Based on the music alone, this box set ("CITIZEN STEELY DAN") containing the 7 original studio recordings (1972-80) deserves the highest possible recommendation.
The Steely Dan "story" is well-known to aficionado's but perhaps worth a review for the benefit of those new to the music: the intellectual and aesthetic background (beatnik/bebop ethos, Bard College) of founders Walter Becker and Donald Fagen, the amazing debut album, the early touring days and heated breakup of the original band (1974), Becker and Fagen's "retirement" from the road (for the remainder of the 70's), their use of "satellite" studio musicians on subsequent recording projects, disbanding again to pursue solo careers in 1981, re-forming to tour in 1993/94 and most recently, the recording of two studio albums (2000 & 2003) which show no dimming of creative powers on the part of the two principals. From a vantage point 30+ years down the line from Steely Dan's formation, it is clear that Becker & Fagen's music transcends the fleeting contemporary "moment" it continues to elicit interest on the part of listeners (new and old) who appreciate its unique marriage of creativity and craftsmanship, an achievement all the more glorious when compared to the trivial period pieces that comprise most pop and rock offerings.
STEELY DAN CHARACTERISTICS:
1. Song-style: Vignettes, grotesqueries with occasional touches of poignancy. Characters: a dissolute crew of fallen idols, hacks/quacks, junkies, dealers, glamour-queens, gamblers, power-brokers, revolutionaries.
2. Lyric content stock-in-trade: arcane references, self-mocking tone, parody, irony, black humor, the bizarre, hallucinatory, non sequitur, confessional, quasi-redemptive.
3. Musical content: jazz harmonies and progressions (chord changes very foreign to most rock music), "close harmony" vocals, elaborate guitar solos, country & western influence (in early albums w/Jeff Baxter), funky "LA" rhythm sections (in later albums), female background choruses (Homeric "sirens"), virtuoso guest soloists (sax/drums/guitar), sophisticated arrangements and immaculately engineered sound.
BRIEF INDIVIDUAL ALBUM RATINGS:
"CAN'T BUY A THRILL" (1972) 4 stars:
Debut features many SD trademarks; great album but still searching for identity
"COUNTDOWN TO ECSTASY" (1973) 5 stars:
Energetic, rocking (most "band-like" record); SD song style firmly fixed
"PRETZEL LOGIC" (1974) 5 stars:
Concise, eclectic, elegant, poignant (last album w/ original band)
"KATY LIED" (1975) 4 stars:
Polished and jazzy (first "post band" LP) but really a stage on the way toward the sound they would perfect with "AJA"
"THE ROYAL SCAM" (1976) 5 stars:
Tough, cynical, funky, bizarre
"AJA" (1977) 5 stars:
Jazzy, surreal, sleek, intoxicated (the SD high-water mark)
"GAUCHO" (1980) 4 stars:
Weary, polished, decadent (a creative step down from "AJA" but superb nonetheless).
Given the foregoing, "Citizen Steely Dan" would, it seems, easily merit a five star rating. However, there are a few reservations when one considers certain aspects of this box set:
1. Lyrics are not provided (a huge oversight).
2. In order to limit the number of discs (and presumably, the cost), 7 albums are compressed into the space of 4 discs, which necessitates the breaking up of albums over different CD's. Unsurprisingly, this results in a disruption of mood and continuity, especially damaging to works so carefully programmed by the artists.
3. The booklet is entertaining in the typically quirky manner of Fagen and Becker (numerous citations from hostile critics). However, its layout is somewhat chaotic in design, unpleasant on the eyes when reading the (thankfully) well-written and informative liner notes which summarize (often citing Becker & Fagen directly) what the leaders were aiming for in their music.
Starting in 1999, individual re-masters of all 7 original albums were put on the market and may well prove to be a better option for prospective buyers (despite relative price increase in purchasing the whole bunch one by one). Lyrics are included in these editions (along with irreverent commentaries). If one is an ultra-fanatic for all things "SD", the "CITIZEN STEELY DAN" box set may prove irresistible but for those existing on a lesser plane of dedication, collecting the individual CD's in their recently (aesthetically pleasing) re-mastered form should be sufficient.