and audiophiles applauding the album's high production standards. In 2010, the album was recognized by the Library of Congress as being "culturally, historically, or artistically significant" and selected for preservation in the National Recording Registry.
The album was produced by Steely Dan's longtime producer Gary Katz, and features contributions from numerous leading session musicians. The eight-minute-long title track features a jazz-based chord progression and a solo by saxophonist Wayne Shorter. Co-composer and co-band leader Walter Becker did not perform on the tracks "Black Cow" or "Peg".
Title and packaging edit
The title of the album is pronounced "Asia" (like the continent). Donald Fagen has said Aja was the name of a Korean woman who married the brother of one of his high-school friends. The album cover features a photograph by Hideki Fujii of Japanese model and actress Sayoko Yamaguchi, and was designed by Patricia Mitsui and Geoff Westen. The inside photos of Fagen and Becker were taken by Becker and Dorothy A. White.
Marketing and sales edit
Aja was released by ABC Records on September 23, 1977. In anticipation of the release, Katz urged the relatively private Fagen and Becker to raise their public profile, and arranged a meeting with Irving Azoff to discuss employing him as their manager. Fagen initially had reservations, saying: "We were ready to go blissfully through life without a manager."
With Azoff's connections with record stores and the album being offered at a discounted price, Aja became, according to Cameron Crowe in the December 1977 issue of Rolling Stone, "one of the season's hottest albums and by far Steely Dan's fastest-selling ever." It reached the top five of the Billboard Top LPs & Tape chart within three weeks of its release, and it ultimately peaked at number three, becoming the band's highest-charting album in the United States. The album was also the group's highest-charting album in the UK, reaching number five on the UK Albums Chart. According to Billboard, Aja was Steely Dan's biggest hit and was one of the first albums to be certified Platinum by the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA).
Attempts to make a surround-sound mix of the album for a release in the late 1990s were scrapped when it was discovered that the multitrack masters for both "Black Cow" and the title track were missing. Universal Music canceled plans to release a multichannel SACD version of the album for the same reason. In the liner notes for the 1999 remastered reissue of the album, Fagen and Becker offered a $600 reward for the missing masters or any information that leads to their recovery.
Reception and legacy edit
|Christgau's Record Guide||B+|
|Encyclopedia of Popular Music|||
|The Rolling Stone Album Guide|||
|Tom Hull – on the Web||A−|
Reviewing the album in 1977 for Rolling Stone, Michael Duffy said that "the conceptual framework of [Steely Dan's] music has shifted from the pretext of rock & roll toward a smoother, awesomely clean and calculated mutation of various rock, pop and jazz idioms", while their lyrics "remain as pleasantly obtuse and cynical as ever". He added that the duo's "extreme intellectual self-consciousness", though it might be starting to show its limitations with this album, "may be precisely the quality that makes Walter Becker and Donald Fagen the perfect musical antiheroes for the Seventies." Robert Christgau of The Village Voice wrote that he "hated this record for quite a while before I realized that, unlike The Royal Scam, it was stretching me some", and noted that he was "grateful to find Fagen and Becker's collegiate cynicism in decline", but worried that a preference for longer, more sophisticated songs "could turn into their fatal flaw". Greg Kot was also lukewarm toward the band's stylistic departure, later writing in the Chicago Tribune: "The clinical coldness first evidenced on The Royal Scam is perfected here. Longer, more languid songs replace the acerbic pithiness of old." Barry Walters was more receptive in a retrospective review for Rolling Stone, saying: "rock has always excelled at embodying adolescent ache. But it's rare when rock captures the complications of adult sorrows almost purely with its sound."
Jazz historian Ted Gioia has cited Aja as an example of Steely Dan "proving that pop-rock could equally benefit from a healthy dose of jazz" during their original tenure, which coincided with a period when rock musicians were frequently experimenting with jazz idioms and techniques. Amanda Petrusich wrote in Pitchfork that the album is "as much a jazz record as a pop one", while Ben Ratliff from The New York Times said it "created a new standard for the relationship between jazz and rock, one that was basically irreproducible, by Steely Dan or anyone else […] a progressive jazz record with backbeats, a '70s hipster's extension of what had been Gil Evans's vision two decades earlier." In Dylan Jones' list of the best jazz albums for GQ, Aja ranked number 62.
The album has been cited by music journalists as one of the best test recordings for audiophiles, due to its high production standards. Walters noted in his review that "the album's surreal sonic perfection, its melodic and harmonic complexity - music so technically demanding its creators had to call in A-list session players to realize the sounds they heard in their heads but could not play, even on the instruments they had mastered." Reviewing Aja's 2007 all-analog LP reissue, Ken Kessler of the Hi-Fi News & Record Review gave top marks to both the recording and performance qualities, and called the album "sublime jazz-rock that hasn't aged at all - unless you consider 'intelligence' passe - it is everything you expected the painfully hip/cool Becker and Fagen to deliver."
Aja has appeared on retrospective "greatest albums" lists. In 1991, France's Rock & Folk included it on a list of the 250 best albums released since 1966, when the magazine began publication. In 1999, the album was ranked number 59 on the national Israeli newspaper Yedioth Ahronoth's "Top 99 Albums of All Time" list. In 2000, Aja was voted number 118 in the third edition of Colin Larkin's book All Time Top 1000 Albums, where the author noted its "brand of jazz-influenced white soul". In 2003, the album was inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame and ranked number 145 on Rolling Stone's list of the "500 Greatest Albums of All Time"; it maintained the same spot on the 2012 update of the list, and rose to number 63 on the 2020 version. In 2006, Aja was included in the book 1001 Albums You Must Hear Before You Die. In 2010, the album was recognized by the Library of Congress as being "culturally, historically, or artistically significant" and selected for preservation in the National Recording Registry; the same year, De La Soul's 1989 debut album 3 Feet High and Rising, which sampled Aja, was also added to the Registry.
