Defending the honor of Steely Dan's Aja on WNYC's "Smackdown" segment
I owe my career to Columbia Record House.
Only music fanatics of a certain age will remember this mail order record store, which snagged young fans by offering a chance to pick 12 records for just one penny (of course, you also had to join their record club for a year, where they sent you an album every month unless you declined).
But in the late '70s, just after I discovered rock music growing up in urban Gary, Ind., Columbia gave me a chance to superserve that interest. So I gorged myself on the best stuff out there; The Police's second record, Peter Gabriel's "melting face" album, Phil Collins' first solo record.
And Steely Dan's Aja album.
For a young musician, this was seminal stuff. I learned reggae pop grooves from the Police, art rock experiments and world beat sounds from Gabriel, newly massive drum sounds from P.C. and the seamless blend of jazz, rock and pop that fueled Steely Dan's masterwork. For me the coolest cuts weren't hits like Black Cow and Peg, but the percolating funk of I've Got the News, the slick groove of Josie and the amazing drum solo anchoring the title track.
So when New York NPR station WNYC called, asking me to go on its "Smackdown" segment to argue for the classic status of Aja (recently inducted into the National Recording Registry by the Library of Congress), I was happy to oblige.
You can hear the segment below, but I basically argued that Aja was the album where all their jazz, rock and irony impulses came together -- a nihilistic view of urban life paired with supple melodies, expert musicianship and adventurous arrangements. The counter argument was what I expected: They were too perfect, too sanitized, too lite -- in other words, the biggest sin in pop music these days, they were uncool.
But it's easy to see Aja through the filter of 30 years in classic rock radio heavy rotation. I remember getting sick of Peg and Black Cow and Deacon Blues when they were popular. But listen to them now, and the preconceptions fall away. They weren't all that bloated. The arrangements stuck some amazing chords progressions and solo melodies inside popular hits. And some of the hottest musicians of the day play on the songs, including Weather Report's Wayne Shorter, Tom Scott, Lee Ritenour, Steve Gadd, Bernard Purdie and the Eagles' Timothy B. Schmit.
Any band heavy enough to only use Michael McDonald as a background singer, is pretty damn cool in my book.
Anyway, check it out below and feel free to disagree. But Aja helped fuel a love for pop music that led me to become a musician and a music critic. So I owe The Dan my career and most of the coolest experiences in my life.
And that, for me, is always the best yardstick of great music: Whether or not it changes your life.