The singer Bilal listed Aja among his top-25 favorite albums, explaining that "It's a great body of work. It seems very thought out from beginning to end, every song just had a certain vibe. The songwriting to the sound and the look of the album, the whole package was just very well thought out."
Classic Albums episode edit
In 1999, Aja was the topic of an episode of the British documentary series Classic Albums. The episode features a song-by-song study of the album (except for "I Got the News", which is played during the closing credits), as well as interviews with, among others, Steely Dan co-founders Walter Becker and Donald Fagen, and new, live-in-studio versions of songs from the album. Becker and Fagen also play back several of the rejected guitar solos for "Peg", which were recorded before Jay Graydon produced the take used for the album.
Discussing the sound of the album, Andy Gill says: "Jazz-rock was a fundamental part of the 70s musical landscape […] [Steely Dan] wasn't rock or pop music with ideas above its station, and it wasn't jazzers slumming […] it was a very well-forged alloy of the two – you couldn't separate the pop music from the jazz in their music." On the same topic, British musician Ian Dury says he hears elements of legendary jazz musicians like Charlie Parker, Charles Mingus, and Art Blakey on the album. He continues: "Well, Aja's got a sound that lifts your heart up, and it's the most consistent up-full, heart-warming […] even though, it is a classic LA kinda sound. You wouldn't think it was recorded anywhere else in the world. It's got California through its blood, even though they are boys from New York […] They've got a skill that can make images that aren't puerile and don't make you think you've heard it before […] very 'Hollywood filmic' in a way, the imagery is very imaginable, in a visual sense."
Yacht rock edit
In retrospective appraisals, Aja has been discussed by music journalists as an important release in the development of yacht rock. In an article for Spin in 2009, Chuck Eddy listed it among the genre's eight essential albums. Writing for uDiscoverMusic in 2019, Paul Sexton said that, with the album, Steely Dan "announced their ever-greater exploration of jazz influences", which would lead to "their yacht-rock masterpiece": 1980's Gaucho. Patrick Hosken of MTV News said that both Aja and Gaucho show how "great yacht rock is also more musically ambitious than it might seem, tying blue-eyed soul and jazz to funk and R&B". Aja was included in Vinyl Me, Please magazine's list of "The 10 Best Yacht Rock Albums to Own on Vinyl", with an accompanying essay that said: "Steely Dan’s importance to yacht rock can’t be overstated. […] Arguably the Dan is smoothest on the 1980 smash Gaucho, but Aja finds Walter Becker and Donald Fagen comfortably hitting a middle-ground stride […] as a mainstream hit factory while remaining expansive and adventurous". John Lawler of Something Else! wrote that "The song and performance that best exemplifies the half-time, funky, laid (way) back in the beat shuffle within the jazz-pop environment of the mid- to late- 70s can be found on 'Home at Last.' Bernard 'Pretty' Purdie feeds off Chuck Rainey’s bass with righteous grooves and masterful off-beat fills with alacrity in this tight band favorite."
Track listing edit
Adapted from the liner notes.
- Tom Scott – horn arrangements and conducting of horns
- Jim Horn, Bill Perkins, Wayne Shorter, Pete Christlieb, Plas Johnson, Tom Scott, Jackie Kelso – saxophones, flutes
- Chuck Findley, Lou McCreary, Dick "Slyde" Hyde – brass
- Walter Becker, Donald Fagen, Larry Carlton, Dean Parks, Michael Omartian – rhythm arrangements
- Stephen Diener – executive producer
- Gary Katz – producer
- Roger Nichols – executive engineer, engineer
- Elliot Scheiner, Bill Schnee, Al Schmitt – engineers
- Lenise Bent, Ken Klinger, Linda Tyler, Ed Rack, Joe Bellamy, Ron Pangaliman – assistant engineers
- Bernie Grundman – mastering engineer
- Barbara Miller – production coordinatior
- Stuart "Dinky" Dawson – sound consultant
- Irving Azoff – management
- Leonard Freedman – bagman
- Karen Stanley – covert operations
- Oz Studios – art direction
- Patricia Mitsui, Geoff Westen – design
- Hideki Fujii – cover photo
- Walter Becker, Dorothy A. White – inside photos of Donald Fagen and Walter Becker
- Michael Phalen (Walter Becker & Donald Fagen), Stephen Diener – liner notes
- Roger Nichols – remastering engineer
- Beth Stempel – coordinator
- Vartan – art direction
- Mike Diehl – design
- Daniel Levitin – consultant
The sessions for Aja produced several outtakes, including "The Bear" and "Stand by the Seawall" (the latter title was given to two completely different outtakes recorded during the sessions). None of these songs were ever officially released, but "The Bear" was later played live on Steely Dan's 2011 Shuffle Diplomacy Tour.
|1978||Aja||Best Engineered Recording – Non-Classical|
Weekly charts edit
Year-end charts edit
|Canada (Music Canada)||2× Platinum||200,000^|
|United Kingdom (BPI)||Gold||100,000‡|
|United States (RIAA)||2× Platinum||2,000,000^|
^ Shipments figures based on certification alone.
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